Queen of Treasure Beach

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Sally Henzell has a reputation. Before coming to her personal haven on the largely untouristed south coast of Jamaica, I heard things like, “She is far and away the most creative person you’ll ever meet” and “If Sally there, bwoy you mus cyan leave without an interview.” So when sitting down at Dougie’s Bar at her earthy-perfect resort called Jakes, I was delighted when she said, “You can bust my brains as much as you like.”

When asked where she was when Jamaica gained its Independence 50 years ago, she painted a beautiful picture: “I was at school and we took a bus down to MoBay to see Princess Margaret, and all the little girls were in little skirts and waving flags.” Then she sips from her rum and water, counts with her fingers tapping the bar, lets out a laugh and exclaims, “Oh wait! I was 21. That was something else! Scratch it!” But it illustrates a point: Sally is a very visual person.

Sally’s late husband is Perry Henzell, who co-wrote, directed and produced the cult classic film with a soundtrack for the ages, The Harder They Come. Sally did all of the art direction on all of Perry’s commercials and films. “By ‘art direction,’” she says, “you must know that meant props, costumes, makeup, continuity, photography—everything. And Perry fired me several times!” When filming was done, she made herself a souvenir: “I made a belt from the spent bullet shells—and used a real one for the clasp,” she says with a wink, “I’d go out wearing the belt slung low with my purple crochet shorts that were this big,” she recalls, and indicates with her hands that there wasn’t much to them at all.

Sally says her only preparation for art direction was window dressing in Switzerland. I give her a curious look and sip my delicious rum punch. “You see, my mother had a list of careers that were acceptable for girls—and read them off starting with the letter A. I didn’t say a word, but when she reached W, I leapt out of my chair at window dressing!” So Sally was sent to Switzerland, where apparently one can get good a window dressing education. Her first job was at Selfridges, making nine pounds a week. “That’s all my training!” she says with a laugh as we move across the patio to the restaurant for dinner.

But there is no education that could teach such innate sensibilities. Every detail at Jake’s is brilliant. Bright mosaics line many surfaces, absolutely nothing has a hard edge—and no two rooms are at all alike. Sally has been privy to this languorous and lovely part of the island since she was a child, coming for summers and every break to a modest home that echoes with lashing waves. “My father built Treasure Cot in 1941 and did her best to keep Treasure Beach dead secret. She told people there were sharks and terrible weather.” Sally’s memories of that time are indelible: “Daddy was a goggle fisher (aka snorkeler) and made his first goggles from calabash and rubber tire. His gun was two pieces of pipe and a rubber band—and that’s how he shot fish for us.” And if you look at the Matchbox 20 album cover for “The Last Beautiful Girl”—that’s Sally’s mother.

Fifty years later, someone pointed to the land Jake’s now resides on, and Sally instinctively bought it. Her son Jason, who’s undeniably made Jake’s the 30 rooms and two-restaurant amazingness it is today—was working at a bank in Montego Bay before moving as south as the island stretches—to help. “If it hadn’t been for Jason, nobody would have heard of us past Mandeville,” Sally says and we roar with laughter—because Mandeville isn’t far at all. Jason’s business sensibilities are the perfect balance to his mother’s creativity. In fact, she was terrified at the opening: “The first people arrived and I jumped into the sea and swam and swam! I didn’t want to actually fill the rooms and make money—it was just kind of a three-dimensional art class to me.”

Sally began dreaming of what Jake’s would look like when she was on holiday in Brazil with Perry. “I just see things. I drew it then exactly as it is now.” She wanted to name it something in Portuguese but eventually settled on Jake’s, which was the name of her parrot. To get the pool built as she’d imagined it, she flagged down a bulldozer randomly going down the remote road: “I yelled ‘I need you to dig a hole!’” For that, she paid the man $7000 Jamaican Dollars, which today, is about $80US.

As we finish dinner, she says, “Fate played a part and brought my parents here. I said to a friend once, ‘Just imagine, I could have been born in England and been an ordinary girl!’ I have had a wonderful life.” “Yes, absolutely amazing,” she concludes as she looks up into a tree twinkling with metal cocoons of her own design.

Digging Jamaica? Visit the 100m Shop and get your jerk-reggae-patois-sunshine fix. (Sunscreen recommended.)