Taryl seemed to know every pothole on the road between Kingston and Port Antonio, Jamaica. He weaved between craters without pressing on the brake. The car horn wasn’t used in anger, but as a form of friendly warning to cars ahead that our van would be barreling around a blind switchback at top speed. The quickest route to our honeymoon destination took my husband and me over the island’s Blue Mountains with Taryl, a local driver recommended by our Airbnb host via email.
Port Antonio rests in a quiet bay on the northeastern coast of Jamaica, about 60 miles outside of Kingston, opposite to well-known resort sites like Montego Bay or Negril. Somewhat forgotten since the beginning of the century, Port Antonio was once a luxurious destination for stars like Errol Flynn, the Beatles, and even Queen Elizabeth during the 1940s and 50s. But now, it is a peaceful beach town where residents prefer to take it slow.
While there, I saw men lolling through the streets at midday, standing under shaded awnings in front of yellow and pale-pink stucco storefronts, watching the day unfold. Another man, who was shirtless, cycled along the side of the highway, meandering unsteadily, a joint the width of my thumb hanging from his lip. The welcoming and friendly locals make the slower pace of life unavoidable and charming.
The road Taryl expertly maneuvered is a main highway — seldomly labeled “single lane ahead,” though two cars passing each other had to slow to a crawl to avoid crashing. One side of the road is a vertical rock face. I could almost graze the cool, damp rock with the tips of my fingers stretched out the window as we passed. On the other side lies a cragged canyon, with no guardrail or shoulder between road and cliff. I wasn’t carsick — a rare feat — as the adrenaline from the hairpin turns and the fact that my well-being was in the hands of a stranger kept my mind preoccupied. The landscape looked lush; dense foliage with towering mountains, which were equally green, encircled our path. Thick, tangled trees; vines; and vibrant pink, orange, and red flowers covered the land from mountaintop to coastline. It was clear that the whole island was nurtured by regular rain and warm temperatures.
Nestled high in the mountaintops are the rare Blue Mountain coffee farms. We stopped on our way for a tour of Craighton Estates, one of the local coffee plantations noted for their sustainable agriculture, local workers, and sweet, smooth coffee beans — which are uniquely cultivated by the elevation, consistent precipitation, and care that goes into hand-picking the fruits. While there, our guide Jerome taught us all that we had been doing wrong with coffee at home. I learned that the more you roast a coffee bean, the more flavor and caffeine is stripped from it. This means that in dark roasts, all that is left is the acid and oil. Blue Mountain coffee is also known for its lack of bitterness — the natural growing environment produces a higher amount of sucrose and glucose in the bean, and they prefer to roast their batches to medium, nothing more. After a tour and this thorough lesson, I tasted a cup of the sweetest, smoothest black coffee I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying. We purchased packages of beans for our family and friends, since Jamaicans export 85 percent of their coffee to Japan, which leaves only a small portion of the product to the United States’ market.
Back on the road that connects Port Antonio to Kingston, we began to descend the mountain, and watched as the trees turned to bundles of bananas and low bushes. Slowly, the clear blue of the Caribbean came into view, along with a sweet, fresh smell in the salty air, but the buildings of the sleepy port town looked far from refreshed. Mansions and gated estates that were once noble in nature appeared in various states of disrepair, scattered on hillsides and up and down the shoreline. Local businesses and restaurants huddled together in rows along the main roads with ramshackle buildings comprised of weather-worn wood, peeling paint, and crumbling stucco. Now that the twists and turns of the mountain road were behind us, I felt relief as the road opened up into a proper highway. I could see palm trees and rocky shoreline. The sea was calm, blue, and inviting. I looked forward to relaxing days ahead at the beach, getting my hands on fresh mango, and exploring more of the island.
Tourism is one of the region’s main livelihoods, so each guest offers a new opportunity for income. As we drove, we saw houses under construction and boutique hotels opening up, and everyone we met seemed to “know a guy” for every need we had, whether that was a tour of the nearby Blue Lagoon, a trip to a secluded waterfall, or local handmade souvenirs. At every stop along our route, roadside vendors and beach hustlers were selling jewelry, fresh fruit, or seafood, and sometimes even their own CDs. Some vendors were relentless, but most simply wanted to share a piece of their culture and home country with passersby, to communicate their desire for us to convince more travelers to come see their homeland. Even Taryl introduced us to his business partner — and possible girlfriend — who was opening up her own customized tour company. She pitched us on a 10-person group tour through the mountains and beach resorts in the parish of Portland and gave us her business card.
In this place of unrefined coastline and what’s often called “untapped potential,” there were combative forces at play: a palpable, scrappy entrepreneurial spirit bursting with opportunities for growth, juxtaposed by an otherwise laid back, in-need-of-a-fresh-coat-of-paint, beach-town vibe. The road that brought us to Port Antonio was coarse, raw, and crumbling, but it was also engulfed by the new growth of tropical vegetation. Along that roadway, away from the gated resorts and tourist traps of another Jamaica, we experienced a different side of this quiet, tropical oasis. We were met by salty ocean waves and sandy beaches; fresh fruits like sweet, starchy red bananas and freshly-picked coconuts; tiny food stands bursting with juicy jerk chicken and hot-out-of-the-fryer festivals; gorgeous handcrafted jewelry and mahogany carvings; and, best of all, the warmth and hospitality of a people who are proud of the place they live in and want to share their paradise with the world.