Jamaica holidaysThe sample prices are per person based on two people travelling!
Although English is the official language of this former British colony and is spoken all over the island, Jamaicans also speak Jamaican Creole, with its vocabulary and pronunciation distinctly different from English. Billboards and signage also occasionally use Jamaican Creole.
The official currency of Jamaica is the Jamaican dollar (JA$), with JA$50, 100, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 banknotes in circulation. The US dollar (US$) is commonly accepted although some outlets offer less than the official exchange rate, but more than in exchange booths. Outlets in rural areas only accept the Jamaican dollar and, in the main tourist areas and towns, most credit and debit cards are accepted although petrol stations are cash-only and card transactions are charged at eight per cent. ATMs are easily found across the island.
Citizens of the British Commonwealth of Nations, including UK nationals, can enter Jamaica visa-free on production of a current passport which is valid for six months, evidence of sufficient funds and a return ticket. US and Canadian citizens may enter visa-free with a passport for a stay of up to six months. Visa-free entry is also extended to nationals of Germany and Japan, who can stay for 90 and 30 days, respectively.
Jamaica has a tropical climate featuring humid, hot weather along its coastlines and more temperate weather in its mountainous interior. Parts of the southern coast are in the rain-shadow of the mountains and are relatively dry as a result. The island lies in the Atlantic hurricane belt, with strong storms a frequent feature of the overall climate. The hottest months are June, July, August and September, with daytime temperatures as high as 29°C, and the coldest month is February at around 25°C.
The hurricane season runs from July to October.
Sangster International Airport is the main air arrivals hub, located on Montego Bay and known as the gateway to the Caribbean. It’s the most popular airport for visitors to the island’s north coast and handles 95 per cent of the island’s international flights, with links to many US, Canadian, UK and European cities, including London and Manchester. Norman Manley International Airport is located outside Kingston, with 130 international routes to the US, Canada and the UK.
Options for UK travellers to Sangster International Airport are Virgin Atlantic from London-Gatwick, Thomas Cook and Thompson from London-Gatwick and Manchester, and Thomson from Birmingham. US vacationers have a choice of airlines and cities, including New York with Delta, Jet Blue from Boston, United from Chicago and Washington. Many European air hubs, including Brussels with Jetairfly and Milan-Malpensa with Blue Panorama, are also served. Miami is served by American Airlines, New York by JetBlue and New York, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Toronto by Caribbean Airlines. Typical flight times between London and Kingston average 9 hours.
The cheapest way from the UK is by charter companies such as Thomas Cook and Thompson. A good way to avoid the UK’s flight taxes is to take the Eurostar from London to Paris and pick up a French charter airline XL Airways seasonal flight to Sangster International Airport. It may be more economical to take a bargain flight to Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt or Milan and connect with a flight to Jamaica. Flight taxes from European air hubs are cheaper than in the UK, especially if you’re travelling as a family.
Jamaica is a popular cruise ship destination for Caribbean cruises. These cruises often depart from US ports such as Miami before making a stop at Jamaica’s Montego Bay. If arriving by cruise is beyond your budget, getting here by air is your best bet.
As Jamaica’s passenger rail service was discontinued in 1992, getting around the island is by bus, hire car, taxi or boat. Buses are the cheapest means of public transport, and taxis come in two forms - route taxis, locally owned cars whose owners give the service at a negotiated price, and licensed taxis with red number plates. Jamaican roads vary in condition and can become impassable in wet weather, yet getting around by self-drive allows you the freedom to determine your own schedule.
Domestic flights are a practical and relatively inexpensive way to travel between Kingston, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, with Jamaica Air Shuttle flying from Kingston’s small Tinson Pen Airport. The expensive option is a private flight from one of Kingston’s general aviation hubs to anywhere you want to go, with several Kingston companies providing this service.
Bus travel is cheap or expensive, dependent on your comfort zone. New, long-distance express buses are extremely comfortable but can be more expensive than flights, while basic, air-conditioned buses are very affordable. For local journeys, Kingston has an extensive bus network as well as minibuses, and drivers are helpful. Montego Bay has few public buses, with hotel shuttles and taxis taking up the slack. The bright red buses of choice are operated by the Jamaican Union of Travellers Association.
Car hire is expensive in Caribbean terms, but easily arranged with trusted international companies, ensuring your rented vehicle is well-maintained and properly insured. City roads can be congested, while rural roads are often narrow and twisting, needing slow speeds and care on bends. North-south roads through the mountains are steep with hairpin bends, but driving here allows for an intimate look at the island.
Kingston is the first experience of Jamaica for most visitors, and is a noisy, bustling introduction to the island’s history, culture and laid-back lifestyle. It’s surprisingly large and home to historic sites, pretty Emancipation Park, Coronation Market and Kingston Craft Market. Its museums, especially the Bob Marley Museum, are must-sees, as is the city’s Port Royal, famous as a haven for Caribbean pirates in the 17th century.
The small town of Bath hides a little-known Jamaican secret, a sulphur-rich natural healing spring. Discovered over 300 years ago by a runaway slave, the waters are credited with restorative and therapeutic powers. The soaring cliffs at Lovers’ Leap are another of Jamaica’s sites of stunning natural beauty, plunging over 300m into the ocean near Southfield town.
Font Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in St Elizabeth is a haven for birdlife, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles, crocodiles and many of the island’s protected and indigenous species. Set in the forests backing several lovely beaches, the reserve is a peaceful place, with visitors not allowed to enter unless accompanied by a local guide. The charming, historic town of Black River is a short drive away.
Bamboo river rafting is a favourite sport on the Rio Grande and Martha Brae rivers, and pretty Port Maria holds Firefly, the home of the late Noel Coward, set out as it was when the great playwright and composer was visited by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1965. For adventure-lovers, quad biking in the jungles of the foothills or zip-lining through the treetops is easily arranged.
Jamaica’s colonial, slave-owning and pirate history has left landmarks and historic attractions all over the island. For anyone who enjoyed the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean, a visit to the Port Royal is the real thing, as the port was the unofficial hub of buccaneers such as Sir Henry Morgan and the infamous Blackbeard. Kingston grew rich on their plunder, and Fort Charles, Saint Peter’s Church, ruined Fort Rocky and a museum tell the history of those lawless days.
The buzzing tourist town of Ocho Rios is home to the breathtaking Green Grotto Caves and is close to one of Jamaica’s most stunning natural landmarks, the Dunns River Falls. A combination of rapids and waterfalls, it’s a watery 187m climb from the base of the falls to its head, with the less adventurous able to follow a jungle path to the top.
Port Antonio’s main landmarks are the Blue Lagoon, famous for its depth and glorious colour, and the historic DeMontevin Lodge and Folly Mansion. The most famous village on the island is Nine Miles, the birthplace and site of the childhood home of Jamaica’s most-loved son, the legendary reggae star Bob Marley. Visitors are shown around by Rastafarian guides and Marley’s mausoleum and meditation rock are included in the tour.
The Bob Marley Museum in Kingston is set in the star’s home and recording studio, and recounts the life of this amazing man, his music and his charitable foundation aimed at helping those in need worldwide. Spanish Town and stunning colonial Devon House in Kingston tell of the city’s days as a Georgian city, and the National Gallery shows Jamaican art over the centuries.
Entertainment and nightlife in Jamaica is centred on the main tourist towns in and around Montego Bay, and is at its liveliest in the dance clubs. The Hip Strip is where the noisiest and hottest clubs are found, with many set in hotels. Clubs open late and close with the first rays of the morning sun.
A speciality of Jamaica nightlife is the free, outdoor sound-system party, held wherever there’s a reliable electrical outlet giving enough decibel levels. In Kingston, Wednesday parties rave in uptown Burlington Avenue from just after midnight, taken over in the early hours by the party at the Spanish Town Road/Beeston Street intersection and ending at dawn. Monday midnight sees the same phenomenon at Savannah Plaza.
Montego Bay has a good number of friendly, buzzing bars, although the hotels fail badly in the nightlife stakes. Beach bars are ever-popular, although for a quieter evening, you’ll need to find a place away from the ever-present outdoor sound-systems. Sports bars with karaoke nights are popular and plentiful, as are a plethora of dance clubs, and rum and reggae bars are an iconic Jamaican experience.
Ocho Rios is good for riotous nightlife as well, but it has alternatives in the form of small, local bars where you can enjoy a rum punch and meet the locals. Nightlife at the all-inclusive resorts is on a quieter scale, but presents bonuses such as open-air hot tubs and cocktail bars where you can actually hear the conversation. St Elizabeth is well-known for its beach bars, some of which, including the Pelican Bar, are set on stilts in the shallow waters.
Jamaican food is a tasty mix of classic Caribbean dishes and local cuisine, with an unfair reputation for being too spicy. In reality, few dishes are hotter than the summer weather, but most are versatile in their flavours. Rice and peas cooked in coconut milk is a staple, as are meat or vegetable-filled patties, and the national dish is ackee and saltfish, a must-try. Ackee is a local fruit with a unique flavour and saltfish is dried and salted cod, which is tastier than it sounds.
Jamaica’s jerk-flavoured foods are famous, with jerk chicken the most loved, and jerk conch and jerk pork also found. Jerk seasoning is a mix of spices spread on the meat or seafood before it’s barbecued, and curries are found everywhere, with curried goat the classic and curried fish uncommon but well worth searching for. Mangoes here come in many varieties, all delicious, and health-giving coconut juice is a favorite drink.
In Kingston, Montego Bay and the rest of the tourist areas, there’s a great selection of eateries serving Jamaican cuisine. Seafood, grills, Chinese, Indian, Italian and Spanish food, along with jerk eateries and even an occasional vegetarian bistro are present. Montego Bay has the best choice, although Kingston boasts fine dining at the Four Seasons Hotel and several other luxury resorts. For a taste of the real Jamaica, follow the usual rules and look out for places where the locals eat.
Caribbean beaches are legendary for their soft sands and azure-blue, warm waters, with Jamaica’s beaches no exceptions to the rule. One of the best Kingston beaches, Lime Cay Beach, lies on a small island just a short boat ride from Port Royal and is perfect for sunbathing and water sports. Turtle Beach and Mallard Beach are in Ocho Rios, and both have excellent water sports facilities. Seven Mile Beach at Negril is laid-back and carefree, with nude bathing allowed, and Montego Bay’s Walter Fletcher Beach is great for children.
Romantic places abound in Jamaica, whether they’re remote, private areas of natural beauty or romantic manmade retreats. The Blue Lagoon near Port Antonio is an exquisite beauty spot with reputedly aphrodisiac waters and nude swimming allowed, and Reach Falls and its deep pool in the same area are surrounded by dense jungle and are very private. Goldeneye is the romantic retreat where Ian Fleming created James Bond, and Georgian Bloomfield Great House in Mandeville is perfect for dinner a deux in a colonial setting.
For a fun family holiday for mum and dad as well as the kids, Jamaica’s all-inclusive resort hotels offer the best option. Jamaicans are very family-friendly and adore children, and the resorts offer children’s facilities, pools, day clubs and activities such as glass-bottomed boat rides, climbing walls, bubble discos, trapeze and trampoline lessons, and even juggling classes. Baby-sitting services at night mean parents can have time to themselves once their exhausted offspring are asleep.
Jamaica is well-known for its great dive sites and other exciting water sports options, but there’s even more for adrenaline-fuelled holidays in the sun here. For animal-lovers, dog-sledding (believe it or not) on the sands in specially-adapted sleds pulled by rescued street dogs or horse riding bareback into the ocean and swimming with the horses are unique Caribbean treats. For hardcore adventure, there’s learning to fly, bungee jumping, caving, potholing, cliff-jumping and whitewater rafting.