The road that leads to Strawberry Hill is long and winding with no fewer than—wait for it—365 bends! But one glimpse of the views from this spectacular hilltop retreat in Jamaica will convince you it was worth the trip.
Strawberry Hill mountaintop retreat in Jamaica
From the resort’s stunning infinity pool, 3,100 feet above sea level, you can peer down into the capital of Kingston and beyond, while on the other three sides you’re surrounded by the famous Blue Mountains, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The multi-award-winning boutique property, which includes 12 secluded post-plantation-style cottages, is set amidst 26-acres of tropical gardens. Rare plants thrive in this unique microclimate and endemic birds are often spotted, including the Stripe-Headed Tanager.
Hammocks, rainbows and Bob Marley
Day one and I’m tempted to spend hours swaying in the hammock on my verandah, watching the clouds roll by at eye level, enjoying the birdsong and photographing rainbows (which turn out to be a surprisingly frequent sight).
Alas, I rouse myself, and before breakfast stroll over to the bar, not for a drink, but just to have a look around. The walls are covered with photographs of famous musicians. Strawberry Hill is owned by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, which launched many musical careers, most notably Bob Marley’s. There are images of the reggae superstar and others who have visited over the years, including the Rolling Stones and U2. Be sure to check out the Gold Room downstairs, crammed with trophies and awards recognizing artists that Blackwell and his label have either produced or nurtured, such as Melissa Etheridge, Traffic, Cat Stevens and Jethro Tull.
After the long, twisty drive to get here the previous day I don’t relish the thought of making that journey too often. Then I realize I don’t have to because there’s so much to do in these mountains.
First on the list is a visit to one of the coffee plantations. This is the home, after all, of renowned Blue Mountain coffee.
A 15-minute walk away is Craighton Estate with its beautiful Georgian-style Great House. Built in 1805, it was used as a summer residence for Jamaica’s governors, seeking respite from Kingston’s summer heat. Today it’s the starting point for a one-hour tour into the estate’s coffee plantation.
Ascending a stepped path we encounter several plants with a tiny, red fruit called a coffee cherry–the stage when it’s ripe and ready to be harvested.
What makes coffee from this region so special is a combination of factors:
the microclimate, soil, hours and angles of sunrays, mountain mists and afternoon rainfall. The result is a smooth, sweet-toned Arabica coffee, low in caffeine, naturally alkaline and containing vitamins and nutrients that, according to our guide, make for a healthful daily beverage.
Next, we climb up to a gazebo for a view of the 80-acre estate and beyond. Coffee trees were first introduced to Jamaica in 1728 and while production has had its ups and downs over the years, government steps to save the plantations after WWII have paid off.
While coffee is grown at various elevations in these mountains, only coffee grown between 3,000 and 5,500 feet can be classified as Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. Beans grown above or below that elevation are designated as either High Mountain or Low Mountain.
Back inside the Great House there’s an informative talk on the history of coffee production in Jamaica and a display of beans at different stages, followed by a coffee-tasting session.
When you’re presented with a cup of one of the most sought-after (and expensive) coffees in the world, you follow the guide’s expert recommendations on how it is best enjoyed–which is black. Not only does it live up to its fine reputation, it doesn’t keep me up all night as I had feared.
Considering how remote it feels being in these mountains, I wouldn’t have guessed there were so many good places to eat. A group of restaurants even got together and formed the Blue Mountain Culinary Trail.
For lunch, we stop at The Gap, which offers tasty Jamaican fare and overlooks Holywell National Park. The Rough Guide to Jamaica says The Gap was built in the 1930s and originally designed as a way station for those traversing the mountains by horse and carriage.
It could take days to check out all the eateries here. Ditto for all the outdoor attractions. Among them, the Cinchona Botanical Gardens, the Waterfall Trail or Oatley Mountain Trail, both in Holywell National Park. Or, for the more adventurous, a hike up Blue Mountain, Jamaica’s highest peak at 7,402 feet.
I settle on the easier three-hour guided walk on the Gordon Town Trail offered through Strawberry Hill. There are a few different routes, but my guide Ricky Hudson suggests we take a path through the watershed which has lots of swimming spots.
Along the dirt path, Hudson points out a tree with red flowers called the Flame of the Forest, which has medicinal properties. Later he explains how to distinguish the banana tree from the plantain tree (the latter has a clearer and taller trunk).
Nature aside, there’s also a sense of history to be found here. Jamaica got its independence from Britain in 1962 but that connection still resonates in place names such as Irish Town, which was settled by Irish coopers, and Newcastle, an old British military base established in 1841 and now a training centre for the Jamaica Defense Force.
As we turn onto a different path up a hill we arrive at a tiny cemetery, next to a little white church–St. Mark’s Anglican, believed to have been built in 1882. I had seen this church from Strawberry Hill and was surprised to discover it looked much farther away than it turned out to be. The doors are open, allowing a sunlit glimpse at the stained glass windows behind the altar.
Suddenly the morning silence is broken by blaring local rhythms, apparently coming from a bar in Redlight–a hamlet where prostitutes once catered to soldiers stationed in nearby barracks.
“Party time at 9:30 on a Sunday morning?” I muse aloud. “That’s normal,” insists Hudson. “Remember, it’s Jamaica.” The only creature in sight though is a cat napping by the door of a closed tuck shop.
As we head down a hill, passing wild sunflowers and trumpet trees, the music fades, replaced by the sound of a stream and the gentle cooing of a white-winged dove.
Hudson seems to be able to identify every sight and sound in the mountains, even the occasional unseen vehicle. “Oh that’s the water truck coming up from Kingston,” he confirms, on hearing the toot of a distant horn. “It’s coming from the factory to get water from Catherine’s Peak.”
Forty-five minutes later we descend into Gordon Town, the largest community in the mountains. Though it’s still tiny with less than 3,000 inhabitants.
There’s no one around this early and everything’s closed. We gravitate to a life-sized bronze statue, recently installed, of a local icon named “Miss Lou” which dominates the square.
“We have a “Miss Lou” in Toronto,” I tell Hudson. “There’s a room dedicated to her at Harbourfront Centre.” To my surprise, he says they are one and the same woman.
Regarded by many as the mother of Jamaican culture, Louise Bennett-Coverley lived in Gordon Town most of her life, before moving to Toronto. She was known for writing and performing her folk songs, poems and stories in Jamaican patois, and was the recipient of many awards before passing away in 2006 at the age of 86.
After leaving town we pass three churches in close proximity: a Jehovah’s Witness, a Seventh-day Adventist and an Anglican, and I recall something I read once that Jamaica had more churches per capita than anywhere else on earth. A fact check later confirmed as much, along with an additional statistic. It seems Jamaica has a whopping 1,600 churches!
I wonder if any of the denominations also worship nature. As the hike and my three-day retreat here nears the end, I survey the expansive scene of lush tree-covered mountains and deep valleys before me one last time. “Everyone should see this,” I declare.
Hudson nods in agreement. “Don’t go to the sea coast and say you’ve seen Jamaica,” he insists, as if speaking to future visitors. “Start from the hills and work your way to the sea. You get to experience more and see authentic Jamaica.”
I’ll toast to that–with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee!
Want more? Discover what it’s like Being a guest (not a number) at The Cliff Hotel in Negril, Jamaica
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