Jamaica

“Do you see the ackee?” We were strolling the banks of the Black River on Jamaica’s south coast when we heard the call of a man from a nearby car. He gestured up at an ordinary-looking tree we were near. Between its green leaves peeked small, red fruit, bursting open to reveal large, black seeds like eyes looking out at us. “That’s ackee,” he said. “We make our national dish from that fruit. You must try some while you are here!”

Jamaicans define enthusiasm. Whether the topic is ackee or dominoes, politics or Carnival, the spirit of this island comes out in every interaction. Although the island is well known for its tropical beauty, reggae music, and cuisine, you may find that your interactions with local residents are what you truly remember.

The island is rich in beauty, but a quick look around reveals widespread poverty and a land where the disparity between the lives of the resort guests and the resort employees is often staggering. Where vacationers opt to make their Jamaican home away from home depends on factors ranging from the length of their vacation to personal interests. With its direct air connections to many cities in the United States, Montego Bay (or MoBay) is favored by Americans taking short trips; many properties are just minutes from the airport. Two hours east of the airport lies Ocho Rios (often just “Ochi”), a lush destination that’s favored by honeymooners for its tropical beauty and myriad couples-only resorts. Ocho Rios is also a popular cruise port and where you can find one of the island’s most recognizable attractions: the stair-step Dunn’s River falls, which invites travelers to climb in daisy-chain fashion, hand-in-hand behind a sure-footed guide.

East of Ocho Rios, Port Antonio is considered the most beautiful, untouched area of Jamaica, a hideaway for the rich and famous since Errol Flynn first lived there.

More than an hour west of MoBay lies Negril, once a hippie haven and now a growing destination that still hangs on to its laid-back roots despite the addition of several expansive all-inclusive resorts in recent years.

The south coast is more attractive to those travelers looking for funky fun in small, one-of-a-kind resorts and an atmosphere that encourages them to get out and mingle in the community, whether that means a game of dominoes in a local rum shop or a bicycle trip to buy the day’s catch from local fisherman. The beaches here don’t have the white-sand beauty of their northern cousins, but this area is uncrowded and still mostly undiscovered.

Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston, is a sharp contrast to the beach destinations. The largest English-speaking city in the western hemisphere south of Miami (with some 800,000 residents), this sprawling metropolis is primarily visited by business travelers or by those who want to learn more about the cultural side of Jamaica, thanks to its numerous galleries, theaters, and cultural programs. If you really want to understand Jamaica, you can’t ignore Kingston.

Jamaica Sights

Touring Jamaica can be both thrilling and frustrating. Rugged (albeit beautiful) terrain and winding (often potholed) roads make for slow going. Before you set off to explore the island by car, always check conditions prior to heading out, but especially in the rainy season from June through October, when roads can easily be washed out. Primary roads that loop around and across the island are two-lane routes but are not particularly well marked. Numbered addresses are seldom used outside major townships, locals drive aggressively, and people and animals seem to have a knack for appearing on the street out of nowhere. That said, Jamaica’s scenery shouldn’t be missed. To be safe and avoid frustration, stick to guided tours and licensed taxis.

If you’re staying in Kingston or Port Antonio, set aside at least one day for the capital’s highlights and another for a guided excursion to the Blue Mountains. If you have more time, head for Mandeville. You can find at least three days’ worth of activity right along MoBay’s boundaries; you should also consider a trip to Cockpit Country or Ocho Rios. If you’re based in Ocho Rios, be sure to visit Dunn’s River falls; you may also want to stop by Firefly or Port Antonio. If Negril is your hub, take in the south shore, including Y.S. Falls and the Black River.

Jamaica Reviews

It would be a shame to travel to the heart of this complex culture without having at least one typical island meal. Probably the most famous Jamaican dish is jerk pork—the ultimate island barbecue. The pork (purists cook a whole pig) is covered with a paste of Scotch bonnet peppers, pimento berries (also known as allspice), and other herbs and cooked slowly over a coal fire. Many aficionados believe the best jerk comes from Boston Beach, near Port Antonio. Jerk chicken and fish are also seen on many menus. The ever-so-traditional rice and peas, also known as “coat of arms,” is similar to the moros y cristianos of Spanish-speaking islands: white rice cooked with red kidney beans, coconut milk, scallions, and seasonings.

The island’s most famous soup—the fiery pepper pot—is a spicy mixture of salt pork, salt beef, okra, and the island green known as callaloo. Patties (spicy meat pies) elevate street food to new heights. Although patties actually originated in Haiti, Jamaicans excel at making them. Curried goat is another island standout: young goat is cooked with spices and is more tender and has a gentler flavor than the lamb for which it was substituted by immigrants from India. Salted fish was once the best that islanders could do between catches. Out of necessity, a breakfast staple (and the national dish of Jamaica) was invented. It joins seasonings with saltfish and ackee, a red fruit that grows on trees throughout the island. When cooked in this dish, ackee reminds most people of scrambled eggs.

There are fine restaurants in all the resort areas, many in the resorts themselves, though the Kingston area has the widest selection. Many restaurants outside the hotels in MoBay and Ocho Rios will provide complimentary transportation.

Jamaica Reviews

Jamaica was the birthplace of the Caribbean all-inclusive resort, a concept that started in Ocho Rios and has spread throughout the island, now comprising the lion’s share of hotel rooms. Package prices usually include airport transfers, accommodations, three meals a day, snacks, all bar drinks (often including premium liquors) and soft drinks, a full menu of sports options (including scuba diving and golf at high-end establishments), nightly entertainment, and all gratuities and taxes. At most all-inclusive resorts, the only surcharges are for such luxuries as spa and beauty treatments, telephone calls, tours, vow-renewal ceremonies, and weddings (though even weddings are often included at high-end establishments).

The all-inclusive market is especially strong with couples and honeymooners. To maintain a romantic atmosphere (no Marco Polo games by the pool), some resorts have minimum age requirements ranging from 12 to 18. Other properties court families with tempting supervised kids’ programs, family-friendly entertainment, and in-room amenities especially for young travelers.

Jamaica

Nightlife includes both on-property shows at the all-inclusive resorts and nightclubs ranging from indoor clubs to beach bashes. For starters, there’s reggae, popularized by the late Bob Marley and the Wailers and performed today by son Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Tosh (the late Peter Tosh’s son), Gregory Isaacs, Jimmy Cliff, and many others. If your experience of Caribbean music has been limited to steel drums and Harry Belafonte, then the political, racial, and religious messages of reggae may set you on your ear; listen closely and you just might hear the heartbeat of the people. Dance hall is another island favorite, as is soca.

Jamaica

Shopping is not really one of Jamaica’s high points, though you will certainly be able to find things to buy. Good choices include Jamaican crafts, which range from artwork to batik fabrics to baskets. Wood carvings are one of the top purchases; the finest carvings are made from the Jamaican national tree, lignum vitae, or tree of life, a dense wood that requires a talented carver to transform the hard, blond wood into dolphins, heads, or fish. Bargaining is expected with crafts vendors. Naturally, Jamaican rum is another top souvenir—there’s no shortage of opportunities to buy it at gift shops and liquor stores—as is Tia Maria, the Jamaican-made coffee liqueur. Coffee (both Blue Mountain and the less-expensive High Mountain) is sold at every gift shop on the island as well. The cheapest prices are found at the local grocery stores, where you can buy coffee beans or ground coffee.

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