Talcum powder sand, turquoise ocean clear enough to almost render snorkeling a pointless pastime and December temperatures averaging around 80 degrees—could there be a more perfect spot for a little winter time beach volleyball? You can catch the locals playing on weekends, particularly on the wonderfully-titled James Bond Beach in Ocho Rios, named for the island’s solid 007 link. Ian Fleming adopted the island as his winter home for almost two decades, writing more than a dozen James Bond novels at his former home, now the GoldenEye Hotel. Tourist action in Jamaica is focused around three main resorts—Montego Bay is the second largest city after Kingston and known for its spectacular beaches and plush resorts, bustling Ocho Rios is popular with visiting cruise ships, while Negril is a quieter, hipper option desperately trying to cling on to its carefree 1970s roots.
Naturally, the island is best known for its beaches, but there is more to do than swim and tan and if you can tear yourself away from paradise, heading inland is a wonderful way to get to know Jamaica. For scenic beauty, a couple of thrill rides and a cinematic connection, spend the morning at Mystic Mountain, just five minutes from Ocho Rios. The star attraction here is a bobsled course snaking through 1,100 yards of verdant rainforest, inspired by the 1988 Jamaican Olympic team immortalised in the movie “Cool Runnings.” Nearby you can climb the slippery 600-feet to the top of the super-scenic Dunn’s River Falls, stopping to cool off in the crystal clear plunge pools en route.
Fans of Bob Marley should take the pilgrimage to his childhood home, 40km south of Ocho Rios in the small village of Nine Mile. A tour takes fans through the life of reggae’s most famous ambassador or you can simply visit his mausoleum, have lunch at the vegetarian Ital restaurant and shop for souvenirs of a Rastafarian nature.
Eastern Jamaica has some of the island’s most spectacular—and least crowded—beaches. Try the idyllic sands of Frenchman’s Cove, Winnifred Beach and Long Bay, or the azure waters of the Blue Lagoon, made famous by the 1980 Brooke Shields movie of the same name. Hikers and coffee lovers should grab a guide and head for the misty peaks of the Blue Mountains, the highest part of the island at 7,400 ft. Lime Tree Farm offers eco-friendly tours, tastings and hikes as well as accommodation. Craighton Estate also offers in-depth tours that end with the freshest cup of coffee you’re ever likely to have. Or if you fancy sipping something a little stronger, try the rum tour at the Appleton Estate in St Elizabeth, naturally culminating in a tasting session. While in the area, end your Jamaican explorations with a little animal action along the Black River, where boat safaris point out American crocodiles basking on the banks.
Where to sleep
Jamaica is known for its luxurious all-inclusive hotels and most resorts abound in complexes complete with restaurants, nightlife and their own private beach. Less expensive accommodation does exist, but this is not a place for a budget trip, so consider splurging on something fabulous. The Jamaica Inn (Main Street, Ocho Rios, tel. 876.974.2514) is a small, more intimate resort than most but still boasts the high-end amenities including a sumptuous spa and an excellent restaurant. Doubles start at $300 plus tax. Hibiscus Lodge (tel. (876) 974-2676) is a more affordable Ocho Rios option, with simple rooms overlooking the pool or ocean. Doubles start at $150. In Montego Bay, Doctors Cave Beach Hotel (tel. (876) 952-4355) offers ocean views for excellent rates (doubles from $140) while Negril has the widest range of affordable sleeping spots. The Charela Inn has everything you really need for a Jamaica break (a pool on the premises and a beach on your doorstep), with double rooms starting at $105 plus tax.
Where to eat
Jamaica has some excellent eats, particularly if you’re a fan of seafood and spice. Even if you’re on an all-inclusive package, a wander away from the hotel to sample some local dishes is a great way to experience Jamaican culture. In Ocho Rios, head to The Dinner Terrace at the Jamaica Inn for upscale dining or try Miss T’s Kitchen (65 Main Street, Ocho Rios, tel. (876) 795 0099) for authentic, home-style cooking on a budget. Montego Bay excels at street eats, particularly at the junction of Gloucester Avenue and Kent Road, where vendors serve up jerk chicken and pork washed down with Red Stripe lager. Another great spot is the Pork Pit (27 Gloucester Ave, tel. (876) 952-3663), a locals’ haunt near Walter Fletcher Beach. For more upscale dining, try the Day-O Plantation (Fairfield Road, tel. (876) 952-1825), based in a 1920s plantation home just west of town. Laidback Negril is a great place to sample Rastafarian food, known as “Ital.” It’s all natural and largely vegetarian – a nice break from spicy pork. If you prefer a carnivorous diet, try the well-priced offerings at the wonderfully named Chicken Lavish (West End Road, tel. (876) 957-4410), serving goat curry and fried fish as well as superb jerk chicken.
Where to enjoy
Much of the after-dark activity in Jamaica happens within the hotels and resorts. Elsewhere, restaurants double as late-night hang outs, though there are some dedicated bars and nightclubs. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville can be found in all three main resorts with its live music, cocktails and themed party nights. Alfred’s Ocean Palace (tel. (876 957-4669) is a family-friendly beachfront restaurant in Negril, known for its thrice-weekly reggae beach parties featuring live music and limbo contests. Look out for beach volleyball contests throughout the day as well. An enduring classic is Rick’s Café (West End Road, tel. (876) 957-0380), on the beachfront in Negril. Named for the “Casablanca” bar, Rick’s is a great place to sip a rum punch as you watch the sun sink into the Caribbean Sea. If you’re seeking an authentic Jamaican night out, try Amnesia (70 Main Street, Ocho Rios, tel. (876) 974-2633), a typical Jamaican dancehall belting out local tunes.
Originally published in December/January 2012