Monday, August 12, 2013

A slice of heaven on a lush mountain in Jamaica

A goat herder on Canaan Mountain in Jamaica, where he lives among other subsistence farmers. Our stay at the nearby Zimbali Retreats showed us a side of the Caribbean island few tourists ever see.

One evening, Obrian Herron, the chef at Zimbali Retreats, prepared a deliciously thick soup, using coconut milk that he made himself and filling it with unusually tender whelk, a marine mollusk; banana, yam and other ingredients.
Another evening, Obrian served us butter-fish fillet with rice and peas; eggplant and other vegetables. His fruit-based sauces and salad dressings made every meal special. 


Zimbali Retreats -- a cluster of rustic cottages on lush, green Canaan Mountian in western Jamaica -- redefines the meaning of getting away from it all.

The complex is not only off the beaten path, it relies almost completely on solar power, storage batteries, rain water and a natural spring.

We enjoyed three meals a day prepared by Chef Obrian Herron, using ingredients from a 7-and-a-half-acre organic farm the owners started several years before they began accepting guests.

What did we do? 

We ate, rested, ate some more and rested some more. I read "East of the Sun," a novel set in the 1920s in England and India that I found in our room.

Life is a beach

You can be as active or inactive as you want. 

There are spa services available at extra cost, including massages, facials and nail treatments. 

Or you could go on one of several day trips, including a jaunt to the white-sand beach Negril is famous for -- about 12 miles away.

Nature's soundtrack

And you can commune with nature, listening during the day to the sounds of birds, crickets and goats swell at night to a discordant symphony of noisy tree frogs and other critters. 

We watched powerful thunderstorms from the safety of a covered veranda in the main villa.

My morning routine was making coffee in our cottage and drinking it on the porch.

I watched in fascination as -- only a few feet away -- iridescent green hummingbirds took nectar from flowers while their wings beat furiously to hold them suspended in the air.

A tasty vegetarian meal of, from upper left, lentils, lentil flat bread, salad with mango vinaigrette and green plantains.

A breakfast of ackee and salt fish, the Jamaican national dish, included roasted breadfruit, rear, boiled green banana, avocado and sweet plantains.

Fresh fruit started off breakfast. Sweet bananas had green and red skins, and the latter was the sweetest such fruit I have ever tasted. A soft Jamaican apple was unlike any I've eaten before.
The freshly made juices served with most meals, including pineapple, above, were heavily spiked with ginger.

Cooling off

Just before breakfast on Sunday, GG, the farmer at Zimbali Retreats, led me and my wife on a 10-minute walk down a rocky dirt road to a spot where I could take a dip in the cool Canaan River, under a thick canopy of leaves and bamboo.

We encountered a farmer who lives nearby and was out cutting fresh sugar cane for a morning energy boost.

Fruit rots on trees

GG spoke of the abundance of fruit and nuts grown in the lush setting, including breadfruit, mango, avocado, which is called "pear" in Jamaica; cashews, almonds and lychee.

In fact, he said, there is so much blooming on the mountain that farmers and their families can't possibly eat it all and lots of it goes to waste.

Coffee on the porch of our cottage, only a few feet away from a tree whose flowers are called shrimp, below.

Hummingbirds find this flowering shrimp simply irresistible.

A young hummingbird in an unusual pose -- resting on a branch. When in motion, you can hear the thrumming of the hummingbird's wings, but it's a blur when flying.
A hammock is placed strategically at each corner of the main villa's breezy covered veranda, which guests have the run of. 

Zimbali Retreats' main villa as seen from the farm.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday brought intense thunderstorms, all of them starting at 3 in the afternoon. On Sunday, the sun rose through a cloudy sky.

A welcoming home

Since we hung around Zimbali Retreats most of the time, we got to hear the owners, Mark and Alecia, bantering with their staff and their children in the colorful hybrid language Jamaicans call "patois."

Mark apologized for workmen sawing and hammering wood to add a sixth guest room on the other end of the property from our cottage, explaining the off-season is the only time he can expand.

You'll find most of the creature comforts at Zimbali Retreats, but no air-conditioning. 

Near silent ceiling fans do a good job of keeping guests cool in the hot, humid weather, especially on the breezy veranda. Nights are cool, and even fans aren't needed.

One of the revelations at Zimbali Retreats was fresh collaloo, above left and below, a spinach-like green that is chopped, canned in brine and sent to the United States.

Collaloo with sweet and green plantains, avocado and scrambled eggs.
Ackee, the Jamaican fruit, is said to be poisonous until it opens, and then requires labor-intensive cleaning of the black seeds and other non-edible waste.

Chef Obrian at the stove in the kitchen-dining room. He is a skilled vegetarian cook, but will prepare seafood or chicken for guests who want them. No pork is served. Many of the nearby farmers are Rastafarian and eat only fruit, vegetables and fish.

Going organic

The mostly organic food was a big draw for us, and eating fresh collaloo and ackee -- not the canned stuff we have in the U.S. -- were revelations.

We were served wonderful homemade juices, heavily spiked with ginger, including mango, pineapple, sour sop and beet.

I also liked the strong, muddy black coffee from a French press.

After my swim on Sunday, I asked GG if there was any coconut water around, and he went to hack open two of the fruit for us.

The owners, Mark and Alecia; GG, Chef Obrian, Miss D and other members of the staff made us feel completely at home.

Coconut water straight from the source, above and below.

Chef Obrian estimates that 75% of the ingredients he uses come from the farm at Zimbali Retreats.
GG fashioned a spoon so we could eat the "jelly" from inside the coconut.
A farmer of Jamaican and Chinese descent enjoying a snack of fresh sugar cane, above and below.


Zimbali Retreats, Canaan Mountain, Little London District, Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica; 1-876-485-2789

Web site: Healing mind and body

We learned about Zimbali Retreats from Amazon Local, purchasing a voucher for 4 nights, including meals, for $799 for 2 people.  A 16.5% tax is additional.

Transfers from the airport in Montego Bay were $99 each way, and are well worth it considering Jamaica has some of the worst roads -- and worst drivers -- in the Western Hemisphere, including a long, rocky dirt track that runs through a sugar-cane estate leading up to Zimbali Retreats.

Jamaicans also drive on the left. Enough said.

If you go, don't forget to pack insect repellant. 

Coming soon:

In Jamaica, nature's splendor
 is everywhere

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