Seasonal organic produce, cookery classes and street food to knock your sandals off – Stylist contributor Lizzy Dening wolfs it all down on a culinary break in the Caribbean.
Food is not usually my main concern when travelling. In fact, as a vegetarian (and occasional fish-enthusiast), I often feel grateful to get a meat-free option at all. But Jamaica is different. Jamaica is a place where food reigns supreme. Balmy temperatures and life-giving rainy seasons also mean there’s a year-round abundance of produce – from guava and mangoes, to June plums (similar to greengages) and ackee (a butter-flavoured fruit with an eggy texture perfect for vegan fry-ups).
So with the taste of freshly picked coconuts in mind, and with a particularly foodie friend in tow (who once bragged she could eat a family-sized stollen in one sitting), I’ve travelled to the sun-splashed island nation to discover what edible treats it has in store. December to April is the best time to visit, when rainfall is low and hurricane season (at its peak in September) is still far away. And with a clutch of boutique-yet-affordable hotels and an easily navigable network of roads, it’s a pretty fine destination for a road trip, too.
We start our gorging – I mean, sophisticated holiday – with breakfast at S Hotel in Montego Bay, on the north coast of the island, wondering why more mornings don’t start with banana bread. From there, it’s just a few sluggish steps to the bright white sands of Doctor’s Cave beach (so named because the doctors at Montego Bay’s 19th century sanatorium used to bathe here) where we spend the day soaking up the sunshine and snorkelling past startled spotted stingrays and puffer fish.
I’ve heard that locals go out of their way to visit nearby Peppa’s Cool Spot, an unpretentious al fresco restaurant with dramatic sunset views (mosquito spray is a must), so we do the very same that night, reclining in our plastic chairs as the sun sinks into the horizon. We start with local favourite ‘stamp and go’ (fried, salty cod nuggets), then select a particularly sizeable fresh red snapper, opting to have it ‘escovitch’ – cooked up with vinegar, carrots and onions for a bit of tang.
Later, we can’t resist a moonlit boat trip with Glistening Waters (glisteningwaters.com) to see bioluminescence (microscopic organisms that emit light when agitated). The Luminous Lagoon is one of only a few places in the world where this phenomenon occurs naturally, and I’m in my element as I swoosh through the water, leaving streams of glowing blue ripples behind me.
The next morning, already feeling like our bikinis have shrunk slightly in the night, we drive south to the artsy Jakes Hotel in rustic Treasure Beach, a collection of cottages, villas and bungalows overlooking a windswept, rocky coastline.
We take up the hotel’s chef, Kern, on his offer of an afternoon cookery class and learn to make the perfect jerk sauce (which involves far more ketchup and soy sauce than I’d ever expected), before taking a little fishing boat out to Floyd’s Pelican Bar. A piecemeal wooden structure built by a fisherman in the middle of the sea, it’s flanked by – you guessed it – pelicans, plus occasional pods of dolphins that glide past en masse. We arrive for an 11am can of (island favourite) Red Stripe lager – having been told, correctly, that the early pelican gets the place all to herself.
Later, suitably sun-kissed (or burnt, in my case), we take to the road, driving west past ramshackle bars and acres of lush vegetation – halting to allow the odd free-roaming goat to cross in front of us.
It’s a battle of wills not to stop at every roadside stand, where sugar canes, jackfruit and bags of peanuts are piled high. But we’re told a stop at Marcia’s Peppered Shrimp and Irie Bar, in the Middle Quarters in the parish of Saint Elizabeth, is a must. And we aren’t disappointed by her famous shrimp (although we are surprised to discover they are eaten with their softened shells still on). We also try vegan corn soup in Spur Tree Hill, which comes with a corn cob jauntily balanced on top, as well as lychee-textured soursops and a green ‘jelly’ coconut – sweet and cooling and so different to what we consume at home.
Just before Kingston, Jamaica’s busy capital, we wind our way up some hair-raising roads, twisting into the Blue Mountains, which are known for their coffee plantations. Despite stiff competition, EITS Cafe could be Jamaica’s most beautiful lunch spot and we dine overlooking mountainous forests, surrounded by shiny green hummingbirds and darting lizards. It’s Jamaican food with a European twist, and I opt for a plate of bammy bruschetta – a toast-like fritter made from cassava topped with feta and olives. Later, leaving my travel companion by the pool, I spend an afternoon at Bob Marley’s former home in Kingston – now a museum – before treating myself to a fist-sized scoop of coffee ice cream from the popular Devon House parlour.
But despite eating (I’ll be honest) three massive meals a day, we leave Jamaica feeling lighter, thanks to a combination of warm sea swimming, beach walking and the sort of relaxation that frees your neck from your shoulders. Fried things aside, it’s a pretty healthy lifestyle that majors on spices, fruit and veg (albeit washed down with lashings of rum). So whether you’re a vegan, meat-eater, or somewhere in between, you should consider a trip to Jamaica for a slice of that irie island spirit.
Rooms at S Hotel from £151 per night, shoteljamaica.com; garden view rooms at Jakes Hotel from £72 per night, jakeshotel.com; Virgin flies from London Gatwick to Montego Bay from £650 per person, virginatlantic.com; for more info, see visitjamaica.com.