Does “get off the beaten path” or “beyond the beach” sound too familiar? When great travel advice becomes cliché, it’s time to visit Jamaica, where the entire island is off the charts.
By Lisabeth Dayan
It’s easy to understand why Jamaica has been the chosen destination for numerous films, the location of endless photo shoots, and a writer’s chosen solace. Even if you haven’t been there, you can easily conjure images in your mind’s eye of lush tropical landscapes, white-sand beaches and turquoise seas—all paired with an infamous soundtrack, starring friendly faces. But there’s so much more. Adventure flows around and through you in this island nation, and you’ll feel an immediate sense of connection with the land, the sea and the people. No matter where you go, Jamaica wears its heart on its sleeveless arm, giving you uncomplicated access to its identity.
Jamaica’s Most Energetic City
Montego Bay can provide the perfect getaway all by itself. In addition to stunning beaches, the city commonly known as MoBay offers some of the best golf in the West Indies. It’s also where you’ll find he “hip strip,” a lively street lined with bars and restaurants that runs parallel to the sea.
According to Funjet Vacations’ Lyndsey North, the original Scotchie’s restaurant is a MoBay must-visit.
“If you’re looking for genuine local cuisine, this is where you’ll find it,” says North, who has visited the island nation more than 15 times. “Scotchie’s is known for jerk chicken, pork cooked over pimento wood and sides like rice and peas, yams, sweet potatoes and roasted breadfruit. It’s delicious, and you get to eat outdoors in this incredible atmosphere.”
Francine Carter Henry, a manager with the Jamaica Tourist Board, adds, “The very idea of planning a trip to Jamaica brings with it a level of excitement that causes you to salivate before you even get to the airport. Jamaica has a natural beauty that you can only truly experience being here… it is such a unique island. Whether you are looking for hotels, tours and attractions, or simply wanting to be around people who are passionate about delivering memorable vacation experiences, Jamaica delivers. Visiting Jamaica is itself a form of stress relief.”
Ruins of old sugar plantations, some with original buildings and mills, surround the area. A visit to the Good Hope Estate is worth it for the views alone. Dee Jones of Southwest Vacations notes that you can see all the surrounding islands from the estate.
Today, you can have a glimpse into Jamaica’s past with tours of this 18th century Georgian-style plantation home. The expansive views aren’t just for pictures, it is a popular place to ride ATVs, tube down the river or to see tropical birds in the on-site Aviary.
MoBay isn’t all about golf, shopping, views and history, however. Chukka Tours Jamaica, the Caribbean’s leading tour operator, will make sure you get the most out of the area. You’ll have the opportunity to combine your leisurely stroll through the plantation with a dune buggy ride, or you can float the river while others soar on a zip line above.
If you’d like to balance out the excitement with beach time, consider staying at a property like Sandals Royal Caribbean, where you’ll have access to a private offshore island. And its Over-The-Water Villas, the first of their kind in the Caribbean, should ensure that your quiet time is just as rewarding as your adventures are.
Due to its prime location on the island’s west coast, Negril is renowned for its sunsets and first-class beaches. In fact, it has consistently been rated as one of the top 10 beach destinations in the world. And not much will interrupt those expansive sunsets, as there aren’t any structures taller than the nearest palm tree.
Seven Mile Beach Negril reflects Jamaica’s casual, easy approach to life. It’s the longest uninterrupted stretch of white sand shoreline in the Caribbean, and staying at resorts like the newly updated Sandals Negril will guarantee beach access.
As some interruptions are a good thing, head south until the smooth coastal plain becomes more rugged and exposed, wrestling with seawater. In some spots, the cliffs drop 980 feet to the ocean. Most are not this high, however, which makes them ideal for cliff diving. Otherwise, Rick’s Café is the perfect place to watch others take the leap.
The secrets of Jamaica’s landscapes are matched only by those of its seas. According to Jones, catamaran cruises are one of Jamaica’s top attractions. Island Routes, for example, has a variety of catamaran cruises from which to choose, such as Reggae and Lover’s Rock, with jaw-dropping views of those world-famous sunsets.
As one of the island’s smaller cities, Negril offers more relaxation than bustle; it is a great place to live the irie (Rastafarian for “alright” and good vibes, often used as a friendly greeting).
“The diversity and vibrancy of the Jamaican people truly mirror our country’s national motto, which is ‘Out of many, one people,’ ” adds Barbie Groves, who is from Jamaica and works with United Vacations.
You may not need more than your sunscreen and a book, but if you do seek a night out on the town, you’ll easily find live reggae and great restaurants. And you’ll definitely want to try the local cuisine.
According to Jones and North, Jamaica also has outstanding soups—especially the pumpkin soup. Made with a different pumpkin variety than those found in the United States, it boasts an unexpected, rich flavor.
“(Jamaicans) are the kings and queens of soup,” Jones says. “You stop to eat at an outdoor stand, and there will be a huge kettle over a fire in the ground, cooking the pumpkin soup.”
A Topography Lesson
The suggestive and incessant beat of the uncharted will lure you along Jamaica’s South Coast. Here, hidden gems lie waiting to be discovered.
If you can find it, don’t miss Treasure Beach. It’s a prime area to eat some of the island’s best seafood. The coast is speckled with both black- and white-sand beaches, and swamp safaris through the nearby wetlands allow you to view the area’s alligators and exotic birds.
What island getaway is complete without waterfalls? YS Falls has seven falls, each cascading into natural pools. Some of the pools are spring-fed, providing opportunities for luxurious soaking baths among the rushing waters. If you seek an aerial view of this expansive jungle phenomenon, you can take a canopy ride right over the falls.
If you’d prefer not to explore the South Coast alone, you can travel along with a tour operator like Jamaica Tours Limited. Enjoy a water safari on the Black River, Jamaica’s longest, and end up at YS Falls. Then, fuel up with plenty of traditional Jamaican foods.
Looking to do a little mingling outside the jungle? Don’t miss Jamaica’s Pelican Bar, a truly unique watering hole just northwest of Treasure Beach. Take a small boat about 20 miles out to sea, and you’ll see the wooden structure hovering above the water. Spend your time snorkeling and catching your lunch, then enjoy a cocktail while the chef prepares it for you. Fish not biting? Don’t worry—there’s enough seafood to go around.
Creativity, Cuisine and Culture
With homes and high rises in the hills, Kingston offers an urban setting perched within lush surroundings. Parliament, museums, galleries and history make Kingston a colorful cultural hub, and its nightlife throbs with dance halls, nightclubs, restaurants and bars. Be sure to tour the Bob Marley Museum, which honors the birthplace of reggae music, and take advantage of the city’s duty-free options and robust arts-and-crafts market.
While Jamaica is most often associated with beaches and the ocean, its land is one of contrasts. The Blue and John Crow Mountains are one of the highest in the Caribbean at 7,402 feet. They once provided valuable protection for the indigenous Taino people and later for the Maroons, escaped slaves who established free communities in the island’s rugged interior during the 17th century. The mountains served them well; they defended themselves successfully for years, and eventually they signed a peace treaty with the British.
To honor its cultural significance as well as its endemic plant and animal species, the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in 2015. Avid hikers can embark on adventures of varying lengths through the park, but if you’re not quite up for that, be sure to visit the world-renowned Blue Mountain Coffee plantation, which is a short drive from Kingston.
Port Antonio proves you don’t have to be a celebrity or royalty to frequent exclusive beaches. With places such as Frenchman’s Cove, San San Beach and Blue Lagoon, this tucked-away corner of Jamaica has all the ingredients of an island fantasy.
Frenchman’s Cove is a relatively small beach surrounded by dense cliffs. According to legend, it was a successful hideout from pirates. Fortunately, you won’t see any ships over the horizon, so you can still pretend you own the place. Stroll along the shoreline to the spot where the river meets the sea, providing calmer waters.
The Blue Lagoon is celebrated for the hypnotic spectrum of blue in its waters, as well as for the movie of the same name (which was filmed in Jamaica and Fiji). Spending time on a boat in the lagoon is the best way to see these colors transform.
San San Beach, located between Frenchman’s Cove and Blue Lagoon, is another isolated, private beach. It’s ideal for snorkeling and kayaking, and nearby, a small offshore island provides yet another glimpse of personal paradise.
Its hideaway character is one of the most special things about Port Antonio, and to fully appreciate it, you must set aside the well-known and frequently traveled. It’s quiet and hilly, with smaller properties that encourage nature walks and bird watching. It’s worth it to seek out local flora; out of more than 220 species of orchids, approximately 66 are unique to Jamaica.
Active Adventure and Leisure
You can go all-out in Ocho Rios, which boasts Jamaica’s highest concentration of adventure tours and activities that incorporate nature, wildlife, beaches and fun.
The Fern Gully is one of those natural wonders. This 3-mile road through the rainforest is an old riverbed, making the drive curvy and tunnel-like. Hundreds of species of fern blanket the ground, while quick-growing mahoe trees (the national tree of Jamaica) stand tall among the medicinal trumpet trees. Walkers Wood village is worth the drive to the end. The spice factory was created to employ the locals, and now it’s an iconic Jamaican establishment.
“If you bring home a few spices, you can enjoy the flavors of Jamaica even in the middle of a snowy northern winter,” North says. “I always buy authentic jerk seasoning. Traditionally, it relies on allspice (also called Jamaica pepper or pimento) and Scotch bonnet peppers, but depending on the blend, it also can include ingredients like chiles, cloves, cinnamon, scallions, nutmeg, thyme, garlic, brown sugar, ginger and salt.”
This onetime fishing village provides easy access to every possible adventure. You can soar through the rainforest on a zip line, hike or bike the hills, ride a horse along the beach, rappel, kayak, ride a dune buggy, cliff-jump or sail on a catamaran. Consider using local guides like those at Jamaica Tours Limited or Chukka Tours Jamaica to make the most of your time. Their expertise will ensure that you have unforgettable experiences that also are appropriate to your skill level.
One bucket-list adventure in Ocho Rios is the Blue Hole. This is unbeatable, once-in-a-lifetime stuff. Swing off a rope, then hike in the rainforest to rejoin the river. Swim in pools laced with rushing water, and relax in bubble pools dispersed between perfectly placed boulders. And, pick some guavas right from the tree for a snack.
If you want to keep testing your wild side, ride a zip line or bobsled down a mountainside at After Glow at Mystic Mountain. On Friday and Saturday nights, torches will light the way; and if it’s a full moon, you’ll careen over and through the jungle to the beats of live reggae music.
You don’t have to go out every day, thanks to the thoughtful amenities at area resorts. If you’re staying at Beaches Ocho Rios, for example, you can relax in 22 acres of tropical gardens, lounge on a private beach and play a few holes of golf. For a little added excitement, the resort provides water sports and a scuba shop, as well as a fully equipped waterpark.
“Every person who visits cannot help but be touched by the warmth and pride of this little rock that is Jamaica. For such a small size, it’s contribution to the world is grand,” Groves says.
Wherever you go in this unique island nation, you’ll find opportunities to connect with the land and sea through outdoor adventure, and with the island’s rich history and culture through music, food and authentic hospitality.
“Jamaica is just one of those places that instantly makes me feel like I’m on vacation,” North reflects. “Actually, as soon as the plane lands, practically on the water, I feel like I am home again.”
Groves agrees, “It’s a very special place that easily gets into your heart and mind.”
For most of us, home is where the heart is. And you just might find a real second home out there waiting for you—off the charts, in Jamaica.
For more information about Jamaica, visit United Vacations.