Ours was one of two packed wide-body jets from Minnesota that had just landed over the turquoise waters of Montego Bay. Our mob shortly emerged from the terminal into the sticky, fragrant late-afternoon heat, where we paused momentarily to assess this new tropical world.
For most of us, that brief instant of uncertainty and exploration — there on the sidewalk between baggage claim and the terminal’s ground transportation canopy — would be the last unsupervised moment of our time in Jamaica.
For there, idling at the curb, attended by teams of affable, logo’d greeters, sat fleets of buses, vans and liveried cabs, all climate-controlled and ready to transfer this group to the fortified, all-inclusive resorts that awaited them.
But we were looking elsewhere, for a guy, not a bus. We finally found our man off to the side, by himself, holding the small sign we were looking for: Jake’s.
“You’re from Jake’s!”
“Ya, mon. I’m O’Neal. Let’s go.”
He would be our introduction to Jamaica without walls, a place that is increasingly difficult to find. The Caribbean basin has about 250 all-inclusive resort/compounds, and Jamaica has a huge share of them. It is hard work these days to book a non-all-inclusive place on the island.
We zoomed off, windows open, on the left side of the road, in an unmarked compact car headed south, hoping we’d found one in Jake’s — first through a noisy, buzzing, steamy Montego Bay that was getting ready for Saturday night and then, in the dying evening light, into the wooded mountainside on narrow, curving roads to the island’s southern shore, and a little place called Treasure Beach. It took almost 2 ½ hours to cover 50 miles.
But we were on our own in rural Jamaica. O’Neal made his ritual stop in tiny Newmarket at a gas station that had dancing, and an outdoor DJ playing reggae. He playfully complained to the cashier — yelling over the blast of the music — that hey, mon, he stops there most every day and he and his friends never get anything for free. Out came Red Stripes for us, a soda for him, and in a few minutes we were driving along the ocean through the market hub of Black River and then Treasure Beach — a place, we would learn, where farmers and fishermen outnumber tourists by about 50-to-1.
We had found, by design and also luck, this unwalled Jamaica — Jamaica with Jamaicans in it. Which is not to say there is a lot to Treasure Beach. In the dry part of the island, the area has a lot of brown scruff and dust. The few modest stores have food, but no T-shirts (those would be available at Callaloo, the town’s one boutique and clothing store). Some hotels and roominghouses line the sandy bays, along with a few large beach houses. Mostly it is 3,500 people in low, gardened, concrete bungalows. Treasure Beach has an ATM, but it does not accept non-Jamaican cards. We asked O’Neal if there was any music in Treasure Beach. He said no.
Mostly what Treasure Beach has — other than the glorious heat, the turquoise water and the green Santa Cruz Mountains that rise to the north — is Jake’s, a shady, open-air compound of brightly colored beachside bungalows, gardens, a restaurant, a bar, a spa, and second-floor yoga deck that overlooks the ocean, looking south toward Panama.
In Jake’s we also found a family trying to change the way Jamaica does tourism, if only in this quiet corner of the island. Jason Henzell’s grandfather bought some land there in 1941 as the region’s second white family; his mother, Sally Henzell, opened the hotel in 1991, and Jason quit his banking job in Montego Bay in 1995 to run the place. Jake’s is now the town’s largest single employer, with no ambitions to build walls and close off its neighbors.
“I think we all here have a vision of Treasure Beach to make it a model for community tourism,” Henzell told us. “You will not hear me bash the all-inclusives. They provide jobs and pay taxes. But there also has to be another way for Jamaica. That’s what we are trying to do here.”
The all-inclusive compound is an invention that, within the confines of a gated resort, delivers what can be an absolutely lovely, relaxed experience — and stunning Caribbean beauty. It is genteel confinement. The concept that was once known for gloppy buffets and cheesy decor has evolved into accessible luxury under the palms, in formats that range from family-focused getaways to adults-only binge fests. The idea is that you pay once upfront, and then nice people feed and entertain you for a few days. The industry says all-inclusive bookings in the Caribbean are growing at a rate of 6 percent a year.
Of course, at many of these places, it is difficult to tell if you are in Martinique or Fort Myers, with ESPN above the bar and the scent of the all-day pizzeria wafting over the water park. The whole idea of the walled, all-inclusive business model is that people don’t leave once their bus arrives from the airport. Sandals, one of the all-inclusive giants, recently bragged that it actually “takes” 60 percent of its guests “off-property,” presumably in the same buses it uses to fetch them from the airport.
Montego Bay is an example of what all-inclusive compounds do to a local economy. On the way out of the country, we wanted to stay one day and night in that legendary city. We found it difficult to find an inviting place to stay that was not an all-inclusive compound. We wound up at the Richmond Hill Inn, the former mansion of the Dewars Scotch family that sits in all its splendid, white-terraced grandeur high on a hill above the bay and the city.
We arrived to find a charming, mostly empty relic, the staff almost completely reduced to the family that opened it in the 1960s when actors Paul Newman and Roger Moore brought their families here, and Richard Nixon and his White House entourage came by for dinner. Then the all-inclusives came to dominate town and — according to the folks at Richmond Hill, two cabbies, and Henzell from Jake’s — the all-inclusives started telling their guests not to leave the compound. Richmond Hill closed its restaurant seven years ago, along with many other local restaurants in the city.
“There used to be lots of great places [to eat] in Montego Bay,” Henzell said. “Now there are like two places in the whole city. It’s crazy. But look at a place like Barbados with very few all-inclusive places. There are like 20 great restaurants. That’s the sort of thing we need to think about.”
A farming and fishing town
Treasure Beach is not overwhelmed with great restaurants — or anything, for that matter. Take away the modest tourism infrastructure and you have a rural, tropical, farming and fishing town that suggests, maybe, the Florida Panhandle circa 1955, with goats. We attended both of what seemed to be the town’s central cultural events — the weekly outdoor movie at a restaurant called Jack Sprat (the film was a rousing documentary about Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt that drew cheers the night we were there) and the Sunday cricket matches at Treasure Beach Sports Park (a non-rousing, all-day event at which people napped).
We wanted to explore, so the folks at Jake’s introduced us to young Damian Parchment. This charming son of Treasure Beach — with a reddish tint to his hair, green eyes and freckles — is among the many descendants of Scottish sailors who in the 1830s swam ashore, and stayed, after their Panama-bound ship ran aground nearby.
Damian is the guy in town with bikes. He was also our cultural docent. For example, we asked about locks for the bikes. He said, “Don’t worry about it. Everybody in Treasure Beach is a lock. If somebody from the outside looks at your bike, someone will say, ‘Stay away from that bike.’ ”
We used no bike locks in Treasure Beach.
Damian also took us, first on bikes and then on foot, up into the red soil of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which are a mosaic of small, unmechanized farms growing melons, carrots, yams, zucchini, peanuts, pineapple and mango. (One man said, “When the mango come in, you really don’t eat anything else.”) Other than sugar cane and coffee, this parish — St. Elizabeth — feeds the island.
The gift of carrots
In Treasure Beach, you are visiting a community as much as a hotel. The place is warm and welcoming, but has made few preparations for your arrival. Damian suggested a two-hour hike on a trail up through farmland to a spectacular hilltop above the Caribbean that includes ruins of the Scottish settlements. But there were no signs leading us to the trailhead. I asked if this was a park or if the trail had a name. Damian looked puzzled and said, “It’s just where people live. This is where people walk into town.”
We were hiking an unnamed farm-to-market trail when we had the first of a number of instances of people wanting to give us food. One woman we met who knew Damian made sure we left with a big bag of her shelled peanuts. We stopped on the way back to the beach to say hello to one of Damian’s farming cousins — and left with the gift of big bunches of carrots for Jake’s (carrot juice and ginger carrot soup suddenly appeared on the kitchen’s chalkboard menu).
We had a flat bike tire one day next to a field of ripe watermelons. During the repair, one of the farmers asked if we wanted a melon. We said, thanks, but we can’t carry it on the bike. He said no problem — he’d carve one up for us. Then off he went with a wave to finish his work, while juice ran down our arms and faces.
Around Treasure Beach, there are glimmers of more planned Jamaican tourism experiences. A sign on the edge of town proclaims its commitment to Community Tourism. Several people said there’s talk of getting an ATM that accepts non-Jamaican cards. In April, Jake’s sponsored the 21st annual “Off-Road” triathlon, which brings scores of people to town. People would like a food-rum-and-reggae festival of some kind, maybe.
That kind of bustle doesn’t seem imminent. Treasure Beach is tough to get to (you can hire a car and driver, as we did, or rent a car, which gets you a thrilling drive on the left side of busy, narrow, imprecisely signed mountain roads). The all-inclusive market is growing, not declining. And, to read the Jamaican newspapers, the island’s tourist economy — not only Treasure Beach, but also the big operations in Negril, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay — faces two significant immediate challenges: crime in the cities (Jamaica had more than twice as many murders last year as Chicago) and stiff new competition from its economically liberated neighbor, Cuba.
So the quiet rhythm of days in Treasure Beach seem unlikely to change soon. For us, that meant explorations in the cool of the morning, a retreat to shade in the midday heat, then a late-afternoon walk or bike ride to one of the big, arcing bays to watch the sun set, or a local pickup beach soccer match, before dinner.
Back at the airport in Montego Bay on our way home, we saw some of the same people we had flown down with. Despite their confinement in lovely-but-walled compounds, with Jet-Skis, themed restaurants, talent shows and beachfront activity coordinators, they, too, seemed pink-cheeked and contented. But, really, whose vacation had been all-inclusive?
Tony Brown, a Minneapolis freelance writer, chronicled his bike trip across America for the Star Tribune in the Pedaling America blog. Find it at startribune.com/bikeblog.