Jamaica See And Do
In Jamaica, all beaches are public (some charge a small entry fee), but a world of difference separates the facilities at a luxury resort and a beach frequented by locals. A stretch of sand like Hellshire Beach near Kingston is less an oasis for relaxation than a full-blown carnival, full of booming music, laughing children, and the odors of jerk chicken and pork cooking on the grill. But that's not to say it's not appealing.
One of the most famous beaches on the island is Seven Mile Beach in Negril, where you can eat, drink, shop, and hop a kayak or a WaveRunner almost anywhere between Bloody Bay and Negril Lighthouse. A runner-up is the lovely, calm cove of Doctor's Cave Beach in Montego Bay—a family playground with all the necessary amenities (water sports, showers, a food court). Farther along the north coast at Oracabessa, James Bond Beach is the place to sample a two-rum Moonraker punch or join a Jet Ski safari along the coast.
Around Port Antonio on the island's northern coast, the best spot for sunning and tanning is Frenchman's Cove, pictured, which was the jet-set resort in the '60s and is once more open to the public. Boston Bay Beach on the east coast has a typically windward, slightly unkempt beach, with lots of local color but few facilities—apart from the famed jerk-food stands, picnic tables, and a carefree, castaway air. Port Antonio's Winifred Beach is largely maintained by the Rastafarians who proffer corn porridge and other vegetarian dishes there (you'll also find restrooms and plenty of shade). The most idyllic place for a dip is the deep Blue Lagoon which swirls with cool water from a nearby mineral stream. The lagoon is tucked in a verdant cove that's accessible only by boat, although most of the area's hotels, including Geejam, can arrange for transport.
Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park
Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park covers almost 200,000 acres of wilderness on the eastern end of the island, between Kingston on the south shore and Port Antonio on the north, rising to the island's highest point, Blue Mountain Peak, at 7,402 feet above sea level. It's a wonderland of tropical mist forests and primordial ferns, of witchcraft beans and pines, of gullies and skinny terraces, where the "doctor bird," the spectacularly plumed red-billed hummingbird, flits from flower to flower and hardy farmers grow the famed Blue Mountain coffee. For guides, contact Sun Venture Tours in Kingston. If you don't feel like hiking, saddle up on a fat-tire bike with Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours and coast down serpentine roads flanked by small coffee plantations, fruit orchards, and friendly hamlets, with a chill-out swim stop beneath a waterfall.
56 Hope Road
Tel: 876 927 9152
The late grandmaster of reggae enjoys godlike status in his homeland, and a visit to this, his shrine, is a must for music mavens. This simple clapboard house was Marley's home from 1973 until his death, and also the studio where he wrote and recorded much of his work. Video presentations about Marley are shown at a small theater here, and there's an on-site café serving ital (Rastafarian-approved) food.
Open Mondays through Saturdays 9:30 am to 4 pm.
A forest canopy tour turns beach potatoes into instant Tarzans, swinging through naves of greenery on cables and walking rope bridges hundreds of feet in the air. Chukka Caribbean Adventures offers day trips to the Cranbrook Flower Forest, near St. Ann's Bay, and to the mountain community of Montpelier.
At Jamaica's largest daily market, every kind of produce from all over the island is for sale. You'll find gungu peas, dasheen, breadfruit, and an enormous variety of spices and healing herbs. Great take-homes include homemade soaps, Blue Mountain coffee, and local honey. The scene here is wonderfully frenetic and, yes, you should watch your purse.
Just 15 minutes from shore, the water beyond Jamaica's coral reefs teems with marlin, wahoo, billfish, tuna, and dolphinfish. Marlin tournaments are held in Port Antonio every October, but you can charter a fishing boat year-round from Dive Seaworld in Montego Bay. Beginners should discuss rates and the disposition of the fish before leaving the dock.
There are dive sites around the entire Jamaican coast, but some of the best underwater gardens of black coral, rope sponges, coral gorgonians, and the thousands of fish that live among them are near the resorts on the northern and western coasts. The waters of Montego Bay are a protected marine park where you'll find good visibility and exciting walls, as well as the ominously named Widowmaker's Cave, a tunnel that starts at about 47 feet and extends to a depth of 80 feet. One curiosity of diving in Jamaica is the number of airplane wreck dives, usually small twin-engine planes associated with daredevil after-dark runs carrying dubious cargo. One of these dives near Runaway Bay makes no bones about it: It's called the Ganja Plane Dive. Check in with Dive Seaworld or Negril Scuba Center about dive and snorkeling trips.
Jamaica's northwest corner around Montego Bay is a golfer's heaven, with six gorgeous 18-hole courses. Three of them are famous championship courses, all available for day visitors at astronomical fees: White Witch at Rose Hall, seven miles northeast of Montego Bay; Tryall Club, 12 miles west of Montego Bay; and Half Moon, which hosts a David Leadbetter Golf Academy, five miles east of Montego Bay.
The most imposing of the former plantation houses around Montego Bay is Rose Hall Great House, pictured, the restored home of a legendary 18th-century chatelaine Annie Palmer (a.k.a. the White Witch) who strangled and stabbed three husbands. Today, the place is filled with lovely period furniture, and, needless to say, is said to be haunted. Greenwood Great House and Antique Museum was built by cousins of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who came to Jamaica in 1655. Its 15 rooms still display original books, furnishings, and a whimsical collection of antique musical instruments. Bellefield Great House is part of a 3,000-acre working estate that has been owned by the same family for 271 years. The walls are hung with family portraits and artwork by Rudyard Kipling's daughter among others, and the old sugar mill is now a rum cellar where you can learn about the spirit's history in Jamaica and taste samples.
Old Hope Road
Tel: 876 927 1257
Seventy tranquil acres next to the University of the West Indies include cactus and forest gardens, an orchid house, and a small zoo and aviary.
Open daily 6 am to 6 pm.
Stay at the Half Moon resort and you can walk from your room to the Half Moon Equestrian Centre but the most popular venues for riders are Chukka Cove Farm and Chukka Blue Farm, both known for their polo grounds. Casual riders can take half-day rides along beaches and forested trails through Chukka Caribbean Adventures.
Columbus called it El Golfo di Buen Tiempo, "The Bay of Good Weather," but it wasn't until 1906 that northerners started to take advantage of Montego Bay's white sand and mineral-spring waters. Today, it's Jamaica's second-largest city, with a main road known as the "Hip Strip" for all its cafés, bars, and restaurants, and reggae blaring from every doorway. When visitors can drag themselves away from town and Doctor's Cave Beach, they go river rafting and river tubing, souvenir shopping at Old Fort Craft Market on the corner of Fort Street and Howard Cooke Boulevard, or walking underwater, among the parrot fish and angelfish of the 24-square-mile Montego Bay Marine Park off Pier 1, with the help of lightweight diver's helmets.
Roy West Building, Kingston Mall
12 Ocean Boulevard
Tel: 876 922 1561
Jamaica's artists aren't very well known outside their homeland, which is all the more reason to view them here. Welcoming visitors in front of the building is 20th-century sculptor Edna Manley's The Message, showing two women whispering to each other. Inside, the collections include paintings by local masters such as Barrington Watson and Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds.
Open Tuesdays through Thursdays 10 am to 4:30 pm, Fridays 10 am to 4 pm, and Saturday 10 am to 5 pm.
Negril is the world capital of "liming"—that delightful Caribbean art of lazing around beneath the palms sipping cool beer, munching jerk pork, talking the talk, maybe even having a smoke. The '60s-style laid-back, stoned-out ambience still hangs in the air here, especially along the coral shoreline of West End. These days, though, the Rasta-and-reggae exuberance is counterbalanced by gentrified attractions unthinkable a few decades back, like all-inclusive family resorts and championship golf at the Negril Hills Golf Club.
Visitors to Ocho Rios barely have time for the beaches since there are tons of other attractions here. One of the most popular pastimes is scrambling up the tiered, 940-foot waterfall known as Dunn's River Falls—although it's best avoided if there's a cruise ship in port; it'll be crawling with day-trippers. Visitors can also go strolling around Coyaba Gardens among fountains, streams, a crafts center, and a historical museum. The new, tastefully designed Island Village near the cruise-ship pier can fill an entire day, with its reggae museum, art gallery, and fashion and crafts shops. A leisurely jitney jaunt through Prospect Plantation, a 900-acre working estate, introduces you to island crops such as sugarcane, bananas, and coconut. The Zion Bus Line will take you on a vintage country bus "complete with reggae music and dreadlocked driver" to the village of Nine Miles, birthplace and burial place of Bob Marley. East of Ocho Rios, near the town of Port Maria, you can visit Firefly, the modest one-bedroom house that was the beloved getaway of Sir Noel Coward. It's where he entertained movie stars, royalty, and his old chum Ian Fleming.
A historic but tumbledown banana port with a scenic double harbor, Port Antonio stacks once-elegant Georgian facades cheek by jowl with colorful tin-roofed shacks and grog shops, all very picturesque in a pirate-movie sort of way. Oddly, it was a legendary movie pirate, Errol Flynn, who created the area's most popular diversion, rafting on the Rio Grande. Most of the sights around here extol nature and the outdoors—Athenry Gardens; Nonsuch Caves; the cascades of Nanny Falls; dozens of hiking and biking trails among tree ferns, bamboo, and "woman's tongue" trees; and more serious hiking into the Blue Mountains. Grand Valley Tours offers a range of guided nature tours.
There's no Class IV whitewater here: Rafting in Jamaica, like so much else, is largely chill. You'll float serenely downstream on the same kind of 30-foot-long, bamboo-lashed rafts that plantation owners once used for transporting their sugarcane and bananas. Rio Grande Experience and Mountain Valley Rafting offer one- to two-hour trips down the Rio Grande; River Raft Ltd. in Trelawny runs romantic raft rides on the Martha Brae River. Ninety minutes east of Negril, the sleepy seaside town of Black River is the hub for boat tours of Jamaica's longest navigable waterway, which includes the Caribbean's largest freshwater wetland, the Black River Lower Morass, a haven for kingfishers, wading birds, and hundreds of American crocodiles. Several companies, including St. Elizabeth River Safaris, offer daily tours.