Snacking and Sailing at Skylark and Rockhouse, Negril

by Soaree Cohen

Illustrated by  Anna Bu Kliewer

Illustrated by Anna Bu Kliewer

That term “sweet tooth” comes with a sense of transience, don’t it mon? You crave, it hits you, you fly, it’s gone, and there’s maybe a trifle of a moody come down. The scene? The case in point? An all-too-timely hospitable drop into Jamaica, into the newly minted Skylark Negril, the beautiful boutique baby cousin of the storied, Bond villain-channeling, five-star resort Rockhouse, down Seven Mile Beach, where the cane, as it leaves your body en route back to grinding Los Angeles a blur of days later, makes moodiness seem a color, and despair the only thing you know. But let’s back up a week before the come down, and instead satisfy the craving! 

Outside the airport, you can’t understand much about your surroundings except that you are very close to the ocean and there are no garish high rises as you expected. Where are the spring break merry-go-rounds? The bloated Texans and lobstered Canadians? This all seems so calm and sleek. Then you see a sliver of light between two buildings and notice a busy, vibrating street and a handful of the preconceived notions are fortified. You slip away from Montego, though, along a dreamy coastal highway for 90 minutes, and it eventually greets you like a hospitality hymn in white emphatic cursive: Skylark. You’ve arrived in Negril, and Negril is cool, because it’s not Spring Break, or an 800-room beached behemoth. 

Chef de Cuisine Andre Fowles, of Miss Lily’s, an enduring and wacky Jamaican fixture in New York City, has returned to his native roots in Negril for a residency at Skylark. Having enjoyed many a goat curry and Red Stripes at Miss Lily’s, you know this will be fantastic. Palms, hibiscus, and sea grape trees. Ornate breezeblocks make up the walls of the verandas for each room and low lights filter through the sculpted holes. Upbeat dance-hall thrums out from a DJ booth plopped beneath the vaulted, natural wood ceiling of the restaurant. An open-air kitchen, where you can see the kitchen staff also singing and shaking their hips to the music. It feels as if you’ve stumbled on a party for the staff, but it turns out this is the vibe ’round the clock! You sit at your table and inhale the salty sea and look out at the moonlit water, and consider this radiant country. Then it’s hot peppa shrimp and ackee dip, a fish sandwich on coco bread with pickled cabbage (perhaps the best fried fish sandwich you’ve ever eaten), and Mr. Fowles’ obviously earning his keep. 

In the morning you wake up to a variety of bird songs and the ocean through the gauzy white curtains. A baby-blue lamp on a wooden Danish-style desk. Clean lines, minimal color scheme. It seems a bit out of place here in the tropics, where the same bric-a-brac is found in every hotel room and roadside cafe, but then you’re reminded this boutique is in the fabled family of Rockhouse, a design destination, and suddenly the mid-century details feel perfectly suited. 

At the beach, there’s a steady flow of massage, patties, and horse rides on offer, which is excellent. More excellent is the Skylark staff who keep an eye on the scene, assuring the wares aren’t pushed too hard. The late summer clouds roll in and thunder growls. You walk next door to the parasailing booth and ask your toothless friend if you can go up, even though rain is imminent. Then he points to a parasail boat far off in the distance where there are no clouds. Next you know, you’re in the middle of the sea and one sailor is strapping you in while the other looks sagaciously out at the horizon, like he has lived eons on that boat. Suddenly the chute is catching the wind and the sailor waves goodbye. His big smile gets smaller and smaller. The consummate Jamaican sugar high sees you rise quickly and much higher than anticipated. The sandy beach turns into a minuscule line in Westmoreland. On the other side of the Seven Mile beach lies a seven-thousand-acre dark green wetland called “The Great Morass,” which is then bordered by jungle-covered mountains. You smell the warm wet air and feel entirely relaxed and in awe of how insignificant you are. That is until you notice cracks of lightening and that your boat is heading towards the black clouds and raucous thunder, which is all happening at your eye level, and you feel very significant. Your chest tightens, but you can’t do anything from where you are, so you try to trust that the veterans down below have a plan. They drive the boat close to where you had been swimming and you watch the strokes of different blues flow below you and then see the dark-shadowed fluttery swim of a five-foot-long stingray. You point and yell to no one, “The huge guy is right on the shore! I was just swimming there!” The glucose begins to thin out, you see everything become more focused, and realize you are being levied unscathed back down to the boat and towards the sailor’s broad smile. This was epic.

***

There’s a fiery sunset and glistening sea to one side and a slew of pulsing sound systems at each of the busy bars. You come across an empty, dark, small, thatched-roof spot. You sit on the wood bench and order a Ting (a local grapefruit soda consumed more than Coke on the island) and rum from the owner, who calls himself Milton. You play a few games of Connect Four, before Milton stacks the pieces methodically then looks into your eyes, asks if you like kids (to which you nod, like anyone would at a bar on an island), then tells you you’re gonna become a father on this trip. He’s seen it before. Couple was here, came back parents. This happens a lot. His stare is eerie and you can’t tell if he’s saying this in earnest or if he just regularly winds up male guests in the company of ladies, many of whom have probably enjoyed the deed in the last six hours. You shiver and reach into your pocket for some money to pay him and escape the witchery (however well-meaning!), but realize you are out of cash. So you promise Milton a cash-in-hand-return and go on an adventure in an unmarked car with a seedy stoned stranger into bustling downtown, also called Times Square, where the only ATM’s are. 

The driver, a gent you convinced off the porch of a nearby restaurant, asks if you have a ticket for the White Party or any of the “Dream Weekend” festival events. Realizing this was not veiled drug deal talk, you learn Negril is playing host to the largest music festival in all of Jamaica, which lasts five days. You had no idea. Cars are stacked in a long line honking their horns at the dare-devil scooter drivers who sometimes slow down to wave long Ganja branches in the warm wind, hoping to sell them. There are herds of Jamaicans walking along Norman Manly Blvd., all dressed in white, but not much white. The men wear white pants and no shirts, exposing their envious abs, adorned with gold chains, and the women wear little strings on their orb like booties. You’re told in a taxi later than many of the “Dream Weekend” goers live up in the jungle and have saved all year to spend their hard earned dollars at this festival, to get into the expensive parties, to forget about their jobs while freeing themselves with the loosening effects of sugarcane’s dirty uncle: rum. It seems to take ages to go twenty feet. 

Having enjoyed something of a time warp, you pop back down to the beach to return the cash back to Milton who is waiting patiently in the dark of his bar. Longing for something warm-hued and suspended in its own right, you head back to Skylark for a late dinner and Shazam the hell out of the DJs (DJ Sim and DJ Killa Blacks) who take turns flipping new sounds, dance-hall reggae mixes met with funky Jamaican pop.

***

The next morning, you taxi over to the volcanic cliff-lined ocean of the Westend, where Rockhouse hotel is located. Rockhouse is one of the first hotels to be developed on the cliffs, back in 1972. The property is a perfect example of man and nature merging, as the resort resembles a flawless African village set amongst black-hued cliffs and turquoise water. And the vibe is incredible. You haven’t a clue if the place is packed or you’re alone until the dining rooms, which are consistently full. You kick back on your private, craggy knoll in front of your villa, and imagine the hotel back in the early ’70s, when it swarmed with famous musicians like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. That evening, the dub is on full-blast as staff and guests alike turn and crank to the riddims. The charcoal squid is a topper, along with callaloo kale, which tastes like it was just yanked from the soil. This all goes down swimmingly with a pair of drunken coconuts (rum poured into the belly of a coconut), before you stumble back to bed and black out the surrounding sliding doors.

***

Coconut. Areca Palm. Fishtail Palm. Bally, the ever-popular Rockhouse gardener, hollers a Patois greeting at each employee as you walk with him down the stone path, receiving an impromptu lesson in local botany. Red Hibiscus, Bougainvillea.

“Whaa gwaan Jimmy!” Bally yells in the direction of the restaurants’ back kitchen as we walk. 

“Whaa gwaan Bally bwoy!” A cook replies. 

Almond tree. Bally asks you to crack an almond pod open with a rock. It’s delicious. 

“Whaa gwaan Marvin!” Bally says to a security guard standing near the stone archway that leads to the street and the many vendors outside selling wood carvings and crocheted thong bikinis. 

“Whaa gwaan Bally!” The security guard replies, and they bump fists. 

As we cross Westend road a truck honks its horn and a man yells out the window, “Whaa gwaan Bally!” 

You arrive at Rockhouse organic gardens, where the restaurant sources many of its ingredients. Bally points to a plant with spreading thick leaves, lined with spikes, that fans across the ground. Pineapple. Your mind can’t handle your realization that pineapples do not grow on trees. Sweating with the sun above, you slowly walk past a few more beds of herbs and Bally points each out, sometimes tearing a leaf off for a taste—spearmint, scotch bonnet, basil, Chinese thyme, leaf of life—and then you get to a toolshed stuffed with gardening implements. A small young man with dreadlocks wearing a gardening jumpsuit in teal walks around the corner of the shed with a bowl of veggie stew in hand.

This is Kevin, and everything we see here has been grown by him. Kevin has a bona-fide aura; his smile spreads peacefully as he says hello. Kevin doesn’t smoke ganja anymore, we’re told; he only eats it. You ask Kevin if he bakes it into things, like brownies? Kevin laughs a little and tells you he eats the whole leaf with his other veggies. He smiles and eats a bite of stew. Then, he winks at Bally while pointing his fork to a small bed of mixed plants. You walk over and examine the marijuana and find fully formed buds on a branch, crystalline and smelling like seaweed and grass. Bally breaks off the stick and hands you a souvenir, one you smile at and think that, ironically, will not be coming home with you. After a game of dominoes and after fielding some questions on the state of affairs in the U.S. with some local carpenters, you say good-bye to Bally and head back to the villa to enjoy the blazing sun on your isolated deck chair.

Entering Rockhouse’s signature restaurant, you’re met with an arcade of photography. The Family Acid Jamaica is a book compromised of photographer Roger Steffan’s images that document his unorthodox family visits to Jamaica during the 1960s and ’70s. The book coincidentally chronicles the beginning of reggae/dance-hall culture. Epic photos from the book cover one of the walls in the breezy, mellow, and renowned “Rockhouse” restaurant, where you’ll thereafter remember for sweet, juicy coconut shrimp paired with incredibly earthy calaloo green veggies. You scan the photos and see a rough-looking reggae party with one lost white hippie girl dancing in the center. There’s a funky cool-cat cutting records  on a machine in a small worn down office, and then another photo with the same cool-cat leaning on a rusty ’50s camper truck. The camaraderie in the photos blurs into the scene around you. You sit down by the wooden railing of the terrace and watch the sunset burn away. For desert: rum cake. It’s dark brown, almost black. When you ask a staff member where the rich color and flavor come from, he smiles and shrugs, then says, “Brownin’, mon. They put some brownin’ in it.” There’s not much room for a retort. They put some brownin’ in it. 

* * *

The next morning, you find yourself in a van en route to one of the numerous charitable Rockhouse projects. Out the window, a man wearing a rainbow crocheted Rasta hat rides his bike, hands free, while picking apart a fruit. Three children sit by their mother’s ankle while she tries to sell coconuts from her stand. Bright leafy green banana leaves, palm fronds, and flowers line the road. Bougainvillea and vines grow over countless abandoned structures that were possibly turned to ruins by hurricane Ivan fifteen years ago. There are some nicer sort of English-influenced homes with barred windows hidden back from the road, but mostly there are small wooden huts and patched-together cement structures with metal roofs. These are the homes of the Western locals.

Arriving at the school, you are given a tour. With some proceeds donated from the hotel and many donations from abroad, the foundation has invested over 4 million dollars so far. You learn that this is the 6th school that the foundation has developed for impoverished children. But this one is unique, because it was built to service those with special needs in an inclusive, integrated environment with other students. The facility addresses a demand that has been expanding dramatically, and for which there are no services in the western half of Jamaica. The school is empty because of summer break, but you can see photos of the lovable, tiny students plastered along the walls. The guide explains that to have a running toilet in a school is rare, and to have professional special needs teachers is unheard of in the area and in most of Jamaica. 

You think about your privilege, something you must not forget about, as you’re waited on day and night at the stylish resorts up the  beach, sipping rum. You consider the rum, the sugar historically cultivated by the enslaved (at one time, three quarters of the globe’s production), which you’ve learned at one point outnumbered free persons in Jamaica 20-1, and how it helped finance Europe’s Industrial Revolution. You consider the value of freedom and education. Now, you learn, 50,000 Jamaicans work paid jobs in the sugarcane industry. Ironic, then, that Europe and America are now faced with obesity and diseases due to over consumption. Poetic justice, one could venture. These thoughts are interrupted by the blare of the driver’s sound system as he wheels you back to Rockhouse, singing along to every word before you swap stories you’ve heard about Jamaica’s most famous living star, the fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt, observing the mélange of people, fruit stands, huts, and jungle dwellings, as it all passes on by.

After you check out of Rockhouse, you post up on the beach and try to stretch your sugar high a little longer before you return to the grind of Hollywood. A middle-aged, dreadlocked Rasta wearing a colorful tank top and cargo shorts, who calls himself Power Strap (not kidding), offers to make you a customized bracelet out of foraged coral. This sounds unique—a rarity on this particular stretch of beach, where much of the supposedly genuine gifts are Chinese-made mimics. He whips out some wooden-looking coral from his woven backpack and begins burning and bending a branch with his lighter to make a rounded bracelet. After sharing a few Red Stripes, and him swearing that his black coral bracelets make moles fall off and your sex drive go through the roof, he trustingly leaves all of his tools splayed out and his work in progress on the chair as he goes off to find some food. The glowing sun is setting behind the water and the beach seems quieter as he comes back with a vegan bushman stew in a styrofoam box. He squats on the sand, takes a few bites, then looks at you with twinkling eye and begins to sing an improvised reggae song. Life is tricky, but fine most of the time. Everything is all right. No problems mon. He lifts an eyebrow that is crusted with sand, then maintains eye contact with you and points his finger towards the glorious ocean. Everyone is trying so hard to get up there, he hollers. Heaven is right here!


Illustrated by Anna Bu Kliewer

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