The Castleton Botanical Gardens sit in a river valley on both sides of the Junction main road which links the Saint Andrew and Saint Mary parishes. It is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the western hemisphere, established in 1862 by English planter Colonel Castle on what was once a sugar plantation.
The Bath Botanical Gardens in St. Thomas, Jamaica’s first botanical garden, had suffered repeated flooding by the Sulphur River. This led to much discontent and paved the way for Castleton’s establishment. In 1869, Colonel Castle gifted the gardens to the government of Jamaica. As a result, the 15-acre garden is free and is now a popular picnic spot for Kingstonians wanting a break from the city. The tortuous Wag Water River flows parallel to the gardens, adding to the view and giving one the opportunity to swim in unbridled beauty.
Starting from Half-Way-Tree (HWT) in Saint Andrew, I boarded a bus heading to Annotto Bay in Saint Mary. Annotto Bay buses load beside the Portland buses next to the HWT Transport Centre, directly across from HWT’s Burger King fast food outlet. The fare to Castleton is $150 per person and in fact, you can take a bus headed to Portland too since they drive the same route. You’ll still get your fare at the right price once you tell the conductor (man who collects the fare) where you are getting off, since you pay for how far you travel, not the total journey of $450. These rural buses never leave until they are full so I had a 15 minute wait during which I suffered miserably in the humid heat. You’re fortunate if one of them has the air conditioning on since they’re stingy, but by time the bus starts moving you won’t need it as much. The total drive from HWT to Castleton took about 45 minutes. Look out for the signs on either side of the road after you pass Temple Hall, then just say “bus stop driver” when you do. They’ll know your only destination could be the gardens if you ask for a stop there, so you’ll be let off conveniently at the entrance.
The gardens are open every day of the week from 5:30am to 6:00pm between October to February. They open until 6:30pm during March to September. It’s also open on all public holidays except Labour Day (celebrated May 23 usually) and National Heroes’ Day (celebrated every 3rd Monday in October). As I mentioned earlier, the gardens are free. Whoopee!
The Castleton Gardens
Since we alighted on the left side of the road, it makes sense that we explored the left gardens first. It is the more “botanical” portion of the garden which straddles the Junction main road. We explored it before we went to the river since we’d be too lazy afterwards. The Castleton Gardens (left) is a stunning labyrinth of stone paths curving through lush green shrubbery, colourful flowers and tall sweeping trees. Palm trees dot the landscape attesting to the garden’s former glory as a palmetum boasting over 180 species of palms.
I wish I could say I felt cool and refreshed walking through the grounds but today was very hot and sticky with 90°F recorded as our maximum temperature and humidity at higher than normal (76%). Anyhow, my eyes were very happy and I eagerly strolled to marvel at the view and read the scientific names of trees I can barely pronounce. There are many gazebos and benches inviting one to sit and chat or picnic, but I didn’t heed that call today. After an hour or so, my friend and I headed to the gardens on the right of the Junction road.
This garden is much smaller and boasts fewer species. Nonetheless, this is where the action is at due to the Wag Water river making its rocky course downstream at the back of the property. It has restrooms and a tiny but well-stocked bar run by a pleasant bartender. A coconut (with no jelly 😑) from the bar restored my strength then the heat and humidity was put to a rest with:
The Wag Water River
This section of the Wag Water River is a sprawling expanse of cool clear water meandering its rocky course through a narrow river valley. Its current is gentle enough to swim in but gets strong enough in a few parts to carry one away if he or she isn’t careful (lesson learnt!). Its depth ranged from ankle to waist deep so it really is ideal for swimming once you watch out for the ubiquitous stones and boulders.
Leaving Castleton proved hassle-free. In under 10 minutes we got a bus with seats to choose from, then relaxed and enjoyed the view back to HWT.
They say nature is the best healer and I’m a firm believer! I have exams shortly but I know I needed a break. Too much stress isn’t healthy and the 3 hours I spent here today are hours in which I probably wouldn’t have been productive anyway. Thus, here I went crossing item #6 off my 2017 bucket list, feeling zero guilt for “vacationing” instead of beating the books and feeling somewhat mentally revived to finish this last hurdle. I give Castleton full stars, ☆☆☆☆☆.
‘Til next time. ✌
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