Jamaica. You can barely utter the word without thinking of vibrant greens, yellows and reds, hearing the soothing sounds of Bob Marley in your ears, feeling your hips begin to sway... It’s a name so full of flavour that you can almost taste it. And we wouldn’t be surprised if you could – it is the birthplace of jerk chicken after all. But there’s even more to this majestic island nation than meets the eye.
Pillow-soft sands give way to rippling landscapes of vivid green that hide secret waterfalls at every turn; every inch so captivatingly beautiful it hurts. And Bob may be all we know, but Jamaican folk sounds pre-date No Woman No Cry by a longshot. Music is the country’s lifeblood and the roots run so deep that you need to visit to truly appreciate the full melodic experience.
Sun seekers and first-time Jamaica visitors flock to Montego Bay for its neatly presented package of white-sand beaches, glistening waters, oceanfront hotels and abundant activities on, and off, land. Here, water babies can dive in and discover vibrant coral reefs, float on the surface on a bamboo raft or deploy their waders as they fish for exotic marine creatures.
Harbour Street is where you’ll find all the cruise ship visitors taking advantage of duty-free shopping and twitchers will be drawn to the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, where you can hand-feed a blurry flock of hummingbirds. But MoBay is just the tip of the iceberg.
Marvel at the country’s modern capital – Kingston – too, a mish-mash of heady high-rises and sprawling jungle that serves up a spicy plate of Jamaica at its most authentic. The city is also home to the colonial-style Bob Marley Museum and the tranquil Hope Gardens, and sits in the shadow of the towering Blue Mountain Peak.
Eat and Drink
Jamaican cuisine is all about Creole inspiration – spicy jerk rubs, yams, rice, plantain, stews and tropical fruits dripping from heavily-laden trees. Fiery flavour fusions are the order of business – locals particularly love ackee and saltfish, bammy (fried bread), gizzada (a sweet tart) and escovitch (seafood marinated in vinegar, onions and spice).
For more choice than you’ll know how to handle, head for the lauded Houseboat Grill in MoBay – the homemade ice cream is especially delightful. Meanwhile Kingston’s Sweetwood Jerk Joint serves up some of the best, most aromatic, Jamaican jerk you could ask for, delectably smothered over chicken, pork and fish then smoked on a wood fire. Bliss. And, as you’re in Jamaica, don’t forget to try some of the country’s best tipples too: potent rums or a chilled pint of Red Stripe beer.
Where to Stay
The accommodation offering in Jamaica is vast, ranging from high-end luxury hotels with dramatic ocean views to charming guesthouses, aglow with Jamaican hospitality and warmth. The 4.5-star Secrets St James Montego Bay, nestled along the MoBay peninsula, is a perfect private beach resort for lovers of the decadent. It’s an adult’s-only retreat, with suites that boast whirlpool tubs, a piano bar, beach cabanas, seven a la carte restaurants and an indulgent spa.
For those who want a taste of the authentic, you can even take Jamaican cookery classes. Those who’d rather stay amid the vibrancy of Kingston can choose from a selection of guesthouses, B&Bs, budget hostels and glitzy tower hotels.
Reggae is the rhythm that beats through Jamaica’s very core. Although it didn’t make its appearance until the late 1960s, its roots have been around a lot longer – influenced by traditional calypso as well as American jazz, R’n’B, ska and rocksteady. To get a real feel for the essence of these home-grown harmonies, visit the Trench Town studio in downtown Kingston, where Mr Marley himself recorded most of his hits.
Music devotees should also plan their trip around ‘Reggae month’ (February) to really get immersed in the laidback vibe, or during the Reggae Sumfest, which has been dominating mid-July in MoBay for over two decades. For an authentic experience, the regular dancehall street parties in Kingston are not-to-be-missed.
Jamaica Like a Local
Many don’t know this, but Jamaica is actually a street food paradise. You may find a restaurant that does great jerk chicken or pork (we’ve already named one), but it never tastes as good as it does when it comes straight off an outdoor grill, wrapped in pimento leaves. And that’s not all, you can do away with plastic bottles too and sip coconut water straight from the furry shell – it doesn’t get much more refreshing than that.
But if you really want to see the local side of Jamaica, all you need do is head inland. While all the other tourists are packing onto the beaches of MoBay or feeling the rhythm in Kingston, you could be discovering breathtaking cascades, off-the-beaten-track villages and shaking to your very own brand of reggae at a local dancehall.