Wowed by wild Jamaica

The Black River (above) is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving at the west end of Negril.
The Black River (above) is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving at the west end of Negril. PHOTO: DENISE LIM
The Black River is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar (above) is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving at the west end of Negril.
The Black River is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar (above) is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving at the west end of Negril. PHOTO: DENISE LIM
The Black River is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving (above) at the west end of Negril.
The Black River is home to about 300 crocodiles; Floyd’s Pelican Bar is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea; and cliff-diving (above) at the west end of Negril. PHOTO: DENISE LIM
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee (above), traditional jerk chicken and a provision shop that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee (above), traditional jerk chicken and a provision shop that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.PHOTO: DENISE LIM
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee, traditional jerk chicken (above) and a provision shop that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee, traditional jerk chicken (above) and a provision shop that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.PHOTO: DENISE LIM
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee, traditional jerk chicken and a provision shop (above) that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.
Jamaica’s national fruit ackee, traditional jerk chicken and a provision shop (above) that fronts a typical wooden house in a village.PHOTO: DENISE LIM

Set aside the dangerous image of the island to soak up the country's gorgeous beaches, interesting wildlife and friendly vibe

We grip the sides of the rickety fishing boat as it slams against the crests of the Caribbean waves. My husband and I try to ignore the fact that we are not wearing life jackets.

The dreadlocked boatman is perched perilously at the bow. This is a feat, given that the ride is bumpier than Jamaica's potholed roads.

He notices our apprehension. Pointing vaguely into the distance, he says breezily: "Twenty more minutes, mon."

Just as we begin to seriously worry, we spot a wooden hut in the sea and we climb up a ladder onto the main circular platform.

We arrive at Floyd's Pelican Bar, situated 1km off Treasure Beach on the south coast of Jamaica.

It is not your usual bar and eatery. Cobbled together with driftwood and palm, the ramshackle hut is built on stilts driven into a sandbank in the middle of the sea.

In one corner, the bar comprises piled-up crates of the ubiquitous local Red Stripe beer. In another, a cook whips up meals on a simple gas ring, jiving to the beat of Bob Marley's One Love.

Pelicans circle overhead and rest on wooden stakes near the hut. In the distance, dolphins are swimming playfully. A young couple are snorkelling at a nearby reef and a worker casts his line for more catch.

Despite our adrenaline-filled journey there, it is difficult not to relax in such a setting. "All fruits ripe," the boatman says before disappearing to his vessel. This phrase is Jamaican patois - or local creole - for "everything is well".

Throughout, our trip to Jamaica evokes an interesting mix of vigilance and tranquillity.

Initially, it is tough to shake off the mental image of a dangerous Jamaica, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Yet, there is something beguiling about the island that is difficult to pinpoint.

It is more than the sun-drenched beaches and gorgeous landscapes.

In Jamaica, where the African vibe is predominant, it is an intriguing world of contrasts: flashy resorts and slums; lively beaches and quiet mountains; locals who are extremely feisty, yet the most easygoing.

My husband chats with a pair of locals who invite him to their game of dominoes. They tell him the carefree setting at Pelican Bar epitomises "Jamaica soul".

I tuck into freshly caught spiny lobster and fried kingfish escovitch- style (cooked with a peppery vinaigrette), thinking that beach bars do not get more laidback than this.

We choose not to be holed up in an all-inclusive resort and decide the best way to explore the country is to hire a driver who knows the intricacies of local road networks.

This frees us from the stress of driving in challenging road conditions, while allowing us to explore the west and south coasts of Jamaica at our own pace over five days.

SAND AND SEA

Jamaica has more than 320km of pristine beaches. The most famous is the Seven Mile Beach in Negril, where we sink our feet into soft, powder-white sand and take a dip in warm turquoise waters.

It is no wonder that many have fallen in love with this 11km-long beach on the west coast of Jamaica, with some arguing this is the most beautiful beach in the Caribbean.

Reggae music streams out from the endless line of eateries. The beach gets crowded in peak seasons and is a magnet for revellers.

Here, we encounter persistent hustlers who try to sell us various paraphernalia and even ganja (marijuana). It is unnerving, but we learn that the best policy is to say a kind but firm "no".

At sunset, we head to the west end of Negril, where cliff-diving is a spectacle. A lithe young Jamaican climbs a tree onto a makeshift platform by the craggy cliffs, standing 25m above the sea. He performs an impressive set of handstand push- ups and flips back onto his feet.

Satisfied that all eyes are on him, he catapults off the platform, somersaulting and twisting before slicing the water.

The divers roam the area with pails for tips, knowing cliff-diving has become a tourist attraction.

We speak to one of the divers who looks no older than 18. "It is dangerous, but I have a child to feed and I do this to keep myself out of other troubles," he says.

To many divers, this sport provides income and keeps them out of crime in a country that is permeated with drug activity and gangs.

For our own seaside action, we go on a two-hour horseback tour at the Braco Stables in Falmouth, Trelawny. The ride takes us through the distinguished Braco estate, trotting onto the north coast beach where we ride our horses unsaddled into the teal Caribbean Sea. It is exhilarating floating on a horse swimming through the clear water.

BLACK RIVER

We break away from the crowds and drive to Black River, capital of St Elizabeth parish on the south coast and an area less visited by tourists.

There is a vintage feel to the town, marked by dilapidated but vibrant Georgian architecture.

The river, the second longest in Jamaica, is a wildlife reserve for about 300 crocodiles. We embark on a safari (J. Charles Swaby's Black River Safari; tel: +876-965-2513; admission: $25) up the river morass that resembles an ebony glass sheet, meandering through gnarled mangroves, trying to spot crocodiles.

The crocodiles look like floating logs, until they start gliding towards the boat as our guide makes cawing noises to attract them.

Black River is also a birdwatcher's paradise. It is home to egrets, herons, jacanas and about 100 other species of birds.

RUM AND JERK

As the Caribbean is the heart of rum production, we make it a point to visit the Appleton rum distillery (www.appletonestate.com; admission: $35) in the Nassau Valley.

The sweet but yeasty smell of sugar molasses hangs in the air, welcoming us to the manicured lawns of the largest and oldest rum estate in Jamaica.

We learn about the history of rum distillation - from having a donkey work the mill to extract sugarcane juice in the early days to the current process of producing rum in 200-year-old copper pots. The ageing warehouse, in which barrels of rum rest, is enormous.

The icing on the cake is when visitors get to sample at least 10 varieties of rum, ranging from younger white rums to aged caramel-hued ones.

Jamaican rum is generally fruity but pungent. I particularly enjoy the Appleton rum cream, which is reminiscent of Bailey's Irish cream, though smoother and more potent.

Our favourite Jamaican culinary experience is feasting on traditional jerk chicken.

Jerk is a native style of cooking meats with a hot spice rub of pimento, scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, scallions and ginger. The chicken is grilled over sweetwood and pimento woodlog, both grown in Jamaica's native environment. This makes the flavours of jerk cooking difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The results are moist pieces of poultry with a smoky, addictive flavour. The meat is sweet and spicy at the same time and the skin is nicely crisp and somewhat blackened from the grill.

Jerk chicken is available at most streetside stalls, but we love the ones at Scotchies in Montego Bay, a diner recommended by locals for its mouth-watering renditions.

A DAY IN RURAL JAMAICA

Determined to delve deeper into the authentic side of Jamaica, we ask our driver to take us to the countryside to see how the locals live.

"Irie, mon," he says with characteristic can-do attitude. (Irie means fabulous in patois.)

"That's hardly an itinerary people ask for. You come to my village," he says with a glint in his eye.

  • Getting there

    We flew to Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay on the north coast of Jamaica, from the United States. The most popular flights are from New York City (31/2 hours) and Miami (11/4 hours).

    Tips

    •Exercise caution at all times due to high levels of violence and serious crime, especially in the capital Kingston.

    •Driving in Jamaica can be dangerous due to poorly maintained roads and the lack of road signs. It is best to hire a driver to take you around. We paid $200 to $250 to engage a private driver-cum-guide with a five-seater car for a full day, based on a personalised itinerary starting in Montego Bay. Public transport is not recommended due to overcrowding and crime.

    •Officially, the hurricane season lasts from June 1 to Nov 30, but tends to peak in August to October. We visited Jamaica from late November to early December and experienced sunny weather with few showers.

We drive on uneven roads winding through the parishes of Hanover and St James and our car stops for the occasional wandering goat.

We see villages set amid banana groves and sugarcane plantations on lush green hills and red soil. Farming is a predominant way of eking out a living in these parts, with sugar, cocoa and bananas as crops.

It strikes us how vastly contrasting - though no less beautiful - rural Jamaica is, compared with the snazzy beachside resorts that tourists are used to.

Peeling wooden huts with zinc roofing, situated on the slopes of craggy hills, are typical of the rural housing we see in interior Jamaica. Our driver tells us proudly he built his house from scratch all by himself.

Tourists are rare in these compounds and we are intently appraised. But those who know our driver are quick to warm up.

We are invited into a home and fed a delicious sampling of saltfish and ackee, widely recognised as Jamaica's national dish. It looks like scrambled eggs, but the dish is essentially salted cod sauteed with boiled ackee (a local fruit that is highly toxic if not properly cooked), onions, tomatoes and peppers.

The local market is unlike the major supermarkets near the resorts and, here, we find interesting produce such as ugli (a warty hybrid of the grapefruit and orange) and chocho (a small but fleshy gourd).

The children appear thrilled to have visitors interrupt the rhythm of daily life. We play ball along the dirt road and they demonstrate impressive footwork.

Getting off the beaten track and mingling with the locals is, perhaps, our favourite experience in Jamaica.

As we head back to crowded Montego Bay, we see a billboard of national hero and the world's fastest sprinter Usain Bolt, who fronts the Jamaican tourism campaign with the tagline: "Once you go, you know."

Our driver says this campaign encourages tourists to look beyond the negativity of Jamaica's high crime rate and explore other enthralling facets of the island.

He pauses thoughtfully, then adds emphatically: "To truly know a place like Jamaica, you must come. Come and feel it for yourself."

We are silent for a moment. That is true for most places, I think to myself, but especially poignant for an island that is extreme in so many ways - dangerously edgy yet optimistically carefree; fiercely spirited and generously kind, all at the same time.

We are just beginning to sense the pulse of Jamaica.

•Denise Lim, formerly a communications manager with a financial institution, is a freelance writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Wowed by wild Jamaica'. Print Edition | Subscribe