Suzy Palmer jets into a charismatic Caribbean island for fun in the sun
Sun, sand, sea, adventure – Jamaica has much more to offer than your regular fly and flop holiday.
The biggest English-speaking island in the Caribbean, it’s also the most culturally significant – it has, after all, given us the most famous reggae singer in the world, Bob Marley, and fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt.
Its mountain ranges, rugged coastline and beautiful white and black sand beaches were also a place of inspiration for Bond creator Ian Fleming, who penned 007’s heroic escapades from his home Goldeneye (now a chi chi boutique hotel), and legendary playwright Noël Coward, who’s Firefly estate is a National Heritage Site.
When to visit Jamaica
It’s always warm but you may want to avoid the hurricane season, which peaks August to October. December to April is a perfectly hot 28°C, but do expect the odd rain shower, which will dry off in no time.
Easter is the culmination of the Bacchanal Jamaica carnival, where you can dance in the streets and watch the parades in Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, to a pounding back drop of reggae, calypso and soca.
If jazz is more your thing, chill out at the Jamaica International Jazz Festival in Ocho Rios, usually held in June.
Where to stay in Jamaica
Many resorts are situated on the west coast in Negril (which likes to lay claim to the ‘world’s best sunsets’ title) and along the north of the island around Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.
For old school glamour combined with modern day luxury head to Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios (from £317). This immaculate, 47-suite beach resort has oozed timeless elegance since it opened in 1950, soon becoming a favourite of the jet set and glitterati, including Marilyn Monroe who honeymooned here with her husband Arthur Miller.
Romance is definitely in the air when you dine under the stars on the splendid terrace, enjoying dishes such as freshly caught grouper with plantain chips, then dance the night away to a different live band each evening.
All accommodation is ocean facing and rooms start at balcony and verandah suites in a two-storey Wedgewood blue building overlooking the croquet lawn. At the truly luxe end are modern cottages with private plunge pools, situated on a bluff at the end of the property, where you can drift off to sleep to the sound of crashing waves.
Rum punch served on arrival will help you get in the holiday mood, and book a massage at the spa where the treatment rooms are built into the trees and rocks over the sea. The heavenly-scented homemade lemon grass oil will put you firmly in relaxation mode – a 80 minute Carib-style Thai massage costs £180.
If you’re planning a trip with a group of friends, a private villa offers a fun and affordable way to enjoy the luxury and service of a five-star hotel without the formality. Sundown Villa (£6,895 a week), a half-hour drive from Ocho Rios, is a stunning five-bedroom beach house with a beyond helpful staff of eight, including butler Rocky, chef Damean and charming housekeeper Veronica (who delightedly showed us photos on her phone of Usain Bolt, who had stayed the week before).
Situated in Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first laid eyes on Jamaica, the open plan villa has a large garden at the front, with a wooden walkway into the stylishly decorated living and dining areas, which open directly onto the private beach.
By day you can relax by the pool, paddleboard, sail or snorkel (one of the staff is also a lifeguard), the only interruption being the announcement that lunch is served. Fresh salads, jerk chicken and fish are on the menu with local vegetables such as callaloo, a tasty type of spinach.
When the sun goes down, cocktails are mixed (Dark & Stormy, made of rum, lime and ginger ale is a speciality), then the party gets started. A fabulous dinner is served by the staff in a different setting each evening – on the beach, under the gazebo, or in the garden, after which it’s time to turn up the reggae.
The bedrooms feature four-poster beds, stylish tiling and all important air-con, and the owners recently added four more bedrooms in a newly built, white-shuttered building discreetly situated in the front garden. These are super-chic, decorated in cool woods and whites and can be booked if you have more than five couples sharing.
What to do in Jamaica
Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Jamaica. It’s surrounded by lush, green rainforest, which provides shade for visitors making the 30 minute climb up – to avoid the hordes of cruise ship tourists, arrive before 10am or after 4pm, and don’t forget your swimsuit.
Jamaica is also well-known for its thrills and adventures – you can see it from the treetops zip-lining through the jungle canopy, have a go at river tubing, freewheel down the Blue Mountains on a mountain bike. or take a horse ride that ends with a cooling dip in the Caribbean Sea. For a range of tours visit chukkacaribbean.com, bmtoursja.com and ochoriostours.com.
Best restaurants in Jamaica
Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios is a colourful, laid-back place where you can to try some of the best jerk pork and chicken on the island. Curried goat and fish stew are also specialities, and you can carry on partying at the nearby Mongoose Bar and John Crow’s Tavern.
For spectacular views while you dine, Scotchies (001 876 794 9457) at Drax Hall in Discovery Bay has similarly good jerk pork and chicken, which tastes all the better washed down with an ice cold Red Stripe beer.
What to buy
Shopping for souvenirs? Blue Mountain coffee – it’s one of the most expensive in the world due to its mild, delicate flavour and limited production. In Jamaica it costs about a quarter of the price you’d pay in the UK – get it from a small supermarket rather than pay the inflated prices at resorts.
Also pick up some local Appleton Rum at the airport, while Craig’s Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce is a seriously hot sauce…
Flights to Jamaica
Virgin Atlantic flies direct from London Gatwick to Montego Bay, from £723 return. Transfers from the airport take around 45 minutes to Sundown Villa, 90 minutes to Jamaica Inn.
Footprint Focus Jamaica (£5.99; Footprint) is a handy pocket guide. See visitjamaica.com for more info.