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.

Top image yacht marina in Montego Bay © Andrei Florin Catalin/Shutterstock

Cockpit Country

COCKPIT COUNTRY (cockpitcountry.com) is without doubt the most bizarre landscape in Jamaica, an uncanny series of improbable lumps and bumps covering roughly eighty square kilometres of Trelawny and St James parishes, south of Montego Bay. It is one of the most intriguing parts of the island, and a visit here is worthwhile not only for its fantastic scenery but also its intriguing history.

Thousands of years of rainwater flowing over porous limestone created this rugged karst topography of impenetrable conical hillocks, dissolved on each side by a drainage system of sinkholes and caves. The area is peppered with bizarre place names throughout: Me No Sen You No Come, Wait-a-Bit (where the police station sign is subject to many a photographer’s lens), Quick Step and Rest and Be Thankful District. It’s also known as the “District of Look Behind”, in reference to the justifiable paranoia of English soldiers who made hot, comfortless and usually ill-fated missions here tracking Maroons, whose superior local knowledge and guerrilla strategy brought most sorties to a bloody end. To this day, the Cockpits are thought by superstitious Jamaicans to be the stamping ground for spirits and duppies. In fact, the Maroons here have been established on the tourist trail for much longer than the more secretive Windward Maroons of the east.

Cockpit Country is largely uninhabited. Feral pig hunters make regular forays into the interior, but otherwise locals congregate at villages like Windsor, Albert Town and Accompong, where the economy is based on small-scale farming, coffee and occasionally – cloaked by thick foliage – ganja. Only a fraction of the area is accessible and you can’t get far independently, but the scarcity of tourists and pristine environment – though currently under threat from bauxite mining – make the area unforgettable. It’s a sanctuary of untouched beauty, particularly in the early mornings when low-lying mists and a silence broken only by bird calls give it an almost primeval feel.

Accompong

Sitting on one of the steep hillocks that make up outer Cockpit Country, ACCOMPONG , the last remaining Maroon settlement in western Jamaica, boasts breathtaking views, and is still ruled by a colonel, elected every five years – the current incumbent is police inspector Ferron Williams (it’s considered proper protocol to call on him when you arrive). Accompong colonels still hold real power; they ensure citizens abide by the town’s constitution, and mete out justice for petty crimes. Though most Maroons value their level of autonomy (they pay no taxes or rates), independence has ensured years of state neglect. A new-ish access road and coverage by mobile phone networks are exceptions to the norm.

Though Accompong is making a determined effort to retain its heritage, there’s a sense that it’s a losing battle. Though older residents claim direct descent from Maroon leaders Nanny and Cudjoe, there are relatively few “real” Maroons left. During the last thirty years two-thirds of the population have left for jobs elsewhere, the secret “Coromantee” language has vanished, resurfacing only in traditional songs and ceremonies, and Maroon culture has become less important to a younger generation more interested in dancehall and hip-hop than goombay drums or Akan chants. The most interesting time to visit is the annual Accompong Maroon Festival, held on January 6, with day-and-night celebrations.

Brief history

Named after the brother of Maroon hero Cudjoe, Accompong came into being in 1739, when, as part of the peace treaty that ended the first Maroon War, the British granted the Maroon people 15,000 acres of land to create a semi-sovereign community; a missing zero in fact meant that only 1500 acres were made available, a matter of continuing contention. Several such communities, including Trelawney Town in St James, were also given land, and the Maroons set about a peaceful farming life. In 1795, however, a Trelawney Town Maroon caught stealing a pig in downtown Montego Bay was publicly flogged, ironically by one of the runaway slaves the Maroons had captured and returned to the plantations in accordance with the peace treaty. His kinsmen rebelled once again and the second Maroon War flared up. Though the Trelawney Town Maroons could muster only three hundred fighters, the British took no risks and sent in fifteen hundred soldiers and hunting dogs to track them down and wreck their villages. Accompong, the only Maroon village that chose to remain neutral, was allowed to stand.

Accompong Maroon Festival

Every January 6, Maroons from all over the island celebrate the anniversary of the 1739 peace treaty. Like everything else in Jamaica, Accompong festivities start late. Under a towering mango tree (known as the Kindah Tree), a male pig (according to Maroon tradition) is roasted or boiled and eaten communally – bringing luck to all that partake. The highlight of the day (at around 10am) is when Maroon leaders, adorned by the vines used as camouflage by their ancestors, make their way up from the Peace Cave, where they have drummed, danced and chanted since dawn. Goombay drums beat complicated rhythms in anticipation, and a hornblower sends the haunting tones of an abeng horn (a cow horn once used as a means of communication) echoing across the hills, signalling the approach of the elders. The drumming reaches a climax and the assembled mass joins in with call-and-response Akan war songs. At around 2pm, the procession moves through the village, paying respects at the homes of former colonels and those too old to participate, finishing at the Bickle Village parade ground for speeches and whirling dancing, sprinkled with a traditional dash of white rum. Eventually, drums make way for towers of speakers, and the party continues all night, sometimes with live reggae. Note that there’s an entry fee (usually around US$10 for foreign visitors) to the village festival, and that timings vary – get there in the morning, and go with the flow.

Flora and fauna of the Cockpit Country

Soil forms only a thin cover over the Cockpit limestone, and as the rock soaks away most of the rainfall, the area’s plant life has had to adapt in order to survive. As a result, visitors see a proliferation of species that make the most of their rather limited means. Bromeliads collect dew and rainwater in the tanks between their leaves, while the thick, waxy leaves of other plants, such as the tiny orchids that colonize dead wood, take advantage of high humidity. There’s a huge range of bird life here, including 27 of Jamaica’s 28 endemic species; this is one of the few places you’ll see – and hear – profusions of shrieking green parrots. The feral pigs that root through the undergrowth are descended from those reared by the Maroons, and with hundreds of caves, bats are common – 21 varieties are found in the region. The limestone also provides a perfect cover for the Jamaican boa, or yellow snake. For more on the area’s unusual environment, visit wcockpitcountry.com.

Hiking and caving in the Cockpits

Despite popular disbelief, hiking trails do exist in Cockpit Country, with well-organized guided tours on offer to point out rare plants and birds. Windsor, Albert Town and Flagstaff are the most accessible starting points, where you should hire a local guide – essential not only to stop you getting lost but also in case of accident. The main sixteen-kilometre trail starts at Windsor and runs straight through the middle to Troy on the southern fringes of Cockpit Country, though it gets very overgrown towards the middle. The first few kilometres are relatively easy, but in the heat of the day it’s an arduous eight-to-ten hour trek; you’re in the midst of foliage most of the time with few open vistas, and you’ll certainly feel a sense of achievement at the end. Alternatively, the first couple of hours from Windsor give you a pretty good idea, and if you set out from Troy, the trail is mostly downhill and a lot easier – the best plan is to base yourself at Windsor, hire a guide and get yourselves to Troy early enough to make the hike back before nightfall.

Another great option is a trip to the gorgeous village of Bunker’s Hill, from where you can take a walk to Dromilly Cave, and then to a picnic spot by the Clear River, with a deep pool and lunch of anything from pepperpot or janga (freshwater crayfish) soup, to rundown, roast yam and sweet potato. Most walks are fairly easy-going, but for longer treks you’ll need a stout pair of shoes or boots, a waterproof, something warm for the evening, a torch and water bottle – and don’t forget mosquito repellent. Allow double your usual walking time for chopping foliage.

Cavers find Cockpit Country irresistible, despite a lack of infrastructure. Around 250 caves network the area, but only Windsor is easily accessible, with cathedral-sized Quashie River Sink a tougher scramble down steep slopes – not for the unfit. Caving in Jamaica is a good source of information, as is Alan Fincham’s essential book Jamaica Underground, which lists all the island’s caves.

East of Montego Bay

Away from the shops and the beaches, there’s plenty to see around Montego Bay. East of town, the Greenwood Great House has a quiet charm and seductive natural beauty, and the wealth of Georgian architecture at sleepy Falmouth is certainly worth a few hours of your time. Falmouth is the parish capital of Trelawny; the region is best known for both its magnificent yams (sixty percent of Jamaica’s yam crop is grown here) and as the home of world record sprinter Usain Bolt. Trelawny’s history is dominated by the plantation era; at the height of the plantocracy there were 88 sugar estates here worked by tens of thousands of slaves.

Falmouth

Trelawny’s parish capital, FALMOUTH – 37 kilometres east of MoBay and named for the English birthplace of Parish Governor Sir William Trelawny – became the main port of call for sugar ships in the late eighteenth century. Slaves were traded and goods unloaded, while planters built elegant Georgian town houses.

Falmouth fell into a state of disrepair in the nineteenth century, which continued for well over a hundred years, but its long-held sleepy aspect was finally lifted in 2011 with the opening of a new deep-water cruise ship dock on the town’s eastern seaboard. Divers were contracted to individually move over 150,000 valuable corals from a section of reef, thus making space for a shopping mall to service the happy hordes disembarking from the largest cruise ships in the world. With arrivals twice a week in winter and once a week in summer, the dock is in fact only open one to two days each week, and contains the usual selection of faceless in-bond jewellery shops, restaurants and bars. The development was nonetheless supported by most of the town, desperate for jobs and economic uplift. Some residents were happy, too, to see the renovation of much of its best Georgian architecture, formerly in a terrible state of disrepair – albeit now with quaint faux-original signage and uniform timber colours. This includes some of Falmouth’s most impressive constructions: Tharpe House, a block west of the port, the porticoed post office in the middle of Market Street, and the old courthouse, built overlooking the sea in 1895, are still in commercial or municipal use.

Outside cruise ship days and the immediate vicinity of the port, Falmouth remains an easy-going place, with a high concentration of two-hundred-year-old timbers leaning onto the tarmac, and once majestic properties serving as dilapidated shelters for chickens and stray dogs. A wander through the streets provides an unadorned – and due to its slavery connection sometimes chilling – glimpse into Jamaica’s past.

Brief history

In the late eighteenth century, Falmouth boasted 150 houses and a cage where the market now stands (akin to the one still standing in Montego Bay’s Sam Sharpe Square), used for locking up drunken sailors found on the streets later than the 6pm curfew. Though slavery ended within fifty years of the town being declared parish capital in 1790, Falmouth’s natural harbour ensured Trelawny’s prosperity, and it thrived where others declined, even after emancipation. The advent of the steamship – the first docked at Jamaican shores in 1837 – spelt the first step in the town’s decline. The harbour wasn’t deep enough for larger vessels, and by 1890 Falmouth had become something of a ghost town – traders left for Montego Bay or Kingston, and their houses began slowly to rot. In 1896, however, the Albert George Market was built, and Falmouth’s status as market town still ensures a bustling centre each Wednesday, with fruit and veg, bootleg clothing and brightly coloured fripperies set out along the pavements, in traditional “bend down” style.

Greenwood

Coastal development becomes more sporadic between Rose Hall and the diminutive village of GREENWOOD. Bar an enormous Iberostar complex and the odd villa development, the coast road passes scrubby mangrove swamps and opens up to a magnificent sea view. At Greenwood’s eastern edge, some enterprising locals have landscaped a pretty little slip of white sand and clear water known as Citizens Beach. It’s a lovely, breezy spot for a drink or a snack, particularly on Sundays when local families come down, and it occasionally serves as a venue for sound-system jams, too.

Greenwood Great House

Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, the classy stonework of Greenwood Great House is deservedly declared a National Heritage site and remains one of the best historical sights on the island. Surrounded by luscious gardens, it has none of the flashy allure of Rose Hall, but is of far more interest, retaining most of its original contents as well as a wonderfully listless, frozen-in-time eighteenth-century ambience. Built in 1790 by relatives of the Barrett family of Wimpole Street fame, the house contains the owners’ original library and an eclectic collection of ancient musical instruments, a court jester’s chair and custom-made Wedgwood china. The Barretts’ seventy-foot veranda commands a panorama of the sea unbroken by land, and you really can see the curvature of the earth. The tour, which ends at a bar in the original kitchen, is more enjoyable than the breakneck run around Rose Hall. Though the Barretts owned 84,000 acres hereabouts, worked by some 2000 Africans, there’s little information on the less savoury realities of the plantation era other than a cursory reference to a man-trap used to catch runaways and a leg-iron displayed like an ornament.

Martha Brae Rafter’s Village

The Martha Brae River, Trelawny’s longest waterway, is notable chiefly for relaxing rafting trips. If you want to have a go, follow the battered signs from Falmouth to the put-in point at Rafter’s Village, which has a small (underused) swimming pool, bar, and decent gift shop. The leisurely trip begins with complimentary rum punch and takes you past banks overhung with silk cotton, mango, and towering banyan trees festooned with vines. There are a few craft stalls, floating bars and a constant mosquito offensive – bring repellent.

Rose Hall

Romanticized plantation history comes into its own at ROSE HALL, site of the infamous Rose Hall Great House, the inspiration for Jamaica’s best-loved piece of folklore. Built between 1770 and 1780 by planter and parish custos (mayor) John Palmer, the dazzling white stone structure, surrounded by gardens and a swan-filled pond, is difficult to miss. The mechanical 45-minute tours (by candlelight after 6pm) make much of the embellished legend of Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall”; starting in the gift shop, you gasp at blurred photos sent in by previous visitors that supposedly show the face of an unknown woman in the mirror or a bat in a chandelier, and gawp at Annie’s bedroom, symbolically redecorated in shades of red, and the terrace from which she allegedly pushed a maid to her death. As the house was unoccupied and widely looted during the nineteenth century, almost all of its current contents have been transported from other great houses or from overseas. The silk wallpaper and magnificent mahogany staircase are attractive (if not from the right period), and the fake food laid out on the dining table adds a touch of kitsch.

The Coral Gardens Massacre

The grounds of Rose Hall Great House are lovely, though these too have a violent (and authentic) past. On Good Friday in 1963 the district was the site of the “Coral Gardens Massacre”, a bloody altercation between police and Rastafarians – then commonly viewed as vicious, anti-white, drug-crazed maniacs – whose right of way through the Rose Hall grounds to their vegetable plots was being threatened by property speculators developing the house into the tourist attraction it is today. After months of contention, a policeman sent to arrest the dissidents was attacked, and a petrol station was set on fire. During the ensuing bloodbath eight Rastas died, and an unofficial “war on Rastas” was declared islandwide, with hundreds thrown into jail and their locks forcibly sheared off. Obviously, nothing marks the spot, though local Rastafarians commemorate the killings at Sam Sharpe Square in MoBay each Easter.

The White Witch of Rose Hall

Jamaica’s most famous horror story centres on Annie Palmer, the “White Witch of Rose Hall”. A beautiful young woman, Annie Mary Patterson’s early years are cloaked in mystery. Born in either England or Ireland, she was the only child of small-time property owners John and Juliana Patterson, who brought her to live in Haiti, where she learned the Voodoo art. The date of her arrival in Jamaica is unknown, but it’s said that she came to Kingston as a fresh-faced seventeen-year-old in search of a husband. Being young and white, she was granted access to high society and her brooding good looks soon captured the attention of John Palmer, incumbent of Rose Hall and grand-nephew of its architect, also John Palmer. They married in March 1820, but the union was not a happy one; seven years on and bored with her insipid husband, Annie took a young slave lover. Palmer found out and whipped her severely; Annie took her revenge by poisoning his wine and smothering the dying man with a pillow. She went on to murder two more husbands and seduce and murder a succession of white book-keepers and black slaves. She was a cruel and sadistic mistress even to those slaves she wasn’t sleeping with, meting out excessive punishments for misdemeanours.

However, Annie’s cruelty proved to be her undoing, and she was murdered in her bed in 1831. No one knows for sure whose hands encircled her neck, but some accounts point to an old and powerful balmist whose pretty granddaughter had been in competition with Annie for the attentions of a young English book-keeper until the older woman set an “ol’ hige” vampire upon her rival, killing her within a week.

Gripping as it is, there’s barely a shred of truth in the story (though it’s retold in bodice-ripping style in Herbert de Lisser’s novel). Annie Palmer did exist (she’s buried in a concrete grave, where the tour of the property concludes), but by all accounts she had no discernible tendencies to sadism or lechery. She may have become confused over the years with Rosa Palmer, the original mistress of Rose Hall, who did have four husbands, but she was said to be unwaveringly virtuous. Nonetheless, most Jamaicans believe in something more sinister, and visiting mediums swear to strange visions and buried effigies in the grounds, while the house retains a vestige of creepiness.

Montego Bay

MoBay, as it’s locally known, nestles between the gently sloping Bogue, Kempshot and Salem hills, and extends some eight kilometres west to the haunts of the suburban rich at Reading and to the plush villas and resorts of Ironshore and Rose Hall sixteen kilometres to the east. Planeloads of foreigners flood in every day, seduced by a heavily marketed Caribbean dream of swaying palm trees, lilting reggae and cocktails at sunset, and although the flow has slowed a little in recent years (with many heading straight for the more expansive charms of Negril), the city in many ways still delivers. It has achieved fame as the base for Jamaica’s summer reggae festival, Sumfest, while the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues festival and the college antics of Spring Break inject shots of adrenalin at other times of the year.

Montego Bay itself is made up of two distinct parts: touristy Gloucester Avenue, vigorously marketed as the “Hip Strip”, and the city proper, universally referred to as “downtown”. The split between the two is so sharp that the majority of tourists never venture further than the Strip on foot, dividing their time between the unbroken string of beaches, shops and restaurants, though the air of enforced tourist-friendliness can be a bit disquieting. Downtown offers a more accurate and vibrant picture of Montegonian life, and, though it’s short on specific sights, the malls and markets here provide MoBay’s best shopping possibilities. MoBay’s holiday mask slips along its western stretch, an ugly sprawl of factories and gas containers, whose main concession to the tourist trade is the Freeport cruise ship pier.

Brief history

When Columbus anchored briefly in Montego Bay in 1494, he was charmed enough to name it El Golfo de Buen Tempo (The Bay of Good Weather). The Spanish were less romantic, dubbing it Manterias, a derivation of manteca (pig fat), after the lard they produced and shipped from here in large quantities. Eventually, the English corruption, “Montego”, stuck. By the time the Spaniards hastily fled the island, the city was little more than a village. Its subsequent development was heavily influenced by two factors. First was the presence of the Maroons in neighbouring Cockpit Country, an African-Jamaican band of militarily skilled former slaves whose frequent attacks on British settlements kept the town from prospering until the peace treaty of 1739. By this time, plantation sugar production was booming, the harbour was thronged with ships, and lavish cut-stone town houses and inns were spreading back from the waterfront. The 1831 Christmas Rebellion nonetheless nearly destroyed it. The most important of the violent slave revolts that prefaced emancipation began in the foothills behind the town, and saw almost every estate in the area burnt to the ground.

After the collapse of the sugar trade, Montego Bay spent a hundred-odd years in limbo, and it was not until the early twentieth century that it entered another period of growth, beginning when Sir Herbert Baker advocated the redemptive powers of the Doctor’s Cave waters, north of the city’s centre. MoBay metamorphosed into the ultimate tourist town; rich North Americans and Europeans built holiday homes around Doctor’s Cave, or arrived on banana boats to stay in the town’s first hotel, the Casa Blanca. The town’s population increased fourfold between 1940 and 1970, with Jamaicans from all over the island moving in to work at the hotels. In the 1960s, the Freeport peninsula in the south was constructed on reclaimed land, assuring its position as a premier port of call for Caribbean cruises. The beaches were attractively overhauled in the 1980s and 1990s, and, determinedly tourist-friendly, MoBay feels on the upswing.

Accommodation

Most people stay adjacent to the beaches along buzzing Gloucester Avenue – aka the Hip Strip – but quieter options are available on Queen’s Drive, above and to the east of the Strip, which has fabulous sea views and is connected to Gloucester Avenue by shared taxi (or by direct lift from the El Greco and Montego Bay Club hotels; if you make like you’re a guest you may be able to use it). There are a few worthy budget places near the beaches, and places downtown are all considerably cheaper. Many hotels include free airport transfers and beach shuttle. It’s rarely difficult to find a vacancy, unless you hit town during Sumfest (August) or the Jazz Festival (January). Montego Bay’s swankiest resorts (as well as most of the all-inclusives) are out east at suburban Ironshore and Rose Hall, as well at Round Hill, 13km west.

Dealing with Hustlers

At one time, a defining characteristic of MoBay was constant interaction with hustlers, who earn a living selling crafts, hair braiding or services as a guide or driver. These days you’ll find approaches on the Strip increasingly rare, but unless you’re encased in an all-inclusive you will at some point be accosted by someone trying to sell you something. It’s tiring and irritating, but it’s also easy to lose perspective, bristle with tension and regard every encounter as adversarial. People need to make a living, and whether or not harassment becomes a problem depends largely on your attitude. Hustlers play on guilt and use psychological trickery. Lines like “Don’t you remember me from the hotel/car rental shop/airport/beach?” are designed to suck you into a dialogue. Of course you’ve never met them, but once you’ve stopped the sales pitch begins. If you ignore the outstretched hand or catcall, you may be upbraided for thinking yourself too good to talk to a regular Jamaican. The best approach is to acknowledge the seller, and say you’re not interested in a straightforward manner – and you don’t need to stop walking. Don’t try to avoid the issue by giggling or hinting that you may be interested another time; and if you’re white, don’t fall into the liberal trap of buying things you don’t want just to avoid looking racist. Keep your sense of humour, treat sellers as people and you’ll minimize problems.

Drinking, nightlife and entertainment

Montego Bay has many lively nightspots, but aside from the buzz around Margaritaville, you have to search them out. Doctor’s Cave Beach is great for a drink at sunset, and some of the restaurants listed double up as bars: Houseboat Grill is superb for cocktails and bar snacks (happy hour 5.30–7pm), with Friday night attracting the expat crowd; Memorabilia has a wonderful bar with a private section of beach; while the Beach House is a lively spot at weekends. At the other end of the scale, the Dead End at the end of Kent Avenue beyond the Strip is often busy with Jamaicans taking a drink and listening to music at sunset.

Live music is surprisingly thin on the ground, with all-inclusive resorts snapping up local performers. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a full-moon party at Doctor’s Cave or Cornwall Beach, a sound-system jam at Aquasol or other one-off events advertised on Irie FM or on posters. The large music events of the year are Jamaica Jazz and Blues in January (see Basics) and Reggae Sumfest in July/August.

Eating

Montego Bay’s resort status ensures a fair share of swanky international restaurants alongside the usual Jamaican places. Some restaurants offer free pick-ups for dinner guests, especially those furthest from the centre. If you’re in the mood for a serious splurge, head west of town to Round Hill in Hopewell (reservation required), a supremely romantic candlelit affair; at the other end of the scale, there are a string of stalls to the west of Hopewell churning out seafood for an enthusiastic local crowd.

Montego Bay Marine Park

Until 1991, MoBay’s offshore reefs remained open to attack from plunderers, spear fishers, divers, boat anchors and industrial pollution. In an attempt to stem the destruction, Montego Bay Marine Park was created, Jamaica’s first national park with environmental regulations enforced by rangers. Running west from Sangster Airport to Great River, just past Reading, the park comprises fourteen square kilometres of coral reef, sea-grass and mangrove, divided into watersports, fishing and fish nursery zones. Within the park, it’s illegal to mine sand, damage or move coral, shells and seaweed, fish without a permit, spear-fish – and drop litter, too. Other initiatives have included the introduction of buoys along the major reefs, so that pleasure-cruise snorkelling stops don’t result in damaged coral, the replacement of small mesh used for fish and lobster traps with larger mesh to allow young specimens a chance to reach maturity, and annual reef fish counts, to assess conservation success. Though funding, staff shortages and lack of policing resources make it difficult to run the permit system effectively, patrols and education projects aimed at educating fishermen (and their children) on alternative means of income do take place, alongside numerous restriction signs. Tours with park rangers are available (phone the number above), and donations in cash or kind (particularly depth gauges) are gratefully accepted. If you’d like to learn more, visit the Resource Centre on the top floor of the row of shops and offices adjacent to the Pier One restaurant and night club.

Sam Sharpe and the Christmas Rebellion

During the course of just over a week, slavery in Jamaica received the blow that would kill it forever. The Christmas, or Baptist, Rebellion began on December 27, 1831; by its end on January 5, 1832, twenty thousand slaves had razed nearly 160 sugar estates, causing damage to the value of £1 million – then a massive drain on the British exchequer. It was the largest slave uprising in Jamaican history, and it set in motion the process that led to the abolition of slavery in 1834 and full emancipation in 1838.

The rebellion was led by Sam Sharpe, a house slave working for a MoBay solicitor. Though Sharpe took on the surname of his master in accordance with tradition, his sideline as deacon of the town’s Burchell Baptist Church made him anything but servile. Baptists were slavery’s most outspoken critics, rightly seen as a threat by the British establishment. The church taught Sharpe to read, and through international newspapers he learnt of English anti-slavery sentiments and became convinced that emancipation in Jamaica was imminent, a reality that planters were trying to suppress. A powerful orator, Sharpe formed a secret society and planned a nonviolent withdrawal of labour over the Christmas period. Talk of the insurrection spread fast through St James estates, and even the planters became uneasy as December 1831 drew to a close. By the night of the 27th, passions were running high. Peaceful protest soon degenerated into anarchy; tipped off by estate owners, the militia were out in force, and more militant slaves responded by lighting bonfires at the highest point of the Kensington estate to signify the start of a full-scale rebellion. Others followed suit and within days western Jamaica was burning as the cane fields and great houses were destroyed one by one. The response of the British militia was brutal. Though damage was predominantly restricted to property and only fourteen whites died, soldiers gunned down one thousand slaves, and magistrates handed down a further three hundred execution orders during the emotional six-week trial that ensued. Sharpe himself was hanged in the MoBay square that today bears his name. He was buried in the harbour sand, though his remains were later exhumed and interred in the vault of Burchell Memorial Church.

Shopping

Countless malls are given over to tax-free in-bond shopping for the cruise ship crowd, with identical jewellery, perfume and leather goods; City Centre Plaza on Fort Street is the least ostentatious, and The Shopping Village in Ironshore, easily the most, with numerous attractive Caribbean designer boutiques. The Montego Bay Shopping Centre – usually referred to as the LOJ (Life of Jamaica) Mall – on Howard Cooke Boulevard is better for general purchases, with clothes shops and a branch of Fontana Pharmacy, great for gimmicky souvenirs, while the nearby Baywest Centre between Harbour and Strand streets is similar. Browse the untouristy stores downtown on St James and Barnett streets for miscellaneous odds and ends like red, gold and green string vests and car-mirror tassels. Out of town, the Round Hill Resort Boutique in Hopewell sells excellent clothing, scents, coffees and oils, including Starfish bathing products.

Sumfest: Jamaica’s premier reggae festival

Every year, Jamaica’s best-loved art form overwhelms Montego Bay as Reggae Sumfest takes to the stage. The build-up is frenetic: flights are overbooked, beaches throng with fans and the line-up – which reads like a reggae hall of fame – is worried over on radio talk shows. By the time sound and light equipment arrives, the city’s hotel rooms are booked out and every scrap of cardboard is appropriated by entrepreneurs to be sold as “reggae beds” – an essential piece of equipment for tired legs.

Sumfest’s origins date back to 1978 when revellers enjoyed five nights of roots reggae at Jarrett Park. This “Reggae Sunsplash” captured international attention and a year later organizers announced a killer line-up with Bob Marley at the helm. The quintessential 1980s shows drew huge crowds in a heady combination of rum and ganja, and “good musical vibes” were the order of the day with none of the posturing that some of today’s artists indulge in. By the mid-1990s, legal wrangles left Sunsplash outshone by its new Montego Bay competitor Reggae Sumfest, which today remains Jamaica’s most popular festival. The party was marred slightly in 2005 when obscenities and homophobic lyrics led to a (temporary) ban on Beenie Man and other locally popular artists – in the eyes of some this was evidence of sanitization in the quest to appeal to foreigners – but its draw for tourism dollars, especially from Jamaicans overseas, is simply immense. It continues to attract some brilliant line-ups, with sets in recent years from Tessane Chin, Shaggy, Mr Vegas, Beres Hammond, Damian Marley, Tarrus Riley and the late John Holt, plus huge international stars like Ne-Yo, Alicia Keys and Nas. And with 60,000 tickets sold, it remains unmissable.

The line-up

Sumfest usually takes place between mid-July and early August, kicking off with a beach party on the Sunday featuring top sound systems, fashion shows and food stalls. A “Mad Monday” street jam often follows, with Tuesday’s All White Party staged at Pier One a slightly smarter affair.

Sumfest proper takes place just along the road from Pier One at the Catherine Hall Entertainment Centre Thursday’s show is a showcase for raw dancehall – the mostly local crowd is packed to the rafters to see the current biggest names in the industry. Jamaican audiences know their music and are notoriously hard to please; people waste no time demonstrating their appreciation with firecrackers or setting a lighter to a stream of hairspray – or not, with some blistering heckling and, occasionally, bottle-throwing. By the time Konshens or Mavado take to the stage in the early hours, the atmosphere is truly electric. Shows usually good-natured despite on-stage rivalries, and aside from lyrics and posturing you’ll be treated to some truly rude dancing courtesy of “dancehall queens”. Friday and Saturday nights have a more international feel. The new generation of roots artists add a cultural flavour, and grizzled old dreads wave enormous sticks of ganja in the air. A fabulous PA bounces all your favourite tunes around the hills surrounding the town.

Tickets and information

Specialist travel agents offer festival packages that include accommodation and entrance fees, and ticket outlets (including JTB offices) are found in all the resorts. Entry to the Sumfest beach party costs around US$20, the White Party US$25, while the Monday street party is free. Dancehall night is US$40 and the international nights US$70 each. A season ticket (around US$160) covers entry to all the main nights, and a VIP version (around US$230), gives access to the backstage and front of stage areas. Combined Fri & Sat passes cost around US$130. For information, check out reggaesumfest.com, call t953 2933, or contact the JTB.

The Hip Strip: Gloucester Avenue and the beaches

Though it stretches for less than three kilometres, Montego Bay’s glittering Hip Strip is the focal point of many a Jamaican vacation. Dazzling beaches with protected offshore coral reef are located here, leading to development of the whole of Gloucester Avenue and stretching north into Kent Avenue. The Strip goes all out to cater to tourists’ every need, but its shiny commercialism does make it feel a bit unreal, as though visitors and Jamaican workers here are all playing out designated roles in a sort of open-air tropical theme park.

Though Gloucester Avenue runs parallel to the sea, the water is mainly obscured by buildings. The only place to fully appreciate the sweep of the bay is from the Strip’s only green space, around Walter Fletcher Beach, opposite the restaurants and bars at Miranda Ridge; it’s a favourite spot for football, and there are a few benches to take in the view.

Doctor’s Cave Beach

The magnificent Doctor’s Cave Beach is Montego Bay’s premium portion of gleaming white sand, located amid the parade of bars, cafés and tax-free in-bond shops at the northern end of Gloucester Avenue. The beach was put on the map in the late nineteenth century when Doctor Alexander McCatty founded the Sanatorium Caribbee, a private bathing club that’s still in existence. In the 1920s, English chiropractor Sir Herbert Baker was so impressed by the curative potential of the waters that he published an article extolling their efficacy. The beau monde flocked and MoBay’s tourist industry was born. The city’s very first resort hotel, the Casa Blanca (now closed) backs onto the western end of the beach. The rapidly deepening, crystal-clear waters really are the best in town and facilities are excellent, though it does get very crowded at weekends. Beach umbrellas, sun loungers or snorkelling equipment are available (at high cost), and there are beautiful corals offshore. The membership-only clubhouse (of interest to repeat visitors at an annual cost of US$250 per family) offers a games room, a gym and steam room, but the regular changing rooms are also well equipped. There are several snack counters, as well as a reasonable restaurant and bar.

South and west of Montego Bay

The smooth coastal highway towards Negril hugs the shoreline and offers beautiful views of the turquoise, reef-studded water. By contrast, the roads heading inland are overhung with the dripping foliage of the jungle-smothered interior, and pass over swift streams towards the Cockpit foothills with the tarmac barely gripping the edges of steep valleys. If you have your own transport, you’ll be able to appreciate how spectacular the scenery is in places.

The principal road south from Montego Bay veers away from the coastal highway by the traffic lights at Reading, a couple of kilometres east of Hopewell. The well-signposted B8 road heads straight up the tortuous ascent of Long Hill into the verdant St James interior, parallel to the Great River valley with occasional glimpses of lush palms and ferns in the chasm below. Most visitors venture here to tube the Great River or sail through the treetops at Lethe, though the area also offers less contrived sights such as the eco-oriented Animal Farm or Rocklands Bird Sanctuary. The B8 rises to 2000ft before Anchovy and passes through the citrus groves of MONTPELIER (look out for rows of seasonal ugli fruit, a cross between a grapefruit and an orange), before the road forks; a right turn takes you over the interior mountains on an incredibly pretty route to Shettlewood and Sav-la-Mar (via the excellent Border Jerk stop), while a left fork passes through marvellous countryside to the unique German settlement of Seaford Town.

The rolling hinterland pastures of the St James interior was prime plantation territory under the British, and a few of the old estates have kept their land and opened it up to the public. Polished boiling pots and repointed stone mills illustrate the mechanics of the sugar industry, and lavishly restored great house interiors gloss over the planters’ lifestyles. Regrettably, Kensington, the key flashpoint of the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, is just a tiny hamlet with nothing to commemorate its role in one of the most significant phases in Jamaican history. The insurgency began here in St James and set the wheels in motion for the abolition of slavery.

Lethe Rafting

Towards the top of Long Hill, the inland road from Reading, there’s a well-signposted left-hand turn towards LETHE, a pretty village set amid cool and vividly green hills with a graceful stone bridge straddling the Great River, built by slaves in 1820. Aside from the scenery, the only real reason to come to Lethe is for rafting and ziplining; the one-hour rafting trip takes you past banks dripping with vines. Due to heavy rainfall, the water often takes on a muddy aspect, but it’s still safe for swimming. There are a few turbulent shallow spots where the bamboo rafts scrape the bottom, but the raftmen are highly experienced. The five ziplines are proudly proclaimed as the longest in the Caribbean, and offer an enjoyable tour through the treetops.

Rocklands Bird Sanctuary and Feeding Station

The fabulous Rocklands Bird Sanctuary and Feeding Station was the home of the late Lisa Salmon, a celebrated ornithologist. More than a hundred varieties of bird have been sighted here, including orange quits, vervain and the streamer-tailed doctor – Jamaica’s national bird – but it’s the iridescent colouring and thrumming wings of the hummingbirds that make the prettiest visitors. The hummingbirds here are confident enough to drink sugar water while perched on your outstretched finger; feeding peaks at around 4pm. A nature walk is included in the entry fee, but serious ornithologists should call ahead for specific hikes with knowledgeable Fritz, who can take you on trails beyond the property.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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