Who said anything about rest and relaxation? We go in search of heart-pounding excitement in Jamaica.
Im standing, as hard as it is for me to believe it, on top of a mountain. An honest-to-goodness mountain. At 7,402 feet tall, Blue Mountain is no Everest, but it may as well be, considering how little experience Ive had in the art of the ascent. A heavy layer of dense fog makes it impossible to see down all 3,000 feet that my traveling companions and I have just climbed up from our lodging, which is situated at 4,200 feet, to reach the peak. Im shivering, and every visible exhale is further proof, as if I needed it, that my lightweight hooded jacket, jeans, and a fabric headband -- the latter of which Im now using to warm my ears, however slightly -- are not the most appropriate attire for todays excursion.
How was I to know? Just a few days and a mere 130 miles ago, I was sipping a frozen cocktail and clenching sand between my toes on one of the most beautiful beaches Ive ever laid eyes on. The fact that now I cant stop my teeth from chattering makes it all the more difficult to believe Im in Jamaica, the place nearly three million visitors flock to each year for sun, surf, and relaxation.
But Im now well aware, as I perch on a rocky precipice up more than a mile in the sky, that theres another side to this Caribbean jewel -- an adventurous side, one that persists throughout the entire island. Though Ive never considered myself to be much of a daredevil (and by much of, I mean at all), Ive surprised myself this week, not only with what Ive been willing to try but also with just how much fun Ive had in the process.
We started off in Montego Bay, a popular tourist destination on Jamaicas northwest shore. Guides at Chukka Caribbean Adventures led us on an afternoons worth of high-speed and scenery-filled fun around the sprawling grounds. We tried our hands at dune buggies and bounced and slid our way across miles of rocky, muddy trails; then we eventually traded our buggies for all-terrain vehicles. Young Jamaican boys excitedly ran out from their homes nearby to high-five us as we sped past. The biggest thrill of the day was a horseback ride that took us up rolling hills, across plains, and right into the sea.
After an evening ocean safari, we reluctantly headed back to our hotel, where we recounted our favorite moments from the day over a round of rum punch -- a Jamaican original -- not realizing then that our greatest thrills were still to come.
The next morning, we departed for Ocho Rios, a resort town about halfway between Montego Bay and Jamaicas eastern coast. When hunger hit, we followed our noses to Scotchies, an authentic local eatery that has few frills but even fewer competitors who can cook a better batch of jerk chicken, pork, or fish. We savored each bite of the tender, spice-rubbed, slow-cooked meat as well as the yams, breadfruit, and festivals -- delightfully fluffy bread fritters -- which we washed down with a cool Red Stripe beer.
With our bellies full, we headed to Mystic Mountain, a mini theme park of sorts where we would have the chance to zip-line and ride the islands only bobsled roller coaster. I was excited to try zip-lining, and I wasnt disappointed. No doubt about it: To stand on the edge of a platform, harnessed to a wire, with 700 feet between you and the ground is nerve-racking. But once I got the first taste of soaring through the jungle, leaping from tree to tree, I couldnt get enough. At the end of the fifth and final line, I wished I could go again.
But a second turn would have to wait; it was bobsled time. The coaster, inspired by the famous Jamaican 1988 Olympic bobsled team, is powered entirely by gravity. We went rocketing downward, whipping around sharp turns at 45 miles per hour. It may not sound fast, but when youre riding on nothing but two steel rails, 45 miles per hour feels more like 500.
Exhilarated and windblown, we departed for our hotel in nearby Runaway Bay. But first, we stopped for a snack of Jamaican beef patties, which are delicious empanada-like meat pies. I was still thinking about the patties flaky crusts and soft warm centers the next day during our drive into the heart of Cockpit Country, an ecologically rich and largely unsettled region in the western-central part of the island. There, we met with guides from the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA), a group that has been committed to preserving the Trelawny region, and has led ecotours here, since 1996. Once I learned how well the STEA staff knows the ins and outs of the area, I was able to relax (if only a little) about the activity on the itinerary: cave exploring.