Jamaica, Unchained Melodies, by Nigel Tisdall

This Article by Nigel Tisdall was published in the Travel section of the UK Telegraph in 1998...  it is still relevent and I love it so much I have to share!  Enjoy!

Jamaica: Unchained melodies

Nigel Tisdall and family flee the tourist compounds, hire a car, turn up the tape deck and set off to see the real Jamaica

I THOUGHT road signs were pretty boring - then I went to Jamaica. The family had voted to liven up the school holidays by spending a fortnight driving the length of this mountainous island, and we kind of knew there would be potholes and wandering goats and apocalyptic thunderstorms. We also expected twisting roads, and more than a few cars with tinted windows and pounding sound systems, their windscreens ablaze with braggart names - Boombox, Gangsta, Hotty Hotty.

But no one told us about the road signs. There aren't that many, but those you find are brilliant reminders of the great cook-up of cultures that is Jamaica. My favourite came while we were bumping round the sleepy lanes of St Elizabeth county. We turned a corner and were suddenly faced with an instant, life-defining decision - Hounslow or Treasure Beach. A little earlier we had had to decide between Ipswich and Maggotty or Santa Cruz and Mandeville, and our map was shot through with scores of equally incongruous names left by colonists - Enfield, Hastings, Sheffield, Barnstaple, Culloden . . .

Of course, we had approached the idea of driving across Jamaica with some fear. The island has a reputation for being volatile and lawless, which is why most visitors tuck themselves away in all-inclusive resorts. This is a crying shame, but then it was the Jamaicans who started the whole craze for Sandals and Beaches and today's super-ultra-utterly-introspective holiday compounds. Well, we were damned if we were going to fly more than 4,500 miles to the Caribbean to spend two weeks by a pool drinking Sex on the Beach cocktails to the strains of Buffalo Soldier. We wanted to feel the heat and beat of this charismatic island.

Alice, my wife, took the wheel, which was a good idea because I can't drive. Fortunately, she had trained for this mission on the potholes of Hackney, and was eager to gun a motor through romantic-sounding places such as Wait-a-Bit and Alligator Pond. Our two children were less thrilled. They knew that "car" belongs to that terrible lexicon of words that includes "hairbrush", "tidy-up" and "bedtime". So we bribed them with new snorkels and flippers. We stuffed them silly with jerk chicken. We drugged them with endless bottles of Ting (a local pop made from grapefruit) and played them the soothing sounds of the all-reggae station Irie FM, subtly turning the volume down when the hurricane warnings came on.

Music was crucial for our 200-mile drive and we filled up at a record shop in Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay. I plonked five-year-old Louis on the counter and asked for "something from the Sixties". A trio of girls played us snatches of ska and rocksteady on a ghetto-blaster, singing along to every word, and we left with a fistful of tapes by outfits such as the Techniques, the Paragons and the Silver Tones.

Even now, as I pathetically try to mix a Planter's Punch back in dreary England, I am forever uplifted by such lilting tunes, which capture the euphoria that swept through Jamaica when independence came in 1962.

Listening to songs about moonlight lovers and Strongman Sampson is like looking at old black-and-white photos of the Notting Hill Carnival - you glimpse a more formal, Sunday-best Jamaica, an island with a mellow, dappled culture that is too often eclipsed by the crude rum-and-rasta cliché that has been exported around the world.

After flying into Montego Bay, we picked up the island tempo with four languorous days in Negril, a seven-mile strip on the west coast that was once a hippie hangout but is now a haphazard low-rise resort. It is packed in winter with Americans on Red Stripe-and-Rizla holidays, but in August everything was laid back.

We found our perfect base in the Negril Cabins at its far north end, which had gorgeous gardens and large airy wooden rooms set high on stilts. There were bammys (fried cassava bread) and banana cake for breakfast, an oil-drum barbecue on the beach serving lobster for £7, and an outrageously warm sea full of cuddling couples.

"It's good for the ego here," reported Alice, who was chuffed to find plenty of handsome guys chatting her up "even though I've had two kids and broken the fortysomething barrier".

Out in the countryside we discovered the quiet side to Jamaica, winding down lanes sporadically adorned with bountiful fruit stalls, snoozing hammock-sellers and wobbly cyclists in trilbys. Only the bars reminded us that we were touring the capital of Caribbean style and swagger. For who would not want to stop at Sophia's Cool-Out Corner? Or take a rum at Natty P's Place or shoot the breeze in Heavy D's Treasure Hut?

Following the south coast through the sugar port of Savanna-la-Mar, we trickled on down to Treasure Beach for a night at Jake's. This small designer escape is part of the Island Outpost group of hotels set up by the Jamaican record producer Chris Blackwell. There was no air-conditioning, no mosquito screens, and we had water and power cuts, but so what? It is not every day you wake up late to sunshine, sea breezes and Desmond Dekker on the CD player.

Our next stop was another Blackwell hotel, the smart, pampering Strawberry Hill, which hangs high in the sharp-ridged mountains overlooking Kingston. Here the rooms are an all-white plantation-style fantasy with exquisite mahogany furniture and mammoth four-poster beds. Sunday breakfast on the veranda was a very rock-star moment as we lounged around in fluffy dressing gowns guzzling mangoes and papayas, and listening to the heavy bass sound of still-rocking parties drifting up from the valleys far below.

The next day we tackled the long and winding ascent north to Newcastle and climbed over what the map proudly calls the Grand Ridge of the Blue Mountains. We paused for a break at Section, a junction close to the 5,060ft-high Catherine's Peak, where a shirtless man engaged us in a typically Jamaican conversation.

"Good morning!"


"Lovely view."

"One blood."

"You live here?"


O'Neill had ruddy, cracked-varnish eyes that suggested a more than passing acquaintance with ganja. He told us about the joys of rastafarianism and his relatives in Handsworth, then sold us an aromatic bag of Blue Mountain coffee beans for a fiver. After that, it was downhill all the way, following a fabulous but precarious drive through warm, pelting rain to Tranquility, one of several villages in a valley rich in ackee trees, which bear flamboyant fruits like bright red light bulbs.

Trundling round the barely developed north-east coast, we came to the drowsy banana port of Port Antonio and concluded our adventure at the secluded Dragon Bay Villas, which has a cosy private beach.

A good reason to stay here is that the resident band is the Jolly Boys, who play mento, the calypso-like precursor of ska that mixes banjo, bongos, guitar and rumba box. They look a bit like grey-bearded museum pieces now, but there is nothing outdated about the fruity innuendo of their songs, which are all about women who like their "big bamboo" straight and tall, and how you can always get a new wife, but you will never get another mother in your life.

There was even music playing when we checked in to fly home from Kingston. The children returned to school with their hair dutifully braided and beaded, and we all suffered Jamaica lag for weeks.

But now when we get nostalgic we just put our tapes on, reach for the rum and remember a sunny Caribbean island where - as the Sensations put it - "everyday is just a holiday, I don't care what the crowd may say".


About the author

Lynda Lee Burks has lived in Jamaica most of her adult life. She supports her passion for living by the sea, by organizing tours of Jamaica, producing events – dub poets to destination weddings, and as artist and teacher.  

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