Mass tourism has yet to reach Jamaica’s southern parishes – the beaches aren’t packed with sun-ripened bodies and there still remain some great off-the-beaten-track places to visit – so if you want to catch a glimpse of Jamaica as it was before the tourist boom, head south. Though without the turquoise seas and white-sand beaches of the north, Jamaica’s southern coastline is among the most spectacular on the island. The scenery is wild and unspoilt, with giant cacti standing sentry at the roadside and thickets of makka thorn bushes, wetland morass and twisted mangroves giving way to glimpses of undeveloped coves, the volcanic sand twinkling in the sunlight. It takes a bit of extra effort to get here, and you’ll need a car or a tour to see some of the more remote highlights, but it’s definitely worth it.
The parishes that make up south-central Jamaica are immensely varied, with the landscape ranging from mountain to scrubby cactus-strewn desert, and from typically lush vegetation to rolling ﬁelds more redolent of the English countryside. To the west, in the beautiful parish of St Elizabeth, Black River is the main town, an important nineteenth-century port that today offers popular river safaris and a handful of attractive colonial-era buildings. If you’re after somewhere to stay and swim, Treasure Beach is a better target; it’s an extremely laid-back place with lovely yellow-sand beaches and some unique accommodation options that are fast making it a major destination in the south. As for touring around, you can make for the Appleton Estate rum distillery on the Cockpit fringes, the fabulous YS waterfalls or drive around the tiny villages of the attractive and untouristed Santa Cruz Mountains.
Further east, the parishes of Manchester and Clarendon are less diverse and a little less appealing. Manchester, with its cool evenings and misty mornings, has the major town of Mandeville, a very English inland touring base that makes a pleasant, if unspectacular, change from the coast, and the much smaller market town of Christiana, an unspoilt retreat with a single, delightful old hotel. Along the coast, there’s marvellous river and sea swimming, and some great fish restaurants at Alligator Pond, while the combination of mineral spring and black-sand beach at Gut River provides one of the most picturesque spots on the entire island. The parish of Clarendon is total farming country, with large citrus groves in the north and sugar-cane fields everywhere else, but it offers a handful of unusual places to visit including the mineral spa at Milk River.
Although remnants of the once lucrative bauxite industry are still around (in the form of massive empty factories and dried-up red mud lakes), it is agriculture that has been and continues to be, despite St Elizabeth’s dry climate, the main stay of the local economy, producing most of the country’s agricultural surplus – which is why the area is known as Jamaica’s “breadbasket”. Recently, tourism has begun to make an impact, though it is unlikely ever to approach north-coast levels. The emphasis is on small-scale, community-based, environmentally friendly tourism, avoiding the disruption to traditional lifestyles that the industry has caused elsewhere on the island.