Jamaica's Fort Clarence beach: sun, sand, surf, and island eats
Island Expert Deanne Allgrove describes a "Day at the Beach" in her country, Jamaica, that perenially popular destination for a tropical getaway: I usually try to avoid the beach on a weekend because I like to hear the waves and read my book and overall pretend I am the only person on earth. However, every now and then a day at the beach with family is a whole other way to relish island living. We pile into various cars and make our way out to Fort Clarence beach, a favorite spot for Kingstonians.
(Jamaica beaches are simply gorgeous. Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
Fort Clarence beach is actually located in Hellshire, beyond Portmore, another burgeoning community on the south coast of Jamaica. There is a highway and other major thoroughfares that zip you out here very easily as it is a community made up of many commuters who work and attend school in Kingston. After driving about 20 minutes the vegetation starts to change. Jamaica has startling topographical differences. Portmore's desert scrub and cacti seem a different country altogether from Port Antonio's lush wet rain forest.
Once you arrive at the gate and pay entry (a minimal fee of about JA $400, the equivalent of approximately $3.50 U.S.), you are directed to parking by helpful attendants and guards. The beach is quite extensive in length and you could possibly visit a different spot each time, however most often return to their favorite hang out for one particular reason ... the food.
(Waiting in line at lunch-time. Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
Although the white sand beach seems the same no matter where you decide to set up base, and the ocean as inviting as ever all along the shore, the variety is in the small buildings dotted throughout behind the shady sea grape trees. Everyone has their favorite cook. The menu seems the same everywhere you look from lobster, conch, and fish to staples like festival or bammy (a local favorite bread-like option made out of the cassava root). However, every beach goer will insist that their pick is the best. Whether it is the fisherman who brings his outstanding catch only to this stall or the seasoned Dutch pot that has seen years of cooking and lends its flavor to each meal or perhaps the chef him or herself as they balance ingredients in just the right way to make their pepper sauce the perfect balance of spice and flavor. I have my favorite too, but in truth all are pretty amazing -- because you won't last long against the competition if you aren't up to the task.
We set up under the shady tree and, first things first, we place our order. That means choosing your own whole fresh fish from a cooler of snapper and colorful parrotfish. Usually paid by weight. You then pick your side dishes with the eternal debate of festival or bammy in the mix. The options are pretty straightforward for fish: you either have it escoveitched (fried and served with a spicy sauce made of vegetables and Scotch bonnet pepper), or you can have both fish and bammy steamed. You won't get anything too fancy out here. Items like curried conch or lobster are for when you are at a restaurant.
Having ordered, now you wait. The beach is fairly full of people, however, most are congregated under the shady trees or bobbing out in the water. The expanse of white sand is still very visible. A few can be seen occasionally on a horse as rides on the beach; swimming on horseback is offered but isn’t that popular with locals. You won't find the phenomena seen elsewhere in the world or at hotels of the bright striped beach umbrella, but here and there someone will lie out to deepen an already glowing tan. What you will see is lively conversation, the occasional domino game (cards blow away too easily in the breeze), a beach football game (what Americans call soccer), and plenty of people chatting and socializing. Usually with a cold beer in hand. It may seem cliché, the bottle of Red Stripe or Heineken seen in photos, but the truth is that, other than Guinness, only the basics are offered, so the most variety you will find is that you can ask for a Red Stripe Light instead.
(The author enjoying a beer on the beach. Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
While you wait for someone to tell you your food is ready you have a great appetizer option in pepper shrimp. Sold by the bag and most famously from a region called Middle Quarters in Jamaica, this is a local treat. Seasoned with our extremely hot scotch bonnet peppers it is consumed like peel 'n' eat shrimp ... just make sure not to touch your eyes with your hands!!
(Pepper shrimp for sale on the beach in Hellshire, Jamaica. Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
When the food is ready it is given to you on a generic plastic plate or tray and you take it to your blanket or towel in the sand or to one of the many wooden picnic tables under the trees. Sharing a table with another group often means connecting with someone you already know or having a lovely conversation with someone new. Soon though all talking is put aside as people dive in. Most tourists I know find eating the fish with the head still on fairly disturbing, I myself am used to it but don't indulge in the head and eyes the way others do. I simply ignore it and eat the flesh that would be the equivalent of a fillet. Jamaicans don't like to waste food so I usually wrap the head and eyes up and deliver them to my very happy mother!
I personally am a bammy addict and soak mine in the pepper sauce that is delivered with each meal. Made with white vinegar, scotch bonnet peppers, onions and other ingredients, to me it is what perfects the flavour of the flaky fish that melts in my mouth. Did I mention that all this is usually eaten with your hands? Forks are provided but very few people use them.
(Tasty Jamaican cuisine at the beach. Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
At certain times of year, by 10 a.m., the aforementioned breeze gets pretty intense, whipping sand at you to the point where people are dancing their way across the beach as if they can avoid it as long as they simply keep moving. When it comes to eating though, Jamaicans show true perseverance. People use their bodies to hunch over the food, protecting it from the sand or the breeze blowing away the plate as they progressively lighten its load. Others simply embrace the extra crunch they get in each bite. Yes, the food is that tasty.
If you are there on a day that isn't breezy, then follow up your meal with another beer. To compliment the one you had during the meal. And get to talking again or just sit there and enjoy a full belly and a great view. (Ok. Now I am really, really hungry.)
That's another note. Get out there long before you are ravenous. Although the food is worth the wait, it is quite the wait. Sometimes it can be up to an hour as the line of people ordering is quite long and the facilities to meet the orders quite limited. But, as I said, well worth the wait and the waiting area is ridiculously stunning.
(The view! Photo by Deanne Allgrove.)
Thanks, Deanne, for this post about a fantastic Jamaican experience. For more about Deanne, click over to her bio on our Island Experts page.