I crane my neck towards the wooden ledge – a makeshift diving board that sits at least 70ft high on top of a wooden pole. A Jamaican man stands with his feet touching the edge. He’s getting himself ready to jump, backwards.
As the suspense builds, Rihanna’s gravelly tones slip away from the speakers and the crowds are silenced. I glance from the limestone cliffs to the shadows of deep-lying rocks peppering the sea below, and back again, waiting for the jump.
He springs up and his feet leave the board. We gasp as he lands shakily back on the board, laughing. These daredevil divers know how to hold a bunch of rum-swilling spectators in suspense.
Leaping off Negril’s cliffs comes at a risk. But at Rick’s Café – a highly commercialised and well-known institution in the West End – it’s become something of a tradition. The café has been rebuilt twice since 1974 after bearing the brunt of hurricanes Gilbert and Ivan. Those too chicken, or sensible, to dive hand their GoPros to the locals, then sit back and enjoy the entertainment, knowing that they’ll definitely have a click-worthy YouTube video to upload later.
Our plucky diver teases us with some muscle flexing before he finally takes the plunge. Flipping in the air like an acrobat, he lands in the jade-hued water feet first and toes pointed, with Tom Daley-like finesse. As the sun melts into the horizon, there’s a final Café Del Mar-style standing ovation. Until tomorrow, when the ritual starts again.
there’s a vibe about Negril that you only ‘get’ once you’re there
An online search of Jamaica’s sunset ‘mecca’ returns swoon-worthy Instagram shots and blogs placing it in the ‘top places to see before you die’. The seemingly never-ending Seven Mile Beach and staggering sunsets all help. But there’s a vibe about Negril that you only ‘get’ once you’re there.
Until the mid-20th century, the area largely consisted of swampland until a road was built between here and Montego Bay. After Negril Beach Village – one of the first resorts – opened in the 1970s, the influx of American hippies began. The resort, aptly named Hedonism II, became known for its naked volleyball games and nudist beach. Vietnam War soldiers looking for escapism joined them, and Negril’s metamorphosis from sleepy fishing community to offbeat traveller’s utopia began.
As my husband and I take a calve-throbbing three-mile hike across Seven Mile Beach’s sand (which, despite its name, is five-and-a-half miles long) we enter a marijuana ‘fog’. Grinning near-naked men and women sway to reggae beats and we begin to get an understanding of the ‘flower children’ who are still here. At the opposite end to the American old-timers you’ll find the fly-and-flop travellers with all-you-can-eat wristbands. It’s not quite the glossy images you see in the brochures, but you can find your own personal paradise here.
For the first few days, ours is Somewhere West, an Airbnb guesthouse run by New Yorker Angi Eastwick and her Jamaican partner Jermelee. It’s around five miles from Downtown Negril in an area known as the Deep West End, and the potholes multiply the nearer we get to the grounds. Some taxi drivers won’t even take us there.
“No one stays out here, mon,” one driver whines, as he twists and turns around the craters, the car suspension squeaking desperately. “One day, the government will fix these roads.” He gets so impatient that we decide to pay our fare and get out, walking the remaining mile or so back to Somewhere West in the dark.
Setting off to explore, we brave the West End Road, where drivers pass us at an unnerving speed. The only reprieve is that they honk their horns so much, you always know they’re coming.
But there’s an upside to playing Russian roulette with our lives. Here, things start to look more ‘real’. We pass rum shacks, roadside fruit stands and wooden gates leading to overgrown gardens. We stop by the peaceful Negril Lighthouse, where waves crash and fizz against the cliffs.
In between signs for magic mushrooms, we’re offered ganja and all sorts of wares a dozen times in one morning. But hawkers are a small price to pay. Life here is relaxed.
“Negril stole my heart,” says Angi. “Here, you can count on every passerby to bid you a genuine good morning. Like in Las Vegas, eccentricity and vice are alive and well and you can let your metaphoric and literal hair down. It’s a place where you can free yourself from your stuffy 9am to 5pm job and store all your dirty little secrets. There’s a sense of freedom that everyone here feels.”
I might not be here to store any dirty little secrets, but our serene oceanfront apartment is the ideal place to surrender to the free, relaxed island vibe. At night, we fall asleep to the sound of the ocean and spend our mornings devouring pancakes and big mugs of Blue Mountain Coffee as pelicans dip out of the blue sky.
once I’ve exhausted all possible camera shots, I stand and take it all in, feeling an overwhelming sense of calm
Before long, we’re tapping into Angi’s local knowledge and visiting Just Natural – a roadside restaurant she’s recommended. “Choose your food, order here, then sit down,” booms the waitress. She’s direct but I kind of like it. We explore a treasure trove of tables hidden around an untamed garden. Each table is topped with draughts boards with Red Stripe bottle tops as the pieces. Crickets chirp loudly and insects crawl from every gnarling branch above us. I tuck into a plate of mahi-mahi that tastes like proper home cooking. Another night, we drop into Sips and Bites, a no-frills joint where a plate of ackee and saltfish takes me to heaven. I can see why people come here and then never leave again.
After a few days, it’s time to explore the boutique side of Negril at The Rockhouse, where the likes of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan have stayed. We revel in sundeck yoga, outdoor showers where lizards watch you wash and an adult’s playground of rocky platforms that stretch across Pristine Cove. We watch a man jump from the cliffs of Pirate’s Cave where Steve McQueen leapt off in the 1950s classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Spurred on, I find myself taking a terrifying but liberating hop off a 15ft bridge into the sea where newlyweds mark their ‘leap’ into marriage.
Our travels head south to the tranquil region of Treasure Beach, where we dodge cows in the street and follow winding roads to the 1,700-ft summit of Lover’s Leap. Named after two African lovers who leapt to their deaths off the edge of the cliff to escape punishment from their slave masters, it’s a reminder of the Caribbean’s dark past. I look out across the staggering stretch of ocean and once I’ve exhausted all possible camera shots, I stand and take it all in, feeling an overwhelming sense of calm. If Negril seems unhurried, time at Lover’s Leap seems to stand still. There’s no big entertainment, no daredevil divers, just a raw natural beauty that’s best enjoyed through your own eyes. Natural high guaranteed.
Book Somewhere West guest house via Airbnb for £356 per night (the property has six bedrooms and sleeps 16), airbnb.co.uk; Rockhouse hotel offers double rooms from £65 in low season, www.rockhouse.com; for more information on the island head to visitjamaica.com