Erroll Flynn sailed here in the 1940s, aboard his luxury yacht, Zacca, and remained here for the rest of his swash-buckling life. English playwright, Noel Coward disembarked soon after, closely followed by Randolph Hearst, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Clarke Gable, Greer Garson, James Bond creator Ian Fleming and Oscar Hammerstein, to name but a few. Their arrival marked the beginning of a glamorous era for an island once more famed for sugar plantations manned by African slaves than wild, swinging Hollywood parties. Planning a vacation in Jamaica? It’s your turn to live like a movie star.
Vacation in Jamaica
I arrived in Jamaica with much less fanfare, aboard an American Airlines Boeing 777, and travelling economy class at that. But it’s the last time in two and a half weeks I feel any less than an international movie star.
The sad conclusion, I’m forced to surmise as I sit and write of my adventures two weeks on, is that the illusion only lasts the duration of your Jamaican holiday, somehow I don’t think Jack Nicholson had to sort his glass recycling from a bin full of food scraps the day he got back home.
If you don’t feel like a Hollywood star in Jamaica, you seriously need to work on your imagination.
After all, it’s not hard to feel like you’re Brad Pitt romancing Angelina Jolie (or, if you believe their agents, just discussing film roles) when your villa sits on the foreshores of the Caribbean Sea and at night the only distraction from a perfectly round full moon in a starry sky is the far-away lights of Montego Bay.
That’s THE Montego Bay, the town name-checked in a thousand rock´n´roll love songs by everyone from UB40 to the Beach Boys.
It’s certainly not difficult to get carried away into thinking you’re one of the world’s hottest couples when your barman asks if you’d like to know who’s stayed in your villa. And he shows you a list of names that reads like a who’s who of the world’s hottest starlets: Jude Law for instance, Johnny Depp, and Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, oh, and of course, Harrison Ford brings Calista Flockhart for her one good solid meal here every year.
And did he tell you already, Sting wrote Every Breath You Take in your bedroom and he’d better not forget to mention, that this particular place, Goldeneye, was once owned by Ian Fleming and another gentleman by the name of Bob Marley.
Yes, it’s certainly not hard to imagine paparazzi are hiding behind anything they can find to take pictures of your every kiss as you suck in the sunshine of the world’s most romantic escape.
Of all the locations I’ve visited on earth, this one has that undefinable characteristic that makes it almost magical.
There’s something that rises from the earth and blows on the warm breeze, one evening I think I glimpsed it as my partner and I watched a crimson Caribbean sunset over the ocean at Half Moon Resort.
Sun, sand and Bob Marley
We watched the sun sink into the sea and as we turned to leave, something huge jumped, about halfway to the horizon.
We stared for a long time and saw it again, but had no idea what it was. After much discussion, we decided it was better leaving our conclusions to our imaginations.
Then, of course, there was the morning we watched the dawn mist roll in from the jungle as we lay in Oscar Hammerstein’s bed.
As it touched us, we shivered from the sudden chill, I’m still not too sure if it wasn’t old Hammo himself reminding us to make the bed.
Jamaica is like that, its dead haven’t left, Bob Marley is everywhere, locals worship him in shrines on the street, the ghosts of royalty, statesmen, aristocracy, theatre, artists, sporting stars and holidaying icons like John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill are everywhere, it’s part of the magic.
One morning, at sunrise, we rode horses bareback into the ocean. We held onto their manes, and their tails, and felt their massive legs pump back and forth.
When we were comfortable, we lay back with our heads in the sea and laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.
Then there was the sunset at our villa high above Montego Bay.
On one side the jungle spread out before us and straight ahead sat the ocean, on a clear day they say you can see all the way to Cuba.
As the sun slowly set, it lit up the white walls of Silent Waters bit by bit creating an eerie montage of orange.
Every sunset in Jamaica is special, and it´s considered a sacrilege to waste even one.
Margarita magic in Jamaica
Drive past Jamaican towns and you’ll see locals gathered by the roadside staring out to sea, perhaps they’re still trying to work out exactly what the big thing is that’s jumping on the horizon.
Sipping a margarita while nibbling on traditional Jamaican food at Margarita’s On The Beach at Montego Bay, or Negril, is another magical way to welcome in the night.
American music legend Jimmy Buffet must’ve watched far too many here: he ended up buying the place. But it’s not just the other-word charm of Jamaica that makes it so special.
Some things here you can put your finger on. One morning we spent hours paddling a canoe out from our villa at Orchabessa.
Beneath the perfect glass of the warm, blue sea bright coral beckoned and hundreds of huge, friendly fish swam around unbothered by our presence.
We anchored up to a pontoon and sunbathed under the hot Caribbean sunshine, taking turns to jump into the ocean and snorkel with the sea life.
High above us on the cliffs couples sat on blankets drinking it all in.
Another day we rode quad bikes on narrow, rocky tracks through thick, lush, green rainforests and into villages where local children came running out to wave at us with smiles worn already onto their dark faces.
We ate bush mangoes beside a church while Jamaicans grinned at us as they went to worship dressed to the nines, despite the 35-degree heat. And, of course, there was the yacht trip where we felt just like Errol Flynn and one of his many exotic partners.
Boats, bugs and Bob Marley
The boat sliced through opaque blue waters as dolphins surfed our bow waves, the only sound, apart from the obligatory Bob Marley music, was the flapping of the sails as the nor-wester tried defiantly to cool us down.
There’s so much that’s magical about Jamaica that any attempt to describe it will invariably end up sounding a touch overdone.
For this, I apologise. But you weren’t there when we stared at across the jungle 300 metres below us from the horizon pool at Destiny Villas as low clouds pirouetted against a raging river and huge birds of prey floated above us, and a big green lizard walked on by like he owned the place.
Even the bugs that get caught in your pool overnight in Jamaica are exotic, there’s bright red butterflies floating, even the flies are colourful.
Read a book by the garden and you can’t help but be distracted by plants that seem to grow in front of your eyes in the fertile chocolate soils and hummingbirds that hover noisily going about their hummingbird business.
But let’s not forget the people of Jamaica in all of this, because ultimately they are what make Jamaica.
They are blessed with a rich humanity built on centuries of overcoming adversity.
In this tropical paradise, it’s sometimes hard to remind yourself Jamaica is a third world country.
Its people struggle, they always have, once, not too long ago, they were slaves for British plantation owners.
But they are passionate about anything and everything, start a conversation with a Jamaican about cricket and you won’t leave till they have tears rolling down their faces as they describe their recent dismal performances, watch a Jamaican dance and you’ll never grace a dance floor again and pay heed to their greeting: respect.
That’s what they expect and that’s what they get, one day we had to wait two hours because the Jamaicans taking us rafting down a river felt they were being poorly treated by their bosses.
You don’t mistreat a Jamaican. And there’s a bond between Jamaicans that is truly beautiful to witness, it’s as if every Jamaican is out to help his fellow Jamaican.
You won’t see fingers raised on Jamaican roads, instead, locals beep, holler and flash their lights at each other to warn one another about waiting police radars.
At the end of two weeks, it’s so hard to leave your tropical, Hollywood-infused paradise.
If truth be known, they had to drag my partner and I kicking and screaming from our luxury villa. But it was okay, we told them, after all, we had a movie to make in Morocco.
You don’t have to be a Hollywood star to holiday in Jamaica. There are plenty of hotels and hostels that are affordable. Here’s where to stay in Jamaica covering a range of budgets.
Looking for a fun activity? Meet the dolphins of Montego Bay.