Locals and visitors have been sipping, sapping and soaking up the waters of Bath Spring in St. Thomas ever since it was discovered by a runaway slave in the 1690s. Legend has it that the hot fountain water healed the ulcers on his legs that had plagued him for years. News of the spring spread, prompting a flood of visitors who, over the centuries, have come to recuperate or soak their weary bodies. Around 1700, a hospital was even built close by to allow the sick better access to the healing waters.
The water, according to a chemical analysis, is high in sulphate and lime, salts which are said to be good for treating rheumatic ailments and skin diseases.
Road to the Spring
The journey from Kingston, through Morant Bay, into Leith Hall and to the town of Bath is a pleasant one. The road is smooth, for the most part, and while the cool sea breeze tantalises the senses, the breaking tides frothing and racing to the seashore provide a soothing treat for the eyes.
It gets jarring though as you turn out of the Bath community and onto the road leading to the spring. The road is so poor that while the taxi fare from Morant Bay to Bath costs $50, it cost twice as much (for about a third of the distance) travelling from Bath to the spring.
A visit to Bath Spring today is vastly different than 300 years ago.
For one, Bath now has a split personality. On the one hand, there's the river running along the hillside thicketed with trees and shrubbery where the spring water trickles from beneath the rocks. Here, bathers dip their toes or allow the scalding water to leak over their bodies -- at no charge.
Locals and most visitors head to this side of the spring which is well promoted by the young men who swoop down on you as soon as you pull into the parking area. Many offer massages and this seems to be the big income earner.
If you wish, they will lead you to the spring which is an easy, straightforward, five-minute hike from the parking area. When we got there tourists were scooping up the water with their hands and splashing it on themselves. Others stood in the sulphur river while the spring water, channelled through a ‘bamboo pipe’ rained on them. Yet others were seen and heard laughing as they got massages on the rocks -- for a fee.
A tourist enjoys a massage
A pleasant man in his 20s who appeared to take his work seriously admitted to having no formal training and didn't think any of the others had. However, he had gotten tips from a professional masseuse who visits the spring from time to time and was sticking close to ‘the rastaman because him know what him doing.’
It’s a serious business, he acknowledged. `You can hurt people, if yuh nuh know what yuh doing,` he said.
We were introduced to ‘the Rastaman’ who greeted us warmly. He was cooling out with the others on the bridge. “Me born an' grow a Bath,” he told us, adding that he had been massaging visitors at the fountain for years. He was even featured in a Travel Channel documentary about the spring which has made him popular with the tourists.
The massage business is not about hustling, he reckoned, which is why he is so distressed, about `how some a de yout dem a treat de business, rushing the visitors (because) dem jus' waan mek one big money fi de day, an' dem will come back when it done an' try fi mek another quick money again.’
People can't treat their livelihood that way, he reasoned.
Another face of Bath
You see another other face of Bath -- the Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa -- when you pull into the parking lot and as you hike along the trail to the spring.
It's pink and polished.
With its newly renovated ceramic tile public baths, a 20-minute dip in the hot spring water over at the Bath Fountain Hotel and Spa will cost you $150. We got a peep behind the property and were shown where the hotel traps the water from the rock and pipes it to the spa.
A visitor gets a 'facial' in the warm mineral spring
Hot and cold spring water also flow into some of the hotel's 16 rooms, allowing guests with private baths to wallow in the therapeutic water at their leisure. Visitors can also drink the water which is used in the hotel's cooking.
The Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa is more than a source of spring water though. A simple hideaway in the deep reaches of St. Thomas, you can relax in a warmly painted room for between $1,000 and $1700 a night. Make sure you really want to get away though because you'll barely pick up a radio station while you're there, and there's no television signal or satellite.
But you'll be able to take in the lush and colourful riverbank scenery or listen to the Sulphur River as it calmly flows while you treat your lungs to fresh air from the countryside.
Use of the spring -- free
Twenty minutes in the public bath of Bath Fountain Hotel, $150
To stay overnight at the hotel, $1,000 to $1,700 per room
TO GET THERE:
From Kingston follow the main road into St. Thomas. Continue to Leith Hall and watch for the signs pointing to Bath.
From Port Antonio, follow the main road into Leith Hall and look for the signs pointing to Bath.