Want to escape the heat, hustle and bustle of city life and indulge your senses in an eco-friendly world of plant life, birds and butterflies; get lost in the panoramic view of Kingston and surrounding mountain peaks; recall and retrace our historical journey through time? Whatever your penchant or predisposition a day trip to Holywell National Park located over 3,500 feet above the coastline is sure to awaken your interest, fascinate you and leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed.
But getting to Holywell is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. It’s a spiritual pilgrimage and an historical voyage steeped in British colonial history. In an increasingly fast paced and technologically mediated world it’s a way of expressing spirituality; staying connected to something bigger than self – the awe and wonder of the natural world and mankind’s physical journey through it.
Regular visitors to Jamaica my friends are yet to experience the other side of Jamaica – off-the-beaten path; away from the sea, white sand beaches and bright lights. It’s a bright September morning; blue skies and the sun is out in all its glory; perfect weather for our planned adventure. Holywell; cool by Jamaican standards, an added layer of clothing is recommended, as is footwear suitable for low difficulty hiking.
Half-Way-Tree, capital of the parish of St. Andrew is our chosen point of departure for our motorized journey, and with good reason. As far back as the 17th century, Half-Way-Tree served as a half-way stop for British soldiers on their way from the then colonial capital of Spanish Town to Greenwich and Newcastle, points of interest on the way to Hollywell.
We cross over the Hope River, a supply source for the city’s Mona Dam when we come upon a fork in the road. The road signs point left to Irish Town and straight ahead to Gordon Town. We take the left turn. But if you enjoy challenges of moderate difficulty; delight in sounds of rushing streams and colorful local birds amid a canopy of endless tropical foliage, you might want to consider the Gordon Town to Holywell hiking option. A six mile trek via Red Light District and Greenwich retraces the steps of eighteenth century British sailors on their way from Kingston Harbour.
As we slowly make our way up the narrow and winding road carved from the steep hillsides I am reminded of the poetic words of a supposedly cancer victim making its round on social media; “when you run so fast to get somewhere, You miss half the fun of getting there”. We are just thirty minutes into our trip and already some 2,500 feet above sea level, when the sign “Irish Town” beckons us. Home to early Irish settlers, Irish Town boasts two of Jamaica’s historic landmarks – Strawberry Hill Hotel and the Craighton Great House and Estate.
Built by George Craighton – Scottish coffee planter – between 1790 and 1805, the Craighton Great House and Estate served as a summer residence in the latter half of the nineteenth century for British Governors seeking to escape the heat of the then capital city of Spanish Town. The Ueshima Coffee Company of Japan now owns the plantation where they grow Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee for export to Japan. Guided tours of the Great House and Estate, including information on the planting, reaping and processing of the coffee beans are on offer.
We round the corner from the Craighton Estate and make our way through Red Light District – no red neon lights – a small centre of commercial activity with wooden structures precariously perched on either side of steep slopes. It is where motorized traffic, hikers and hillside farmers crosses path. Across seemingly bottomless ravines are signs of habitation dotting the hillsides with no apparent access points.
The road becomes a little less inviting as we continue our climb; twists and turns with uneven surfaces and partial remains of land slippages, we have lost sight of the midday sun under what seems like an endless cover of trees and steep hillsides. But sooner than expected white painted curb walls, the reappearing rays of the sun and increasingly less faint sounds of human activity arouses one’s curiosity and anticipation.
“Attention”! “Stand at ease”! The command voice satisfies the DLIP criteria – distinct, loud, infected and projected – and is followed by an immediate and harmonious stomping of feet that interrupts the otherwise calm, serene and cool atmosphere, 3,500 feet above sea level. Welcome to Newcastle and the parade ground of the Jamaica Defense Force Training Depot, an army barracks since 1841.
We drive over to the far side of the parade ground reserved for parking, embark and quietly make our way back to the southern side. There we are greeted by a breathtaking view of the Kingston metropolis; Kingston Harbour; Port Royal of buccaneering fame, and the Caribbean Sea beyond.
The Newcastle army barracks which less than an hour ago from the plains of Kingston seemed at the juncture of earth and sky, suddenly comes alive; a close-up standout of picturesque wooden framed structures straddling the ridge above and below us. Hovering above us at 5,050 feet and within forty minutes by trail, is Catherine’s Peak, its highest point enveloped in mist and clouds. Any wonder that Newcastle was established as a “change of climate camp”; an escape from the mortalities that plagued the plain below.
An immaculately kept cemetery with white painted headstones is a visual reminder of a time in which a soldier’s posting to the West Indies was likened to a fatal affliction. A wall on the northern side of the square engraved with Regimental badges is testament to the regiments that served at Newcastle.
With a sigh of awe and contemplation we depart on the next leg of our journey. On our way an entry point leading off the road says “Greenwich”; a former British army post, now a private retreat of villas and cabins for property owners and vacationers. Finally, we have arrived at Hollywell Park; a recreational destination located in the lush and tranquil forest setting of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park; a protected area covering over 193,000 acres, approximately 4.4 percent of Jamaica’s land mass.
Pine trees swaying in the wind; a refreshingly cool air; puffs of cloud and mist floating by. Gazebos placed on terraces eked out of the hillside provide us with a rest stop, but not for long. We are overcome by the urge to explore and the best way to explore the flora, birds and butterflies of the National Park is by walking trails. Did you know that the Giant Swallowtail, the largest butterfly in the New World is to be found in Jamaica and is endemic to the Blue and John Crown Mountains?
The Waterfall Trail, a thirty-minute hike of low to moderate difficulty is our chosen path and destination. We make our way to higher ground and begin our trek through the forest along the side of the hill. We are soon taken in by the silence and peace of nature – the flutter and seemingly endless chirping of birds magnified by a space devoid of voices, motor horns and cellphones; the disappearing and reappearing rays of the sun peeking through the tree tops. Too soon, the sound of cascading water signals the end of the trail and a truly soulful experience.
Back at our starting point, we wander over to three rustic looking log cabins, perfect for those wishing to overnight. Seated on benches, it’s time to relax and reflect while soaking up a westward view of the southern plains and their adjoining hills. “And as I experience this beautiful setting … A gentle breeze whispers to me ‘Time to go’… The serenity of nature fills my soul with peace” (The Serenity of Nature by Garrett Bradley).
With sighs of fulfillment, it is time to embark on our return journey, but the consensus is ‘one last stop’. Strawberry Hill – here we come. A former coffee plantation dating back to 1780, Strawberry Hill – owned by Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame – is listed in the 2015 Condé Nast Traveler Gold List of the world’s best places to stay. Charming and enchanting wood-framed cottages and villas, in a cool and serene setting with spectacular views and lush gardens, is an irresistible invitation whether you are a guest or on a day trip.
What better way to top-off a truly spiritually rewarding day’s experience – a traditional Jamaican cuisine with Strawberry Hill’s “subtle and contemporary twists” on a wrap-around veranda; reminiscing on the day’s adventures; the lengthening rays of the sun beginning it’s descent in the west.
Photo via: Youtube