History and hospitality on a Jamaican hilltop

On my fourth full day in Jamaica, having risked the tennis courts at high noon, prowled the steaming lanes of Montego Bay, and put in overtime on the beach, I suddenly felt the need for a patch of shade and a dose of culture. And there they were, waiting on a cooling hilltop just east of town at the Greenwood Great House.

More than any other Caribbean island, Jamaica is blessed with great houses, 18th- and 19th-century mansions used by plantation owners for entertainment and comfort in the long-ago era of sugar-growing and slavery. In fact, a handy reference of mine, ''The Caribbean Heritage,'' by Virginia Radcliffe, lists almost 50 great houses on Jamaica, some now privately owned, some converted to hotels, many in ruin, and a few open for touring.

Rose Hall is the most popular and elaborate of the great houses, but as I neared that balustraded mansion above the road between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios , my Jamaican friend at the wheel offered: ''Everyone goes to Rose Hall, but you may like Greenwood better. I think it is livelier.''

Soon we were climbing a pocked road above the sea and pulling up to a handsome, if modest, limestone-block structure surrounded by bougainvillea, poinciana, and hibiscus. John Crow vultures soared on the cool breezes. The parking lot was empty of tour buses. And the owners were out puttering on the terrace.

What makes Greenwood Great House distinct from most of the others is that it is lived in, or at least partly lived in. Bob and Ann Betton have a smaller residence on the six-acre grounds but sleep in the master bedroom of the great house and use its main rooms to entertain friends.

Greenwood, said my guide Marva Jarrett, as we entered the house past ancient leather fire buckets and hoses, was built in 1790 by the Barretts of London's Wimpole Street fame. They were among the largest plantation owners on the island , with 2,000 slaves and 84,000 acres. In fact, it was their West Indian wealth that probably built the house on Wimpole Street where Elizabeth Barrett first received Robert Browning.

Marva, who wore a long red and white checked 17th-century-style dress, said the Barretts used Greenwood for entertainment while maintaining the nearby Barrett Hall and Cinnamon Hill Great House as residences. Cinnamon Hill has been bought by Johnny Cash, while Barrett Hall lies derelict in the sun. Many of Greenwood's original musical instruments are in working order; indeed, the house has the feel of a Victorian music hall. On a landing between floors, Marva wound up a barrel organ and out clanked ''A Bicycle Built for Two.''

We paused on the second-floor veranda - 71 feet long, of mahogany and cedar boards - and looked out past floating John Crows to a line of white surf breaking on the reef.

True to her word, Marva Jarrett was finished with the tour in 25 minutes, and then I was stepping out the door and into the original plantation kitchen.

Bob Betton, a Jamaican and a descendant of island slaves, said he met his future wife when he was studying international law in London. ''We got married and moved to Jamaica, and one day eight years ago were out on a drive near here looking for a farm to buy,'' he said. ''Our car broke down, and the man who picked us up happened to be the owner of Greenwood Great House.'' Greenwood was anything but great in those days, to hear the Bettons tell it, but they bought it, put on a new roof, reupholstered the furniture, and repaired the musical instruments. The rest, as they say, is history.

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