Caribbean: On Treasure Beach, two families enjoy island hospitality far from the tourist resorts.

September 16, 2001|By Marion Winik | By Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

I wake, as I fell asleep, to the crashing waves. On other vacations, the fantasy of sleeping by the ocean hasn't quite materialized. Either we're too far from the shore, we've had to shut the windows and run the AC, or there's been a little hurricane or some such. But this airy white room with its big four-poster bed is perfectly cooled by breezes and a ceiling fan, and it overlooks the sea.

An early riser, I slip out of bed without waking husband or baby. I tiptoe out to the wide veranda that encircles the house, roofed in some areas, latticed in others. On the side facing the ocean, lounges, tables and chairs create an open-air living room overlooking several acres of scrub grass dotted with hibiscus, cactuses, acacia and gum trees, sloping down to the ocean.

The sun is rising off to the left; the moon is a luminous disc above the water. I settle in with my book.

At 6:30 a.m., I officially enter heaven. Having walked from her cottage across the street, Miss Verlin, a tiny powerhouse of a woman with gray braids springing out at angles from under her baseball cap, arrives on the verandah with a tray: a pot of strong, steaming Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, a pitcher of condensed milk, a bowl of raw sugar. I use it all, even though I drink my coffee black at home.

A different Jamaica

We are spending our family vacation this summer at a house called Rainbow Tree in a town called Treasure Beach on the South Coast of Jamaica.

"You're taking your kids to Jamaica?" people asked when we told them. "Why?"

Jamaica's reputation as a vacation spot has suffered from reports of crime and political unrest. And the island is known for resorts like Hedonism II, Couples and Sandals, places you go to drink pina coladas with your sweetie, not with your rowdy brood.

This is a different Jamaica, I told them. It's a quiet little fishing village with a few small hotels and guest villas. No crime, no corporate resorts. I was more right than I knew. We've landed not in a vacation factory, but in a real place with real people who offer not just "service with a smile," but openness and hospitality. Their satisfaction in watching us fall in love with their home is as basic to our experience as the dry, clear air, scented with ocean and flowers.

We'll go home with the suntans, the seashells, the sandy suitcases you expect to take from a beach vacation. But we'll also take new insights into the way people think, eat, raise children, vote and worship in another culture. It's a culture we all found ourselves longing for after we left.

The soul of Jamaica, as we experienced it, is best expressed by the personal credo of Aman Parchment, our river guide / van driver / political commentator / Internet provider: Life is for livin', mon. What else can you do wit it?

Planning for a crowd

It all began when our friends Jim and Jessica Shahin and their son Sam announced they were going to Jamaica, and invited our two older boys to accompany them. As I contemplated sending Hayes and Vince, I realized how much I wanted to go too. Four days in Ocho Rios in 1986 was not enough Jamaica for me.

But while the Shahins are inveterate world travelers (he writes a monthly column for an airline magazine) with one extraordinarily mature 11-year-old who's already enjoyed family vacations in Beirut, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland, our family is not as well set up for carefree globetrotting.

I am married to a philosophy professor who sees little point in ever leaving the comforts of our rural Pennsylvania home. Sleeping in a different bed every night is not fun for Crispin. He would not use the word "romantic" to describe experiences at airports and train stations. If you cut him off completely from his daily solitude and reading, you have a nasty situation on your hands.

Then there's the kids. We'd be taking four: Hayes, 13, Vince, 10, Jane, 1, and my stepson Sam, 9, who'd never been away from his mother for more than three or four days. (Stepdaughter Emma already had plans to go to camp during the week in question.) Nine people total. This seemed an unwieldy number for getting around, booking hotels and dealing with meals.

No, the way to make this trip work, I thought, is to make it something like the one we did last summer. We drove to the Outer Banks and plunked ourselves down in a big house near the ocean with lots of decks and a swimming pool for a week. We split the place with my sister's family. And though it was more than a little work for the mothers, in the end a good time was had by all.

Internet search

Rent house Jamaica vacation

Those were the four words I typed into my Internet search engine. The first thing www.google. com found was Rainbow Tree Villa. It seemed so wonderful -- and Jim had already mentioned the South Coast as one of the less commercialized areas he wanted to visit -- that I looked no further.

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