Having only been in the Caribbean once before – to Cuba for a photo shoot about 15 years ago – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Jamaica. The preconception of course, is that it’s permanently chilled out thanks to copious amounts of rum, reggae and roll-ups, and boasts restaurants serving up an unending menu of jerked meats. That, as I discovered, might but it certainly isn’t the whole story, at least not in the north of the island anyway.
The first thing that struck me was time. Not the time difference but rather an actual understanding of long things take. Montego Bay’s airport on the north coast is bustling with activity but be prepared to shift down a gear. When I asked how long the journey to our hotel would take, I was told 20 minutes, followed by 45 minutes and then almost two hours. Welcome to Jamaica time – it’s at least twice as long as the locals tell you.
The lengthy drive did have one benefit, offering a snapshot of the diversity and beauty of the landscape. At its widest, Jamaica is over 200km long and the journey east from the airport is a mix of coastal highway and beaches with the sea often lapping right up to the road, plus denser, lush greenery. Along the way, you spot the odd roadside bar, grocery store and fruit stall but little else which goes much of the way (combined with the island’s proximity for all-in loving Americans) to explain why many of the hotels are all-inclusive. Outside the towns, dining options are a rarity.
Jamaica is also packed with colonial references, from its division into counties including Middlesex and parishes like Trelawny, to towns such as Falmouth and Dumbarton which all boast a traditional clock tower. There’s a further nod to the island’s heritage with inlets such as Discovery Bay where Columbus landed in 1494 and Runaway Bay where the last Spaniards left following defeat by the British in the late 1670’s, all of which will keep the historically inclined happy.
Our first stop is at Jewel Dunn’s River Resort just outside Ocho Rios on a pretty little bay with azure water and creamy sands. It only caters for adults, meaning that, unusually, the summer months tend to be quieter. The rooms are sleek and modern with four poster beds and amenities such as the mini bar on tap. One of the aforementioned all-inclusive resorts, the staff are friendly and attentive, the food delicious and there’s nothing you could want for. Combine this with the hotel peacock that doubles as a wake-up call, the way the sun rises and makes the sea look luminous and the soporific sound of the waves lapping the shore and it’s enough to make the most sceptical rethink their attitude to a going all inclusive.
The Ochos Rios area is ideal for the energetic, with hills high enough for zip wiring through the rainforest and waterfalls perfect for climbing from the beach. The Mystic Mountain activity centre is a great way of seeing the coast from 700ft above sea level as you ascend on Sky Lift chairs through the tropical canopy and come down again on a bobsled or a series of zip wires. At Dunn’s River Falls, one of Jamaica’s natural wonders, a guide will lead you down to the beach before you climb up through the fresh water via a smooth rocks and foot holes. It takes around 45 minutes with plenty of opportunities to stop and slide, dunk and even get a back massage from the jets of water.
As the sun sets, head to Glistening Waters Luminous Lagoon near Falmouth for a unique evening event. After feasting on freshly cooked local dishes from jerk chicken to lobster pasta, you’ll sail out into the lagoon with Captain Jerry to see the aquatic illuminations – one of only four places in the world where the phenomenon happens. The water here is full of phosphorous microorganisms that sit on the surface during the day absorbing sunlight so that when disturbed in the dark, they light up like diamonds through a prism. Swimming breaststroke in the pitch black is daunting at first but offers a fantastic first-hand experience. The lagoon has a cool fresh water layer on top with a warmer sea water layer underneath while the bottom is soft and squidgy mud, but at only 6ft deep, there’s no peril involved. Even so, a warming rum punch once you’ve dried off seems a justified reward.
For laid-back luxury, head back west through the craft markets and bustling vibrancy of central Montego Bay to the quieter coastal area. The Round Hill Hotel & Villas is a smaller, boutique-style hotel with just a handful of beachside rooms plus a selection of super-stylish villas that swing a heftier price tag. Built in 1953 on a former pineapple plantation, it hosted JFK and Jackie on their honeymoon as well as counting Hitchcock and Noel Coward as regulars.
The rooms in the two story Pineapple House are pared-back and elegant with bleached wood and shutters that open onto the shore. With an outdoor fitness pavilion for yoga, slick spa, an organic herb and vegetable garden to explore and watersports from windsurfing to kayaking on hand, you won’t be short on things to do if you can drag yourself away from the infinity pool. Beach lovers won’t be disappointed either. The northern coastline is perfect for snorkelling and even in rainy season it’s warm enough to swim in the sea by 7am followed by a spot of early sunbathing – the upside, I found, to jetlag.
Touristy though it is, one thing not to miss in Negril is Rick’s Cafe. Locals and visitors alike gather here for reggae, Red Stripe and cliff diving. With a drop of 25m plus another 25m depth in the water, the belly flops and awkward falls have become a spectator sport, while the well-honed dives of the attendants who climb another 10ft onto a wooden platform before launching are nothing short of spectacular. The beautiful sunset and cocktails afterwards act as the perfect antidote to all that adrenalin.
As most fruit, vegetables, fish and meat are grown or caught locally, it’s no surprise that food is a hugely important part of the Jamaican experience. The fêted jerk chicken aside, there are a host of culinary delights on offer. Food also plays a big part in encouraging many of Jamaica’s young entrepreneurs. Having had a long relationship with Jamaica, Richard Branson has established the Centre of Entrepreneurship Caribbean which gives guidance to new businesses such as the fresh juicing company Flavours Express and DeJaFrut’s all-natural sorbets. When we stop by the Centre, the Forkan brothers who founded Gandy’s flip flops after they were orphaned in the 2004 tsunami are sharing their experiences of setting up their own business in London to a room full of fascinated young entrepreneurs.
Far from adhering to its stereotype, Jamaica is vibrant, energetic and full of spectacular sights, both natural (the lagoon) and manmade (the cliff divers). Add to this the welcoming people and some of the most delicious food I’ve been lucky enough to taste (I still dream about the smoked marlin), Jamaica turns the Caribbean dream into a reality….with a punch.
NEED TO KNOW…
Seven nights in Jamaica with Virgin Holidays start at £1,365pp including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Jamaica (Montego Bay), all inclusive at the 4V Jewel Dunn’s River Beach Resort & Spa and airport transfers. For a more luxurious trip, Virgin Holidays offers seven nights in the five star Round Hill from £2,745. To book, see the Virgin Holidays website or call +44 (0) 844 557 3859. Start your holiday before you’ve even taken off in the V-Room at Gatwick Airport; adults £24.50, children £14. For more information on Northern Jamaica, see to www.visitjamaica.com