Why Jamaica leaves you both shaken and stirred

Jamaica's interior boasts thickets of jungles and foaming streams. (EB FILE)

The helicopter lifted us gently into the sky from a broad stretch of green grass near Ocho Rios, and suddenly I could see why Jamaica regards itself as one of the most fashionable corners of the Caribbean.

Mighty cruise ships made an armada below us as their passengers explored the island or perhaps relaxed on golden, largely deserted beaches stretching as far as the eye could see.

It's obvious why Ian Fleming was fascinated by the glamour of this place. Also an avid ornithologist, the writer arrived on the Jamaican island clutching the local bird book to his bosom.

He was so smitten with A Field Guide To The Birds Of The West Indies by James Bond, he named 007 after the American author.

The book even features in the 2002 Bond film Die Another Day, with Pierce Brosnan's secret agent clutching a copy while disguising himself as a birdwatcher.

Fleming came to Jamaica in the 1940s, serving with British Naval Intelligence. His arrival came at the start of a golden period for tourism on the island, and even today the sand is raked every morning at the finest tourist resorts along the Jamaican coast.

For more than half a century, the über-rich and famous have been lured to this improbable version of paradise. Palm trees really do dip at crazy angles above tranquil, cobalt-blue seas, the icing-sugar sand is blindingly white and parrots chirp away overhead as jewelled hummingbirds buzz around explosions of bougainvillea.

It was in the 1950s that the jet-set started to hone in on Jamaica. In the middle of the Caribbean Sea, the island offered year-round sun, luxurious pampering and seclusion from the chattering classes.

Perhaps the understated colonial elegance of the period is best expressed at Jamaica Inn on the north coast. Some modest photos in the hotel's eggshell-blue lobby show Marilyn Monroe and her playwright husband Arthur Miller at ease, their thoughts seemingly a million miles from the brooding pressures of mega-stardom.

Winston Churchill holidayed at this resort too, his favourite suite complete with a hammock strung between poker straight palms looking out across the bay to distant Cuba, where his thoughts no doubt drifted towards his latest batch of cigars. The north coast was a magnet to the rich and famous: Noël Coward, Errol Flynn, Fleming and a string of royals all left their mark on the area.

Today the glitterati still flock to Jamaica, with Sir Paul McCartney, Bill Clinton, Scarlett Johansson and Harrison Ford among a long list of luminaries who are attracted to its boutique chic.

Famous guests attain important kudos for the hotels, with each one decorating lobbies and bars with sepia-toned images of famous visitors "at repose". At some establishments, walls are groaning beneath the weight of hundreds of photos of obscure Danish princes.

Still, an undeniable upper-crust glamour surrounds resorts such as Jamaica Inn and Round Hill in Montego Bay, but the island's chic luxury really comes to its zenith at Fleming's property, Goldeneye. Long and palatial with vast open window spaces, the property peaks out over a tiny azure cove. It's just the sort of place where 007 might relax with a vodka martini or two.

It was here at a tiny wooden desk, placed facing the wall so as not to be distracted by the knockout views, that Fleming created Commander Bond and his far-fetched exploits. Jamaica features heavily in Bond films. For a hefty fee, fans can take in the sculpted beauty of the property and soak up the 007 ambience.

But ostentatious luxury of the high-end hotels is only a tiny fragment of what Jamaica is all about. Go beyond the armed guards and the island really comes alive. It is an intoxicating mix of smells and noise, from the eardrum shattering music sound systems to the moreish tang of jerk chicken cooking in roadside stalls, strewn with coconuts looking like engorged musty bowling balls.

Some places are grindingly poor and Jamaica has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Tourism undoubtedly brings jobs and money to the island, but its poverty jars uncomfortably with the over-indulgent excess flaunted in hotel complexes.

Jamaicans are immensely proud of their country, their food, their music and their independence. But ghosts of the slave trade overshadow the psychology of the island.

That barbaric history is brought dramatically into focus at Rose Hall on the north-west coast. Annie Palmer, known as "the White Witch of Rose Hall", murdered a number of lovers and husbands in the house and had a viewing platform specially built on the first floor to watch slaves hang on the plantation grounds from the comfort of her armchair. The mansion, built in 1770, was eventually torn down by slaves but has been painstakingly restored. Annie's ghost may haunt the unusually chilly corridors to this day.

English wit Noel Coward was another Jamaica addict. The flamboyant playwright and composer's purpose-built home Firefly boasts some of the finest panoramic views on the island.

The real allure of Jamaica is tied up with its breathtaking natural beauty. The interior boasts thickets of fortress-like jungles shaded in infinite greens, bisected by foaming Eden-like streams.

The island is blessed with an incredible array of colourful flowers. But it is under the sea that it bursts into three-dimensional life. The bath-warm water is shockingly clear and delicate coral looms up like giant, twisted arthritic fingers.

The thrill of witnessing a huge rippling carpet that's actually a stingray moving just metres below makes a snorkelling or diving trip an absolute must. James Bond the ornithologist and James Bond the spy would no doubt agree: Jamaica leaves you both shaken and stirred.

 

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