Beautiful, brash Jamaica is much more than beaches and swaying palm trees. A sensual land of bright colours, soulful rhythms and unfailing creativity, the island retains an attitude – a personality – that’s more resonant and distinctive than you’ll find in any other Caribbean nation. There’s certainly plenty of white sand and gin-clear sea to enjoy, but away from the coast are spectacular mountains and rivers, tumbling waterfalls and cactus-strewn savannah plains. This verdant natural environment forms the backdrop to a dynamic cultural history in the island’s towns and cities, illustrated most vividly by the explosive reggae scene, but also in the powerful expression of its artwork and the startlingly original flavours of its national cuisine.
Jamaicans are justifiably proud of a rich musical heritage imitated the world over, as well as their incredible sporting successes on the running track and cricket pitch. This prominent and vibrant culture has left scarcely a corner of the world untouched – quite some feat, and out of all proportion to the island’s relatively tiny size. In some respects it’s a country with a swagger in its step, confident of its triumphs in the face of adversity, but also with a weight upon its shoulders. An unsparingly tough history has had to be reckoned with, and the country hasn’t avoided familiar problems of development like dramatic wealth inequality and social tensions that occasionally spill over into localized violence and worldwide headlines. The mixture is potent, producing a people as renowned for being sharp, sassy and straight-talking as they are laid-back and hip. People don’t mince their words here; Jamaicans get on with life, and their directness can make them seem cantankerous, or even uncompromising or rude. Particularly around resort towns and the major attractions this can be taken to extremes at times, though the harassment of tourists that once bedevilled the island is much less noticeable these days.
The Jamaican authorities have spent millions making sure the island treats its tourists right, and as a foreign visitor, your chances of encountering any real trouble are minuscule. As the birthplace of the all-inclusive hotel, Jamaica has become well suited to tourists who want to head straight from plane to beach, never leaving their hotel compound. But to get any sense of the country at all, you’ll need to do some exploring. It’s undoubtedly worth it, as this is a place packed with first-class attractions and natural attributes, oozing with character. Jamaica’s food and drink are one of the island’s main draws, from a plate of grilled lobster served up by the sea to conch soup or jerk chicken from a roadside stall, not to mention a variety of rums and fine Blue Mountain coffee. And with a rich music scene at its clubs, sound-system parties and stageshows, if you’re a reggae fan, you’re in heaven.
Where to go in Jamaica
Most of Jamaica’s tourist business is concentrated in the “big three” resorts of Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios. A busy commercial city, Montego Bay has a string of hotels, bars and restaurants along its beach-lined tourist strip, and manicured golf courses and high-end all-inclusives hogging the coast to the east. West of here, its low-rise hotels slung along eleven kilometres of fantastic white sand and three kilometres of dramatic cliffs, Negril is younger, more laid-back and with a long-standing reputation for hedonism and buzzing nightlife. East of MoBay, and the least individualistic of the big three, Ocho Rios embodies high-impact tourism – purpose-built in the 1960s to provide the ultimate package of sun, sand and sea. The beaches aren’t wonderful, but the tourist infrastructure is undeniably strong and you’re right by several excellent attractions, including the famous Dunn’s River waterfall.
Away from these resorts, you’ll have to look a bit harder to find your entertainment – Jamaica’s quieter east and south coasts offer a less packaged product. In the island’s east, lush, rain-fed, sleepy Port Antonio and a number of villages to its east provide gateways to some of the county’s greatest natural attractions, like the cascading waterfalls at Reach and Somerset and outdoor activities such as swimming at the Blue Lagoon and rafting on the majestic Rio Grande. The south coast offers different pleasures, such as gentle beach action at the terminally easy-going Treasure Beach – the perfect base for exploring local delights like the YS waterfalls or boat safaris in search of crocodiles on the Black River. Set in the upper reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the south’s inland towns, such as Mandeville and Christiana, offer respite from the heat of the coast and an interesting insight into Jamaica away from the resorts.
Kingston is the true heart of Jamaica. A thrilling place pulsating with energy and spirit, it’s not just the nation’s political capital but the focus of its art, theatre and music scenes, with top-class hotels, restaurants and shopping, and legendary fried fish on offer at the fabulous Hellshire beach. This is the best place to experience Jamaica’s electric nightlife scene; its venues and street dances are nearly always packed with patrons, the music super-loud and dancers vying with each other for the best moves and dress. A stunning backdrop to the city, the cool Blue Mountains are a captivating antidote, with plenty of marvellous hiking, while the nearby fishing village of Port Royal, once a great pirate city, provides some historic diversion.
Top image © KKulikov/Shutterstock
• The largest English-speaking island in the Caribbean, Jamaica is 235km long, boasts 1019km of coastline and rises up to its highest point at Blue Mountain Peak, standing at 2256m.
• Jamaica’s population is almost three million, with a quarter living in greater Kingston.
• Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962, though it remains in the British Commonwealth with the Queen nominal head of state, represented locally by a Governor General.
• Sugar cane, bananas, plantains, mangoes, breadfruit, ackees, bamboo, coconut palms, as well as cannabis, are not native to Jamaica, having been imported by the Tainos, Spanish, Africans, Indians and British.
• The Vatican aside, Jamaica boasts more churches per square kilometre than anywhere else on Earth, over half of them Evangelical Protestant.
• For years Jamaica has spent around fifty percent of its national budget servicing external debt, dramatically limiting spending on public services.
• Measuring just 6cm from head to tailfeather Jamaica’s bee hummingbird is one of the world’s smallest birds, while the Giant Swallowtail butterfly, with a wingspan of up to 15cm, is the largest in the western hemisphere.
• Jamaicans consume four times more rum than beer, with annual domestic rum sales totalling US$200 million.