Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean (after Cuba and Hispaniola) with a landmass only slightly smaller than Connecticut. Jamaica has six distinct regions: On the western shores of the island, Montego Bay has the highest concentration of resorts and three world-renowned golf courses; Negril is known for its hippie vibe and long stretches of white sand; and Ocho Rios boasts a large cruise port and the popular Dunn's River Falls. Port Antonio on the eastern shore has an "undiscovered" allure and only a few hotels despite being widely considered the most beautiful part of country. The south coast has a similarly unspoiled aura, with small, low-key resorts spread through the area's fishing villages. Kingston, the island's capital, is a culturally rich, but potentially dangerous city: Jamaica's notoriously high crime rate is mainly due to the gang-related violence that takes place there. While petty theft occurs with some regularity in tourist areas, most resorts have a well-trained security staff manning their beaches. But the usual advice still applies: Keep an eye on your valuables, use the hotel safe, and leave your precious gems at home. Although marijuana is easily acquired and its use is quite common, it is—along with all other drugs—illegal in Jamaica.
WHEN TO GO
The island's coasts have a tropical climate (temperatures average about 85 degrees during the day), but the mountainous inland areas are more temperate; it's usually about ten degrees cooler in the countryside than it is on the beach. High season, with the driest weather, is between December and April (prepare to pay up to 40 percent more for hotel rooms versus the low season); rainy season—also known as hurricane season—is June to November. May is the ideal time to go: The weather is fantastic and the shoulder season rates still apply.
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights arrive at Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay (876-952-3124; www.mbjairport.com) or at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston (876-924-8452; www.nmia.aero). American Airlines, Continental, and Air Jamaica have nonstop flights from U.S. gateways such as Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City to both airports. The scene around the airport taxi stands can be hectic, so the smartest thing is to pre-arrange a taxi pickup (and approximate fare) with your hotel before you fly in. The fare from Donald Sangster International in Montego Bay to the Half Moon or the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall is $20 to $25; to hotels in Ocho Rios it's about $150 (yep, steep). From Kingston's Norman Manley airport to Strawberry Hill Resort the fare is about $80. It's also customary to tip taxi drivers 10 to 20 percent.
Road safety is an issue in Jamaica, due to reckless drivers and poor road conditions in some areas, so it's generally not recommended to rent a car (stick with licensed cabs and hotel transportation). Should you choose to rent, expect to pay $65 a day and up, depending on the model. Budget and Hertz have facilities at the two international airports, but most of the local rental companies are also dependable. Be sure to specify if you want a stick shift, AC, or left-hand drive, since these aren't the default choices in Jamaica (driving here is on the left side of the road).
Jamaica Tourist Board
Tel: 800 233 4582 (toll free)
64 Knutsford Boulevard
Tel: 876 929 9200
Tel: 876 952 4425
City Centre Plaza
Tel: 876 993 3051
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Kingston
Population: 2.7 million
Area: 4,441 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 876
Electricity: 110V, 50 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Jamaica Dollars = $0.01 US Calculate Other Amounts
Jamaica does not require a visa for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a six-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Jamaica often gets a bum rap when it comes to crime. Yes, there is mindless violence in corners of Kingston and Montego Bay, but it's mostly Jamaican against Jamaican, often gang related. For tourists, Jamaica is no more threatening than most other popular destinations.
Nevertheless, you should take the same common-sense precautions when traveling in Jamaica as you would in any other foreign destination. Unless you're with a local guide, stick to well-traveled tourist areas in the cities, and avoid walking on public beaches after dark. Keep an eye on your wallet, handbag and camera; never flash expensive jewelry, watches or thick wads of cash. And avoid drugs like the plague. Of all the accommodation choices you'll find in Jamaica, a jail cell is by far the worstand that's where you'll spend an indeterminate stay if the law catches you buying, selling, or using marijuana or other drugs. As the U.S. State Department website puts it: “Once you're arrested, the American consular officer cannot get you out!”
Books and Movies
You'll get into the spirit of Jamaica more readily if you bone up on the island before you go there. The following books are also perfect companions to take along as beach reading or hammock reading: Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, by Timothy White; Caribbean Pirates, by Warren Alleyne; The Book of Jamaica, by Russell Banks; Don't Stop the Carnival, by Herman Wouk; Caribbean, by James Michener; and, of course, Ian Fleming's Dr. No.
The first movies produced in Jamaica were shot in the 1920s; since then more than 60 feature films have taken advantage of the island's climate, varied scenery, studio facilities, and camera-ready performers. If parts of Port Antonio look vaguely familiar, it's probably because you caught glimpses of the town and its surroundings in one of half a dozen movies, including Cocktail (Tom Cruise) and Club Paradise (Robin Williams). Scenes from Dr. No were filmed at what is now James Bond Beach, in Oracabessa.
Other titles include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Kirk Douglas and James Mason), Cool Runnings (John Candy), and Prelude to a Kiss (Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan). The biggest hit in recent years was How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Angela Bassett and Taye Diggs), which was all about Jamaica and the ways of Jamaicans, but frequently the island has subbed as somewhere else, as in the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman thriller Papillon, which was all about escapees from Devil's Island in French Guyana.
Jamaican cuisine is an amalgam of disparate flavors from across the globe. Common ingredients are cassava (native to the island), pickled meats and fish (introduced by European colonists), yams and bananas (brought from Africa), and curry (an East Indian addition). Jamaica's jerk sauce, comprising nutmeg, mace, and Scotch bonnet peppers (one of the world's hottest), is everywhere. In addition, the tropical climate produces an exotic array of fruits, such as ackee, which has the rather disturbing texture of lumpy crème brûlée. Mingle with the locals to taste the island's best. Hotels serve mostly standard Continental fare, but are attempting to include more Jamaican specialties on their menus.
The best Jamaican products are rum, preserves, spices, and herbs, which are available from local markets and street or beachside vendors. Many shops and hotels offer duty-free goods (similar to those available throughout the Caribbean), including great bargains on liquor, makeup, fragrance, tobacco, and jewelry.
January: 1, New Year's Day
May: 23, Labor Day
August: 1, Emancipation Day; first Monday, Independence Day
October: Third Monday, National Heroes' Day
December: 25, Christmas Day; 26, Boxing Day
Winter: 44 days before Good Friday, Ash Wednesday
Spring: Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter; day after Easter, Easter Monday