I am breaking with conventional vacationers’ wisdom on this trip to Jamaica and heading for Portland Parish, on the northeastern side of the island’s vacation coast.
My colourful half day-long drive from the Montego Bay airport to Port Antonio take me along Jamaica’s North Coast Highway, ending at the iconically cool Geejam Hotel, a mix of chic bungalows and elegant villas with an onsite recording studio. Tucked away in the foothills along the Caribbean Sea, this magnificent six acres property, nestled in rain forest, is built around a pair of 300-year old sprawling fig trees. On the far side of town, at San San Estates, I make a hard right off the main road, the engine revving as my rental pulls me about a quarter of the way up the hill where I present myself at a check-in desk which has no desk, I’m in the hotel’s “Bushbar” a place as appropriately named as it is unconventional and eco-friendly: Check-in desk, restaurant, bar, lounge with pool table and weekly concert venue, all rolled into one. I take advantage of the check-in and bar, grabbing a blended fruit punch and the keys to “Rocksteady”, the name of my cabin.
This whole area here is a Bird Sanctuary and natural preserve and the lush rain forest vegetation include an abundance of fruit and nut trees. Exotic flowers and plants frame the breath taking vistas of the shoreline, with forever changing colours depending on the winds and time of day. The view from my deck includes the sprawling von Hapsburg and von Thyssen family properties on Mack Bay, as well as San San, and beyond.
The hotel is a collection of three fabulous private villas, three one bedroom, luxuriously outfitted, superbly decorated dark wooden cabins with pristine white interiors, appropriately named after Jamaican musical styles, (Ska, Mento and Rockstaedy,) as well as a one bedroom suite and legendary recording studio.. I throw open the picture windows and listen to the ocean waves gently break on the beach a few hundred yards downhill, a few steps to my right is the Drum & Bass Suite, whose designer bath tub, Jacuzzi, and wide veranda make that accommodation a bit larger than my place. Above this suite is Geejam’s state-of-the-art recording studio.
If I needed 3 guestrooms I would have U-turned at Bushbar and checked in to the sleek “Sanwood” 1960’s Villa designed by famed English architect Anthony Wade, a perfect place for families with small kids – nanny service is available – and the media lounge, verandas, and swimming pool which will entertain guests of all ages.
Should I want even more space, like so many of the entertainment industry luminaries who frequent this piece of paradise do, I would head a few steps up the hill where two additional villas make up the Geejam Collection: These very private, upscale design villas both come with personal concierge service: “Panorama”, Audrey Hepburn’s former four bedroom island getaway, is of course swimming pool equipped, and large enough to be three villas under one roof, one for the kitchen, the other for the living area/media lounge, and the third for the bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms. The address’ 360-degree views make its name obvious. Through one set of windows, a gorgeous view of Mack Bay and beyond, through another the John Crow and Blue Mountains, yes those Blue Mountains famed for their world-class coffee. Both vistas are the perfect backdrop for weddings, special occasions or a hilltop getaway. Just down from the summit is the stunningly designed “Cocosan” with its 6 bedrooms and 3 with private balconies, a state of the art kitchen, luxurious bathrooms, full service amenities, private gym, steam room spa and more.
The furnishings and fixtures throughout the three villas reflect the perfect balance between ultra modern and the exquisite exotic and natural beauty of this island., Mid century Scandinavian furniture feature Saarinen, Eames, Jacobsen, and Le Corbusier,
A huge collection of impressive visual art, with posters, designs and photography by renowned artists, hang on the walls (ie.Bansky and Juergen Teller) Amenities include pool and table tennis, full gyms, steam rooms, kids’ playground, personal concierge service and all share breath taking vistas of the rain forests contrasted against the Cerulean Caribbean Sea below.
I notice that Wifi with blazing internet, is available throughout the property, even on the beach. Flatscreen TVs, ipod docks, Bose speakers, Apple home theatre and sound system. DVD/CD player, Aquabrass, Koehler, Hans Grohe, are also standard throughout. Great attention is given to providing impeccable service which include 24 hour room service and drivers that would chauffeur me to all the amazingly beautiful nearby beaches, falls, and river cruise and more.
I do want to add a bit about the owners of this unique place since Steve Beaver was gracious enough to share about his and Jon Baker’s history.
Baker realized his concept for combining high-end design, bungalows, luxury villas and an onsite residential recording studio, all nestled in the lush beauty of Jamaica’s nature when he hired Vidal Dowding, a young rising Jamaican architect. Having a mother who had been a famous fashion designer, designing dresses for celebrities such as Princess Anne, might have been influential in sparking Baker’s own design talents. He got into the fashion business himself while developing a growing involvement with the music scene. His career turned to music production in the 80s with his Gee Street label which he launched under Chris Blackwell’s UMG (Universal Music Group) umbrella, and signed and or promoted artists like PM Dawn and Queen Latifah. In the ‘90s Baker purchased the land on which Geejam now sits and in the ‘00’s he sold Gee Street to Richard Branson, to move permanently to Jamaica and became a citizen. He and now co-owner of Geejam, Steve Beaver met in Hong Kong at a music festival in the mid 90s and but lost site of each other until 10 year later.
Beaver, having grown up in his father’s record shop knew by the age of 15 that he wanted to be in the recording industry. In the ‘70s he worked as a club DJ by night, and record “exec” by day. By the end of the 90’s and early 00’s he was promoting wildly popular, high intensity dance and Reggae music in Japan and Hong Kong. It was by chance that he came to Jamaica in 2006 looking for Baker for a possible recording project. The possibilities he saw here amazed him and he fell in love with the place. He has since made this one of his permanent homes saying it is such an amazingly inspiring place for creativity and productivity, “ the energy on this property is undefinable and undeniable.” Baker and Beaver decided to set up a formal partnership to completely restore Geejam and make it an exclusively private, luxurious and beautiful destination with for musicians, celebrities and anyone craving an inspiring paradisiacal getaway.
Beaver says of Baker ”with his mercurial, visionary mind, he is one of a very few people who could pull this whole thing off.” The Geejam Collection opened to the public in 2008 and is part of the Island Outpost brand. It has been extremely successful and frequently visited and revisited by a very long list of dedicated celebrities and royalty. It has received many accolades and was recently voted #1 by Tripadvisor.
Sitting at lunch I remark how easy it is to come here and enjoy the finished product without knowing the backstory. But I’m called back to the present when Floyd the guest services manager greets me and asks if I’m ready to take a tour of the property. I’m not given any special treatment, this tour is available to any Geejam guest. In fact the studio is available for any hotel guest who would like to rent it out, professional and non-professional musicians alike. We head down the hill about 70 yards, through the fruit and flowering trees, to the Recording Studio. Once inside we enter the control room, which is lined with Wood on one side and overhead acoustic baffles to optimise listening and editing. Many artists actively seek out older sound boards like Geejam’s 2008 Neve 16 track, sound console, as well as old fashioned Avalon tube amps as these give a more desirable, rich sound. These days Protools and Autotune are also standard. Musicians come the first time because of the amazingly inspiring location and it’s that “undefinable and undeniable….it gets those juices going” that keeps them coming back for more. Today the Kingston musicians Runkus, Iatosh, KRS, and their manager, Habibi have booked the space to work on an upcoming project. Previous artists have included Amy Winehouse, Bebel Gilberto, Alicia Keys, Björk, John Legend, India.Arie, Florence + The Machine, Snoop Dogg, and Prince Faisal, yes THAT Prince Faisal, he did a song with The Jolly Boys.
After the studio tour Floyd takes me further down the hill through almond, date and coconut trees to drop me off at the private, elevated sandy beach. He introduces me to Noel who is the Life Guard on duty and will set up my red lounge chair under the palm tree thatched umbrella. I can order anything to drink or eat here and Noel will make it happen. Kayaking and Paddle-boarding are available but since I’ve heard so much about the beautiful bay here and the spiritually invigorating mountain spring waters that flow into the sea, I ask Noel to bring me snorkel and fins and proceed along the shore to the east. The waters are teaming with small, brightly coloured schools of fish and marine life, and I do feel the variations of warm and chilling waters… this marine sanctuary it is such a beautifully restorative, peaceful and private place to be.
After a long musical and sun-drenched day, I’m back at the culinary heart of the property, the Bushbar. For a light dinner I choose tonight’s chef special, the Mento stew, a delicious combination of locally grown organic vegetables, ripe plantain, and mini dumplings in a coconut milk infusion. For desert, the warm bread pudding with rum raisin ice cream round out my meal. A chat with Akeem, who has worked here five years, is one of seven chefs that rotate around the property. His mother initially taught him how to cook and he later attended school in Port Antonio to get certified. He loves cooking and his favourite dish is oxtail, which is frequently served on Fridays, Geejam’s Jamaica night and which is also when the veteran Jolly Boys usually come to play. The Jolly Boys are a typical Mento band, which is a Jamaican folk music that predates and influenced reggae music.
After enjoying this star filled tropical evening, serenaded by reggae strains and the bleeping of whistling frogs, I head back to my octagonal cabin to slip into my soft 500 count sheets for a good night’s sleep.
I awaken to the peaceful pink sunrise reflecting onto Mack Bay and head up the few steps to order a fortifying breakfast. Arnella brings me a huge plate of fresh locally grown papaya, mango, pineapple and bananas as well as thick, freshly baked toast and orange marmalade, (possibly a nod to Baker and Bevear’s British roots?) A large pot of freshly brewed Blue Mountain coffee is de rigueur
My plan for the day is to drive east to explore the famous Reach Falls. Since I am pressed for time I do make two short stops along my drive to get an impression of some of Northeast Jamaica’s top must–see list which I will undoubtedly come back to visit properly at a future date. The mystically-coloured, bottomless Blue lagoon of the movie fame, and the world famous, top ranked private beach at Frenchman’s Cove, with it’s brilliant white sands and amazingly clear turquoise waters, are just some of the many breathtakingly beautiful sites to behold in Portland Parish.
After about an hour’s drive I reach the newly renovated Reach Falls parking and facilities. Fortune has smiled on me because although it is Monday and the Falls are closed, I just happen to run into the owner of a large part of this land who very generously offers to walk me down through the rain forest to one of his favourite swimming spots to swim in turquoise pools. The water is very cool but so refreshing after the heat of the day. When heavy rains come, the waters rise dramatically making the currents extremely swift and powerful. After a few hours of walking the stones, down through the riverbed and dunking myself under the various waterfalls it begins to rain. Heading back up the mountain to my car, I drive back along the coastal road stopping at Boston Beach to pick up my dinner of what is arguably the very best and most authentic jerk chicken in the area. Boston beach is incidentally the birthplace of this traditional Jamaican cuisine. Another place not to be missed!
My last evening here, Steve has invited me for a drink at the Bushbar. We chat about music, artists, life and some of the crazy adventures he and Baker went through to get this place to where it is now. He visits here frequently since it is one of his homes and Baker lives here most of the year. Both are very hands on and take a personal interest in looking after their guests, whether it is taking them for walks or swims along their favourite routes, or spending a meal sharing stories into the wee hours. Many artists and guests have become friends and return here for special occasions, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and parties, any event where guests know they’re every need will be looked after.
Although this seems like a more remote part of the island, there are numerous ways of getting here. By air there is charter service from Kingston or Montego Bay to Ken Jones Airstrip, and private jets can fly into Ian Fleming’s International Airport. The Old San San golf course accommodates helicopters and chauffeur pickup is complementary for guests staying five nights or more nights. If arriving by water, the Errol Flynn Marina and Ken Wright Cruise Terminal are just 15 minutes away. By car it is a three-hour drive from Kingston and a five-hour drive from Montego Bay. Geejam works closely with VIP services at both Montego Bay and Kingston airports to ensure that guests are handheld all the way here.
Perhaps in time, Jon Baker will do for GeeJam, his luxury island resort, what Bob Marley did for Reggae and his homeland: Make their passionate undertaking internationally renown. So far so good for Baker whose Port Antonio, Jamaica property, part luxury bungalows – part luxury villas – part recording studio is equally appealing. Whether musically-inclined guests want to lay tracks and drop beats or simply take a break from their “responsible” lives, Geejam is the place to accomplish as much or as little as guests like.