Just 25 or 30 years ago, before singles clubs and chain hotels began to claim the turf, Jamaica's north coast was a wintertime retreat for a lofty circle of Anglo-American writers and actors. Ian Fleming had a seaside house at Oracabessa, Errol Flynn owned a ranch near Port Antonio and Noel Coward held court at a white-stone aerie above the village of Port Maria.
It was the two writerly haunts, Fleming's Goldeneye and Coward's Firefly, that I had set my sights on when I made the two-hour drive between Ocho Rios and Port Antonio, on one of the most appealing and riveting stretches of road in the West Indies. Both men are gone now, but the enchanting houses where they lived, entertained and worked are still very much intact above the sea, and echoing with memories.
In 1948, five years before he created the master spy James Bond, Fleming came to Jamaica and bought a house about 10 miles east of the resort of Ocho Rios -- O'chee, the Jamaicans call it. Soon after I arrived in the little port of Oracabessa I was passing through a pair of blue-stone gateposts topped with carved pineapples and proceeding along a jungly path that opened onto a garden. There on a green lawn, perhaps 60 feet from a seaside cliff, was a white house with bright blue trim.
Goldeneye is off-limits to the public these days, but I managed to peek into the kitchen, where a woman in a blue dress was busy over a sink of dishes. It was Violet Cummings, who had been Fleming's indomitable housekeeper for more than 15 years, and still looks after Goldeneye when someone is renting. Her former employer had last visited in 1963, a year before his death, she told me before turning back to her housework.
It was Fleming who introduced Noel Coward to the intoxicating charms of the north coast. In his intimate biography, "The Life of Noel Coward," Cole Lesley notes that Coward came down from New York in 1948 and rented Fleming's Goldeneye for two months after the failure of his Broadway play, "Tonight at Eight-Thirty." At Goldeneye, he began to write the second volume of his autobiography, "Future Indefinite." "The stars are very bright and infinity is going on all around and I really don't care about the notices of 'Tonight at Eight-Thirty,' " he wrote.
Coward, the very embodiment of after-8 wit and elegance, was so taken with Jamaica that he, too, built a house, Blue Harbour, on a lovely seaside spot. As I passed Blue Harbour on the winding road heading east from Oracabessa, I could see why it had posed problems to its first owner: It was so spacious, so lovely, that Coward couldn't keep his (and its) admirers away.
Round Hill, a fashionable new resort hotel in the area, brought friends to Jamaica who beat a path to the Coward residence, often interrupting his morning work regimen. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a moment with the man whom all the world, even the newspapers, called "Master."
So Coward fled up the hill to an even more enchanting spot and in 1956 built a modest house that by design was not large enough to accommodate guests. He called the house Firefly, after the lovely swarms of lightning bugs he encountered on his first visit to the spot, and he lived there, serenely, off and on until his death in 1973.
Today the house and its flowering grounds, operated by the National Trust Commission, are open for informal tours. You have to look hard for the sign on the main coastal road, and then you start to climb up Firefly Hill. It's the same rutted country lane -- dogs barking, chickens rooting -- that brought Lunt and Fontanne, Olivier and Leigh, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother herself to the breezy white house on the hill.
"He liked it peaceful," said Alvarine Fraser, Coward's housekeeper, who still works at Firefly and often accompanies the young National Trust guides on their walkabouts. "He was glad to get away from the other house," she added, referring to Blue Harbour.
Low, graceful and chalk-white, Firefly has scarcely been altered since the day Coward died. It sits at the back of a green lawn, letting in ocean breezes from all angles. On the first floor is an open den where Coward and his guests dined at a glass table, the very spot where he lunched with the Queen Mother in 1963 and introduced her to Bullshots -- a blend of vodka and consomme -- of which she had two.
In a sitting room, two pianos stand cheek to jowl on a pitch-pine floor, with worn albums and sheet music lying out: "Luck Be a Lady" from "Guys and Dolls," "Bitter Sweet" and "The Milkman."
We mounted a flight of worn red carpeted steps to an enchanting, sunlit room with a 20-foot-wide open bay window stretching across the front, and I took a chair as Fraser talked about the house. "This is the verandah, what he called his room with a view," she said. "You're sitting in his favorite chair."
In one corner is a large cedar desk where Coward worked every morning. "He sat to the side of the room," she said, "so the wind wouldn't blow his pages up."
From the wide bay there is a sweeping and stunning view of Port Maria, the evergreen coastline and the receding folds of the Blue Mountains, renowned for rich and expensive coffee. Lynn Fontanne, wrote Lesley in his biography, always refused to look at the stacks of mountains "because they reminded her of rows and rows of empty theater seats."
Throughout the house hang the small canvases Coward painted in Jamaica -- a man on a beach, luxuriant banana leaves, even some woodsy winter scenes. His first-floor studio has a happy, littered look, canvases and brushes still lying about.
At the edge of Coward's bedroom, roped off at the doorway, Fraser pointed out the four-poster on which he died, of a heart attack, on a March night in 1973. "I heard him coughing that night," she said, "but I couldn't get to him. He was in his changing room. I called my husband -- he was the butler -- and he had to get a ladder and break a window to get in. Then he put him on the bed."
In an open closet, you can see Coward's immaculate, brightly colored floral sport shirts, still suspended on wooden hangers.
We left the house and walked across a wide, clipped lawn, past orange and allspice trees, to a burial enclosure surrounded by a white wrought-iron fence. A large stone slab is inscribed simply with "Sir Noel Coward" and his dates: 16 December 1889 and 26 March 1973.
Standing there on the sunstruck green hill on a sultry afternoon, like Noel Coward's own mad dogs and Englishmen, I listened as Fraser talked about her former boss. "I worked for him for eight years," she said. "Cooking, washing, cleaning, just like what I do now. Oh, he liked my macaroni and cheese. His favorite drink was brandy, with ginger ale to chase it. He was always very calm.
"What did we call him? 'Master.' We all called him 'Master.' "
Then I was on my way, heading east toward Port Antonio on a drive that cannot have changed much since those two masters of their craft hid out from critics and cold weather. I passed schoolchildren -- boys in tan uniforms, girls in blue -- walking home on the narrow road, teasing, waving, signaling for a ride; men pushing crude wooden wagons loaded with the daily cargo; huge displays of pots and kettles for sale, hung billboardlike by the road.
As for that other literary lion of the north coast, Errol Flynn, who helped make Port Antonio a chic enclave in pre-jet-set days, his legacy was completed with an autobiography, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways." Of Jamaica, where he lived his last 13 years, Flynn wrote: "Never have I seen a land so beautiful. Now I knew where the writers of the Bible had got their description of paradise. They had come here to Jamaica."
Flynn, who died in 1959, is still remembered for the wild pool parties he and his friends had at a hotel he owned in town, since burned down. He is also given credit for starting Jamaica's now popular river-rafting tours, an idea he got from watching men come downriver to Port Antonio with loads of bananas for shipment abroad.
The remote and unsung coast from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio may seem an odd base for three such worldly sophisticates, but surely to them -- and to anyone today with a glimmer of an imagination -- it was the most inviting of literary landscapes.
Ian Fleming's villa, Goldeneye, is privately owned and not open to the public, but Noel Coward's Firefly in Port Maria may be visited daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is about $1.40. For more information, contact the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, 79 Duke St.,
Kingston, Jamaica, telephone 809-922-1287.
David Butwin is a writer living in Leonia, N.J.