Blue Mountain Peak is Jamaica's highest summit, a worthy hike with spectacular views
The Blue Mountains
The highest mountain range in Jamaica, the Blue Mountains harbor a rich history, having provided refuge for runaway slaves, transplanted French-Haitian coffee farmers, and even Bob Marley, when he sought safety and seclusion at Strawberry Hill following the attempt on his life in 1976. Today the area attracts visitors principally for its lush nature, colorful birdlife, delicious coffee, and fresh air.
Blue Mountain Peak, the highest point in Jamaica at 2,256 meters, offers a stunning view of five parishes: Kingston, St. Andrew, St. Thomas, Portland, and St. Mary. The Blue Mountain range forms a physical barrier to the northeasterly weather fronts that frequently descend on the island, giving Portland and St. Thomas especially copious amounts of rainfall compared to the southern coastal plains of Jamaica, where drought is common.
During the rainy season (October and November), the mountain peaks often cloud over by mid-morning. Skies are clearest June–August and December–March.
Within an hour's drive from Kingston, Irish Town, Hardwar Gap, and Mavis Bank are great destinations for a quick escape from the urban jungle. This is where rural Jamaica is at its coolest. The elevation and lush greenery are a welcome retreat from the heat on the plains and foothills around Town. The road up and the rugged terrain are not for the faint of heart, but the prized Blue Mountain coffee, breathtaking views, diverse vegetation, and abundance of native birds are more than adequate rewards, and few are sorry for making the effort.
Andy Jefferson (by appointment) is a prominent expat artist who can be found by taking the first right after the 18-mile post heading toward Newcastle. Andy welcomes visitors to his home studio and gallery and provides accommodation as part of a visiting artist residency program.
Belcour Lodge (10 minutes from Papine in Maryland, reservation required) is a beautiful private, colonial-era home set in a lovely river valley amid expansive gardens. Robin and Michael Lumsden offer Culinary Tours that include a stroll around the yard. Visitors will find an apiary with 50 colonies, a citrus orchard, and an abundance of other fruit trees. Robin and Mike markets Belcour Blue Mountain Honey, as well as Belcour fruit preserves, chutneys and spicy pepper sauces, produced on a cottage-industry scale from all natural, local ingredients.
The Twymans grow some of the best Blue Mountain Coffee. The estate is run by David, son of owners Dorothy and the late, great coffee farmer Alex Twyman.
Holywell National Park (entry US$5, or US$1.50 for residents) sits atop Hardwar Gap, affording a view of St. Andrew Parish to the south and St. Mary and Portland to the north. The birding is excellent in the 50-hectare park, which borders Twyman’s Old Tavern Coffee Estate on the north side and is a haven for migratory birds in the winter months. Hiking trails lead to a few peaks, and there’s also a loop trail.
Mavis Bank Coffee Factory (8:30 a.m. oon and 13:30 p.m Mon.Fri., tour reservations recommended, US$8 adults, US$3.50 children) was established in 1923 by an English planter, Victor Munn. As the biggest coffee factory in Jamaica, it has been the economic foundation for the area since. The company is currently owned by the National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIJB) and the founding Munn family, who share 70/30-percent stakes.
Cinchona Gardens, while not the best-maintained botanical gardens, have a spectacular variety of plants, including many orchid species, making it a magical place with an incredible view. Cinchona Gardens can be reached by turning left at the Anglican church in Mavis Bank, and then descending to cross the Yallahs River at Robertsfield. Once you cross the river, either keep left at the fork to Cinchona via Hall’s Delight, or take the right at the fork to reach Cinchona via Westphalia.
Catherine’s Peak quickly becomes visible rising to the right as you drive up to Newcastle, a Jamaica Defense Force (JDF) training camp, from Red Light, the small community following Irish Town. The summit is easily identified by the clutter of communications antennas at the summit. The peak is a one-hour hike from the Parade ground at Newcastle, where there is plenty of parking. A rough road goes all the way up, but it becomes impassable to anything but a four-wheel-drive vehicle.