Secret celebrity haunts, dazzling helicopter rides and legendary filming locations: Following in the footsteps of Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise and Beyonce on an epic trip around Jamaica
- Hollywood producer Frank Mannion travelled from Montego Bay to Port Antonio and the isle of Negril
- Along the way, he visited Belinda’s, the hidden-away inn that hosted the Pirates of the Caribbean wrap party
- He spied 007 filming locations from No Time To Die and Dr No and stayed on Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate
The swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn – the George Clooney of the thirties, forties and fifties – described Jamaica as more beautiful than any woman.
Today, Jamaica still captivates.
A British colony for over 300 years until 1962, our holiday coincided with the somewhat controversial Royal visit of Prince William and Kate.
Frank Mannion had an epic 10-day journey around Jamaica. Above is one of the stunning stops on his tour – the Strawberry Hill Hotel in the Blue Mountains
The word Jamaica comes from the Taino word meaning ‘land of wood and water’, Frank reveals. He says: ‘There are plenty of beautiful waterfalls there surrounded by tropical forests, [such as] the Dunn’s RiverFalls (pictured), which featured in Dr No’
After an effortless 10-hour flight we landed in Montego Bay, from which it was a short journey to our first destination, the Excellence Oyster Bay Resort in Falmouth, the picturesque coastal capital.
The Excellence certainly lives up to its name by being the very best all-inclusive hotel on the island.
Located on a vast private peninsula surrounded by mangrove lagoons and mesmerising turquoise waters, we felt right at home in a beautiful suite with its own plunge pool.
Frank’s trip around Jamaica began after an ‘effortless 10-hour flight’ to Montego Bay, pictured above
Frank’s first port of call was the Excellence Oyster Bay Resort (pictured) in Falmouth, the picturesque coastal capital
The Excellence is ‘surrounded by mangrove lagoons and mesmerising turquoise waters’
The swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, pictured, once described Jamaica as more beautiful than any woman
It has a first-rate choice of gourmet restaurants, with Magna a stand-out option.
It boasts a spectacular view, truly glorious white-sand beaches, friendly staff and plenty of evening entertainment – plus delicious dishes such as grilled spiny lobster thermidor, grilled beef tenderloin turf and buttered zucchinis.
THE YAM THAT MAKES YOU RUN LIKE A LIGHTNING BOLT
From the Excellence, we made the short trip to the pretty village of Sherwood Content in the parish of Trelawny.
A peeling sign says ‘home of the world’s fastest man’. After all, this is the childhood home of Usain Bolt (where life is lived at a languid pace).
His parents still live in the tranquil village, which is surrounded by undulating hills and pretty streams, a sort of Jamaican Cotswolds.
Above, a peeling sign says ‘home of the world’s fastest man’ in the village of Sherwood Content – the childhood home of Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt’s (pictured) parents still live in the tranquil village of Sherwood Content, which is surrounded by undulating hills and pretty streams, Frank reveals
After Usain broke the 100m world record, his father, Wellesley Bolt, emphatically attributed it to a diet of yellow yams, a starchy tuberous vegetable that Usain devoured when he was growing up.
The world’s oldest woman, Violet Moss Brown, also from Trelawny, was also an avid yellow yam consumer.
She died aged 117 (in 2017) and had the distinction of being the world’s last surviving subject of Queen Victoria.
From there we drove to the capital of Kingston, the birthplace of reggae and where Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley, lived.
His home, in the suburb of Trench Town, is now a museum.
William and Kate were pictured playing the drums there and as William pointed out – ‘so much musical history was made here’.
From Sherwood Content Frank drove to the capital, Kingston (pictured), the birthplace of reggae
Pictured above is Bob Marley’s home, in the suburb of Trench Town, which is now a museum
According to Frank, Bob Marley’s (pictured on the left) impoverished childhood and rejection by his father – a white British Army man from Sussex – were a source of musical inspiration. During William and Kate’s visit to Jamaica (above), the Duke of Cambridge pointed out that ‘so much musical history was made here’
Marley’s father was a white British Army man from Sussex and his mixed-race heritage caused problems when he was growing up, often leading him to be ostracised.
But his impoverished childhood and rejection by his father were a source of musical inspiration, particularly with Corner Stone’, which contains the poignant lyric ‘the stone that the builder refuse will always be the head cornerstone’.
A HOTEL FIT FOR A FUTURE KING
Frank paid a visit to Strawberry Hill Hotel, ‘a magical mountain hotel dating back to the 18th century that’s set sublimely high in the Blue Mountains (pictured)’
While Prince William and Kate were being feted at a banquet at the Governor General’s residence, King’s House, we were keen to avoid the traffic jams caused by the tight security. So we drove through the pretty suburbs of Kingston and up a scenic winding road, with the air becoming increasingly cool and refreshing the higher we climbed.
We passed the colourful little village of Irish Town and finally we reached the Strawberry Hill Hotel, a magical mountain hotel dating back to the 18th century that’s set sublimely high in the Blue Mountains. With its cluster of elegant post-plantation cottages, to-die-for infinity swimming pool and 26 acres of tropical gardens, it felt like we had entered nirvana.
It is one of the most beautiful and dramatically situated hotels in the world, with spectacular panoramic views. We enjoyed a rum punch in the colonial-style wooden bar, then a delightful dinner served on the veranda by the friendliest staff. Below, the lights of Kingston twinkled in the distance with the ocean beyond. The hotel is perched so perfectly that there is no cacophonous soundscape, no din of hooting cars – just mellifluous tropical birdsong. With this peaceful backdrop, it is no surprise to discover that Bob Marley came here to convalesce after the attempt on his life in 1976.
According to Frank, each ‘exquisite’ cottage at Strawberry Hill Hotel nestles within the contours of the mountain. ‘We wished our stay could go on for infinity,’ he says
Each exquisite cottage at the hotel nestles within the contours of the mountain and has a terrace perched to capture its own spectacular view.
The next morning, after a delightful early breakfast of akee and saltfish (Jamaica’s tasty national dish that tastes like scrambled eggs), I could see why Bob Marley was inspired to write: ‘Rise up this mornin’, smile with the risin’ sun, three little birds pitch by my doorstep, singin’ sweet songs of melodies pure and true.’
We wished our stay could go on for infinity, so it was with a tremendous sense of melancholy that we bade adieu to this hilltop paradise.
A HELICOPTER TRIP TO THE BLUE LAGOON
Frank enjoyed a ride with Jamaica’s leading aviation company, Captain’s Aviation. Above is one of the company’s helicopters
Our next destination was in the parish of Portland, so named after the Duke of Portland, who was Governor General there for four years in the early 18th century.
Instead of a bumpy three-hour car journey, Jamaica’s leading aviation company, Captain’s Aviation, teamed up with the Geejam Hotel to take us by helicopter, reducing the journey to just 18 minutes. Captain’s Aviation is run by the charismatic Romario Burrell, who was so keen to become an aviator that he learned how to fly before he was legally allowed to drive.
In fact, he was so young he had to be driven to his flying lessons by his father, Captain Horace, who served as President of Jamaica’s Football Association, hence Romario’s rather Brazilian sounding Christian name! Victor, our ex-Jamaican Defence Forces pilot, whisks us away on a bespoke VIP trip over the Blue Mountains where we see coconut groves, and coffee plantations, reputedly the world’s best and known as the ‘Champagne of coffee’.
Captain’s Aviation is run by the charismatic Romario Burrell, who was so keen to become an aviator that he learned how to fly before he was legally allowed to drive, Frank reveals. Above is the view of the Rockhouse Hotel in Negril from one of the company’s helicopters
Above is a view of Seven Mile Beach from the helicopter cockpit – though Frank flew a different route
Singer Shawn Mendes, pictured, previously enjoyed a helicopter tour with Captain’s Aviation. He loved the trip so much that he shared a post from the cockpit with his 67.5million Instagram followers (pictured on the right)
Minutes later we were circling Port Antonio, the seaside capital of the parish of Portland and spotted Navy Island, which Errol Flynn once acquired in a drunken poker match.
The pilot hovered over Alligator Head where the fabulously rich Baroness von Thyssen-Bornemisza has created a sanctuary. Fortunately, not a sanctuary for alligators (although from afar the peninsula does look uncannily like the head of an alligator), rather for sea turtles and parrotfish.
We then circled Frenchman’s Cove, once the playground of Jamaica’s first all-inclusive resort where the Queen, The Beatles, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came to stay.
From the sky, Frank spotted Navy Island, pictured, which Errol Flynn once acquired in a drunken poker match
Frank’s helicopter circled Frenchman’s Cove, pictured, once the playground of Jamaica’s first all-inclusive resort, where the Queen and The Beatles once stayed
Next to it is the Blue Lagoon, made famous by the movie that introduced Brooke Shields, and still just as mesmerising from the air.
We also flew over Dragon Bay, where Tom Cruise showed off his bartender skills in his beachside bar (now called Cruise Bar) in the 1980s classic Cocktail.
It is a truly breathtaking helicopter tour.
Frank flew over Dragon Bay, where Tom Cruise showed off his bartender skills in his beachside bar in the 1980s classic Cocktail (pictured)
Shawn Mendes loved the trip so much that he shared a post from the cockpit with his 67.5million followers (see photo).
We alighted at Geejam Hotel, founded by two charming British record label bosses, the gregarious Jon Baker and the loquacious Steve Beaver. They fell in love with the island when they were on A&R missions to unearth the next generation of reggae talent.
Until now, Geejam has been the music industry’s most closely guarded secret.
GEE-JAMMING WITH THE ROLLING STONES
Above is the Mento Cabin at Geejam Hotel, founded by two charming British record label bosses. Frank describes the property as ‘the music industry’s most closely guarded secret’
Geejam boasts ‘stylish suites with state-of-the-art technology’. Pictured is the bedroom in the hotel’s Ska Cabin
Geejam’s panoramic sea view is ‘the ultimate stimulant to unlock the creative deities’. Above is the hot tub on the deck of the hotel’s Ska Cabin
According to Frank, Harry Styles, pictured, stayed at Geejam to ‘get away from it all and record some music’
Perched on top of the hotel are two stunning villas – Panorama and Cocosan – that have hosted the creme de la creme of musical talent. It is the ultimate secret hideaway and its panoramic sea view is the ultimate stimulant to unlock the creative deities.
It certainly worked for The Rolling Stones, who had just finished recording their latest top-secret album here, and for Idris Elba, who had been jamming in the recording studio here just before our visit. No doubt he loved the villa’s Steinway piano painted in Ferrari red – now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
The hotel owners are far too discreet to name-drop, but The Stones were following in a long line of Grammy Award-winning artists from Drake, Amy Winehouse, Justin Bieber and even Harry Styles, who came to get away from it all and record some music inspired by the fusion of the glorious surroundings, the lack of distractions and the absence of paparazzi.
With a beautiful infinity pool, a lively bar, friendly staff and stylish suites with state-of-the-art technology, the hotel is the perfect combination of what the owners call ‘off the grid but totally dialled-in’ living.
THE TOWN WHERE JAMES BOND IS THE CATCH OF THE DAY
The opening scenes of No Time To Die (pictured) – Daniel Craig’s final outing as James Bond – were filmed in Port Antonio
Our biggest discovery was to learn that the opening scenes of No Time To Die were filmed in Port Antonio.
This is where James Bond, having retired from active service, comes to lie low and do some fishing, emerging from the azure waters with his catch of the day, all shot in the bay below the Geejam.
Port Antonio also doubled as Cuba in the film providing much-needed employment to the local residents.
Daniel Craig loved it so much, he ended up staying in the Geejam – in the Cocosan villa – for six weeks while the 007 crew and producers took over the other effortlessly chic 19 rooms and villa.
While filming No Time To Die, Daniel Craig ended up staying in the Geejam – in the Cocosan villa, pictured – for six weeks
The dining space in the Cocosan villa at Geejam. Along with the Panorama villa, it’s one of two stunning villas perched on top of the hotel that has hosted the ‘creme de la creme of musical talent’
Daniel Craig and the 007 crew were regulars at jerk bar Piggy’s in Port Antonio. When the bar was destroyed in a fire, according to the genial owner, the Bond production crew wired $35,000 (£26,000) to get it re-opened
Remarkably, Port Antonio seems to make no effort to entice tourists with this important Bond connection – there are no signs or tours that would highlight the unforgettable local locations used in the film. Daniel Craig and the crew were regulars at the local jerk bar, Piggy’s in Port Antonio. Weeks after they finished filming, Piggy’s was destroyed in a fire and, according to the genial owner, Eustac “Piggy” Lindsay, once word got back to Daniel Craig, the Bond production wired $35,000 (£26,000) to get it re-opened, saving the jobs of the 15 staff that worked there.
The Geejam organised a rafting trip on the Rio Grande.
The bamboo rafts had originally been used to transport bananas for export, but it was Errol Flynn who pioneered the use of leisure rafting in the 1950s.
Our captain was Michael, who has been piloting rafts down the eight-mile-long river for almost 30 years.
His passengers, on his bamboo love seat, have included the likes of Sean Connery and Peter O’Toole, who settled into the two-hour journey with a very large ice-box of beer and whose raucous company Michael very much enjoyed.
It is a beautiful way to enjoy Jamaica’s natural unspoilt beauty and very safe with no rapids.
THE RIVER CAFÉ LOVED BY PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN AND BEYONCE
Frank headed on a rafting trip on the Rio Grande, pictured. ‘It is a beautiful way to enjoy Jamaica’s natural unspoilt beauty and very safe with no rapids,’ he says
Frank stopped along the Rio Grande to visit the popular Belinda’s riverside inn. He reveals that Beyonce, pictured on the left, once flew in by helicopter to sample Belinda’s culinary delights. Johnny Depp loved Belinda’s so much he arranged for the Pirates of the Caribbean wrap party to be held there. On the right is Depp playing Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
About halfway downriver, we jumped off to swim at the local beauty spot, known as Lover’s Lane, and make a stop at Belinda’s, a simple old-fashioned riverside inn with long benches that is only accessible by river.
Belinda, and her mother before her, have been setting up their fires and cooking dishes here daily for decades. Her chicken stew, rice and beans, curry goat, bammy and plantain, are simply delicious.
Beyonce even flew in by helicopter to sample Belinda’s culinary delights.
Appetite sated, she continued the rest of her journey by bamboo raft down to where the river meets the Caribbean Sea at Port Antonio. Johnny Depp loved Belinda’s so much he arranged for the Pirates of the Caribbean wrap party to be held there.
The word Jamaica comes from the Taino word meaning ‘land of wood and water’. There are plenty of beautiful waterfalls there surrounded by tropical forests, from the Dunn’s RiverFalls, which featured in Dr No, to Reach Falls, which featured in Cocktail, not to mention the underrated Nanny Falls and YS Falls. A trip to any of these is a life-affirming experience.
Above are Reach Falls, which feature in the film Cocktail. Visit Jamaica’s waterfalls and you’ll enjoy a ‘life-affirming experience’, according to Frank
A picture of the coast by Goldeneye. Ian Fleming spent two months each winter there, writing 14 novels, three of which, including Dr No, are set in Jamaica
Legendary record producer Chris Blackwell, pictured, developed author Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate into a five-star hotel and resort
From Port Antonio, it was a two-hour drive to the magnificent Goldeneye Hotel, just outside Ocho Rios (call it ‘Ochi’ if you want to blend in with the locals).
It has an illustrious history. It is where Ian Fleming wrote all the James Bond novels.
He first came to Jamaica in 1942 as a naval intelligence officer (on an operation to find German U-boats in the Caribbean) vowing to return as soon as he could.
The year after the war, he bought a small tract of land that was once a donkey racetrack and built a bungalow that he named Goldeneye. Fleming spent two months each winter there, writing 14 novels, three of which, including Dr No, are set in Jamaica. Noel Coward lived further up the road at his hilltop getaway, Firefly. In fact, Coward is buried at Firefly in a plot with stunning views overlooking Port Maria and his house is now a museum open to visitors, and well worth a visit.
Fleming’s muse was the heiress Blanche Blackwell, who was rumoured to be the inspiration for Pussy Galore.
When Dr No was filming nearby, at Fleming’s recommendation, Blanche’s son, Chris Blackwell, was hired as a location scout and worked on the famous scene where a bikini-clad Ursula Andress emerges from the sea singing ‘Under the Mango Tree’.
It was filmed at the nearby Laughing Waters beach, a beautiful spot that is now only accessible by boat (visits can be arranged by the hotel).
Chris went on to have a legendary music career, founding Island Records and introducing reggae and Bob Marley, Cat Stevens and U2, among others, to the world.
After Ian Fleming died, Bob Marley bought the house sight unseen, but found it too posh and sold it the following year to his record industry boss, Chris Blackwell, who developed the 42 acres of land into a five-star hotel and resort. It is now one of the most breathtakingly beautiful hotels in the world.
There are photos of some of Chris Blackwell’s incredible line-up of musical collaborators on the walls of Bizot Bar, pictured
Apart from some old photos of Fleming and some Bond books in the lobby, it plays down its 007 connections.
Even Blackwell’s musical success is low key, apart from at the Bizot Bar, where there are photos of some of his incredible line-up of musical collaborators.
It is at the Bizot Bar that we see a barefoot Chris Blackwell playing backgammon against the backdrop of a beautiful shimmering sunset. Now a very youthful 85 years of age, his memoirs will be published in June.
The restaurant is in an unrivalled position on the island and we enjoy mouth-watering dishes such as escovitch lionfish with fried bammy and braised oxtail stew.
THE VILLA THAT TOOK IAN FLEMING AND STING’S BREATH AWAY
‘Goldeneye is a collection of 49 truly gorgeous villas, cottages, and huts scattered throughout the tropical gardens,’ writes Frank. Above is the resort’s Lagoon Cottage
Goldeneye has long been a source of musical inspiration – Sting wrote the hit ‘Every Breath You Take’ when he was a guest of the resort. All the stunning Beach Huts at Goldeneye, such as the one pictured on the right, were created to match the style of Chris Blackwell’s own
Goldeneye has long been a source of musical inspiration – while guests Sting wrote the hit ‘Every Breath You Take’ and Bono wrote the title track to Goldeneye (sung by Tina Turner).
On a wall of the Fleming villa is a framed hand-written thank you note from Sting.
It is still possible to stay in the original Fleming Villa, which proudly houses the simple desk where Fleming wrote all the Bond thrillers ‘with the jalousies closed around me so that I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside’.
He added: ‘Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday?’
One of the delights of Goldeneye is that there are many secluded spots and nooks and crannies to discover and where you feel like you have it all to yourself, Frank reveals
A bedroom in one of Goldeneye’s Beach Huts. ‘Goldeneye truly is one of the most heavenly places on earth,’ Frank admits
Goldeneye is a collection of 49 truly gorgeous villas, cottages, and huts scattered throughout the tropical gardens, along a picturesque and tranquil lagoon, and along the beaches and Snorkeller’s Cove.
All the stunning Beach Huts were created to match the style of Chris Blackwell’s own.
One of the delights of Goldeneye is that there are many secluded spots and nooks and crannies to discover and where you feel like you have it all to yourself – have a sundowner at the delightful Shabeen bar, or check out the tropical sea-life in Snorkeller’s Cove.
As we walked back from dinner to our beach hut, we passed some mango, ackee and coconut trees planted by the likes of past guests Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan, Quincy Jones and Kate Moss. Goldeneye truly is one of the most heavenly places on earth.
SWEPT AWAY ON SEVEN MILE BEACH
Negril’s world-famous Seven Mile Beach (above) is ‘even more beautiful than it looks in photos’, according to Frank
Couples Swept Away, pictured, is the perfect all-inclusive resort for active guests, Frank reveals
It was time to move to the west side of the island to Negril with its world-famous Seven Mile Beach – even more beautiful than it looks in photos.
Our next home was Couples Swept Away, the perfect all-inclusive resort for active guests.
It has the island’s largest fitness centre and a beautiful old-school swimming pool with mature palm trees somewhat reminiscent of Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. It has the most stunning beach with overhanging palms providing the idyllic way to wind down from the stresses and to adapt to the slower pace of ‘island time’.
It is a fun place with great restaurants (Feathers and Lemon Grass are highly recommended), a lively beach scene and one of the best spots on the island for a sundowner.
The fun-loving barmen will insist on creating an exotic looking three-tiered alcoholic shot in the green, yellow and black colours of the Jamaican flag.
Owned by the Issa family, there are plenty of authentic local touches with artwork by Jamaican artists on the walls including one colourful, amusing one at the entrance of the Patois restaurant of a policeman happily watering a marijuana plant (marijuana was legalised in Jamaica in 2015, a policy that would have met with Bob Marley’s approval since he famously sang ‘legalise it, don’t criticise it’).
‘It is a fun place with great restaurants,’ Frank says of Couples Swept Away. He recommends dining at Feathers restaurant (pictured)
According to Frank, Couples Swept Away boasts plenty of ‘authentic local touches with artwork by Jamaican artists on the walls’
Couples Swept Away has a beautiful old-school swimming pool with mature palm trees that’s ‘somewhat reminiscent of Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles’
To avoid the friendly ganja sellers on Seven Mile Beach, just don’t sit in the front row on the beach-loungers!
We had lunch at the tree-shaded terrace of the Zest restaurant at the nearby Cliff Hotel, situated on a glorious five-acre bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the western-most point of Jamaica. This stunning five-star hotel has 33 spacious oceanfront suites and villas (with nice touches such as hammocks on the terrace) and a spectacular pool with an Instagrammble wet-bar.
We watched some guests cliff-jumping off the rocks, while others enjoyed a natural saltwater pool – the setting and design are truly divine.
Chef Cindy Hutson brings her ‘cuisine of the sun’ philosophy to Zest and what is known colloquially as ‘rasta pasta’ transforming traditional Italian fare into a mouth-watering jerked chicken penne pasta.
Cliff Hotel, pictured, is situated on a ‘glorious’ five-acre bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea on the western-most point of Jamaica
‘The setting and design are truly divine,’ Frank says of the Cliff Hotel, after visiting for a spot of lunch. Above is one of the hotel’s suites
Frank’s girlfriend visited the Cliff Hotel’s KiYara spa, pictured, set in a secluded clifftop sanctuary of natural stone and bamboo
A lobster dish at the Cliff Hotel. Chef Cindy Hutson brings her ‘cuisine of the sun’ philosophy to the hotel’s Zest restaurant, Frank reveals
A local staple such as breadfruit becomes a tropical taco wrapped around a locally caught mahi-mahi fish dusted with coriander and toasted cumin.
My girlfriend headed for the hotel’s KiYara spa, set in a secluded clifftop sanctuary of natural stone and bamboo. The name honours the Tainos, the first inhabitants of Jamaica with KiYara meaning’ sacred place of the earth’s spirit’.
It is an appropriate name for the beautiful ocean-facing treatment room.
Using indigenous Jamaican herbs and botanicals, the highly skilled therapist Carolyn Jobson gave my girlfriend the best body treatment she has ever had.
Meanwhile, I sat on the terrace overlooking the crashing waves with a rum punch in my hand and imagined Christopher Columbus landing here in 1494 – the first European to set foot on Jamaica. How apt his description of the island: ‘The fairest isle mine eyes ever beheld.’
Over the 10-day holiday, we saw spectacular river falls, went bamboo rafting, drank the finest Blue Mountain coffee and followed in the footsteps of James Bond with swims in turquoise waters, and all the while, we felt safe and welcomed by the wonderful Jamaican people.
The words of Bob Marley seem apt to placate any fears that visitors might have: ‘Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right’.
Frank Mannion is a film director and his film Quintessentially British with Ian McKellen will be in cinemas on August 12, 2022.
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