The Caribbean’s liveliest island
Laid-back living, soft sandy beaches, warm hospitality, rum, reggae, rushing waterfalls, lush mountains – Jamaica is the Caribbean island where people flock, as its most famous son Bob Marley once sung, “to feel all right”.
No wonder that the former Spanish (then British) colony captivated Ian Fleming, Noël Coward, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn, all of whom made Jamaica their second home.
Most travellers touchdown in Montego Bay, on the north coast. Mo Bay, as Jamaica’s second city is affectionately known, and the surrounding area is replete with powdery beaches and well-preserved plantation houses that tell the story of Jamaica’s colonial-era heritage.
From Mo Bay, head west to bohemian Negril or east to the former fishing village of Ocho Rios, where you can discover Jamaica’s best waterfalls. Get off the beaten track in Cockpit Country or travel south for the nightlife of Kingston, the rugged peaks of the Blue Mountains and the atmospheric streets of Port Antonio.
Wherever and whenever you go, remember to relax – you’re on island time.
Chances are you’ll be staying in an all-inclusive resort (Montego Bay has perfected the category). However if breakfast isn’t included in your accommodation, stop off for a patty – delicious meat and vegetable-filled pastry parcels, best served steaming hot – that are sold on every street corner. Refuelled? Head Downtown to colourful Church Street where the standout is St James Parish Church (Church Street; 00 1 876 952 2775). Regarded as the finest church on “Jamrock”, it was constructed in the shape of a Greek cross between 1775 and 1782.
Next, make for the revamped National Museum West (Sam Sharpe Square; 00 1 876 940 6402), which tells the story of western Jamaica from Taino times through to the emergence of Montego Bay as a 20th century tourist destination.
But you’re probably after a holiday, not a history lesson, in which case hit Doctor’s Cave (92 Gloucester Avenue; 00 1 876 952 2566). Founded as a bathing club in 1906, its name derives from the famous British osteopath Sir Herbert Baker, who declared that the waters had healing properties. Subsequently locals and visitors alike started descending on Doctor’s Cave to cure their ailments. Beach chairs, towels and snorkelling gear are available to rent and there’s also The Sand Bar, a reasonable restaurant and bar for those who’d like to eat lunch with the sand between their toes.
Take a private taxi or, if you’re up for an adventure and really want to get a taste of every-day Jamaican life, a route taxi (which will continue to stop and pick up passengers until the vehicle is full) to the Rastafari Indigenous Village just outside MoBay proper (Montego River Gardens Porto Bello, Irwin Close; 00 1 876 383 9068) for an introduction to Jamaica’s most famous indigenous religion. To reach the village, you’ll have to wade through a river. Once there you’ll be able to meet, sit, chat and sing with the Rastas and learn more about their movement, which developed in Jamaica in the 1930s.
Next up take a step into the past at Greenwood Great House (435 Belgrade Avenue; 00 1 876 953 1077). Erected between 1780 and 1800, the Georgian-style building belonged to the family of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, the famous English poet. Greenwood survived unscathed during the slave rebellion of Christmas 1831 and visitors can view the original library along with oil paintings of the family and rare musical instruments – including an intricate piano made for Edward VII.
Venture a 20-minute taxi journey east of Greenwood Great House for a nighttime boating expedition at the Luminous Lagoon (Highway A1; 00 1 876 954 3229), one of only four places in the world where you can see the so-called “glistening waters". When night falls, the waters of the lagoon are home to microscopic organisms that glow when disturbed. Watching different parts of your body light up as you dip them in the bioluminescent water is utterly mesmerising.
Back on dry land, relive the experience with friends and family while tucking into Jamaican favourites, including grilled meat and fish – plus a few cocktails, of course – at the adjacent Glistening Waters Restaurant (Highway A1; 00 1 876 954 3229) before retiring to your hotel.
After a good night’s sleep, it’s time to rise early and hit the road. Rent a car and drive east towards Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction: Dunn’s River Falls (Ocho Rios; 00 1 876 974 2857). Don your swimming gear and allow approximately 90 minutes to climb the rocky slopes (guides are available) to the top of the falls, one of the few in the world that empties directly into the sea.
When you’ve had your fill of the dramatic water, continue by car to the attractive port town of Ocho Rios – where a stroll down Main Street is a must for a glimpse of old time ‘Ochi’. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs made by local vendors before enjoying lunch at Ocho Rios Jerk Centre (4 DaCosta Drive; 00 1 876 974 2549), the liveliest jerk centre in town.
After a generous serving of jerk chicken, pork or conch (there are daily specials if vegetarians are in tow), it’s time to check out Firefly (Port Maria), Sir Noel Coward’s Jamaican abode, at Galina Point.
Reaching the hilltop estate isn’t the easiest – the winding road up to Firefly is pitted with potholes – but it’s worth it for the chance to learn a little about the life of the English playwright, actor and songwriter whose love of the island (and islanders) is reflected in his work. Today, a statue of the creative talent sitting in his chair, looking out to one of the best coastal views in Jamaica, graces the lawn at Firefly.
Ready to return to Montego Bay? While driving back, keep an eye out for GoldenEye (Oracabessa Bay; 00 1 876 622 9007), which you can see from the road. It's now an exclusive hotel in Oracabessa but it is also where Ian Fleming famously wrote all 14 James Bond novels; you can arrange a visit but it must be done in advance (and is quite expensive).
It’s been a long day so, back in Mo Bay, rest up for a couple of hours in your resort before dressing up for dinner at the region’s best restaurant, The Houseboat Grill (Alice Eldemire Drive; 001 876 979 8845). Moored in Bogue Lagoon, this converted houseboat is no stranger to celebrity encounters: Steve McQueen stayed on the barge during the filming of Papillion, while Aretha Franklin used it as a green room when performing in The Jamaica World Music Festival in November 1982. Meanwhile Timothy Moxon (who played Strangways in Dr No) ran the boat as a popular fondue restaurant during the 80s and 90s.
Tropical starters could include grilled palm hearts or 'peel and eat' shrimp, followed by beef medallions and plantain-mashed potatoes. To get there you’ll have to hop on a hand-operated ferry, but it’s worth it for the chance to dine on eclectic Caribbean fusion cuisine at sea. If you want to to squeeze out more from Jamaica's nightlife then hit the dance floor at Pier 1, which hosts the most happening party in Montego Bay
Jamaica Inn offers a winning mix of old-school elegance and modern comforts, and is an exquisitely composed child-free hotel set beside a superb small beach. Colonial-style charm lives on in elegant buildings with airy verandas and louvre windows that are painted in a signature colour scheme of Wedgwood blue and white.
Doubles from £318. Main Street, Ochos Rios; 00 1 876 974 2514
A sleek addition to Montego Bay’s famed “Hip Strip”. S Hotel greets guests with a flowing water feature, a lobby wrapped in coral stone and a polished walkway made from local Jatoba hardwood. Crimson umbrellas offer a pleasing contrast to the sparkling blue pool and surrounding palm trees, and the Sky Deck with rooftop beach vistas and glass-enclosed pool is a show stopper.
Doubles from £152. 7 Jimmy Cliff Boulevard, Montego Bay; 00 1 876 979 0000
The funky hideaway that is Jakes is a real Jamaican original with a very cool vibe. The low-key and off-beat hotel features a string of colourful cottages on the shoreline of a tiny, sleepy fishing village. There are 33 rooms and suites – one or two rooms per cottage – and they are mostly set on the waterfront, with a cracking sea view from their own deck. There’s a lovely open-air 'dining room' under a cassia tree, which offers international and Jamaican fare, using ingredients from nearby farms.
A coffee lover? Don’t leave the island without buying a bag of Blue Mountain coffee. Smooth, dark and handsome, it’s rated among the best and rarest in the world. Outside of the island it’s expensive, so bulk buy it while you can.
The best time to visit is when the weather is at its worst and coldest in the UK, between mid-December and mid-April (the official winter season). In Jamaica this is also the driest part of the year. However, prices are at their highest then, so you may want to consider the shoulder season, up until July, when hotel prices reduce by as much as a third and the weather is not that different. The summer months are hot and sometimes muggy. You may want to avoid September and October because of the risk of hurricanes and November because it is the rainy season.
Tourist board information: 00 1 876 929 9200; visitjamaica.com
Emergency ambulance: 110
Emergency fire: 110
British Embassy: 28 Trafalgar Road, Kingston 10 (00 1 876 936 0700; gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/jamaica)
Read the latest advice from the Foreign Office.
Flight time: UK-based travellers can reach Jamaica in 10 hours. British Airways fly to Kingston, while Virgin Atlantic fly to Montego Bay. Both routes depart from London Gatwick, three times a week.
Currency: The currency of Jamaica is the Jamaican Dollar, the ‘jay’, which uses the same symbol as the US dollar (S). However hotel (and high-end) restaurant bills are often quoted in US dollars which are widely accepted.
International dialling code: The international dialling code for Jamaica is 00 1 876
Local laws and etiquette
• Tipping is not as common in Jamaica as it is in say the United States. Nonetheless visitors should be prepared to tip around 10-15 percent for taxis and good service. Restaurants and hotels in tourist areas often add a gratuity onto the bill, so check carefully before leaving a tip.
• Public transport in Jamaica consists of buses, minibuses and route taxis which are a cheap way of getting around – provided personal space isn’t a priority (they’re often overcrowded). A better bet is to use scheduled coaches, such as Knutsford Express.
• Licensed taxis sport red PPV license plates (those without red plates are unlicensed); they are more expensive than public transport but reliable. Taxis are supposed to be kitted out with metres but many drivers don’t use them, so be sure to agree a fare before setting off.
• If you want the freedom to explore at your own pace and schedule, consider hiring a car (UK driving licenses are accepted by hire companies). Try Reggae Car Rentals, run by gregarious Mo Bay native, Nicholas Brown.
• Like the UK, Jamaica drives on the left hand side but driving isn’t for the faint hearted: watch out for potholes and drive with caution, especially at night when you’ll encounter oncoming cars without lights. Be prepared to use your horn liberally.
• Solo female travellers shouldn’t be put off visiting Jamaica but be aware that you may attract unwanted attention. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and make a scene – bystanders will come to your rescue.
• Time magazine declared Jamaica “the most homophobic place on earth” in 2006. Happily attitudes are changing thanks to the tireless work of organisations such as J-Flag (Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays). The country held its first pride event in 2015, with public support from government ministers, and the openly gay Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James is widely feted.
• Jamaica is safer than the headlines would have you believe but it pays to exercise some common sense: carry as little cash as you need, lock car doors from the inside while driving, don’t flash your valuables (particularly mobile phones) and avoid walking alone at night.
Lastly expect to be approached by hustlers selling ganja (marijuana). A firm no usually does the job but if harassment continues, ask a tourist police officer for help.
Kaye Holland first discovered Jamaica when working in neighbouring Cayman. Later she fell for a Jamaican and, while that love didn’t last, her passion for the island remains undiminished. You can find Kaye admiring the Rastafari street art in downtown Kingston, before sipping a cold Red Stripe beer and watching the sun set over the Caribbean sea.
Telegraph Travel's best hotels and tours in Jamaica, tried, tested and recommended by our Jamaica experts.