Get up, stand up

At the island's only surf camp, Jamie Brisick becomes part of the family, sharing meals, music and some awesome waves.

Ihave been in Jamaica for only a few hours but already I feel I've been adopted by the Wilmot family. Out in the shimmering sea, two boys are sharing waves, their father is cheering on their sister, Alicia, as she streaks across a dreamy wall of water and cherubic Ivah is tucking himself into a small tube. All around me are hoots and whistles and "yeah, mons".

At Jamnesia Surf Camp on Bull Bay, 13 kilometres east of Kingston, a holiday is less about Caribbean indulgence than hurling yourself into working-class Jamaican life, a world generally unknown to tourists. I'm staying with the Wilmots, a seven-member Rastafarian surf family headed by Billy Mystic, a lithe, dreadlocked patriarch of Jamaican surfing, in his late 40s. He is also a famous musician and an actor in a popular Jamaican soap opera – people yell "Hey, CC!", the name of his character, as we pass.

Guests at Jamnesia are invited into the Wilmots' lives to eat their food, surf their waves, skateboard their bowl, dance to their music and play dominoes and chill out with their friends.

Within minutes of arrival, I find myself loading up the boards and riding in a Jeep with Wilmot and his grown-up sons, Icah and Inilek, to Makkas, a left-breaking point in Morant Bay, a 20-minute drive east. As we pass ramshackle bars and shops along the potholed road, Wilmot gives me a brief history lesson.

Jamaican surfing began in the 1960s when beach kids carved the foam panels taken from refrigerator doors into boards and took to the waves. Wilmot remembers his first rapturous rides in the late 1960s, when he started surfing Cable Hut Beach in Bull Bay. He quickly became the country's most avid devotee, tackling big waves, testing out boards imported from the US and Australia and collecting surf memorabilia.

He started Jamnesia Surf Camp in the '70s with his wife, Maggie, inviting travelling surfers to their home. As the number of guests grew, they added bungalows and by the late '90s they had a hotel with seven bungalows. In 2001, Wilmot formed the Jamaican Surfing Association, "to give the surf scene structure, organisation".

With a membership of roughly a dozen surfers, Wilmot presented a team to the national institute of sport. Impressed, it offered financial support and, as a result, Jamaica has been represented at the annual International Surfing Association world games for the past five years.

Even so, the country still has only about 100 surfers and at Makkas we have the head-high waves all to ourselves.

Back at Jamnesia that night, there is a sociable atmosphere as a fiftysomething Canadian loses seven consecutive games of dominoes to Ronald, a 14-year-old neighbour. A newly arrived German couple talks shop with Wilmot, who simulates surfing on a wooden bench, prepping them for tomorrow's lesson. Four puppies chase Ivah on his skateboard around a courtyard strewn with 80 surfboards, three hammocks and a raft of musical instruments. Several times a day Icah or Inilek pick up a guitar to strum some soothing reggae.

The centrepiece of the camp is Shacks, an open-air lounge of bamboo with a little television playing surf videos 24-seven. Every afternoon, from the time school's out to well past dinner, at least half a dozen sweetly mannered children from the neighbourhood gather around, replaying and scrutinising their favourite rides.

"My hope is that surfing will help to shape them, give them the idea of fair play," Wilmot says.

Jamaica has a wide range of breaks, from beginner-friendly to challenging and brutally shallow. Directly in front of the camp is a gentle spot for beginners, where I watch Inilek teach the German guest. It is his first encounter with a surfboard but he's up on every wave, gliding beatifically, a rapt smile on his face.

For more experienced surfers, the typical Jamnesia day begins at dawn when we check the waves out front, then discuss where to surf. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, stir-fried vegies and coffee, we squeeze into the Jeep and head to one of half-a-dozen spots.

The most consistent is Lighthouse, a rocky, left-and right-breaking spot 10 minutes' drive west, but most of Jamaica's breaks are within several kilometres of the camp on the south-east shore. My favourite is Copa, a right-breaking reef 15 minutes' walk along the beach from Jamnesia, with enough zing to allow 18-year-old Bobs to launch his sophisticated aerial manoeuvres, yet gentle enough for a gang of 12-year-olds to take long, satisfying rides.

As the week passes, I notice a strong sense of camaraderie among the country's surfers. In overcrowded surf such as Hawaii and California, surfers can be appallingly territorial but here they are jovial and friendly.

After a morning in the waves we head back to camp, then walk to the local takeaway for fried chicken, coleslaw, rice and peas, to eat in the shade of the Jamnesia courtyard.

Non-surfing guests visit Cane River Falls nearby, where Bob Marley used to hang out, and Kingston's museum devoted to the island's favourite son, which gives an insight into his life.

Jamnesia attracts all sorts. It's famed as a surf camp but during my stay only four of us chase waves. The other three travellers seem more entranced by the homely spirit of the place and spend time with the Wilmot family and the neighbourhood kids. In the afternoons we head out for more surfing, then come home sun-scorched, famished and exhausted. After a dinner of delicious jerk chicken, rice and peas, most nights we're in bed early. Except for one.

On Saturday a crew of local musicians transforms our courtyard into an outdoor gig. The party kicks off about 10pm. By midnight at least 100 of the Wilmots' friends have gathered as a succession of local musicians take the stage. We're treated to one-drop, roots and dance hall reggae, as well as R&B and jazz ballads. A teenage girl who lives across the road sings and sounds just like Lauryn Hill. The local beer, Red Stripe, flows and the communal spirit is warm.

In the morning I wake with a sore head and check the surf. In the courtyard, several of last night's guests are asleep on benches. In the driveway, a pair of legs dangles out of the window of an old hatchback. On the beach, a couple lies sleeping, faces caked with sand, their arms entwined. The Caribbean glistens and the sun blazes. A head-high, turquoise wave crackles on the shore. This is the Jamaica I'd come for.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The nearest major gateway to Kingston is Miami. Delta flies from Sydney to Los Angeles and then to Miami for about $923 (low-season return including tax from Sydney and Melbourne; Melbourne passengers fly Virgin Blue to Sydney to connect). American Airlines has a one-way fare from Miami to Kingston for about $185 including taxes. No visa is required, however length of stay is determined by immigration officials upon arrival. Australians must apply for authorisation before travelling to the US at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Surfing there

Jamnesia Surf Camp is at Bull Bay, 13 kilometres east of Kingston. Rooms from $US25 ($29.75) a person or $US30 a night, twin share. Surf packages $US390 a person for seven nights half-board, including rides to the beach. Board rental is $US20 a day. See geocities.com/jamnesiasurfclub.

The Guardian

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