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Crossing cultures: Jamaica's arts, heritage and history transform the traditional Caribbean vacation.

There's more to Jamaica than just sun, sand and surf. From its bustling business and arts capital of Kingston to its lush, mountainous village of Mandeville, Jamaica is a diverse island, mixing African traditions and culture with English and Spanish influences.

Billing itself as the "cultural capital of the Caribbean," Kingston is rich in art, music and museums. From the National Gallery, which houses some of the finest collections of Caribbean art, to the Bob Marley Museum, the converted former home of the father of reggae music, to the National Dance Theatre Company--all help Kingston live up to this billing. The center of the island's finance and commerce, downtown Kingston is filled with glass-and-concrete multistory hotels and office buildings framed by the country's lush Blue Mountains.

The essence of Jamaican culture can be witnessed at local festivals like the Caribbean Heritagefest. This tribute to the island's traditional customs and multiethnic influences is held in October at the large, dusty, open-field stadium of Jamworld just outside the city. Jamaicans from all over the country gather to show off traditional dances, such as the quadrille--a kind of creolized ballroom set dance--and the kumina--a ceremonial incantation dance. Both are performed to the musical sway of traditional bands playing with a mix of commercial and indigenous instruments. Dancers and bands compete for awards and attention.

Traditional arts even extend to making candy. Women boil white cane sugar down to its brown syrupy base. They then spread it to cool over a slate stone, before gathering it into a gooey ball. With strong steady strokes, they hang, twist, pull and turn the sugar into a long shimmery white string of candy, flavor it with peppermint oil and cut it into strips.

If Kingston is the big city, Port Antonio is a bucolic, seaside small town. For generations, the rich and famous--former Hollywood-types like Errol Flynn and current music mogul Chris Blackwell of Island Records, among others--have built mansions, which they can escape to. Populated by secluded villas and grand private homes, Port Antonio's unhurried pace and out-of-the-way location (roughly a two hours' drive northeast of Kingston) make it the perfect quiet place to get away and watch the warm Caribbean sunsets.

But out of the way doesn't mean out of touch. On the way to town from the villas at Goblin Hill at San San, a roadside vendor scoops out a coconut for a patron who has pulled his car alongside the stand as he talks on his cellular phone. It's here that technology and rural culture clash on the best of terms.

From Port Antonio, you can go rafting on Jamaica's Rio Grande (Rio Grande Attractions, 809-993-2871) for $40 U.S. Gliding along on two-person bamboo rafts, steered by a veteran captain, the trip downstream is quiet and relaxing. Along the way, men and boys swim out from the banks to sell you a Pepsi or Red Stripe beer. Still others gather in three- or four-person banjo bands staked out along the river to serenade you as you float downriver. A young boy eagerly wades out, hat-in-hand, to ask for small donations. About halfway down the river and around a bend, the smell of jerk chicken, curry goat, and rice and peas cooking on a campfire wafts through the air. It's Miss Betty at her Riverside Canteen preparing a lunchtime repast for those making the trek. For a few U.S. dollars, you can stop off to fill your plate to the brim. Just call ahead (809-993-2375) and let her know you're stopping by or if you want to request something special.

High above Port Antonio in the lush hills along the Rio Grande is a community called Moore Town. Technically, an independent republic within Jamaica, its occupants are the Maroons, whose ancestors were former slaves who fought for and won their independence in a 1739 treaty from the British, long before the rest of Jamaica. In June, they celebrate and pay tribute to Grandy Nanny, the woman who led them in their fight for freedom and independence.

Jamaicans are not only preserving their cultural heritage, they are protecting some of their natural habitats. One such preserve, the 165-acre Crystal Springs (809-929-4222), owned and operated by Pauline and Jackie Stewart, is a nature retreat and educational center, which features Jamaican horticulture, flowing natural springs and local antiques. Several one- and two-bedroom cottages dot the landscape for those who'd like to stay longer than a few hours.

If you're looking for a little more action but still want culture and beautiful beaches, head for Ocho Rios. There you'll find Coyaba River Garden and Museum (Shaw Park, 809-974-4568), a horticultural and freshwater sanctuary tracing Jamaica's history, from its Arawak Indian and slave origins to post-emancipation.

To get a firsthand look at wonderful art from around the Caribbean, visit the gallery and gift shop of Harmony Hall. Throughout Jamaica, there are many places to stay. The island was among the first to offer all-inclusive packages with lodging and meals included for one price. In Kingston, two first-class business hotels are the Jamaica Pegasus (809-926-3690) and the Wyndham Kingston Hotel (809-926-5430).

In Port Antonio, besides the villas (which come with a cook and maid) at Goblin Hill at San San (800-472-1148 or 809-925-8108), there's also the beautifully renovated Dragon Bay Hotel (809-993-3281).

In Ocho Rios, the Plantation Inn (800-974-5601), with its junior and penthouse suites and villas, makes a spectacular beachside setting in which to unwind. Just across the road sits Ciboney Ocho Rios (305-974-1027), a beautiful resort, spa and villa property. Both have been ranked by a leading travel magazine among the top 500 places to stay in the world.

And, if art, culture and history aren't enough to get you to Jamaica, there's always sun, sand and surf!
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Caribbean Travel Guide
Author:Whigham-Desir, Marjorie
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:May 1, 1996
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