Jamaica’s second-largest city, the seaside settlement of Montego Bay is one of Jamaica’s premier tourist honeypots. Framed by a cradle of hills and sitting pretty in a sweeping natural harbour, with fabulous beaches hemmed in by a labyrinth of offshore reefs, it’s furnished with enough natural attributes to fill any brochure, and its slick tourism suits the commercial, easy-access tastes of cruise shippers. Montego Bay remains the reigning old madam of Jamaican resorts: gossipy, belligerent and overdressed, but also absorbing, spirited and lively, particularly during its world-renowned summer reggae festival, Sumfest.
The coastline to the east of town has been snapped up by upmarket all-inclusives, strung out alongside souvenir malls and golf courses; most famous of these is Rose Hall Great House and its massively embellished legend of Voodoo and sexual intrigue. The sun-bleached Georgian-era town of Falmouth, aside from the recent arrival of twice-weekly cruise ships, remains marooned from the action of the North Coast Highway and offers a welcome respite from the resort ethic – as well as providing the unusual prospect of a night-time swim in its nearby phosphorescent lagoon. Inland, the landscape rises sharply as you enter rural St James, where districts such as Montpelier and Kensington were once absorbed by huge sugar estates, worth the trip alone for their magnificent settings covered with acres of citrus. The verdant Great River valley here offers good freshwater swimming as well as tubing or rafting in the silky green waters, or hand-feeding a hummingbird at the beautiful Rocklands Bird Sanctuary high above the bay.
Less than two hours’ drive from the centre of Montego Bay lies an area so untouched by any kind of holiday development that it’s something of a parallel universe to the coastal resorts. The mainly uninhabited limestone hillocks of Cockpit Country are the antithesis of palm trees and concrete, and the few settlements that cling to the edges of this almost lunar landscape are some of the most beguiling on the island. Some are still home to descendants of the once-mighty Maroons, escaped slaves who waged guerrilla war against the British. Though Accompong, on the southern side of the Cockpits, is still a semi-autonomous state governed by a Maroon council, the Trelawny Maroons of western Jamaica welcome visitors, and as a result, the west is one of the better places to learn a little Maroon history firsthand.