“It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky." (Christopher Columbus, 1494)
Shrouded almost perpetually by mists that give Jamaica’s highest mountains their bluish color, the Blue Mountain range sprawls across the eastern portion of the island for a length of 28 miles (40 km) and an average width of about 12 miles (20 km). They rise steeply in an area so compact that it is possible to drive from the coastal plains to an elevation of over 7,000 feet (2000 m) in less than an hour. When Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494, the mountains were heavily forested. Early Spanish settlers established their hatos or cattle ranches at the foot of the Blue Mountains on the southern coast at Liguanea, the Yallahs Valley and around the Morant Bay area. However, their numbers were few and it was after the island was captured by the English that the lower slopes were cleared for farming and the forests were harvested to meet the great demand in England for Jamaican hardwoods. Today, economic and population pressures have pushed the forest line to around 2,000 ft (610 m) on the northern slopes and almost 5000 feet (1500 m) on the southern slopes.
The 194,000-acre (80,000-ha) Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain National Park was established in 1992 to preserve some of the remaining forests and to protect the island’s largest watershed. The park comprises about 6% of Jamaica’s total landmass. These diverse mountain forests have more than 800 species of endemic plants, the world’s second largest butterfly, Papilo homerus, 200 species of resident and migrant birds and is one of the largest migratory bird habitats in the Caribbean. There are also more than 500 species of flowering plants of which almost one half are native to Jamaica. Of these, the most interesting is perhaps the Jamaican bamboo, Chusquea abietifolia, that flowers only once every 33 years. The next flowering will take place in 2017.
The town of Newcastle, located 2 miles (3 km) below Holywell, is the common trailhead for several well-known hikes.
Newcastle has an interesting history. The British established it in 1841 because troops manning the lowland forts were dying of yellow fever in alarming numbers. The buttercups that grew in great numbers following the rains were blamed for exuding some sort of effluvium that caused the deadly sickness.
The troops were stationed high in the forest at Newcastle so they would be far enough away from the buttercup fields to be affected. It was much later before someone made the connection between yellow fever and the hearty, thriving mosquito population that--along with the buttercups—also mushroomed with the rains. Black slaves were much less susceptible to yellow fever than their British owners. Slaves named the buttercups after the white people (or "backras"), calling them "kill-backras." The saying also developed that "If backra wants to live long, he must ask nayga leave" because it appeared the less sickly Negroes knew the secret to good health and long life.
Almost all of the area's hikes, such as the Fern Walk Trail, start at the Old Stables Inn.
Irish Town and Redlight
Irish Town is a pleasant residential area stretching along the main road for some distance. Some of the other residences have Irish place names, as this was where the Irish coopers who made the coffee barrels lived.
- Hardware Gap: The parishes of St. Andrew and Portland meet at Hardware Gap.
There is a noticeable change in vegetation and climate at Hardware Gap, where on most days mist descends on one of Jamaica's few remaining mountain forest areas. Ginger lilies grow thickly on the roadside.
- Holywell Nature Reserve: Holywell Nature Reserve, a recreational area is on the left. Since 1993 it has been a part of the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. The reserve offers a view of Kingston, picnic spots, tents and tent spaces, and cabins that can be rented from the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust. There are several trails through the forest, and guides are available. The Oatley trail is of particular interest. It passes through tall tree ferns and trees bearing epiphytes such has wild pines, orchids, ferns, lichens and fungi, through fern brakes and mossy sections. Watch for birds and other wildlife. Behind the parking area is the Waterfall trail, with several farm roads leading off it.
- Old Tavern Coffee Estate: On a small farm, nestled high on the cool northern slopes of the Blue Mountains, is perhaps the perfect setting for growing coffee. The area produces exceptional Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee... nature provides ideal growing conditions, and workers painstakingly tend fields and hand select berries for processing and on-farm roasting.
Newcastle Barracks Jamaica Defence Force training centre: The Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) was formed just a few days prior to Jamaica becoming a sovereign independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations. The JDF has a long history of descent and traditions stemming from units raised in the West Indies since the mid-17th century.
Most Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole, also known locally as Patois (Patwa). Jamaican pronunciation and vocabulary are significantly different and because of this the language is almost completely unintelligible to a native speaker of English. Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole between one another. In all other cases English is used.
You may hear some Jamaicans say "Waah gwan?" or "what tah gwan", which is the patois variation of "What's up?" or "What's going on?” More formal greetings are usually "Good morning", or "Good evening".
Excursions to Kingston A route taxi is available from Mount Edge to Papine. This will cost approximately J$150, these are more economical than others taxis but you share the space. A good experience.
From Papine you can take a taxi or a bus (the large white JUTC bus) have their stops in front of the market in Papine. No timetables seem to apply, but if you wait “a likkle bit” there will soon be one going your direction. These are very cheap. The route taxi is more expensive and should cost about J$100.
With buses number 61 and 78 you reach Liguanea with shopping malls and eateries, Sovereign Centre is one of the malls. The same buses continue to Half Way Tree where you find more shops and stalls. If you are on your way to the Bob Marley Museum, you can ask a taxi-driver to drop you off there.
When it’s time to catch a ride back to Papine, look for a JUTC bus stop from where you can catch a number 61, 75 or 78 bus or ask for a route taxi.
When you reach Papine you need to find Park View Supermarket; from here you can take a minibus or a taxi to Mount Edge, again this will cost approximately J$150.
- Coffee estates: The once'forested lower slopes of the Blue Mountains are now mostly grasslands but some areas are used for the cultivation of vegetables, spices and the world-renowned Blue Mountain coffee. The first coffee seedlings were brought to Jamaica from Hispaniola in 1728 by the Governor, Sir Nicholas Lawes. The mountain slopes were cleared to establish coffee plantations and by the first quarter of the 19th century, Jamaica was the leading coffee producer in the world. The industry fell into decline after Emancipation when Jamaica could no longer compete with slave owning countries like Brazil and Cuba.
- Today, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is considered to be among the best of the gourmet coffees in the world. To ensure the quality, the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board set standards for the coffee beans and the processing in order to carry the ‘Blue Mountain Coffee’ label. 90% of the island’s production is exported to Japan.
- Although some coffee estates remain, most of the beans are grown on small plots by local farmers. Considering the retail price of Jamaican coffee worldwide, the farmers get a pittance for their crop and some opt to roast and sell their own beans. A number of them can be found on the Kingston-Buff Bay road near the little town of Section. The process of hand picking ripe berries then drying, curing and roasting the beans is time consuming. Each farmer has his own ‘secret’ process and is happy to explain why his is the very best. It’s an excellent opportunity for coffee connoisseurs to sample a variety of roasts and to purchase a truly unique product.
The Peak Trail
The trail to Blue Mountain Peak begins at Abbey Green; it can be reached in several ways. A 4WD vehicle can be driven from Mavis Bank down to the Yallahs River at Mahogany Vale, where you can cross the river and drive to Hagley Gap. From here a very steep road leads to Epping Farm. Bearing right, you pass Wildflower Lodge and Whitfield Hall and reach Abbey Green, above which the trail begins.
Another route from Hagley Gap is to turn downhill to the Negro River, where there is a fording and pedestrian bridge. In wet weather the fording is often impassable. A rough track then leads left through the former coffee estate of Radnor. It is privately owned and the road privately maintained with wire gates across it at two places, which can be lifted aside but must be replaced. The track emerges near Whitfield Hall. Turn right for Abbey Green.
The trail has been described in many ways, one of which is "the longest six miles in Jamaica" (10 km). It is also described in terms of the plants and trees you may see as you move up from the trailhead to the Peak. The steepest part of the journey is in the first half, before Portland Gap. Jacob's Ladder, as it has long been named from the former stepping formation, is the steepest stretch of all, but it has bow been tarmacked. Soon after that stretch, you come to Portland Gap.
There are wooden cabins here with bunks for sleeping, space for tents and simple sanitary arrangements including a shower. There is also a tuck shop where you can buy food. If you wish to cook, you have to bring your own food and equipment, but some wood is provided. Sponge mattresses for the bunks can be rented at a minimal cost; you must however supply your own sleeping bags and blankets.
After Portland Gap the path is less steep for awhile and you pass through more of the natural forest-trees and ferns, epiphytes, wayside shrubs and herbs. As you climb higher the vegetation changes and the trees become noticeably shorter.
At the top there is at present the remains of a vandalized forest shelter, which is still used by walkers although the roof is collapsing. The views are tremendous if you are not in the mist. On a very fine day, with the aid of binoculars, you may be able to see the tops of the Sierra Maestra Mountains of southern Cuba. The highest point, where the Trigonometry station stands, is to the right of the flat area where the shelter is.
Hiking in Holywell with afternoon coffee at Gap Café
Make your way up to Holywell National Park, the options for this are walk up (it’s 4 miles or 6½ km), or rent a bike (US$15 per day) or hitchhike.
The entrance fee to the park is approximately J$200. Once there you can follow any trail or just have a stroll, bring water to drink and remember to return to the entrance before sunset.
After a few hours of walking when it’s time for a break you can relax at the Gap Café. The hummingbirds come to feed here and you can enjoy a cup of Blue Mountain Coffee or just take in the view. To get back to Mount Edge; you can walk, roll down on your bike or hitchhike.
Eat and drink
- Gap Café, ☏ , , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. café and gift shoppe, nestled in the Blue Mountains, at 4,400 ft., with a spectacular view of Kingston, Port Royal and the close by Holywell National Park, has been in operation for the past ten years. A one-hour drive from Kingston, it has a reputation (apart from the view) for good food, good service and the best cup of coffee in the world. Its "bed and breakfast" is furnished with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen with minibar, a small living room and verandah (US$60 for 1 or 2 people). Breakfast and meals can be served on the verandah or at the restaurant. The area is a nature and birdwatcher's paradise, five minute walk from the cottage there is Holywell Park with its picnic areas, various forest trails with many endemic trees, plants and flowers, birds and an abundance of hummingbirds. Fifteen minutes walk in the other direction there is the historical Newcastle military training camp, established by the British because of the imposing view of Kingston harbour and to give officers and their families respite from the heat of the city
- Gap cafe, listed above.
- Strawberry Hill, New Castle Road B1, St. Andrew, ☏ . a mountaintop luxury hotel and spa, perched in the Blue Mountains, and located 3,100 feet above sea level. A Living Spa, a Main House, and twelve handcrafted 19th-century Georgian style cottages, including one bedrooms, studios and deluxe villas. Each is sited in a private tropical haven with magnificent mountainside and city views. Also featured is a negative edge swimming pool with a day-for-night panorama of the vibrant city of Kingston. The spa specializes in stress relief and organic healing based on the five elements practiced in Ayurvedic philosophies. Five treatment rooms, including a specialized hydrotherapy room, a plunge pool, a sauna and a deck for yoga and other outdoor activities. The property's high altitude captures the seasonal mountain mists that create an ideal climate for lush plant growth. US$450-800/night plus 20% service charge and government tax.