Jamaica’s Half Moon and historic Rose Hall in the off-season? It’s like having your own private resort!
By Ted McIntyre
It’s 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 16th and God has come out to water Montego Bay, as he tends to do at this time of day, at this time of year. It’s probably going to pour for the next couple hours, as it has habitually done each of the past two late afternoons, before clearing in time for a star-filled dinner sky.
Happily, our morning tee times and poolside lunches have been drenched in sunshine and a humidity that has pushed the heat index to around 41C during our five-day stay at the Half Moon Resort. It’s uncommonly quiet (the kids are back in school across North America, and it is hurricane season, after all) at this uncommon luxury facility that spans a vast, manicured 400 acres.
Taking its moniker from the bay’s crescent-shaped beach, Half Moon was founded in 1954 by 17 barons of the business world whose household names included Firestone, Armour and Reynolds. They were mostly American but with a few Canadians, British and Bermudians sprinkled in—all regulars of the fashionable Sunset Lodge in Montego Bay, seven miles due west. The resort has offered an air of relaxed gentility ever since, its legendary guest list having boasted such luminaries as Paul Newman, Debbie Reynolds, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, world leaders from Monaco’s Prince Rainier to JFK, as well as several members of the Royal Family, including the Queen herself.
This week’s smattering of visitors, however, includes an uncustomarily motley crew of media—one foursome divided between American and Canadian scribes and a sassier junket of skinny-dipping 20-something Scandinavians, one of which sidled up to the bar late one evening wearing just a men’s dress shirt, having misplaced her apparel somewhere on the beach. She was preceded by her hobbling associate, who had stepped on a sea urchin—a potential hazard even in daylight, given the ample seaweed just off the shoreline.
But that memory is still to come as I make the short walk from my luxurious Hibiscus Suite 2074, situated atop one of the string of elegant, two-storied balconied buildings that run the length of the beach—currently renting out at $233 US a night, a fraction of the high-season rate of $1,100—to the waterside Cedar Bar just beyond the open-air lobby, where Darrington replaces the air in my glass with Appleton Estate 12-year-old rum. As the sun stretches its arms before finally calling it a day over the Caribbean, a local trio plays Jamaica Farewell to a sparse but enchanted crowd—one musician sporting a banjo, one with an acoustic guitar, and the other beating and strumming the crate-sized rumba box he’s sitting upon. It seems an odd assortment of instruments for the uninitiated, but they’re all traditional tools of mento (also known as Jamaican country music), considered the grandpappy of reggae.
The surrounding community of Rose Hall reeks of such history—some of it admittedly more disturbing. The legend that piques the interest of most is of the lecherous, sadistic Annie Palmer. Also known as the White Witch, Palmer is said to have been born in Haiti to an English mother and Irish father. When her parents died of Yellow Fever, she was raised by a Haitian nanny who schooled her in the black arts of voodoo. After marrying John Palmer, owner of Rose Hall Plantation, the petite, teenaged Annie murdered John by poisoning his coffee. She would go on to knock off her two subsequent husbands as well, while also taking the lives—often by cruel means—of a number of slaves with whom she’d had sex. Annie herself was eventually murdered by a slave—her body entombed in a crypt that was meant to confine her evil spirit. The attempt proved unsuccessful, as her ghost is said to haunt the grounds of Rose Hall to this day.
While separate investigations into the legend have suggested that Annie was actually a well respected, virtuous soul, and that the concocted stories were based upon the title character of the 1929 Jamaican novel, The White Witch of Rosehall by Herbert G. de Lisser, several locals still fear the place. And Lord knows it’s certainly been good for tourism, including our Halloween Haunted House-like nighttime tour of the Great House, with characters slithering through the shadows and occasionally jumping out and yelping for shock value. None of which is genuinely frightening.
No matter—there’s fear aplenty to be had at the opening tee of the nearby White Witch Golf Course. Commencing with a 550-yard par-5 from the tips that plunges to a tight fairway from a wind-slapped tee box, the 1999 work of Robert von Hagge, Michael Smelek and Rick Baril supplies a rollicking, often demanding ride across dramatic jungle terrain, with the ever-present sparkling Caribbean in the background. There’s great use of exposed rock and—as we will discover at Cinnamon Hill and Tryall Golf Clubs in the following days—an extensive bunker project underway that will incorporate a liner of capillary concrete, which allows water to seep through to avoid puddling, while also better gripping the upper layer of sand to maintain the quality of play and reduce maintenance after heavy rains.
We’re being led around the White Witch by female caddies Diane and Dameilia. Such guides are mandatory at most Jamaican courses—their fees (not including the usual $20 US tip) typically included in your green fee. Apart from expediting play, these expert “golf concierges” also offer a few history lessons along the way, while saving at least a sleeve of lost golf balls thanks to their keen eyes and local knowledge, and, no doubt, shaving your score thanks to their educated green-reading skills.
On the horizon, purple clouds are rising from the ocean like a raging forest fire, the occasional rumble of thunder clearly audible, although we are still hours away from any possible rain.
The greens have been recently aerated—it’s the off-season, so you can expect the occasional course maintenance—but it is more than compensated for by the reduced rates, not to mention the sheer beauty of the place. And there is even better to come on Day Two at nearby Cinnamon Hill, a 1969 creation brilliantly reworked by von Hagge, Smelek and Baril in 2001. Although a pair of standout oceanside holes, the ruins of an abandoned sugar mill and our incomparable caddies Al and Wesley, who knocked coconuts from the trees to replenish our water bottles, would normally be more than enough to carry the day, it is the magnificent stretch of closing holes that leaves the most lasting impression at Cinnamon Hill. Consider, for example, the serpentine par-4 14th, with the late Johnny Cash’s estate to the left, the signature downhill par-3 15th, with its rock wall and waterfall off to the side—the setting for a scene with Roger Moore and Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die—or the huge aqueduct and water wheel ruins behind the 17th green.
The history of this part of Jamaica is nowhere more prevalent, though, than at Tryall Golf Club 35 minutes away, from its own ancient water wheel and aqueduct—the latter of which you actually tee off through—at No. 7, to the 350-year-old silk cotton tree with its massive roots reaching out like giant octopus tentacles just beyond the 12th tee.
Home to the now-defunct Johnny Walker World Golf Championship from 1991 to 1995, this classy facility, part of a 2,200-acre private enclave, is in the midst of a two-year renovation—the back nine under the knife this past off-season, with the front side slated for next summer. But I figure that just gets you back all the earlier to your Red Stripes at the club’s Beach Café at the foot of the pier on Sandy Bay.
The last of our four-course tour could be found on our resort grounds: Half Moon GC, which features the largest practice facility in Jamaica. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1964 and renovated by his protégé Roger Rulewich in 2005, the layout is being further buffed with new renovations. But this flattish, more traditional tree-lined parcel of land already offers a perfect complement to the undulating, ball-swallowing terrain of Tryall, Cinnamon Hill and White Witch, with its well-crafted green sites, overall length and the prevailing wind all teaming up to resist par.
The best news of all? We essentially had every course to ourselves, spotting one other group—total—in four days of golf!
At the enclosed dolphin lagoon, a five-minute shuttle ride back toward the lobby, trainers were hamming it up with their talented mammal friends as a solitary beach walker strolled past. Back at the Hibiscus pool bar, across from my room, Stephen and Stacy were patiently waiting for a customer to serve when I arrived.
The hot sun was shining brilliantly as the young Scandinavian trio dipped into the water and shimmied up to the submerged bar stools beside me.
They were clothed this time around. But the day was young.
GETTING THERE: While it was as quick as ever getting to the gate after arriving at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport for Caribbean travel for my seamless Westjet flight, it was even quicker through a virtually empty airport in Montego Bay.
Half Moon Resort: www.halfmoon.com
White Witch GC: www.whitewitchgolf.com
Cinnamon Hill GC: www.rosehall.com/cinnamon-hill-golf-course
Tryall GC: www.tryallclub.com/golf/golf-at-tryall