Peaking out from the rocky cliffs overlooking the brilliant azure waters of Boston Bay, lies Great Huts, Paradise on the Edge. How we stumbled upon Great Huts while surfing the internet one evening from our kitchen table in Chicago, felt like nothing less than divine intervention. My three young adult children and I consider ourselves well equipped travelers in search of off-the-beaten-path destinations with an injection of culture. Therefore, when my son Max recited the description of this eco-friendly resort committed to celebrating the great precolonial empires of West Africa, we both agreed that the 4-5 hour drive from Montego Bay would be well worth the effort.
Our welcome to Montego Bay/Mobay consisted of big smiles from the locals, a sampling of the flaky turmeric-infused Jamaican patties and thirst quenching mango coladas at the airport stand. We soon gathered our belongings and made our way around the airport perimeter to the Knutsford Express depot bound for Port Antonio.
Thankfully, in the late 1900’s the Jamaican government embarked on the Northern Coastal Highway improvement project providing smooth roads for the next leg of our trip. We caught glimpses of the lush greenery and tiny colorful towns sprinkling the coast from our bus window as the sun set over the horizon. We were all feeling a bit weary but looking forward to what awaited us. Finally, our bus driver pulled into a palm tree lined road surrounded by taxis. “Are we in Port Antonio?”, we inquired? “Ya Mon” he replied. And we were whisked away momentarily by a taxi driver to Great Huts.
Upon entering the premises, we were enveloped by dense jungle and the cheerful chirps of the cicadas. We navigated the stone walkway and entered the dimly lit lobby with its low hung bamboo ceiling, a bookcase containing a collection of Afrika, Judaica and Rastafari books, the only television on the premises and a working kitchen with bulky bhand carved stone counters. The staff was busily preparing our Thanksgiving meal, albeit closing time.
Our cheerful attendant Sheldon, clad in a well-pressed lime green shirt with a pink Great Huts insignia, led us through the jungle to our huts to prepare for dinner. My daughter and I were upgraded to “Yoruba” on the top level of the Africana House. Yoruba was named in honor of one of the African ethnic groups. Our guide was eager to share that the King of Dance Hall himself, Beenie Man, was one of Yoruba’s latest guests. He also added, “Great Huts is the most unique resort in Jamaica”.
Our jaws literally dropped as he opened the door to the stylish circular villa. A recent addition to Great Huts and designed by German architect Ulrike Khafif, Africana House honors Jamaican ancestry and celebrates the great precolonial empires of West Africa. The bright mustard curved walls adorned with displays of African, Jamaican and Taino art and hand-carved organic furniture by Gilbert Nicely evoked royalty. The dramatic murals of horseman and painted Ethiopian cherubs and clouds beckoned from the ceiling.
We were lead up a spiral cascading staircase of golden woven vines to our room.
Our four poster King bed in rich mahogony was truly fit for an African king. Hand-carved tables, sumptuous décor and a large circular tub outlined in mirrored mosaic tiles took our breathe away. The wraparound windows beheld captivating views of the sea and provided a sonic backdrop of crashing waves.
Meanwhile my two sons were becoming acquainted with Almond Tree, a hut within the ‘Safari Chic’ classification. Carefully built around an actual almond tree, this arboreal home boasts two floors of comfort immersed in nature.
No matter how much detail I can share about this inspiring and unique experience, I would be remiss if I did not introduce you to Dr. Paul Rhodes. “Dr. Paul” as he is fondly referred to is one of the most popular figures in Port Antonio (we soon learned) and the visionary and founder of Great Huts. Dr. Paul is a practicing gerontologist in Baltimore and originally from Brooklyn. He fell in love with Jamaica while attending medical school in the 70’s. He ultimately purchased 4 acres of land and built Great Huts. His passion for the Jamaican people inspired him to open the Port Antonio Homeless Shelter, the first of its kind, offering a variety of services including health, group sessions, arts and crafts and gardening.
But Dr Paul’s Great Huts’ community involvement does not stop with the homeless shelter. In addition to the regular Saturday night cultural performances at Great Huts by Portland’s Manchioneal Cultural Group, there is also a multidimensional program that aims to showcase the best of Jamaica’s history and culture. Connecting the dots between the history, struggle and brotherhood of Rastafari, African and Jewish culture is one of Dr. Paul’s delights and is evidenced throughout the resort with Hebrew inscriptions and a quote from the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, “If you Will, it is no dream.”
My two musician sons were invited by Dr. Paul to participate in the Saturday evening festivities alongside the dancers and local performers. The 7th Annual Cinema Paradise, another project of Dr. Paul’s was held in August in the Africana House and showcases the best of Jamaican films.
There was no shortage of activities to keep us busy relaxing for our 4 days at Great Huts. Awakening daily to the crashing waves and songs of the cheerful birds we ate breakfast (included) daily in the dining room, replete with hand-carved furniture and its own life-sized hand-carved giraffe.
On our first day, we explored the private secluded beach astrewn with colorful hammocks, sea chairs, tidal pools and to my children’s joy, Anthony, a local responded ‘Ya Mon’ when we inquired about surfing and appeared in moments with surf boards. Happy that I read the information on the website, we were all equipped with watershoes to prevent nasty pricks from sea urchins and we spent the entire day swimming, cliff diving and surfing in the shimmering bay.
One afternoon we ventured out to snorkel in the glistening turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon, (yes, this was the setting of the classic Brooke Shields’ movie) and sun bathed at Frenchman’s Cove. The parish of Portland enjoys being at the foot of Jamaica’s crime table so we had little concern about anything but fun and frolic during our trip.
We spent our final afternoon taking a cliff-side walk along the snake path, visiting the jerk vendors down the road for local fare consisting of jerk chicken, festival and baked yams, basking in the infinity pool and relaxing in a swing chair overlooking the sea.
We thank Dr. Paul and Great Huts for providing us with an inspiring and off the beaten path destination, relaxation and unique introduction to the culture of the Jamaican people. Ya Mon. Great Huts, we’ll be back.