Jamaicans call this beach Success.
Four wooden skiffs float on the turquoise water, anchored to frayed, barnacled ropes.
The morning is quiet and hot, but breezy. A few guys in bathing suits hang out in the shade circles of coconut trees. Karrinton Lyons has brought me here to fish with a mask, snorkel, fins, and a rusty spear. Kar rinton, 31, is a Jamaican fisherman, and he does not have a boat.
Karrinton swims up to five miles !:ln a spearfishing day, out to the edge of the reef that bulges almost a mile offshore and paral lels the coast for three miles. He can free dive down to 115 feet when the reef ends abruptly at the deep blue Caribbean preci pice. He can hold his breath for over three minutes. A milky, slick scar cuts diagonally across Karrinton's right breast, a memento from his favorite fish, the barracuda . He has ruptured an eardrum, and he has memory loss from hitting his head against the hull of a passing sailboat as he emerged from a deep dive.
He's the obvious choice to take me, a tourist and novice, to anything relating to spearfishing at Success Beach. So I follow him into the glassy water that he, like his father and grandfather before him, has explored since he was a boy.
Success Beach is east of Montego Bay on the north coast, between the manicured lawns and pools of the Hilton and the Iberostar Rose Hall resorts. The original 150-year-old packed-shell road to Kingston still parallels the beach at Success, though it disappears at the Hilton's property line.
I would never have known that the road, or Success Beach for that matter, existed. T hat's the thing about Jamaica. As with many tourist hot spots, it's hard to leave the comfortable, well-staffed confines of the island 's established tourist resort scene.
I'm no different on this trip. I'm staying at Round Hill. My close friends Heather and David decided to elope (with a few close friends) to theclassic resort of white, sugar plantation-inspired cottages that received a jolt of fresh perfection when Ralph Lauren revamped the interiors in 2008.
Opened in 1953, Round Hill was an early pioneer of the oft-copied boutique hotel formula that combines a main inn with a careful scattering of luxury cottages owned by individual shareholders, such as Lauren. It hit the jackpot from the beginning. The historic, all-star celeb list begins with Adele Astaire and includes a couple that goes by the titles viscount and viscountess (Rothermere, to be exact). In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, I noticed a black-and-white photo of a young Truman Capote standing beneath one of Round Hill villa's vaulted wood-beam ceilings alongside his old friends Bill and Babe Paley. Yes, it's that kind of place.
At Round Hill, one need not stray far. There are spa treatments to soothe the muscles after sea kayaking, tennis, and waterskiing, or after snorkeling above a reef full of vibrant fish, coral, urchins,
an occasional octopus, and barracuda . But guests at Round Hill mainly enjoy lounging on the expansive arc of white sand with staff waiting to lay a towel over your beach chair or bring you viscountess-priced flounder sandwiches and rum punches.
It is in this position, lying on a beach chair in mid afternoon with a plate that only recently held a fish sandwich, that I see a striking woman in a flowing white robe, white sunglasses, and short, stylishly cropped hair. She looks like the glamorous guests I've heard about (Paul Newman and Pierce Brosnan, separately, have stayed in the cottage where the wedding party resides).
Novia McDonald-Whyte is her name, and she an editor at the Jamaica Observer, one of the country's two newspapers. She's on a quick getaway to Montego Bay and Round Hill, a common vacation for Jamaica's elite. She sits back on her lounge chair and points down the coast to the ramshackle seafood dive on the point about a half-mile away.
"Lennox Lewis [the retired heavyweight boxing champion] is a silent partner in the Lobster Trap," she tells me. "He lives five minutes from here. We were just in London together and we had hardly walked into Harrods before someone called out his name. But here, the Jamaicans hardly notice.
"This is not the Jamaica of the '50s and '60s, when all the celebs came to the new resorts," she continues . "You can still sit here at Round Hill beach while Ralph Lauren's family swims, but no one hero-worships the big names like they used to. We've got our own stars. Garth Fagan, choreographer of The Lion King, is Jamaican. The world's top makeup artist, Pat McGrath, has Jamaican roots." I mention a few Olympically famous names - Bolt, Blake, Fraser-Pryce, and Campbell-Brown. "I know," Navia says. "We have the two fastest men and two of the three fastest women in the world. Who does that?
Jamaica, perhaps more than any other Caribbean island, has a tapestry of mystiques, some more true than others. There's the mystique of the track stars. All true. Their visages dominate the pop and sports culture with billboards along the main roads and superstar status throughout the country. There's also the mystique of the Jamaican bobsled team. True historically, but not a major part of everyday life here.
Perhaps the most defining aspect of Jamaica- and one of its lasting mystiques - is its musical roots in reggae and its connection to Rastafarianism. Both the religion and the music conjure notions of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh singing for peace and freedom . But the religion officially began in 1930 when Ethiopia crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I, also known as Ras Tafari, who is believed to be the true Messiah. Since well over 90 percent of Jamaicans are descendants of African slaves, and a colonial sense of oppression dominated Jamaica well past the emancipation of 1838, Rastafarian founders looked to Africa as the homeland, even calling for eventual repatriation to the continent.These days Rastafarianism is less of a populist, political force. Reggae music, marijuana (an impor tant form of ritualized spiritual expression), and a generally calm, peaceful, slow-paced lifestyle define today's Rastafarians.
Which brings up the last noticeable myth of Jamaica: that it's dangerous to leave the confines
of the resorts, that the resorts are a fantasy world shielded from the violent realities of Jamaica's day-to-day life.
That myth becomes apparent the more time I spend with Karrinton. We do not spear any fish, but we do spend an hour swimming above the swaying grasses of the shallows off Success Beach. A couple of lobsters emerge from the base of the greenery and then duck back into hiding. I'm sure Karrinton could have taken a few, but he lets me shoot. I miss badly.
My heart's not in it. I'm happy enough floating in crystal clear water with 86 degrees of sunlight warming my back.
Back on land, Karrinton drives me to one of the road side fish markets where other fishermen sell their catch. It's bustling, shirtless, gritty, efficient. No cash register or list of prices. Just a scale and some hooks on a board.
We talk about the role of the hospitality industry and the stark dividing line of hotel wall and Jamaican reality.
Karrinton doesn't mind the economic disparity. His friends work at resorts. His buddy Hercules works with the kids in Round Hill's water recreation program. He loves it. Many Round Hill staff, like consummate concierge Kingsley Blake, have been there for decades. But Karrinton says some of the other resorts take advantage of local workers, bringing them in for months of unpaid "training," then hiring only a few for paid positions.
"Sure, there are not a lot of options for work for us," he says. "If l hadn't gotten into spearfishing at age fourteen, I would probably be in trouble on the streets. So there are rough places in Negril and Kingston where you wouldn't want to wander. But there's no danger in most parts of the island. We're not that much different than many places. We have mostly good parts and a few bad parts."
It's almost lunchtime, so Karrinton drives up the hill away from the beach. We're going to see where he grew up. His dad was one of the first people to homestead a
---- plot of land in the jungled hills inland from Montego Bay. The road climbs steeply under a thick, flowering canopy.
We reach Karrinton's house, a boxy, two-level cinder-block home with a balcony overlooking the ocean. He lives in the house with his mom, his wife, their daughter, and his brother. Karrinton's mom brings us a plate of fried doctor fish in a chili sauce with green bananas and dumplings on the side. We eat it in the shade of an avocado tree.
I ask what Karrinton will do tomorrow. He stares out toward the reef and points with his chin. He'll be back out in the water, where it's quiet and he can make a living. It's where Karrinton feels most comfortable, doing what he says is the only thing he does well. I'll be back in Round Hill where the Jamaicans wear pale-blue dresses and white shirts and always have a towel, a drink, and a smile for the guests. There are many myths and mystiques to Jamaica. Enjoying it just depends on where you feel comfortable.
David Hanson is a contributing editor who writes about travel and culture.