Travel: a special bar in Jamaica
Decca Aitkenhead Guardian News Service/London
------- Last autumn Pelican Bar, an idyllic bolthole - and much else in the Caribbean - was swept away by Hurricane Ivan. Four months later, it's back and so are the tourists. --------
Of all the tropical holiday cliches, a hut on stilts over the ocean is the ultimate paradise icon. The people who build luxury resorts in Bora Bora and the Maldives are no fools; tourists have been fantasizing about waves below their feet ever since Basil's Bar, a bamboo cocktail platform perched over the Caribbean, opened in Mustique. It's one of our most irresistible holiday fantasies - and usually one of the least affordable.
Floyde Forbes has never been to Bora Bora, nor the Maldives or Mustique. A fisherman on the south coast of Jamaica, he claims he simply dreamt one night about a bar built on stilts out in the sea. The dream was uncommonly precise; it would be round, made of wood and thatched with palm fronds, located about a mile offshore. It was just a question of building it.
If you visit Treasure Beach on Jamaica's south coast - particularly if you stay at a hotel called Jake's - you are bound to be offered a trip to Floyde's bar. The description you'll probably get, though, will be nowhere near as clear as his dream. In the manner of south-coast hospitality, it will be casual, and charmingly vague. "It's nearly full moon tonight," someone will say. "Why not try Pelican Bar? You'll love it."
The sun was just setting last year when the barman at Jake's suggested this to us. Someone called for a boat; someone else phoned Floyde to say we were coming for dinner, and that he probably should stock up on rum. Soon a fishing boat chugged into the narrow sandy cove in front of Jake's. The wooden canoe was captained by Ted, one of the loudest Jamaicans you are ever likely to meet, and just as cheerfully vague as everyone else about exactly where we were going. We climbed on board and set out to sea, the water violet in the sudden tropical gloom.
After about half an hour, just when we'd started to wonder where Ted could conceivably be taking us, a speck of yellow appeared in the distance. It grew nearer, a pale glow of light, until - quite suddenly - Ted cut the engine dead. The boat hung in the empty ocean. Then a voice called out through the dark: "Yo, Ted! You reach early! The fish nah ready yet."
As our eyes adjusted, we found ourselves beside a rickety wooden ladder, leading up on to a circular platform. Although Pelican Bar is built on a shallow sandbank, it feels as if it's in the middle of the sea. In one corner is a bar made out of planks, and behind it a giant cooler packed full of beer, kept chilled by ice. Beside it, an open fire burns on a hearth of stone, and when guests come for dinner, a pot of rice and fish cooks over an old tin tray on top. The whole bar is lit by a single hurricane lamp
Floyde served drinks, and tended to the cooking. Presently, dinner was served; snapper he had caught himself, cooked in the local escovitch style with a vinegary sauce. A pair of sting-ray lazed idly in the shallows below. They were quite tame, Floyde explained, having grown rather too attached to the leftovers thrown overboard. Rickety wooden tables were dotted between bench seats, and later Floyde and Ted played round after furiously noisy round of dominoes, in the Jamaican way. We ate in silence, bowled over by Robinson Crusoe perfection.
By last summer, Floyde's bar had become Treasure Beach's biggest attraction. If you visit during the day, you soon see why he called it Pelican Bar. Great flocks used to gather on the sandbar, and now they smother the roof of the bar, indifferent to the mesmerizing turquoise watery mosaic below. Fishing boats taking tourists from Treasure Beach to see the crocodiles in Black River stop by throughout the day, summoning Floyde from his house ashore. He comes puttering out in what is barely bigger than a rowing boat, weighed down with fresh ice and supplies.
But last September, Hurricane Ivan struck. It left behind just a few stumps of stilts; the bar was swept clean away. Floyde had no hurricane insurance; he had lost everything.
Before he'd built the bar, local opinion had been unanimous: it would never survive the waves, no one would come, he was mad. After Ivan, the very first person on Floyde's phone was the owner of Jake's, urgent to get the bar rebuilt. Jake's donated the wood, and building help arrived from other quarters. In just a month, a new bar was complete.
Treasure Beach has recovered from Ivan almost as quickly as Pelican Bar. The village is a remote, rustic hideaway, not really a resort at all, and it was torn to pieces by the hurricane. Jake's didn't fully reopen until late last November. Oddly, though, it feels as if it's been more recharged than battered by the break. Honeymoon suites have been added to the cluster of artfully bohemian cottages - upscale additions to the "chic shack" aesthetic, but still unmistakably Jake's. Wild hibiscus and bougainvillea petals are scattered round the rooms, and there is always a strong chance of finding a dog fast asleep under your bed.
If you asked a computer to design the perfect excursion for Jake's guests, it couldn't do better than Pelican Bar. But the bar's greatest charm is its owner's oblivion to the magic of what he's built. It has already hosted a fashion shoot, featured in a mobile phone commercial, and appeared in publicity for Jake's. Yet Floyde seems blissfully unaware that he has made Basil's Bar and Bora Bora look, by comparison, almost tacky. He is content to while the afternoons away, lolling in his bar, watching Test cricket on a portable TV until the next boat passes by.
Only one thing can be relied upon to rattle Floyde. Ted claims the bar was actually his idea. Floyde never dreamt it, Ted says; he got the whole idea from him. If you ever want to see Floyde lose his dreamy cool, put Ted's version of events to him and stand back.
- Getting there: Air Jamaica (airjamaica.com) flies to Montego Bay - Where to stay: Jake's (+18769608134, islandoutpost. com). Rooms from US$115 a night. - Further information: Jamaican Tourist Board (visitjamaica.com)