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Hot bath cold reality
Bath Fountain and Spring, so serene but so disappointing


This young man stands in the Sulphur River while spring water from the rock which is piped through bamboo beats down on his back. -Carlington Wilmot

Yvonne Chin, Staff Reporter

"YES! YES! Yes!" "Ooohhhh, yeessss."
Her eyes closed, shameless shouts of "ohhh yes", in between laughter, spilled from her gaping mouth. Unmindful of the onlookers she squealed her pleasure for all to hear.

No, this is not an imitation of the orgasmic woman washing her hair in the popular television shampoo
commercial.

It's just that on a recent Thursday morning under the hot trickle of water from the Bath Spring this visitor from afar could hardly contain her bliss. Sapping her body with the heated water flowing from beneath the rocks, in a damp and leafy enclave of eastern St. Thomas, her mind was a long way from Switzerland.

Locals and visitors have been sipping, sapping and soaking up the waters of Bath Spring 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.

BATH HAS TWO FACES

However, 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. We counted about 10 of them running towards our vehicle when we arrived and watched them ­ some shirtless, some smelly ­ as they swarmed other visitors persistently offering massages. 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. The "masseurs", however, were reluctant to tell us their prices.

"Although you name yuh price, some people will give yuh less and some people will give you more," one explained, still leaving us in the dark. A pleasant man in his 20s who appeared to take his work seriously, he 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'a 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.

THE OTHER SIDE OF BATH

You see the 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.

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 also 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 $1,700 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.

"It mek me feel aright," said Jango, an elderly man who had just completed his allotted 20 minutes in the hotel's public bath and was making an enormous effort to button his shirt with fingers that were still stiff from a stroke.

Jango visits the spa every two to three months and said he was much better now than when he first visited.

"We didn't come over here the first time," he said, referring to the hotel.

"We went to the other side and I couldn't go up the hill. Is one of the boy dem lift me up and carry me to the fountain. I will never forget it," he said.

THE BAD AND THE UGLY

The journey from Kingston, through Morant Bay, into Port Morant 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.

The staff at the hotel also points to an ugly side of the area with a litany of complaints about the "masseurs" who pounce on visitors in the parking area. Most of them are from the Bath community, say the staff who complained that the men harass visitors and persuade them to go to the free side of the spring.

"I just came in here to check for myself," one agitated visitor said to the front desk clerk. She explained that some of the men at the front had been trying to discourage her from using the hotel's public bath.

"They told me that it was not clean over here and that they mix the water with piped water," she said, "but I insisted that I wanted to see for myself."

"It happens all the time," one of the hotel staffers said." They just meet the guests before they get to the hotel and when the visitors ask for directions to the spring they just take them over there. Most people don't even know that the spa is over here."

At the end of her tour, the visitor expressed her satisfaction and did the politically correct thing. She soaked in the spa then headed to the other side for a second and free bath.

Crossing sides at Bath is that easy.

COST:

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 Port Morant 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.

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