My Rasta father showed me the real Jamaica. After he died, I wanted to share it with my kids

As we bump along terrible roads in my dad’s hot, noisy buttermilk-coloured Beetle, I’m unable to take in the beauty of Jamaica’s north coast – its waterfalls and gin-clear sea, its lush fern-quilted interior and the majestic Blue Mountains my dad loved.

It’s the late 1980s. I’m 15. It’s been nine years since I last saw my dad. To mark our reunion in the country of my birth, my dad, who adored adventures, and wanted my mum, sisters and I to “visit all your people ’dem and see every corner of your beautiful home”, is taking us on a road trip. However, admiring Jamaica’s landscape is the last thing on my mind as I sit squashed between my sisters in the back of the Beetle, angry at my dad because he’d dropped in and out of our childhood. My aim, despite my teenage moodiness, is to get to know him better. Not Jamaica.

Jamaica map

A Rasta whose religion required him to be respectful of the Earth, he mostly lived off-grid in the Blue Mountains that cradle Kingston. He grew his own food – from wild thyme, turmeric, scallion and avocado to gungo peas and guava – and, like most Jamaicans, bought from local producers long before sustainability became a buzzword.

Omega as a baby with her dad at Cinchona, in the Blue Mountains, in the 1970s. Photograph: Omega Douglas

I had no idea, as we reconnected during that Beetle holiday, and on many other journeys that followed, that our time would be cut short by his premature death. The visits ranged from a press trip I took to the capital – where my dad met me in the smart-looking hotel lobby and suggested we leave for lunch somewhere “less Babylon”, whisking me off for fried fish at the once-infamous pirate hangout Port Royal – to celebrating the millennium by watching epic Scrabble games being played on the veranda of my grandparents’ Kingston bungalow, and enjoying sweet rum punch and soul-stirring reggae on Negril’s warm white sands.

It’s now 20 years since my dad died. To mark this anniversary, my children, husband and I are doing our own road trip, staying in places with eco credentials and journeying from the sea, where my dad’s ashes were scattered, to the Blue Mountains, where a brass plaque bearing his name sits beneath nine trees we planted in his memory. Jamaica is the only tangible connection my children have to him. So, when we arrive a week before Christmas to traverse the country they love visiting, in a style their grandad would have approved of, and some passengers clap, as is the tradition for those in diaspora returning, or shout, “Jah, give thanks”, my kids beam. Ready to reconnect with their Jamaican selves.

We spend three days in Kingston seeing family and friends, eating flaky patties at Devon House, a grand building erected in 1881 by Jamaica’s first Black millionaire, George Stiebel, and touring Bob Marley’s former home, where we sit on the steps where he wrote Three Little Birds. I’ve previously dismissed the tour as “too touristy”. But this time, maybe because the biopic was about to be released, maybe because of my age or maybe because my kids are old enough to appreciate wandering around the legend’s house, I’m glad I made the effort.

The Blue Mountains, visible across Kingston, invite you to lift your eyes and acknowledge their majesty whether you venture into them or not. Not only do we venture in, we climb more than 900 metres to stay at Lime Tree Farm, a guesthouse perched on a mountain ridge. The owners grow Blue Mountain coffee, along with organic fruit and vegetables. En route, George, a taxi driver, takes us to Mavis Bank, the mountain village where my dad lived.

We arrive after a scenic 50-minute drive from Kingston, passing the spring where my dad filled his water bottles. The smell of Blue Mountain coffee perfumes the air around Mavis Bank Coffee Factory, where locally picked beans are roasted. I loved doing this mountain drive with my dad. He carefully navigated the then pothole-riddled road. Window down, elbow out, he’d beep and wave at everyone, like he and they were stars. “Yes, brother,” they’d greet him. “Meet me daughters,” he’d say proudly. And we felt proud and embarrassed as people smiled and shouted, “Look pon yah, so grown.”

The Blue Mountains. Photograph: PhotoSpirit/Alamy

When we arrive in Mavis Bank this time, George nods at people we pass on the main street, which has a few shops, a police station, and the post office to which I’d sometimes send letters for my dad and would receive correspondence back, occasionally with a photo of a mountain or a pressed flower inside.

“Everyting cool?” George says to passersby. “Yeah, man,” everyone greets him back. “You ’ave space for one more?”

We drive past the shortcut we sometimes took to walk up to the village from my dad’s house. Once, when he was unwell, we had to take the bus back to Kingston later than usual instead of him driving us. The sun was sinking, the sky darkening.

“You sure you’re OK to walk up the shortcut?” he asked, sensing our city-girl nerves at the prospect of navigating an unlit country path.

“We’re fine,” we lied.

Omega’s father. Photograph: Dr Omega Douglas

He rolled his eyes, chuckled, put on his jacket and shoes, and led us up the path. As we walked, tree frogs gulping and leaves rustling, he found the energy to give us a mini biology lecture on the luminescent powers of the peeny wallies (fireflies) and instructed us to “spot their guiding lights”. Before we knew it, we were safely at our destination.

“Love you, be safe,” he waved to us, before heading back down the dark track, peeny wallies flashing around him.

“Bye, take care,” I replied. Loving him too, but not always able to say it.

This time, with George, we drive rather than walk to my dad’s house. He built it with a mezzanine where he’d read or meditate listening to the gushing river where he swam. His wild fruit and vegetable garden is still dotted with rainwater containers, trays of drying turmeric and medicinal plants, some of which we pluck leaves from for our journey to Lime Tree.

Roger, who runs Lime Tree with his wife, Tifony, meets us in his 4WD outside the coffee factory where, he says, a “rain-watcher” is employed to raise the alarm so the sun-drying beans can be sheltered. When we reach the farm, after navigating the potholed road, we gasp. “I feel like I’m in a dream,” my daughter says, taking in the extraordinary 360-degree view and marvelling at the silence. Even the resident mutt, Black Ops, doesn’t bark as she skips over to greet us.

Roger points to a mountain revealed by a dispersing white cloud: “That’s the Blue Mountain peak.” To the left, the slopes of a magical old botanical garden, Cinchona, are visible through the mist. My family used to visit for picnics when I was a baby. In later years, my dad would go to Cinchona to walk and smoke herb beneath the Norfolk Island pine, weeping cypress and Japanese cedar trees. The plaque in his memory is in the garden’s grounds, and hugged by the trees we planted after he died.

Cinchona is an hour’s drive away (despite being only 10 miles) and open daily; it’s also possible to hike to the Blue Mountain peak from here. But Lime Tree is such a special place in its own right that my kids say they’d happily spend weeks here, particularly after they sample chef Keisha’s cooking. Her food, which uses the farm’s organic produce, including strawberries Tifony cultivates, and meat from neighbouring smallholdings, is, as my son says, “too good”. We eat, enjoying views of the mountains and blossoming trees frequented by hummingbirds. There’s no television, just board games, a wood burner, and a stereo.

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Winnifred beach, Port Antonio. Photograph: Cavan Images/Alamy

After our first night in one of the cosy cottages, Bigs, another lovely member of Lime Tree’s team, takes us on a hike to Governors Bench. From here, if the clouds below disperse, you can see Kingston and Port Royal. Black Ops accompanies us, wagging her tail. We walk past whispering eucalyptus and through a cloud. “It feels like mist, not cotton wool,” my daughter laughs. When we reach Governors Bench the clouds have the best seat in the house, obscuring the view. We don’t mind. We feel like we’re strolling through the sky.

On our last morning, Roger drives us down the bad road to meet George, who is waiting by the coffee factory. Come lunchtime we’re on the Knutsford Express – a cheap, reliable coach service – heading west towards the white-sand beach at Negril.

By dinnertime, we’re lounging on the Skylark resort’s beach deck. The calm sea shimmers in the moonlight and we look forward to claiming a space on the powdery sand in the morning. The next few days are spent lazing around on the beach my parents used to drive to from Kingston when it was a place locals fished, and hippies stumbled upon. Our family would stay with friends whose house backed on to the Great Morass across the road from the then near-deserted beach.

We did the same on that hot road trip in the Beetle. We spent our time walking barefoot along the soft sand, recharging beneath the sea grapes, and eating freshly caught snapper and “bammy” (flatbread) at Cosmo’s beach restaurant, where my dad reasoned and laughed with his old acquaintance, Cosmo. This beach stop offered us all respite after the long, sticky getting-to-know-you-again Beetle drive.

Our route to Negril took us via Falmouth, a major port where enslaved people were marched off ships in the 18th century. Today, tourists who step off cruise liners are greeted by the renovated Georgian architecture and sometimes carted off to huge all-inclusive resorts with private beaches that the average Jamaican is prohibited from enjoying. My dad, a good storyteller, but probably equally keen to defuse the teenage angst brewing in the Beetle, tried to regale us with facts about Jamaica’s history and our grandad’s Maroon heritage as we juddered along the north coast road, the sea to our right and hills and brightly painted shops to our left.

Devon House in Kingston, built by George Stiebel in 1881. Photograph: Karol Kozlowski Premium RM Collection/Alamy

As we reached Rose Hall, a former sugar plantation between Falmouth and Montego Bay, my dad put his foot down and kissed his teeth. “Evil place, home to the wicked Annie Palmer,” he exclaimed, as we zoomed past the white stone building, whose Georgian windows still look ominously out to sea. My dad began to launch into a lecture about the vicious plantation economy, whose legacy continues, only to have us respond with teenage versions of, “Are we there yet?” We were squashed, our mum had taught us this history, and we wanted to get to Negril. Today, few empty stretches remain along Negril, and Cosmo’s is no longer there. But the hazy blue sky still melts into the bath-like blue sea, and the sand remains soft and warm, welcoming all soles.

Skylark offers a refreshing break from the all-inclusives. A small, stylish but unpretentious hotel with a yoga deck overlooking the sea, it is the sister hotel to Rockhouse, further west. Both are leaders in local social responsibility, giving back to the community via the Rockhouse Foundation. Guests can shuttle between the hotels, but there’s enough to keep us occupied around Skylark. What with spotting stingray gliding through the warm shallows, swimming with shoals of silver fish, ambling along the beach and saying polite no thank yous to offers of “snorkelling, ’shrooms, ganja”, and yes to Skylark’s complimentary “soul yoga”. Recharged, we check out and drive a hire car seven hours east to Port Antonio.

The road is easy to navigate, and we’re never far from a fruit-and-veg seller, a smoking jerk drum, a sound system or a petrol station. There are copious opportunities for diversions to places of historical interest or outstanding beauty: from the rugged Cockpit Country, where the Maroons won their freedom from British slavers, to the fairytale-like YS Falls. Time, unfortunately, is not on our side. So we head straight for Port Antonio.

The drive through the atmospheric town takes about five minutes. On the other side, the sea, which laps against some sections of road, becomes choppy, and rain suddenly hammers down. We turn the lights on and drive slowly along stretches of road that are fast becoming rivers. Just after a turn for Frenchman’s Cove beach, once a hangout for the 1950s Hollywood jet-set, we spot a sign for Goblin Hill. We take the sharp uphill turn and pull into a car park. With the rain still pouring (it’s harvested and solar-heated by the hotel), we collect our key and run across the spongy grass to our 1970s-built self-catering cottage. The open-plan living area overlooks the stormy bay. Upstairs both bedrooms have picture windows. Once the curtains are drawn, the simple retro decor requires no embellishment. The view of the sea and verdant hills is breathtaking.

Over the next few days, we eat ice-cream in the harbour I sailed to England from in the 1970s – a a few months before US-fuelled political violence got out of control and Bob Marley was shot in his home –and visit Winnifred Beach, which was saved from privatisation after locals campaigned against a villa development. We wait some time for our “soon come” lunch from Cynthia’s cafe, a shack on the beach. But waiting isn’t a problem when you can sip coconut water and gaze at the waves.

There’s a more polished feel at Frenchman’s Cove, which we visit on our last day. We pay 2,000 Jamaican dollars (about £10) each to get in. A path to the white sand beach runs alongside a river that glides down from the mountains. The crystal-clear cove, unchanged since I visited with my dad, is picture-perfect. As we swim, a woman appears with a bucket that she gently tilts towards the sand. Soon, 12 baby turtles emerge. They instinctively stumble towards the sea, some rolling on to their backs. A few tourists bend to help. “Leave them. It’s part of life’s journey,” the bucket woman says. She’s from the local marine reserve, run by the Alligator Head Foundation. Once the turtles reach water, they swim off purposely, as if they know exactly where they’re heading.

Witnessing the beginning of their journey, knowing that the females will one day return to Port Antonio to lay their eggs, feels like a fitting way to spend my final day. I had no idea where I was heading when we set sail in the 70s, but I’m glad I’ve returned to Jamaica with my children, to remember their grandfather this way.