Ah, Jamaica; the land of jerk and jackfruit, of the roaring Dunn’s River and beaches to die for.
A veritable jewel of the Caribbean region, Jamaica boasts its own unique Carib come Creole come African come colonial come Latin culture and heritage.
There are gorgeous mansions with an English edge next to earthy beach huts issuing the smoky smells of barbeque.
There are sprawling all-inclusive resorts under the shadow of mighty 2,000-meter high mountains.
There are historic plantations and lively samba bars.
There’s the home of revered Bob Marley, museums dedicated to his art and ad hoc reggae concerts on the beaches.
And as if that’s still not enough, would-be travelers to this jungle-dressed land in the Greater Antilles get to sample strong rums and sip beers out at sea, trace the history of Spanish wars, go hiking, meet dolphins and reef sharks, delve into deep caves and mix with friendly islanders! You’re simply bound to enjoy…
Let’s explore the best things to do in Jamaica:
1. Bathe under the Dunn’s River Falls
Hidden between the green, green jungles just outside of high-class Ocho Rios and its picture-perfect James Bond beaches, the Dunn’s River Falls carve their way through the hills in a series of breathtaking stepped cataracts.
One of the undisputed must-sees of the island, the site draws groups of tourists and tour guides eager to wade through the gushing waters and scale the 180-meter long shelves of travertine that form the waterfall itself.
The trip can be strenuous, requiring visitors to cling to the protruding rocks, hop up the water-doused steps and wade through the plunge pools.
Dunn’s River Falls occupy a gorgeous glade in the middle of the Jamaican jungles; a spot where once the British colonial armies fought the Spanish for control of the island as a whole!
2. Kick-back on Seven Mile Beach
Stretched out for – you guessed it! – seven long miles of the picture-perfect Jamaican west coast, Seven Mile Beach is consistently rated as one of the top on the island; nay, in the world! Of course, it’s got all the shimmering alabaster-white sands and the lapping waters of turquoise blue you’d expect of a popular tropical beach, but there’s also more.
Take the clifftop bars of Negril town, which crown the rocks here with palm umbrellas and offer uber-romantic broadsides of the Jamaican sunset over the sea.
Then there is the unexpected hedonism and nightlife, which bubbles spontaneously out of the hotel bars after dark, spilling onto the sands in a medley of rum punches and mojitos, reggaeton and samba.
3. Wonder at the pretty colonial styles of Devon House
Devon House is something of a small enclave of calm that makes its home right in the heart of the throbbing capital city of Kingston.
Surrounded by manicured lawns of green grass and lanky coconut palms, it boasts a gorgeous array of whitewashed colonial architectural styles.
It was constructed way back in the 1880s by the island’s first black millionaire, and today the interior rooms are open for touring.
Others (particularly the locals) will come on the weekends to simply kick back in the gardens and chill, or munch on the milky and refreshing ice creams of the nearby I-Scream joint (said to be the best on the island!)
4. Swim with the dolphin pods at Dolphin Cove
Get ready to check-off the bucket list with this one, because a trip to Dolphin Cove means an opportunity to get up-close-and-personal and swim with some of the most intelligent mammals in the ocean.
Located just a stone’s throw from Ocho Rios and the Dunn’s River Falls alike, the attraction can be easily accessed along the north shore.
Visitors come to learn all about the curious array of sharks and dolphins that live in the Caribbean, and to spend the day swimming with stingrays, Carib sharks, dolphin pods and more.
There are also regular shows of marine life, while the whole area is fringed with pearly-white beaches and lush tropical rainforests to add to the atmosphere.
Oh yep, and don’t forget to meet the resident iguana!
5. Hike the Blue Mountains
Whoever said a holiday to Jamaica is just about hitting the beaches and munching on jerk chicken? With the mighty ridges of the Blue Mountains rising to peaks of more than 2,200 meters above sea level on the eastern edge of the island, it’s hard not to get tempted by the trekking trails and walking routes.
Intrepid visitors can come and scale the mighty Blue Mountain Peak, the highest in the country.
This soaring summit offers sweeping panoramas over the tropical canopies of the forest all around, while views down to Kingston on the south coast and Hope Bay and Annotto in the north are revealed on the clearest days.
Others opt to bed down in rustic mountain homestays, try to spot multi-coloured hummingbirds in the air, or simply enjoy smelling the fresh waxy boughs of palm trees and eucalyptus common to the highlands.
6. Pay homage to the reggae master at Nine Mile
No trip to the very home of reggae beats could possibly be complete without at least a small nod of respect to great master himself: Bob Marley.
Unquestionably the most famous face to ever emerge from this tropical enclave of the Caribbean, Marley was born and raised in the small village of Nine Mile, located deep between the jungle-dressed hills of central Jamaica, a drive away from popular Montego Bay and the beaches around Rio Bueno.
Today, the humble little cluster of homes is host to the musician’s mausoleum and still has his onetime home (where he lived until he was 13). Regular tours lead by dedicated Rastafarians reveal where he grew up and learned to play his music, the Rock Pillow where he found inspiration, and the grave where he and his guitar were laid to rest after his death in 1981.
7. Go rafting on the Rio Grande
Winding its way through the lush jungles and the rising foothills of the Blue Mountains just west of Port Antonio, the water ways of the Rio Grande are one of the top adventure tourist destinations here.
Travelers come to get a break from the sun-splashed beaches of the north shore and try their hand at navigating bamboo-built rafts along the meanders.
Along the way they pass banana plantations and rugged gorges, sheer-cut walls of stone that drop dramatically into the river and the endless green undulations of the mountainous inland.
8. Sample Jamaican jerk at Scotchies
The masters of Jamaica’s trademark jerk chicken, Scotchies now boasts several locations across the island.
A rough-around-the-edges sort of place that’s made with walls of breeze blocks, leaning bamboo and scrawled menus on chalk boards, the joint oozes earthy Carib character from each of its smoky pores.
The kitchen is a series of bubbling cauldrons of jerk sauce that steam and froth over crackling piles of pimento wood, while dish after dish of iconic jerk chicken (the food everyone – expect perhaps the veggies – have to try at least once) flows into the al fresco garden to be devoured by the huge crowds of locals who gather here at lunchtime.
9. Get in touch with your spy side on the sands of James Bond Beach
Ever since a youthful Sean Connery met his bikini-dressed Ursula Andress on the sands of Oracabessa Bay way back in 1962, this narrow cove just outside of Ocho Rios has been dutifully known as James Bond Beach.
It’s certainly got the looks; coming fringed with swaying palms and clusters of verdant mangroves; illuminated by the glow of the sun as it bounces off the aquamarine shore.
The little inlet has become a popular spot for music concerts too, and visitors often roll up to join in with ad hoc reggae shows or famous DJs, many of whom turn the tables in the Moonraker Bar that looms above the sands.
10. Get spooked by the White Witch of Rose Hall
Don’t be fooled by the pretty facades of Rose Hall, an old plantation that’s shrouded by blooming rainforest and green gardens amidst the hills just outside of Montego Bay.
Why? Well, not only are they steeped in a dark history of slavery and the colonial domination of European powers, but they are also considered to be the most haunted spot on the island! Yep, visitors can come to seek out the legendary ghost of one Annie Palmer; a Haitian-British settler who is said to have murdered several husbands in the house.
Her spectre is thought to move around the restored rooms of the great mansion to this day, and night tours by candlelight even take visitors to the dungeons – now welcomingly converted into a Jamaican tavern in the spooky bowels of the building!
11. See the exhibitions at the Bob Marley Museum
Housed in the former residence of the island’s great reggae star (the same place where he was almost assassinated in 1976), the exhibition rooms of the Bob Marley Museum have been perfectly restored and maintained to look just like they did when the Wailers and Marley himself resided here in the 70s.
Visitors can see the personal recording studio used in the production of the chart-topping Tuff Gong records, wander the private bedroom and gardens of the legendary musician and even see a lifelike hologram of him at the now-iconic One Love Peace Concert.
12. Tunnel into the Green Grotto Caves
The Green Grotto Caves can be found hidden beneath the thick undergrowth of the jungles that line the Jamaican north shore.
A series of deep caverns and tunnels that are set over two distinct levels underground, they are steeped in island history.
First they were a refuge for the native Indian tribespeople, and then they hosted runaway slaves from the plantations of the inland hills.
They were also used by smugglers and as ammo dumps for the invading Spanish forces in the 1600s.
Today though, they attract visitors with their subterranean lakes and colossal stalactites, stalagmites and geologic wonders.
13. Enjoy the night time jams on Reggae Beach
This small pocket of golden sand that lurks between the jungles and the coves midway between Ocho Rios and Oracabessa is not only hailed as one of the island’s more off-the-beaten-track and alternative seaside spots, but also has another, more musical trick up its sleeve.
Every Friday after dark, as the sun fades behind the palm boughs to the back of the sands, the cove comes alive with the off-beats of reggae and the memorable thrum of Caribbean samba and salsa.
Once, these ad hoc performances were little more than campfire gatherings of amateur guitar strummers and reggae singers, but the arrival of the Bamboo Beach Bar has given things a more electric turn.
Now visitors can also expect evening fire shows and dancing troupes, performances and mouth-watering Jamaican tapas.
14. Have a tipple over the waters at Floyd’s Pelican Bar
Emerging on rickety stilts of salt-washed wood from the turquoise waters that top the reefs around Black River and Treasure Beach, Floyd’s Pelican Bar is perhaps the single most iconic drinking joint in all of Jamaica.
A must for cocktail lovers, the bamboo and driftwood bar that’s anchored by a small out-at-sea sandbar can only be reached by boat.
It serves all the usual cold Red Stripes and rum punch mixers, and comes with some perennially smiling bar staff, and – of course – awesome views of the Caribbean all around.
In short, this one’s a curious spot for a tipple with a difference.
15. Taste your way through the Appleton Estate
Like so many of the other tropical specks in the midst of the Caribbean Sea, Jamaica is famed for its potent output of rum.
The finest and most recognisable on the island is oft considered to be the creations of the Appleton Estate, which can now be toured at its location on the south-western hills of the island.
Daily trips include a guided walk through the brewing houses, where the trademark copper casks still stand, interesting glimpses at the long brewing history of rum makers in the region, and oodles of chances to sample the fiery island brews. Nice.