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Shaken and Stirred at the Jamaica Inn

The martinis at the Jamaica Inn are stirred. But then again, sometimes they’re shaken. Ask one bartender the right way to make the classic cocktail and he’ll give you a firm answer. Ask another, and he might suggest the opposite.

The existential question of whether to shake or stir is one that runs deep through the hotel’s history, from its mid-century heyday as a destination for Hollywood royalty and political elite, to its present day as a luxurious, far from the madding crowd retreat on Jamaica’s northern shore. It was here, in the late 1950s that, legend has it, Ian Fleming and Sir Winston Churchill debated the merits of the martini preparation…the conclusion to which would be cemented into James Bond history. Seven decades later, it’s still the drink of choice at the Inn, one to be savoured on the terrace before sitting down to dinner and the nightly live music that plays in harmony to the Caribbean Sea a few meters away.

Ask any of the guests at the 55-room Jamaica Inn and they’ll tell you that not much has changed. Not in three years, not in twelve, not in twenty-seven, as I overhear an older, deeply suntanned women say in the open, outdoor lobby. And that’s part of the charm, if not the central allure.The constant, unchanging nature is what keeps a loyal following coming back to, what is arguably, the most serene stretch of beach on the island. It’s here, on the quiet half-moon of sand, where you can forget about the passing of time, the changing of eras, the rapid development, up and down the coast—minus the occasional Sandals party boat that rips past in blissful oblivion.

The Inn, painted a signature, never-changing shade of blue—”Jamaica Inn Blue,” naturally—is not where you’ll find an oversized soaking tub, central air, or champagne filled mini bar. You won’t find a tv or a radio or a USB outlet to charge your phone either. Indeed, you might find the beds a bit too soft, the towels a smidge threadbare, the pillows a little tired around the seams. But it’s in its classic British colonial style décor, the guest rooms that move seamlessly between the indoors and out (many of which lead directly onto the sand), and the waiters in white waistcoats, that retains an aura of a time lost: a time when the Inn was the first resort in Ocho Rios; when it took all day to get here, and if, you were very lucky, no one would find you here.

Today, the two-hour drive from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios weeds out the faint of heart. You have to want to come here. You have to be determined to come here. And of course, you have to have to cash to come here. Yes, there are more expensive places to stay and places where you can land your own helicopter and vie for a sight of a famous local resident. But that place isn’t here.

The humidity is palpable, even in the cooler months of January and February. Nothing is truly ever dry; nothing is every truly wet. You can smell the granite and the almond trees and the ocean, which, here, in this tranquil sanctuary, is so calm it feels like lake. You’re connected to the elements here, you want to swim in the ocean here, you aren’t—firmly aren’t—in a gated resort so large there is a shuttle bus.

You half expect to see Katharine Hepburn, a former guest, in the lobby. Or Noel Coward, another Jamaica Inn loyalist, on the sand. Is Vivian Leigh sitting at the bar? The desk, where Churchill used to paint, is still marked with colour. In the library a picture of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, glowing on their honeymoon here, sits on a table like a family portrait. The leftover wedding favours from Meghan Markle’s first wedding are laying around here somewhere, an employee mentions. A teacup? She half remembers. The owner, a Mr. Morrow, sits nearly every morning on the terrace to welcome his guests, a newspaper in his lap.

The Morrows have owned the Inn since the 1958 when the purchased it from a Texas newspaper man who had transformed the eight-acre former coconut plantation into a hotel. The Morrows’ roots in Jamaica are nearly a century deep and it’s the third and fourth generations of the family that manage the property today.

Waiters go by carrying breakfast trays on their head, ducking into each guest room porch on the beach to spread out pink tablecloths on the veranda tables. They unleash breakfasts of tropical fruits (honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, papaya, banana, and lime), fish and vegetable stews with potato and yam on the side. It’s almost too much and you’re still full from last night’s dinner—sweet potato pie and fried plantains and fresh fish with coconut rice served on the beach under lit trees. The coffee is strong—deliciously strong—a blend from the Blue Mountains in Jamaica’s interior, the “black gold” that made the country the world’s leading producer of coffee in the early 19th century.

At home, it’s winter and cold and grey. You walk to the spa on a part of the land still left as a jungle. A therapist at the spa shows you around the garden and the medicinal plants they grow there. “Don’t touch the marijuana,” he tells you. “Women on their cycle or men who have had sex within the past 48 hours can kill the plant by just being near it.” They’ll harvest it to use in their massage therapies, as they do with the lemongrass and aloe and other plants they grow in the garden.

Jamaica Inn still has its original tiles: some ochre, some hand-painted deep green with white. They’re fastened firmly in the ground, as if gripping their connection to a time before the party boats and all-inclusive package deals. Several members of the staff have been here over five decades, making the Inn’s stories (even if handed-down stories) feel alive and palpably present. It’s part of the reason why guests still dress for dinner and take a spin on the dancefloor between courses. Here you can be Marilyn at a candlelit table. Here you can be Churchill with a robe and a cigar. Here you can pen the next great novel or at the very least, toast to one.

Nighttime. The crickets are humming. The croquet pitch is romantically lit. The maître d’ dons a tux. There’s music on the veranda and the sound of a martini, somewhere not far away, being poured into a chilled glass.

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