Even though there are many wonderful islands in the world, Jamaica has something special. I have visited many times and finally concluded that the place puts a spell on you—infixing you with a constant desire to return. High, green and gorgeous, Jamaica is a honeymooner's dream, an island with misty mountains that soar to nearly 7,500 feet and beaches that stretch into tomorrow. The accommodations run a tempting gamut from an intimate hilltop inn and a sprawling seaside resort to a hyperactive all-inclusive, stylish full-service hotel. Most of the action is centered along the north coast—spared Hurricane Ivan's fury—from sandy, sultry Negril, past the jangling nerve center Montego Bay, to palmy Ocho Rios and serene, romantic Port Antonio. All will seduce you in different ways.
Hand in hand, you'll fall for Jamaica's zesty food, music (be it calypso, soca, reggae, or the wild new offshoot called dancehall), remote beaches and hidden coves, lazy rivers for canoeing and clamorous step-down waterfalls, and its flowers, birdsong, and starry nights. The island's vivid, engaging people will teach you to relax, take one thing at a time and say "Irie, man"—a universal greeting, a short version of "everything's cool."
Things to Do (Besides the Beach)
There will be sun-blessed hours when you won't wander beyond the hotel beach or swim-up bar, but then you'll feel the tug of an island demanding to be experienced. To satisfy your inner nature child, head for Dunn's River Falls, three miles up the jungly coast from Ocho Rios—Ochie, as locals call it. This steep-stepped series of cascades rises from a native beach to 600 feet through a towering rain forest. You'll imagine you've joined a conga line as everyone starts snaking along the gushing ledges, urged onward and upward by a talky local guide. Feel free to break off from the group and take a dip in a deep, cool pool. How about a raft trip for two on one of Jamaica's scenic rivers? The Rio Grande is the oldest river-raft operation, dating back to 1911, when farmers first ferried loads of bananas downriver. Much later, the actor Errol Flynn, a hell-raising fixture in the area, organized the raftsmen to carry tourists as their cargo. Two people sit snugly in a single seat as a paddler conducts the skinny 30-foot raft along the green river. You'll pass bamboo thickets and twittering birds. You can stop for a swim or let a riverside vendor cut you a "jelly," a green coconut with a still-soft kernel you suck with a straw.
Rent a car or hire a driver and take in the island's culture and history. Jamaica is dotted with great houses, remnants of the long-ago plantation culture. Near MoBay, you'll find Rose Hall, grandest of the great houses, but also the eeriest, said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, the so-called white witch who murdered several husbands on the spot. Greenwood Great House, circa 1790, looms on a flower-bright hill where John Crow vultures soar on cool breezes. Pack a lunch and explore the colorful coastal road from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio, full of literary echoes and gorgeous scenery. Near the village of Oracabessa, the seaside house Goldeneye was once owned by Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond thrillers; today it is a string of lovely rentable villas. The playwright Noël Coward built a house, Firefly, on a nearby hill; it's now a relaxed museum, hardly altered from the glorious days when luminaries like Katharine Hepburn, Winston Churchill, and Errol Flynn were his guests. On the narrow winding road to Port Antonio, you'll pass schoolchildren—boys in tan outfits, girls in blue—teasing and waving, men pushing wooden wagons loaded with sugarcane, and by the side of the road, racks of metal pots and kettles for sale.
The town of Port Antonio is a land apart, with a slower beat, an elegant past, and eye-filling scenery. The beaches are superb: Boston, San San, and the romantic Blue Lagoon—more of a spring-fed oasis than a beach, begging you to swing from an overhanging vine. If you wonder where jerk chicken and pork came from, this area is the source. Just follow the smoky aroma to a roadside stand and order a plate of the spicy stuff, slow-cooked on pimento wood in open pits.
The Sounds You'll Hear
Walk into any hotel lounge, sidle up to a beachside bar, pass a MoBay street corner: Jamaica pulses with music. It's steel bands and limbo; your grandmother's folk and calypso ballads like "Matilda" and "Island in the Sun"; the latest soca, ska, and reggae; and the new rage, dancehall, with its bumpy rhythms and racy lyrics.
You'll hear a smoothed-over dancehall in the lounges and clubs along the Hip Strip in MoBay. For a moodier evening, catch the veteran jazz guitarist and composer Maurice Gordon at the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Montego Bay. Out in Negril, join the happy, dancing crowds at Alfred's Ocean Palace. You'll swing and sway by the sand, pausing to swig a Red Stripe beer or a rum punch concocted by one of the entertaining bartenders. In Port Antonio, night brings out the sultry beat of crickets and frogs, as well as the sounds of jazz-inflected reggae at clubs like the Blue Lagoon, which has a huge deck set over a luminous bay. Or kick off your shoes and dance to the live reggae and calypso bands at the Dragon Bay Hotel's thatched-roof Cruise Bar, named for Tom Cruise, who shot Cocktail here.
Where You'll Stay
The island has enough variety for every taste and budget: stylish beachside resorts, cozy inns, private villas with snappy service, and the famous all-inclusive resorts, which charge a single up-front fee for all fun and games, food and drink. Of these, one of the best is Couples Negril, tastefully spread across 18 acres at Bloody Bay, romantic to the last detail. Take one of the 18 suites (there are 216 rooms), each with a balcony over the sea or garden. Go windsurfing, snorkeling or just plop yourselves down on the beach (swimsuits optional at one end). Another surefire choice is Sandals Dunn's River, which combines Mediterranean chic with kicked-back Caribbean flavor on a fine beach. Royal Plantation Ocho Rios was recently selected for membership in the Leading Small Hotels of the World organization. Built 50 years ago as the last word in island elegance, the resort today reflects the grace of days gone by.
Imagine your own sprawling Shangri-la: Half Moon Montego Bay, 400 smartly manicured acres and a curving two-mile beach, seven restaurants and two bars. Golf or tennis, anyone? Try out the resort's excellent Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course, or the tennis courts surrounded by gardens. You'll snorkel for hours in the shallows just off your terrace, paddling among the blowfish, big pink conchs and bright parrot fish. Stay in a whitewashed villa and enjoy the good life that has brought Queen Elizabeth II, Roger Moore, and the Kennedys to Half Moon. Round Hill Hotel and Villas, eight miles west of MoBay, is a Caribbean legend, a refuge for celebs then and now: from Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and Paul McCartney to Demi Moore and Sigourney Weaver. Ralph Lauren, who owns a villa here, decorated the main bar and lobby. Stay in the 36-room Pineapple House Hotel by the sea or in one of 27 private hillside villas, which come with a private pool and a housekeeper who cooks your breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, and banana pancakes. Stake out the glam new spa, set in an 18th-century plantation house by the sea.
Hide away with the hummingbirds and butterflies at Strawberry Hill, which comprises a dozen delightful frame cottages tucked into Blue Mountain coffee country a half hour from Kingston. Part of the chic Island Outpost group, Strawberry Hill will lure you with mountain breezes, dazzling views, and old-time steamer-trunk elegance. You'll dine on New Jamaican cuisine (like West Indian pumpkin soup or jerk rack of lamb loin), and on Saturday afternoon, high tea is a must. Treat yourselves to a session at the Aveda Concept Spa, which uses delightful botanical ingredients in its varied treatments.
Small, sweet, and sensual, the 50-room Coyaba Beach Resort Club nestles into a sandy cove five miles from pulsating MoBay. Your room, with a four-poster and bright floral decor, opens onto a terrace above the pool and sea. Dine lavishly in the Vineyard restaurant, then drop into the Polo Grounds bar, a hot spot for the MoBay in crowd, and cap off the night in the Jacuzzi.
Where to Stay
- Couples Negril, 800-COUPLES, couples.com
- Sandals Dunn's River Falls, 888-SANDALS, sandals.com
- Royal Plantation Ocho Rios, 888-48-ROYAL, royalplantation.com
- Half Moon Montego Bay, 800-626-0592, halfmoon.com
- Round Hill Hotel And Villas, 800-972-2159, roundhilljamaica.com
- Strawberry Hill Hotel & Spa, 800-OUTPOST, email@example.com
- Coyaba Beach Resort Club, 877-232-2344, coyabaresortjamaica.com
For more information, contact the Jamaica Tourist Board, 800-233-4582, visitjamaica.com