Trips to Jamaica—the easiest and breeziest of the easy, breezy Caribbean islands—promise delectable food, enlivened culture and vivid natural beauty.
The Blue Mountains
Photo Credit: Jamaica Tourist Board
I’m determined to sleep in, because I’m finally on island time. Yet every morning, without fail, the very thought of sipping Jamaica’s prized Blue Mountain coffee wakes me up at sunrise on this trip to Jamaica. To be fair, I’m motivated by my daily cup back home as well. But everything tastes better when you’re on vacation. A temperate sea breeze wafts in through my villa window, carrying the floral, nutty aroma that surely means my pot of joe awaits. So does the Caribbean Sea.
Mornings on this trip to Jamaica are blissful. Birds sing. Mist rises on the mountains. Bright green palms and pink bougainvillea barely rustle in the wind. The sea is glassy and vast. Being surrounded by striking views makes it nice to be outside. By mid-morning, lilting reggae music—often that made by the great Bob Marley—fills the air. The general response for any question I ask or request I make is “Yeah, mon.” (Translation: It’ll happen eventually.) The few times I get worried about my schedule, I’m told “Everything irie.” (Translation: It’s all good.)
The best thing about embracing the slower pace of life here is that I’m faced only with the kinds of choices I relished as a kid on summer vacation: Do I eat, hit the beach, play in a waterfall, or explore the island’s forts, grand old homes and lighthouses?
Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios
Photo Credit: Jamaica Tourist Board
A new nonstop flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Montego Bay made the choice of a trip to Jamaica easy. In just more than five hours, I could access everything I love about the Caribbean: warm and calm ocean waters, spicy tropical foods, friendly locals, amazing music. The mountainous island sits 238 miles from Cuba, and the average temperature hovers around 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Protected from most extreme weather conditions by a barrier reef system and the 28-mile long Blue Mountain range (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the country enjoys more than 1.1 million visitors per year. An abundantly flowing labyrinth of rivers—often punctuated by spectacular waterfalls and crystal-blue natural pools—feeds lush, green forests and thriving agricultural exports like mangos and coffee.
Boutique hotels, expansive resorts and exclusive private residences line Montego Bay’s white sand coast. Against a backdrop of palm-speckled hills and fertile meadowlands, the port city is filled with historic landmarks dating back to the visits of Christopher Columbus, who dubbed the bay “the gulf of good weather.”
Jamaica isn’t just bursting with natural beauty. Local farms supply most of the delicious produce eaten there every day. I really appreciate this, considering the fact that most Caribbean islands import food because of environmental limitations or low supply in the face of tourist demand. Not the case here. My daily breakfast begins with an embarrassingly huge fruit plate piled high with papaya, banana, pineapple, melon and mango. Pair that with a strong cup of coffee, and I have my antioxidant boost for the day. (You haven’t lived, by the way, until you’ve tasted a super-ripe Jamaican mango. There is no way to eat it without making a mess.) Follow all of that sweetness with a traditional breakfast of ackee and saltfish. The dried fish is soaked overnight to remove the salt, then it’s sautéed with tomatoes and onions (and possibly Scotch bonnet peppers) and combined with ackee fruit, which migrated from Ghana some time in the 18th century. It’s delicate and delicious.
During our trip to Jamaica, our hotel concierge lets us know the days and times to avoid crowds when cruises are in port. In town, Montego Bay is always bustling without sacrificing laid-back charm. Art galleries such as the Gallery of West Indian Art showcase colorful paintings and folk art. Visitors flock inland to tour imposing, aged plantation houses, from the infamously haunted great house Rose Hall to Greenwood Great House, which belonged to the cousin of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River
Photo Credit: Jamaica Tourist Board
It’s tempting to try and do everything, from bamboo rafting on slow moving rivers to taking a dip in the reputed healing waters of Doctor’s Cave Beach to horseback riding and shopping the craft market. I’m intrigued by witch doctor stories, secret swimming holes, and the day trip to historic Falmouth Town, a nearby port city known for its Georgian architecture. Yet on most days, my husband, our friends and I lounge on the shore, enjoying fresh piña coladas, rum punches and Jamaica’s pure, cold drinking water. (It’s the fifth-cleanest in the world.) We take breaks to go stand-up paddleboarding, to snorkel and swim in the shallows by the coral reef. When we do venture out, it’s to eat jerk chicken, jerk pork, local snapper and spiny lobster at places with names to be taken at face value: The Pork Pit, The Houseboat Grill (which is literally on a houseboat), The Lobster Trap. We mostly eat just-caught seafood dinners paired with ice-cold Red Stripe beers on the beach, just as most locals do on the weekends.
On my trip to Jamaica, I’m captivated by the country’s rich literary history. This is the place where writers such as Ernest Hemingway came to camp out. For Ian Fleming, who wrote the iconic James Bond novels, and English playwright Noël Coward, the island was a muse. After Montego Bay, we head east to popular Ocho Rios, known for gorgeous gardens and Dunn’s River Falls. We pop into the Jamaica Inn, a historic hotel painted brilliant periwinkle blue with crisp, white trim. Famous writers quarreled and feuded at the hotel bar. Alfred Hitchcock made a film called Jamaica Inn based on a 1936 novel inspired by the hotel. The lobby walls are lined with framed black-and-white photos of past visitors, like Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and Nelson Mandela. I sneak away for a massage in the hotel beach hut and return to find that my husband has made a new friend. Teddy, the bartender, has manned the libations station for 55 years. He serenades me with “The Lady in Red” and mixes a dangerous Planter’s Punch, the house drink. We snack on savory Jamaican patties. Watching kayakers quietly glide through the waves, I make a mental note to stay here next time. Maybe I’ll write a novel here, too.
Martine Bury with Teddy the bartender
Photo Credit: Martine Bury
For a late lunch in Ocho Rios, we eat steamed crab and curried goat at popular Miss T’s Kitchen, where the petite Miss T pops in to survey the dining room as she runs a tight ship in the kitchen. It’s raining, but we don’t care. Later, we make the pilgrimage to GoldenEye, Ian Fleming’s former estate, about 20 minutes east of Ocho Rios, flanked between a green lagoon and the endless sea; and to Firefly, Noël Coward’s crumbling home, perched on a cliff with commanding views of Oracabessa Bay, a fish and sea turtle sanctuary. Since we’re music buffs, a journey to petite Nine Mile village, birthplace of Bob Marley, is a must-do.
On every vacation, there comes a point where my husband tells me, “You’re doing too much.” He’s right, and we have arrived dangerously close to that point. The antidote is due west in Negril, at the tip of the island. I’ve never seen water in the shades of blue that surround this sleepy resort town. All-inclusive resorts have prime real estate on the main beach, while unique boutique properties offer lodgings along the cliffs—some even in caves that dot them. A snorkel or swim here can take place just 10 or 20 feet below your room. Watching cliff divers or the sunset from our perch in paradise, I reflect on the wise words of Mary, an elegant and proud Jamaican woman we befriended in Negril. “The island whispers,” she says. From where we sit, as we watch the neon pink sun melt into the purple horizon, it does.