Jamaica’s Colorful Roadside Attractions

On a Sunday, Shireen Aga, owner of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, toured with me around Portland, a parish located on Jamaica’s northeast coast. The area is lush and full of vibrant communities. Take a local taxi and explore the region, which is a little sleepy in terms of tourism—a refreshing change from the towns where cruise ships dock.

Fast food Jamaica style. On a weekday, I’ll bet this vendor sells lots of Jamaica’s famous jerk chicken from this roadside stand.

For reliable, safe transportation, it’s recommended that you use an official JUTA (Jamaica Union of Travelers Association) taxi. They cost more but are more dependable, especially if you’re in a rural area. During my travels around Portland, Shireen and I used Attractions Link, a shuttle service owned by Wayne Murdock, who arranges sightseeing tours and acts as a guide too.

Jamaicans love bright houses—who could help but feel welcomed into this tropical fruit-colored home?

As we drove along the coast and then into the mountainous forests, a rainbow of colors appeared—not the least of which were ladies in brightly colored dresses and elegant hats walking to or from church. (Wish I could have snapped a picture of some of them; these women were joyful to behold!)

Sherene’s Place in Charles Town sells ice cream treats, snacks and the omnipresent Digicel cards. I wished I’d taken a picture of a sign for the cell phone company—they were everywhere, and nearly every shop on the island sells them.

I also enjoyed the architectural color of rural Jamaica—little shops are everywhere—usually in the form of gaily painted shacks. Because it was Sunday, few were open, but I got a kick out of their décor anyway.

This elaborate blue doorway belonged to a vacation house alongside the road.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. I’d love to hear about the most colorful architecture you’ve ever seen in your travels. Feel free to leave a comment below.


A fishing boat takes the day off. Manchioneal fishing village

Tropical Dining with a Jamaican Twist: Sustainable Mille Fleurs Restaurant

No good hotel is complete without an innovative restaurant, and Hotel Mocking Bird Hill’s Mille Fleurs is just such a place. I savored every mouth-watering bite during my stay there—and each was both sustainable and satisfying.

The romantic Mille Fleurs restaurant in Jamaica focuses on organic, island-grown foods. Photo courtesy Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Unlike many Caribbean resorts that import the majority of their food, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill cooks with locally grown and harvested ingredients whenever possible, thereby supporting local farmers and putting fresh, tasty, and usually organically-grown foods on guests’ plates. Chef Melvin Laidlaw and the hotel’s owners also seek out foods that originate from within 50 miles, occasionally widening that to 90 miles when necessary.

The Mille Fleurs adventure begins before your first dinner at the hotel when Chef Melvin sits down to tell you what’s on the menu (it changes daily, depending on what’s in season). He also explains the origins of all the foods and describes Jamaican specialties such as callaloo (a green, leafy vegetable—like spinach—that’s simmered with coconut milk, chopped onions and garlic).

Chef Melvin also asks about your dietary restrictions or preferences. If you’re gluten intolerant, you’re in luck. Cassava, a starchy root that grows in the tropics, is a Jamaican staple—and cassava flour is gluten free. It’s the primary ingredient in Jamaican coconut-milk-fried flatbread called “bammy”—which is heaven!

Dreamy Dining

Candlelit by night, Mille Fleurs restaurant creates romantic atmosphere on its terrace overlooking the Caribbean Sea and rainforest—with the Blue Mountains on the horizon. I loved sitting with a rum drink as the sun set, feeling the cool night breeze and watching the fireflies glow.

To give you a sample of the outrageously good food, my first night’s meal include an orange salad with green olives and local feta* accompanied by fresh-baked herb rolls and scones. For the main course, I chose spiny Caribbean lobster, served with herb butter. (Note: I visited Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in late March, the last days before the close of lobster-catching season. April 1 through June 30 is the lobster’s breeding/egg-laying time, and if you eat lobster between those dates, chances are they’re poached—and I don’t mean in the cooking-method sense!)

To top off the meal, I reveled in a sampler platter of Mango Cheesecake and Papaya and Jamaican Apple & Coconut Custard.

Vegetarian Paradise

I also have to mention that Chef Melvin pampers vegetarians and vegans with Jamaican flavor. On any given day, the menu might include Stir-Fried Callaloo with Garlic, Breadfruit and Peanuts; Spicy Okra and Tomato with Yogurt; Herb Pancakes Filled with Ratatouille and Feta; or Homemade Pasta with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce.

Mille Fleurs participates in Meatless Mondays, a global initiative that promotes reducing your carbon footprint. (The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the meat industry generates one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse-gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

* I’m compelled to sing the praises of the artisan cheeses served at Mille Fleurs. They’re crafted at Jamaica’s Tamarind Hill Farm by Joanna Slimforte and they’re spectacular. I’ve never tasted such vibrant feta outside the Mediterranean, and the goat cheeses vie with Europe’s.

Chef Melvin Laidlaw hosts cooking classes at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill. During this one, we learned some classic Jamaican recipes: jerk chicken, fried plantain, grilled breadfruit, and red beans and rice cooked in coconut milk.

What Makes Hotel Mocking Bird Hill So Green?

Jamaica's Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, near Port Antonio, blends into the natural landscape and works hard to be eco-friendly.

Thanks to the forward-focused vision of owners Shireen Aga and Barbara Walker, Jamaica’s Hotel Mocking Bird Hill conserves natural resources and exists lightly on the land. Among its extensive green initiatives:

  • Solar electricity (65 percent of hotel’s electricity). Solar panels dot the roofs and fence-posts throughout the resort, and soon others will be generating even more electricity.
  • Solar hot water (100 percent). It’s a virtuous (and petroleum-independent) feeling to wash your hands in water heated by the sun.
  • Rainwater harvesting. Why bother saving water on a tropical island? Believe it or not, there was a drought in Jamaica while I was visiting. To make matters worse, a municipal water pump in Kingston broke, so some communities had no water until a new pump part could be imported to fix it. So, yes, it’s smart for hotels to conserve water and to have backup.
  • Anaerobic wastewater treatment. Removing impurities from sewage and wash-water allows the hotel to safely reuse the resource for landscaping.
  • No air-conditioning. Except in extreme heat and humidity, A/C bothers me and makes me feel cut off from nature. The hilltop breezes in Jamaica cooled my room quite nicely, plus rooms have ceiling fans.
  • Chlorine-free pool. No toxic chemical smell on your skin. Need I say more?
  • Insecticide- and pesticide-free gardens. Birds, animals and people live more healthfully, and the web of life is maintained. Among other things, chemicals endanger those lovely tree frogs, whose nighttime chirps might be silenced.

    Note the napkin pocket under the fork. Each guest can choose to reuse a napkin before it's washed. This breakfast scramble features callaloo made with all-local foods.

  • Minimized washing of sheets, towels and dining napkins. I love Hotel Mocking Bird Hill’s embroidered cloth “envelopes”; they hold your lightly-used napkin until the next meal, or the next.
  • Organic, seasonal, locally-sourced items. Reducing the amount of miles that food has to be shipped benefits the environment. Plus, if it’s produced close by, chances are it’s fresher and tastier.
  • Locally employed staff. Well-paying local jobs boost the regional economy, give folks a sense of community pride, and inspire others to create their own businesses. All the team members at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill are so pleasant—it’s clear they’re personally invested in their work!
  • Water- and energy-saving showers: Nifty German-designed Ecostat showers provide a nice flow of water without conserving water and heating costs.
  • Carbon offset their operations through Sustainable Travel International’s program. Mocking Bird Hill guests can opt to donate to the program to offset their flights to Jamaica.

    For glorious beaches such as Frenchman's Cove to remain pristine, conservation actions such as those taken by Hotel Mocking Bird Hill are necessary.

Supporting Community Projects

Being a “sustainable” hotel means more than just supporting the environment. It means reaching out to people in the area. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill partners with and promotes a number of local initiatives and projects that benefit people in the community, including:

1. The Jamaica Conservation Development Trust. This reforestation program plants native Jamaican forest trees, including the water mahoe in which the endangered Giant Swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs.

2. Women’s handmade paper-making project in the town of Fairy Hill. Eight women are employed to design and create greeting cards, envelopes, note pads and picture frames out of recycled paper.

3. The Jamaican Hardanga Trust. Trains local women in the traditional hardanga textile craft. This delicate design work entails drawing out threads to create lacelike patterns in clothing, pillowcases and handkerchiefs.

Jamaican chocolate teaballs: The conical "balls" are made of locally grown cocoa. You grate the balls in boiling water; add milk, sugar, a dash of cinnamon and vanilla; and then enjoy!

4. The Long Road Cooperative in the town of St. Mary. Women earn a living making natural chocolate teaballs from local cocoa beans that have been dried and ground with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Room with a Jamaican View: Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

Yes, this was the paradise I reveled in every time I gazed out my windows at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-friendly getaway in Jamaica.

Tucked into the forests and organic gardens above the town of Port Antonio is Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, an eco-boutique hotel that’s the epitome of Jamaica’s natural side.

Though not on the beach, the socially- and environmentally-conscious hotel overlooks the aquamarine water not far away. Though not in the mountains, you can watch the sun set behind the Blue Mountains from the hotel’s restaurant and rooftop observatory.

In short, Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is connected to the land, the sea, the sky and the community in a way that few places do.

The Luxury of Nature

“What is luxury? The definition has changed. It’s not just opulence; it’s having space and quiet.” –innkeeper Shireen Aga

Hotel Mocking Bird Hill does indeed provide the most beautiful of places to relax and forget the cares of the world. Curl up on a deck chair, a pool chair or a day bed hidden in the verdant gardens for some R&R.

Indoors or out, I feel nature’s pulse from the moment I wake until I fall asleep—which is perhaps when I enjoy the earthiness the most.

After a satisfying, sustainable meal in the candlelit Mille Fleurs Restaurant (see a future post for details about the wonderful cuisine), a hush settles over the hotel and the tree frogs sing their moonlight sonata. Fireflies (bigger than any I’ve seen before!) sparkle like fairies in the forest.

Night in the tropics: always relaxing when there’s mosquito netting and a soft bed.

While getting ready for bed each night, I kept all but one light off so as not to attract insects (there are no screens in the louvered windows so that nothing mars the view or separates you from the gardens and jungle surrounding the hotel.)

Then I would climb beneath the mosquito netting, which is rarely necessary if you turn on the ceiling fan above the bed; mosquitoes avoid the breeze.

Mosquito netting is one of my personal favorite luxuries: a diaphanous tent over my bed that assures that my sleep will be undisturbed by winged insects or the geckos who hunt for them.

To me, it’s a treat to sleep in a room open to nature, and mosquito netting over a comfy bed feels like a magic castle. On my first night at Mocking Bird Hill, I awoke to fireflies in my room. One settled on the canopy above me and winked me back to sleep.

The pool is a blue lagoon during the sun-drenched hours and lantern-lit at night.

There are many other luxuries at this 10-room inn:

  • sipping a Red Stripe and jerk-spiced nuts at sundown
  • meeting charming guests from England, Germany and the United States
  • taking trips to the beach
  • excursions for a raft ride or to Reach Falls
  • strolling through the gardens and watching the humming-birds
  • lounging in the hammock in my room (and drinking in yet again that view!)
  • and last, but certainly not least, enjoying a cool dip in the chlorine-free pool.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Join me in the coming days for more blog posts about my eco-friendly explorations of Jamaica.

The colorful lobby of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill is filled with tropical flowers and the sculptures of innkeeper/artist Barbara Walker.