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It's easy to wax lyrical about Jamaica. From the glorious glow of its sunsets and the alluring white sandy beaches, to the lush green mountains and sparkling waterfalls, this island paradise has drawn visitors for centuries.
Historically, only the wealthy could enjoy the unspoiled tropical delights of the island. Today, the northern and western coastlines of the island are stacked with tourist resorts and all-inclusive hotels. Natural attractions have been commercialised to cope with the crowds, but somehow this has not spoiled Jamaica. It still presents a magnificent kaleidoscope of colour and beauty that makes holidaymakers reluctant to leave and always vowing to return.
The name Jamaica originates from the original inhabitants of the area, the Arawak Indians, to whom Xaymaca meant 'land of wood and water'. Sadly, there's little left of native culture after years of Spanish and British rule. Independence came in 1962 to the Jamaican people, who are now a blend of different cultures and nationalities.
The Jamaican people are heavily reliant on tourism for their living, with Bob Marley's image and spirit particularly pervasive throughout the country. The clear waters and colourful reefs are perfect for scuba diving or snorkeling, while there are fascinating historical sites such as old plantations and Georgian architecture.
Everyone will be able to savour the spirit of Jamaica, which is as rich as the lilt of the local patois and the rhythms of the reggae music for which the island is famous.
Jamaica has a fascinating and diverse range of attractions. Visitors can take in the sights of Spanish Town or visit the former home of Bob Marley. Across the bay lies Port Royal, a notorious pirate haven from the 17th century, once renowned as the 'richest and wickedest city in the world'. Boat trips to the coral reefs at Lime Cay leave from the port, while adventurous souls can also take a predawn hike up Blue Mountain for an unmissable sunrise.
Montego Bay is home to the clear turquoise waters of Doctor's Cove Beach. Visitors here can experience a true taste of local culture in the busy, noisy bustle of downtown life. Further east lies Ocho Rios, where Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels. This popular destination for cruise ships also lies close to Dolphin Cove, the incredible Dunn's River Falls and the Green Grotto Caves.
Tucked away on the east of the island is Port Antonio, the secluded retreat of the rich and famous. Navy Island boasts gold sands and its very own rainforest, while fans of the movie Blue Lagoon will find the actual site near Port Antonio.
To the west lies the beautiful town of Negril, with its famous Seven Mile Beach stretching up the coast. Perched up on the cliffs is Rick's Cafe, one of the top bars in the world, serving great food, rum cocktails and a truly homegrown reggae vibe.
The story of Montego Bay's most famous beach began in 1906, when a group of doctors decided to found a bathing club on a beach property donated for the purpose by Dr Alexander James McCatty. Access to the small beach at the time was through a cave - hence the name. The cave was destroyed in 1932 in a fierce hurricane, but the bathing club has lived on and the beach has become legendary. The water is warm and crystal clear, with its waters believed to have curative powers. Today, access to the beach is controlled through a smart entrance way and a complex of changing rooms, showers and a beach bar.
Legend has it that plantation-owner Annie Palmer was murdered at the Rose Hall Great House in 1831, but not before she had rid herself of three husbands - allegedly by using voodoo magic. Palmer was killed during a slave uprising on the estate, brought about by her battle with a slave for the love of the estate supervisor. She is now known as the 'White Witch of Rose Hall'. The house, originally built in 1780, was abandoned for many years but has now been restored. A gift shop and pub are in operation in the dungeon, where the white witch is said to have imprisoned and tortured victims. The story endures powerfully in the local imagination and makes exploring this wonderful house quite spooky, especially on a night time candlelit tour.
The Montego Bay Marine Park protects some of Jamaica's best coral reefs and marine resources, divided into zones where different activities are allowed or restricted. The park's resource centre is found at Pier One Marina on the waterfront in downtown Montego Bay, providing information about the park and ecological presentations. Private operators also run undersea submersible tours of the reefs, while the marine park offers wonderful scuba diving and snorkelling. A really fun way to explore is to swim or snorkel out from Doctor's Cave Beach or Sunset Beach. This should only be attempted by experienced swimmers, who should have either a diver's flag or a bright life vest.
The old Georgian port of Falmouth makes for an interesting visit. The centre of the town is Water Square, which features a market full of little craft stalls that dates from 1895. Also of interest are plantation mansions as well as St Peter's Anglican Church and the William Knibb Memorial Church, a chapel built in memory of Jamaica's enthusiastic Baptist abolitionist. Besides the cultural attractions there are lovely beaches to roam and laze on. For the adventurous, there are river rapids and canopy jungle tours to be enjoyed just outside of the town. The famous Jamaican attractions of Dunn's River Falls and Dolphin Cove are also good excursions to combine with a trip to Falmouth.
A slave who led the Christmas Rebellion of 1831, Samuel Sharpe is a national hero and was instrumental in the emancipation of Jamaica. He was born on this Croydon coffee and pineapple plantation, with guided tours a must. Visitors gain some interesting insights into the history and processes of coffee and pineapple production, as well as the chance to savour some of Jamaica's exotic fruits. Transport to and from the main Montego Bay hotels and the Grand Palladium Resort in Hanover is provided by the plantation.
Near the centre of Ocho Rios lies the popular beach and waterfall attraction of Dunn's River. The waterfall cascades down 600ft (183m), forming cool pools among slippery rocks. A favourite tourist pursuit is to climb to the top of the falls with a guide, enjoying the clear mountain water en route. Alongside the Dunn's River Falls is Dolphin Cove, where visitors can swim with a family of bottlenose dolphins. The natural cove is surrounded by four acres of lush tropical rainforest, and is also home to species such as rays, eels and sharks, as well as tropical birds like macaws.
One of Jamaica's most prominent natural attractions, the labyrinthine limestone cave is 5,000 feet (1,524m) long and characterised by stalactites, stalagmites and overhead ceiling pockets, along with numerous chambers, light holes and a subterranean lake. The caves have played an important role in Jamaican history: the island's original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, used them for shelter; they were used as a hideout for Spaniards during the British takeover; they were a natural haven for runaway slaves; the Jamaican government used them to store barrels of rum during World War II; and they were even used as a den for smugglers running arms to Cuba.
On the cliff above Port Maria, Firefly Cottage was the holiday retreat of famed British playwright and composer Sir Noel Coward. The house is now a national monument which has been preserved almost exactly as he left it, complete with two grand pianos on which he composed some famous pieces. Seeing all his belongings and the place he lived and wrote is a big thrill for his fans, but the place is delightful even for those who don't know him because of the spectacular coastal views. Coward is buried in the garden under a simple marble gravestone and there is a statue of him in the grounds.
Reggae music fans the world over make the pilgrimage to Bob Marley's grave site at Nine Mile, where he was born. The two-room shack in which he lived is open to view as a museum and memorial, alongside which is the mausoleum in which Marley and his half-brother are buried. The site also has a vegetarian restaurant and small shop. Reggae concerts are held at Nine Mile each year on 6 February, Marley's birthday. Many tourists in Jamaica miss out on the beauty of the rural and inland regions, so this excursion is also a great way to explore the lovely scenery around Nine Mile and Mount Zion.
The reason for Negril's recent boom as a tourist destination is centred on this seven mile (11km) stretch of beautiful shoreline, dotted with palm trees and carpeted with pristine white sand. Development has been restricted to palm-tree height, and despite the proliferation of guesthouses and hotels along the strip the natural beauty of the beach has not been compromised. There are lots of restaurants, resorts and shops along the beachfront but thankfully the length of the beach usually prevents it from becoming too crowded. There are myriad activities and watersports available at the beach and the snorkelling is wonderful too.
The beautiful estate of Rhodes Hall Plantation lies a short distance east of Negril. Guided horseback excursions give a glimpse of the magic and mystery of the Jamaican countryside. Guides give some basic horsemanship tips and then take tourists off through the foothills, pointing out botanical wonders and regaling riders with stories and legends about local landmarks. Visitors are taken through forests of banana and coconut palms, and along a beach to the Crocodile River, where hopefully groups can meet one of the resident crocodiles. Swimming gear is a must, as the horses like to head into the surf.
The 22 mini-cascades and numerous swimming holes that make up the Mayfield Falls in the low-lying Dolphin Head Mountains make a memorable day trip from Negril. Tours offer guided walks through bamboo-shaded cool water holes and splashing falls. Some parts of the walk through the area involve natural whirlpools; in others, blasts of water hit you from the rocks. There is an underwater cave to swim through, smooth rockslide areas and mini cliffs from which to dive. This natural water park is edged and overhung with flowers, vines and trees. Jamaican dishes are available at the eatery at the entry point, while there are also a number of stalls selling souvenirs and crafts at the end of the trail.
An hour and a half's drive east of Ocho Rios lies the rugged coastline of Port Antonio, where mist-shrouded mountains come right down into the sea forming hidden coves and beaches. Orchids and palms grow in profusion and waterfalls drop into fern-edged pools. Beaches in the area are among the prettiest in the country, especially Fairy Hill, San San, Dragon Bay and Boston Beach. The town of Port Antonio has been a favoured destination for the rich and famous for decades, from Hollywood stars to billionaires and royalty, and the seclusion of its beautiful beaches, the azure sea, verdant hillsides and lush flora continue to enchant all comers.
Fans of 007 will not want to miss a visit to James Bond Beach, where the 1962 film Dr. No launched the career of Sean Connery. The pristine stretch of white sand, surrounded by lush mountains and crystalline waters, is located just 20 minutes from Ochos Rios. Glass-bottomed boat tours from the beach are a fun way to explore the coastline, with opportunities to see turtles and other marine life. Those looking for a bit of excitement should catch a 'waverunner' tour past the famous Goldeneye villa, where Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels. Visitors can then head to Moonraker Jamaican Bar & Grill for a bite to eat with stunning views and good local food.
The south of Jamaica is the most unspoilt part of this lovely Caribbean island. It's here that many say the true heart of the nation still beats, relatively untouched by the tourism and resort development evident on the rest of the island. The centre of the region is the breezy hill town of Mandeville. Founded in 1816, the British colonial influence is strong, from the village green bordered by a church and courthouse to the Manchester Club, home to Jamaica's oldest golf course which was founded in 1868. Negril is technically also in the south coast region, but as a booming resort town it has a different atmosphere to the rest of the south. Visitors can explore the history of the region's rum production at the Appleton Estate or even enjoy a boat safari along the Black River, stopping along the way at YS Falls.
Rainforest Adventures (or Mystic Mountain Amusement Park) offers a number of different things to do. Visitors can zip-line through the treetops; take the Sky Explorer chairlift for spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and beaches; enjoy an infinity pool and water slide; and wander through the Butterfly Garden and Hummingbird Garden for a rest from thrills. For a bobsled ride with a difference, Bobsled Jamaica offers visitors a plunge through the rainforests with wonderful twists and turns. The park offers a great variety of activities, and visitors to Jamaica should definitely reserve a full day for this fun-filled attraction.
The Hip Strip is undoubtedly Montego Bay's liveliest area, jam packed with sun-seeking visitors from dawn till dusk. It's full of wonderful local eateries and relaxed bars where reggae music is the only thing stored in the jukebox. Tourists looking to let loose and have a real rum-fuelled party should check out the wild local nightclubs. Strolling along the strip and experiencing the vibe is essential on a trip to Montego Bay, serving as the perfect place to trawl for souvenirs, enjoy a few cocktails and meet locals, many of whom are friendly and willing to dispense valuable advice about what you should see and do in Jamaica.
The Greenwood Great House was built between 1780 and 1800 and is generally regarded as the greatest of Jamaica's Great Houses. It was the residence of a notorious Richard Barrett, said to have presided over 33,600 hectares and 3,000 slaves. It stands as testament to both the grandeur and cruelty that the British brought to the Caribbean. Greenwood has not undergone extensive renovations, with a tour taking in the Barrett's original library, fine antique furniture and a collection of unusual musical instruments. Described as 'the finest antique museum in the Caribbean', an excursion to the Greenwood Great House is highly recommended for visitors to Montego Bay interested in the colonial history of the island.
Rocklands Bird Sanctuary offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with Jamaica's wide variety of colourful birdlife. Founded in 1954 by Lisa Salmon, the highlight of the trip is the opportunity to hand-feed hummingbirds - including the Doctor Bird, Jamaica's national bird - while relaxing in the shade on the patio. The sanctuary is lush and full of plants and flowers, so apart from the bird sighting opportunities it's a lovely place to wander off for a nature walk. The sanctuary is nearby Montego Bay but the roads are bad, so many prefer to travel with a tour and an experienced driver.
Just seven miles (11km) from Ocho Rios, lies the scenic and wonderfully relaxing White River Valley, a green, lush area, with the whispering sound of the river mixing with birdsong in the air. Most popular among the activities on offer is a tube ride down the river. There are a few exciting rapids but mostly it's just a relaxing float down the river through stunning scenery. It's a very safe excursion and suitable for all ages making it a great family activity. Adventurous tourists can also enjoy zip-lining, forest walks and bird-watching. On Tuesday and Sunday nights, visitors can sign up for an 'Exotic Night on the White River', where flaming torches create the perfect ambience for a romantic dinner by the riverside.
The Coyaba River Garden and Museum has exhibitions detailing Jamaica's history, from its original inhabitants to the colonialists, as well as independence in 1962. The incredible tropical gardens at the museum are a wonderful surprise. A lush, steamy garden complex dotted with giant banyan and cedar trees, its natural springs and pools are filled with koi fish and turtles. The gardens are also home to the gently-cascading Mahoe Falls, which are particularly fun for the kids to climb. There is also a gift shop on site, where you can buy local products such as carved figurines, coffee and rum.
Renowned for its perfect beaches and accessible coral reefs, the resort of Runaway Bay is an idyllic, laid-back corner of the Caribbean. Situated just to the west of Ocho Rios, the bay gains its name either from Spanish troops fleeing the British or from runaway African slaves - no one is really sure which. The quiet beaches such as Cardiff Hall Beach and Fisherman's Beach have calm, crystal clear water, perfect for snorkeling. With shallow waters and reefs close to shore, they are also perfect for scuba diving, with Shallow Reef a particularly good spot for beginners. The captivating Green Grotto Caves are nearby, ideally situated for an excursion. Also not far is the village of Nine Mile, the former home of Bob Marley.
Jamaica's climate is tropical with constant warm to hot temperatures all year round, though cooler in the higher, central areas. On the coast temperatures range from 72°F (22°C) and 88°F (31°C). Mornings and evenings are slightly chillier in the winter months but Jamaica is hot year-round. There are variations in climate according to region; for instance, the east coast receives substantially more rain than the rest of the country, and the south coast far less.
The wettest months are between May and November, when short sharp showers can be expected. The heaviest rains occur in September and October and the hurricane season runs from June to November. Even though the powerful Hurricane Ivan made landfall in September 2004, relatively few hurricanes touch Jamaica. The country is also in the earthquake zone.
Due to its tropical climate Jamaica is a popular destination all year, but the best time to visit is between mid-December and mid-April, which is the peak tourist season. If you are travelling on a budget or want to avoid the crowds consider visiting in the rainy season, which has its own charms.
The Jamaican Dollar (JMD) is divided into 100 cents. The island is well supplied with ATMs, banks and bureaux de change. Banking hours are usually Monday to Thursday from 9am to 2pm, and Friday from 9am to 4pm. Cambio exchange offices are found throughout the country, open later than banks and often offering better exchange rates. Retain receipts as proof of legal currency exchange. Exchange bureaux at the airports and hotels also offer better rates than banks. Major credit cards are widely accepted. Cash is best taken in US Dollars.
The official language of Jamaica is English but a local patois is also spoken, a mixture of English, Spanish, and various African languages.
Electrical current is 110 volts, 50Hz. Flat two- and three-pin plugs are in use.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport to enter Jamaica that has to be valid upon their return to the USA. A visa is required for stays longer than 6 months.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Jamaica. No visa is required for British passport holders, except for holders of passports endorsed 'British Overseas Territory Citizen' issued to residents of the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, who may obtain a tourist visa on arrival for a fee.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens require a passport valid for period of intended stay. No visa is required.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Jamaica. No visa is required.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Jamaica. No visa is required.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Jamaica. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Jamaica. No visa is required.
All foreign visitors to Jamaica must hold proof of sufficient funds to cover their expenses while in the country, return/onward tickets to their country of permanent residence, and the necessary travel documentation for this next destination. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Jamaica, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
While generally safe, the tap water can cause stomach upsets and visitors are advised to drink bottled water if on short trips. Private medical facilities are of a reasonable standard but can vary throughout the island, with facilities limited outside Kingston and Montego Bay. Medical treatment can be expensive so travel insurance is advised. If you require prescription medication, it's best to take it with you with a signed and dated letter from your doctor naming the medication and explaining why you need it.
Outside the all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica where tips are part of the package, visitors should tip 10 to 15 percent for taxis, personal services, room service and restaurants where a service charge is not already included in the bill. Parking attendants, bellboys and porters also expect a small tip.
There are incidents of petty crime such as robbery, particularly in the capital city of Kingston and in Montego Bay. Tourists are advised to be cautious and take care of their belongings. It's best to avoid using buses at night and also to avoid any public demonstrations that may occur.
Jamaica is classified as having a risk of Zika virus transmission, so it may be wise to seek the advice of health professionals if travelling to hotspot regions. Hurricane season runs from June to November. While it is rare for tropical storms to make landfall in Jamaica, visitors travelling at this time should monitor local and international weather updates for peace of mind.
Contrary to popular belief, smoking marijuana is illegal in Jamaica. Homosexuality is also prohibited by law and the country is notorious for its intolerance towards it.
Business in Jamaica is surprisingly formal, with proper titles used and suits and ties the norm despite the tropical climate. Introductions are usually made with a handshake and an exchange of business cards. Punctuality is key, and socialising is an important aspect of the business meeting. Business hours are usually from 8:30am to 4:30pm or 5pm on weekdays.
The international access code for Jamaica is +1, in common with the US, Canada and most of the Caribbean, followed by 876. Wifi is available in the main towns, restaurants and resorts, and internet access is also available from most hotels and parish libraries.
Travellers to Jamaica over 18 years do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 230g of other tobacco products; 1L alcoholic beverages and wine; and perfume up to 170ml. Prohibited items include products made from goatskin (e.g. drums, handbags and rugs).
Jamaican Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 452 0660.
Jamaica High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7823 9911.
Jamaican High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 233 9311.
Jamaican Embassy, Sydney +61 04 0220 5266.
Jamaican High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 362 6667
Jamaican Embassy, Brussels, Belgium (also responsible for Ireland): +32 2 230 1170.
United States Embassy, Kingston: +1 876 702 6000.
British High Commission, Kingston: +1 876 936 0700
Canadian High Commission, Kingston: +1 876 926 1500.
Australian High Commission, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (also responsible for Jamaica): +1 868 822 5450.
South African High Commission, Kingston: + 1 876 620 4840.
Irish Embassy, Ottawa, Canada (also responsible for Jamaica): +1 613 233 6281.
New Zealand High Commission, Ottawa, Canada (also responsible for Jamaica): +1 613 238 5991.
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