The Jamaican souvenir industry is precisely that – many of the carvings and knick-knacks are mass-produced, with little variation from maker to maker. However, the most common products tend to be the best, and though your “lignum vitae” Lion of Judah may be a pitch-pine copy of a thousand others, quality is generally good. Haggling is a natural part of the trade at craft markets and stalls, but not in hotel boutiques and the more expensive, air-conditioned shops.
Where to shop
Virtually every town in Jamaica has at least one market, most selling fruit, vegetables and other produce, and often a limited selection of crafts, too. The resorts have dedicated craft markets selling T-shirts, wooden carvings, jewellery, straw goods, hats and assorted knick-knacks, and these, along with the ubiquitous roadside craft stalls, are the most enjoyable places to browse and buy.
Specialist souvenir stores also have a good stock of crafts and indigenous art as well as rum and cigars, while local galleries often have paintings, sculptures and woodcarvings for sale. Both souvenir stores and galleries tend to be pricier than the markets and stalls, but the standard of merchandise is higher.
In-bond – or duty-free – shops are usually clustered together in glitzy plazas and malls, stocked with perfume, spirits, designer clothes, brand-name watches, crystal, porcelain, diamonds and gold. Savings range from twenty to forty percent; all goods must be paid for in foreign (ie US) currency, and major credit cards are usually accepted. You’ll need your passport and proof of onward travel.
What to buy
There are many alternatives to “Rasta” tams (a knitted hat) with attached fake locks or bamboo shakers: a custom-designed pair of leather sandals, the ubiquitous red-gold-and-green string vests and bandanas and tassels for car mirrors are all available in market areas of most towns. T-shirts have improved immeasurably in recent years; there are still plenty of dreadful ones emblazoned with caricature Rastas yowling “Yeh Mon it Irie”, but you can also get some fantastically stylish alternatives.
Not surprisingly, reggae music is big business in Jamaica, and fans will have a field day. The best record stores are in downtown Kingston, but music shops in any major town will sell CDs and some records too. Compilation CDs are available from roadside vendors throughout Jamaica (though note these are usually illegal copies); they also sell recordings of the most recent sound-system dances.
Other good Jamaican gifts include the prettily packaged range of essential oils, soaps, candles and bodycare accessories from Blue Mountain Aromatics and Starfish Oils, all made from natural local ingredients; both are available from more upmarket gift shops.
Food and drink
For a taste of Jamaica back home, you can pick up fiery jerk sauce or delicious guava jelly at any supermarket – the main locally made brands, such as Walkers Wood, Spur Tree and Busha Brown, are substantially cheaper when purchased in non-tourist shops. Cocoa tea balls, used to make the local version of hot chocolate, fresh nutmeg, and the delectable honey, sold in old rum bottles at any market, will all bring your memories flooding back. At both international airports, you can buy boxes of frozen Juici Beef and Tastee patties.
Rum is an obligatory memento – gift shops sell cardboard “Jamaica Farewell” packages holding two or three bottles for easy transit, though these are usually cheaper in the airport departure lounge; you can also save if you buy from a wholesale liquor shop or supermarket. The Sangster’s company produces excellent liqueurs, on sale everywhere, and the ubiquitous Tia Maria coffee liqueur is another must-have. Finally, a packet of Blue Mountain coffee, sold all over the island but most reasonably in situ, is an essential souvenir; by far the best brand is Old Tavern, available in more upmarket outlets, but the JABLUM brands, sold in fetching hessian pouches, are good too.
Shells and coral
Especially on the north coast, you’ll see coral (particularly black coral) and “tortoiseshell” products (made from the endangered hawksbill turtle) on sale, but the trade in these protected species is illegal. Don’t buy; you’re liable to serious fines if you’re caught with them. Though not illegal, conch shells, too, should be avoided, as demand has eclipsed supply and conch are slowly disappearing from Jamaican waters.