The Magic of Jamaica's Great Houses

Jamaica enjoys a rich heritage of Great Houses with colorful histories
Staff Writer
The Magic of Jamaica's Great Houses
One is open for a spooky night tour, while many others boast wonderful gardens and orchards.

Some of Jamaica's Great Houses are in ruins; others are opulently decorated in vintage antiques. One is open for a spooky night tour, while many others boast wonderful gardens and orchards. Several have been renovated, and you can even stay in them for a trip steeped in the historical culture of the island.

Most of Jamaica’s Great Houses were built in the 1700s by British planters who presided over many thousands of acres of sugar and pimento (that is, allspice) plantations. Built with the stone used as ballast in sailing vessels, these vast structures often perched high on hills, perfectly situated to capture prevailing breezes. They had divided stone stairways leading up to an elevated main story lined with stone pillars, extensive verandahs, and an extra story above for bedrooms with louvered windows.

One of the grandest is Rose Hall Great House, a few miles away from Montego Bay. Built in 1770 by John Palmer, but made famous in 1820 by Annie, the so called “White Witch,” who ruled the house with her purported black magic powers. Perhaps her ghost still stalks the halls of this grand stone house, now beautifully restored with eighteenth-century décor and antiques. Call 876-953-2323 to make reservations for their spooky night tours.

Folly, now in decadent ruin, with its extant stone pillars and crumbling stairways, is still a popular landmark with a rich cultural heritage; it’s located on the bay across from Port Antonio. Built in 1905 by my great-grandparents, Alfred Mitchell and his wife Annie Olivia, a Tiffany heiress, and modeled after Jamaica’s other Great Houses, it had an impressive divided staircase, imported Italian tiles, dozens of stone pillars, and even a small, hidden saltwater swimming bath. In 1920, when Alfred died, my great-grandmother buried his heart on the property and left, never to return. Drive past the cricket field and wander up into the ruins; it’s not hard to evoke the grandeur of a lost age where peacocks and ladies with parasols once wandered out to an island gazebo to enjoy the sight of breaking waves and the grand vista of the verdant Blue Mountains.

Plan an opulent stay at Liberty Hill Great House and Spa, an old pimento plantation with spectacular views; it is set amidst 25 acres of the largest collection of exotic flowers in Jamaica, including a dazzling array of orchids and wild ginger flowers, and a myriad of fruit trees. Built in 1740, sitting halfway between Kingston and Montego Bay, 1200 feet above the historic town of St. Ann, it is designated both as a National Treasure and Monument.

Or, rent a house at Good Hope Plantation, set on 2,000 acres, where you can horseback ride through the citrus orchards and dine at the Great House, which was built in 1755 by Colonel Thomas Williams for his wife Elizabeth, and which enjoyed hot running water before even New York City had such luxuries. But stay at your own cottage on the plantation, each with its own resident cook, maid, and driver. While away the hours on your very own beach, or ramble along the banks of the Martha Brae River, which meanders through the property.

For a more Spartan, but just as atmospheric, stay, book yourself into The Shafston Estate Great House on the South coast.

Do not miss touring Bellefield Great House and Gardens,, 15 minutes outside of Montego Bay. Built in the 1600s, it is one of the oldest sugar plantations in the country. It has been the home of the Kerr-Jarrett family for more than 11 generations and is typical of the Great House plantation design, with sprawling verandahs and jalousie windows slanted to screen the glare yet capture the ambient breezes. And perhaps you can pay homage to the region’s culinary history by planning a catered dinner, provided by two famed award-winning resident chefs, Collin Brown, Ernest Levy and Oral McNarrin, who offer a wonderful Jamaican/European culinary fusion.

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