A Traveller’s Dilemma

Written and photographed by Corinne Smith

Three long hours after leaving Kingston, the Pedro Plains came into view and the azure blue of the Caribbean Sea kissed the cerulean sky. And then the dilemma hit: how much will I share? It is, after all, an area still unblemished by mass tourism, and those who know it would rather it stay this way.
Treasure Beach appears only in fine print on the southwestern corner of the map of Jamaica and the town itself is not much more than a pleasant seaside community or, more accurately, a handful of fishing villages strung along four small bays.

We had booked a villa for the weekend of our daughter’s 13th birthday, and as we wound along the final miles, sea on one side, grassy veldt on the other, I contemplated the task ahead: entertaining and feeding five teenagers and one urbanite husband for an entire weekend in this very rural corner of Jamaica. Moments later, over a perfect mojito and stroked by the breeze and the long rays of the setting sun, my worries melted faster than the ice in my glass; this was the perfect place for a celebration.

The following day, after much coaxing and a few idle threats, our group of seven headed out in search of lunch and adventure. We found both at an unusual restaurant—Little Ochie—in the remote seaside village of Alligator Pond. The half-hour drive from Treasure Beach was easy; good roads and frequent signs pointed us to where we wanted to go, and along the way the scenery was spectacular. Most startling was the somewhat surreal Wigton Wind Farm with its 23 huge wind turbines arrayed up the hillside like pinwheels at the fair.

Little Ochie is one of a kind. The owner, Evrol Christian, known as Blackie, opened it in 1989 as a tiny restaurant serving breakfast for fishermen on their way out to sea. It now seats about 400, mostly in retired and re-tasked fishing canoes jacked up on stilts on the sand with palm-thatched roofs overhead. But don’t let its deceptively rustic demeanour fool you, for this is one of the most celebrated seafood restaurants in the Caribbean.

On arrival, we were shown to an unoccupied canoe auspiciously located between the main building, with its titillating aromas, and where grey-brown waves heaved themselves onto the black sand beach Fishing boats—turquoise, lime and canary-yellow—relaxed on the beach, their work for the day complete. Long-legged egrets and a few intrepid swimmers cavorted in the frothy sea as classic reggae and Seventies soul poured from the speakers. This, dear reader, was irie.

We ordered our meal in the usual way—usual at Little Ochie, that is—by crossing the sand to a ramshackle wooden bungalow that houses the kitchen, and then over to a huge freezer stocked with the day’s catch—crab, conch, shrimp, lobster, sea puss (octopus), snapper and whatever else the fishermen had brought in that day—and we pointed to what we wanted. Our selections were hoisted into a battered old pan, hung on a scale and weighed. Yes, your dinner is priced by the pound.
Then we should have told the chefs how we wanted it cooked. Alas, too many choices. “Why not let Chef make his favourites for you?” our server offered. And he did. Lobster grilled on an open fire; lobster fried in garlic; lobster jerked; fresh red snapper roasted, jerked, brown-stewed and steamed. Everything was cooked to perfection, fried in massive skillets or roasted on a pimento-wood flame with just the right amount of seasoning. It was served with bammy, a kind of fried cassava bread, and festival, a deep-fried sweetish dumpling made with cornmeal.

“This place is so cool,” said one of the girls. “And the food is so great,” said another. “Can we come back for lunch tomorrow?” asked the third.
After lunch we continued east beyond Alligator Pond. This is what Jamaicans call a lonely road. There’s not much to look at along this drive unless, of course, you appreciate the achingly beautiful absence of human intrusion. This drive is remarkable for its rawness, the roiling sea with palm-fringed marshes on one side, and scrubby hills cloaked in yucca, cacti and “macca bush’’ (thorny shrubs) on the other.

As we crossed the bridge over the Gut River, my reverie was interrupted by squeals from the back seat. Looking towards the sea, I understood. Next to the bridge, a stone’s throw from the car, a seemingly bottomless, crystal-clear pool with rocks at the perfect jumping-in height was calling to us. It was irresistible. Within seconds, five shivering, laughing teens were leaping in formation into this bewitching bend in the Gut River, its mouth open to the sea just beyond.
A few miles further along the road, we found ourselves looking down into the waters of the magnificently clear, serene waters of Alligator Hole. This short river springs from the limestone hills above and is home to an awesome variety of birds, plants and aquatic creatures including three manatees. Above us, overlooking the river, a hut funded by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) offered educational displays and a great vantage point. Below us, a little aluminum row boat floated dreamily in the shimmering afternoon sun.

And then Devon appeared. He works for NEPA, he told us, and for a few dollars, could take us upriver for a better view of the manatees. Devon knew a lot about the area and was keen to share his knowledge with us. And as we ventured around the bend, the paddle dipping rhythmically in and out of the river’s glassy surface, a rare moment of tranquillity settled on our little group.

This place—its people—are as far from packaged tourism as you can get. It also happens to be one of those simple, captivating places where you don’t need much to have a great time—even if you’re a city-slicker •

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