There’s a Whitehouse in Jamaica, but it’s got nothing to do with Barack Obama.
Surrounded by a wild crocodile reserve and in the shadow of a colonial “great house,” this Whitehouse is perhaps the only high-profile resort on Jamaica’s low-key southwestern coast.
Despite its recognizable brand name and massive size, the presence of Sandals Whitehouse has not altered the allure of this quiet corner of Jamaica (also referred to as the “south coast”), where tropical foliage, old fishing villages and absence of overt commercialism make it an appealing destination for visitors seeking an alternative to the densely packed tourist enclaves elsewhere on the island.
Bordered roughly by Bluefields Beach to the north and Treasure Beach to the south, there’s not much “touristy” stuff to do on the southwest coast, which is why it tends to attract a crowd that’s primarily interested in absorbing the local culture.
Instead of zip-lining or whooping it up in bars like co-eds on spring break, visitors to this coast can laze on the uncrowded beaches, explore the cool mountains and silvery waterfalls, sample the incredible local seafood … or just do nothing.
But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy a drink or two. In fact, one of the more “on-the-brochure” excursions you can take on the south coast is a tour of the famous Appleton Estate rum distillery in St. Elizabeth. Rum has a long and storied history in Jamaica, and Appleton’s Estate has been making it since 1749.
The tour, which includes pick up and drop-off at your hotel, guides you through the history of the estate as well as the distilling and blending processes. As a bonus you get to take part in a rum-tasting session, and they even give you a complimentary bottle to take home. (www.appletonrumtour.com)
If you want some grub with your grog, there are plenty of opportunities to have a real in-your-face local experience by spending an afternoon at a roadside eatery or beachside shack.
Spicy peppered shrimp is one of the culinary specialties of the south coast, and Billy’s Grassy Park on Main Street in Middle Quarters cooks up a mean one. If shrimp’s really your thing, you’ll also love Billy’s curried shrimp, crunchy French-fried shrimp and fiery shrimp soup with potato, all made with shrimp harvested from a freshwater pond just behind the kitchen.
Little Ochi, a funky seafood joint on the beach in Alligator Pond, serves up another local specialty, escoveitch fish (fish marinated in spicy vinegar sauce). You’ll also find curried lobster, octopus and about a million other varieties of fish that you can eat at one of Little Ochi’s thatched-roof beachfront huts.
If you’re really ambitious, try frying up your own when you get back to your hotel or condo. You can buy just-caught fish and lobster directly from the impromptu vendors who work the beach with nets in hand.
Standing 2,000 feet above Little Ochi, in the Manchester Mountains, is the quaint village of Mandeville, where a cool mistiness and genteel English atmosphere couldn’t contrast more starkly with Alligator Pond’s ramshackle warmth.
On the way there you’ll pass through the mile-long Bamboo Alley (below), a stretch of highway where 20-foot high shoots of bamboo arch over the tops of the passing cars, creating the feeling of going through a tunnel.
Once you get to Mandeville there is a village green, tennis and squash courts, golf courses, and more than 100 varieties of birds nesting in the flora. The nearby Marshall’s Pen is a prime spot to watch birds, or you can enjoy the scenery on horseback at the 18th century Perth Great House.
Java lovers will want to head to the High Mountain Coffee Factory to take a tour, sample the brew and taste some chocolate. The south coast’s most famous coffee may be Blue Mountain, but High Mountain provides some stiff competition.
Though most people think of Dunn’s River Falls when they think of waterfalls in Jamaica, the south coast has its own spectacular falls, simply called YS (www.ysfalls.com). The name ostensibly came from two prior owners of the property, John Yates and Richard Scott, but no one knows for sure.
Hidden within a privately owned papaya plantation near Middle Quarters, you’ll have to hire a motorized jitney to ferry you to YS through the thick tropical vegetation, but it’s worth the trek. The falls cascade 120 feet down into pools below, where visitors are encouraged to take a dip.
For those who prefer to swim in the ocean rather than a river, the south coast boasts quiet, unpretentious beaches. With whimsical names like Lost Beach, Parottee Beach and Treasure Beach, you’ll rarely find crowds and you’ll often see locals mixing with the tourists.
Treasure Beach is a favorite because of its constant warm weather (other beaches can have cool overcast days), and its size. Though it may not be as pretty as other Jamaican beaches, at four winding miles long you’ll have plenty of opportunities to find a deserted cove to duck into for some private relaxation.
Treasure Beach is also popular because of its proximity to the town of the same name, which has a number of rum shops, seafood restaurants and small hotels. Jake’s (www.jakeshotel.com) and the Sunset Resort and Villas (www.sunsetresort.com) are two popular accommodation choices, and what they may lack in name-brand recognition and amenities they more than make up for in charm, funkiness and the friendliness that is characteristic of the south coast.
There are numerous other accommodation choices up and down the southwest coast, including one-of-a-kind guest houses, private villas, small boutique hotels, and of course Sandals Whitehouse. The massive chain resort may seem to run counter to the spirit of the south coast, but it seems to fill a niche for those who want the best of both worlds—the all-inclusive experience plus the low-key vibe.
The adults-only resort was opened in 2005, and after some growing pains related to customer service and credit card security in its first year, it seems to have straightened itself out and really hit its stride.
Despite having 300 rooms, seven restaurants, four pools, a spa, and a fitness center all spread over 50 acres, the resort never feels crowded, even when it’s fully booked. Other pros include the pristine white sand beach, which is completely free of annoying vendors (unlike Sandals’ other properties in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay), the elegant European architecture, and the full-service butler suites, if you can afford them.
Cons include difficulty getting restaurant seats during dinner rush-hour, and the distance to any sightseeing. But the latter is not a big issue, since the clientele that stays at Whitehouse tends be more interested in spending time lounging with their significant other than exploring the coast.
And though it’s not open to the public (yet), the hill above the resort contains the overgrown ruins of a 17th century plantation house, a defunct pimiento factory and a crumbling mausoleum containing the graves of various Campbells and Aguilars who lived there in centuries past. Sandals eventually plans to develop the property and integrate it with the rest of the resort.
Many off-the-beaten-path destinations tend to not stay that way very long once they are “discovered,” but there are certain aspects of the south coast that will hopefully conspire to keep it relatively untouched by mass tourism.
Getting there is a deterrent for those who are prone to motion sickness, or who just don’t relish the idea of having to sit in a car for an hour and a half after a long flight from North America or Europe.
The roads to Ocho Rios and Negril may be wide and well-paved (though they weren’t always that way) but the winding mountainous road to the south coast is beautiful—and riddled with hairpin turns and potholes.
So here’s to hoping that the roads remain undeveloped, so that the south coast can continue to be a quiet gem known only to those with a yen for a more authentic experience—and a strong stomach.
Text and Photos by Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com
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