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The north coast of Jamaica is the island's popular 'Riviera' area, and at the centre of this resort paradise is Montego Bay, known affectionately as 'MoBay' to locals and regular visitors. The area has a sparkling 10-mile (16km) shoreline, fronted by coral reefs and aquamarine lagoons, backed by green hills shrouded in sugar cane, banana palms and lush tropical vegetation.
Christopher Columbus was the first European tourist to step ashore at Montego Bay in 1494. The Spanish settlement was founded in 1510. It has grown into Jamaica's second biggest city, but it is first choice for holidaymakers. The beaches in the area are picture-perfect and, if they can bear to leave the beach, visitors can choose from a variety of other recreations, including bird watching, music festivals, horse riding trails, golfing, and floating down the river on a bamboo raft.
The Montego Bay area also has a fascinating historical background, not all of it pleasant, which lives on in the legends and stories surrounding the few remaining great plantation houses belonging to dynastic families that grew rich from slave labour in past centuries. Several of these are open to the public.
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 Doctor's Cave. 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, and Sir Herbert Barker, well-known British osteopath, claimed back in the 1920s that the waters of the beach have curative powers, which made the bathing spot even more alluring for foreign visitors.
Today, access to the beach, which is located in the middle of Montego Bay's 'Hip Strip' is controlled through a smart entrance way and a complex of changing rooms, showers, gift shops, and the 'Groovy Grouper' beach bar.
Legend has it that the stunningly beautiful 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). Annie herself was killed during a slave uprising on the estate, brought about by her battle with a slave girl for the love of the estate supervisor. Annie 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 slave victims. Investigation into the ghost story suggests that Annie Palmer is fictional, as there never was a mistress of Rose Hall by that name. However, 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 is proclaimed to protect some of Jamaica's best coral reefs and marine resources. The park is divided into zones where different activities (for example various watersports and fishing) are allowed or restricted. The park's resource centre is found at Pier One Marina on the waterfront in downtown Montego Bay, and provides information about the park, and ecological presentations. Private operators also run undersea submersible tours of the reefs.
The marine park offers wonderful scuba diving and snorkelling. Venomous Lionfish have become common in the park and although they are beautiful visitors are warned not to touch them as contact with the poisonous spines is painful and in rare cases can cause convulsions or paralysis. A really fun way to explore is to swim/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 town 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 is the former residence of John Tharp, a notorious slave-owner, and the town house of rich plantation owner Edward Barrett. St Peter's Anglican Church, and the William Knibb Memorial Church (a chapel built in memory of Jamaica's enthusiastic Baptist abolitionist) are also worth a look. The best way to explore this historic town is on a walking tour with one of the well-informed local guides.
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.
Jamaica's national hero, Samuel Sharpe - the slave who led the bloody 'Christmas Rebellion' of 1831 and helped to expedite the emancipation of Jamaica - was born on this still-working plantation in the interior, 24 miles (39km) from Montego Bay.
Guided tours of the Croydon coffee and pineapple plantation run from Montego Bay, and have become a must-see for every visitor to the island. 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. One of the highlights is just the location, which is beautiful. A delicious meal is served at the end of the tour and the owner of the plantation often makes an appearance.
Transport to and from the main Montego Bay hotels and the Grand Palladium Resort in Hanover is provided by the plantation.
The 'Hip Strip' is undoubtedly Montego Bay's liveliest area, jam packed with sun-seeking visitors from dawn till dusk, and 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 surprisingly wild nightclubs of the area.
Craft-sellers, vendors, uncommonly aggressive ladies of the night, and hopeful ganja-dealers abound, so visitors should be mindful of their possessions. However, strolling along the strip and experiencing the vibe, warts and all, is essential on a trip to Montego Bay. This is the perfect place to trawl for souvenirs, enjoy a few cocktails, and meet the locals, many of whom are friendly and willing to dispense 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 Richard Barrett (cousin of renowned poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning) - who is said to have presided over 33,600 hectares and 3,000 slaves. The Greenwood Great House stands as testament to both the grandeur and cruelty that the British brought to the Caribbean.
Greenwood has not undergone extensive renovations, and appears to modern-day visitors largely as it was inhabited. A tour of the House will take in the Barrett's original library (home to some astonishingly rare books), some sombre oil paintings of the family, some 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. Guided tours are the only way to explore the house and they last about 30 minutes.
Rocklands Bird Sanctuary offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the island of Jamaica's wide variety of colourful birdlife. Founded in 1954 by Lisa Salmon (affectionately known as 'the bird lady'), today the sanctuary is managed by the knowledgeable and charming Fritz, a man who is blessed with an almost St Francis-like gift for beckoning birds down from the surrounding boughs.
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 Sanctuary's patio. The sanctuary is lush and full of plants and flowers so apart from the bird sighting opportunities it is 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.
The tropical climate of Montego Bay ensures it is warm and sunny year-round, making it a great holiday destination. There is little seasonal variation in temperatures, with the average high being 91°F (33°C) and the lowest temperature generally only falling to 69°F (21°C). July and August are the hottest months and January through March are the coolest but the difference in temperature is minor.
There are frequent rain showers in Montego Bay, but these are brief and the weather usually turns sunny again afterwards. The Jamaican rainy season runs from May to November, with the chance of hurricanes between June and November. The wettest months in Montego Bay are September and October.
The most popular time to travel to Montego Bay - and the rest of the island - is in the dry season between mid-December and mid-April. However, if you are travelling on a budget or want to avoid the crowds it is a good idea to travel to Montego Bay in the wet season because it is cheaper and the short-lived rain showers don't generally put much of a dampener on a Jamaican holiday. It is always warm enough to swim in the lovely Caribbean waters of Montego Bay.
For many people Jamaica is synonymous with reggae music. So where better to go to a reggae festival than in the reggae capital of the world? In fact, most of Jamaica's most popular festivals have something to do with their much-loved music tradition. The Reggae Sumfest is held every summer in Montego Bay and attracts the best reggae, ska and dub musicians from across the globe.
The reggae festival is held over three days and is widely viewed as the best reggae festival in the world. There are many famous local performers and international stars. Although not everybody that performs is strictly in the reggae genre, musicians mix it up with reggae influences. Musicians that have performed at the festival in the past include Wyclef Jean, Mary J Blige, Destiny's Child, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott and many more.
The Reggae Sumfest is a world-class music festival attended by thousands of people. Some of the events take place on the beach and others in venues around the city. You can find out about the programme and buy tickets on the official website below.
Montego Bay is Jamaica's most popular tourist city, and for good reason.
Many visitors have no desire to venture beyond the stunning white Caribbean beaches, which will always be the greatest attractions in Montego Bay. And for good reason: Doctor's Cave Beach, though it now contains no caves and no conspicuous medical practitioners, is a great favourite; the Montego Bay Yacht Club is a wonderful location for cocktails or a romantic meal on the beach; and Cornwall Beach, Aquasol Beach and Sunset Beach are all popular choices. The Montego Bay Marine Park is a protected area ideal for scuba diving, snorkelling and any number of other ocean-based activities. Many of the beaches in Montego Bay are affiliated with resorts and have admission fees.
Montego Bay has two worthy Jamaican Great Houses to explore. The Greenwood Great House, built between 1780 and 1800, and once home to about 3,000 slaves, is now arguably the greatest antique museum in the Caribbean. Th other is Rose Hall, infamous for the wicked female mistress who is still said to haunt the place.
There are many exciting excursions out of the city, including tours of nearby plantations like Croydon in the Mountains, and visits to historic villages like Falmouth. One of the most popular daytrips is a visit to the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, where you can hand feed hummingbirds.
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