Montego Bay and the Northwest
Montego Bay is the capital of St. James parish. Commonly referred to by locals as "Mobay," it's a place buzzing with cruise ships and international flights brimming with tourists. Many of these tourists spend barely a day on land before climbing aboard to depart for the next port. Others stay with their families in private villas for months of the year. Mobay's bustling service economy serves a large middle class, many of who spend much of the year abroad. This contrasts with large squatter settlements and an urban squalor that permeates the downtown area. On the quiet peninsula of Freeport, the city has an active yacht club, whose members partake in exciting events throughout the year; world-class golf courses lie east and west of the city. It's little wonder that many hotels register high occupancy throughout much of the year. Yet because the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on tourism, there arises at times a tangible resentment between the local population, a proud lot with fiery roots steeped in a not-so-distant, brutal history, and the endless flow of transient visitors, often perceived as cogs in the local economic machinery. But the congested angst of downtown Mobay quickly dissipates beyond the city limits, where the landscape of rural St. James quickly transforms into forested hills traversed by the occasional river.
The bordering parish to the east along the North Coast is Trelawny, seemingly still reminiscing over a glorious but languished past when Falmouth, its ornate capital, had money and class. As sugar lost importance in the island's economy in the late 1800s, Falmouth faded from preeminent port to sleepy backwater. Today the parish is slowly showing signs of rejuvenation as the world begins to acknowledge its architectural treasures, with international funding being successfully sourced and funneled by local NGO Falmouth Heritage Renewal. Trelawny boomed during the years of the sugar trade but was an important strategic area even before the time of parishes--going back to when the Spaniards used the Martha Brae River as a thoroughfare to traverse the island from the South to North Coasts. Their first major settlement of Melilla is said to have been near the mouth of the river. Before the Spaniards, the Martha Brae was the lifeblood for the area's Taino population, whose surviving legends are evidence of the river's importance to them.
Cockpit Country occupies the interior between the North and South Coasts, covering some of the most rugged terrain in the world, where limestone sinkholes, craggy hillocks, countless caves, and underground rivers made pursuit of Jamaica's Maroons a difficult task for the British colonists attempting to establish order and dominion. Together with the island's mountainous northeast, Trelawny gave respite to the indomitable Maroons; the parish remains a Maroon stronghold and adventurers' paradise. At the same time, the parish has the most peaceful and romantic farmlands in Jamaica, the Queen of Spain Valley being a particularly beautiful crown jewel amidst rough, rounded hilltops, where a citrus plantation today stands on the sugar estate of yesteryear. Cruising on horseback through this part of Jamaica is exhilarating and timelessly romantic, with orange and coconut groves and picturesque misty hills making for breathtaking scenery. This parish is rarely explored by tourists beyond the coastal areas of Falmouth, the Luminous Lagoon, and the Martha Brae River. As remote as Trelawny may seem when deep inside a cave or otherwise immersed in the bush, you are never more than a couple hours from civilization, or some semblance of it, in Montego Bay.
Aunt Gloria's (Rock district, 6 a.m.\8:30 p.m Mon.\Sat., US$3\4.50) serves brown stew fish, fried chicken, curry goat, and brown stew pork. Gloria opens her jerk center on Fridays and sometimes on Saturdays for the best jerk pork and chicken in town. Breakfast items include ackee and saltfish, kidney, dumpling, yam, and banana.
Along the same road toward Falmouth, a jerk center keeps irregular hours, mostly opening on weekends.
Sugar Mill Restaurant (6:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. daily) located across the highway from Half Moon Shopping Village, is one of the area's high-end establishments with upscale decor and atmosphere. The restaurant specializes in Caribbean fusion cuisine with openers like pumpkin or conch soup (US$7.50), spring rolls, smoked marlin or conch in fritters, salad, or jerked (US$13-15). Entrèes range from coconut-crusted or escovitch fish to lobster tail (US$35-50).
The HouseBoat Grill (6-11 p.m Tues.-Sun., bar open from 4:30 p.m, happy hour 5:30-7 p.m, US$12-26) on Montego Bay's Marine Park is an unparalleled setting for a romantic dinner, and the food is excellent. Dishes include chicken, fish, and lobster. The HouseBoat Grill is owned by Scott Stanley. Reservations are recommended.
Day-O Plantation (US$16-35) was formerly part of the Fairfield Estate, which at one time encompassed much of Mobay. It is perhaps the most laid-back and classy place to enjoy a delicious dinner. Entrèes range from typical chicken dishes to lobster. A beer costs US$3\5. Day-O is a favorite for weddings and other events that require the finest setting around a gorgeous pool. Owners Jennifer and Paul Hurlock are the most gracious hosts, and on a good day Paul will bring out his guitar and bless diners with his talent.
The Pelican (7 a.m.-11 p.m daily, US$10-40) serves a mix of local and international dishes at international prices. Jamaican favorites like stewed peas (US$8), curry goat (US$12), steamed or brown stew fish (US$11), and lobster (US$40) complement international staples like cordon bleu (US$17) and hamburgers (US$9).
Scotchie's (11 a.m.\11 p.m daily, US$4\11) is easily the best jerk in Jamaica, serving pork, chicken, and steamed fish. Sides include breadfruit, festival, and yam. Scotchie's was forced to move back from the expanded highway and took the opportunity to redesign the dining area, adding a nice bar in the open-air courtyard. Scotchie's founder Tony Rerrie used to have parties where he would bring a master jerk chef from Boston Bay in Portland, where locals claim jerk originated, and patrons would beg him to make the jerk offering a regular thing.
Original Madourie Fast Food (7 a.m.-midnight Mon.-Sat., US$3-5) has been a local favorite for staple Jamaican fare since it was founded in 1976. Specialties include fry chicken, curry goat, oxtail, and brown stew fish. Madourie's is always packed with a clientele that's almost exclusively Jamaican, a testimony to the good food that's reasonably priced.