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Paradise hidden ... A peek at the south coast

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor at Large South/Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 27, 2014    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Like Alligator Pond River a few miles further west, Gut River bubbles to the surface at the base of steep limestone hills in South Manchester just upland from the coastline.

No more than a gentle stream during the dry months, it sets a purposeful course for the wide open sea down below.

Then, as if delaying the inevitable, it coyly takes a left, running parallel to the breaking surf for a couple of hundred metres through low, soft sand banks, before gifting its fresh, cooling water to Long Bay.

For visitors, especially those coming for the first time, the pure unspoilt vision is heart-stopping.

'I have to come back to this place," a stunned tourism minister Wykeham McNeill was heard to say. He was leading a high-profile, fast-moving tour of undeveloped or under-developed tourism "areas of interest" in the south coast parishes of Clarendon, Manchester and St Elizabeth last Wednesday.

"What we are really doing is walking and looking at what the south coast has to offer," McNeill told journalists.

From Alligator Hole on the south Clarendon/south Manchester border, where manatees are to be restocked and the museum upgraded, the tour sped westerly on the recently reopened old coast road — still in need of extensive repair — with the Caribbean Sea to the left and large swathes of forest and scrub covering the limestone hills to the right.

At Alligator Pond, McNeill and his party, including Local Government Minister Noel Arscott, Tourism Junior Minister Damion Crawford, Works Junior Minister Richard Azan, political representatives and aspirants as well as technocrats and bureaucrats had a break for lunch.

There, they saw yet more evidence of the wave attraction threatening the world-famous Little Ochi restaurant, neighbouring attractions and fishing village.

"There are some challenges here (Alligator Pond), beach erosion is a problem," said McNeil. "I am going to speak to minister (environment) with responsibility for that again... This area is a very strong brand for tourism in Jamaica," he added.

Everald 'Blackie' Christian operator of Little Ochi suggested that "boulders" similar to those being used in reinforcing the Palisadoes coastline in Kingston could be the answer to the "climate change" problems at Alligator Pond.

The tour moved on to south east St Elizabeth, making a quick stop at a craft-making shop in Top Hill before arriving at the Lovers Leap attraction in Yardley Chase for what should have been a high point.

However, to the great delight of local farmers, struggling with the effects of seasonal drought this time of year, McNeill and his party brought with them heavy and prolonged rain.

Plans for a quick look at a reopened trail which leads from the Lovers Leap lounge atop the cliff at Yardley Chase to the sea — with spectacular views of Cutlass Bay, 1700 feet below as well as wide vistas of the south St Elizabeth/south Manchester coastline — had to be abandoned.

Coloured by a tragic romantic tale of enslaved lovers leaping to their death, the Lovers Leap attraction was for many years a centrepiece of south coast tourism.

However it fell into hard times in recent years, eventually closing down before being reopened by the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCO) in March 2012. A bar and snack counter — soon to be upgraded to a restaurant — is available to the public daily and there is increasing business from wedding, corporate and family parties.

"We have weddings booked all the way to July," boasted Tony Freckleton of the South Coast Resort Board.

Recognising that Lovers Leap has to be more than just a spectacular view, the government has so far spent $13 million on "cleaning up" and upgrading the attraction including opening up of the trail, journalists were told.

McNeill sees the Lovers Leap trail — which when completed will be dotted with rest stops — as having the potential to bring a whole new dimension to south-coast tourism. Described by locals as "five to six miles one-way", the trail was originally used 200 years ago to fetch goods by mule, donkey and slave labour to and from ships on the coast in Cutlass Bay.

Like McNeill, Member of Parliament for South East St Elizabeth Richard Parchment and Freckleton are hugely enthused about Lovers Leap.

"We want to keep (visitors) for the entire day," said Parchment. "They can dine, they can drink, enjoy themselves and tell the world of a wonderful experience," he said.

"We want to have what is known as the Lovers Leap challenge; when you go down to the sea and make it back up, we want to give you a special something to show you completed the trail," he said.

The MP foresees significant employment for locals and a comfortable fit with fledgling community tourism in southern St Elizabeth.

For Freckleton who dreams of 500,000 visitors being accommodated at south-coast tourism locations over the next few years, water sports could be a key attraction for the adventurous ones coming down the Lovers Leap trail.

"There could be kayaking and pleasure boat tours of the coastline from Black River to White Sand island off Alligator Pond," said Freckleton.

The expectation is that when the Lovers Leap development project is completed, it will be ready for divestment.

Interest in operating the facility has reportedly come from several sources, locally and overseas.

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