When Christopher Columbus laid eyes on Jamaica in 1494, he was moved to write “It is the fairest island eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky”. Jamaica is definitely somewhere that you’ll be equally impressed with. The country that gave the world Usain Bolt, Grace Jones and jerk chicken has plenty of surprises up its sleeve for visitors. If you remember the film, Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Olympic Bobsledding team then you’ll know that this island nation is not to be underestimated. Discover our ultimate guide to Jamaica with tips for what to see and do, when to visit, what to eat and more…
Why Visit Jamaica
Jamaicans are extremely proud of their heritage and love to tell visitors about it. Kevin, our tour guide from Paradise Travels, had an infectious enthusiasm for his country and its many attractions. We learnt that in the 1940s, the island became popular with celebrities including Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming, who wrote many of his James Bond books at GoldenEye. More recently, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle visited Montego Bay for a friend’s wedding. The country has a long tradition of music, with ska and reggae being famous the world over. Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Shaggy are just 3 of its most famous exports and many international musicians have recorded here including Harry Styles for his first solo album.
Where to Visit in Jamaica
Jamaica is actually the third largest island in the Caribbean so there’s no chance of going stir crazy here! It lies 150 kilometers south of Cuba and 160 kilometers west of Haiti and is spread over 10,911 square kilometers, with 1,022 kilometers of unspoiled coastline. Kingston is the capital and the largest city, with two distinct areas, historic Downtown, and New Kingston. The Northwest area of Jamaica is perhaps the most popular area with visitors thanks to Montego Bay. To the East, beaches such as this one named Frenchman’s Cove are not to be missed, but take time to explore the mountainous interior of the country, which is equally beautiful.
The Blue Mountains, in the Eastern part of the island, are renowned for their coffee production and rise to a peak of 2,256 meters. Jamaica is divided into 14 parishes, and nearby you’ll find the attractive parish of Portland, with a laid-back vibe and lush vegetation. There are some unique places to stay here, such as Kanopi House – an intimate treehouse retreat with magnificent views over the famous Blue Lagoon where Jacques Cousteau once dove.
In the Northeast parish of St Mary, you’ll find the iconic GoldenEye villa, overlooking Oracabessa Bay, where Ian Fleming wrote all 14 of his James Bond novels. Well, we say you’ll find it but actually the entrance is completely unmarked. Today it’s a very luxurious resort with a swim-up spa, fresh water infinity pool and fabulous restaurants.
Ocho Rios is slightly further from the airports but a great base for visiting many of Jamaica’s attractions. Its all-inclusive resorts such as Moon Palace are a hit with families. With complimentary non-motorized water-sports, free phone calls to the USA and Canada and the largest spa on the island, it’s a hassle-free choice.
From here, you can easily reach some of the waterfalls for which Jamaica is renowned, such as Island Gully Falls. Formerly known as The Blue Hole, it’s a picturesque place where visitors can enjoy cliff diving and a Tarzan style rope swing! Also close by are Konoko Falls and Dunn’s River Falls – the latter can get rather busy when cruise ships are in port so pick your day to visit wisely.
When to Visit Jamaica
There’s no bad time of year to visit as temperatures remain fairly constant, from 25 to 30 °C in coastal areas and 15 to 22 °C in the mountains. Having said that, rainfall is more likely from September to October, particularly in the North and East of the island. The peak season for vacationers seeking Winter sun is from mid December to April, when rainfall is lowest.
What to See in Jamaica
Jamaica has some historic towns with elegant 18th and 19th century Georgian buildings such as Falmouth, located in Trelawny Parish. Easily reached from Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, it’s also a popular cruise-ship destination.
Under 30 minutes from Falmouth, you’ll find the Hampden Estate, which produces award winning rums. Back in Ochos Rios, Yaaman Adventure Park is well worth a visit. There’s a charming aviary and many different activities including horse riding, Segway tours, and a jitney ride to the Great House followed by a cooking class.
Outdoor Activities in Jamaica
Adventurous souls will enjoy ziplining at both Cranbrook Flower Forest and Mystical Mountain near Ocho Rios. Rafting on the Rio Grande or the Martha Brae river is very popular and not quite as energetic as it sounds as you’re seated whilst an experienced rafter takes you on a picturesque tour. Kayaking on the Blue Lagoon is also fun and if you take a dip in the water there you’ll see that it’s an invigorating blend of fresh and saltwater, in parts hot and in parts cold.
What to Pack for Jamaica
We’ll be writing in detail about what you should pack for Jamaica, but if you’ll be doing any outdoor activities, then water shoes are a must. Topless sunbathing is illegal so make sure to pack a few swimsuits and bikinis as well as mosquito repellent. Shower gel is not always available at hotels with soap being provided instead so consider bringing your own travel-sized version if you can’t live without it. We’d definitely recommend wedge espadrilles rather than high heels and loose clothing rather than tight jeans or bandage dresses that will stick to you in the heat.
What to Eat in Jamaica
An intriguing mix of international influences, Jamaican cuisine is well known for its spiciness yet there are many milder recipes to please international palates. We’ve written about it in detail here. The national dish of Jamaica is ackee, a fruit that is served with salt fish, while Jamaica jerk chicken is not to be missed. It originated in Boston Bay and that’s still the place to go if you want the hottest version possible! Run down is a tasty combination of salt mackerel and coconut cream, whilst fried dumplings, plantain, oxtail and curry dishes are also popular. Jamaican patties filled with beef, chicken or cheese make a great quick snack and callaloo is a lovely side dish made from this leaf vegetable, seasoned with salt, onions, and scallions. Finish your meal with a slice of Jamaica rum cake and wash it all down with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, a rum cocktail, a Red Stripe beer or the local favourite, ice cold jelly from coconuts.
• The official language in Jamaica is English, although you will sometimes hear a patois, which is a mix of some African, English and Spanish languages.
• The currency is the Jamaican dollar, which does not have a fixed rate. Visitors can pay for items in US dollars but should check first whether the prices listed are in Jamaican or US dollars.
• The electrical current is 110 volts
• Tips are included in some of the all-inclusive resorts but outside of these, a 10 to 15 percent tip for restaurants, taxis and other services is generally recommended.
• Local time is GMT -5.
• Smoking ganja, aka marijuana is actually illegal in Jamaica.
• Visitors do not require vaccination certificates, unless they are travelling from an infected area for yellow fever.
How to Get to Jamaica
There are many international scheduled flights to and from Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston and Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Private jets can land at Ian Fleming International Airport, situated in Boscobel, 10 kilometers east of Ocho Rios and the runway is due to be expanded to accommodate larger planes.
We hope that you’ve found this ultimate guide to Jamaica useful, stay tuned for lots more! Thanks to Visit Jamaica for a wonderful stay.
And lastly, if you’re craving a taste of Jamaica but can’t get away just yet, then Londoners are in luck as the Jamaica Garden Terrace at Boisdale Canary Wharf is open until end of August and serving up some delicious jerk chicken and rum cocktails.
Have you ever visited Jamaica and if so what were your highlights?