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A Culinary Tour of Jamaica

Whether they know it or not, most people travel with a muse in mind. For many, it's Jackie O., being whisked in and out of glamorous European settings followed by her matching valises; for others, it might be Percy Bysshe Shelley, lugging a rucksack and a diary to the far side of the Mediterranean to commune with the ancients. For us, it's Bond, James Bond, the British secret agent who set an example no teenage boy could resist, slipping through kitchen doors, wallowing in ditches by day, and miraculously coming up clean to tango with Octopussy at cocktail hour.

James Bond was born on Jamaica, in tiny Oracabessa in the parish of St. Mary. It was here that Ian Fleming brought 007 to life, in 1952, writing Casino Royale, the first in the series, by lamplight in a ranch overlooking the sea. Even though Bond is a fiction, it makes sense that there's some Caribbean DNA in the guy—it's discernible in his barefoot bravado,and also in his inevitable return to a lounge chair under the palms, drink in hand (you know the one), a babe massaging his shoulders as the credits roll.

And yet it's hard to imagine Bond cooped up within the gates of one of Jamaica's all-inclusive resorts (another lucrative concept that was born here). So on a recent trip to the island, we decided to honor our muse by taking a more adventurous route, one that might expose us to the full scope of Jamaican landscapes and opportunities. We would land in metropolitan Kingston, the capital, pick up a basic 4 x 4 (an Aston Martin wasn't readily available), climb 7,500 feet into the Blue Mountains, and then descend to the island's north side. We'd trace the coastal road west, checking into a few select resorts, including Goldeneye, Bond's birthplace. We'd drop in on the commercial bustle of Negril, at Jamaica's westernmost outcropping, before heading to the unhurried agricultural parish of St. Elizabeth and the remote southern coast.

Or so we thought. As we soon discovered, a ground-hugging Aston Martin wouldn't have made it around the first bend on Jamaica. It was pouring in Kingston on day one, and even our nimble Suzuki struggled with the pizza box-sized potholes, the washouts, and the rockslides of the mostly two-lane A1, the island's north-south thoroughfare. Since there were no route markers, the only sure sign that we were on the right road was the steady stream of gasoline trucks careening around hairpin turns ahead, scattering goats and pedestrians. We hastily abandoned our plans to visit the Blue Mountain coffee plantations at the higher elevations, as it was clear by mile two that we'd never reach our eventual destination by daybreak—if we made it at all.

So we set a slightly less adventurous course and drove straight to Goldeneye, the resort that Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, built from the old Ian Fleming estate, at the far eastern end of the string of north-coastproperties that extends from Montego Bay airport. Inside Goldeneye's wrought-iron gates we were greeted by a lush tropical forest of tall African tulips, mango and lime trees, and rare cannonball trees with ropy limbs that hung to the ground. In 1995, Ann Hodges, perhaps Jamaica's most renowned living architect, designed the shingled cottages tucked beneath the vegetation and connected by stone-and-pebble paths. Goldeneye accommodates only 26 people, in six villas decorated with bamboo and batiks in a clean, tropical style we call tiki luxe. Each lodging, with its carefully screened outdoor shower, is far enough from the others to offer total seclusion to the likes of Naomi Campbell and Jim Carrey.

We kicked off our shoes and headed for the cliffside gazebo that serves as the resort's communal dining area and bar. Settled in with our drinks, we looked down from its white-painted deck at the lagoon that surrounds the property, watching as other guests (an even mix of couples and families) shuttled in with their towels and flippers from the private beach, accessible by a tiny ferry. Beyond the beach—the launching point for our Jet-Ski expedition the next morning—we could see the Caribbean. We raised the house cocktail, a blend of dark rums sweetened with pineapple juice and lime, and toasted our safe delivery from the A1. A helicopter fluttered into range, then landed briefly—more guests were arriving.

Goldeneye's kitchen, under Pamela Clarke, endeavors to use local produce from farmers in St. Elizabeth Parish and turns out hearty, if square, island fare. Grilled beef tenderloin and curried shrimp were the features that night, accompanied by a savory shredded coconut-cabbage slaw. As darkness descended, the gazebo glowed like a lantern, and by dessert the skunky perfume of marijuana from the honeymooners' table drifted across to ours.

As we traveled farther west along the coast, under a Caribbean sun at full strength, we were able to steep ourselves in the texture of the Jamaican roadside. We experienced more of the bone-shaking conditions and close calls with cows and chickens on the loose, but we were pleased to find some grace notes as well—examples of the architecture Hodges may have been riffing on at Goldeneye. Tiny towns such as Duncans and Falmouth boasted more than a few pretty pastel houses, verandas with railings of gingerbread fretwork, and cream-colored stone buildings from the 19th century, including a handsome church and parish hall. Corrugated shacks and huts were by far the norm in the countryside, but most intriguing to us were hundreds of hollow cement palaces, frozen in mid-construction, casting a ghostly presence over the island. "Cash flow," a hotelier would later explain.

The closer we got to Montego Bay, the tourist heart of Jamaica, the more we saw the true symbol of cash flow—the security gate. At the entrance to each resort was an imposing metal barricade and a manned guardhouse, reminders that at one time every traveler to Jamaica needed to be as intrepid (if not as well armed) as 007. In the late sixties, the rise to power of a militant Socialist regime forced investors to flee the island, and as the economy declined, much of Jamaica's workforce followed. Race relations deteriorated such that by the early seventies, Uzi-toting sentriesguarded any resorts that hadn't been abandoned. These days, the function of gates seems more one of intimidation than security. Like the hazardous roads, they end up benefiting resorts by encouraging guests to keep themselves—and their wallets—inside the compound.

Which only made us more determined to find a local lunch. In Rio Nuevo a man with dreadlocks to his waist and wearing only shorts was selling an octopus by the roadside—holding it aloft with one hand, like a Jamaican Perseus. But alas, our 4 x 4 had no kitchen. The scent of burning pimento wood, the preferred fuel for jerk preparation, began to call out to us from corrugated sheds with names like Try Me, Dis and Dat, and Pon de Corner Jerk Stop.

A mile from the Montego Bay airport (and about 10 miles from the gates of the Ritz-Carlton, Mo'bay's most luxurious resort, featuring its own jerk pit and live reggae venue), a steadily rising plume of smoke drew us to Scotchies, a thatched encampment in a sandy parking lot. After placing our order at the window, we sidestepped to a counter that overlooked smoldering fires where chickens and pork shoulders were slowly blackening. We watched as a cook in blue coveralls hacked the chicken into parts and transferred it to a takeout container. We ladled on extra marinade, studded orange and green with chopped Scotch bonnet peppers (whose earthy undertone is the defining feature of jerk). The fish, cooked on a smaller barbecue rig in the parking lot, was less assertively spicy, steamed in foil with sliced tomato and okra, onions, and black pepper. Grass umbrellas shaded the outdoor dining area, where beer kegs served as stools.

The luxury quotient was far higher on the other side of Montego Bay, at Round Hill Hotel & Villas, one of the island's older resorts, opened in 1953. The jalousied villas in the compound are set into a steep, amphitheater-like hillside, offering a perfectly composed view of the azure sea: scalloped coves rippling into the distance on the left, framed by floppy banana leaves and latticed arches, tied-back curtains and clouds. One's toes—and perhaps a sail or two on the water—are the only intrusions on the scene.

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