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TOURS - Discovery Bay |  St. Mary

Tour 16 - Exploring St Mary
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris

On the main road, just before the White bridge the R fork leads to Calypso Rafting and then into the hills for Sandals Golf Club at Upton. Leaving Ocho Rios, traveling east on the coast road R is Rio Blanco Village an apartment hotel, and L Sans Souci Lido, member of the Super Clubs chain, an elegant resort with its own mineral spring. Over the hill, R is the turn to Prospect Plantation Tour.

At the next opportunity, turn R for Wilderness Resort about 10 miles into the hills. Travel L of the White River gorge, taking the L fork through Cascade to Labarinth and then the R fork towards the next crossroads and "Miss Miri's" shop where you turn R to Goshen and Wilderness Resort a broad valley with large fish ponds where a small entrance fee covers bait and tackle and even, if needs be, someone to bait the hook for you. Here you can fish to your hearts content, then buy your catch of freshwater snapper and have it cooked. You can try kayaking or paddle boats on another large pond. Or walk a nature trail. There are restrooms and a restaurant and campsites. Goshen is the remnant of a large estate that once stretched from Mt Diablo to the coast, and the water for the fishponds comes from the White River via a slave-built stone aqueduct. Owners Alex and Fay Lanigan are usually on hand to greet you. This attraction is very popular with Jamaicans, especially on weekends.

R. of the coast road is Harmony Hall (art gallery, craft shop and a good pub). Sea Palms, and Chris Anns are condo hotels; Glenn's Place, R, has good food and jazz. Next is Couples, which in a previous incarnation was called Tower Isle. Created 40 years ago by the patriarch of Jamaica's tourism, the late Hon. Abe Issa, it was the first large hotel on the north coast. The tower on the small island offshore was built to make the name appropriate. In 1979 Abe's nephew John Issa jettisoned its somewhat staid concept in favour of a new all-inclusive couples-only format. The highly successful formula has been copied, and elaborated by others but Couples remains one of the most popular resorts in the Caribbean. No longer a member of John's Super Clubs chain, it is now marketed and managed by his nephew Christopher Issa and Paul Issa, youngest son of Abe.

Just past Couples, look carefully on your R for the insignificant hut of Rastafarian sculptor Brother Albert Jones and a sign tacked to a post which advises, "Mankind Remember God help those who help themselves."A consummate carver, he specializes in intricate pieces fashioned from cedar and mahogany roots. Across the road Irie Ceramics is a partnership of four young potters.

At Rio Nuevo, a road L leads down to the battle site where the remnants of the Spanish forces led by the governor Don Cristobal Ysassi were defeated. The site is well tended, shaded with pimento (allspice) trees and has a fine view of Rio Nuevo Bay and fishing beach. The site, open from 9am to 4pm, 7 days a week, is a pleasant place for a picnic. British guile may have played a decisive part in their victory. Their force sailed around from Port Royal and landed on the other side of the river. The weary River Spaniards were encamped on the hill. The British sent an envoy waving a white flag ostensibly to negotiate terms but in fact to assess the strength of the Spaniards. Satisfied that theirs was the superior army, the British subsequently stormed the hill and routed the Spaniards, many of whom fled to Cuba by canoe. Ysassi is believed to have left from Don Christopher's Point east of Robins Bay and Annotto Bay.

The Rio Nuevo is little more than a stream in dry season. The fisherman's beach can be reached by turning L just before the bridge a bad road but short. The beach is made of smooth- weathered multi-coloured stones. Fisherman Morgie Adams sells cool drinks and snacks. Boats can be hired here for fishing or snorkelling. Prices negotiable. There are sandy coves under the headland to the west. On a hill just above the beach the Rio Nuevo Great house offers accommodation.

Continue east to Stewart Town, a nondescript village whose only claim to fame Moxon's Restaurant - has seen much better days. Moxon's, when operated by a transplanted English couple, Oliver and Benita Moxon, was a gourmet mecca that lured V.I.P. visitors from near and far. The late Oliver Moxon, a former JLP parish Councillor also started numerous community projects, including a flooring industry using tiles made from the thousands of coconut trees killed during the 1950s by a mysterious disease called Lethal Yellowing.

The Boscobel Beach Club is an up-market all-inclusive with special facilities and programs for entertaining children of all ages. Once a Hugh Hefner Playboy Club it was refurbished, expanded and lavishly landscaped to create a successful member of John Issa's Super Clubs chain.

On a plateau R of the road is the Boscobel landing strip for light aircraft. This one is official. There are still numerous private and illegal airstrips on the island catering to ganja flights. Periodically they are destroyed by the army and just as routinely repaired.

The road descends as you enter Oracabessa. At a triangular junction usually occupied by fruit sellers, commuters and school kids turn R towards Sun Valley Plantation and into the pleasant world of rural Jamaica where the roads are bad, the foliage lush and the people friendly. Signs will direct you L to Noel Coward's Firefly and to Brimmer Hall Plantation, a tour popular with cruise-ship passengers. At Jacks River ask for Mrs Gloria Davis. A potter in love with her craft, she fashions custom-made clay pots in a tumbledown shed, and fires them with wood - for fun rather than profit. Further on, the Jacks River Basic School L swarms with tots in gingham and khaki uniforms and a parent has painted a scenic mural on the outside of the school house. Past the village at a fork in the road with a bus shelter on the R follow the ìSun Valleyî sign straight ahead for another mile to a 60 acre banana plantation owned by Nolly and Lorna Binns and enjoy a ëhands-on' introduction to banana cultivation, from planting to packing. You will also see - and sample in season - everything else that grows on the farm: citrus, cane, naseberry, otaheite apple, guava, nutmeg, coconut water and jelly. Local snacks and fruit juices are complimentary and there is garden bar. Tours are often conducted by Lorna , a lady who personifies traditional Jamaican hospitality. The farm is part of Crescent, a sugar estate established in 1741. At a spot still known as "The Factory" there are ruins of the mill, waterwheel and slave barracks and a Guango Tree said to be three hundred years old. Optional extras are horseback riding and climbing the soft falls in the Crescent river.

Retrace your route to the coast and Oracabbessa. Fifty years ago, when ships anchored offshore and were loaded by lighters this was a booming banana port. Today it is a sadly neglected one street town where almost all traces of wazzu elegant Victorian buildings have been obliterated by crude repairs and alterations. During the 1970s, millions were spent on a project to build a deep water pier. The harbour was dredged and the foreshore dumped before the project was abruptly abandoned. Towns-people say that the government planners discovered, belatedly, that the prevailing wind made the site chosen for the pier unsuitable.

To date, Oracabessa's considerable tourism potential remains untapped. The Goldenhead Hotel, on the beach beside the river has had a chequered and mostly unsuccessful career. It is once again up and running, financed by Neville Blythe, a local insurance mogul and owner of the Jamaica Herald newspaper. Currently, entrepreneur and music promoter Chris Blackwell has plans for a multifaceted tourism village on idle government lands along the foreshore and adjacent to his oceanfront property Goldeneye. This was formerly the winter retreat of British author Ian Fleming, creator of masterspy James Bond, and most of the novels were written here. Fleming got the name for his flamboyant hero from what he called ìone of his Jamaican biblesî - Birds of Jamaica by ornithologist James Bond.

One of Oracabessa's most interesting residents is artist Richard Von White, grandson of W.E.White a self-made man, baker, planter and Oracabessa's leading citizen in the early 1900s. Von's brilliantly hued, evocative canvasses reflect the tropical flora that is the source of his inspiration. He spends two days per week as resident artist at Boscobel Beach Club and paints at home the rest of the time.

His airy wooden house overlooks the sea and art-collectors are always welcome. Turn left after the police station, first house on your left.

Towards Port Maria you pass the Galina lighthouse L and the spot where the Misses Parsons, retired school teachers, were drowned in hurricane Allen in 1980 when they elected to stay in their cliffside home with their pet dogs. The house was comp-letely destroyed by an unprecedented storm surge.

Approaching Port Maria bay turn R at the sign and proceed carefully up an unpredictable road to Firefly, once the home of Noel Coward, British playwright and wit. He died here and is buried at the bottom of the garden under a plain marble slab an eternal "Room with a View" over the sweeping vista of Port Maria Bay and Cabaritta island. Coward's heirs gave the property to the nation. Ill-kept for years, Firefly is now leased to Chris Blackwell who has restored and refurbished it, and created a Coward museum complete with video presentation, theatrical memorabilia and some of Coward's own paintings. Blackwell, whose mother was a close friend of Coward's, is the music promoter who discovered Millie (My Boy Lollipop) Small and launched Bob Marley.

Firefly, once part of Llanrumney estate had another famous owner - Sir Henry Morgan, a buccaneer who turned ìrespectableî, became famous for the sacking of Panama city, and ended up as Governor of Jamaica. He claimed to be the son of a Welsh gentleman, but unkind rumour had it that he came to the islands first as an indentured servant. A brick ruin in the garden , said to have been his look-out, has been restored and now as "Morgan's Kitchen" is a bar and "Tea-Room"

Just below Firefly is an Arawak site that has been partly excavated. Owner of the land Rastafarian Errol Henry welcomes visitors. Casa Maria L of the main road and overlooking the bay is a small hotel.

Port Maria was christened Puerta Santa Maria by the Spaniards. It has an interesting history and great natural beauty but is currently one of the poorest and shabbiest towns in the island, waiting, apparently without much hope, for the revival of the banana trade or tourism development. There is no shortage of churches: the very picturesque Anglican Parish Church was built in 1861. By the bridge, an old Baptist church has been defaced by modern improvements. At the other end of town an odd but imposing Presbyterian Church was built in 1830 to christianize the slaves of Frontier, the same estate where Tacky's rebellion had started 90 years before.

Tacky, a Coromantyn chieftain, was captured and sold into slavery. In 1860 he led a brave and bloody rebellion that terrorized the plantocracy and government for over a month. He was shot by one of the Maroon mercenaries impressed to fight with the militia. A monument in front of the Port Maria courthouse commemorates Tacky's resistance against tyranny. Unlike Sam Sharp and Queen Nanny of the Maroons Tacky was never made an official National Hero perhaps because in planning his revolt he enlisted the aid of the obeahmen, or witch doctors and was rumoured to be capable of catching bullets and hurling them back at the enemy with deadly effectî a power also attributed to the legendary Nanny. It is interesting to note that the parish of St Mary of which Port Maria is capital, is still reputed to have the most effective obeahmen in the island.

In the east of the town is Pagee Beach, a gentle curve of smooth sand stretching along the water for almost a mile. The swimming is safe and the beach usually deserted except for some friendly fishermen who relax by playing dominoes. Boats can be hired here by negotiation, to take you fishing or across to Cabaritta island.

En route to Annotto Bay you will pass Whitehall Estate L , its great house crowning a hill thickly planted with coconut palms. An all-inclusive country resort is in the making here. Further on, two interesting roadside stalls specialize in pots made from an amalgam of aluminum and iron.

As you approach Annotto Bay and the bridge over the Wag Water river signs will direct you L to Robins Bay - five miles of recently resurfaced road offers unparalleled seascapes and sandy coves for swimming. You pass through the tiny village on your way to two unique resorts.

Sonrise, owned by Bob and Kim Chase is the reincarnation of Strawberry Fields, a former hippie haven. Now a family oriented operation, Sonrise has spacious camping ground above a large white sand cove, spotless cabins (with bath) include a deluxe honeymoon cabin above its own tiny cove. There is a restaurant and bar (serving nothing stronger than Red Stripe) and a dining pavilion perched above the ocean. Clean communal bathrooms are available for campers and day visitors. Hiking trails take you west along an unfrequented coast with waterfalls.

The road surface deteriorates abruptly at Sonrise but a short distance down a rough road brings you to River Lodge: a small guest house in a restored "pirate castle", probably once a sugar factory. Perched above a tiny stream River Lodge blends into the foliage: approaching over an emerald green lawn you are surprised to discover buildings six individual rooms (with bath) have high ceilings and thick stone walls. Further investigation reveals a tiny Reggae-oriented gift shop, a dining room in a thatched cabana and a bright, spotlessly clean kitchen brimming with local fruit and vegetables. Created and managed by a transplanted German, Brigitta Fuchslocher, River Lodge is popular with European nature lovers.

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