Amanda Jones
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Treasure Beach - Jamaica

Written by Amanda Jones for San Francisco Chronicle

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early eighties I met a Jamaican man. He was tall and striking. He laughed easily. He sang Bob Marley songs a capella, and he had dreadlocks that whipped around his head when he danced, which he did often, spontaneously. He was so mind-blowingly exotic to a girl like me--a girl from New Zealand--that I would invite him around just to hear him talk. I couldn't understand half of what he said, but that never got in the way of our friendship.

He had come to live in San Francisco, because, as he put it, "Dere aren't nuff battybwoys like me in Jahmaayka." Meaning he was gay and he'd come to the city to live the life he wanted.

He missed home though, and talked at length about sultry beaches, warm people, reggae nights, and fried crab. Whenever he'd go to leave, he'd hold up his hand and say, "One Love," and "Respect." It made me want to go to Jamaica.

I finally made it. But in the time since I'd met my friend, I heard other, less agreeable things about Jamaica. And when I told people we were not staying in a closed resort compound, I was warned to be very careful. Not to talk to strangers, not to walk alone at night, not to eat food off the street. Not to do all the things I like to do when I travel.

My husband and I were going to Treasure Beach, a town appearing in fine print on the southwestern corner of the Jamaican map. About the only thing I did know about Jamaica was that Jake's, the hotel we were staying at, was deemed to be "Officially the coolest place to stay in the world" by a reputable British newspaper. Despite my having great respect for the British take on cool, I was braced for any possibility.

It was a slow but pretty two-and-a-half-hour drive across the island to get to Treasure Beach from the highly developed beach resort town of Montego Bay. The van headed away from the beaches dense with hotel developments. We drove on up through the cool alpine forest of the Nassau Mountains and descended into valleys carpeted in sugarcane lushness. Along the snaking road were tiny subsistence farming villages with the requisite chickens, pigs and scantily dressed toddlers. As we neared the southern coast, the villages were further apart and the terrain became dry and stony.

Treasure Beach itself was not much more than a pleasant little fishing community near the town of Black River. There were long stretches of creamy sand, rocky outcroppings, roadside restaurants, wooden slat-board houses, and colorful fishing boats pulled up on the beach, painted turquoise and pink and lime. Jake's was located on six acres in the middle of it all. Although there are several hotels in Treasure Beach, it's hard to write about the area without coming back to Jake's--a cultural epicenter. Not only is Jake's a bar, a restaurant, an unofficial tourist information center, and an artsy hotel, it is also a place where Jamaican writers, musicians and artists gather, and where local politics is deliberated.

The story of Jake's goes back three generations. In 1929 a British bon vivant named Lionel Densham agreed to captain the yacht of a rich American around the world. The boat made it as far as Jamaica before Black Monday struck, after which the rich American was rich no more and the boat was sold off. Jamaica turned out to be the ideal place for a marooned bon vivant, so Lionel telegraphed his brother Basil in England, "Jamaica great STOP Bring polo sticks and fishing rods STOP" Basil took him at his word, and the family have been Jamaicans ever since.

Today, Jason Henzell and his mother Sally Henzell run the hotel, located on a remote stretch of land near where Jason's grandfather, Basil Densham, first built the family's beach house. In 1991 Sally, formerly a theatrical set designer, bought land next to her father's. Disgruntled with the lack of local restaurants, she decided to open one herself, naming it after her childhood pet parrot, Jake. After the restaurant, well, there was nowhere for friends to stay, so she built a few bungalows, decorating each artfully (shells and bottles imbedded into stucco walls, old gates as bed heads, nichos housing fetishes, outdoor showers under acacia trees). By 1995 the international hip set had found Jake's and Sally kept adding rooms. But she refused to alter the feeling of the place and so today, with a total of 29 rooms, it is still casual, funky, affordable and completely seductive.

Perry Henzell, Jason's father, made his name in the 70s writing, directing and producing The Harder They Come, the movie that put Jimmy Cliff on the reggae charts. "My parents were wild hippies," Jason Henzell told me. "Can you imagine how hard it is for a kid to rebel when his parents are hippies? My only option was to be square." So Jason left home to become a banker and his sister Justine became an accountant. The square life didn't appeal, and Jason moved back to run the hotel and Justine now organizes the celebrated Calabash Literary Festival, an event that brings scores of international writers to Jamaica to read to a word-enamored Jamaican audience of up to 3,000 people every May. It's the largest festival of its kind in the Caribbean, held on Jake's property.

It's not just the inherent hip-ness of Jake's that makes it so authentically cool. It's the fact that Jake's and the Henzell family are actually part of the local community. Instead of building walls to keep the Jamaicans out, fishermen and kids come to lounge in the hammocks or jive in patois with the family. Nearby houses are not blocked from view. Soft-sell traders come to display their crafts on the lawn, and it's all about peace, one love and respect--which are not simply Bob Marley lyrics, but are the basic doctrine of Rastafarianism. Treasure Beach, as a consequence, is one of the safest, friendliest and loveliest spots in Jamaica.

To improve the quality of life in their community, the Henzells and other local businesses created a foundation called BREDS (patois for brethren), that builds community projects. When Hurricane Ivan decimated the area in September, BREDS raised a million dollars in aid for the villagers. Jake's escaped the hurricane relatively unscathed--just a few lost roofs and decks, but many villagers were not so lucky.

And Treasure Beach, which previously had no medical care of it's own, now has a strong emergency medicine program. A couple of years ago a doctor came to stay at Jake's. One night, as he walked the beach, he spied a cluster of agitated villagers. A child was drowning. The doctor dove in, rescued and resuscitated the child. Shocked that no local knew basic lifesaving, he rounded up volunteers in New York to come to Jake's and teach CPR and emergency response to 40 villagers. The doctors also donated enough money to buy an ambulance, which Jason often drives when calls come in (which they do frequently due to the madcap driving on the narrow roads).

What all this means is that Treasure Beach has one of the closest communities in Jamaica. The standard of living is good, the locals are incredibly warm and friendly, and safety is not an issue as it is elsewhere in Jamaica. You can walk anywhere at any time of night. You don't have to lock your room, you can talk to any local, buy anything from any vendor, and eat anywhere.

One such local was Ted, a boatman who, along with his shabby-chic dog Flora, takes people sightseeing on his long wooden boat Di Evil Tings. Ted was a tall, dreadlocked Rasta-man with a flamboyant smile. He spoke in thick patois English, hard to understand. To Ted, life was one long, infectious laugh. He took a group of us up the Black River and into what's spookily known as the Great Morass, which, among other things, is home to hundreds of crocodiles.

No sooner had we entered the river mouth that Ted pulled up alongside an eight-foot long crocodile lying inert on a riverside platform. Its mouth was wide-open, teeth displayed menacingly. "Dere," said Ted, "ya first Jaaaah-may-kan crok-oh-diel." We all snorted. It was quite obviously plastic, like some obsolete prop from Disneyland's Jungle Cruise. "No Mon," Ted said, looking concerned, "He be as real as you an' me." Refusing to be seen photographing a plastic croc, not one of us pulled out a camera. Ted shrugged and we continued upriver.

Quite quickly we began to see more crocodiles. Moving...slowly. And most of them had their mouths wide open. Apparently that's how crocodiles cool off. The plastic croc had been, in fact, as real as you and me-- yu damn lagga head bud (stupid person).

We sped up through the Great Morass, Ted laughing into the wind. We stopped a dozen miles upstream at Rudy's Bar, a shack that Rudy had thoughtfully built right at the point where the humidity of the Morass became unbearable. Leaving the boat, we collapsed under a mango tree, tossing back Red Stripe beers birdspeed (really fast) until evaht'ing (everything) was all's raight (alright).

"Goin' swimming?" Ted asked us.

"Ha ha," we said.

"Ah gonna go," he said, flinging off his shirt and splashing into the river, yelling over his shoulder, "Doon't worry Mon, Ted always do da right ting."

It was hot, and despite its brown color (from the tannins in the vegetation), the water looked really good. One by one we went in, offhandedly scanning for log-like objects in the water.

Here are a few things I learned about Jamaican crocodiles: their tongues are rooted to their lower palette, hence their inner mouths don't move and look plastic. Also they rarely eat humans. This, however, was the cause of debate between Ted and Rudy when I asked about the last time a crocodile had killed a human.

'Yeah Mon, well dere was this woooman a cuppla years ago. She be pulled outta her boat by a croc-o-dial."

"Oh but no Mon," said Ted. "But she making dat croc-o-dial very angry. She wave a fish in his face and den she pull it away. He go after da fish, not da woooman. She in da way."

Leaving the Morass, Ted took us to the Pelican Bar for lunch. Located on a sandbar one mile off the coast, the Pelican Bar is built from beach flotsam and sits high on stilts. We waded through thigh-deep water, climbed a driftwood ladder and sat on the floor of the restaurant, there being no tables or chairs at the Pelican Bar. Floyd, the owner, serves three things: beer, fish and rice. He cooks the fresh-caught fish over an open flame and keeps the beer cold in a cooler. Utopia.

At sunset in Treasure Beach, visitors and locals tend to stroll along the creamy sands of Calabash Bay. They pass the fishermen rolling up their nets, dreadlocks shining with salt spray. They wave at the children hurling themselves into the neatly curling waves. They might climb the sand dunes and continue on to the next beach and another village, but it is more likely that they will turn back for a rum cocktail.

Our nightly rums came from Duggy, the quintessentially unflappable Jamaica-mon bartender at the Jake's bar. The air around Duggy always smelled particularly sweet and he always had a grin on his face. We'd walk our rums to our bungalow and sit on the vast deck, cantilevered over the waves below. Our one-bedroom cottage was painted yellow with a crooked blue doorway, sort of a Moroccan riad meets tree-dwelling gnome affair. It was a sensual, eccentric and perfectly planned room, with simple wooden furniture and colorful art on the walls. One of those simple, happy places where you daydream of moving in and whipping out the Great American Novel as sea breezes waft through shuttered windows. In fact Alex Hayley did exactly that, writing a portion of Roots at Jake's.

Wot a luckee mon.

If You Go: How to get there: We flew Air Jamaican on a red eye out of Los Angeles. Most of the major carriers have routes to Montego Bay.

Where to Stay

There is a broad spectrum of accommodation options in Treasure Beach, from beachside camping to luxury villa rental houses with pools and a staff. For the most part, however, accommodations for such a beautiful location are very economical, including Jake's. For more information on accommodations, go to www.treasurebeach.net

Jake's 800-688-7678 http://www.islandoutpost.com/ Doubles from $95 to $395, season dependant.

Treasure Beach Hotel 800-742-4276 Doubles from $130 per night

Where to Eat:

Jake's has two restaurants. Jake's Place (965-3000) is the restaurant in the courtyard serving Jamaican and American fare. By Frenchman's Beach is Jack Sprat Café, offering casual dining and café food.

Little Ochie is a thirty-minute drive from Jake's, this restaurant is on a gorgeous beach and has some of the best crab and curried conch I have ever had. (965-4444).

Along the road is Tiffany's, with great jerk pork and curried goat.local atmosphere. (965-0300)

Calabash Literary Festival www.calabashfestival.org