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THE OTHER SIDE of JAMAICA

Away from the hustle of its more famous resorts, finding seclusion and friendly faces on the isle's sleepy southern shore

January 19, 1997|CHRISTOPHER P. BAKER | Baker is author of "Jamaica Travel Survival Kit," (Lonely Planet, $17.95)

TREASURE BEACH, Jamaica — I came to Jamaica seeking offbeat seclusion; a calming counterpoint to the bustle of the island's north coast resorts--Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios--with their haranguing hustlers and ramshackle slums hard up against high-rise hotels. A hustler is someone who makes a living by seizing opportunities. The resorts are full of them, and the biggest opportunity always seemed to be me. Wearingly so, for these artists of psychology practice their trade to devastating effect. ("What matter? You got sometin' against me? You racist?" . . . )

That is one side of Jamaica. Fortunately, there is another. Beyond the sanitized resorts on the northern part of the island, I knew, was a more prosaic place where I could escape and not be importuned for a week. Treasure Beach and an entirely different Jamaica lay ahead.

Treasure Beach is the generic name given to four bays--Billy's, Frenchman's, Calabash and Great Pedro--that lie on Jamaica's underbelly, on the southern shore. Together they cut a 10-mile swath through St. Elizabeth Parish, 80 miles west of Jamaica's capital, Kingston. The area is a vast swampy region--Jamaica's largest extant marshland--that is a rare habitat for crocodiles, waterfowl and a small species of fish called a God-a-me that can live out of water among the moist leaf litter and mud.

I had heard that Treasure Beach is an isle within an isle, isolated by geography and as yet unsullied by tourism. True, the Caribbean Sea is murkier and the sand darker, less tantalizing here than near the north coast resorts, with their beaches of pulverized sugar shelving gently to waters the color of peacock feathers. But I wanted aplace by the sea with plenty of snoozy charm, a peaceful, less developed place where the people are gentle and I could slip into a kind of no-frills lassitude. It is also a place generally spared the crimes against tourists that have plagued some visitors to the north coast resorts, as well as to Kingston, according to the U.S. State Department.

"You'll not find a more captivating aura and mood . . . nor more lovely people," Jason Henzell had told me when I called from Montego Bay. Jason and his mother run a Treasure Beach hotel that I had been hearing raves about. The population of Treasure Beach has a reputation for honesty and graciousness unique on the island. "Me tell you. De people are mellow. There are no bandulus," said Jason, using the patois word for hustlers.

Jason is an island-born descendant of European immigrants, mostly English. He and his mother, Sally, run a funky hotel and restaurant called Jake's Place atop the coral bluffs of Frenchman's Bay. He invited me down. "Leave de tourists behind, mon. We'd love to see you!"

I arrived at Treasure Beach via a muddy track, which merged with a narrow, newly paved road that rose above the plains, twisting dramatically along cliff tops, soaring and dipping past agave and tall spiky cactuses. I hadn't envisaged cactuses in rain-soaked Jamaica. They were my first clue that Treasure Beach is distinct. The area is sheltered from rain-bearing winds by the mountains that rise to the east. There is none of the lush greenery of the north coast or the Black River area. The countryside looked like East Africa: stunted palms and acacias, barren rock landscapes and brown plains chewed on by plump-bellied goats (signs read "We love our kiddies") and scrawny, humped cattle.

The first hint of life was a sign pointing me to Nuestra Casa Guesthouse, at the west end of Billy Bay, where the road spilled down to the beach. I stopped, and an elderly, sun-lashed woman stepped out to greet me. She was barefooted and wrapped in a batik sarong.

" 'Ello luv. Pardon me, but ah'm a bit under t' weather. Ah'm not takin' guests right now."

Her soupy accent was familiar.

"Are you from Yorkshire?" I asked.

"Ay luv. Why? Do yer know it?"

"Ay luv," I replied, dropping into my childhood vernacular. "I was born there."

"Were yer? Eeee! Come on in," she said, inviting me to sit on a veranda festooned with potted plants and knickknacks that could have come from my grandmother's parlor.

We settled in rockers on a shady veranda and supped Red Stripe beer as Lillian Brooks told me of life at Treasure Beach.

"I don't know as I could live anywhere else in Jamaica," she told me. "It's so peaceful 'ere. They're a few scalawags, but only when they've 'ad a bit much rum."

Many foreigners have settled in Treasure Beach--much to local pride. To think that someone would give up the U.S. or Europe to live in their remote little place! The conviviality, the remoteness and easy pace attracts small handfuls of foreigners whose idea of a good time is watching fishermen return to the beaches, where their womenfolk wait with tubs filled with ice. Each of the bays has its own fishermen's cooperative. Out-of-towners run the nascent tourism show. Locals cling to the land and sea.

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