WHY WE LOVE IT
- A country more than an island, Jamaica has it all: mountains, rain forest, caves, amazing beaches, and a taste of the old Caribbean.
- A nice smattering of long-standing upscale resorts
- Vibrant culture: reggae music, jerk pits, cricket, the world's highest concentration of churches
- Vastly varied enclaves: Negril, Montego Bay (MoBay), and Ocho Rios are crammed with clubs, bars, and restaurants; along the South Coast, towns such as Mandeville, White House, and Black River offer peace and quiet.
- Good buys: Blue Mountain coffee, jerk paste and pepper jelly, hemp clothing, hand-painted coffeepots from Wassi
WHEN TO GO
High season is December to March; look for bargains in April; also July and August—though hurricane season runs June to September.
NORMA'S ON THE TERRACE
26 Hope Rd.
The Terrace in question belongs to the elegant National Heritage Trust great house, built in 1881 by one of the first black millionaires in the Caribbean, while Norma is Norma Shirley—arguably the most famous chef in the West Indies. This impressive pedigree adds up to the fanciest dinner in Kingston.
QUEEN OF SHEBA
56 Hope Rd.
A must-try for any reggae fan, mon: Eat just like Bob Marley did in his bamboo-roofed former home that's now the Marley Museum. The Ethiopian food is simple, but the vibe is intense.
NORMA'S ON THE BEACH
Sea Splash Resort
Norman Manley Blvd.
This boutique hotel's restaurant bears Norma Shirley's name and, more importantly, her Nuevo Caribbean ideas. Local chef Rohan Granston does Norma proud with his treatment of her menus. The setting, on the ocean's edge, is perfect for preprandial sunset cocktails.
ROCKHOUSE RESTAURANT AND BAR
West End Rd.
For imaginative nouvelle Jamaican food, head for this cliff-top restaurant above Pristine Cove: Menu highlights include the lobster enchiladas and blackened mahimahi with mango chutney. A thatched roof, a reggae sound track, a good wine list, and a hip staff make this one of the nicest places for dinner in the west.
Tower Isles on Rte. A3
This picturesque 19th-century manse with white gingerbread trim houses an exemplary Italian restaurant run by expat Lella Ricci and her chef brother Pierluigi. Can't bear to leave? Ask the restaurant's owners about their adorable, funky timber Cottage at Te Moana for rent nearby.
HALF MOON BAY
North Coast Highway
Though half a century old, this vast upscale resort is a pristine paradise. Facilities include tennis and squash courts, a golf course, stables, a mall, a spa, a gym, four restaurants, seven bars, two beaches, and 50-plus pools (most belonging to villas). In fact, the only thing Half Moon Bay lacks is local color.
ROUND HILL HOTEL AND VILLAS
Tel: 876-956-7050 or 800-972-2159
If you like Ralph Lauren's all-American style, this hotel should suit: Mr. Polo is one of the 29 villa owners who collectively run this swanky former sugar plantation. Take a suite in a villa, or an ocean-view room with A/C (deluxes were decorated by RL himself). Embrace the lifestyle during your stay: Frequent the Elemis spa, dress up for dinner, and drink G&Ts in the tropical-WASP lounge.
Make like 007 in Ian Fleming's three-bedroom cliff-top house or one of its four satellite villas. (The star property is the beachfront Royal Palm). The atmosphere, though suitably glamorous, is also decidedly laid-back. Take dinner in gardens where, as plaques prove, famous visitors have been planting trees for 50 years.
Light House Rd.
This posh hideaway comes with nine brightly colored wood, thatch, and stone rooms that evoke Marrakech's aristo-hippie glamour. A no-under-16 policy keeps the peace. A warren of eponymous caves includes a dining grotto and a hot-tub hideout (part of the Aveda spa). Not surprisingly, this resort is a mecca for honeymooning couples.
Tel: 876-965-3000 or 876-965-0635
This theatrical, organic-looking beach retreat has some fun with its funky, playful cottages. The mini Moroccan riads on the beach are the honeymoon stars. Jake's isn't about snappy service or bright, shiny accoutrements. Its charms are simpler and more of the Red Stripe, hammock, and sunset stroll variety.
ROCK HOUSE HOTEL
West End Rd.
On the far west tip of Jamaica is this hip collection of timber, stone, and thatch houselets perched upon the cliffs. Villas, with terraces and alfresco showers, are the stars of this property. There's a great on-site restaurant and bar, and yoga classes and a cliff-side spa cabana are also available.
RITZ-CARLTON GOLF AND SPA RESORT
1 Ritz-Carlton Dr.
A short drive from the airport, this 4,000-acre former sugar plantation has been converted into a 427-room megalith that is now outfitted with Austrian blinds, patterned rugs, crystal chandeliers, and mahogany furniture. Facilities include an 8,000-square-foot spa, four restaurants, a jerk pit, and a bar with 150 Caribbean rums, plus the famous White Witch golf course (green fees extra).
Tel: 876-974-2514 or 800.837-4608
This storied resort has retained its glamour and then some. Smartly appointed rooms and suites feature balconies and verandas with Caribbean views. Plus, the new KiYara spa has a full menu of Ayurvedic-Fijian treatments. Outdoorsy types can kayak and Sunfish; we prefer a game of croquet on the lawn before dinner. Men should make note of the inn's dress code (i.e., collared shirts for dinner).
The island's main market features stalls of island produce, spices, healing herbs, honey, homemade soaps, Blue Mountain coffee, and kulu kulu rum. A solid place to stock up on nontacky souvenirs.
26 Hope Rd.
jnht.com/kingston/devonhse.htm (Jamaica National Heritage Trust)
Pioneering investor and property developer George Stiebel built this great house in 1881, and its Georgian grace is still palpable—despite the requisite gift shops and restaurants. Get great ices from I Scream, whose wonderful flavors include soursop, Devon stout, and strong back.
BOB MARLEY MUSEUM
56 Hope Rd.
This simple clapboard house was home to the island's most famous native son, Bob Marley, and also the studio where he wrote and recorded much of his best-known work.
73 Knutsford Blvd.
This cute rooftop restaurant, with its Adirondack chairs, palms, and canvas shades, is a good base for exploring New Kingston's music scene—it's adjacent to several clubs and directly on top of another. Plus, the Jamaican-fusion food isn't half bad….
When and if you tire of the sunny beaches, get a view of the island that most locals don't even get to see. The nonprofit Jamaican Caves Organization takes you down into thrilling "Cockpit Country," with underground gorges, cliffs, and chambers the size of airplane hangars.
WHITE WATER RAFTING
Caliche Rainforest Park and Adventure Tours
Montego Bay and Negril
Get your adrenaline pumping with a tour of Great River via waterfalls and rapids. Or, for a more romantic voyage, the same outfit also leads a gentler raft glide through the rain forest, complete with a dip in a mineral pool.