Jamaica boasts the same addictive sun rays, sugary sands and pampered resort-life as most of the other islands, but it is also set apart historically and culturally, with its unique character and the inherent 'African-ness' of its population. Oh, and the world's best coffee.
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Columbus described Jamaica as 'the fairest isle that eyes beheld; mountainous...all full of valleys and fields and plains'. Roughly ovoid in shape and lying 90 miles (145km) south of Cuba, it's the third-largest island in the Caribbean. Despite its relatively small size, Jamaica boasts an impressive diversity of terrain and vegetation, although few visitors venture far enough afield to experience it.
The rugged island is rimmed by a narrow coastal plain, pitted with bays everywhere but in the south, where broad flatlands cover extensive ruler-straight stretches. Most of the resorts huddle along the north coast, where the vegetation is lush and the beaches are white and sandy. The limestone interior is dramatically sculpted by deep vales and steep ridges, dominated by basket-of-eggs topography such as Cockpit Country, a virtually impenetrable tract pitted with bush-covered hummocks, vast sinkholes, underground caves and flat valley bottoms. The uplands rise gradually from the west, culminating in the Blue Mountains in the east, which are capped by Blue Mountains Peak at 7402ft (2220m).
What To Do
Jamaica is honeycombed with enough limestone caverns to make spelunkers salivate. Hikers can spend weeks exploring an extensive trail system, and horseback riders, surfers, sportfishing junkies and golfers are also in luck. Divers and snorkellers will find Jamaica's underwater realm just as attractive as the beautiful shoreline above.
What To See
St James Parish Church
St James Parish Church is regarded as the finest church on the island. The current church was built between 1775 and 1782 in the shape of a Greek cross, but was so damaged by the earthquake of March 1, 1957, that it had to be rebuilt.
Nine Mile Museum
The small community where the 'King of Reggae' was born on February 6, 1945, is set dramatically in the midst of the Cockpits. Despite its isolated location 60km south of Ocho Rios, the village of Nine Mile is decidedly on beaten path for pilgrimages to Bob Marley's birth site and resting place. At the Nine Mile Museum, Rastafarian guides given to impromptu singing of Marley's songs lead pilgrims to the hut - now festooned with devotional graffiti - where the reggae god spent his early years before moving to Kingston and where you'll see the single bed he sang of in 'Is This Love.' Another highlight is the Rasta-colored 'rock pillow' on which lay his head when seeking inspiration. Marley's body lies buried along with his guitar in a 2.5m-tall oblong marble mausoleum inside a tiny church of traditional Ethiopian design.
Rose Hall Great House
This mansion, with its commanding hilltop position 3km east of Ironshore, is the most famous great house in Jamaica.
Construction was begun by George Ashe in the 1750s and was completed in the 1770s by John Palmer, a wealthy plantation owner. Palmer and his wife Rose (after whom the house was named) hosted some of the most elaborate social gatherings on the island. Slaves destroyed the house in the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 and it was left in ruins for over a century. In 1966 the three-story building was restored to its haughty grandeur.
Much of the attraction is the legend of Annie Palmer, a multiple murderer said to haunt the house. Her bedroom upstairs has been (re)decorated in crimson silk brocades because, y’know, red is the color of blood. Ooooh! The cellar now houses an English-style pub and has a well-stocked gift shop haunted by the ghosts of tacky souvenirs. There’s also a snack bar.
This range of low-lying hills rises inland of Negril’s West End. The raised limestone upland is wild and smothered in brush. Tiny hamlets sprinkle the single road that provides access from Negril: Whitehall Rd leads south from Sheffield Rd to the hamlet of Orange Hill, swings east through the hills via the town of Retirement, and eventually links to the A2 for Savanna-la-Mar.
Seemingly a world away from the Negril strip, Abba Jahnehoy’s Garden is a three-story meditation and learning center poised on a hill that offers a splendid panoramic view extending down to the sea. Solar powered and surrounded by a vegetable and root garden, the octagonal building is the work of Janhoi Jaja.
The waters that launched Brooke Shields’ movie career are by any measure one of the most beautiful spots in Jamaica. The 55m-deep ‘Blue Hole’ (as it is known locally) opens to the sea through a narrow funnel, but is fed by freshwater springs that come in at about a depth of 40m. As a result the water changes color through every shade of jade and emerald during the day thanks to cold freshwater that blankets the warm mass of seawater lurking below.
Jamaica hosts a full calendar of musical, artistic, cultural and sporting events. Reggae Sunsplash and Reggae Sumfest are the biggest funfests on the island, held about one week apart in July/August. Sunsplash is held near Ocho Rios, Sumfest in Montego Bay. Both are frenetic beachy music festivals, with A-rated fun and X-rated dancing. Carnival, the week after Easter in March/April, takes place on the university campus in Kingston and at various other places around Jamaica. It's a big blow-out, mainly for Jamaicans, with reggae, calypso and dancehall soca the main booty-shakers, but it's also a tourist attraction in its own right. In June, the top names in jazz perform under the stars at the Ocho Rios Jazz Festival. Jonkanoo is a traditional Christmas celebration in which revellers parade through the streets dressed in masquerade. The festivity has its origins among West African secret societies and was once the major celebration on the slave calendar. At New Year's, check out Fireworks on the Waterfront in Kingston.
There are a number of yacht races on the calendar: the Pineapple Cup, held each February, starts in Miami and finishes in Montego Bay. Cricket matches are held from laneway to lawn throughout the year. In April, the West Indies team takes on an international challenger in the Kingston Test Match.