A few months ago, a reader asked, "Where do you go to get away from all the tourist stuff in Jamaica?" This island traveler wasn't interested in the canned tours, crowded beaches, or attractions where tourists get bothered by vendors. We understand. Jamaica's one of our very favorite islands (as Zickie's birthplace), but he and I know that travelers' experiences can run the gamut, from the best vacation ever to a disappointing or frustrating time. So, without further ado, here are just a few of our recommendations for how to enjoy Jamaica if you like to plunge into authentic island life.
(Laura walking down the Seven Mile Beach, Negril. Photo: Zickie Allgrove.)
1. Negril. Yes Negril is touristy, but in our opinion, it's tourism done right. The all-inclusives tend to be tasteful, and not so huge that you can't easily get off the compound. If, like us, you prefer smaller properties, there are several good options, including Country Country and Rockhouse. The Seven Mile Beach, pictured above, features amazingly clear water, soft sand, and a bunch of restaurants right on the beach (such as Cosmos with its great fried fish) and fun watering holes like Barry's Bar. You can also stay on the cliffs, where famous Rick's Cafe is found. In fact, whether you stay on the beach or the cliffs, it's easy to get a taxi to the other side of Negril for a different experience.
(Hotel on the cliffs, Negril. Photo by Abir Anwar, Flickr.)
On the cliff side, we love eating a "meal with a view" at LTU Pub or the Rockhouse restaurant. Or why not try a homemade Jamaican patty sold at a little stand? On the cliffs many of the buildings are lovingly constructed out of native rock and fit in harmoniously with the landscape. Like I said, to me this is tourism done right!
In Negril, we feel safe walking the beach (and what a long and gorgeous beach there is to walk). Although there are occasional vendors selling t-shirts or offering massages, no one has ever been aggressive. Our one caveat: if you wish to avoid hearty partiers, don't visit during the American college spring break period. Then even Negril can become hectic. To reach Negril, fly into Montego Bay airport; from there you can rent a car, get a taxi, or take your hotel's shuttle if they offer one.
In short, Negril strikes a really nice balance between authentic island life and plenty of amenities and comforts for foreign travelers. Just writing this is making me long to go back!
(The entrance to Port Royal, Jamaica. Photo by emailer, Flickr.)
2. Port Royal. Port Royal, the island's original capital, was once a headquarters for pirates from all throughout the Caribbean, who came to drink and carouse after a successful mission. This town, located on a spit of land off that branches off from present-day Kingston, was notorious for its wickedness and vice. Then, in 1692, in a matter of seconds the entire place was swallowed by the sea after a devastating earthquake. Today, off-shore, divers can still see the streets and homes where some of the Caribbean's most dangerous men plotted their next robbery on the high seas. There are other sights to see as well, such as Giddy House, a royal artillery storehouse partially sunk into the ground by an earthquake in 1907.
(Giddy House, Port Royal, Jamaica. Photo by emailer, Flickr.)
You can also tour Fort Charles, which was contructed from 1650 to 1660 for an interesting look into Jamaica's heritage. Then you might stop for lunch at Gloria's, a seafood restaurant that serves real Jamaican-style cuisine in a casual, simple setting.
Although many plans have been hatched to develop Port Royal into a huge attraction, this has yet to happen. To get the most out of your stay, I suggest you ask your hotel to arrange for a guide to show you the sights and take you around. Although I'm not a big one on guided tours, in the case of Port Royal, a knowledgeable guide can make the whole experience more rewarding and entertaining. Not everyone takes the time to discover this slice of Jamaican culture, but it's one of the island's most important historic sites.
Travel tip: To explore Port Royal, you might want to overnight in Kingston. In that case, you can also visit places like the Bob Marley Museum, the Hope Botanical Gardens, and the historic Devon House. Kingston boasts a first-class airport with several daily international flights.
(Jamaica's Blue Mountains. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.)
3. The Blue Mountains. Many tourists come to Jamaica for the beach, and who can blame them? But if you want to see incredible scenery in a highly UNtouristy section of the island, try the Blue Mountains. These majestic peaks with lush green valleys are still quite remote, compared to the tourist hotspots. Hikers climb the trail to Blue Mountain Peak, at 7402 feet the highest point in all Jamaica, to watch an incomparable sunrise. But if a 3 or 4 hour hike -- each way -- isn't your thing, you can still retreat to the mountains for relaxation and clean mountain air.
Another reason to go? This is where the world renowned Blue Mountain coffee is grown. Here's your chance to sample this expensive java -- for a bargain price. Besides this agricultural treasure, the Blue Mountains are also home to the Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain National Parks, which span 192,000 acres. Within the parks are 800 species of endemic plants, 200 species of birds, and 500 species of flowering plants, including the Chusquea abietifolia which blooms once every 33 years.
(Laura looking out on the Blue Mountains. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.)
One reason we love the Blue Mountains? Because Zickie's family owns a coffee farm and hostel here called Whitfield Hall, which provides rustic accomodation and guides. When I say "rustic," I mean there's no electricity, by the way. Light comes from kerosene lamps and Tilley lanterns. There are not many spots in the world where you can feel so unemcumbered by modern civilization. There are other good Blue Mountains properties besides Whitfield Hall, which offer rooms and meals to travelers. If you do stay overnight, be sure to go outside and check out the layers and layers of stars. You will feel like you're in a secret spot that no one else has discovered.
We hope you've enjoyed our description of three authentic spots. One of them, Negril, has plenty of tourist infrastructure, yet still retains a special Jamaican core and a comfortable, laid-back vibe. Another, Port Royal, is often overlooked, yet can be so worth the time -- particularly with a local guide to show you the sights. Finally, the Blue Mountains are truly off-the-beaten path, and give you the chance to savor Jamaican scenery and home cooking in a totally unspoiled environment. The fact is, although these three places will give you the opportunity to enjoy an authentic side of Jamaica, they're certainly not the only possibilities. We'll be back in the future with more advice and more photographs to inspire you for your next island runaway. Cheers!