The minute we stepped off the plane into the hot Jamaican air, the island’s laid back, come-as-you-are attitude washed over us, urging us to leave our worries far, far behind. And we did, as we bumped eastward along the A1 coastal highway towards Port Antonio, site of Kanopi House. There’s no better way to experience the nitty-gritty of local Jamaican life than being on the road.
Passing pastures where livestock shared the ground with soccer-playing children, we were tempted by dozens of roadside Rum & Jerk stands with walls of reggae-pumping stereos. At the three-hour mark, we needed a stretch, so our driver took us to a grassy hut overlooking the sea, where we filled up on jerk chicken and Red Stripe, a theme of the trip, as it would turn out.
As we pulled up to Kanopi House an hour later, our driver explained that even most locals aren’t aware of its existence. It’s not difficult to tell why: we did some major off-roading to reach this cluster of cabins deep in the wilds of Blue Lagoon, a notch in the coast fed by a cold-water spring. Swimming here means immersing yourself in running hot and cold water – a strange and pleasurable sensation.
Comprised of a main cabin right on the Blue Lagoon, the property spreads up a hill to five, wood-frame, peak-roof bungalows. Each rises high on stout wood timbers, which is why the hotel refers to them as treehouses. The aesthetic is consistent throughout—thatch roof, wooden shutters, walls made of French doors. (I was particularly struck by the vaulted bungalow ceiling, an intricate geometry of beams.)
Fridges are stocked with local delicacies like Jamaican crisps and spice cake, and the equation of Bose dock plus cushy sofa equalled a perfect reprieve from the steamy Jamaican afternoon air. The cabin interiors are furnished with local crafts, and in keeping with the au-natural vibe, there is an outdoor as well as an indoor shower. There’s nothing quite like communing with Mother Nature while washing away the cares of the day.
But you miss the point of Kanopi House if you don’t plunge into the jungle along the concrete paths that splay out from the hotel. Banana trees hang heavy and the air is a concert of birdcall. We followed a path down to the Blue Lagoon and happily splashed right into the water, as there is no beach to speak of. Afterward, we gazed out over the scene from an adjacent, perfectly perched pavilion. This would become our favorite spot to while away the time, books and beer in hand.
Breakfasts and dinners at the main house, prepared by Kanopi’s proprietress extraordinaire, Carla, are feasts. We of course had that signature spicy chicken one evening, then a whole roasted bass the next, all of the dishes concocted from ingredients Carla had grabbed at the local market that day, or in the case of the fish, as caught by her sons that very afternoon. And both meals were accompanied by the sounds of the sea, washed down with a white wine from a vineyard in Kingston, Jamaica’s raucous capital.
Two days in, and looking for a bit of adventure, we drove through Port Antonio and up into the Blue Mountains with a tour guide, Steve, ending up at a spot on the Rio Grande River. Here we boarded an elongated bamboo raft and, with the mountains behind us and our toes grazing the water, we drifted down towards the sea for the next three hours. The sights were as varied as those from the road. Flutes, coconut art, tropical bouquets and Red Stripe were offered up by kids wading into the river, and along the way, we passed teenagers snorkeling for dinner.
Steve let us stop and explore whenever we had a mind to. We jumped off to swim in a sun-dappled lagoon, and we had a great conversation with a local craftsman about his wares. On the way back to the hotel, we hopped out at a roadside shack and placed an order for a couple of thighs, cooked fresh in an open-air hut underneath a sheet of metal siding. Around us swarmed peddlers offering more vibrantly coloured bean necklaces, (more) Red Stripe, and freshly bottled coconut juice. After a mini-spree, we hopped back into the car and bumped back down the road to Kanopi.
Make no mistake: an excursion to Kanopi House is for the dashing adventurer, not the pina-colada-and-beach-chair bum. There’s a reason Errol Flynn is one of Port Antonio’s storied residents. (And a juicy piece of trivia: when Mrs Smith and I were on our raft ride, we passed through a narrow strip between two tall rocks that was dubbed 'lovers lane' by Erol Flynn, who brought a different girl there every day. So we saluted him with a kiss ourselves as we passed by.) We hesitate to call our stay roughing it, because everything was top-notch. But the Jamaican way of life imbued our experience. Soaking up the sun with a good beach read has its place, but for our money, nothing re-energises you like an adventure for two in a tropical paradise.