This is the scene. We are at one of the Caribbean’s most stunning golf courses, carved out of 600 acres of lush greenery and rolling countryside, with panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea from16 of the 18 holes. Golf clubs, balls, scorecard, tees, beverages and snacks are neatly arranged in our cart as we survey the surrounding landscape. “Yeah mon. The line is the large tree on the horizon, just swing nice and smooth,” says our caddie at the White Witch’s stunning 550-yard, par five opening hole. For two pale English golfers who haven’t touched a golf club throughout the winter months, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The 6,748-yard par-71 course was so named by its creators – golf course architects Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril – in reference to Annie Palmer, the notorious ‘White Witch,’ who was mistress of Rose Hall Plantation in the early 19th century on which the course is built. She was purported to be beautiful and beguiling and to have murdered three unsuspecting husbands.
The course certainly casts a spell, as it spills up and down the hills high above the sea. Many holes demand long and scary carries over chasms filled with rocks and two of the par-three holes feature stomach-dropping shots from elevated tees to water-fronted greens far below. “The White Witch is a course that will give you a different experience each time you play, and we have done that by creating multiple tees throughout,” says head golf professional Mike Cole. Whereas the low handicapper might have to carry a yawning ravine to reach the green, there are also tees allowing the shorter hitter to get there as well. The topography is unique, making each hole memorable and distinctive in its own right.”
From pewter golf bag tags inscribed with each player’s name and a driving range to die for, to luxurious changing rooms and well-trained, white-suited caddies (‘golf concierges’), everything about the White Witch is decidedly top-end – but wonderfully relaxed with it.
At every course the caddies add their own local flavour and at the Witch it’s no exception. The golf concierges are a unique service that provides traditional caddie services in addition to other services such as restaurant reservations, ordering flowers for loved ones or making spa appointments. “Their knowledge of the golf course includes everything needed to negotiate the gusty winds, drastic elevation changes and deceptive greens,” says Mike, as we enjoy some frosty Red Stripe beers after our round. The elegant dining veranda of the clubhouse provides a superb and fitting 19th hole with views of the first tee and the sparkling turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea beyond.
The White Witch is situated on Jamaica’s north coast. It is one member of a quartet of premier courses that includes Half Moon, the Tryall Club and Cinnamon Hill, all clustered around the elite enclave of Rose Hall near Montego Bay. Although there are another eight courses on the island (including the historic 9-hole Manchester Club, founded in 1865, the oldest golf course in the Western Hemisphere), these four are the most varied and distinctive and provide a good focus for a Jamaican golf vacation.
The following morning we have a tee time at Half Moon with the Director of Golf, Ewan Peebles. The course is a tropical parkland layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Snr. and located in the exquisite resort of Half Moon. For Scottish-born Ewan, a qualified PGA-pro since 2001 and a professional golfer for more than 11 years, each course in the Rose Hall area holds a certain charm. “To me, Half Moon is the most user-friendly of the bunch and is more open and forgiving,” he says, after just missing a birdie putt on the par-five opening hole.
Half Moon’s signature hole is the relatively short, 362-yard par-four 4th, which offers a choice of going for the green in one or hitting an iron down the open side to the green. It is guarded by a water hazard to the right.My caddie, 31-yearold Orville Christie (known locally as the Jamaican John Daly) decides to tee one up and have a crack, but alas he pushes it to the right.
“The stretch of holes from 6 to 9, which are three long par-fours and a long par-three into the prevailing wind, is the most difficult section of the golf course,“ says Ewan. “If you get through this section without a disaster you have the chance of making a reasonable score.” Despite expert caddie advice on reading the nuances of the confusing Bermuda grass greens and a few three putts, we manage to hold it all together until holing out at the last. After tipping the excellent caddies and enjoying a beverage at the 19th hole, we head back to Half Moon resort to enjoy the facilities and an afternoon siesta.
Half Moon is one of the world’s top-notch resorts and is so extensive that guests are provided with a map and golf cart to help them get around. Celebrity visitors over the years have included Clark Gable, Prince Charles and more recently David Bowie and Wayne Rooney. Georgian-style buildings are scattered throughout the lush tropical grounds, offering casually elegant accommodation, many with ocean views. In addition, 32 villas with private pool, which come with their own butler, cook and housekeeper provide the perfect luxury home base for golfers.
Besides the golf, there’s tennis, a fitness centre, horseback riding and the award-winning Fern Tree Spa, the perfect place to unwind. Of particular interest to golfers are the one-hour stress management program, ‘Mental Fitness for Golf’ and the ‘Up to Par’ massage, specially created to strengthen, stretch and stimulate muscles that are particularly important to golfers. It combines a variety of techniques including passive stretching, deep tissue massage and the use of heated golf balls. This is a wonderful treatment for the pre and post golf game and well recommended.
Eating and drinking is an important part of any golfing trip and Jamaican specialities run the gamut from mouth-watering curried goat and mutton to delightful national dishes such as salt fish, ackee, escoveitch fish, peanut porridge and chicken or beef patties (around one million of these Cornish pasty-like snacks are eaten by Jamaicans every day). While Half Moon’s collection of restaurants offer excellent dining, we soon discover that you’re just as likely to have a great culinary experience by eating local style – and here that means one thing, Jamaica’s trademark dish of jerk chicken or pork. Although there are thousands of jerk centres – as they are known – in every village and town and at almost every crossroads or street corner, there’s only one place to go.
It’s late Friday afternoon on the outskirts of Montego Bay and the queue inside Scotchies is already a dozen long. A reggae soundtrack combines with delicious aromas that waft on the balmy tropical breeze. A cool mix of locals and visitors rub shoulders at rustic tables, opening tin foil parcels of tasty jerk chicken and pork accompanied by roasted breadfruit or sweet potato and washed down with a Red Stripe beer, the island’s tipple of choice.
Scotchies was started seven years ago by Tony Rerrie from the back of his pick up truck, and has since become an island institution. “Everyone knows about Scotchies and there’s no doubt it’s the best jerk centre in Jamaica,” says manager Kim Cooper. “On Sunday afternoons we usually get a big crowd of golfers stopping by and Mike Cole, Ewan Peebles and Rob Ames are all regulars here.”
Kim shows us round the back, where rows of chickens are splayed flat and whole backs of pig sizzle in jerk marinade over a low fire of pimento wood, that introduces a strong distinctive smoky flavour to the meat. Jerk chicken is believed to have been conceived when the Maroons introduced African meat cooking techniques to Jamaica which were combined with native Jamaican ingredients and seasonings used by the Arawak. The method of smoking meat for a long period of time served two practical purposes – keeping insects away from the raw meat and preserving it for longer once it has been cooked. Like most places, the recipe for jerk sauce at Scotchies is a closely guarded secret, but they usually contain peppers, pimento, ginger and chilli.
Another good eating option is The Native in Montego Bay, serving up some of the finest Jamaican dishes – from divine smoked marlin to its fabulous boonoonoonoos native platter which has a little bit of everything, including spicy meats, fish and vegetables. Round off your meal with a slice of smooth creamy coconut pie or for something more local opt for duckanoo – a sweet dumpling of cornmeal, coconut and banana wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.
After the Jamaican jerk, it’s back to the Jamaican greens, as we tackle the final two courses of our north-coast quartet – the Tryall Club and Cinnamon Hill. Located 12 miles from Montego Bay, the Tryall Club is a 6,772-yard Ralph Plummer beauty and features spectacular ocean panoramas and exotic tree-lined fairways, with nine level holes by the sea and nine rolling holes in the hills. It has hosted 13 international events, including the Johnnie Walker World Championship and Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.
Look out for the tee shot through the stone pillars of a historic aqueduct, part of a former sugar plantation and the par-three 4th, with a shot over Flint River to a devilish putting surface.
By contrast to Half Moon and the Tryall Club, Cinnamon Hill offers a real variety of terrain. The gently rolling front nine of the 6,798-yard par-71, Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril layout opens under the gaze of the 18th-century Rose Hall Great House, then rambles past the walled graveyard of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s family and down to the ocean. Holes 5 and 6 are so close to the water that a cranky sea breeze can easily whip your ball into the deep. “Number 5 is a standout hole that will appeal to connoisseurs of the game, “says Director of Golf, Robert Ames (and brother of PGA tour pro Stephen Ames) who is keeping us company for our round. “It’s aptly named Majestic Blue and it’s a big test. You tee off facing the ocean on this dogleg left downhill par-4, which plays anything from 453 to 420 yards. Watch out, the ocean borders the last 250-yards of narrow fairway on the right and the green is right by the beach.”
In contrast, the back nine takes to the remote hills of the plantation, making its way through narrow canyons and across deep chasms with a handful of elevated tee shots. Johnny Cash’s mansion is right next to the 14th fairway and contains much of his memorabilia since the 70s. The par-three 15th drops dramatically to a green next to a picturesque waterfall.
Robert is great company and keeps us entertained with facts about the course, his planned changes, stories about caddying for Stephen during his famous victory at the Players Championship in 2006. There’s even a few golf lessons thrown into the mix. The late afternoon sun casts long shadows across the final green of Cinnamon Hill, defining every undulation. “Hope you’ve enjoyed it, lads,” says Robert after we finish. “Maybe catch you later at Scotchies for some jerk chicken and a Red Stripe?” I’d say so.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE JAMAICA HAS A LOT TO OFFER BESIDES GREAT GOLF 7 OFF-COURSE SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
Climb Dunn’s River Falls
No trip to Jamaica is complete without visiting Jamaica’s main attraction, the stunning Dunn’s River Falls. Climb the cascading waterfall and relax in the crystal clear pools at the base of the falls and come away feeling relaxed and refreshed. www.dunnsriverja.com
The rich, black soil of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains (rising some 7,500 feet above sea level), coupled with mist and cool temperatures, make for an environment that produces some of the most sought after coffee in the world. Sample the famous brew, buy some to take back home and visit the region where it’s produced.
Spirit of Reggae – the Bob Marley Experience
The Legend of Bob Marley comes alive as you walk through the village of Nine Miles, his birth and final resting place. On the tour you are expertly guided through the very house that Marley lived in as a boy, Watch a film on his life and work and learn more about the life and times of this influential musician – his culture, his passion, and the unique religion of Rastafarianism Tel: (876) 995-1763 www.bobmarley.com
Romantic River Rafting on the Martha Brae
Take a tranquil and relaxing 90-minute trip on a bamboo raft down the Martha Brae River. www.jamaicarafting.com
Kick back in Negril
Relax in Negril – the “Capital of Casual” – with seven miles of stunningly beautiful white sand beach. This is Jamaica’s watersports centre where you can dive, snorkel, sail, waterski, windsurf kayak or glide along the coastline by catamaran. Or do nothing but quietly work on you tan in a secluded cove.
Rose Hall Great House
Visit this magnificently restored 1760 plantation house, where legend has it that Annie Palmer the “White Witch” ruled with cruelty and met a violent death. Tel: + (876) 953-2341
Appleton Rum Tours
Rum has been distilled on the Appleton Estate nestled in the fertile Nassau Valley in the parish of St Elizabeth since 1749. Take a tour to learn more about how rum is made and sample the portfolio of award-winning rums. www.appletonrum.com