While Jamaica is still a fly-and-flop haven, it also offers a wealth of cultural and socially conscious experiences away from the resorts, as Andrew Doherty finds on a trip to Montego Bay.
I’m holding my breath, keeping as still as possible. The slightest movement might scare away my new friends. Tentatively, I hold out my hand, making sure the nectar dispenser doesn’t swing too much. Suddenly a burst of colour. Reds, greens, blues, fusing like spilt petrol at 50mph, inches from my face.
I’m in the grounds of Ahhh…Ras Natango Gallery and Garden overlooking Montego Bay, attempting to feed a family of hummingbirds.
“This is Rocky, Jack, Rudi and Rudi 2,” beams founder Ras. “There are so many of them, I have to give them a sequel!”
Ras, a painter and Rastafarian, bought this land 30 years ago. Now he sells his art – which has been commissioned by Jamaica’s hotels, including Montego Bay’s Half Moon – from the property. His wife Tamika, a former farmer and avid horticulturalist, has created a hillside garden in which she hosts small group tours, educating visitors on the Rasta ethos and the importance of looking after the planet.
“This place first and foremost is our home,” Ras tells me. “I never intended it to become a business. However, when I saw the work my wife put into the gardens, I thought it was worth sharing. It took a year to convince her to open them to the public – she didn’t think people would understand the concept. But the hard work has been worth it because we are proving that Jamaica is much more than just the beach.”
Encouraging visitors to look beyond the resorts has been an ongoing strategy for many Caribbean destinations, but Jamaica is going further. A venture between the Ministry of Tourism and the World Tourism Organisation, announced in Montego Bay in January, seeks to promote and support small and medium-sized tourism enterprises (SMTEs) in the country, of which culture and heritage tourism make up a significant portion.
“SMTEs are the lifeblood of Jamaica,” says minister of tourism Edmund Bartlett. “One-in-five workers here are involved in tourism, with a large proportion of earnings generated by the industry. However, the real benefactors of tourism are not these people. We want to build a network for and promote SMTEs to ensure they stay economically sustainable.”
Back in Montego Bay, I make my way through the morning traffic, rogue chickens and street sellers to find out more about the Rasta religion at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre in Sam Sharpe Square – named after the national hero who led the Baptist War slave rebellion from 1831 to 1832.
Inside, visitors can learn more about the uprising and its leaders, including Sharpe, who was executed near the property.
The Rastafari exhibition features a number of displays detailing the religion’s history and creed, including its respect for nature and aversion to eating chemically modified foods.
I’m drawn to a calendar dedicated to the Twelve Tribes of Israel religious group. Each member belongs to one of the tribes. This is determined by birth month and represented by a colour, part of the body and a character trait. A September baby, it seems I’m part of the Zebulon tribe – pink, exuding order and compassion and represented by the stomach.
So it’s fitting that my penchant for Jamaican cuisine takes me to the Island Lux Beach Park in Negril – a two-hour drive from Montego Bay.
The restaurant and club, with seven miles of beach, only serves food with ethically sourced ingredients, while the park’s thatched roofs and wooden huts have been built using locally harvested materials. For clients seeking a more ethical hotel stay, the nearby Skylark Negril Beach Resort, which is not all-inclusive, supports the Rockhouse Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars to improve education for children in the Caribbean.
“We wanted to attract 25- to 45-year-olds who are looking for a local experience,” says Paul Salmon, chairman of Skylark and sister hotel Rockhouse. “We encourage our guests to explore. The beauty of Negril is that you can find an open bar with music almost every night.”
Jamaica offers plenty of all-inclusive hotels too. The adults-only Excellence Oyster Bay, my base for the week, offers a five-star beach resort – 10 bars and lounges, three pools, nine restaurants and a spa.
Yet it’s during my tour of Ahhh…Ras Natango Gallery and Garden that I feel most at home. From its colourful murals and healing crystals to the wishing well where money thrown in is used to buy books and shoes for the local community, I feel a sense of peace.
Among the calls of tropical birds and trickling streams, Tamika tells me: “Everyone is welcome in my garden, no matter what religion or sexuality. This place is our way of saying thank you to the world and giving back to Jamaica.”
Book it: Gold Medal offers a seven-night all-inclusive stay at Excellence Oyster Bay from £1,849pp, including flights, departing 3 September 2019.
Excursions to Ahhh… Ras Natango can be booked via most hotels. Transfers cost around £19pp from in and around Montego Bay while tours are priced from £27pp.
Flights: Flight time 9 hours 45 minutes with Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Thomas Cook flying direct.
Currency: Jamaican dollar/US dollar.
Time difference: -5 hours GMT.
Weather: A year-round tropical climate with temperatures reaching 30°C. Best time to visit is November to mid-December.
Health: The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers says there is a risk of Zika virus. Pregnant travellers should seek medical advice before arrival.