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A Culinary Tour of Jamaica

And that's the vibe of Jamaica now. Like resorts in the Caribbean at large, properties here have the will, not to mention the prosperity, to specialize. Each has refined its amenities to home in on a distinct contemporary lifestyle; one resort, fresh from a renovation and eager to show its new-money bona fides, boasts of having Italian Mascioni linens as well as Jamaica's first caviar bar (with a Veuve Clicquot partnership, of course).

With the hustle of Negril behind us, we drove south along the coast road, into more pastoral land, a hill country of sugarcane and scallion fields. As the scenery became more rural, the roads counterintuitively widened. Near Treasure Beach we took a detour north, to Middle Quarters, to find the fiery "pepper shrimp" the town is famous for.

At the end of a mile-long avenue of bamboo was Howie's, a long, low shed with a dozen steaming, smoke-blackened steel cauldrons set in a row, each balanced on its own tripod of rocks over a few burning logs. Several cooks tended pots of conch, fish, and oxtail. When we asked for pepper shrimp, a gaunt man named Peckes consulted a woman named Vila, who picked up a cordless phone and placed an unintelligible call.

"Soon come," she said. "Soon come." We ordered bowls of a sweet, almond- and-bay-leaf-scented peanut porridge, but 15 minutes later, there was no sign of shrimp. Vila made another phone call.

"Soon come," she repeated. "Soon come." Ten minutes passed. As we were on the brink of leaving, a tall woman emerged from a house on the hill.

She introduced herself as Margaret Stone and set down a large stainless-steel bowl heaping with flaming red "shrimp"—large river crayfish that looked like tiny lobsters. Stone shoveled a pound into a black plastic sack, along with "extra spoonfuls for waiting."

The shrimp had been stir-fried with minced Scotch bonnet peppers, coarse sea salt, pepper, and vinegar. They were spicy, sweet, and addictive, and they may just be the most delicious—certainly the messiest—car snack ever.

The south coast was the part of Jamaica hardest hit by Hurricane Ivan last September, and on our way to Treasure Beach, we saw gaping fissures where the rushing water had dug into cracks in the roads. The cattle ranches and open fields seemed to bustle with activity despite the area's sleepy reputation. Then again, we'd also heard that Jake's, our next resort, was a quirky place. The vintage car sitting on four flat tires at the entrance seemed more ominous than inviting.

We needn't have worried. A welcoming party—a gang of lazy Jack Russells—had assembled around the front desk, and at the bar, Dougie Turner, who's been pouring drinks at Jake's for 12 years, was mixing perfect margaritas using yellow limes. An angler who lives two coves down was ready to whisk us out for some fishing in his boat, One Love. That night at dinner, a neighborhood wood-carver dropped by our table and showed us two beautiful busts he'd carved from polished pimento wood. A self-proclaimed wise man, he seemed more interested in trading proverbs than closing a sale.

Our villa was a tiny one-room shanty perched on stilts over the shore break, with window and door frames made of driftwood, brightly colored glass bottles embedded in the stucco walls, and a padlock and chain holding the door fast, if you cared to close it at all.

There are only 15 villas at Jake's, the most luxurious of them miniature Moroccan-inspired riads with rooftop decks and canopied harem beds, but none have televisions or telephones. And while the resort's bohemian whimsy seems to attract a young crowd, it's the kind that happily leaves the BlackBerry and the laptop behind. By comparison with the Rockhouse, the scene here was serene: a small pool fed by ocean water, a scattering of Adirondack chairs.

There's an organic quality to the place, which makes sense. Sally Henzell, the hotel's co-owner, was born and bred in Treasure Beach and raised her son, Jason, and daughter, Justine, there. The siblings are taking Jake's into the 21st century, but instead of banking its future on first-world luxuries, they're updating it with the annual Calabash Literary Festival and guided tours of Treasure Beach's roadside pubs.

Of all the hotels we stayed at on Jamaica, Jake's was unique in seeming to grow out of the place rather than imposing itself upon it—a fact that made for its own kind of intrigue. On our last night, when we returned from dinner, as our key turned in the padlock we heard a rustling in the bushes. Like 007, we flattened ourselves against the shadows of the eaves, breathlessly waiting for the intruder to make a move. And then, over a stone parapet, came one claw, then another, of a very large crab, making its way back to the sea.

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