From the first time I stepped foot on the island of Jamaica over 20 years ago, I fell in love with the place. That business trip took me to the imposing judicial courts of Kingston with a brief detour to the beauty of Strawberry Hill.

Since then, I have visited numerous times. I have eaten at the famous Devon House, wandered Heroes Park with its artistic monuments, stayed at Strawberry Hill where I walked the breathtaking Gordon Town Trail, eaten my fill at the Observer Table Talk Awards food festival, browsed the Bend-down market in Falmouth, made the mandatory stop at Scotchie’s and toured the Appleton Estate in the heart of the Cockpit Country.

Jamaica has been blessed with many natural gifts – sandy beaches, stunning waterfalls, lush vegetation and towering mountains. It is also home to friendly, fascinating people who have a unique rhythm that is all their own. When I was given the opportunity to return earlier this year, I jumped at the chance.

I invited my friend Lynne Firth along for the trip, so she could see parts of Jamaica she had never seen before.

Kingston bound

Although we were staying at a resort in Montego Bay, there was only a direct Cayman Airways flight to Kingston on a Wednesday morning. Rather than choosing to take a connecting plane, I figured we’d drive it instead. The interior of the island should not be missed and it would only be a couple of hours.

Three days earlier, I had been firmly ensconced in Cayman Cookout events at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and was still recovering. I therefore have to admit that the 5 a.m. alarm was not at all welcome that day. I dragged myself out of bed and resolved to pack a pillow and blanket in my carry-on bag so I could grab naps here and there.

The flight was only about 45 minutes long and due to Cayman being almost directly west of Jamaica, all approaches to Kingston offer a long, lingering look at amazing scenery – green hills dotted with houses as far as the eye can see.

Baggage claim was pretty empty – the one advantage of arriving on such an early flight – and we were through immigration and customs very quickly, ready to meet our car and driver outside.

There was actually a bus ready to take us to Half Moon Resort on the north coast, which meant I would have room to stretch out and sleep. Fabulous! We took the relatively new Highway 2000, connecting Kingston and Ocho Rios, which was completed in 2016. Having only been on the old road previously – a five-hour journey boasting potholes like craters on the moon – I was keen to see this addition to the island.

Unfortunately, I missed most of the sights. Once I found a comfortable spot where I could lay my head, I was out. I woke up as we neared our destination, bleary-eyed but feeling a bit more lively.

Half Moon Resort

I had stayed here once before – in a private villa with a butler, cook, swimming pool and two golf carts at our disposal. Yeah … a real shack. This time, we were staying in a Royal Suite.

One of the many stunning accommodation options at the Half Moon Resort 400-acre property.

When you pull up to the main lobby, you realize that any room at Half Moon is going to be something special. From the main steps there is a huge breezeway, guarded by statues of lions, which stretches all the way down through the building to the water. On that day, the skies were a bit overcast and the wind was whipping through the trees. Watching the surf from where we stood was quite the sight.

We got checked in by charming ladies, who gave us a rundown of what we needed to know, including the fact that bellmen were available 24/7 with golf carts to transport us around the property. Why? Because Half Moon Resort is 400 acres. It has an equestrian center, the largest spa oasis in Jamaica, and a golf course. A fun fact I learned when I last stayed there is that it actually makes its own furniture: beds, dressers, tables, chairs … all made and repaired in-house. I thought that was fascinating.

A Royal Suite turned out to be one half of a cottage with its own private pool, a living room and separate bedroom – all a stone’s throw from the beach.

I could not stay long as I had a dinner to get to at Stush in the Bush (whatever that was) – a 90-minute drive from Half Moon. Lynne was staying to relax, have a swim and maybe a treatment at the spa.

I dropped my bags, freshened up, and got a golf cart to the lobby to await my ride.

A large coach pulled up – there was a group of us going to this dinner; people from Australia, Canada, Peru and Jamaica. I had not really had any time to research our destination, so I just sat back and enjoyed the view as we traveled along the coast and then made a turn inland.

Stush in the Bush

For those of you not au fait with Jamaican patois (and believe me, no one is going to mistake me for a Jamaican local anytime soon), “stush” means “posh,” “fancy” or “stylish.” As our driver ground to a halt at a crossroads after a rocky climb up some interesting roads, I looked around. I had to say that our surroundings resembled more bush than stush. Where were we and why had he stopped? After five minutes of wondering if this was a mechanical issue, suddenly all was revealed. We were near the restaurant, but the bus could not go any further due to its size and the condition of the road ahead.

Everyone got out and stretched their legs while some schoolchildren in uniforms walked by, all smiles. We seemed to be quite the amusing sight.

“He’s on his way,” the driver announced, as a black truck made its way down to us. Its driver, Chris, a tall, slender and handsome Rasta man stopped and got out, introducing himself as “the bush” of the place. Things were no clearer.

Before we went for dinner, he wanted to show us something. This was apparently somewhere the bus could go, as we were all encouraged to re-board and the driver was to follow the truck uphill.

There were some dicey moments in this short trek where narrow lanes met fairly sheer drops, but we made it in one piece to the top. The view was worth it. We could see for miles over the land to the sea and beyond and watched low-lying clouds moving over neighboring hills. Chris gave us an aerial overview, telling us about famous Jamaican musicians who had grown up in this part of the island and about his own background as a little boy in St. Anne Parish.

There was time for a couple of pictures and then back into the bus to return to the crossroads. This time, we were getting into the truck. Chris was going to have to make two journeys as only 10 people could fit at once – five in the cab, including the driver, and five or six in the open back. I got to ride shotgun. I was not complaining.

We headed up a little path and then made a left. We did not have to go far before it was made abundantly clear that the bus would have come a cropper in no time flat. This was not a road so much as mud in parallel lines. We found ourselves tacking from one side to the next, more skidding than driving our way along, approaching inclines that seemed impossible in these conditions, and yet we cleared every hurdle. It was hard to imagine what laid at the end, but we did not have to wonder for long. As the wheels finally hit firmer ground, we found ourselves in a clearing beside a charming wooden structure with a large deck and open hut on one side. There to greet us was a very attractive woman with close-cropped hair and open arms. “Hi,” she said, “and welcome. I’m Lisa, and I’m the stush.” Finally, it all made sense.

The second truckload of guests arrived as we were ushered into the hut. Here we found a blackboard menu and a table laden with food, along with plates, cutlery and an array of drinks.

Lisa further introduced herself and explained that this was a vegan restaurant that she and her husband ran together. She encouraged us to try some plantain ceviche along with homemade sauces of varying Scoville units, grab a drink and relax. Easily done.

This place had all the air of a retreat about it. It was a cool evening – just perfect. Chris offered to take us all on a quick tour of the farm. We were not going far, as it was starting to get dark, but we learned some interesting facts about the various plants in the area as I attempted – and failed – to walk naturally over uneven ground.

Now it was time for dinner.

Everyone moved into the main building that I would not describe as a restaurant – it was more like a cozy lodge in the Jamaican hills. There was an enclosed fire crackling in the corner of a room with high ceilings and a wall bookcase on one end. Windows were tall and narrow with wooden shutters open to the air. Another addition to the atmosphere was a soft rain that began to fall on the leaves outside. We took seats on benches at three long, wooden tables as Lisa described the menu that was to follow. This sounded like a lot of food. To top it off, every dish was being paired with an Appleton Rum cocktail.

The earlier plantain ceviche had already been a big hit, and now we were sampling dishes like watermelon “tuna” tartare with a surprising hit of wasabi, charcoal fettuccine and pumpkin bisque with coconut “bacon.” Each empty plate was replaced with a full one as the evening went on, and we happily kept eating. One of my favorites was the dessert (naturally) – Appleton Reserve raisin beignets. I was able to find room.

Our hosts were very entertaining. Lisa gave us a full account of how she, a Bajan woman living in New York, had met a Rasta man in Jamaica and it was love at first sight. I’ll let her tell you the story when you go, but suffice it to say, it had a very happy ending.

Another great personality was David Morrison, senior blender at Appleton Estate. He took us through the cocktails, explaining how some rums were specifically designed to be mixed, while others were to be drunk neat – such as the Appleton 21 Year; and he had better not see a Coca-Cola come anywhere near the latter!

It was, unbelievably, 9:30 p.m. by the time we were leaving. It had been such an extraordinary evening. Lisa, Chris, David, the food, the drinks, the location … I had never experienced anything quite like it. No wonder it gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor, and from master blender at Appleton Estate, Joy Spence.

We got back to the Half Moon Resort at about 11 p.m. Lynne had just about enough time to tell me of her glorious massage before I went to my bed and fell instantly asleep.

Appleton Estate

What I could tell you about Appleton Estate would take so much more than this article will allow. I could tell you that it was once owned by famed Jamaican company J. Wray & Nephew, and was bought by Italian company Campari about six years ago; that it was once accessible by train from the north coast, which brought tourists to its doors by rail until the railway stopped. I could explain how its location and terroir are precious and unique to the sugar cane it grows and the rum it produces, and how its Master Blender Joy Spence was the first female master blender in the world when she attained that position.

Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum Master Blender Joy Spence

Appleton Estate’s history is forever linked with Jamaica’s history, and up until now, visitors only got a small taste of that connection when they took the tour at the estate. Over a year ago, Campari decided to invest over $7.2 million in their important acquisition to completely upgrade the Appleton Estate tour experience for tourists. To that end, they closed the property for tours in late 2016, ready for some serious renovations. We were going to be the first people to see the new additions and having seen the estate in August 2012 when the Appleton Estate 50 Year Old was revealed, I was particularly eager to witness the changes firsthand.

The comfy coach showed up to take us into the heart of the Cockpit Country of Jamaica – one of my favorite areas of the island – through fields of green that stretched for miles and bamboo stalks that would have dwarfed a tall building.

When we arrived two hours later, we were greeted with the pomp and circumstance for which Jamaica is famous. A live band with a killer sax player was in full swing, and guests were offered food and drink before the opening ceremony began.

Once everyone had taken a seat, it was time for Fae Ellington, an excellent master of ceremonies, to welcome one and all to the occasion. As an emcee myself, I truly appreciated her gift for humor and putting everyone at ease.

Clement Lawrence, chairman of J. Wray & Nephew, spoke about the estate, and was followed by a number of other dignitaries who remarked on the history of the Appleton Estate and their excitement over the new facility. But, of course, the person of the hour was Joy Spence for whom the new tour had been named. It was now to be The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience.

Despite sporting a serious-looking brace on one of her feet and lower leg, Joy was gamely equal to the task of rising to cut the ribbon on the new building. It was now time for all to get their first glimpse of an facility over a year in the making.

The Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience

Sometimes, when a building goes through extensive renovations, you wonder where the money went. That is certainly not the case at the Appleton Estate. The moment we walked in the doors, I boggled at the changes I was seeing, compared to the place I had visited a few years prior. Hallways led to the brand-new lounge and a full-service kitchen that later served up heaping plates of rib-sticking Caribbean comfort food. When you go, you must have the lunch. If you do not want to take my word for it, just read the TripAdvisor reviews.

An excellent feature of the tour experience is the state-of-the art cinema. The cool, comfortable room can accommodate a lot of guests on its bench seating and there is not a bad seat in the house, thanks to the huge screen and crystal clear sound system.

We watched the presentation, which covers the fascinating world of rum – from cane to cup – and the unique properties of the Appleton Estate terroir, before being led to the outdoor portion of the tour.

The manicured grounds of the estate offer a visually appealing setting for a step back in time, when donkeys powered the sugar cane press and many of the processes now handled by machines were done by hand.

Always a great source of amusement is the sugar cane press when powered by volunteers. Willing members of the group stepped up to the handle to get a sense of the workout one can get from pressing some cane. (Maybe Appleton Estate should open a CrossFit studio?) Cheered on by their audience, they made a good go of it for the cameras.

Samples of sugar cane juice were handed around before we moved on to further stations, including a vat of molasses – the syrup remaining after the sugar has been extracted from the juice.

Once we had familiarized ourselves with the humble beginnings of what became an award-winning line of rums, it was time to head to the distillery – an imposing structure housing huge stills, converting raw ingredients into a smooth liquid product that would then be transferred to barrels for aging.

The final stop of the tour was the Aging House – a dream come true for the rum aficionado. Barrel upon barrel of golden goodness sat on high shelves that stretched the length of the building. If you had to be locked in somewhere, it might as well be here.

Tasting and mixing skills

Another of the fine additions to the Appleton Estate is the selection of tasting rooms that offer samples of three premium Appleton Estate blends. On the day we took our seats before long wooden tables, laden with rum samples and glasses, we were lucky to have David Morrison, senior blender, leading the charge. If he happens to be around when you visit, do go out of your way to meet him. You will be rewarded with a marvelous, knowledgeable personality coupled with an excellent sense of humor.

It could be that a twinkle in the eye and a ready smile is a prerequisite for being a blender of Appleton Rums, as next we were graced with the company of the effervescent Joy Spence herself, master blender and Appleton expert.

She invited us all to try our hands at mixing our very own blend from four small bottles containing rum of different ages. She would judge our creations and announce the winners at the end. I do not mean to brag, but I got third place! I did not get the impression that Joy thought her job was in jeopardy, but I was pleased with my Vicki Blend nonetheless. Could an offer from Appleton be far behind?

Joy Spence is a credit to her country and an amazing role model for young women. If I sound like an adoring fan, it’s ‘cos I am.

Joy Spence is da bomb.

It had been a wonderful day of great food, meeting new people and excellent rum, which is why I was particularly glad that none of us were driving when we left. The waiting coach was ready to take us to our last meal together before I flew out the next day.

The Houseboat Grill

I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived at The Houseboat Grill in Montego Bay, but after spending an evening there, I will definitely be revisiting this restaurant when I return to Jamaica. From its unique “ferry” that moves passengers from terra firma to the vessel, to its amazing views of the water, cozy atmosphere and impressive menu, it had me at “Cocktail, ma’am?”

We had all had quite an invigorating day, yet we managed to rally for a tasty meal peppered with conversations about our recent experiences. How had we managed to fit so much in, in such a short period of time?

We remembered with laughter our unforgettable journey to Stush in the Bush, remarked on the beauty of the Half Moon Resort, and talked about Joy Spence and the brilliant tour experience. I may have also casually reminded everyone of my third place prize.

When the last of my seafood pasta had been consumed and the last sip of cocktail finished, it was time for us to head back to the resort.

The bus dropped us off and I made my way to my cottage on foot from the main lobby, determined to burn at least 10 calories.

Lynne had apparently taken full advantage of my absence all day, exploring the resort, having a few drinks and checking out Half Moon’s Sugar Mill restaurant.

Yes, she had suffered.

Flying home

Do you know the wonderful thing about taking Cayman Airways from Montego Bay instead of Kingston for a morning flight back to Cayman? You get to sleep a little longer before you have to head to the airport.

I was grateful for the extra time, but reluctant to leave. What an amazing trip it had been, learning more about beautiful Jamaica.

Our transport spirited us away to Sangster International Airport and not long after, we were boarding our national airline heading home.

Yes, it is always nice to get home, sleep in your own bed and be greeted by a gazillion cats who want to be fed, but for me, the memories of Jamaica lingered.

Luckily, I had some Appleton in the liquor cabinet.