With its countless beaches, vibrant culture and thrumming nightlife, the star of the Caribbean is still a perennial lure for international visitors, discovers Alex Coxon
Jamaica is on a roll. Not content with being named the best island in the Caribbean in TripAdvisor’s 2016 Travelers’ Choice Awards, it looks set to smash its personal best by welcoming four million tourists by the end of this year.
Having already achieved a record 3.7 million visitors in 2015, this latest estimate — based on a year-on-year increase of 7.5% for the first six months of 2016 — shows how Jamaica’s popularity reigns supreme.
That’s certainly the case in the cruise market, where arrivals grew by 14.2% in the six months to July 2016. But it’s US tourists that have been the real driving force behind Jamaica’s success story.
“The US market grew more than 5%, year-on-year, by July 2016,” says Paul Pennicook, director of tourism at the Jamaica Tourist Board, indicating that this should improve as more product comes online. Examples, he says, include the new 228-room Royalton Blue Waters in Montego Bay, its 407-room sister property in Negril — scheduled for a mid-January opening — and a new weekly Vacation Express charter from Pittsburgh, which launches next summer.
“We’re also establishing a series of networks, including gastronomy and health and wellness, which will help promote Jamaica’s lesser-known gems,” he adds.
This will definitely meet the approval of Niki Rakowitz, certified travel counselor at CARE Travel in Manhattan, Kansas, who believes it’s vital to keep up-to-date with “new and off the radar” hotels, restaurants and other attractions, “especially when you’re looking to create a different experience for clients who’ve visited the island before”.
She’s not alone in her thinking. Both Yolanda Meador, CEO of Texas-based You Deserve It! Vacations and Dan Smith, owner of Caribbean Adventures/Travel By Dan, agree that being able to suggest fresh ideas to repeat guests is a sure-fire way of luring them back time and again.
Ocho Rios is perfect for adrenaline junkies. Thanks to the rainforest bobsled and cable car of Mystic Mountain, the dolphin swimming experiences at the original Dolphin Cove park, and cascade-climbing opportunities at Dunn’s River Falls, there are plenty of options for the brave.
Daredevil travelers returning to the island might consider journeying inland to the wilds of Cockpit Country, where eco-friendly trekking and caving adventures are offered by the local environmental agency (stea.net). Further east in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park — only last year designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site — it’s possible to take an exhilarating bike ride down Jamaica’s highest peaks (bmtoursja.com; blueandjohncrowmountains.org). While on the nearby Rio Grande River, rafting offers a similar, if more secluded, bamboo boating experience to that on the Martha Brae (jamaicarafting.com).
Water-based hikes to some of Jamaica’s most hush-hush cascades include Breadnut Valley Falls in St Elizabeth, Nanny Falls in Portland and Reggae Falls in St Thomas — the latter a former hydro-electric plant set against a lush mountain backdrop.
Music and dance have been used to relay Jamaica’s rich historic narrative for centuries. But, for most visitors, the closest they’ll get to these folk stories is the in-resort entertainment.
For a more authentic experience, check out the Rastafari Indigenous Village (RIV), where it’s possible to take music lessons while learning about Rastafari culture, including farming techniques and wellness (rastavillage.com). Situated in Irwin, on the outskirts of Montego Bay, RIV is located close to the major resorts of the north and west.
Those willing to travel further afield should also make a bee-line for Jamaica’s Maroon settlements, home to the descendants of African runaway slaves who established free communities in Jamaica’s rugged interior. The Accompong Maroon Festival takes place in St Elizabeth on January 6 (accompongtown.com) and Charles Town in Portland holds its own Maroon celebration on June 23 (maroons-jamaica.com).
To keep the cultural vibe going, don’t forget the Sandals Foundation Reading Road Trip. Available through tour operator Island Routes, this feel-good excursion takes travelers into schools to help local children develop their literacy skills (islandroutes.com).
It’s a rare first-time visitor to Jamaica that concludes their vacation without having dined at Rick’s Café in Negril or one of Scotchie’s trio of establishments in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and New Kingston. Achieving near mythological status, these restaurants have rightfully earned their places in the pantheon of great Jamaican eateries. But for those returning to the island, it can become boring heading to the same joints time and again.
Thankfully, Jamaica is brimming with talented chefs ready to tantalize even the weariest palate with exciting flavor combinations. At Miss T’s in Ocho Rios, for example, Anna-Kay Tomlinson offers yardie favorites such as jerk chicken and curry goat alongside delicate fusion food and a range of vegan specials (misstskitchen.com).
It’s a similar story at EITS Café at 17 Mile Post, high in the Blue Mountains, which combines breathtaking views with a ‘farm to table’ philosophy, that sees home-grown ingredients delivering Jamaican cuisine with a European twist.
Other options include Aunt Merl’s Fish Place at Hellshire Beach, Kingston, whose sumptuous seafood was last year featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, and Ras Rody’s Roadside Organic, whose Rastafarian Ital cuisine has achieved a cult-like following among the citizens of Negril.
Think Jamaica after dark, think Montego Bay’s Hip Strip. But the road officially known as Gloucester Avenue, where the big-name clubs and bars include Pier One and Margaritaville, isn’t the island’s only nightspot of note.
Situated a stone’s throw from the ever-popular Rick’s Café in Negril, the cliff-top LTU Bar has a much less frenetic atmosphere than its neighbor, supplying ice-cold beer and chilled reggae tracks to locals, expats and those few lucky tourists that are in the know (negril.com). A similar feel can be found at Eggy’s Bar and at Wild Onion, both in Frenchman’s Bay, Treasure Beach.
But for more pumped up beats, head east to the capital, where sound system parties abound. There are no set rules as to where or when Kingston’s DJs will organize one of these events, in which giant stacked speakers blast out the latest dancehall tunes. However, adventurous clients can have a lot of fun seeking them out via fly-posters.
Or, suggest they head to Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records, in both Kingston and Ocho Rios. These open daily until midnight, and feature a floor-filling ‘track stars’ karaoke session every Wednesday (tracksandrecords.com).
With their all-inclusive resorts and copious attractions, it’s little wonder that most first-timers are happy to stay within the city limits of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios or Negril. But for those revisiting Jamaica or looking for urban alternatives to the tourist hotspots, there’s more on offer than you might think.
Top of the list is Kingston, which has traditionally been given a wide berth due to its safety record, but has now raised its stakes as a day-trip destination thanks to the growing number of organized tours that showcase landmarks such as the Bob Marley Museum. Many of these tours also stop at one or other of Kingston’s nearby municipal highlights, Spanish Town and Port Royal — the former, Jamaica’s capital until 1872 and the latter, a British fortification that was decimated by an earthquake in the late 17th century.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Blue Mountains is Jamaica’s original resort town of Port Antonio. A sanctuary for the celluloid stars of the 40s and 50s, the Hollywood glamor is still evident here, albeit a little faded. And, as a relatively isolated destination, it’s the perfect antidote to the touristic north and west.