If there’s any cultural trend that defines Jamaica to the rest of the world, it’s reggae music – quite literally the soundtrack of the island. The reggae calendar is dominated by two huge events that celebrate the country’s love of ‘riddims,’ both worth planning your trip around – Rebel Salute, held every January in St Ann, and then Reggae Sumfest, held in Montego Bay in the middle of the broiling Jamaican summer. Break out a sweat amid the throbbing mass of bodies and the nonstop dancing.
Jamaica’s beach experiences are as varied as the island’s topography. The tiny, delicate Lime Cay, only reachable by boat from Port Royal, is perfect for snorkeling and picnics. Hellshire Beach heaves with Kingstonians and reverberates with loud music, its wooden shacks doing a roaring trade in fried fish. The north coast’s Winnifred Beach draws the locals with its azure waters and weekend parties, while Negril’s Seven Mile Beach is crisscrossed by Jet Ski riders and its long crescent of white sand is lined with the bodies of sun worshippers.
Climbing Blue Mountain Peak
A night hike to reach Jamaica’s highest point by sunrise, your path lit by the sparks of myriad fireflies, is an experience unlike any other. As you climb, the vegetation becomes less and less tropical, until you’re hiking amid stunted trees draped with old man’s beard (lichen) and giant ferns. In the predawn cold at the summit, you wait in rapt silence as the first rays of the sun wash over the densely forested mountain peaks all around you, illuminating the distant coffee plantations and Cuba beyond.
Whether you’re attending a nightclub or a street dance, expect a sweaty, lively, no-holds-barred event. Dress up to the nines and follow the locals’ lead. At a street dance, two giant speakers are placed facing each other, the street pounding with the bass, while nightclubs provide a similar experience indoors. Expect to be pulled into the melee as the locals will want to see how well you can dance, and bump and grind to some dancehall riddims or slowy skank to the deepest dub.
So you’ve walked on the snowy sands of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach, wandered past the nude sunbathers, seen the sun sink behind the horizon in a fiery ball, plunged into the ocean to scrub your soul and fended off all the hustlers. How about topping off all of those experiences by snorkeling or scuba diving in the cerulean waters that lap against the cliffs, doing a daredevil cliff dive at Rick’s Cafe and then rocking out to reggae or dancehall at one of Negril’s many music nights?
On Jamaica’s east coast, past stretches of jungle and beach that are completely off the radar of most tourists, you’ll find, up in the hills, one of Jamaica’s most beautiful waterfalls – and this is an island with a lot of beautiful waterfalls. Hire a guide (you’ll need one, trust us) and clamber up slippery rocks, over neon-green moss and into cool mountain pools of the freshest spring water. In some areas you can dive under watery tunnels and through blizzards of snowy-white cascading foam.
Bob Marley Museum, Kingston
Marley’s creaky Kingston home is crammed with memorabilia, but the visitor is drawn to his untouched bedroom, adorned with objects of spiritual significance to the artist, the small kitchen where he cooked I-tal food, the hammock in which he lay to seek inspiration from the distant mountains, and the rather austere room riddled with bullet holes, where he and his wife almost died in an assassination attempt. The intimate surrounds and modest personal effects speak eloquently of Marley’s turbulent life.
Offbeat Retreats in Treasure Beach
The greatest, most interesting varieties of accommodations in Jamaica can be found in Treasure Beach, on Jamaica’s south coast. Here, instead of huge all-inclusive resorts, you’ll find quiet, friendly guesthouses; artsy enclaves dreamed up by theater set designers; Rasta retreats favored by budget backpackers; and private villas that are some of the classiest, most elegant luxury residences in the country. Aside from beds and bathrooms, some places offer interesting extras such as cooking classes, rooftop yoga, farm-to-table banquets and movie nights.
Rafting the Rio Grande
No less a celebrity than Errol Flynn started the habit of sending discerning tourists on romantic, moonlit rafting trips through the Rio Grande Valley, from Berridale to Rafter’s Rest at St Margaret’s Bay. These days the experience isn’t quite as exclusive as it was when Mr Flynn was running the show – the Rio Grande rafting trips are actually quite affordable as Jamaican tourism activities go – but if the moon is full, you can still pole onto the waters, which turn silver and unspeakably romantic.
Appleton Rum Estate
Red Stripe is the alcohol everyone associates with Jamaica, but you may find that rum, the local spirit, provides a more diverse boozing experience. We’re not saying Appleton produces the best rum on the island, but it is by far the most commonly available, bottled as several different varieties, and you can sample all these examples of the firewater at the Appleton Rum Estate in the Central Highlands. A rum tasting rounds off the experience, so don’t expect to accomplish much else on one of these day trips!
The Cockpit Country of the island’s interior is some of the most rugged terrain throughout the Caribbean, a series of jungle-clad round hills intersected by powerfully deep and sheer valleys. The rains gather in these mountains and the water percolates through the rocks, creating a Swiss cheese of sinkholes and caves. Since most of the trails within the Cockpit Country are badly overgrown, the best way to appreciate the place is to hike the old Barbecue Bottom road along its eastern edge or go caving in the Painted Circuit Cave.
Crocodile-spotting in Black River Great Morass
This is one of our favorite ways of exploring wild Jamaica: setting off by boat in the Black River Great Morass, gliding past spidery mangroves and trees bearded with Spanish moss, while white egrets flap overhead. Your tour guide may tell you about the local women who sell bags of spicy ‘swimp’ (shrimp) on the riverside, and you may spot the American crocodile cruising by when the guide points out the eyes sticking out of the water. A dip in a cool swimming hole rounds off the cruise.
The deep roots of Jamaican culture spring vividly to life in the Maroon settlements, where escaped African slaves doggedly resisted the British colonizers in the 17th and 18th centuries and ultimately won their autonomy. Still protected by a 1739 treaty, the Maroons of Accompong, Moore Town and Charles Town proudly preserve their old way of life and locals will happily show you around where land is community-owned, bush medicine is still practiced and old Maroon trails in the hills can be still be hiked.
Escape to Little Bay
With its quiet beaches, resting fishing boats and somnolent pace of life, the fishing community of Little Bay exudes a certain timelessness that has long disappeared from Jamaica’s other coastal areas. Here you can plunge into the Blue Hole cenote, chill with the fishers or simply switch off and let yourself be hypnotized by the lapping waves. The handful of simple accommodations allow you to experience a tranquility that’s missing in other parts of Jamaica and if things get too quiet, Negril is a 20-minute drive away.
Playing Pirates at Port Royal
The sleepy fishing village of Port Royal only hints at past glories that made it the pirate capital of the Caribbean and ‘the wickedest city on Earth.’ Stroll in the footsteps of pirate Sir Henry Morgan along the battlements of Fort Charles, still lined with cannons to repel the invaders; become disorientated inside the Giddy House artillery store, tipped at a jaunty angle; or admire the treasures in the Maritime Museum, rescued from the deep after two-thirds of the town sank beneath the waves in the monstrous 1692 earthquake.
The best experiences in Jamaica are extremely sensory affairs, but Boston Bay may be the only one that is more defined by smell than sight or sound. Well, smell and taste: Boston Bay is the supposed birthplace of jerk, the spice rub that is Jamaica’s most famous contribution to the culinary arts. The turnoff to Boston Bay (itself a lovely beach) is lined with jerk stalls that produce smoked meats that redefine what heat and sweet can do as complementary gastronomic qualities. In plain English: it tastes freaking amazing.
Diving Montego Bay
You might find the resorts of Montego Bay to be crowded with people, but wait till you dive in the surrounding waters. They’re crowded, yes, although not with human beings – just multicolored fish and swaying sponges. For all the tropical pastels and cool blue hues, this is a subdued seascape, a silent and delicate marine ecosystem that is one of the island’s unique natural resources. The best sea walls are to be found at the Point, while more advanced divers should explore the ominous (and gorgeous) Widowmakers Cave.
Swimming in the Blue Lagoon
From the forested cliffs that surround it, the Blue Lagoon, named after the film starring the teenage Brooke Shields, is a seemingly bottomless pool of turquoise water, nestled in a protected cove – intensely picturesque and perfect for a dip. Fed by several underground streams coming down from the mountains, its waters are a refreshing mixture of warm tidal waves and cool freshwater currents. If you’re a diver, you can plumb the lagoon’s depths, which reach 55m at its deepest point.