I'd been to Jamaica a few decades ago, when we could barely afford the airfare. We did what most tourists do : stayed at all-inclusives in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. At Rick's Café in Negril we drank too much rum and watched the sunset as maniacs dived off the cliffs.
This time I wanted to go the road less-travelled and experience the laid-back island life. I was also armed with binoculars and a new zoom lens: A passion for flora and fauna had usurped -- but not replaced -- rum and reggae.
After a two-hour taxi ride south (and a pit stop at Border for extremely tasty jerk chicken and requisite Red Stripe) along a two-lane road with scenery becoming progressively more jungle-like, I arrived at Treasure Beach and Jakes Resort, a colony of 30 artsy-funky "cottages" dotted about spacious grounds that includes a salt-water pool, two restaurants and dare I say, wireless Internet access. (I'd vowed not to go there.) Miss Yvonne, the manager, welcomed me with ice-cold towels and fresh-squeezed watermelon juice.
I noticed a sign in the lobby: "Support your local farmer."
This was my kind of place.
Octopussy -- my oceanfront abode, immediately made me think of Gaudi. (Turns out owner Jason Henzell's mother, Sally, was inspired by the artist when she designed the resort.) Damnation, why had I only booked three nights here?
The word "enchanting" barely does it justice.
The surf almost lapped at my outdoor bathtub, which was surrounded by walls studded with seashells and coloured glass. My roof deck with Casbah-style daybed and silk cushions was -- pardon the cliché -- jaw-dropping.
In the not-too-distant past, Treasure Beach was a little fishing village and it has still managed to avoid most tourist trappings.
The next morning couldn't have been better-planned. Jason's wife, Laura, just happens to be a yoga instructor (check out their yoga retreat packages). At 9 a.m. we met on the rooftop yoga deck with the glistening sea as backdrop and one hour later, the long journey washed away, I got into the groove.
Jakes had arranged a boat day. Dreadlock Ted and his dog skippered us in his boat "Di Evil Tings" to Floyd and his quirky Pelican Bar.
Talk about getting away from it all. "When I built this place as a hangout, my friends thought it was silly and everyone else thought I was crazy," Floyd Forbes said, as he took a break from a game of dominoes.
Floyd hauled wood on his fishing boat to this sandbar a quarter of a mile out to sea and the hangout soon attracted more than Floyd's fishing buddies.
It went down in hurricane Ivan but Jason Henzell and other local business owners chipped in -- tourists were only deprived of the Pelican Bar for a month.
We zipped over to Black River and Cloggy's for lunch: grunt fish and parrot fish on the menu today. And a basket of bammy bread made from cassava, rum cocktails and Red Stripes. We sleepily headed up the mangrove- and reed-banked Black River and perked up with a few crocodile sightings (kayaks and canoes are not allowed.)
Back to that sign in Jakes lobby. Unlike many resorts that import food, Jakes restaurant uses produce from local farmers.
No trip to the south coast could be complete without a walking tour of Black River, the oldest town in the parish (province) of St. Elizabeth, which boasts more bars and churches than any other parish in Jamaica.
"When the ladies are in church getting into the spirit the guys are in the bar getting spirit into them," said our guide Alison Morris, laughing.
We walked through the centuries-old parish church and bustling streets with vendors selling carrots and corn and bags of brilliant red sorrel flower for ice tea.
Sadly, it was time to leave the tranquil town, but my binoculars were about to see the light of day.
Halfway to Negril, my driver (arranged by Jakes for just $70) stopped at the community of Bluefields, where I hooked up with Wolde and Veda at Reliable Adventures Jamaica (RAJ). We got out of their SUV a short drive up the mountain and within seconds spotted a parakeet and yellow-billed parrot.
RAJ typically takes birders on a hiking and nature walk up Bluefields Mountain. "We also teach the beginners how to use their binoculars," Veda said as she adjusted mine.
"Nerd birders start at sunrise, hike up 2,300 feet and then we drive them back down the mountain," she added. Not me. I'm happy to have spotted 10 resident birds within an hour.
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