Find Yourself Again at Portland Riverside Retreat in Jamaica

We have left Portland Riverside Retreat only a few days ago, and I already miss it terribly. It always takes me some time to let go of a place and ground myself into another. There are those few days that I feel somewhat “in the air”. It’s especially true when it’s a place that left such a strong impression on my soul. That feeling when a place feels so much like home, so much part of you from the moment you arrive. Maybe some flashbacks from a past life…

There is undeniably something calling me to Jamaica and this time, on the river, it’s like I discovered the absolute core, that precise pressure point from which this love originates. In Swift River, the natural beauty is abundant, the shades of green are unlimited, and the respect for the land is palpable.

The kids and I had the absolute delight of being hosted by Miss Claudette and Mr. Landy. They are some of the very best and most loving humans I have been blessed to meet in my life. I felt a wave of comfort and love from the minute I was greeted by Miss Claudette. A beautiful woman with a cheerful attitude and a contagious laugh, she really spoiled us from the beginning. I mean, being offered a fresh soursop juice on arrival! How did she know that was my favorite?

The home itself is brilliant. Miss Claudette keeps a clean house. Everything is tidy, the kitchen is spotless, it’s as if my mom lives there. The beautiful woodwork throughout the house makes you want to linger and enjoy the simple moments. In the bright kitchen, it always smells nice. Miss Claudette definitely knows what she’s doing in there. We were kept fed and happy, making our way through plantains, smoothies, an abundance of fresh fruits, and wonderfully tasty plant-based meals. Everything is made from scratch, using what is available at the moment. Miss Claudette gets a lot of her ingredients from their farm, which is located a short driving distance from the retreat. We all loved snacking on sugar cane while drinking a peanut smoothie. Pure bliss.

When we arrived to Portland Riverside Retreat, we were at the beginning of our third week in Jamaica. It was time for some laundry. I had bought some laundry detergent wanting to wash some clothes by hand, and asked Miss Claudette for a washing basin. She offered to put the clothes in the machine for me, but seeing my enthusiasm in hand washing, she quickly suggested I do it at the river. That was revelation time. Something as simple as doing laundry in the river can truly take you back to the real life. Using a source from nature to accomplish an otherwise mechanical task really resets your system and makes you appreciate the simple, little things. I don’t appreciate my washing machine more, but I appreciate nature and what it allows me to accomplish.

The river, because of its self-cleaning properties, is the source of life here. It feeds and cleanses the body, it brings water to the roots from which the food grows, and it gives life to the multitude creatures participating in the ecosystem. You feel its energy when you drink from it, when you wash in it, and when you are simply swimming in it.

And thanks to the river, Portland Riverside Retreat boasts many fruit trees like banana, plantains, coconut, and mango. During a hike to a nearby spring, Miss Claudette showed us many other trees like jackfruit, mammee, and something we never had before, rose apples. The kids fell in love with the floral aroma of the unique fruit and were inspecting every single rose apple tree to see if any ripe ones were still hanging low. Known also by its scientific name Syzygium jambos, the rose apple tree, indigenous to Southeast Asia, has been naturalized to Jamaica. It grows nicely on the riverbanks, and I might have to find a way to plant one in Arizona.

Kids eating rose apples found by the river.

The retreat is also surrounded by growing pineapple. Pure, organic sugar loaf pines. They are of such beauty and majesty. Mr. Landy takes good care of the garden and the farm. The kids loved reasoning with him and asking questions. He’s a man of presence, kindness and zen. Along with Miss Claudette, they are the perfect balance, a pair that simply vibrates different.

The whole time we were there felt like we were away from the world. In a very good and blissful way. All we wanted to do was enjoy the river and its serenity. You don’t need wifi, music, or even books. Nature is running the show. We would wash ourselves in the river and head to bed early. One last game of Uno before I close my eyes… I was always the first one asleep, and would rise with the birds and the sun, always refreshed after at least ten hours of deep, restful sleep.

One day, we planned a visit to Moore Town with Maurice from Kromanti. I wanted to explore the sites and waterfalls dedicated to Queen Nanny of the Maroons. Back in the 18th century, Nanny and other enslaved people sought refuge from the brutal slave society in the mountains, where they established a Maroon community. In 1720, Nanny had become the leader of the Maroon settlement, Nanny Town, in the Blue Mountain region. She now appears on the five hundred Jamaican dollar bill and has been declared a national hero.

That whole day was a blessing. I felt the love, bathing under those beautiful falls with the strong presence of Nanny’s spirit. The kids enjoyed the experience very much and collected many medicinal herbs along the way, all of them explained in detail by Maurice. They were like little sponges with all the new information. They still talk about the falls, about Nanny and about Joseph’s Coat. If you go to Nanny Falls soon, you might even see the makeshift raft the kids put together with bamboo logs they found lying around.

The rest of our days flowed comfortably. We enjoyed the spring, the hike, the absolutely exquisite food and simply living to the beat of the river. Before we knew it, it was our last morning, our last swim. I always get emotional the day of departure. Tears flow. How do you leave such a place? A place that changes the way you view the world, the way you understand your kids, and the way you interact with nature. Mr. Landy looked at me and said: “You’re doing good. Keep on trodding. Go with love in your heart.” I will always remember his wise words and I am leaving only with the certainty that I’ll be back.

For more about my enduring love for Jamaica, please read Jamaica: A “Feel” Trip and Treasure Beach and the Mystical South Coast of Jamaica.

Treasure Beach and the Mystical South Coast of Jamaica

A stay at the stylish Sea Urchin, all the feels at YS Falls, and miles of unspoiled, vast beaches. The south coast of Jamaica really has a vibe all its own.

There’s always this unique feeling in me when I’m in Jamaica. It’s something deep I can’t really explain. And many years ago, I stopped questioning it and decided to just keep coming back as often as I can. I’m experiencing this strong and loyal feeling right now, as we are on our second week of a month-long adventure on the island. I have to say, this last year has brought many blessings upon our family, and being able to “bring school” with us has been completely life-changing.

Leaving from Miami, we landed in Kingston, after a quick and uneventful 90-minute flight. I later found out that landing in Montego Bay would have saved at least an hour in driving time to Treasure Beach. We rented an SUV (recommended in Jamaica, because potholes), and headed west to spend the first leg of our trip in Treasure Beach, in the parish of St. Elizabeth. St. Bess, as it is locally known, originally included most of the western part of the island and was the largest parish of the island. It is now the second largest, since Westmoreland was taken from it in 1703, and a part of Manchester as well, in 1814.

Jamaica Parishes
The Parishes of Jamaica

Early settlement in St. Elizabeth began in the Pedro Plains. The Taínos, an Arawak people and the first known inhabitants of Jamaica, were established along the coast. When Europeans started occupying “discovered” land, a.k.a. colonizing, in the late 15th century, the Taínos were the main inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Taíno indigenous groups are still present in the region today and you may even find remnants of pottery if you look around the fields, especially after a rainfall.

With all this mystic, it is clear why it feels so special in Treasure Beach. The beaches dotting the coast line are raw and natural, making it enticing for the kids’ curiosity. There is so much to see and do, and the kids were lucky enough to spot an octopus going about the reef! The sea can be rough in certain areas, but there are many quiet coves where the water is tranquil and swimming is chill and enjoyable.

Of all the memories we carry back from Treasure Beach, the one about the melody of the wind will always give me goosebumps. You see, my Jamaican trips are usually filled with music, but in Treasure Beach, we rarely listened to music. There seemed to be no need to add to the already complete song of the breeze.

The pace on the south coast brings you back to simpler days. Your body adapts to the movements of the sun and the moon, and you adjust your internal rhythm to Mother Nature’s heartbeat and simply allow yourself to be. After spending a week in excessive Miami Beach, the change of pace was most welcome, and staying at Sea Urchin was the perfect landing spot for the beginning of our month on the island.

The house is gorgeous, appointed cleverly, and complete with everything you need. Everywhere you turn, you find beauty, purpose and intention. It was the perfect home to support our mission for relaxation, offering many different spaces to unwind, read, hang out, and play. We filled our mornings with swimming at the beach, after which we would do school work (although a bit reluctantly) and then have lunch. The afternoons were made for lounging at the house, escaping the hot midday sun. We would then return to the beach to enjoy a refreshing sunset swim. A dream routine! And speaking of routine, Rama was even able to take a bike for a spin one morning toward the Great Pedro Bluff.

“But Karine, what about the food?”, I hear you say… Clearly, all this lounging was obviously punctuated by intentional food. Now, I can’t be the only one with a sweet spot for Jamaican food! Well, Sea Urchin didn’t let me down either. Tamesha and Catherine spoiled us from the very beginning with the most delicious meals and the freshest fruits. The kids were always excited to see what was for dinner and I think they might even give me the side eye when we return home. I admit, it was quite a treat to be cared for and nourished for a whole week, something I have never experienced before in such private and gorgeous settings.

Even though we took it slow the whole week, we managed to drive into the vibrant town of Black River, the capital of the parish, to replenish our fruit stash at the farmers market. We also had the chance to experience YS Falls, a beautiful seven-tiered falls set in the middle of beautiful gardens and everything nature has to offer. Jumping off the cliff and swinging from a rope over the water truly made me feel like a kid again. The kids (the real ones) had fun doing the zip-line over the falls and jumping again and again in the beautiful natural pools of water. What I thought would be a quick sightseeing visit ended up being a three-hour stay.

Our week in Treasure Beach was relaxing and grounding. We spent some wonderful family moments that will stay in our hearts forever. It was my first time visiting that part of Jamaica, and I can wholeheartedly say that I will return. After meeting a resident on the beach a few times and exchanging thoughts, something clicked. You come to Treasure Beach for peace, tranquility and mystical history. We are grateful for all the ones who made this first week so magical and promise to return. One complete love.

To read more about my previous adventures in Jamaica, check out Jamaica: A “Feel” Trip.

Jamaica: A “Feel” Trip

The beach at Old Fort Bay on the North Coast
The beach at Old Fort Bay on the North Coast

All the feels, one destination: Jamaica. It always takes me some time to write about travels and experiences. It feels like my heart is never really ready to let go of the words. As if once they are on paper, they don’t belong to me anymore.

When it comes to Jamaica, however, there is a difference. The place never really leaves me, and it seems like I never really leave the island. It’s as if my body gets back home, but my soul never fully returns to my physical self. There is something inexplicably deep about my connection to the island, something surely from a past life. When the deep, soul-reaching sounds of conscious reggae music hit me, I feel transported somewhere where my body just can’t reach.

There is also something undeniably mystical about the mountains in Jamaica. And that’s exactly where my trip started, nestled in the Blue Mountains, at the famed Strawberry Hill Hotel. The drive to the hotel is a trip in itself. The views of Kingston fading away on the horizon are balanced by the deep tropical forest that engulfs you as you climb up. The hotel, owned by Chris Blackwell, record producer and founder of Island Records, is a stunning 26-acre property composed of cottages, well staggered for privacy, and perched around a great house and a gracious infinity pool, where guests can linger and replenish. Not a bad spot to chill after a PHX-MIA-KIN red-eye.

Jamaica Blue Mountains from the Strawberry Hill
Jamaica Blue Mountains from the Strawberry Hill

After this much needed first night of rest, I am heading towards the north coast of the island. I rented an apartment in Old Fort Bay, about 7 minutes by car from the town of Ocho Rios. This is where my body truly landed. This is where I unpacked, where I went food shopping, where I was coming home after a nice, fulfilling day of learning.

Despite its relatively small size as an island country, Jamaica shines bright on the global cultural scene. The level of energy, once you reach, is unbelievable. The island also has heaps to be proud of, especially when you think about music, literature, film, cuisine, and sports. My focus this time, however, was on food and music.

And up there, in the hills of Bamboo, about 40 minutes from Ocho Rios, is what called me back to Jamaica: Stush in the Bush. I will never say enough about Stush. It’s this 15-acre piece of heaven where farm-to-table takes on a whole new dimension. This time, however, I wasn’t going to eat. This time, I was going to experience the magic that happens behind the scenes. I took a chance, called on my friend Lisa (co-owner of Stush), asked if she’d be willing to let me come and work with them for a week. She graciously accepted, and my adventure began.

Now, let me put Stush in the Bush in perspective. The whole thing is really about them: Lisa and Chris. It’s their love for the land, their love of food, and their passion for sharing it all with others. It is their love story, imprinted in every single thing your eyes land on. The fully organic farm, headed by Chris, supplies the creative juices to keep Lisa going in the kitchen. It’s a completely symbiotic relationship with nature, in accord with the revered relationship between food and life.

As I’m pulling up the first day, the feelings come rushing back, a flood of emotions reminding me exactly why I loved this place so much the first time. Lisa greets me on the steps with a warm hug. I immediately feel at home. You wouldn’t expect anything less from this gorgeous, loving, and spirited soul. Everything she touches turns to beauty. She has that undeniable knack for style and panache that I love so much when it comes to food.

But now that I’m at the farm, I understand why I’ve thought about this place for the last three years. Inside the open-air kitchen, the mood is light. Happening today is the celebrated Stush Cooking Club, an intimate gathering of friends around a meal prepared and eaten as a group. I’m the nervous one, because I’m new in the Stush kitchen, and I need to find my bearings. But Tyler, Lisa’s daughter and Stush’ sous-chef, quickly makes me feel comfortable. She has a magnetic personality and a strong intuition in the kitchen. I’m in for a great time!

Activated Charcoal Tortellini Stuffed with Pumpkin from the garden and served with a fresh Romesco Sauce at Stush in the Bush
Activated Charcoal Tortellini Stuffed with Pumpkin from the garden and served with a fresh Romesco Sauce at Stush in the Bush

Throughout the week, I get to cultivate inspiration. As I work my way through making crêpes for the fabulous Crêpes Cake with Mulberry Cashew Ricotta, preparing and chopping some of the best vegetables the land can provide for dishes like pumpkin-stuffed dumplings, D’Avignon radish salad, activated charcoal pasta with romesco sauce. The list goes on, really, and the revelation is clear.

Crêpes Cake with Mulberry Ricotta at Stush in the Bush
Crêpes Cake with Mulberry Ricotta at Stush in the Bush

After a few days in the Stush kitchen, it’s time to hit the road and head to Kingston for the Jamaica Observer Food Awards. It is the 20th installment, so it’s a big deal! Not only is Stush in the Bush nominated in three categories, they are also hosting guests and attendees in their very own Stush pop-up. Oh, and they won all THREE! What a joy to be there and witness it all! I can testify to the amount of work that goes in, day in, day out, and they deserve all the praise they get!

After the Awards, I spend the night in Kingston, in preparation for my relaxing long weekend at Jamnesia, in Bull Bay. I am sad to say goodbye to my Stush family, but it is now time for the music part of the trip.

Jamnesia... In the World Only One
Jamnesia… In the World Only One

At this point again, it is hard for me to find words to describe my experience. And I have a feeling that no matter how I try to explain it, there are no other ways that can describe my own unique experience other than being there to live it. Nobody really knows what your soul is after, so experiences are felt very differently from one person to the next. All this to say that my words are only my words as I write them, and that the experience that stays with my soul will always be much stronger.

I arrived at Jamnesia on Friday morning, just before lunch. First person I stumble upon on arrival is Billy Mystic himself. Billy “Mystic” Wilmot is the lead vocalist for the acclaimed reggae band the Mystic Revealers. He is also the man behind Jamnesia Surf Camp. I’m here for the music, and clearly, it’s starting out on a high note.

Jamnesia is as much a surf camp as it is a music venue. It’s a chill spot and a meeting spot. From the moment I put my bag down in my room, my internal vibe changes. Something at Jamnesia turns your physical needs and worries into dust, and it happens in very little time. Hair down, no mirrors, no makeup, no clock. I had to tune into the beat of Jamnesia’s drum, literally, and surrender to the sweet sounds of music.

That first day, after a quick nap and some fresh fruits, I feel completely free and at ease. Everybody is so warm and welcoming, it feels as if I’ve always been here. One of my big moments comes when I am served my first meal. It is true that I came to Jamaica for food and music, but I never thought I would find the latter to be a highlight of my time at Jamnesia. That night, my plate was full of plant-based goodness and the bean stew is the best I’ve had in my life.

The next morning, I inquire about the chef and am informed that one of Billy’s son, Ishack, went to culinary school in Canada. Every single meal Ishack cooked was perfectly balanced, the composition stellar, and the taste heavenly. In the morning, Miss Maggie makes my breakfast, and I find myself looking forward to getting up to fully enjoy my meal. Miss Maggie is Billy’s wife, and she is a joy to get to know as well. She has a deep love for the land, and one morning, as I am devouring my breakfast, she reminisces about the time she was working the land and, afterwards, when she devoted herself to children with disabilities. There is no doubt about it. Jamnesia is keeping me nourished, physically and spiritually.

My typical breakfast at Jamnesia
My typical breakfast at Jamnesia

The next day is a Saturday, and Saturdays are meant for Jamnesia Sessions! I had been waiting for this night for a long time, and I felt beyond blessed to be part of it. The people I met, the words I heard, it was electric. That weekend at Jamnesia was one of the best experiences of my life. It brought me back to the essentials: sun, sea, music, food from Mother Nature, and human warmth. I realized, during my time in Jamaica, that we, humans, don’t need much to live our best lives. It seems that we complicate everything with our worldly desires and temporal boundaries.

Sadly, after my weekend at Jamnesia, it was time to head back home. Leaving Jamaica is always difficult for me. It seems like the island remains in my heart, but this time, there was something different. I came looking for something spiritual, and I found it. My soul was searching, and the answers came. Now, it is time to bring the food, the music, and the vibes to Arizona. What do you say?

There is something special about traveling differently, traveling as if you live somewhere. It’s renting a car, grocery shopping, volunteering, helping out, being part of the local community. The rewards are grand. You leave with an imprint on your heart. You meet people you feel you’ve known all along and they become a part of your soul. And then, you realize that we are all one.

I want to give thanks for every single person I got to vibe with during my time in Jamaica. I trust that I met every single one of you for a reason, and I am forever grateful for all the blessings you all brought into my life.

ONE LOVE AND UNITY, ALWAYS.

The Beach at Jamnesia, in Bull Bay
The Beach at Jamnesia, in Bull Bay