How to explore Jamaica off the beaten track
With reggae booming into the air from roadside speakers, the pale blue ocean on my left and the never-ending cluster of green mountains on my right, this is like no usual drive from an airport.
It was my first few minutes driving through Kingston, and the city was showing off.
The country famous for its sun, sea and sand was living up to its reputation. It was enough to make me forget while I was here… almost. My aim was to delve beyond the postcard perfection.
Jamaica’s motto is Out Of Many, One People, but its lesser-known one, ‘we are more than a beach, we’re a country’, is what peaked my interest.
‘Look out the window,’ laughed my driver Phil, when I asked him where the ‘real Jamaica’ started. ‘The real Jamaica is ever-present, if you choose to see it.’
I immediately began to see it. The same natural beauty that had greeted me not only surrounds the sprawling mansions peppering the breezy hillside of the city’s most affluent residences, but also cloaks the corrugated iron shacks of the impoverished shanty towns on the city’s scorching flat.
I noticed the weary street vendors with their colourful fruits, including deep burgundy coloured local apples, called Otaheite (addictively delicious, I would soon discover only too well) are normally left in smoke by cars whizzing to the nearby fancy mall to buy foreign produce.
We would be leaving no smoke on this trip.
With my ‘scandal bag’ (local name for colourful plastic bags) of precious Otaheites, I was off to Spanish Court hotel.
The hotel, in the very central business district, New Kingston – is a short 25-minutes from the Norman Manley Airport.
Once I arrived, I had a quick shower then headed down to dinner.
Their restaurant serves tasty Jamaican meals, such as stewed oxtail and rice & peas – a scrumptious local staple, which is cooked in coconut milk with red kidney beans (which Jamaicans call peas). After tucking into their curry goat a rice & peas, it was off to bed.
Often visitors head straight to the more touristy coastal resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios or Negril, but I was going to stick around and explore for a bit – starting at the top.
Clouded in mists that give them their bluish colour, I was off to the Blue Mountains, which stretches from the north-eastern edge of the city for a length of 28 miles.
As I made my ascent, the hustle and bustle of the main roads were soon replaced with lush greenery. We were soon driving through the Irish Town section – one of the first settlements for the Irish who arrived in Jamaica in the mid-1600s.
The drive up winding and precipitous roads can be heart-stopping, but the breath-taking views make the journey worth it, and once you reach Craighton Estate, a coffee plantation, any unease disappears.
The Blue Mountains are home to some of the world’s finest coffee. The famous and prized red berries of the Arabica coffee bean were introduced to Jamaica in 1728. The estate offers an hour-long tour around the working farm where you’re taught about the history of coffee production in Jamaica.
After the walk, which be warned, is an uphill one, I rested my unfit body on the veranda that surrounds the historic great house. I sipped on the famous Blue Mountain brew and ate freshly baked rum cake while taking in the panoramic views.
After this paradise, we descended the hill to head straight into the inner-city community of Trench Town. A starker contrast there is not.
Once considered a no-go area due to crime, Trench Town is now a peaceful community, which attracts the type of visitor interested in a ‘no-frills’ exploration of the country. While the area remains largely dilapidated, its pride and glory is the Trench Town Culture Yard.
A former 1930s housing project, it is now a brightly coloured makeshift museum with memorabilia from the early years of Jamaican music, with a focus on the music legend, Bob Marley.
It feels surreal to be standing on the same ground that the late One Love icon spent much of his early music career treading. There’s even one of Bob’s first vehicles rusting in the drive.
Once Bob became famous he left the area and bought a large home on the more affluent, Hope Road, which is roughly a 20-minute drive from Trench Town and now The Bob Marley Museum and also a must visit.
After my fill of Marley history, I headed around the corner for some pre-colonial exploration at Devon House.
The grand 19th century home of George Stiebel, the first black millionaire in the Caribbean, would not look out of place in a period drama, such as Downton Abbey. The mansion is a masterpiece of Caribbean Victorian architecture. I had a vivacious guide who took me through the hauntingly stunning home.
On the vast acreage, there’s also a variety of shops selling local crafts and restaurants offering a wide selection of Jamaican and international food, however, it’s the Devon House ice cream that is the biggest draw here. Voted National Geographic’s fourth best ice cream in the world, the 27 exotic flavours available include Jamaican rum & raisin, soursop (a creamy local fruit) and there is even a beer-based ice cream called Devon Stout. I had the pistachio ice cream, the best I’ve ever had.
Also popular with the locals is Triple T’z restaurant, a rustic and colourful spot where Red Stripe beer bottles hang as chandeliers. With an extensive menu of tasty cheap and cheerful local dishes, I had lunch there the following day and fell in love with the range of exotic fruit juices on offer, including my new favourite thing – oatahiti apple, this time squeezed into a delicious bubblegum-pink beverage.
After an eventful few days in Kingston, which also included eating jerk chicken and fish cooked in steel drums on the roadside under the street lights and drinking local Red Stripe beer in Down Town’s regenerated Kingston Harbour, my time had come to an end.
I headed to the north coast destination of Ocho Rios. Roughly one and a half hours’ drive from Kingston, there are now two routes – one a new highway that that gets you swiftly within an hour, the other ‘the scenic route’ a near two-hour journey. We took the latter. It’s a stunning experience, which takes you past lush fields, waterfalls and jade green rivers.
One of the highlights is Fern Gully – a tranquil road through of shady tunnels formed by around 300 varieties of towering green ferns.
Ocho Rios is a former fishing village that’s now a resort with a cruise ship harbour and a busy beach lined with hotels. But tucked discreetly away is Jamaica Inn. Since 1950, it has been ranked among the top hotels in the Caribbean.
Nestled on one of Jamaica’s most beautiful private beaches, the cottages are full of history and offer breath-taking views. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller had their honeymoon here, and I was fortunate enough to stay in their suite. The balcony wrapped around my huge villa while my bathroom had shutters that opened up into the ocean. There are no televisions, but you can watch the sunset sink into the ocean instead.
My first morning in Ochi (as the locals call the region) I headed to Yaaman Adventure Park located a few minutes from the hotel. My adventure started with an open-air carriage ride where yet another charismatic guide (Jamaica has them in spades) taught me about the agricultural resources on the plantation. I also saw the tree planted by Winston Churchill when he visited the property in the 1950s.
Nearby, set in the hills, was Island Gully Falls – a cove with crystal waterfalls where I watched adventurous visitors swinging from ropes into cold natural pools.
With not one adventurous bone in my body, I managed to paddle my way across the rocks with fresh forceful water massaging my back. This place is said to be far more beautiful and less packed that the more famous Dunns River Falls nearby.
I dined at my hotel that night entertained by a local reggae band and then spent the evening taking in the moonlight in my suite.
The next day I would be off to Port Antonio – a chilled resort town with perfect beaches and not a high-rise hotel in sight a two-hour drive from Ochi.
Tom Cruise filmed his iconic 80s film Cocktail here, and recently, the beautiful destination hosted Daniel Craig filming the upcoming Bond movie. But bizarrely, the place is largely overlooked by visitors.
I took a 45-minute boat tour around its beautiful Pellew Island, swung over the bottomless blue-green waters and swam through the mineral spring of the Blue Lagoon.
Before heading back to my hotel in Ochi for my last night in Jamaica, I stopped at Frenchman’s Cove Resort, Port Antonio’s exclusive 45-acre beach estate.
The ocean was so crystal clear, I could see my feet at some of the deepest points. I was stunned by the fact that the waters temperature went from cool to warm and matt to crystal when you moved from side to side.
That summed up my time in this country – one of magical contrasts.
How to get there:
A standard king room (based on two sharing) at Spanish Court Hotel, Kingston starts from £160 per night, including breakfast. A balcony suite (based on two sharing) at Jamaica Inn, Ocho Rios starts from £275 per night British Airways (ba.com) fly from London Gatwick to Kingston from £562 return. For more information go to visitjamaica.com.
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