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Béatrice Bernard-Poulin

Blue Mountains in Jamaica: For the Love of Nature and Coffee

July 17, 2014 | By |

Just thinking about the Blue Mountains has us dreaming of lush rainforests, beautiful flowers, and of course, delicious coffee. If you are planning a trip to Jamaica, this region should absolutely find itself on your itinerary. To put it simply, the Blue Mountains are as stunning as you would expect them to be – and maybe more.

Christopher Columbus is said to have remarked, upon his first trip to Jamaica: “It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky." Not surprising, as The Blue Mountains are some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean, with the Peak reaching in at 2,256 metres, or 7,402 feet. The view from this high peak is absolutely breathtaking – and the mountains are often described as a “Garden of Eden” because of fantastic flora and fauna you can admire there.

Visiting the Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains are located between Kingston and Port Antonio, dominating the eastern end of the island of Jamaica. It is possible to visit the area by yourself, but for a worry-free activity, a day trip to the Blue Mountains can easily be arranged through the travel desk of your hotel.

Blue Mountains Map

Map of the Blue Mountains, Jamaica courtesy of Summitpost.org

To reach the Blue Mountains by car from Kingston, you have two options: the first being via the main road through Irish Town, the other via Guava Ridge. These roads converge at the town of Section and the trip will take about an hour. It is also possible to reach the Blue Mountains by bus, with most buses departing from Papine, though public transport’s reliability is not guaranteed.

If you wish to stay in the Blue Mountains, Strawberry Hill is perched on a stand-alone mountaintop, 3,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains. The view from the infinity pool alone is worth the stay. It is the perfect place to kick back, relax, and enjoy Jamaica’s lush plant life.

Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park

The Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park was established in 1992 and now conserves about 78,000 hectares, or 200,000 acres of Jamaica’s last remaining rainforest, representing 4.4% of Jamaica’s land surface. The park includes three separate ranges, from west to east: Port Royal Mountains, the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains, with the Rio Grande Valley separating the Blue and John Crow mountains to the North. Fees apply to visit.

The Blue Mountains Peak is just 16 kilometres from the sea, meaning the area has one of the steepest gradients in the world. This makes for quite the drop in temperature, from an average of around 27°C at sea level, to just 5°C at the Peak. This difference in temperature, combined with high rainfall, feeds the lush vegetation. The Eastern face of the mountain range receives more than 765 centimetres of rain each year, providing water for almost half of Jamaica’s population.

Hiking to the Peak of the Blue Mountains

There are two ways to hike to the Peak of the Blue Mountains: in the dark, with a flashlight, to reach the summit in time for sunrise, or during daytime.

If you choose the early morning option, it is important to know that Portland Gap is the last rest and overnight stop before the Peak. From there, the Blue Mountain Peak Trail is a 5.6 kilometre hike, taking approximately 2 to 3 hours. The walk is an experience in itself, as you may need to start walking before 5 a.m. to reach the summit in time for sunrise.

The sunrise is the real spectacle, and on a clear day, you will be able to admire both the north and south coasts of the island, easily justifying the very early morning wake-up call. You may even be able to make out the shadowy outline of Cuba! Regardless of the time of the year you visit, weather conditions can of course never be guaranteed, meaning that the sunrise, and view, may be obscured by clouds or the mist that gives the mountains their bluish hues – and their name.

If you walk during the daytime, you will notice that the path to the Peak is surrounded by beautiful scenery, so plan more time to stop and admire the view. If you like bird watching, Jamaica’s National Bird, the Doctor Bird, the Jamaican Tody (Robin Red Breast) and the Mountain Witch are just a few of the species you will get to see and hear on your journey. Most travellers choose Penlyne Castle as the start of the 12.5 km hike to the Peak, which is accessible by bus or car. If you wish to start your hike after Hagley Gap, you will need to have access to a 4WD.

The trail is easy to follow with signs every step of the way. The difficulty level of the path varies by area – some parts are flat while others are gravel and may be more difficult to walk, especially if wet. Jacob’s Ladder is known to be particularly narrow and steep.

For safety reasons, it is best to hike in the Blue Mountains during the dry season, which begins in December and ends in April. The steep slopes of the mountains and its many rivers may create floods and landslides during heavy rains. Join a guided tour or verify the weather conditions before setting off. Do not forget to register at the Ranger Station in Portland Gap.

You will not find many food options in the Blue Mountains, especially once you start hiking. It’s therefore best to always carry water (tap water is safe to drink in Jamaica) and food with you at all times.

The Blue Mountains’ natural beauty: finding plants and birds

Even if your fitness level (or interest!) doesn’t allow for a climb to the Blue Mountain Peak, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Hardwar Gap, one of the park’s recreation areas, and the Rio Grande Valley are prime locations to admire much of the island’s fauna. Just outside of the Blue & John Crow Mountains National Park, Ecclesdown Road, in Portland Parish, is also a great place to visit.

More than 800 species of endemic plants and 500 species of flowering plants, 200 species of resident and migrant birds and the world’s second largest butterfly, the Homerus swallowtail (Papilio homerus) can all be found in the National Park.

Amongst the most impressive plant species you will get to see in the park are Lobster Claws, Orchids, Torch Lilies and Ackee – the fruit with the texture of scrambled eggs that is part of Jamaica’s national dish. The area is also optimal for bird watching: do not miss the red-haired Jamaican Woodpecker, the black Smooth-billed Ani and the rare White-eyed Thrush.

black-smooth-billed-ani-bird-jamaica

Smooth-billed Ani

Occasionally, the Natural History Society of Jamaica organizes field trips to the Blue and John Crow Mountains with special emphasis on their fauna and flora.

While Kingston is a great base for visiting the Blue Mountains, most visitors prefer to use Port Antonio as a base when visiting the Rio Grande Valley. There are many short walks starting in the small towns along the Port Antonio-Bowden road. Ginger House is not to be missed, featuring a waterfall and mineral spring (bring your bathing suit!).

Other short walk options are the 3-kilometre Oatley Mountain Trail, in very lush and impressive forests, with lookout points to enjoy panoramic views, and the 2-kilometre Cascade Water Trail, where you can swim to cool off. Both trails are situated in the park’s Holywell Recreation Area and come highly recommended.

Learning more about Blue Mountain Coffee

Blue Mountain Coffee is famous worldwide for its smooth, mild and bitter-free taste. The coffee has been produced in the Blue Mountains since 1728, when the Governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes, brought the first coffee seedlings from Hispaniola (the island where Haiti and the Dominican Republic are situated). The slopes of the Blue Mountain were cleared, creating coffee plantations that helped Jamaica become the leading coffee producer in the world by the 19th century. However, this domination was short-lived as the industry fell into decline after Emancipation, when Jamaica could no longer compete with slave-owning countries like Brazil and Cuba. Blue Mountain Coffee is still appreciated worldwide today. In fact, more than 80% of the production is exported to Japan.

Today, although some coffee estates remain, most of the beans are grown on small plots by local farmers on the Kingston-Buff Bay Road, near Section.

What makes Blue Mountain Coffee so special?

The climate in the Blue Mountains is cool and misty, with high rainfall, while the soil is rich and offers excellent drainage. These make for ideal conditions to produce the world-famous coffee.

Blue Mountain Coffee is a globally protected certification mark, meaning that only coffee certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica can be labelled as such. There are different  classifications of Blue Mountain coffee.

Only coffee grown at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet (915-1,700 metres) can be called Blue Mountain Coffee. Jamaican High Mountain is the term used for coffee grown at elevations between 1,500 and 3,000 feet (460-910 metres) and Jamaica Supreme or Jamaica Low Mountain is coffee grown below 1,500 feet (460 metres).

Visiting the Blue Mountains coffee plantations

If you like coffee, a visit to a coffee plantation is a great experience to learn more about the beans, the harvesting, and the process to turn the beans into the famous coffee.

You can visit the Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, where Jablum coffee is produced. Victor C. Munn, an English planter and processor established the factory in 1923 on just five acres (2 hectares). Today, approximately 1.4 million pounds of green beans from over 6,000 farmers are processed here annually. Enquire about the tour at your Kingston-area hotel. On a tour of the factory, you will get to see the coffee beans drying (in season) and being processed. This is also a great place to purchase roasted coffee beans. Space in your luggage permitting, bring back as much coffee as you would like – there is no specific limit to how much coffee you can bring back to Canada, as long as you do not exceed the duty free limits (up to $750 for a trip of 7 days or more).

North of Newcastle, you can take a one-hour tour of Craighton Estate Great House and coffee plantation, where you can learn about coffee cultivation. From the over 200-year old estate’s gazebo, sitting in 2,600 feet above sea level, you will be able to admire the views over the mountains and the villages below.

The Blue Mountains offer something for everyone. From quaint villages to challenging hikes to rewarding vistas to great coffee tastings, you are sure to find something you enjoy in the region. And in true Jamaican fashion, there will be plenty of friendly locals to make the visit even more memorable. Happy travels!


Tales of a Foodie in Jamaica

June 10, 2014 | By |

If you’re anything like me, as soon as you read “Jamaica,” strong smells of jerk chicken come to mind. Yes, food is definitely an integral part of Jamaican culture. Experiencing local eateries and tasting local delicacies should be an essential (and delicious!) component of any trip to this Caribbean country.

Jamaican cuisine has been influenced by many different cultures – from the indigenous people of the island, to the Spanish, British, Africans, Indians, French and Chinese – who have all made their mark on the island’s history. The techniques, flavours and spices all have different origins – so do the ingredients. While plenty are native to Jamaica, many foods have been introduced and are now grown locally.

Ackee and saltfish: Jamaica’s national dish

Jamaica’s national dish is ackee and saltfish. It is traditionally served for breakfast, but any Jamaican will tell you that it is delicious at any time of the day. Ackee is a fruit, but has the texture of scrambled eggs. It is folded into saltfish and Scotch bonnet peppers to create this unique dish. It is often served with fried plantains, callaloo (similar to spinach) or johnnycakes (fried or baked bread.)

Canadians will be surprised at just how spicy this dish is – especially for breakfast. Most Scotch bonnet peppers have a heat rating of 100,000-350,000 Scoville heat units, which is a lot spicier than the peppers we traditionally find in Canada. The Scoville scale is how we measure just how spicy a pepper is : the higher the heat rating, the spicier the food. Jalapeno peppers, for example,  have a heat rating of 2,500-8,000. The Carolina Reaper is currently considered to be the world’s hottest chilli pepper, with a heat rating of 2,000,000-2,200,000 Scoville heat units. Hot!

Interestingly enough, saltfish may have been introduced to Jamaica by way of Canada. Legend says that plantation owners were looking for an inexpensive source of protein for the growing population of enslaved Africans who worked on their land, so they traded the salt-cured cod for rum and molasses.

Jamaican traditional dishes to try on your trip

Jamaica is known worldwide for another popular dish: Jerk. Its key ingredient? Jamaican jerk spice, made with Scotch bonnet peppers and allspice, also known as pimento in Jamaica. A recipe is hard to find, as all chefs and cooks like to put their own twist on the classic, and recipes are traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. What we do know is that pork, chicken or fish are dry-rubbed or wet-marinated with the jerk spice, and then the meat is roasted or smoked, often for hours. You’ll often see old oil barrels being used as smokers but traditional ovens are used too. The dish is often served with even more hot sauce and festival bread (a Jamaican cornbread fritter). Everything else depends on who is doing the cooking!

Jerk chicken and red stripe

“Jerk chicken with red beans and rice” by Clint McMahon (Flickr)

Interested in trying jerk from different Jamaican institutions? The Jamaica Jerk Trail offers a map that will help you locate some of the country’s most famous jerk restaurants.

Other popular Jamaican dishes are the famous patties (you can’t leave Jamaica without trying a Juici patty!), and rice and peas, which are actually pigeon peas or kidney beans.

Rastafarian culture

The Rastafari movement is an African-based spiritual ideology that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica and that was later popularized worldwide by Bob Marley. Visually recognizable because of their dreadlocks, the Rastafarians also observe an Ital diet. This diet aims to increase Livity, or the life energy that lives within all human beings. The food Rastafarians eat should therefore be natural and come from the earth.

 

Interested in trying this type of cuisine? You will find a cluster of food huts called Old Bay in Green Island. One of these is Ital Vital, which serves vegan Rastafarian health food such as beans stewed in coconut milk, ackee with tofu and bulgur rice.

Origins of the Ital diet

The word “Ital” derives from the English word "vital.” The diet is an essential part of Rastafarian culture , and early adherents adapted their diet based on their interpretation of several books of the Bible. For example, they were influenced by the following passage: “Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." (Genesis 1:29).” Today, however, many Rastafarians consider the movement to be more a way of life than a religion.

Rastafarians observe a vegan diet that is free of chemically modified ingredients or artificial additives (such as dyes, artificial flavours, preservatives, etc.). They eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and staples in their diet include coconuts, bananas, callaloo, pimento and coconut oil. What’s most surprising is that some do not use salt at all in their cooking.

Some less strict Rastafarians will use pure sea or kosher salt and will even eat fish, as long as it is less than 12 inches. Chicken may also be added to a non-strict diet, but pork and shellfish are not likely to be eaten by anyone following an Ital diet. Their meat is considered to be unclean and harmful to the body because they are scavengers.

Local drinks – from rum to Blue Mountain coffee

Jamaicans love their rum. Rumour is there are more rum bars per capita in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. Rum punch is very popular on the island and easy to reproduce at home to instantly feel on vacation. It is possible to tour one of Jamaica’s oldest and most famous rum factories, Appleton Estate located in the Nassau Valley (90 minutes from Montego Bay), and Canadian adults can bring back one litre of alcohol upon their return to the country.

Another Jamaican favourite is coffee¾but not just any coffee, Blue Mountain Coffee. As its name states, this coffee is grown in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, and is one of the most popular and expensive brands in the world. To be considered Blue Mountain Coffee, the beans have to be harvested in Saint Andrew, Saint Thomas, Portland or Saint Mary. Blue Mountain Coffee is a globally protected certification mark, meaning that only coffee certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica can be labelled as such. This brand of coffee, known for its smooth, mild and bitter-free taste, is now sold everywhere in the world, in fact, more than 80% of the production is exported to Japan, but it is at the height of its freshness on the island.

Tia Maria dark liqueur combines two Jamaican favourites: rum and Jamaican coffee beans. The legend associated with the drink dates back to the mid-17th century. A beautiful young Spanish aristocrat reportedly fled the turmoil that colonial war brought to the island of Jamaica. Her maid saved one family treasure: a small jewellery box with black pearl earrings and an ancient manuscript with the recipe for a mysterious liqueur. Of course, the recipe was the famous drink, so it was then named after the woman, Tia Maria. The liqueur was then “rediscovered” in the 1950s by Dr. Kenneth Leigh Evans, who began to produce and market it.

Red Stripe beer, a pale lager, is well known and very appreciated in Jamaica. It is easily recognizable by its stubby brown bottle. Coconut water and coconut milk are also popular in Jamaica, and tap water is safe to drink.

Where should you eat in Jamaica?

One thing is for sure, a big part of Jamaica’s food culture is found on the street. Indeed, many of Jamaica’s best dishes can be found in roadside shacks. Don’t let the looks scare you away, the food prepared in these mobile restaurants is safe to eat, and delicious to boot. In fact, don’t be put off by the lack of a sign. Some food stands do not have permanent addresses or names!

Curried goat is a street food staple and a popular dinner choice, especially for parties. In fact, it is said to be best at a local backyard party! Festivals and carnivals will often bring in experts to prepare the dish perfectly. If your visit does not coincide with a major event, the restaurant Moby Dick in Kingston is also renowned for its recipe.

If you wish to stay at your resort to eat, you will find that many offer fine-dining options. Sugar Mill Restaurant is a renowned establishment serving both Caribbean and International cuisine, located in a restored 17th-century mill, inside the Half Moon resort in Montego Bay. For the best seasonal ingredients including locally caught seafood and fresh vegetables, Jake’s Country Cuisine at Jake’s Hotel is a must-visit on the South Coast.  The food is delicious, but you must come here for the view from the restaurant, which is simply stunning, day or night.

If you are staying in Ocho Rios, a visit to Bizot Bar is a must for Jamaican specialties and American foods alike. Also available are in-room and private outside dining, as well as a beautiful Gazebo, the perfect place to watch the sunset while enjoying a cocktail.

A great dining option in Montego Bay is Scotchies, on Falmouth Road, an institution famous for its jerk chicken and pork, and festival bread. There are two other Scotchies locations in Jamaica, in Kingston and Ocho Rios, so you’ll be sure to find one close to where you are staying. In Montego Bay, be sure to dine at the Houseboat Grill – you will not forget this relaxed and delicious experience!

Negril is the place to be for foodies visiting Jamaica. Rick’s Café is considered to be one of the best beach bars in the world. It has been open for 40 years, and is popular with locals and tourists alike. The place is always packed, thanks to live music every night and beautiful sunsets. Zimbali’s Mountain Cooking Studio has been described as “an experience you must have in Jamaica” and the menu features organic fruits from their garden. 3 Dives and Murphy's West End Restaurant are also places to visit for authentic Jamaican cuisine. Finally, the Caves is also a must-try experience in Negril: yes, you can eat in a candlelit cave! Tables are also available oceanfront, where you can try the Cliffhanger, the Caves’ signature cocktail, and foods ranging from jerk to tropical field greens.

Devon House Ice Cream, in Kingston, is considered to be amongst the best places to have ice cream in the world. The parlour serves 27 different flavours, including a beer-based ice cream called the Devon Stout. A must-try! You’ll also find stands all over Jamaica.

Some restaurants add a service charge to the bill in addition to the General Consumption Tax of 16.5%. Jamaican and US dollars are accepted at most establishments.

Cooking Jamaican foods at home

After coming back home from Jamaica, your taste buds will surely be asking for more traditional and spicy Jamaican dishes. Many cookbooks, such as The Real Taste of Jamaica and Traditional Jamaican Cookery, offer tricks and tools to reproduce traditional Jamaican dishes at home.

Ingredient availability will vary by region and season, but more and more traditional Jamaican produce is available in Canada. No need to worry if you can’t find some of the ingredients, as many recipes have now also been “Americanized” to help you reproduce them at home with what you have access to, such as this ackee and saltfish recipe.

Jerk is one of the Jamaican recipes that’s the hardest to reproduce, partly because of the lack of a proper grill. However, if you have access to a charcoal barbecue, this Jerk chicken recipe is a must-try, especially for the Jamaican barbecue sauce! It’s about as close as you will get to the real thing¾unless you can convince a local to give you their traditional family recipe! Make sure to bring back some Walkerwoods jerk seasoning from Jamaica to create your own jerk meals back home.

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

A cold Red Stripe beer, available in certain Canadian locations, is a must to cool off the heat from the delicious spicy jerk chicken dishes!

Happy eating!

Photo credits :

"Jerk chicken with red beans and rice" by Clint McMahon is licensed under CC BY 2.0