The north coast is the most developed area of Jamaica outside the capital, boasting numerous things to do and an energetic atmosphere. Highway upgrades between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios have effectively halved journey times between the two cities, opening up most of the coastline to new resort and villa developments. With many villages and towns running seamlessly into the next, it’s sometimes hard to know where each urban area starts and ends. The attraction of the north coast is nonetheless clear as soon as you leave the main road: barrelling through the diverse parishes of St Mary, St Ann and Trelawny, there is stunning scenery – sweeping cane and coconut plantations, mangrove swamps, luscious farmland and kilometres of white-sand beaches with reefs less than a hundred feet out to sea. Yet this “tourist” coast can sometimes seem like Jamaica at its most forlorn – sights are often contrived and expensive, resorts are mostly fenced-in all-inclusives and ingrained hustling can make interactions feel like a sales pitch.
Much development is centred on the “garden parish” of St Ann, so called because of the area’s immensely fertile soil. St Ann has also spawned luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney, and is considered by some as the spiritual centre of the island. The nucleus of the parish and the home of the famous Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios is Jamaica’s most popular holiday destination, with high-rise blocks, buzzing jet skis and thumping nightlife. But just a few kilometres to the east, the quiet coastal communities of Oracabessa and Port Maria are disturbed by little other than birdsong, with deserted coastline ideal for hiking and waterfall hunting. West of Ocho Rios, St Ann’s Bay makes a refreshing change to the glitz of its neighbour. Further west, sporadic tourism development is interspersed with peaceful villages like Rio Bueno and Duncans – and a few fantastic beaches. Inland, winding, leafy lanes pass through marvellous scenery; smack in the middle of St Ann is Bob Marley’s birthplace and the site of his mausoleum, where a cache of Rasta guides welcomes hordes of reggae disciples.