x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Licence to chill on James Bond's playground

Adriaane Pielou enjoys the seclusion and beauty of Ian Fleming's former Jamaican home, now known as the GoldenEye Hotel and Resort.

The private and shady Fleming villa at GoldenEye Hotel and Resort is the holiday house that the James Bond creator Ian Fleming built after coming to Jamaica in 1946. Courtesy of Island Outpost
The private and shady Fleming villa at GoldenEye Hotel and Resort is the holiday house that the James Bond creator Ian Fleming built after coming to Jamaica in 1946. Courtesy of Island Outpost

It is just before 7pm, and as the sun sets, I wait by a massage table on the veranda of my beach villa at GoldenEye, panting slightly. Thanks to a delayed plane I arrived at Jamaica's new luxury resort only 20 minutes ago, and it has been all go ever since.

I'd pre-booked a 7pm anti-jet-lag massage, and it's been a rush, first to trudge along the superfine sand to my beach villa, then to quickly look around at the 20-foot pitched ceiling, outdoor garden bathroom, kitchen with blue Smeg refrigerator, big squashy sofa and flat screen television (pure tropical heaven), and then have a speedy pre-treatment shower. Hence the panting.

And now here comes my therapist, a large, serious-looking young Jamaican, padding up the wooden steps from the beach. "Ma'am, welcome," he says gently, softly shaking my hand. Hmm. I don't know if that softness bodes well for the kind of bone-grinding massage I like. I climb on to the massage table and stretch out, and within minutes have to twist around to see if the therapist has slipped on some sort of steel glove. I cannot believe the strength emanating from those hands. He laughs good-naturedly. "A good masseur uses their whole body weight. Hands are just a conduit."

At the end of the hour, my eyelids are drooping and I feel like purring. As he packs up, we chat, and I am touched to discover that my talented masseur was a maths wiz who left school wanting to become an accountant, but had to study massage instead because it was the only course his mother could afford. "Now every day I give thanks that I discovered my calling," he smiles. It can't be long before he is snapped up by some potentate to be his personal therapist, I think, as I pad inside, barefoot. In the meantime, what a delectable introduction to the resort.

The treatment works. I fall asleep listening to the sound of waves, and by nine next morning I am enthusiastically crunching muesli in the breezy restaurant at the end of the beach. French pop music plays in the background: old tapes from Radio Nova, a cult Riviera pirate radio station, apparently, in the 1970s. It is a novelty not to hear reggae in a Caribbean resort, and the unexpected soundtrack creates a buzzingly carefree mood. I linger over a pot of Blue Mountain coffee - almost as famous a Jamaican export as the reggae star Bob Marley. It was launched by the local entrepreneur who founded Island Records and owns GoldenEye, Chris Blackwell. I'm succumbing to my third slice of toast with the irresistible local Busha Browne marmalade when the Jamaican chef comes up. He looks like a schoolboy, blinking behind his glasses with the same unassuming manner as the massage therapist.

"Ma'am, we ask all new guests what they'd like to eat while they're with us," he says. Fish, vegetables, and absolutely nothing fattening, I tell him, swallowing my last mouthful of toast. Minutes later I am amending this list slightly, however, as he describes his desserts. It would be plain rude, surely, to say no to brownies with caramel sauce or coconut sorbet or mango crumble or burnt orange ice-cream. And when I hear that he learnt to cook from his grandmother as a schoolboy, then, at 19, went to try his luck in New York and ended up headhunted by Nobu, I feel I'm in promising hands. Idealistic hands, too. Most Jamaican resorts, he says, import 95 per cent of the food they serve, leaving poor local farmers out of the equation, but at GoldenEye the policy is to use as much Jamaican produce as possible.

"Mr Blackwell wants the resort to link up with the local community wherever we can. If we can give a local guy an undertaking to buy his fish each day, tell a collective of local women yes, we will buy as much chutney as you can make, that makes a real difference to the local economy. It means parents get to afford to send their kids to school in shoes," he says.

But there are places to go and people to meet. I drift around the inner lagoon of the resort in a glass-bottomed boat, covertly inspecting the guests on the verandas of the waterside villas. I zoom - well, stutter - around the bay on a jet ski, daringly squeezing the handles until the speedometer hovers near, aagh, 30mph. At 3pm, by which time that languor that characterises the Caribbean is hanging heavy in the air, I have an appointment for a body scrub and head massage in the spa, a series of thatched, open-sided rooms shaded by the tall trees that cover much of this elegant, laid-back resort. I am feeling well and truly seduced by GoldenEye, but the best is still to come.

At five, I pack up my luggage and get to move into the real Goldeneye. When Ian Fleming, the former naval intelligence officer and journalist who invented James Bond, came to Jamaica after the war, in 1946, this was the holiday house he built. High-ceilinged but simple, it stands in a large, private, shady garden overlooking a pool and pond, well away from the rest of the resort, and separated from the 21 new beach and lagoon villas by a small headland.

Fans creak overhead and a breeze blows through the big, shuttered windows. I walk around the house, trailing my fingers across the desk where Fleming set up his typewriter. I open my suitcase in the bedroom he slept in, then scramble down stone steps to the exquisite private beach and lie on a sunbed in the late afternoon sun, reading the copy of Casino Royale I found by the bed. At seven the house manager sets out candles in hurricane lamps, lays the outdoor dining table in the sunken garden, and ushers in the friend of a friend, a woman who runs another hotel on the island. Later, she and I are joined by GoldenEye's gregarious South African manager, who has just seen off some American guests who were here for their second visit in two months. "Just a quick coffee for me," he instructs the waiter, but an hour later, as the candles flicker and the jungly racket of crickets engulf the garden, he is still telling stories.

When you go, make sure you spend time with this man. He is hilarious, although his anecdotes about the South African army, in which he served for seven years before getting into the hotel business, will make your hair stand on end. He is not your usual hotel manager, but then this is not your usual hotel resort, with its cool modern vibe but alluring sense of history.

Like several of the older great hotels on this island, it is enticingly redolent of Jamaica in its glamorous heyday, the 1950s and 1960s. That was when Marilyn Monroe honeymooned with Arthur Miller at Jamaica Inn, in nearby Ocho Rios, when Jackie and John F Kennedy honeymooned at Round Hill, Montego Bay (where Ralph Lauren now keeps a hillside villa), and when Fleming drew everyone from Noel Coward to England's Queen Mother to his still-magical house under the trees.

I am still laughing over the manager's stories when I prise myself away from GoldenEye and set out with an entertaining taxi-driver-guide for further exploration of an island I've visited four times now over the years. Mountainous, lush, scenically more varied than most other Caribbean islands, Jamaica has much to see. It's lush botanical gardens are one of its greatest glories; I want to see Cranbrook Flower Forest, and maybe have a go on the zipwire adventure trail over it. I want to visit Strawberry Hill, in the Blue Mountains, one of Chris Blackwell's other Island Outpost hotels (little do I know how seat-clutchingly scary the steep, twisting mountain roads will be; thank goodness there is a local at the wheel).

I want to revisit Firefly, Noel Coward's hilltop home, still just as he left it, and Negril Beach, which, with an endless long pale beach so unlike the rest of Jamaica, makes you feel as if you're on another island. I want to get, finally, to Frenchman's Cove, at the remote far north-eastern end of the island, the part that always seems on the verge of being redeveloped, where Patricia Flynn, the widow of the 1940s Hollywood hell-raiser and part-time local Errol Flynn, still lives. Even before I set out, I know I'm going to have to come back again.

 

If You Go

The flight Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Montego Bay in Jamaica via New York's JFK from Dh7,600, return

The stay At GoldenEye Hotel and Resort, a one-bedroom beach villa costs from US$780 (Dh2,865) per night including breakfast (www.goldeneye.com; 001 876 622 9007)

The info Jamaica is a large island, 233km by 80km. You can hire a car, of course, and drive yourself around but, off the motorways, the hairpin bends can be alarming. It's better to book a reliable local driver and taxi for a couple of days' sightseeing. That way, you get local expertise and a lively guide