Blue Mountains

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Day Four—Monday

This was the day we were going to Whitfield Hall in the Blue Mountains. The young people (Fionn, Virginia, Ray, and Sherwin Damdar; Matthew Barnhill; Andrew and Wendy Russell; and Peter Abrikian, another close family friend of the Damdars), plus Simon Damdar and Barney, were going to hike up. The rest of us (Simeon and Isaiah Damdar, Sophie Abrikian [Peter’s sister], and I) would ride, bringing the bulk of the provisions. Barney and Matthew got up at 5, as the hikers were to leave at 5:30. The riders were to leave at 8 but actually left about 8:30.

Both groups actually started out by driving to Mavis Bank, the jumping-off point. The hikers went in two cars driven by Fionn and Andrew; Sophie drove the riders. The route to Mavis Bank (shown in light blue on the map) is in itself not easy and requires an experienced mountain driver. Sophie drove fast but expertly and got us to Mavis Bank around 9:30 to meet our ride. Whitfield Hall owns two Land Rovers and, for a price, will send them to Mavis Bank (or all the way to Kingston) to pick up guests. We rendezvoused with our driver, Pauly, and parked at the police station.

Mavis Bank, situated 2,168 feet above sea level, is home to one of only five processing plants for Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. The mountain slopes above it are covered with coffee plantations, one of which is Whitfield Hall, which dates from 1776 and has the last inhabited house from that colonial period. This “Great House” is now operated as a hostel, primarily for climbers to the “Peak.” At 4,000 feet above sea level, Whitfield Hall is about 3,000 feet below the 7,402-foot summit; the seven-mile hike takes 3–4 hours and is often undertaken in darkness in order to reach the peak at sunrise (and to avoid the heat of the day).

Although the distance from Mavis Bank to Whitfield Hall is only six miles, it took us two hours in the Land Rover. Thomas Frank, writing in the April 1, 2001, issue of Newsday, captures some of the flavor of the experience:

A mountain lodge with no electricity or hot water. A spleen-crushing drive up a dirt road of hairpin turns and kitchen-sink sized potholes.…

The Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s main mountain region, known internationally for producing first-rate coffee, run east-west on the eastern third of the island, just north of the coastal capital of Kingston. Visible from Kingston and appearing on a map to be no more than 10 miles from the city, the mountains are, in fact, a two-hour drive from Manley International Airport [actually, I can’t imagine how it could be done in just two hours]. The drive requires a four-wheel vehicle and is best done by a local…and on a settled stomach.

The lower part of the Blue Mountains [is] extraordinarily steep and the road is frighteningly narrow as it grows increasingly rutted while ascending through tiny hamlets and coffee plantations. Children are barefoot. Men carry machetes.

The summit of the Blue Mountains, often enshrouded in clouds, stands 7,402 feet above sea level, taller than any peak in the Eastern U.S., but not high enough to cause mountain sickness or even a shortness of breath.

Frank actually stayed at the Wildflower Lodge, another of the hostels catering to climbers. It sounds downright luxurious compared to Whitfield Hall—private rooms with bath, meals provided, etc. Whitfield Hall, described by Frommer’s as “one of the most isolated places in Jamaica,” provides “basic accommodation for 30 guests in rooms containing two or more beds. Blankets and linen are provided, but personal items, such as towels, soap, and food [and toilet paper] are not. There is no restaurant [an understatement if there ever was one!], but there’s a freezer, a refrigerator, and good cooking facilities including crockery and cutlery; bring your own food and eat communally. All water comes from a spring, and lighting is by kerosene lamps called tilleys.

Although I had ridden inside the Land Rover while Isaiah, Simeon, and Sophie stood in the open cargo area in the back, the two-hour drive had not, to say the least, been inspiriting. My first impressions of Whitfield Hall did little to restore my confidence. My diary describes it as “an incredibly dismal habitation.” By day, the rooms are indeed rather murky (smoke-blackened paneling smelling strongly of furniture polish), but this merely encourages one to stay outside in the cool, clear mountain air. While we were getting squared away, the hikers began to trickle in, and, after they had refreshed themselves with cold showers, the preparation of lunch was undertaken.

Frommer’s somewhat overstates the kitchen facilities. The freezer and refrigerator are in the manager’s cottage, not in the kitchen, so we had brought mostly canned goods and other nonperishable items. Lunch, served outside on extremely “rustic” picnic tables, was canned corn, peas and carrots, and corned beef, plus rice and a vegetable curry made by Simeon, a vegetarian. Dishwashing was a further adventure, since there was no hot water, no dishtowels, and only one dish drainer for the cooking pots, dishes, glasses, and cutlery used by fourteen people!

The afternoon was passed in reading and playing games (deuces, dominoes, Hunters and Gatherers). In the evening, after the kerosene and oil lamps were lit, the place was more cheerful, and after a supper of soup and baked potatoes, we whiled away the time with more games, reading the entries in the guest books, picking out tunes (with missing notes here and there) on the harmonium, and so on. Eventually we drifted toward our beds. I climbed into my bunk gratefully, and before I had time to finish wondering whether I would be able to get to sleep on a strange pillow, I was out!

Day Five—Tuesday

We awoke with the light and eventually had a breakfast of festival, sardines, and boiled green bananas. There was a rumor of ripe peaches on some of the trees roundabout, so some of us went out for a walk along the mountainside to Abbey Green. Though we didn’t ever find any very satisfactory peaches, we did come across “cheeseberries,” a delicacy much sought after by the Damdars, and we chewed ripe coffee berries to see if they really were sweet, as reported (they were).

The mountain vistas were breathtaking, and all of us who had brought cameras along (most of us) snapped many pictures, including some of each other. Along the way we passed the steep (ladder-like) path down to the small waterfall that was the scene of The Proposal, so of course we all had to slip and slide our way down to see that, take pictures, then clutch and grab our way back up to the road. Back at the lodge, I took a picture of the Damdar men: (L–R) Simeon, Ray, Simon, Sherwin, Isaiah, and Fionn. We spent the rest of the morning in reading, game playing, and other leisure activities.

At breakfast we had sampled some of the coffee grown on the Whitfield Hall estate, and on the basis of the sample, Barney and Fionn bought several pounds of roasted beans. They paid about $9 a pound for beans that would cost $40–$90 a pound in the States, making them probably the best bargain we got in the way of souvenirs!

After a lunch of corned beef and roasted breadfruit, we hastily packed up to leave. The hikers got an hour’s head start, although they planned to run down the mountain. This time the hiking group included only Matthew, Sherwin, Ray, and Andrew. The Abrikians and Wendy Russell had hiked back the previous afternoon, and Barney, Fionn, Virginia, and Simon were going to join Simon, Isaiah, and me in the Land Rover.

On the way up, I’d been unprepared for the ruggedness of the Land Rover, and at least part of my decision to ride inside had been based on the fact that I was carrying a purse and a canvas tote that I didn’t want to put down on the muddy floor. As it turned out, they got just about as muddy inside the vehicle! For the return trip, I bagged them in plastic grocery bags so I could throw them in the back without qualms. We made Isaiah ride inside (he protested feebly and proceeded to sleep most of the way down), and I stood in the back. This proved to be much more pleasant and exciting, as the view was much better from the greater height (and unobstructed by a dirt-streaked windshield). Barney also enjoyed it, saying he had been able to see much more than on the way up when his eyes were fixed on the ground to avoid tripping over roots and stones. Even though it was necessary to hang on for dear life most of the way, Fionn daringly released his grip a few times long enough to shoot pictures of doctor birds and other rare species.

We reached Mavis Bank about 4, and the runners turned up shortly afterward. We got beverages at a roadside store, left Mavis Bank about 4:30, and got “home” (to the Russells’) about 5:30. After supper about 7, Barney and I went to bed about 10, but Matthew, Ray, and Sherwin stayed up late playing Hunters and Gatherers with Andrew and Wendy.