Reveling In ‘Island Time’


Note: This is the second of two articles on Jamaica.

Hermosa Cove is aptly named, I thought as I took a seat on the shady veranda of the eponymous resort. Before me, a pale-aqua sea lapped gently at a tiny, pristine beach. Earlier that morning I had taken a dip in these waters off Ocho Rios, where a rocky coastline and thick, jungle-like forests conceal some of Jamaica’s most intimate resorts.

But as lovely as it was — hermosa means “pretty” in Spanish, the language of Jamaica’s first colonizer — hunger had set in. Stomach growling, and badly in need of caffeine, I headed to an outdoor table and waited to order.

Time passed. A songbird fluttered up through the leaves of what looked like a banana tree, trilling a mellifluous tune over the whisper of the surf. Down by the beach, a man launched his rowboat into the gentle waves.

The sun rose higher in the sky. People around me smiled. I was still hungry.

In Jamaica, I discovered over the course of a recent five-day stay, time is fluid and abstract. The lazy lilt of reggae provides the island’s sonic wallpaper — and when locals joke about being on “island time,” they really aren’t kidding. It was one of the hardest things for this Type A New York girl to get used to.

It is also precisely why people come to Jamaica, and come back. Montego Bay is only a three-and-a-half-hour flight from JFK. But once the plane touches down in the shadow of lush volcanic peaks, it can feel like you’ve crossed more than one time zone.

Breakfast finally did arrive — as did, on the same very relaxed schedule, an assortment of Jamaican Jews interested in speaking with a visiting journalist. In the charmingly unhurried, very friendly manner of every Jamaican I met, they told me about the joy of living on a multiethnic island with great weather and no anti-Semitism. They also complained about low wages and the struggle of many Jamaicans to make ends meet in a sluggish economy.

But it was clear why people continue to be drawn here. On the drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios, I passed through landscapes of stunning natural beauty: flower-fanned waterfalls and snaking rivers, thick pine forests and rolling hillsides, all of them saturated in shades of green. Kingston feels a bit like central Florida, flat and sprawling — but within minutes of leaving town we were climbing to elevations unsurpassed in eastern North America.

On that morning in Hermosa Cove, though, my attention was captured by a generous plate of juicy orange papaya that arrived alongside banana pancakes. That papaya was quite simply the most delicious fruit I had ever eaten. I had this thought over and over again throughout my stay; Jamaican fruit is, in a word, ambrosial.

As is Jamaican coffee. Along with rum and sugar, coffee is a longtime mainstay of the export trade, and it made the fortunes of more than one ambitious Jewish merchant over the years. I don’t take my coffee with sugar — but by my second morning in Jamaica, I was taking it with rum, doctoring my cup with a shot from the mini-bar. Coffee, rum and papaya: it was as sumptuous and memorable a breakfast as any I’ve had.

In the evenings I generally ate fresh fish, which is also a highlight of Jamaican cuisine. Had I come in November, I could have taken advantage of Jamaica’s Restaurant Week: from the 14th to the 22nd, dining spots in Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios will offer discounts up to 50 percent and special menus.

The slower months from June to November are ideal for an intimate getaway, as the weather — a sultry 85 degrees or so — is still more or less perfect. There were a few other parties at Hermosa Cove resort, but since each of the nine brightly painted villas had its own private pool, the feel was distinctly low-key.

By December, hotels will fill with runners and their fans as Jamaica gears up for its annual three-day Reggae Marathon, quite possibly the only marathon held to the pulsating beat of Bob Marley. The event kicks off with an all-night pasta party the night before the race and concludes with a Beach Bash afterward.

Jamaicans definitely like to party, and they stay up late, as I observed over a series of nights out. But as relaxed as they are about time and many other things, I was struck by a certain formality in the way the locals dress and carry themselves. Properness is a legacy of the long British rule; as I drove around the island, I noticed a preponderance of signs chiding Jamaicans on matters of etiquette large and small, from courteous driving to time spent with family.

Punctuality is clearly not on the list, though. I waited a long time for that papaya breakfast — and even longer in the evenings, when a dinner scheduled for 7 p.m. could easily stretch well past 10.

But in the shadow of swaying palms, surrounded by smiling faces, time hardly seemed to matter.