Ocho Rios was nothing like I remember from 41 years ago at Marilyn and my honeymoon. We couldn’t identify either the only hotel in the area from 1969 or the “villa” we rented for the week. They were the only modern construction in the area at the time, save the town of Ocho Rios off the coast of the bay with no paved roads, no houses with hard roofs, and with chickens running in the streets. Instead, we spied from the boat a grand bay with many sandy beaches, four or more large resorts, condos climbing the hillsides and thousands of villas accompanying them throughout the hills, and a town of around 40,000 over a 5 by 20 block street array.
The ship docked at 8am and we were off the ship by 945am on a partly cloudy humid day with temperatures reaching the high 80’s. The narrow pier connected to the beach over a several hundred yard long walkway. Ashore, we stopped first at a coffee shop for the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and an internet session. The session turned out completely unsuccessful when we tried to connect over Skype. A few locals set up nearby were using up all of the bandwidth downloading movies. We gave up after 45 minutes of trying. The coffee was good, though.
The locals around the pier were impressed that we were riding bikes around town. Traffic was moderate on this Saturday morning, but our fellow cruise mates were liberally spread around town after their early start. Many had tried the excursions to Dunn’s Falls, the tube rides on the river, the cable car rides along the coastal forest, or other visits through the forest. Except for the resorts, we saw few tourist quality restaurants or bars, but many establishments frequented by mostly locals. We passed through 20 blocks of stores and stands, many with no more real estate than a table and a fence to hold the merchandise. A few stores sold souvenirs, but most sold a small assortment of socks, t-shirts, and sandals. But the salespeople seemed friendly and I called good morning to most of them and got a smile and a “Good morning” in response. The people were mostly young, with few older than 40. I talked to many people at the pier and a few on the streets, asking about our villa on the hill. I found no one with any knowledge going back that far. The only road to Montego Bay they knew of was along the coast rather than along the crest of the hills along the coast. They knew nothing of a banana plantation in or behind the village of Ocho Rios. But they seemed interested that anything like that had existed as long as 40 years ago.
We rode west and north for about 4-5 miles and eventually ran out of town and into a sparsely populated section of road entering into a more hilly area. We decided to turn back and try for another internet café. After trying a few seedy restaurants and finding them empty and with no internet capability, we found a bar/restaurant claiming to be connected. A table in front of the hardware store next door held a few CDs and a loud stereo pounding out Jamaican music. We decided to verify the internet connection before testing any food. The connection to the router worked fine, but the bar mistress identified a problem with their own internet connection and finally fixed it on the third try. We moved onto the back porch to avoid the music and spent the next 90 minutes on Skype with a series of relatives.
We headed back through town seeking a place for lunch. The one way street setup forced us to use different streets than on the way out, but the general appearance was the same. Inadequate restaurants, closed bars, and a thousand small merchants passed by as we approached the ship. Then we spied tables in garden, customers at an adjacent bar area, and what could be a restaurant behind a gate manned by a single guard who turned out to be a DJ selling CDs of music playing at a reasonable volume in the background. We checked with a waitress and received menus. I noticed a table near the gate holding coconuts and a few bottles of what turned out to be rum. The place was called the Coconut Café. We ordered Conch/Shrimp fritters and a Jerk Chicken wrap to share along with a local beer and a Planter’s punch (lack of tomato juice spiked a first request for a Bloody Mary). The coconut salesman also convinced us to try the fresh coconut. He lopped off the top of a green coconut, stuck in two straws and convinced us to drink out half the liquid inside before he refilled it with rum.
In sum, the meal was magic. The fritters and their accompanying special sauce were the tastiest and most unique food I have had so far on the trip. The wrap came with a spicy hot sauce and was, in sum, excellent. The shared three drinks left us with just enough buzz and we met a series of characters that made the trip to Ocho Rios memorable. The guard/DJ was really friendly and talked about the new Ocho Rios. The coconut salesman gave us his card describing Harvey Miller’s taxi service, complete with tours. He also opened up about the best of Ocho Rios.
A street dancer appeared and wowed this crowd of three with contortions, dancing, and facial manipulations to the tune of the Jamaican music played by DJ. And a friend from the ship (revealed to be an Israeli retired Navy ship captain with eight bypassed heart veins) joined him in a dance-off. We cheered and laughed and snapped photos, then called to other ship patrons to come in and enjoy the fun. By the time it was time to return to the ship, our memory banks were full. Great place, that Ocho Rios!