IN THE DECADES AFTER WORLD WAR II, THE GLITTERATI CLAIMED Jamaica. Drawn by the blazing sun, soft breezes and relatively relaxed moral atmosphere, hordes of movie stars, royals and literary lights descended on the island every winter. Among the luminaries, none glittered more brightly than two seemingly ill-matched British neighbors on the island's scenic northern shore.
At his mountaintop idyll called Firefly, the openly gay actor, playwright and composer Noel Coward, close chum of the Queen Mother and said to be the highest-paid writer of his time, held hilarious court over pitchers of dry martinis. Meanwhile, about three miles down the coast, in a bungalow he had christened Goldeneye, Ian Fleming was busy scuba-diving, polishing his service revolver and creating the hetero-macho superspy James Bond.
This unlikely pair were not only close neighbors but close friends, too. They visited back and forth often, and when Fleming was married in the tiny nearby town of Port Maria, Coward and his longtime companion, Graham Payne, were the witnesses. Typically, Coward tied the shoes onto the back of his own car by mistake, and ended the afternoon helping Fleming bury the ghastly green wedding cake in the garden at Goldeneye.
Today, the popular image of Jamaica--reggae, Rastafarianism, fortress-like honeymoon resorts and Kingston's crime-ridden urban sprawl--has little connection with such careless high-jinks. And Coward-style society, to the extent that it still exists, has long since decamped for more exclusive Caribbean isles.
But as I found in recently visiting their haunts, the natural charm that seduced the Master and the Commander, as Coward and Fleming were known respectively to their friends, is still around.
When Ian Fleming, then a member of the British naval intelligence service, first flew into Kingston in 1944 to attend a spy conference, he arrived smack in the middle of a rainy season so intense that toadstools literally sprang up in his leather shoes overnight. Unlike the Commander, I arrived in Kingston to brilliant sunshine. But in homage to his damp initial sojourn I decided to begin my trip by driving across the island's mountainous center about 25 miles northeast to Port Antonio, birthplace of the Jamaican tourist industry--and the rainiest spot on the north coast.
The mountains that cover Jamaica's interior are probably quite beautiful, but I can't testify to that since I glimpsed them only out of the corner of my eye. My attention was focused instead on the hairpin curves, road-hogging trucks and peek-a-boo pavement that elevate driving on the island to the level of a video combat game.
It wasn't until I dead-ended at the Caribbean and turned right toward Port Antonio that I began to enjoy the scenery, a curious and compelling mix of beauty and chaos. As the road wove from jungle to coastline, it passed stands of coconut palms, banana plantations with the still-growing fruit wrapped in blue plastic bags, giant breadfruit trees encased in thick vines. The brilliant red-orange flowers of flame trees splashed vivid color everywhere, and food stands appeared seemingly at random, each displaying a neat row of soft drinks or Red Stripe beer, with hand-painted signs advertising jerk chicken, jerk pork and jerk sausage.
There were people everywhere--walking on the road, bicycling on the road, standing beside the road, sitting in groups by the road. It quickly became clear that in the "country" outside Kingston, the road functions not only as a medium for travel, but also as a kind of communal gathering place. I also began to understand that, in a country with unemployment running as high as 30% to 40%, young Jamaicans have developed hanging out into an art form.
After a short stop to view one of the many waterfalls that plunge spectacularly down to the coast, I drove on and soon pulled into the central square of Port Antonio. In the late 19th Century this square was the center of the world banana trade. Then, around the beginning of this century, canny Yankee sea captains, anxious to fill their empty boats on the trips to the island to pick up bananas, lured winter-weary Americans with pictures of sunny Port Antonio, thus launching Jamaica's tourist trade.
These days , the epicenter of tourism has relocated farther down the coast to Montego Bay, and Port Antonio is rather sleepy. The square itself is home to a row of small, cement-walled shops painted coral, sky blue, peach or light green, and the large adjacent covered market offers the full range of Caribbean roots, fruits and sundries. Along the dusty side streets, bougainvillea and hibiscus spill haphazardly over fences enclosing tiny yards, and rows of stucco buildings are regularly interrupted with gingerbread Victorians built during the banana boom days.