Traveling in Jamaica
Jamaica, an island nation located south of Cuba in the heart of the Caribbean Sea, is the third largest landmass in the Greater Antilles and the largest English-speaking island in the Caribbean. Once inhabited by the Taíno people, Christopher Columbus claimed Jamaica for Spain in 1494. The island passed into the hands of the British in 1655 and remained there for many years, only achieving full independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. However, it remains a Commonwealth realm to this day.
Jamaica is internationally renowned for its unique culture, especially in relation to its music. Perhaps most famous is reggae, which emerged from the island in the late 1960s. Other genres originally from Jamaica include ska, dub, dancehall, and more recently ragga. The island is also recognized the world over for its fine beaches, from popular tourist destinations like Doctor’s Cave Beach and Seven Mile Beach to more “off the beaten path” locales that quite literally encircle the country.
In the past, Jamaica has dealt with its international reputation as a high-crime area. Though this is certainly still an issue in some areas, especially in Spanish Town and certain peripheral neighborhoods of Kingston, prospective visitors may be happy to hear that crime rates, and especially violent crime rates, have been falling consistently now for a number of years. It is generally safe to travel freely throughout Jamaica as long as proper precautions are taken. However, the same might not be said for openly gay, lesbian, and intersex people. Sadly, a string of high-profile crimes against sexual minorities has occurred in recent years, prompting a declaration from the United States Department of State that “homophobia [is] widespread in the country.”
10,991 sq km / 4,244 sq mi
2,889,187 (2012 estimate)
Some great photos of Jamaica
Kingston is the capital, largest city, and cultural heart of Jamaica. It’s also the largest English-speaking city in the Americas south of the United States. Though most visitors don’t come to Jamaica planning to spend much time here, there is so much to do and see in the city that one should really consider it as an important aspect of any Jamaican travel experience.
Bob Marley Museum Without a doubt Jamaica’s greatest cultural icon, Brother Bob himself lived in this home until his death in 1981. It was converted into a museum a few years later by his wife Rita and today houses many of Marley’s personal effects. It’s well worth a visit for any fan of the legendary musician.
Emancipation Park Emancipation Park is an oasis of peace in the center of a bustling city. A well-maintained urban green space, Emancipation Park is popular with tourists and locals alike. As you explore, make sure to read the informational signs honoring Jamaican national heroes such as Samuel Sharpe and Marcus Garvey. There is often live music in the evenings as well.
National Gallery of Jamaica Established in 1974, this is the oldest public art museum on the island. It has a huge and impressive collection of national art as well as smaller collections from other Caribbean islands. A true testament to the creative streak of the Jamaican people, this museum is a must for any artistic or culturally-minded visitor.
Holywell Park This section of the much larger Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is located just outside of Kingston, but it feels like a different world. If you’re looking for a quick escape from the city life, come here to explore one of Jamaica’s most accessible tropical mist forests. The well-maintained forest trails are especially recommended.
The Spanish Court Hotel Located in the heart of New Kingston, The Spanish Court Hotel is widely considered one of the best in the city. It’s renowned for its friendly and accommodating staff, and guests will be happy to know that the swimming pool, spa services, and gourmet café are all top-notch.
Strawberry Hill Hotel Located high in the mountains above the city proper, you might wonder if it could even be worth driving up to the hotel. The short answer is “yes!” Still within comfortable reach of Kingston and its amenities, Strawberry Hill Hotel is the ideal mix of rural tranquility and cosmopolitan flavor. Once again, this hotel offers a great restaurant, pool, and spa.
The Liguanea Club A uniquely Kingston experience, The Liguanea Club was once a plantation house but is now a sports and recreational club that also counts thirty-eight guest rooms among its facilities. With a great central location very close to Emancipation Park, the Club may very well appeal to you as you plan your Kingston stay.
The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel A landmark hotel in the heart of Kingston, the Pegasus is a city icon. Though it had become slightly run-down over recent years, the hotel is just wrapping up a huge and comprehensive renovation project that is sure to put it back on the map as one of the island’s premiere places to stay.
Reggae Hostel For the younger, more money-conscious traveler, you can’t do much better than this. Located in the heart of Kingston, Reggae Hostel offers both dormitories and private rooms at a fraction of the cost of traditional hotels. Most likely not for families and certainly not for a romantic getaway, this is still a great way to get to know Kingston on a budget.
Regency Restaurant at the Terra Nova Hotel This is by far one of the most elegant and charming restaurants in all of Jamaica. Known for its candlelight dining as well as its live piano music, the Regency Restaurant is a must for a special occasion or for a high-profile business dinner. The restaurant is quite expensive, but most would say well-worth the price.
Jo-Jo's Jerk Pit and More Once you’ve had your share of fine dining, it’s time to get out and try some real Jamaican food. A good first stop here is definitely Jo-Jo’s, a Kingston restaurant with an incredibly expansive menu ranging from Jamaican specialties to good old-fashioned hamburgers and the like. The restaurant features a fun and very casual indoor/outdoor atmosphere.
Devon House I Scream Devon House I Scream is a world-famous ice cream parlor located in what was once the mansion of George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. Besides its twenty-seven homemade ice cream flavors, Devon House I Scream is also home to delicious patties, a traditional Jamaican pastry of various fillings baked inside a flaky shell.
Usain Bolt's Tracks & Records A massive and very modern sports bar, Tracks & Records is owned by the star Jamaican athlete himself. Not traditionally “Jamaican” by any means, Tracks & Records could be a good spot if you find yourself missing the atmosphere of home. That being said, the menu does feature Jamaican flairs, and the food here is delicious.
Montego Bay, located near the northwest end of Jamaica, is the country’s second largest city by area and fourth largest by population. Christopher Columbus himself landed here in 1494, and named the area Golfo de Buen Tiempo, or “Fair Weather Gulf.” Montego Bay may be Jamaica’s most popular city for tourists, and many wealthy Jamaicans from the Kingston region also own second homes here. The area is known for its fantastic beaches and also for its golf courses, which are numerous and generally of very high quality.
The Croydon Plantation This historic coffee and pineapple plantation was the birthplace of Samuel Sharpe, a martyr who gave his life in the fight against slavery and one of Jamaica’s most revered national heroes. The plantation is located just outside of Montego Bay and is regularly ranked as one of Jamaica’s top tourism attractions. Any Montego Bay hotel would be happy to schedule a tour for you.
Half Moon Equestrian Centre If you are interested in horseback riding during your time in Jamaica, this is your place. Accommodating to beginners and advanced riders alike, this modern facility offers everything from beginner lessons and beach rides to jumping and polo play. In addition, the Centre is also well known for its charitable work and acts as a home for abandoned animals.
Rose Hall Great House The Rose Hall Great House is sometimes referred to as “The greatest of the Jamaican great houses.” The owners of the property operate a fantastic golf course on the premises, but the real treat here is the house itself. The house is available for daytime tours, which focus mostly on the documented history of the house, as well as nighttime tours by candlelight, which focus more on Annee, the ghost of a woman rumored to haunt the property.
Montego Bay Marine Park Are you a nature lover? If so, there’s no way you can miss this during your time in Montego Bay. This underwater reserve is an incredible place to observe marine life in a well-preserved, natural environment. The “park” is free to enter—all that is asked is that you respect its rules and regulations to ensure that the reefs remain healthy for other visitors in the future.
Bamboo Rafting On the Martha Brae River Located just a short trip inland from Montego Bay, the Martha Brae River is a lazy and meandering body of water that may very well be Jamaica’s response to Venice, Italy. A friendly and knowledgeable guide paddles you along as you take in the flora and fauna that surround you, or simply bask in the romance of it all. Queen Elizabeth II partook during her last trip to Jamaica, if that helps you understand how special of an activity this really is.
Sam Sharpe Square and Montego Bay Civic Centre At the heart of Montego Bay sits Sam Sharpe Square, a quaint but slightly run-down public square that makes for some truly excellent people watching. Just across the street is the Montego Bay Civic Centre, an authentic reconstruction of an original 1803 structure that now houses the small but impressive Museum of St. James, an art gallery, and a theater.
Montego Bay is by most measures the tourism capital of Jamaica, and this can be seen in the sheer number of hotels here. There are plenty of hotel chains and generic all-inclusives present, and if that is your style then you are good to go. But just in case this isn’t what you’re looking for in a vacation, here are a few other options within the Montego Bay area that may be more your speed.
Coyaba Beach Resort and Club Located just a few miles east of Montego Bay proper, this family-owned and operated resort is popular with travelers who want a more elegant yet low-key feel. If you’re looking for a resort with all the amenities of an all-inclusive but with a calmer, more old-world demeanor, this might be a good option for you. The resort features a swimming pool, tennis courts, dining options, spa services, and a private beach.
Toby's Resort Located just off Montego Bay’s famous “hip strip,” this is perhaps the town’s best “budget” hotel. Once again, this is a smaller, family-owned affair, and this really shows in the attitude of the owners and staff. Though not immediately on the beach, the famous Doctor’s Cave Beach is such a short walk away that it may as well be.
Mystic India The dining scene in Montego Bay is truly international. Mystic India serves authentic Indian food in an upscale setting, and it remains one of the most popular restaurants in town. Why? Because the food is so darn good. Especially if there are any vegetarians or vegans in your party, make sure Mystic India is on your list.
The Houseboat Grill The Houseboat Grill fulfills its name’s promise—the restaurant is on a houseboat moored permanently in the calm waters of Montego Bay. Though this novelty may help to promote the restaurant, that alone doesn’t keep customers coming back. This restaurant’s food is truly superb, and at the end of the day that is what makes the Houseboat Grill such a popular spot.
Robbie's Kitchen A charming, European-style pub with indoor and outdoor dining options, this upscale yet comfortable dining establishment successfully blends international and Jamaican cuisine. The food here is great, but the ambiance is what most sets this restaurant apart from the crowd.
Juici Patties Though actually a franchise restaurant that is growing quickly in popularity throughout Jamaica, this is no McDonald’s or Burger King. Juici Patties is a great place to pick up a quick and cheap bite to eat, and it’s one place that both locals and tourists can truly agree on. In Montego Bay, there’s one on Alice Eldemire Drive across from the Ministry of Education building.
Located on the far western end of Jamaica, Negril is currently quieter than larger resort towns such as Montego Bay and is generally seen as a more upscale option. With the passing of time this might change, as a new highway has been built and access to the town has been greatly improved. For the time being, however, Negril remains perhaps Jamaica’s most upscale beach resort area.
Negril Cliffs South of Negril proper sit the area’s famed cliffs, immortalized in, among other places, the James Bond film Thunderball. Here you can watch professional cliff divers perform feats of daring and you can even jump yourself if you feel so inclined. If you decide to do this, make sure you are physically fit and especially that you are jumping in a safe area.
Barney's Hummingbird Garden This incredibly beautiful and well-maintained tropical garden was designed to attract as many of Jamaica’s various hummingbird species as possible. Visitors are surprised to see the sheer number of birds present in the garden despite a total lack of cages or nets. This is great for families and all nature fans.
Negril Lighthouse Built in 1894, this is one of the world’s earliest concrete lighthouses. Though still functioning (nowadays using solar power), visitors are permitted to climb to the top of the structure, which offers one of the most stunning views in all of Jamaica. This attraction is free to visit but tips are expected for the lighthouse staff.
Rockhouse This is considered by many to be the best hotel in all of Jamaica. Not only has this stunning cliff-side hotel been consistently named among the most prestigious in the Caribbean by publications such as Conde Naste Traveler, but it is also a prime example of responsible tourism as exemplified by its receipt of the Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award in 2012.
The Spa Retreat Boutique Hotel This adults-only hotel is the ideal spot for a peaceful Caribbean retreat. Eighteen stone cottages comprise the property, which is renowned not only for its cliff-side beauty but also for the delicious organic cuisine served to guests at the hotel’s own Blue Mahoe Restaurant.
Judy House Cottages and Rooms For an entirely different take on accommodations in Negril, take a look at Judy House. Located in a quiet country community about a ten minute walk from the beach, Judy House offers rustic but well-maintained private cottages as well as small single rooms aimed at the backpacker crowd.
Zimbali's Mountain Cooking Studio This is without a doubt one of Jamaica’s most unique restaurants. The vast majority of what is served in the restaurant is grown on site on a 100% organic farm, and you can truly taste this difference. Zimbali’s is also known for doing much of its cooking over an open wood fire.
Xtabi Restaurant This restaurant, located on the property of the resort of the same name, serves up some of Jamaica’s best Caribbean fusion cuisine. This is a great place to catch a sunset, and if you are a fan their wine list is also quite impressive.
Big D’s Dogs This unassuming food stand can be found right on the beach in the heart of Negril. That being said, most everyone who eats hear is blown away by the flavor packed into these hot dogs and sausages—beware, it’s tough to eat here just once! The man behind the stand, “Big D” himself, is also part of the attraction. He is very friendly and known to speak a number of languages with perfect fluency.
Ironically enough, the inhospitable nature of this region is what makes it so rewarding to visit. Cockpit Country played an important role in Jamaica’s history as a haven for runaway slave communities, and its unique geological features known as “cockpits” are quite striking to see. Today, the area still serves as a refuge for runaways, as many species driven out of other parts of Jamaica due to human development still thrive here. A drive through the sparsely populated region can give visitors a glimpse into a Jamaica past, which amazingly still survives here into the present day.
Blue Mountain Peak is the highest point in Jamaica, clocking in at just over 7,400 feet. It’s also a popular hiking destination, offering one of the world’s most incredible views of pristine Caribbean forest. On a nice day, you can even make out the form of Cuba sitting approximately ninety miles to the north. But even if you’re not interested in this challenging hike, the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is well worth a visit, as it offers a wide variety of ways to get to know Jamaica’s natural environment.
Of course just as long as the north coast of the island, Jamaica’s southern end has historically been neglected by visitors. This is not because of a lack of beauty or things to do here. The island’s southern side is famous for its mineral baths, said to have healing properties for those who bathe in them. It’s also home to the Morant Point Lighthouse, the 1,700 foot cliff drop “Lover’s Leap,” and an innumerable amount of beautiful beaches, both popular (though more so with locals) and off the beaten path. Though many tourists continue to forsake the south coast entirely, a trip to Jamaica is not truly complete without a visit.
Other North Coast Towns
Though we’ve spent most of our north shore focus on Montego Bay, this is by no means the only destination on this side of the island. Chief among these other towns are Ocho Rios, supposedly the first place Christopher Columbus made landfall on the island and a supreme shopping destination, and Port Antonio, a more tranquil but still highly-developed tourist destination located farther east along the coast. Both are certainly worth investigating as you plan your trip to Jamaica.
Jamaica Travel Links
Here are some links that we've found useful in planning our travels in Jamaica.