High Grade

I will never understand people who go to different countries and spend all of their time behind the walls of a resort.

OK, scratch that.

I absolutely understand people who go to Jamaica and never leave a resort. I just disagree with them quite intensely and feel the need to question their fears, motivations, and general attitudes toward people of different cultures and socio-economic levels. Because if you’re afraid of Jamaica (or Mexico, or any inner city in the United States) that’s on you. Yes, there’s crime in Jamaica. And in Mexico. And in my neighborhood. And even out in the mountains of Pennsyltucky.

There’s a whole world out there where people look and sound and think differently. That’s why you travel. It’s not a reason to stay away or lock yourself up in a resort.

So, down off my soapbox.

People will claim that they want a resort for the relaxation. All I will say is go to Treasure Beach. You’ll be really relaxed, verging on comatose. We’ve been twice at this point, and we’re trying to figure out whether we should ever bother going anywhere else on spring break. It’s that great.

About Treasure Beach

Treasure Beach is a series of bays on the south coast of Jamaica and describes itself as “the home of community tourism.” Their branding is accurate: it’s a treasure and you will feel like a part of the community.

The best known place in Treasure Beach is Jake’s Hotel, and that’s a pretty great claim to fame. It’s a really wonderful, quirky property that defines “boutique” while still being accessible to the community at large. If we were into hotels we’d stay there in a heartbeat, but even if you don’t like hotels it’s worth a stop because the food is good, the drinks are strong, and you will feel welcome.

The bays that make up Treasure Beach are, from west to east:

  • Billy’s Bay. We’ve seen this area primarily from the sea. There are lots of villas and some reasonably priced guest houses and cottages, but it’s a long walk to…
  • Frenchman’s Bay. This is the hub of beach activity, with a few hotels, some restaurants, and some world-class beach shacks for drinking and eating.
P1030615

This is the BUSY bay of Treasure Beach, which gives you an idea of how peaceful it is.

  • Calabash Bay. A little quieter, with villas and guest houses and a lot of fishing boats.
  • Old Wharf. A quiet area full of villas, with a scalloped coastline that is wavy in some areas, sheltered in others.
  • Great Bay. We’ve never made it quite this far because it’s a really long walk, but it seems to take peacefulness to the next level.

Practicalities

Jamaica has two international airports, in Montego Bay and Kingston. You’ll want to go to Montego Bay for Treasure Beach (and for most other areas of Jamaica except for Kingston itself and maybe Portland Parish).

Getting to Treasure Beach takes a while–it’s a solid two hours from MBJ, going up and over the spine of the island and down along the beautiful, peaceful South coast. The closest big town is Black River, which goes back to the 17th century and has some relatively old surviving buildings, along with the area’s largest groceries and the river itself.

So how do you deal with this drive? Just contact Treasure Tours. In fact, just contact them for most things, they’ll hook you up and make sure you’re happy. They have a team of great drivers, will take you on tours, represent a bunch of villas and guesthouses…and they’ll keep checking in to make sure you’re having a great time. It’s a wonderful company. They will even arrange to have one of their drivers change money for you at a really good rate.

Accommodations are available at all price points from all of the usual suspects: VRBO, Airbnb, Booking.com, etc. But you can also zoom in on the Google maps and find a bunch of smaller places that can be worth checking into…Shakespeare Cottage, for example, is very centrally located, has rooms as low as $26 a night, and seems to have many repeat guests.

Our First Trip

In March 2016 we stayed at the Moringa Ingadi Village (hosted by Jayne), just a few minutes from Frenchman’s Bay. It was a wonderful place, quite new at the time, and just a great setup for a group of friends. We needed four bedrooms, so we took Frangipani House and the Moonflower Treehouse and we were quite happy with the accommodation. We had very comfortable rooms, several lovely gathering areas, and a fridge to hold the Red Stripe and mixers. Mission accomplished!

We spent our time eating, drinking, swimming, wandering, and adventuring. Moringa Ingadi is a five minute walk to Frenchman’s Bay so we went down every day and battled the waves (it was pretty rough that year), or varied the routine with a walk to the other bays, or took a tour. And of course we spent a lot of time eating and drinking, because Jamaica’s one of those places you could go to just for the food.

And speaking of food: go to Smurf’s. Treasure Beach has a bunch of restaurants, but for breakfast (and perhaps some dinners, and to have a cake baked for a special occasion), go to Smurf’s. Miss Dawn roasts her own Blue Mountain coffee in a cast iron skillet and serves ridiculously large Jamaican or U.S. breakfasts for around JA$650. And it’s delicious!

P1030630

Excursions

P1030404

There are two big ones you really should do from Treasure Beach: YS Falls and the Appleton Distillery and the Black River and Pelican Bar. They’re both a pretty full day and are both absolutely worth it at about $50 a person for each day (with some extra for food, drinks, and admissions).

YS Falls is just a gorgeous place, with a bunch of waterfalls in the rainforest, a zipline, rope swings into the water, and some nice pools and decent food. The water is a little cold for me, so I spent my time wandering around looking at the plants and people watching.

P1030393

It’s not too hard to combine with Appleton, which is fairly old and historic. They really know how to do a tour: they start you off with rum punch, then take you through the process with very engaging guides, and finish you off with a generous tasting session. We did buy some booze there, but it’s not absolutely necessary…and the amount you have to drink pretty much covers the cost of admission.

P1030467

But the drive itself is great. On the way to the falls you pass through a village where the main business is selling spicy boiled shrimp. The plantation with the falls also is a working farm with cows and thoroughbred horses (which seem pretty happy in Jamaica!). Then between the falls and the distillery you pass through a bunch of villages and cane fields and drive down Bamboo Avenue which is just as nice as it sounds.

P1030446

High Grade

So now we get into a really crazy and wonderful adventure. I’ve talked before about wanting to go to the Pelican Bar, which is driftwood held together with zip ties and rusty nails on a sandbar hundreds of yards offshore. You can just catch a ride on a boat out there, or you can combine it with a trip up the Black River.

Take my advice: go up the Black River. Make them take you all the way to Sister Lou’s for crabs. Sure, have a drink at the Pelican Bar on the way back, but the Black River is amazing.

But we didn’t really know all of that the first time we went, when we went with High Grade.

We asked Jayne and Carlisle the best way to do it, and they hooked us up with High Grade, their neighbor on Parottee Beach. Instead of grabbing a boat from Frenchman’s Bay, we got a ride up there and found High Grade…owner of an old wooden boat, proprietor of the world’s smallest beach bar, and sound system aficionado.

 

P1030500

High Grade’s boat on Parottee Bay.

High Grade didn’t do this stuff often. He didn’t have a line of patter–and in fact, spoke mostly patois and very little English. But he had one of the most amazing bars I’ve ever been to:

P1030501P1030495

After a lot of preparation and a few Red Stripes, we went up the Black River, looking at crocodiles and mangroves and some guys who were illegally spearfishing. We didn’t make it all the way up to Sister Lou’s, but we loved it.

P1030535

Mangroves.

Then we went out to the Pelican Bar, but the water was rough and they appeared to be closing up, so we just went back to High Grades for beer, fried fish, and the sunset.

P1030572

And yes, we were the only people there.

Culebra Planning Update

As a travel blogger I’m a bust. The best bloggers are committed. They post all the damn time. I guess that’s just not me. And I’m not going to make any excuses about all of the other things happening in my life because I spend at least a half hour every day just wasting time.

Now, on to this post.

Villa Fulladoza was all booked so we went with Seastar at the Green Villas. I’m pretty excited about it…the owner has been friendly and helpful and knocked a night’s rent off the price, which is very satisfying to my inner frugal person.

And the more I think about Culebra the happier I am about where we’re heading. It’s the island that Puerto Ricans go to for a day or a weekend when they want to get away from it all. Try to wrap your head around that one: where do people who live in a tropical paradise go when they need a minibreak? Culebra, as it turns out. (There were also a bunch of people from Puerto Rico anchored off of Virgin Gorda when we were there.)

We’ve also finalized our transportation plans. When I booked the trip I thought we would be able to rent a Volkswagen Thing. I have wanted a Thing since before I could drive. I’m totally comfortable with driving a rickety stick-shift vehicle in mountainous terrain–after all, I spend a lot of time in Pittsburgh in an uninspected 1998 Golf–but they’ve stopped renting the Things! I guess they got to the point where they couldn’t keep them on the road. I am very disappointed that we’re six months too late. But we are renting a golf cart! I am foolishly excited about this. It’s the next best thing, really.

If you ever want to go to Culebra (or Vieques, for that matter), there are only two ways to get there unless you charter a yacht: ferry or eight-seat puddle-jumper. The ferry is the budget option: it costs less than $10 after an $80 cab ride to Fajardo. There are frequent delays and you can get bumped because it’s really there for the people who live on the islands (after all, every now and then you need to go to a real store). Even so, we would have taken the ferry because ferries are fun, but the times just weren’t working for us. The afternoon ferry was a little too early and then we would have had to have waited until 7:00 p.m. and gotten there after dark. Coming back, the only ferry that would have worked was for commuters and left at some ungodly hour like 6:00 a.m.

So we’re flying. There are three airlines serving the offshore islands, and they all fly from three separate airports (San Juan’s big airport, Isla Grande in San Juan, and Ceiba outside Fajardo). These are the three airlines, in case you ever want to go:

This was a surprisingly difficult analytical task that worked best with a spreadsheet. What combination of flight schedules, airports, and airlines would get us to and from Culebra at the best times and at a reasonable price? There were hundreds of possible combinations but we ended up buying tickets on Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande for the arrival date and Cape Air to SJU for departure.

So now we’re less than a month out and all we’ve got to do is wait. We’re passing the time by thinking about excursions (definitely want to go to Culebrita, might want to kayak to Cayo Luis Peña) and food. I am dying for pinchos and empanadas.

 

The List

I’m turning into my Dad.

It’s been coming on for some time. I get up at the crack of dawn regardless of the day of the week. I’m fidgety and nervous if there are dishes in the sink. I make really, really good hamburgers.

But one of the most Dadlike things of all is the lists. While we were growing up he’d sit down at the table and say, “Let’s make a list.” It might have things like Buy screws – Vacuum pool – Cut grass. Or it might be something like Bait – Dog food – Practice. No occasion, large or small, went without a list.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, I do exactly the same thing. Groceries, chores, work deliverables: list, list, list. Even a really lazy weekend usually has a little list consisting of “Rock out. Have fun.” There are scraps of paper everywhere I go with my awful scrawl and things laboriously crossed out.

So you can just imagine what it’s like when we travel! Here’s my best packing list of all time:

I am nuts

This was for a really great trip: we flew to Vegas (Southwest, for the free checked bags), rented a car, stopped at Whole Foods right by the airport for food, and drove to Zion National Park for two nights of camping. We also hit Bryce Canyon, then spent two nights on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Back to a suite at Caesar’s Palace for a night, then a whole day at the outlandish pool before heading home.

Camping by plane is a little tough: even with four free checked bags you can’t really go as hog wild with the gear as you can when you’re loading up the back of the station wagon. This list was so amazingly good that I’ve kept it on the refrigerator and referred to it for every camping trip since, even the ones that are less than an hour away.

We’re not camping next week, but I’ve got a really good list anyway.