jamaica inn

Jamaica Inn: An easy-going paradise with bags of personality

03 Jul 2023 | |By Anna Solomon

Things are done properly at this island establishment, yet Jamaica’s laid-back attitude permeates the hotel, while idiosyncratic quirks make it one of a kind

Here’s something I never thought I’d find myself doing on a work trip: a joint-rolling workshop. Yet here I am, courtesy of the Jamaica Inn hotel, in the mountains of Saint Ann, being told by a man with dreadlocks down to his waist how to grind cannabis.

Important context: weed is legal in Jamaica (for medical purposes, that is). Also, I am on an excursion to Jacana marijuana farm, which hosts tours. We’re put in hairnets, overalls and shoe covers before being shown how ‘mango sherbet’ and ‘blueberry muffin’ are dried, cured and cut. Like I said, a bit out of the box – but that’s Jamaica for you.

It’s considered bad form to start a travel piece with the journey – a bit obvious. But this is a place that hits you in the face with its idiosyncrasy as soon as you touch down. We aren’t even out of the airport before Oscar, our driver, pries open a couple of Red Stripes using the van door and distributes them to his passengers. The fact that he’s manning a clapped-out people carrier doesn’t stop him from acting like an F1 racer, driving with his foot to the floor as he commentates on the sights.

“When people say they discovered somewhere that people already lived? I have a big problem with that,” he scoffs as we weave through Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus landed on Jamaica in 1494. Oscar also flags Runaway Bay, where slaves mounted an escape to Cuba. It’s not just laid-back locals and lager that greet us here; it’s taken all of an hour to come face-to-face with Jamaica’s painful legacy as a plantation island.

jamaica inn

The sights flying past the window (which I concentrate on instead of the Wacky Races scene playing out on the road) are a banquet for the eyes: the island is coated in a thick layer of vegetation which juts up and dips sharply in accordance with the topography; it’s flecked with buildings painted in garish colourways.

As we near our destination, the day dies, and fluorescent lighting illuminates men playing cards in corrugated lean-tos. Stalls selling coconuts and jerk chicken are draped with fairy lights, which twinkle like it’s Christmas.

jamaica inn

Jamaica Inn is in Ocho Rios, on the northern coast of the island. By the time we arrive it’s late, and even later according to our body clocks. Despite my grogginess, I’m captivated by Shai, the lady performing at The Terrace restaurant that night – she was born blind and sings Motown with the voice of an angel.

When I throw open my shutters the next morning, I feel like Dorothy leaving monochrome Kansas and stepping into the technicolour world of Oz. Everything at Jamaica Inn seems enhanced: the ocean, of course, is dazzling cerulean (the hotel has a 700-foot private beach), and the lawn extra-verdant (sprinklers are supplied with water recycled from the laundry). As you leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of your suite, you’re hit by a wall of heat. The air groans with the sound of crickets and frogs.

The 55 accommodations at Jamaica Inn are bright and breezy with hardwood furniture and, in the case of my ground floor room, a huge veranda decked out with sofas and a marquetry desk that makes me feel like Ian Fleming at GoldenEye – the Jamaican estate where he wrote all 14 Bond novels (which happens to be 20 minutes up the coast). He was a regular at the Inn, but far from its only claim to fame; the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller and Noel Coward have numbered among the clientele.

The hotel leans into it. The tuxedoed barmen making maraschino cherry-topped punch on rotation; the backgammon set in the library; the powder pink tablecloths and gleaming silverware at breakfast spot Sea Shanty; and the fact that there are no TVs in the rooms… it all harks back to a Jamaica Inn that hosted Winston Churchill.

Cocktail hour may call for an ‘elegant’ dress code, but that doesn’t stop one of the waiters grabbing the mic to perform Beenie Man after dinner. And it’s not like the incumbent – an older gentleman with a porkpie hat and a few missing teeth – was doing opera, but rather working his way through the Bob Marley canon. ‘Traditional’ might be a fair way to describe Jamaica Inn; ‘stuffy’ would not.

One morning, the hotel’s executive chef takes us to a farmers’ market to peruse yams, Scotch Bonnet chillies and mangos (which are ubiquitous in Jamaica and have totally nonsensical names like ‘Julie’ and ‘number 11’). Afterwards, he demonstrates how to cook ackee and saltfish (Jamaica’s national dish) with light, fluffy Johnny cakes. This is on the breakfast menu once a week; other days, the traditional option might be steamed callaloo and bammy, or spiced mackerel. Come evening, guests are privy to a rotating menu at The Terrace, or ‘wood fyah pizza’ under an almond tree at Teddy’s Beach Grill.

Jamaica Inn

Another day, we take a tour of the hotel’s gardens, where it grows lemongrass and thyme to be used alongside ingredients like Blue Mountain coffee in spa treatments. The Ocean Spa itself is sequestered in what feels like a treehouse clinging to the cliff face; the breeze up here is stiff – a blessed relief against your exposed skin – and waves loud enough to drown out all else.

Later, on a boat ride down the coast, a turtle pops its head above the surface – Hawksbills regularly lay on the Jamaica Inn beach, aided by the hotel’s restoration programme. The scheme leader is practically misty-eyed as he shows us the ping-pong ball-shaped eggs. Between activities, I moor myself on a sunbed (which – get this – have fitted towels on them! Revelation!) with a book and oscillate between this spot and the sea until the midday heat abates.

It’s around this time that Jamaica Inn falls into a sort of lull. The noise of guests playing croquet becomes background acoustics; the hotel’s resident puppy, a labrador named Shadow, lollops around; and the population on the beach thins as guests wander back to their suites in a sun-drunk haze – to swap kaftans for evening dresses ahead of hors d’oeuvres in front of a sunset that looks like a watercolour painting.

This is what they call ‘island time’, and, when I return to Greenwich Mean – with its early alarms, tube schedules and meeting slots – it’s the thing I will miss the most.

Rates start at £334 per night, visit jamaicainn.com

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