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An Accent on English in Jamaica : Mandeville has a relaxed pace, glorious weather and the neatness and order of a small British town.

August 22, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

MANDEVILLE, Jamaica — Leave it to those weather-conscious Brits to find a country's most salubrious climate, and here in Jamaica, just as in India during the Raj era, establish "hill stations" to escape lowland heat and other vagaries of weather that might discomfort their colonials.

Mandeville, founded by the English in 1816, served as the perfect hill station for the Crown's regiments. Set in the gently rolling farm country of south-central Jamaica at 2,000 feet, Mandeville is practically without seasons, with the temperature hovering between 70 and 80 degrees year-round, much cooler than the coastal flatlands.

While the popular north-coast resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio aren't exactly hotbeds of urban activity, there's an even slower pace and sense of tranquillity in Mandeville that reduces stress to near-zero level, making it the perfect place for a totally relaxing holiday.

"I sit here in the evening darkness," a local hotelier told us, "surrounded by the quiet of miles of banana plantations, the moon seeming close enough to hold in the palm of my hand. And the only sound is the soothing song of banana leaves whispering softly in the balmy breezes."

"It's quite relaxing, you know," she said, her voice a mix of proper British-English tinged with an island lilt.

Indeed, Mandeville is considered the most English town in all of Jamaica, known by some old-hand expatriates as their last resort. It has the neatness and order of a small British town: Georgian courthouse and stone parish church beside the village green (now an outdoor market); flowery cottage gardens in the handsome suburbs; the oldest golf course in the Caribbean; absolutely no slums, and the town's oldest hotel was originally built as the English garrison's officers' quarters and mess.

Yet just a short drive from Mandeville brings one to the island's south shore, not nearly so popular or pricey as the north shore but just as beautiful, and scheduled for major development in the future.

Getting settled in: Villa Bella, a 20-minute drive north of town, bills itself as Jamaica's "original country inn," and has also been called the "best little unknown hotel" on the island. We couldn't agree more about this 50-year-old plantation house set on six acres of hilltop land festooned with orange, grapefruit and banana trees and coffee plants, plus gigantic flame-of-the-forest trees.

The villa's 12 bedrooms are simple and homey yet charming and comfortable, with fresh flowers and modern baths in all of the rooms. There's a wraparound veranda with views of surrounding hills, and the inn is noted for its Jamaican breakfasts, afternoon teas and fine dining room. They also organize barbecues in the countryside, with jerk pork and chicken, campfires and sing-alongs. We understand they're great fun.

Mandeville Hotel is in a parklike area just steps from the town market and courthouse. Bedrooms have absolutely no frills but are comfortable enough, and there's a small swimming pool, dining room and bar. The Mandeville is also noted for its fine breakfasts served beside the pool, and the authentic Jamaican food in the dining room.

The Inbercauld Great House, on the south coast at Black River, is a century-old home that has been a hotel only for the past few months. It's loaded with antiques and some nice Oriental rugs, and the bedrooms are charming, with mahogany furniture, TV and air conditioning. All meals are served in the dining room of a building adjoining the main house. There are also tennis courts, a pool and a barbecue-bar area out back. The Inbercauld faces the sea, and the sunsets are daily spectacles.

There's a network of B&Bs, called "home stays," many of them in very comfortable residential homes. They're about $50 double with breakfasts.

On your own: Your best bet for a comprehensive look at the town and its attractions (various local mansions, the High Mountain coffee factory, bammy factory, craft center, gardens) is by checking in with Diana McIntyre-Pike, owner of the Astra Country Inn and Countrystyle Limited tours. The tour costs $10, but is free to Astra Hotel guests.

Outside town, take a ride along Bamboo Avenue, a 2 1/2-mile canopy of bamboo over the A2 road near Middle Quarters. Or join a Black River Safari Boat Tour ($15, half-price for children under 12) for a 90-minute look at remote tideland country, shrimpers in their dugout canoes, crocodiles and snowy egrets, ospreys and other exotic birds. Stately mangrove trees and some of the loveliest and most tranquil of riverside land along the route seems untouched since the days of Jamaica's Arawak Indians before the arrival of Columbus.

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