ocho rios

Wonderland was found down a rabbit hole, Narnia through a wardrobe. As for Ocho Rios, the town awaits at the end of a winding, emerald-walled tunnel named Fern Gully. Once upon a time this was a river, but after an earthquake filled the gorge with rubble it was transformed into a three-mile road, which carves down between towering greenery so dense the Caribbean midday sun is barely visible above us.

Fern Gully makes a fitting introduction to the “Garden Parish of Jamaica”, as St Ann’s is often called. All those tales of Jamaica’s gang-fuelled crime tribulations couldn’t feel further away in this place of quiet sandy coves and jungle waterfalls. Adding to the wholesome tone, my taxi driver Mickie insists I join him on a singalong, duetting on a few numbers by Bob Marley, who was born and buried in this parish – “everything in life can be a song!” Mickie enthuses. Between renditions I learn that the name Ochos Rios originates from the Spanish for “bay of waterfalls” (the more direct translation of “eight rivers” is a misnomer, as there are only four in the area) and spot road signs speaking of the region’s mixed colonial past: Falmouth, Middlesex and Inverness rub shoulders with Puerto Seco and Pedro River.

It’s not so much a song as a shrill wail that escapes when I plunge waist deep into the most famous of these waterfalls, Dunns River; the water feels icy compared with the steamy climate. The stream gushes down over 600ft of travertine boulders until it reaches the beach below, a dramatic natural set recognisable from the James Bond film Dr No. It’s these giant stepping stones and shelves that we grapple up in a human chain, bare feet blindly seeking out holds as white jets rush over our legs. Crystal-clear pools, honeycombed with sunlight, offer occasional natural respites during the one hour climb, before the next burst of breathless scrambling begins.

A motorboat ride back to my hotel – the legendary Jamaica Inn, which has hosted Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe in its luxurious colonial-style rooms – gives the chance to dry off as well as revealing how much of this coast is still claimed by nature. Yes, there’s the Sandals resort towering over Ochos Rios town, yet for much of the ride there’s nothing but eruptions of ferns and palms rushing right up to the waters’ edge, the occasional wink of a pastel-coloured villa between the trees, and densely-forested mountains hiding coffee plantations. The parish stretches all the way to Discovery Bay, Christopher Columbus’ first landing point in Jamaica.

Oracabessa is one spot where nature has decidedly out-muscled man-made design. Hard to imagine this was once a thriving beach resort, as I pick my way through a roofless shell peeling patches of tropical wallpaper and veined with creepers. It’s the Angor Wat of hotels – and perhaps the perfect setting for a horror film, as one of our group helpfully points out. Stairs carpeted with weeds lead us down to a sandy beach, all but deserted save for a dozen or so people standing shiftily at the far end. So why has this motley crew of tourists left their hotel sun loungers to gather here in the final hour of daylight?

Oracabessa is one spot where nature has decidedly out-muscled man-made design. Hard to imagine this was once a thriving beach resort, as I pick my way through a roofless shell peeling patches of tropical wallpaper and veined with creepers. It’s the Angor Wat of hotels – and perhaps the perfect setting for a horror film, as one of our group helpfully points out. Stairs carpeted with weeds lead us down to a sandy beach, all but deserted save for a dozen or so people standing shiftily at the far end. So why has this motley crew of tourists left their hotel sun loungers to gather here in the final hour of daylight?

 

The answer – all 143 of them, to be precise – lies just a few inches beneath the sand. Our host scoops away several handfuls to reveal a crawling mass of little black shells and flippers. Newly hatched Hawksbill turtles, fighting their way out of an underground nest towards light, air and sea. At first glance they’re more beetle-like than endearing. Mel Tennant, a conservationist known across Jamaica as “The Turtle Man”, instructs us to carry one in each hand like scaly castanets, dip them in the sea to clean off the sand and check for any problems. With illegal poaching rife, this critically endangered needs all the help they can get. Timing the hatch for shortly before sunset limits exposure to predators such as herons, frigate birds and land crabs. A few of the new-borns are underdeveloped and taken for incubation while their healthy siblings are placed in a bucket for counting. That done, the bucket is upended and the turtles make directly for the waves: in a couple of days’ time they’ll be heading past the Cayman Islands and may eventually travel as far afield as Portugal.

On this verdant coast, it’s no surprise that the local farmers’ market is packed with freshly picked, exotic edibles. Great green orbs of breadfruit and coconut sit beside a traffic-light array of scotch-bonnet peppers (a key ingredient in the ubiquitous jerk seasoning), sorrel flowers heaped like rubies, cocoa beans and spiky custard apples – all piled in newspaper-lined wooden crates and shaded from the blazing sun by squares of tarpaulin strung over the stalls. Guided by Jamaica Inn’s executive chef Maurice Henry, we collect the ingredients to make saltfish and ackee – the latter being Jamaica’s national fruit, its flesh akin to scrambled egg once boiled and sautéed. It runs a close rivalry with jerk chicken as the island’s favourite dish.

Nutmeg and allspice scent the air. The soundtrack is tinny reggae drifting from a trader’s radio, accompanied by the occasional languorous “Wha’appen” as shoppers greet each other in patois; no rushed haggling here. Stalks of sugar canes seven feet tall are hacked up and chewed on, sucking the juice from the tough bark. It’s time to consciously slow down my pace – drilled by too many rush-hour train journeys – and drift between the market stalls in a syrupy haze. Natural highs come easy in the Garden Parish.

VisitJamaica.com

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