Whilst the world may be most familiar with Jamaica through a sun-drenched lens of lazy, beach days—the gentle wind rustling through the leaves of a coconut tree above you, and the sound of the waves lapping at your feet—in truth, Jamaica, is so much more. It is an island of contrast; experiences set in direct juxtaposition with each other. It is surprising and unexpected and keeps its visitors guessing…and coming back for more.
The “Land of Wood and Water” is just over 4,000 square miles of diverse topography—from the low lying plains of St. Elizabeth to the highest heights of the Blue Mountains; deep rivers of ice blue fresh water, to the disruptive Cockpit Country with its sinkholes and caverns. And yes, the coastline, a rugged example of contrasts; the black sand, the powder white sand kind, and the dramatic cliff-jumping kind.
And just as the geography is diverse, so too are the adventures that await each visitor. So what is there beyond the beaches?
From the Top to the Bottom
For those visitors looking to venture off the well-trodden beaches, a wealth of attractions and adventures that will allow them an intimate experience with the island will confront them. Let’s start at the top.
The Blue Mountains have recently designated a World Heritage Site by the UN, and offer visitors a unique view of the island from an elevated vantage point. With the Blue Mountain Peak rising high above the mist, you may be moved to take on the full hike to the peak (7,402 feet high), a challenging 7-mile trek. However, for those not quite ready to take on the full peak, connect with a local guide and explore the hiking trails from Holywell. No matter your level of adventure, the five family-friendly trails will allow you to explore safely. Camping and picnicking are also available at Holywell. Prefer two wheels? The Blue Mountain Bicycle Tour is for you…and it’s just the best part…all downhill!
The Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is one of the largest migratory bird sites in the Caribbean. What this means is that more than 120 species of birds escape to Jamaica’s tropical rainforest to escape the harsh winter. Look closely and you may be able to see one of Jamaica’s 28 endemic birds in the National Park, along with 100 native species. If you need a little help, bird watching experts are on hand offering tours.
Jamaican coffee is as indigenous to the island as Red Stripe Beer and Appleton Rum. Perhaps even more so. And the Blue Mountain range delivers the finest. Wallenford, Old Tavern Coffee Estate, Mavis Bank, Bawk and Twymans are just some of the coffee producers that offer tours of their operations.
It is not just coffee that is cultivated in the Blue Mountains. Hillsides are lined with vegetable patches of callaloo, pumpkin, ginger, and a wealth of local bounty. Some of these farms now offer farm to table dining experiences. EITS Café and Blue Ridge offer perhaps the most innovative and gourmet experiences…. Food that is fresh, clean and bursting with delicious flavour.
Another way to enjoy breathtaking views of the island, is by way of the Rainforest Sky Explorer in Ocho Rios, at the family-friendly attraction, Mystic Mountain. This state-of-the-art chair lift carries visitors 700 feet above the treetops for unforgettable vistas. Zip back down to Earth on one of the custom-designed bobsleds, or through the trees on the zip line.
From the mountain tops to the depths of the earth…. Jamaica’s underground caves and sinkholes offer an adventure of a different kind. Located in the heart of the island, Cockpit Country holds the historical and cultural heart of the island. As the location where many of Jamaica’s Maroons community ran away and settled, the Jamaicans who still live in the wider community, cherish and protect the cultural heritage of the country’s early people — crafts, food, music, art, and oral stories are kept alive here. For the adventurous, venture down into the maze of cave systems, to get a more intimate experience of life under ground.
Culture Town — KINGSTON
Descending the Blue Mountain range, visitors find themselves in the hustle and bustle of Kingston. Far from the powder white beaches of Jamaican postcards, Kingston offers the real Jamaican experience. The cacophony of city sounds, intertwined with the smoky essences of street food delivers a barrage on the senses, and it is here that the soul of the country finds its beat. And that beat is reggae music. Mento, ska, rocksteady, dub, dancehall, reggae. Music that has helped to define the direction of global popular music for over 50 years. And the man who helped put reggae music on the map—Bob Marley.
Marley’s presence can be felt throughout his former home located on Old Hope Road. From the small kitchen where he blended his morning juices, to the front drive where he played football and verandah where he gathered with friends. Part studio, part commune, this haven now pays homage to the star as a museum, with musical and lively tours led by passionate musicians. To experience the evolution of the music, head back up the hill on a Sunday evening to Dub Club, where the next generation of reggae sensations gather for live music sessions.
A visit to Downtown Kingston, to Jamaica’s National Gallery, takes visitors on a journey through the island’s cultural and visual heritage. Established in 1974, it is the oldest and largest public art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean. Its permanent collection speaks to the storied, sometimes painful, yet always an emotive journey of Jamaica’s history. A comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art, alongside retrospectives of Jamaican masters, showcases a holistic vision of Jamaica’s art history. Guest curated temporary exhibitions celebrate the vibrant host of emerging artists, who are continuing to redefine Jamaican art in dynamic ways.
But art exists beyond the walls of the Gallery. Paint Jamaica is a testament to how art can uplift the quality of lives. Located close to the Gallery, also in Downtown Kingston, is Fleet Street. Whilst the sometimes volatile surrounding communities have placed a negative undertone on Downtown, an invigorated corporate and community-based commitment is helping to change that. Paint Jamaica is part of that community impetus. Vibrantly painted murals throughout the Fleet Street area work to uplift the community and transform the negative stigmas surrounding them. From Paint Jamaica, grew Plant Jamaica, and Life Yard (a sustainable farm that works to support the area), is located across from 41 Fleet Street.
Land of Water
When all is said and done, Jamaica is the land of wood and water. From cliff-diving beaches to hidden waterfalls, winding and roaring rivers, bottomless lagoons, and magical mineral-infused pools. Here are some of the best.
Reggae Falls in St. Thomas is an impressive vertical curtain of water. This “hidden” treasure can be found off the beaten path, and you will most likely need a guide to help you cross the ford to access it. Benta Falls is located at the other end of the island, just nine miles outside Negril. Whilst this too takes a little effort to access, the refreshing collection of seven waterfalls and blue lagoon are well worth the trek.
It is perhaps one of the most iconic water experiences in Jamaica — rafting on the Rio Grande, the birthplace of river rafting. Originally intended to carry bananas from the plantations inland, to the harbour in Port Antonio, the pastime was glamourized by Port Antonio’s most infamous resident, Hollywood star, Errol Flynn. Whilst in Port Antonio, immerse yourself in the refreshing, cooling bottomless (well 100-200ft deep) waters of Blue Lagoon, made famous by the 1980 movie Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields.
There is just something magical about the water in Jamaica, but none as revitalizing as Milk River Bath in Clarendon. Said to have some of the most radioactive waters in the world, visitors are advised not to spend more than 20 minutes in a bath, and not indulge more than three times per day. However, it is said to also cure such ailments as rheumatism, sciatica, liver disorders and nerve conditions.
Stepping beyond the beaches enables visitors to explore that which truly defines Jamaica’s diversity as a travel destination. There is no doubt that the beaches are among the world’s most beautiful, but Jamaica is so much more. From the top of the mountains to the bottom of valleys, and everything in between, Jamaica is a destination that invites you to come, and stay for a while.