Smooth like rum and hot like a spicy plate of jerk, Jamaica got me hooked almost right from the start. The media might call it dangerous but the worst crime you’re likely to encounter is having your heart stolen.
The calm, luscious island is blanketed in endless rainforests and coffee plantations. It boasts hundreds of waterfalls hidden amidst the verdant greenery (just how many waterfalls can one country have???). Let’s not forget its miles and miles of coastlines that are fringed by crystalline waters and sandy beaches. There’s so much nature here, you almost forget that you’re not the only tourist around.
Jamaica is a great place to explore by car, which makes traveling beyond the all-inclusive resorts even easier than you’d imagine. We rented a car for the entire time we were in Jamaica and spent two weeks driving from Montego Bay to the western edge and hippie town of Negril. Then we headed all the way to the eastern corner of Port Antonio, where few tourists venture to.
Here’s a look at some of the best things to do in Jamaica beyond the tourist resorts.
Jamaica is home to some of the best beaches in the world and they range from small hidden coves to wide, white-sand beaches and stunning bays where you can snorkel off coral reefs. The best ones, as locals say (and we agree), are located in the Port Antonio area on the eastern end of the island.
Some of our favourite beaches include Frenchman’s Cove where many famous movies have been filmed, Boston Bay (best known for their jerk), and Long Bay with big waves and wide sandy banks.
But many of the beaches in Jamaica are private, that means they either belong to a resort or the government. Resort beaches are only accessible by guests staying at the resort. Government-run beaches require a small fee to enter. All of these private beaches have showers, toilets and other amenities that are useful for families.
We stumbled upon an absolutely stunning section of the famous Seven-Mile Beach in Negril that was completely empty the whole time we were there. The water was warm and crystal clear, the powdery sand on the beach was gorgeous and we had the whole beach to ourselves. It cost us only US$1.50 to use the beach all day. For that we had access to a parking lot, showers and tables as well.
Explore its Famous Waterfalls & Lagoons
Our favourite thing to do in Jamaica was climbing and swimming in many of the waterfalls dotted around the island.
The biggest and most spectacular one is Dunns River Falls just a few km outside Ocho Rios. At 180 feet (55 m) high and 600 feet (180 m) long, the waterfalls are terraced like giant natural stairs with small lagoons interspersed among them. We were glad that we got there early (before 9am) and had the falls to ourselves. The crowds started pouring in just as we were leaving and you really don’t want to be part of the human chain!
We also really enjoyed the Mayfield Falls, just an hour from Negril. Hiking up the slippery slopes with a baby wasn’t the best idea but we felt like we could completely trust our awesome guide (the entrance fee came with a local guide) who held her tightly while climbing the falls.
Another interesting spot worth visiting is the famous Blue Lagoon where the Brooke Shields’ movie of the same name was filmed. The water in Blue Lagoon is a mix of fresh water and salt water, because the lagoon is open to the sea and fed by freshwater springs. Swimming in the lagoon, you’ll find alternating temperatures (the warmth of the Caribbean Sea and the icy cold waters of the underground streams) in the water, which is quite an experience.
Hike the Blue Mountains and Visit Coffee Plantations
Flying into Jamaica, you’ll see that almost the whole island is covered in emerald green forests. It’s funny how everyone just heads straight for the beaches and completely forget about the massive rainforests that cover this island. To immerse in this lush greenery, we recommend heading inland up to the Blue Mountains, the biggest mountain range in Jamaica.
This area is home to some quaint mountain villages, coffee plantations and some of the island’s best hiking trails. It’s where the famous Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is cultivated, so you’ll be sure to find some great coffee here. You can also attempt to hike to the top of Blue Mountain Peak, the island’s highest point at 2256m (7402 ft). On a clear day, the outline of Cuba, 210 km (130 mi) away, can be seen from the summit.
We rented a rustic Airbnb located in the Portland area of the Blue Mountains and it was so simple yet idyllic. The mountain lodge is run by a Jamaican-English family who’s moved back to Jamaica in search of a quieter life in nature.
I loved being surrounded by banana trees, palm trees and hibiscus plants; while Kaleya adored the hummingbird, dragonflies and lizards that lived there. It felt like we were sleeping in a jungle, being surrounded by the sounds of insects and birds chirping outside. Getting there wasn’t easy by the narrow and rocky road, but the owners made sure we found our way.
Try Adventurous Outdoor Activities
It comes to a surprise to many that there’s a lot more to Jamaica than the beach. The hinterland is crying out to be explored – underwater, on hikes, river-bound with a raft, underground with a lamp strapped to your head, or on mountain bike.
There are plenty of adventure activities to do in Jamaica for the adventure seekers: try driving a 4×4 off road, bobsledding at the Kool Runnings Adventure Park, go rafting on Rio Grande and zipline through the rainforest. For those traveling Jamaica with kids, many of these outdoor activities in Jamaica can be enjoyed by kids from the age of five onwards and hardly require any physical fitness.
Rock Out to Reggae Music
Jamaica gave us Bob Marley, possibly the greatest artiste in the world of all time. He not only introduced the world to reggae music, he also put Jamaica on the world map. For music fans far and wide, Jamaica is the place you want to go to dig up reggae roots. Head over to Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, and be sure to visit Bob Marley’s old home which has been converted into an interesting museum that pays tribute to the king of reggae.
Music is life in Jamaica, and you’ll soon find yourself swaying along with it. There’s plenty of live music on the beach in the evenings, especially in Negril. One of the best places in Jamaica to hear good reggae music is the famous Rick’s Cafe – voted as one of the world’s best bars. It can be rather touristy especially in the evenings when people flock there for the sunset. But don’t let the crowds stop you because it’s well worth it!
Where to Stay in Jamaica
There are plenty of hotels in Jamaica, especially on the west coast (Montego Bay and Negril) which is also the most touristy part of the island. I recommend heading to the eastern part instead (Ocho Rios and Port Antonio) where development has been slower and contained. This makes for a more authentic experience with smaller hotels and local-owned restaurants and shops.
However, accommodation prices in Jamaica are relatively high (in comparison to many parts of Europe and Asia). They come in at around US$100/night for a budget hotel room and $200 for the cheapest all-inclusive resort. During our two-week trip, we stayed at a variety of accommodations. They ranged from basic budget hotel and rainforest lodge to family resorts and exclusive boutique villa.
Moon Palace Jamaica Grande
Our favourite place to stay is the Moon Palace Jamaica Grande. It’s a high-end family resort that’s modern, stylish and tastefully designed (starting from US$475/night). With 705 rooms (most of them ocean view), four restaurants and six bars, four pools, a FlowRider simulator (which Alberto loved), a teen’s lounge and an enormous kids playroom, there’s a heck of a lot going on here.
This isn’t quite like your typical all-inclusive resort – it’s very tastefully created with beautiful beach and pool areas and awesome dining options (the Oriental fusion restaurant Momo was outstanding!). We also loved the fact that the hotel’s located in the heart of Ocho Rios and we could easily walk out to the city and easily explore an authentic side to Jamaica.
Riu Hotel Montego Bay
Another resort we stayed at was Riu Hotel Montego Bay. This is a lot more affordable (rooms starting at US$183/night). The standard of accommodation and food is average and service is sadly poor (we asked for a baby’s crib and it was delivered after 4 phone calls and 12 hours – without bed sheets).
The Cliff Hotel
By contrast, The Cliff Hotel offers a far more intimate experience (prices start from US$260 per night). The chic and stylish boutique hotel is perched on the cliffs of Negril and sprawls over an extensive area of green gardens. But with only 33 suites and villas, it has a small and intimate feel. One of its best features of the hotel is the natural pool entrenched within the cliffs — it’s one of a kind and you’ll never find something like that in another resort.
Disclaimer: Many thanks to the hotels mentioned above for hosting us during our stay! Besides accommodation, we funded the rest of our trip ourselves. As always, all opinions above are our own.
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