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Is Jamaica the ultimate travel destination for coffee-lovers?

Some of the world’s most prized coffee beans grow in the island’s Blue Mountains, thriving in small plantations clinging to the volcanic peaks and dramatic valleys. Saddle up for a downhill cycle tour in search of the perfect caffeine hit.

Published 13 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT, Updated 16 Nov 2021, 16:23 GMT
One of the reasons why Coffee arabica thrives here is that the UNESCO World Heritage Centre-listed ...

One of the reasons why Coffee arabica thrives here is that the UNESCO World Heritage Centre-listed Blue Mountains are volcanic while the rest of Jamaica is limestone, and their misty, sharply inclined valleys create an ideal microclimate for a plant that loves well-drained, fertile soil.

Photograph by Alamy

You need to be alert when cycling in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, but at least the hazards are refreshingly different to those in the UK. Seated on one of those perilous, reverse-pedal-to-brake bikes, I’m having to contend with darting mongooses, dim-witted goats, fallen mangoes and a steep, single-lane road that’s so full of potholes it resembles a long, moth-eaten scarf.

In the space of 45 minutes, I’ll pedal 12 miles and descend 2,700ft — but this is no adrenaline ride. That’s because the descent from the hamlet of Section to the town of Spring Hill is so winding and eventful that there’s no chance of me picking up speed, even though I’ve been equipped with a helmet, knee and elbow pads. 

I’m not complaining, mind, for the point of this breezy ride is to admire the scenic beauty of one of the world’s most famous coffee-growing regions. Thanks to a pandemic-induced drop in visitor numbers, there are only seven of us doing this tour. Nonetheless, we’re escorted by four chirpy guides, kitted out with walkie-talkies and whistles and prone to yelling out handy warnings like “Big dip ahead!”. In normal times, more than 20 cyclists might be making the ride, and it’s commendably inclusive. “Children as young as six have done this,” explains manager Rohan McLeod, “and we also have tandem bikes that non-cyclists can sit on”.

The valley we wind through is impossibly picturesque and there are stops to photograph the views, flamboyant flora and a riverbank where baptisms take place. Halfway down, we pause at a wooden house built by the ride’s organiser, Blue Mountain Cycle Tours, for lunch: chicken and spicy rice, served to a reggae beat, with sweeping views across the lush countryside. We then continue at a leisurely pace, with stops to pick up a pineapple from someone’s garden and, later, to walk our bikes over a flimsy bridge that earlier in the day my taxi driver had crossed with a merry “let’s give it a try!” Our trip concludes with a refreshing dip in the thundering waters of Fish Dunn Falls.

To find out why this brew is so revered, the following day I take a short walk from my base at Strawberry Hill, a hotel near Irish Town that’s perched at 3,100ft, offering mesmerising views over the glittering lights of the capital, Kingston. “It all began in 1728 when six coffee plants were brought over from Martinique,” explains Alton Bedward, who leads tours of the Craighton Estate. The centrepiece of this coffee farm is the pink-and-white, wooden Great House, built in 1805, encircled by an airy verandah upon which colonial-era administrators once snoozed.

One of the reasons why Coffee arabica thrives here is that the UNESCO World Heritage Centre-listed Blue Mountains are volcanic while the rest of Jamaica is limestone, and their misty, sharply inclined valleys create an ideal microclimate for a plant that loves well-drained, fertile soil. The result is a fruit that’s a pain to harvest but leads, if properly washed, sorted, sun-dried and roasted, to a smooth beverage that’s naturally sweet, has no bitter aftertaste and is low in caffeine. 

Alton serves me a cup, and I confess it’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. I promptly buy a 500g pack of estate beans for $32 (£23), because this liquid gold is hard to come by — two-thirds of the Blue Mountains harvest get whisked away to Japan, where coffee-lovers can expect to fork out what I’d just paid for just one cup. 

Craighton is owned by the Japanese Ueshima Coffee Company, and when Alton walks me up to a gazebo at 3,150ft, we enjoy views over some of the 500,000-odd bushes under its command. Their green and red, cherry-like fruit glows in the sun like Christmas baubles. The crop isn’t organic but it is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an international, non-governmental organisation that sets criteria for sustainable agriculture. As in many coffee-producing countries, most of the crop is grown by small-scale farmers, of which there are around 5,000 in the Blue Mountains. Alton tells us that working on the steep hills that support this long-treasured plant isn’t easy.

“Oh, I know,” I sigh,

“I’ve cycled in these parts, and the only way to go is downhill.”

How to do it: British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Kingston from £525. Strawberry Hill has doubles from $337 (£244), B&B. Tours with Blue Mountain Cycle Tours from $135 (£98). visitjamaica.com

Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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