Experience three of the most important anchors of Jamaica’s culture and heritage: the language, the cuisine, and the music.
By Renée S. Gordon
Jamaica’s Portland Parish is approximately 60 miles from Kingston on the northeastern coast of the island. It is far less urban than most of the other parishes, which allows you to experience Jamaica’s raw beauty from the 7,402-ft. Blue Mountains down to the shores of the sea.
Jamaica’s first inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Sites were the Blue and Jim Crow Mountains, which cover 33 percent of the island and are home to 200 bird and 500 plant species—plus, are increasingly renowned for Jamaica’s famed Blue Mountain Coffee.
You know you are in Portland when you reach Dickie’s Best Kept Secret, a restaurant cut into and built alongside the cliffs. Owner Dickie Butler built it by hand and crafted most of the furnishings. The restaurant has several levels and stairs down to the beach. An experienced chef, Dickie cooks all the food. Reservations are mandatory. The food is so fresh that when making your reservation if you specify fish they go out and catch it. Dinner here is a bucket list experience.
Port Antonio is credited as the “Birthplace of Jamaican Tourism,” an outgrowth of its once being the “Banana Capital of the World.” It was a shipping port for bananas and the inspiration for “Day-O,” a.k.a. “The Banana Boat Song,” and it is said that tourists hitched a ride here on the banana boats arriving from the U.S.
American film star Erroll Flynn gets some of the credit for increasing the region’s popularity when in 1942 he was forced by a storm to anchor his yacht on the island. He traveled to Port Antonio by motorcycle and, captivated by its unspoiled beauty, moved here permanently in 1950. The rich and famous then flocked to the area.
Rio Grande River Rafting as recreation, introduced by Flynn, is a tourist magnet. Rafting tours are approximately two hours long and are poled by raft captains. Originally the bamboo rafts were used to carry bananas from the island’s interior to the seaport; now tourists are transported through stunning scenery on 30-ft. long rafts that seat two. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were known to spend the entire day rafting the river valley using four rafts—one for them, one for food, one with a bar, and one with musicians. Feel free to duplicate the experience. 21 Plus Salute! Your raft will be adults-only, unless your travel companion is (or acts like?) a child.
The Blue and Jim Crow Mountains were designated a UNESCO site based partially on their place in cultural history as an area of sanctuary and sustenance to the Maroons fleeing colonial rule and slavery. The indigenous Taino Indians were the first to seek refuge in the mountains, followed by slaves. “Maroon” is derived from the Spanish word cimarron meaning “wild,” and is used to describe those who fled and fought back.
When the English conquered the island in 1645 they commanded the Spanish to surrender all their goods, including their slaves, and vacate the island. Some Spanish and many of the slaves fled into the hills and waged a guerilla campaign. The Spanish formally turned Jamaica over to the British in 1655 and the island became a lucrative slave-trading center. Although money was generated from the trade, the enslaved and Maroons exacted a cost. Between 1680-1785 more than 600,000 slaves were imported, there were 16 slave rebellions before 1813, uprisings in 1816, 1823 and 1832 and by the 1820s more than 2,500 runaways were documented annually. The Maroons, refusing re-enslavement, became a well-trained, organized fighting force and, because of their location in the hills, could strike any plantation while their mountain fortress was difficult to attack.
Nanny of the Maroons, a warrior, leader and priestess, now one of Jamaica’s National Heroes, was enslaved on the islands. It is believed she was a member of the Ashanti Tribe from Ghana and was brought to Jamaica in the late 1680s. By 1720 she and her brothers had escaped and she had established a settlement in the mountains. Once there, the Maroons established an Afro-centric community that maintained traditional African customs and values. After numerous attempts to overcome the settlement, the British signed a treaty with Nanny’s brother over her objections and Nanny and her followers moved to another site and established New Nanny Town in 1739.
New Nanny Town was closely guarded; once anyone crossed the Black Rio Grande River they were watched. If they reached Watches Hill an abeng—a cow horn blown from the side that can be heard over ten miles away—was used to sound a warning. The abeng functioned as a war horn and method of communication. It continues to be played at festivals, funerals and community assemblies. The name comes from the Akan word for horn.
New Nanny Town, now Moore Town, is 11 miles from Port Antonio and continues to be inhabited by descendants of the original Maroons. A colonel and a 24-member council govern the town. The current colonel, Wallace Sterling, has served voluntarily for over 20 years. Guided tours of New Nanny Town can be arranged or you can embark on a self-guided tour. The Cultural Center should be the first stop for information, to view a small display of artifacts and purchase crafts. Guided tours offer an opportunity to see a call and response music and dance performance specific to Moore Town Maroons. Two drums, Kromanti, are anointed with rum, as both a gift to the gods and to lubricate the skins. One drum plays the rhythm and the other is used for improvisational beats. The drums and songs are more than 250 years old.
The highlight of a visit to Moore Town is a stop at the Bump Grave, where Nanny is interred. A stone monument has been erected, inscribed and placed on a stone patio with an inset of an abeng imbedded in the ground.
Goblin Hill Villas, situated on picturesque San San Bay in Port Antonio, offers 12 acres of accommodations, beaches, tennis courts, a pool and exotic flora and fauna. Villas are fully furnished and are staffed with a housekeeper who, in addition to general housekeeping duties, will prepare meals. The panoramic views here are stunning and Goblin Hill has been listed as being “the best place to watch the sunset.”
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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