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It Used to Be 'Lard Bay,' But, Oh, Look at it Now

February 18, 1990|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — Columbus called this bay El Golfo de Buen Tiempo because of the fair weather he encountered, but 16th-Century Spaniards changed it to Bahia de Mantega, or "lard bay," because of their brisk trade in shipping the clarified fat. Somehow the unromantic latter name evolved into Montego Bay.

The British arrived in 1655 and, with cannons blazing, routed the Spaniards. They held onto Jamaica until the island gained independence in 1962.

Jamaica's economy hit the doldrums when the sugar and bauxite markets fell. Then the north coast came to the rescue with tourism, and this stretch of beach became the standard bearer.

What captivated Columbus and countless visitors since him about this spot are its colors: ribbons of cobalt-aqua-turquoise water along the shoreline, endless white beaches fringed with lush green rain forest, flaming bougainvillea, poinciana and hibiscus.

Getting here: Fly Air Jamaica nonstop, or Eastern, American or Northwest with changes.

How long/how much? Unless you're stopping at other Jamaican resorts, plan on at least a week to soak up plenty of sun and get into the laid-back life style. High-season lodging costs (mid-December until April 30) climb pretty high, but dining is a bargain year-round.

A few fast facts: The Jamaican dollar recently traded at 6.4 to ours, about 15.6 cents each. Weather is balmy to hot all year, with October and May the wettest months. Even then, rains do not last long.

Getting settled in: Hotel Gloucestershire (Gloucester Avenue; $105 to $125 double, high season; $70-$90 low) is in midtown, just across the street from a very popular beach. Most of the hotel's 88 air-conditioned rooms have balconies overlooking the bay, and there's also a pool and Jacuzzi. The Gloucestershire puts you near the center of things, with a short walk to shops, restaurants and the town market.

Holiday Inn (Rose Hall; $128-$159 double, winter; $96-$118 summer) is a huge, eight-building complex with four dining rooms, half a dozen bar-lounges, enormous pool and its own beach. Nothing intimate about this one, but you'll find every activity under the sun here and tennis at night. There's also nightly dancing and entertainment. Bedrooms are generous in size, each with a balcony.

Cariblue Beach Hotel (Ironshore; $75-$82 double winters; $55-$60 summers) is our budget special, an older and modest-but-comfortable place right on the water. Its King Arthur's restaurant and bar is a local gathering place, and you'll find it tough to beat these prices.

Regional food and drink: Read any menu in Jamaica and you're sure to see two staples: callaloo (spinach-like greens) and ackee , a rather bland pod fruit. The former is eaten straight, or made into hot or cold soups. Ackee mixed with salt fish (cod) comes close to being the national dish.

Jerk pork or chicken gets its name from the distinct preparation: the meat is scored, ladled with a paste made of ground scallions, hot pimento pepper and thyme, allowed to marinate, then barbecued slowly. The glorious results are unlike any meat you've ever tasted. If you wish to try making it at home, pick up a jar of Busha Browne's jerk seasoning and give it a go.

Jamaica's Red Stripe beer is the perfect drink with jerk pork, and Appleton's rum is the island's finest.

No mention of Jamaican potables is complete without several kudos to its Blue Mountain and High Mountain coffee. We picked up a pound each of the Martinez brand, which you'll find in gourmet shops at home.

Fine dining: Stop in at the Pork Pit for your introduction to a super-heated version of jerk pork, chicken and fish, all eaten outside at long tables beneath the trees.

The Pelican (Gloucester Avenue) has a coffee-shop atmosphere but excellent seafood. Its Cascade Room is more formal, with candlelight and waterfalls right outside the picture windows. Start with the smoked marlin or conch chowder, then have a go at one of the five lobster dishes. They also serve a wonderful curried goat, an island favorite.

The Georgian House (2 Orange St.) is a restored 18th-Century town house that is all elegance and grace. Dine in the lovely garden courtyard or among gleaming brass chandeliers and hurricane lamps, period furnishings, beautiful place settings and flowered draperies. A rather short menu offers select seafoods, plus such temptations as tournedos Rossini.

Going first-class: Half-Moon Club (Rose Hall; $240-$340 double, winter; $156-$180 summer) sits on 400 acres strung out along a mile of curving beach. The architecture and furnishings are a fetching mixture of an early Jamaican plantation house and 18th-Century English, with lots of white wicker furniture, Queen Anne reproductions and marvelous Jamaican art works.

Most rooms are within 20 feet of the beach. There's a Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course and a dozen tennis courts on the property, plus a spa-gym, horseback riding and water sports.

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