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Montego Bay, Jamaica
Nine winter trips to Montego Bay, Jamaica and the contrast never fails to delight me: we thread our way through the check-in lines while it's still dark in New York. Then two and a half hours later, when the plane door swings open, Mo' Bay is all in place for us again: the soft, moist air, the central spine of the Blue Mountains in the distance, the oleander and hibiscus and the fanciful dialect we can't eavesdrop on. We open our first orange papaya and run into the turquoise Caribbean leaving the unpacking until later.
Montego Bay is the largest of the resort cities on the rugged north coast of this formerly British island. The temperature is generally a brilliant 85 degrees punctuated by brief, fast-drying tropical downpours, although August and September can be hotter. The tourist season is long -- from November until April; prices only drop briefly during the slightly riskier fall hurricane season.
The major hotels in Montego Bay are generally resort-style, offering dining, sports and other services as well as lodging. Sandals/Hedonism II or Royal Jamaican and the Holiday Inn are moderately priced. Half Moon Club (809-953-2211), Tryall Club (809-952-5110) and Round Hill (809-952-5150) are more expensive, British-style resorts that also offer home rentals and time share plans, the services of a private cook, and individual pools. Every imaginable activity or service can be arranged: tennis, golf, cricket, bicycle rentals, workout or massage, babysitting or children's programs, all kinds of water sports, shopping and high tea on the shaded veranda. The Jamaica Tourist Board, with many offices in the States, can be reached at 1-800-JAMAICA.
Most hotel concierge services offer tours if you want to see more of the island. Negril, a lovely beach resort town east of Montego Bay, Dunn's River Falls, where you ascend the falls themselves, or Martha Brae River rafting (809-952-0889) are popular day trips between one hour and a half and two hours away. There are also trips to the interior to see the pineapple and coffee plantations like Croyden (809-979-8267) and shorter tours of the Appleton Rum Estate (809-963-9215) or the colonial "great houses," like Rose Hall, (809-953-2323). You can scuba, snorkel or fish-watch from the comfort of a glass-bottomed boat, (Mobay Undersea Tour) or spend the day sailing on a catamaran (contact through your hotel or through Margueritaville Restaurant, 809-952-4777).
Like the language, Jamaican cuisine is a creole of African, Arawak Indian, Spanish and English colonial influences. Some ingredients, like papaya, goat, grouper, rum and cho-cho (a bland green squash also called "cristophane" and "chayote" on other islands) are common to all Caribbean cuisine. However, a few are more particularly Jamaican, like the famous jerk seasoning. This incendiary barbecuing seasoning is concocted from scotch bonnet peppers, allspice (known as "pimento" in Jamaica) and other spices. The delicious scent of jerked pork wafts from jerk shacks all over town, but many more touristic restaurants offer jerk fish and chicken. Also, because the Jamaican Rastafarians, famous for their dreadlocked hair and reggae music, are vegetarians, it is usually easy to find meatless selections in Jamaican restaurants. Try the Jerk Centre or the Pork Pit on the airport road or the more substantial Pelican Restaurant (Gloucester Av. 809-952-3171) for inexpensive local family dining. Entrees are often served with the familiar rice and beans, called rice and peas here, or "coat of arms," and enriched with coconut milk.
To me, the most curious Jamaican ingredient is part of the national dish, akcee and salt cod. Ackee is the fruit of a lovely, glossy-leafed tree, but around our hotel, they are marked with skull-and-crossbones! Ackee must only be eaten when the large red pods burst open to show a yellow and black fruit, indicating they are fully ripe. They are deadly poison otherwise! Ackee is long-cooked with salt cod and onions, or sometimes with bacon. It is rich like an avocado and rather eggy in flavor and appearance (no, it doesn't taste like chicken.)
Of course, there is good rum, an inexpensive souvenir to buy duty-free, and Red Stripe beer. But try the spicy green ginger beer and the brightly-colored soft drink, CK cola wine. Rare Blue Mountain Coffee, prized for its warm, winey flavor, is also easily available to bring home, whole bean or ground, as are Jamaican-grown spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and black pepper.
Here are a few suggestions for dining "off campus," away from your hotel. While these may be somewhat more elegant and expensive restaurants, remember the island is generally casual. A complimentary ride to the restaurants from the major hotels can be arranged.
The road to Julia's (Bogue Hill, 809-952-1772) is treacherous but the view over the city and the sea is worth the trip. The large estate-style restaurant, which is also the proprietors' home, serves classic Italian dishes, like canneloni with spinach and snapper Portofino. Julia's service is impressive, even for our large group which included many children. We were given a handful of pimento leaves to crush and smell on the way home
The Town House (Church St., 809-952-2660) is a downtown restaurant in a old lading office reminiscent of New Orleans architecture. You can dine on the wide porch or have a drink of their house label rum in the colonial bar, complete with lazy overhead fans. The menu includes stuffed Caribbean rock lobster, perhaps tougher but more flavorful than New England lobsters, and missing their front claws. There is an interesting Jamaican sampler plate available, an excellent seafood curry and tasty escovitched fish. The Town House also handles large groups well.
The Sugar Mill (809-953-0231), on the hillside across from the Half Moon Club with which it is affiliated, also features a lovely view of the sea, romantic outside dining and island specialities, such as grilled lobster, spicy pumpkin or pepper pot soup, made with calaloo, a local green. You can still see the workings of the mill beside the entrance.
A variation on ceviche, the raw fish in lime juice popular in Latin American cuisine.
2 lbs any whole small fish or filets
1/4 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
oil for frying
1 cup white or cider vinegar
1 cup water
pinch of salt; pinch of sugar
1 cup cup julienned strips of carrot and chocho (chayote)*
1 hot pepper, such as Scotch Bonnet, cut in rings
1 large onion, cut in rings
6 pimento (allspice) berries
Clean fish with the limes. Dust with flour and fry. Set aside.
Boil together water, vinegar, sugar and salt. Add the remaining ingredients and cook briefly. Pour sauce over fish and leave to marinate in the refrigerator 4-24 hours before serving.
* Available at Hispanic markets, or substitute firm zucchini.
Rice and Peas
Usually cooked with red kidney beans or gungo peas and called "Coat of Arms" in Jamaica.
1/4 pint dried red beans, soaked overnight and drained
1 lb. rice
1 can of coconut milk*
2 scallions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
thyme, salt, black pepper, to taste
1 quart of water
Cook the peas in the water until almost tender. Add coconut mik and simmer 10 minutes. Add the rice, scallions, garlic and seasoning and cook for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender.
* Available in Hispanic or Asian markets.
Spicy Pumpkin Soup
Authentically, this soup uses beef broth and pickled pork or pigs' tails, but vegetarian stock can be substituted easily.
3-4 quarts of stock (see above.)
2 lbs. pumpkin or other winter squash, peeled and cut up
1 lb. yam, peeled and cut up
1 clove garlic
1 hot pepper, such as Scotch Bonnet
1/2 inch minced Jamaican green ginger (or other)
thyme, salt, pepper to taste.
Cook yam and pumpkin in broth until soft. Remove, blend or crush and return to stock. Discard hot pepper. Season to taste. Sprinkle 1/8 tsp. minced ginger on each serving.