Jamaica may evoke images of dreadlocks and reggae music, but there’s much more to the island than pop culture suggests. When Christopher Columbus first arrived on Jamaica, he described it as, “the fairest isle mine eyes ever beheld.”
The sprawling terrain includes verdant mountains, tropical forests, cascading waterfalls, and some 120 natural rivers, while sparkling blue waters surround the shores. Jamaica offers every kind of activity imaginable—from adventure courses and hiking trails to snorkeling and shopping galore. And with the friendly hospitality of the Jamaican people, having a great time while in port is always no problem, mon.
Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean and the largest English-speaking nation in the region. Mountains rise along the center of the island, climbing to the Blue Mountains in the east. At 7,402 feet above sea level, Blue Mountain Peak is Jamaica’s highest point, and the eponymous Blue Mountain Coffee is widely revered as the best java in the world. There are as many as 120 riverbeds across the island, many of them dry except after heavy rains. More than half of the land is composed of soft, porous limestone covered by red-clay soil that feeds a lush ecosystem.
The Taíno Amerindians, Jamaica’s first inhabitants, welcomed Christopher Columbus peacefully when he came upon the isle in 1494. The natives called the island Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.” Because of its natural resources and location smack in the middle of Caribbean trade routes, European colonists spent years fighting to control the land. The Spanish were the first to establish settlements on the island, which soon became centers of activity. But in the 1650s, the British took over.
In a desperate attempt to hold on to the land, the Spaniards freed and armed their slaves. The Maroons, as the ex-slaves came to be called, were the first army to ever defeat the British. Their descendants still exist on the island today. Despite the Maroons’ stealth attempts, commerce thrived under British rule and by the 18th century, Jamaica was known as the jewel of the British crown, producing some 22 percent of the world’s sugar supply.
The city of Falmouth was originally founded in 1769 on land once owned by Edward Barrett, the grandfather of the highly regarded English poet Elizabeth Browning. It has been the capital of Trelawny Parish since 1790, when it was named for the English birthplace of Sir William Trelawny, then the governor.
The island’s mountainous topography, flowing rivers, and fertile soil—combined with Falmouth’s strategic location along major Caribbean trade routes—led to a booming local economy in the island’s early days. Stone-cut warehouses held a steady supply of exports such as sugar, rum, and coffee before the goods moved through the port to be shipped back to England. On any given day, as many as 30 ships were anchored in the harbor, flooding the streets with hundreds of sailors, merchants, and townspeople.
By the end of the 18th century, Jamaica was the crown jewel of Britain’s colonies in the West Indies—and its leading producer of sugar and rum. Falmouth was the epicenter of the island’s sugar industry, its growth and popularity fueled by more than 80 sugar plantations operating nearby. By the early 19th century, Falmouth was regarded as the wealthiest New World port south of Charleston, South Carolina.
The economic success also led Falmouth to become one of the most modernized towns in the Western Hemisphere at the time. There was even a running-water system in Falmouth before there was one in New York City. In the colonial tradition, the town was meticulously mapped out and the streets were named after British royalty and heroes. With several newspapers, a busy town square, a town hall, hotels, and more, Falmouth seemed poised for future growth and success.
When full emancipation was granted in 1838, it caused a decline in sugarcane production. Plantations closed operations and ships ceased to stop in port. Before long, local merchants had moved on. By 1890, the once-thriving city became a sleepy fishing village.
However, full emancipation strengthened the Jamaican people and culture. Two significant achievements—universal adult suffrage in 1944 and independence from Britain in 1962—set the tone for a strong nation of people willing and wanting to prosper and thrive.
The Historic Falmouth Cruise Port, located 18 miles east of Montego Bay, was the first-ever thematic port destination in the Caribbean. Construction began in 2009 thanks to a joint effort between Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and the Port Authority of Jamaica. Their collective goal was to awaken the coastal town from its 150-year-long slumber and usher in a new era of enchantment for cruise guests.
The 32-acre state-of-the-art facility welcomed its first cruise ship in March 2011. A record-breaking crowd of 30,000 locals gathered at the terminal for the event, and that same sense of welcoming celebration prevails in Falmouth today. When ships arrive in port, local mento bands strike up a tune and play throughout the day. They are accompanied by Moko Jumbie stilt dancers and a balladeer—a one-man band who entertains guests by the craft pavilion.
The heart of Falmouth is Water Square, which is actually shaped like a triangle. The grandiose yellow Georgian structure off the square is the Falmouth Courthouse. The current building is a replica of the original structure erected in 1815. The edifice supported the town’s critical role as a local political hub and also served as a social venue for elite residents’ balls and parties. The fully restored structure now serves as the town courthouse and town hall and holds parish-council offices.
The 100-plus-year-old Albert George Shopping and Historical Center is also found in Water Square. Today, the open-air bazaar is reclaiming its role as a prosperous market. It’s a good spot to pick up local handcrafted products and other island souvenirs.
The William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church is one of the town’s most significant historical buildings. The church dates to the mid-19th century, when the highly regarded English Baptist missionary, William Knibb, became known on Jamaica as the Great Emancipator. The antislavery activist preached against slavery across the island and in England, where he pleaded his case to the Crown. His efforts helped lead to the Emancipation Act of 1834, which granted Jamaican slaves full freedom by 1838. Slaves gathered at the William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church for an all-night vigil, awaiting their first day of freedom. Today, a sculpture within the church depicts the scene.
The oldest building in town is St. Peter’s Anglican Church, also known as the Falmouth Parish Church, circa 1796. It is one of the largest and oldest churches on Jamaica. Constructed of brick and stone, the building is a good example of the vernacular architectural style derived from classical forms.
Montego Bay—MoBay to locals—is about a 20-minute ride west of Falmouth. It is Jamaica’s second-largest city and its top tourist destination. Within this commercial center, visitors have the option to lounge by the warm waters of the bay; hit a funky beach bar on the Hip Strip; tee off at a championship golf course; tour historical plantations; or get lost beneath the rainforest’s emerald-green canopy, which hides scores of plunging waterfalls.
One of the grandest displays of architecture in MoBay is St. James Parish Church. Built in 1775 and restored after a 1957 earthquake, it is constructed of white limestone and features a bell tower and elaborate Palladian window behind the altar.
Beach lovers in Montego Bay can head to Doctor’s Cave Beach, one of the island’s most picturesque stretches of sand. The water here is said to be fed by mineral springs with natural healing powers, which caught the attention of wealthy travelers back in the 1940s.
The hopping Gloucester Avenue, aptly named the Hip Strip, is a beachfront boulevard with Montego Bay’s most-happening shops, bars, and restaurants. For an authentic taste of Jamaica, order jerked pork, chicken, or sausage, and wash it all down with a Red Stripe beer or a tropical concoction made with local Appleton Estate rum.
Cornwall Beach is another favorite spot on the Hip Strip. It’s ideal for swimming, snorkeling, or just soaking up some sun. Join in beach games, learn local dance moves, or relax under an umbrella while reggae and steel-drum music plays in the background.
The nearby Rose Hall Great House is in the heart of Montego Bay’s surrounding golf country. The three-story Georgian-style great house is the setting of a dramatic tale with a plot that includes unrequited love, black magic, revenge, and the ghost of a beautiful but murderous heroine. Memories of the house’s former mistress, Annie Palmer (aka the “White Witch”), are kept alive. There are frequent reports of sightings of her ghost, and her story remains forever an enigma with tremendous appeal to feature-film and television crews. In the gift shop, a large collection of photographs represents ghostly sightings by modern-day visitors. The estate is just one of many attractions in the 7,000-acre resort community.
There are several points of interest between Falmouth and Montego Bay, including the Greenwood Great House, one of the finest antique museums in the Caribbean. Built by the Barrett family in 1800, the house still has most of its original furnishings, as well as the family’s library of rare books, paintings, and musical instruments.
Nearby is Good Hope Estate, which was once one of the most sought-after great houses on Jamaica. Built circa 1755, the estate and its 9,000-acre grounds were owned by John Tharp, the richest planter on Jamaica during the early 1800s. Tours are offered of the restored mansion, furnished with period antiques and artwork. The grounds, which now span 2,000 acres, feature several historic buildings along with a water wheel and kiln.
Stop by the pottery house to see the work of Good Hope’s resident potter, then head to the Trading House to purchase one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Take a peaceful horse-and-buggy ride for a leisurely tour of the property, or journey deeper into the countryside past ruins, orange groves, and the Martha Brae River. Currently, the Good Hope Estate property is home base for Chukka Adventure Tours, which operates a number of the island’s top expeditions.
The Good Hope Estate is also home to the Chukka Time Traveler Zip Line. Soar through the canopy using an intricate system of harnesses, pulleys, and carabiners while gazing at the surrounding rainforest before arriving at the next cliffside platform, some 45 feet above the ground. A series of obstacles ranging from 105 to 660 feet in length spreads through the Laughlands River Gorge, a giant valley carved from the surrounding mountain by ancient waters. In the rolling hills above Rose Hall, the White Witch Golf Course boasts colorful, mountainous terrain, cool breezes, and stunning views of the Caribbean. And The Shoppes at Rose Hall feature a number of stores backed by the cruise line guarantee, making this stop a go-to destination for golfers and shoppers alike.
White Witch is next door to the prestigious Cinnamon Hill Golf Course. Designed by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril, this 6,828-yard, par-72 course follows the coastline. Towering aqueducts, venerable grave sites, and beachfront holes make for a unique golf setting.
Buffeted by trade winds, the front nine are dominated by open fairways, while the back nine turn away from the sea and move into the winding hills.
As the course ascends into the hills, caddies won’t be shy about acting as unofficial tour guides, bringing the site’s vibrant history to life. They’ll point out landmarks like the family burial plot of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the longtime home of Johnny Cash and June Carter.
Rose Hall also boasts its own zip-line canopy tour. Seven challenging traverses are coupled with intermittent nature walks where guests learn about the diversity of Jamaica’s landscape and history. The tour’s platforms are mounted in old cottonwood trees, set amid a forest where ackee, breadfruit, pear, and guinep trees thrive.
For a five-star experience, indulge in a day at Iberostar Rose Hall Beach, a luxury hotel property. Excursions to the all-inclusive resort include access to a buffet and drinks.
Ocho Rios is about a 45-minute drive east of Falmouth. It may be less well known than the trendier Montego Bay, but in terms of natural attractions, it’s unmatched. The city gives visitors the opportunity to fly through the rainforest canopy, swim with dolphins, and tour seaside properties of some of the Caribbean’s most respected artists, all the while reveling in the lush setting.
There are not eight rivers flowing through Ocho Rios, as its name implies. The name results from a misinterpretation of the city’s original Spanish appellation, Las Chorreras, meaning “waterfalls,” which was fitting as the magnificent Dunn’s River Falls is found here.
First-time visitors to Jamaica must see the world-famous waterfalls, which inspired the local saying that Ocho Rios is “where heaven spills into the sea.” Here, steady streams of water cascade over rocky limestone cliffs into the Caribbean waters below. Spend the day in the pools at the base or climb to the top of the 600-foot-high mountainside, either splashing through the water or walking up the parallel staircase. Hollywood has been drawn to Dunn’s River Falls, too. In 1962, the falls had a big role in the 007 film, Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, along with 1972’s Live and Let Die with Roger Moore, and in the 1988 classic Cocktail, with a young Tom Cruise.
Known as the attractions capital of Jamaica, Ocho Rios is within minutes of some of the island’s most popular theme parks. Who can forget the Jamaican bobsled team? The 1993 flick Cool Runnings immortalized their quest for an Olympic gold medal and Mystic Mountain is home to the thrilling roller coaster Bobsled Jamaica. Paying tribute to Jamaica’s 1988 and 1992 teams, this signature coaster takes riders on a gravity-driven drop down thousands of feet of twists and turns. Just like in bobsledding, the speed of the descent is controlled by a handbrake in the car.
For a more steady adventure, take the Mystic Mountain Rainforest Aerial Explorer 700 feet above the ground on a chairlift-style cable car. This soothing ride glides through the top of the canopy, providing glimpses of the cliff-lined north shore and the emerald treetops. At the peak, explore the educational pavilion that emphasizes four distinct components of Jamaica’s proud history: the environment and natural resources native to the island; the country’s colorful heritage and culture; Jamaican maritime prominence; and the athletic tradition of the Jamaican people. There will also be time to walk up to the observation tower for spectacular views. During the return ride, the tram glides just below the treetops, providing a different perspective of the forest.
Ocho Rios is also home to the Green Grotto Caves, a large labyrinth of limestone caves with numerous intriguing rock formations, chambers, and light holes. The caves are part of a series of interconnected passageways that spread across 64 acres far beneath the Dry Harbour Mountains. A small, captivating underground pool called the Grotto Lake is found within the innermost cavern.
Estimated to be more than a half-million years old, the Green Grotto Caves have served different purposes for various groups of people throughout Jamaica’s history. The native Taíno Indians found shelter in the caves; slaves found refuge in them; and Spaniards used them as hideouts when the British took over. Today, the caves are used for ecological exploration.
Dolphin Cove is an entertainment complex surrounded by the jungle. The all-inclusive theme park is home to a family of bottlenose dolphins that visitors can swim with, as well as exotic birds, snakes, and iguanas. Watch a thrilling shark show, witness stingrays gracefully gliding through the lagoon, and visit a replica of Jamaica’s most famous pirate haunt, Little Port Royal, where pirates roam through town. There’s also the opportunity to relax on the beach while listening to the rhythms of Caribbean music, and to sample the world-famous Blue Mountain Coffee at the Star Buccaneers coffee shop.
Ocho Rios, also known as the garden center of Jamaica, is flourishing with tropical plants and flowers. Of the 3,800 kinds of flowering plants and ferns growing on Jamaica, some 720 are endemic. The Cranbrook Flower Forest offers stately royal palms, perfectly groomed lawns, cascading waterfalls, and an array of tropical flowers. Nature enthusiasts will be awestruck during the three-mile drive through Fern Gully. The former riverbed is now a winding road that runs through a shaded forest with more than 300 species of fern trees. The gully is lined with vendor stalls where islanders display wood carvings and other local crafts.
Rafting down the Martha Brae River, another popular excursion, is Jamaica’s version of a Venetian gondola ride. Participants board a 30-foot-long bamboo raft and enjoy a three-mile ride along the Martha Brae River. An expert guide paddles the raft down the gentle waterway, passing some of nature’s most beautiful treasures. Each raft typically holds between two and four passengers.
To get in touch with the wonders of the plant and animal life of Jamaica, take a guided tour of the nearby Jamaica Swamp Safari Village. Here, visitors can venture into a walk-through aviary and observe various species of rare endemic birds; hold a baby crocodile or a Jamaican yellow snake; and learn about the exploits of Agent 007 and the famous crocodile-jumping scene from Live and Let Die.
The natural splendor of the northern coastal region has inspired a number of noted artists. Author Ian Fleming found inspiration for his James Bond adventure series on one of the island’s most exquisite strips of sand. His former home has been transformed into GoldenEye resort on James Bond Beach, which is about 20 minutes away from Ocho Rios. The area also inspired British playwright Sir Noël Coward to write many manuscripts at his cliffside cottage, Firefly Estate.
Jamaica’s ties to Rastafarianism was brought into the limelight in the 1970s, thanks in large part to reggae legend Bob Marley. But it had actually gained some momentum on Jamaica during the early 1930s. It is both a religious and a social movement that emphasizes African roots, with a focus on meditation, self-sustainable livelihoods, art, and politics. Adherents drum and chant to renew their connection with the former Ethiopian emperor Ras Tafari, whom they believe is the messiah. Rastafarians are identified by flowing ceremonial robes, turbans, and staffs trimmed with the red, green, and gold colors of the Ethiopian flag. This image of Jamaica has been portrayed time and again in pop culture. In actuality, Rastafarians represent a small percentage of Jamaicans.
Bob Marley fans can pay tribute to the reggae king at the mountain village of Nine Mile, the musician’s birthplace. The Bob Marley Museum features exclusive memorabilia and the Bob Marley Mausoleum, his final resting place.
Jamaica is celebrated for its tropical beauty, reggae music, and cuisine, but it’s the spirit of the people that really makes this Caribbean gem shine. The strong African cultures have since been joined by an influx of Asians, Indians, and Middle Easterners, making Jamaica a melting pot of international cultures. It makes sense that the national motto is “Out of Many, One People.”