Discover Montego Bay
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Montego Bay
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris

Montego Bay defies description: posh resort, package tour playground, market town, commercial centre, seaport, slum, second city, capital of the west - its disparate elements co-exist without blending. The result is an atmosphere of schizophrenic energy. Almost all tourists enter Jamaica through the Donald Sangster airport but Montego Bay has long outgrown the label "tourist town". It is sometimes referred to as "the Republic" a nickname dating back to the last century when independent local landowners criticized the government for neglecting the western parishes. That situation still exists and true Montegonians, born in the bay and known as "Bawn a bays" sometimes still threaten, only half in jest, to secede from the rest of the island.

Christopher Columbus sailed into the bay in 1494 and named it "el Golfo de Buen Tiempo" or Fair Weather Bay. The coast was frequented by Arawaks, traces of whose habitation can still be found in the surrounding hills. The first record of a Spanish settlement here shows it as Monterias. The Spaniards hunted the herds of wild hogs that used to roam the hills and produced and exported 'hog butter' or lard. The name Montego derives from the Spanish "manteca" meaning lard, and Montego Bay is shown on some ancient maps as Lard Bay.

The town, threatened from the interior by the Maroons and from the sea by pirates, grew slowly but by the end of the eighteenth century it had become a busy port visited by about 150 ships each year - more than use it now. The fortunes of the town were tied to "King Sugar" and declined when sugar slumped during the nineteenth century. Relief came with the development of banana plantations and the export of bananas but it was as a tourist resort that Montego Bay really came into its own. As early as 1908, the Montego Bay Citizens Association were advertising the charms of the town with an invitation to: Come South . . . to Montego Bay, the most beautiful spot in Jamaica. Here is situated the famous Doctor's Cave bathing place destined to be the favourite bathing resort of the Western Hemisphere. Leave the grim north, come south! Only four and a half days from New York.

DOCTORS CAVE, credited with the genesis of the tourist trade was the property of an eccentric and lovable physician Dr. Alexander McCatty, who donated it to the town as a bathing club in 1906. The curative powers of the sea water were promoted in England by the celebrated chiropractor Sir Herbert Barker. A controversial but fashionable figure, Sir Herbert was also a devotee of the small Casa Blanca Hotel, established by the matriarch of Montego Bay tourism 'Ma Ewen'.

A nucleus of small hotels grew up around Doctor's Cave, most of them owned and managed by local families: the Ewens at Casa Blanca, the Edwards at Beach View, the deLissers at Sunset Lodge, the Fosters at Chatham and another matriarch, Miss Ethel of Ethelhart Hotel. During World War 2 a landing strip was built in the mangrove swamp, partly to provide employment. After the war, an airport was opened and Montego Bay rapidly became a mecca for the rich and famous. Today, the modern Donald Sangster airport (named after a former Prime Minister) handles tens of thousands passengers annually and is continually being refurbished or expanded.

Montego Bay has the greatest concentration of tourist accommodation on the island and offers a wide variety. Luxury properties like HALF MOON, ROUND HILL and TRYALL, large multi-stories like ROSEHALL BEACH AND COUNTRY CLUB, HOLIDAY INN, SEAWIND and FANTASY, apartment hotels like MONTEGO BAY CLUB and SEACASTLES, small inns like WEXFORD INN, BLUE HARBOUR, ROYAL COURT, TOBY INN and READING REEF. All-inclusive hotels (offering pre-aid total packages) are well represented, including three of the international SANDALS chain, CLUB PARADISE, and JACK TAR at Montego Beach.

Before the days of mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment studies, two development projects changed the face of the bay forever. In by-gone days ships were anchored offshore and loaded by deep open boats called 'lighters'. The harbour was vulnerable in bad weather and small boats had to seek safe anchorage amongst the Bogue Islands, a cluster of mangrove keys in the west of the bay. During the 1960s the Bogue Islands were transformed (by dredging and dumping) into MONTEGO FREEPORT with resort, residential and industrial sites plus a deep water pier with 6 berths. The scheme was financed by private capital and ìbawn-a-bayî entrepreneur Tony Hart was the catalyst. Today the government is the major shareholder.

SEAWIND, a self-contained budget hotel with beach including a 'clothes optional' section is located on the Freeport peninsular. The MONTEGO BAY YACHT CLUB, terminus for the annual Miami - Montego boat race in Spring and venue for the Marlin tournament in the fall is an interesting place to observe some local movers and shakers at play. Beyond here BAY POINTE, with twin pools offers a mixture of residential and vacation apartments. As we went to press, another luxury residential complex was planned for the western peninsular and LAGOON LTD was seeking government permission to build Jamaica's first casino-cum-theme park.

The commercial area of Montego Freeport lay dormant for almost two decades but is now growing rapidly. Port facilities continue to be under-utilized, mostly serving cruise ships. A multi-million cruise ship terminal and shopping centre was recently completed. In the Freezone area where export companies can operate without paying local taxes or customs duties there are garment factories and data entry/electronic information companies. The latter are served by the large saucer-shaped antenna of JAMAICA DIGIPORT INTERNATIONAL, a telecommunications facility with satellite hook-up. JDI is a joint venture between AT&T, Cable & Wireless and Telecommunications of Jamaica.

The Urban Development Corporation (government owned and dubbed Urban Destruction Co. by its environmental critics) dredged and dumped the foreshore of the town centre to create an extension that includes the Howard Cooke Highway, commercial and hotel sites, WALTER FLETCHER BEACH, the CRAFT MARKET, a fisherman's beach, playing fields and the open air BOB MARLEY PERFORMING CENTRE site in 1993 of the first homegrown reggae festival SUNFEST. The HOWARD COOKE BOULEVARD was named for a popular local politician who rose to become, and still remains, Governor General, was knighted by the Queen and is now known as Sir Howard. Along the foreshore you will find LOJ's pleasant small shopping centre with a mini food court and PIER 1, a popular restaurant.



: National Hero Sam "Daddy" Sharpe is credited with instigating the slavesí Christmas Rebellion in 1831 which expedited the abolition decree. In fact, Sharpe, who was a house slave and part-time preacher, had planned a non- violent strike. Convinced that the King of England had already freed the slaves he advised them not to go back to work after the Christmas holidays unless they were paid. Things got out of hand and many of the plantations in the west were set on fire and some of the whites killed. The revolt was quelled with the utmost severity - some say brutality - and the leaders executed. White missionaries William Knibb and Thomas Burchell were also arraigned and tried for fomenting rebellion but were released for lack of evidence. Sam Sharpe was not so fortunate. He was hanged in the square which now bears his name.

His last words were: I would rather die on yonder gallows than live as a slave. In the northeast corner a group of statues by Jamaican sculptor Kay Sullivan, depicting Sharpe preaching to some of his followers. The sculpture blends into the commuters, street people and idlers who customarily throng the square. THE CAGE nearby was once used as a lock-up for drunkards and runaway slaves. The historic Georgian COURTHOUSE was burnt down years ago, its ruin now forms the backdrop for civic functions, political meetings and reggae shows. The elegant fountain in the centre of the square was the gift of a banana baron J.E. Kerr at the turn of the century. It functions sporadically.

Within walking distance, up MARKET STREET the BURCHELL BAPTIST CHURCH was named for the brave abolitionist the Rev. Thomas Burchell. The original chapel built by him was destroyed by a mob of slave-owners after the Christmas Rebellion. Burchell only escaped death because he was given sanctuary by the captain of a ship in the harbour.

The elegant ST JAMES PARISH CHURCH along CHURCH ST was founded in 1782 and contains several lavish monuments erected by wealthy sugar barons. Among these are two by the famous English sculptor John Bacon, one of them being a memorial to Mrs Rosa Palmer, not to be confused with Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rosehall. Opposite here is the TOWN HOUSE, a well preserved Georgian mansion which is a popular restaurant. If you really want to learn what Montego Bay is all about, try a walk along BARNETT ST - the busiest in town and crammed with a kaleidoscope of small businesses, restaurants, bars and vendors.



Famous DOCTORS CAVE remains one of the most popular beaches though Dr. McCatty's cave (where ladies and gentlemen had to swim at different times) was destroyed by the 1951 hurricane which also decimated the beach. American engineer Henry Makepeace Wood was engaged to save the beach. He designed three groins to channel the sand bearing currents with the result that the beach is now more than twenty times its original size and still growing. Other additions and more changing rooms, a snack bar and beachbar and have kept pace with the Cave's increasing clientele. Many of the staff have worked at Doctors Cave for over twenty years.

Adjacent CORNWALL BEACH has the same fluffy sand and limpid water. Also located here are the JAMAICA TOURIST BOARD'S OFFICES (for advice and information) and the headquarters of The MONTEGO MARINE PARK a partnership between USAID, the government of Jamaica, and local friends of the sea who are hoping to rehabilitate the marine environment. WALTER FLETCHER BEACH has changing-rooms, snack bars and tennis court.

WATER SPORTS are available at all the above and at most ocean-front hotels.

TENNIS: Many hotels have tennis courts - some lighted. Half Moon where the pro is Jamaican champion Richard Russell has 13 courts, seven of them lighted, and 4 squash courts. Tryall also has a resident pro.

GOLF: 4 championship courses include Rosehall, Half Moon, Ironshore and Tryall which is the venue of the annual Johnny Walker Championship for the best of the best.



Information on a variety of tours and cruises can be obtained at hotel tour desks or from any of the many tour companies with offices along the hotel strip. Durable favourites include: Evening on the Great River, Hilton High Day, Croydon on the Mountain, Belvedere Estate, Mountain River Rafting, Rafting on the Martha Brae, and cruising on 'Calico'. Popular new tours include YS Falls, Homes of the Rich and Famous - and day tours to Santiago, Cuba arranged by Sunholiday or Caribic. Unfortunately, the very popular Appleton Express is defunct, due to the closure of the railway in 1992, but you can still visit Appleton by bus.



This magnificent great house cost 30,000 pounds sterling to build in 1770 - an enormous sum in those days - and was considered the finest in the island. It was damaged during the 1831 slave rebellion and uninhabited thereafter, perhaps because the ghost of the White Witch of Rosehall was rumoured to be in residence. Stripped of its doors and mahogany staircase it fell into ruin. During the 1960s it was purchased by American millionaire John Rollins and restored at vast expense to its present elegance. Restoration of the great house was part of a development scheme that included the construction of the Holiday Inn and Rosehall hotels. Conducted tours are available.

The story of the White Witch of Rosehall, Jamaica's most popular legend, was perpetuated by H.G. de Lisser's novel. Annie Palmer is reported to have been beautiful, lascivious and diabolical. She dabbled in voodoo, tortured her slaves, murdered her husbands and lured into her bed any man, black or white who took her fancy, boasting: If I survive I'll marry five. Annie, it is said, was eventually strangled, by a slave, during an uprising. There is no historical evidence to substantiate this tale. The facts are that the Hon. John Palmer, Custos of St James acquired Rosehall through marriage and built the great house. He was indeed the fourth husband of Rosehall's mistress, Mrs Rosa Palmer, but a memorial to her in St James Parish Church attests to her virtue and the fact that she died peacefully at age 72, predeceasing her husband. A subsequent Ann Palmer, wife of James Palmer, grandnephew of the Custos and heir to Rosehall, was also, research proves, a model wife. But the legend of the White Witch persists, losing nothing in the passage of time and encouraging attempts by various spiritualists to raise Annie's ghost. One attempt in 1978 took place before a large crowd which returned home very disappointed. Clairvoyant Bambos claimed to have conjured up a stout cafe-au-lait lady who led him to her grave behind the house where he discovered an incense burner and voodoo doll inside a termite nest.

GREENWOOD was built in the early eighteenth century by Sir Richard Barrett, cousin of the famous English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Sir Richard built Greenwood for lavish entertaining, hence the large ballroom. Custos of the Parish, Member of the Legislature, sportsman and bon vivant, he died suddenly in somewhat suspicious circumstances in a rooming house in Falmouth. Not a pious man, he nevertheless gave permission for his slaves to receive instructions in Christianity murmuring, I daresay it may help to tame them.

Greenwood was one of the few great houses to escape damage in the 1831 Christmas Rebellion and has been occupied continuously. The present owners, Bob and Anne Betton use the stately master bedroom where their TV set is carefully concealed in a cupboard. Bob Betton returned to Jamaica in the late 1970s to go into farming. Instead he bought Greenwood at the insistence of an elderly English millionaire, John Binns, who wanted to see his priceless collection of antiques in loving hands. Among the treasures here are a sixteenth century court jester's chair, a Spanish brazier, an inlaid rosewood piano (a betrothal gift from Edward VII to his fiancee), the library of the Barrett family, many fine portraits, and a rare collection of antique musical instruments including a barrel organ that plays Daisy, Daisy. The huge variety of items substantiates Greenwood's claim to having the largest collection of antiques and musical instruments in the Western Hemisphere. There are off-beat items like the Barretts boudoir china (basins, jugs and chamber pots made by Wedgwood and bearing the family crest) - antique carriages and fire- fighting equipment and even an original 1778 advertisement offering a handsome reward for the return of runaway slave Mary Gold. The view from the upstairs veranda stretching from Rosehall to Discovery Bay is so extensive that you can actually identify the curve of the horizon. Tours are available 7 days a week and there is a pleasant pub-style bar in the old kitchen.



Rocklands Bird Feeding Station is a unique spot where Miss Lisa Salmon has been entertaining her feathered friends for over 40 years. Quits, doves, nightingales, finches, orioles and hummingbirds are just a few of the different birds that can be seen here. Tea time lasts from 3:30 to dusk. Accredited members of birdwatching clubs are admitted through the day. You can sit on the verandah - but be careful not to sit on a bird - and have them hopping on your shoulder and eating out of your hands. Quicksilver hummingbirds - doctor birds (Jamaica's national bird), bee hummingbirds (only slightly larger than a bumble bee), or mango hummingbirds will perch on your finger to sip sugar and water from a feeding bottle. Ornithologists will delight in Miss Lisa's repertoire of bird stories. Her knowledgeable assistant Fritz deputizes ably for the bird lady when she is unable to entertain.



Montego Bay restaurateurs complain that the all-inclusive syndrome is wrecking their business - but restaurants continue to proliferate. Almost every type of cuisine is available at prices from moderate to outrageous. When doing your own research do not forget the many restaurants lining the highlevel road e.g. Rotis, Brigadoon, The Native, The Diplomat and Mickey's Montegonian. Durable favourites along the hotel strip are the Pelican, Wexford Grill, Marguerite's and the Greenhouse. Opposite Cornwall Beach, the open air Pork Pit specializes in jerked snacks and if you are searching for Sushi, you should try Sea Shell! Popular spots in town include Pier One, The Town House and Lychee Gardens. If you have a big appetite and small pocket, try rootsy Tigers or Smokey Joe's on St. James St. or Harbour Lights Grill and Restaurant on the corner of Harbour and Union Streets. Or stand in line for patties and "box" drinks from Butterflake on Harbour St or Jucibeef on St. James St. The Houseboat at Montego Freeport is a floating fondue restaurant. Popular pubs include: The Brewery and Walters on Gloucester Avenue and a tourist friend of mine recommends the police canteen at Sunset Arms.

FESTIVALS: After 16 years in Montego Bay, Synergy, the promoters of Reggae Sunsplash decided to move to Kingston (and from there onto Dover). To fill the gap a group of Montego Bay businessmen including Godfrey Dyer and Mickey Morris got together to launch Reggae Sunfest. With the help of international publicist (and 'bawn a bay') Byron Balfour, Sumfest was born in August 1993 and has become an annual affair.

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