Jamaica has quickly become one of my favorite travel destinations over the past couple of years. The weather is just right. The water is beautiful and relatively warm. And rumor has it that the waters are shark-free. I don’t totally buy this, but I could buy that there are very few sharks inhabiting the waters near the shorelines, which is almost just as comforting.
You could have the best vacation of your life (by my standards) if you booked it to Jamaica with only a handful of books, a bathing suit, a hat, sunscreen, and a towel. However, there really is plenty to do on the island, and at least five things that you absolutely must do if you choose to vacation there:
1) Go to Negril
Negril is a town located on the western end of the island. People travel from all over the island (and the world) to see sunsets in Negril because of its prime location. Negril is home to white, sandy beaches and waters that appear to be endlessly at waist level. This means that you can safely walk out quite a ways from shore. Negril is undeniably in the process of being built up for tourism (i.e., there’s a Margaritaville . . .). Depending on what kind of tourist you are, this will either be comforting or off-setting. But either way you need to go to Rick’s Cafe. Not only is this an ideal location from which to watch the sunset, but there is also a cliff jumping site inside the restaurant grounds. If you are into this kind of thrill-seeking adventure (or into watching other people partake), you really can’t miss this. Tourists and staff members alike dive from three different points on the cliff, the highest point being 35 feet above sea level. This is . . . not for me, and I’ve heard that cliff jumping can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing, but it sure is fun to watch. Negril is the perfect day trip, but I wouldn’t want to stay there for any longer than that. And that’s simply because there isn’t all that much more to do! If I were you, I’d stay in Montego Bay or Ocho Rios and either rent a car or hire a driver for the day.
2) Dunn’s River Falls
Dunn’s River Falls is located in Ocho Rios, and is hands down one of the most fun and athletic things you can do in Jamaica (excluding hiking or kayaking, if you’re into those kinds of things). Dunn’s River Falls is now a bit of a low-key amusement park with everything from food vendors to wedding venues, but the main attraction — the waterfall — has been left virtually untouched. Once you arrive and pay the entry fee (~$20 per person), you’ll make your way through the park down to the beach where you enter the waterfall at its base. Yes, you are going into the waterfall, not hiking alongside it. There are several entry points further further up the waterfall if you wish to take a shorter climb, but you should start from the bottom to get the full experience. There are plenty of tour groups that lock hands and try to walk up the falls together. You can skirt around these groups fairly easily if you want to carve out your own path. The falls are such that every now and again you come upon a flat area where you can relax and enjoy the beating of the water against your back. It’s amazing; there’s no other way to describe it. I mean, just look at this itsy-bitsy portion of it:
I would estimate that hiking the entire waterfall takes about two hours. Please go do this. It’s the attraction I consider Jamaica to be best known for. You’ll need some water shoes and a bathing suit for this one. I’d say it’s also best done on a hot day as the water is cool and refreshing. In classic vacation form, you should also be sure to enjoy a lovely bath in the ocean below the falls either before or after you climb. HAVE FUN. I know you will because HOW COULD YOU NOT??
3) Glistening Waters
Glistening Waters is a close second to Dunn’s River Falls. It’s a night cruise on the phosphorescent Luminous Lagoon in Falmouth. Teeny-tiny organisms living within the lagoon are disturbed as anything moves through the water, causing the water to turn bright blue. This means you’re boat will be trailed by the most gorgeous wake. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see fish performing a series of jumps and tricks just for you (note: this is my interpretation and obviously not based in any kind of science or fact). Each time the fish jump they create a bright blue pool of water, making it easy to track their swimming paths. Falmouth is one of about five locations in the world with a phosphorescent lagoon, so don’t miss the opportunity to see this. ALSO. At the end of the tour everyone is free to jump into the water for a late night swim! It is incredible to see the water light up around you as you move. Plus, when else will it be deemed acceptable and safe to jump into brackish water (half salt/half fresh) at night?! Do it.
4) The Beach
You probably saw this one coming. Just go to the beach. Any beach; they are all tops. Please don’t forget to do that. I find that people have a tendency to over-plan vacations to make sure they get everything in. It’s important to make sure you get in all the activities that you’re excited about, but don’t forget that you are going to Jamaica to relax. So spend at least two days just soaking in the fresh ocean air. Sit back in a beach chair or hammock, grab a water or a local drink, and just look out into the water. Listen to music, read, meditate, whatever you like to do. But just be.
If you’re going to be in Jamaica for more than four hours you’re probably going to need to eat. Fear not. There are a billion foods you need to try:
*Beef patty – There’s a vegetarian version, don’t worry. But if you are a meat-eater, go for the beef. Patties are basically meal-sized savory pastries with ground meat within. This is my favorite Jamaican food. If I’m not visiting my parents and eating real Jamaican food, you can bet your ass I’m going to a little Jamaican shop to buy patties at least once every few months. The best place to buy patties in Jamaica is Tastee.
*Jerk Chicken – I know many of you think you’ve had jerk chicken. You have not. BUT you can when you visit Jamaica! Authentic jerk chicken in very spicy, so please don’t go for this if you think black pepper grounds are too hot. The best places to get jerk chicken are Scotchies (in Montego Bay, near the airport) and The Jerk Centre in Ocho Rios (near Dunn’s River Falls).
*Ginger Beer and Ting – These are two of the tastiest drinks. Both are non-alcoholic. Ginger Beer has a strong ginger flavor. It is not for the faint of heart. You probably think you’ve had ginger beer before, but you really haven’t. Tread lightly, but do tread. Ting is a grapefruit soda akin to 7up. A fairly safe bet, and my favorite soda as a child.
*Coconut – You are on a island. You need to have fresh coconut meat and water. It’s so much better than the store-bought stuff.
*Gizarda – My favorite dessert. When family members travel to Jamaica, I beg them to bring a few gizardas back for me. They are a pastry made with coconut shavings and other spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Every shop makes them a little differently, but I have yet to have a bad one.
Depending on how long your trip is, you may have plenty of free days once you tackle these essentials. Good! Use them to relax; you’re on vacation, jeez! In all seriousness, these are the things I take everyone to do when they travel to Jamaica. They will get you somewhere between the classic tourist and authentic Jamaican experience, which I think is definitely the sweet spot.
Enjoy your trip, and be sure to leave a comment if you followed any of my suggestions or if you’ve done these things in Jamaica and either loved or hated them!