Pristine beaches, the sounds of Bob Marley and smell of jerk chicken cooked over a wood fire help Heidi Fuller-love fall for Jamaica.
“Yah mon! You need to learn this – it’s what everyone says out here,” our driver tells us as he navigates dense traffic flooding out of Montego Bay’s modern airport. I’m here in Jamaica for two things: to attend Caribbean Travel Marketplace 2019 and to explore more of this island country situated in the balmy Caribbean Sea, which is known for reggae, coffee and rum.
The 37th edition of CTM is held at the impressive colonial style buildings of the Montego Bay Convention Centre. Produced by The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), it’s a great chance to network with destinations reps, travel agents, MICE reps and members of the media. The three-day event ends on a high note with a glitzy party at Sandals resort in Montego Bay, where Jamaica’s minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, told the crowd: “It is an incredible achievement for our country and I am certain we will reap significant benefits.”
After three days of meeting and greeting it’s time to get out and explore this beautiful country. Reggae is a constant soundtrack to any Jamaica trip and Bob Marley’s One Love blares out over the speakers as we head for Negril, a two-hour drive from MoBay along the north coast where most of Jamaica’s top resorts are situated. Unlike the lively shop- and café-lined streets of Montego Bay, Negril, dubbed “Capital of Casual”, is the place to chill. Lunch is at Island Lux Park, a new beach complex set on the talc-soft sand of the resort’s celebrated Seven Mile Beach, which has lounge chairs, swings, shops selling Rasta gear and several shack-style restaurants. As hot wind riffles the shimmering turquoise Caribbean Sea, we tuck into crisp-skinned chunks of spicy national favourite jerk chicken slow smoked over a wood fire, and served with plantains, green beans and callaloo, the delicious local dish of minced amaranth leaves mixed with coconut milk.
After lunch we head over to Ricks café. Opened in the 1970s by local visionary Richard Hershman when Negril was still just a sleepy fishing village, the clifftop café is packed and there is loud cheering as the café’s legendary cliff divers leap from a 35-foot high overhang into a narrow pocket of turquoise water far below.
Jamaica is only 146 miles long and 52 miles at its widest point, but it still takes two hours to get back to Falmouth where we are staying at the new Excellence Oyster Bay. In this five-star beachside hotel, whose spacious rooms have private pools or sunken Jacuzzis, “all inclusive” means just what it says: from meals and snacks, to the bottles of rum and whisky in the well-stocked mini bar, everything is complimentary.
The following day we set out to explore Montego Bay, second city to capital Kingston and better known as MoBay to locals. First we hit Gloucester Avenue, known as the Hip Strip because it’s the city’s nightlife hub. During the day this street is home to a craft market selling wood carvings, Jamaican root tonic and other colourful souvenirs. We pop into National Gallery West, where an exhibition showcases the work of local artists, and then it’s time to eat at Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records.
The nine-time Olympic gold medallist was born in Trelawny parish just down the road from MoBay and the restaurant is packed with trophies and memorabilia related to his career. Sitting on UBTR’s third-floor balcony, next door to nightlife venue Doctor’s Cave, we sip the local Red Stripe beer and sup on spiced jerk grilled shrimp served with sweet potato fries, while frigate birds, their forked tails flicking like ship’s rudders, wheel overhead.
Just outside of town we stop off to visit the imposing and – slighty spooky – Rose Hall. Built in the late 18th century, this stunning Jamaican Georgian house would not look out of place in Gone with the Wind. There’s a small museum that traces the history of slavery and the grounds are glorious, but most people come here hoping to spot the ghosts of Annie Palmer, the Haiti-born mistress of Rose Hall, and her three husbands who, legend says, she murdered using voodoo spells. Although it’s tempting to stay on Jamaica’s beach-lined coast it’s well worth heading up into the hills to see another side of this lush island. On our final day we drive the narrow winding road to Ahhh Ras Natango Gallery & Garden.
The gallery and botanical gardens is the love child of Ras Natango and Tamika, who carved this little piece of paradise out of a steep chunk of wilderness more than 30 years ago. Ras, who was previously an accountant, now sells his paintings in the gallery, while Tamika tends her fairytale garden full of plants and flowers. After touring the garden, we feed the hummingbirds that swoop and dash around us like vivid emerald insects. Schooled by Tamika, we hold out feeders full of sugar water and the tiny birds perch on our fingers and poke needle thin beaks into the feeding tubes. Tamika has given them all names. “That’s Rudy because he is so rude,” she tells us as one bird swoops to feed, but refuses to sit on my outstretched finger.
We finish our trip at Hampden Rum Estate. After jolting and jogging along a dirt track we turn into an avenue of king palm trees, their feathery fronds creating a cathedral arch that leads us to the Hampden Great House. One of the country’s oldest sugar estates, Hampden is now famed for its rum. We visit the atmospheric rum distilling area where vast brick-lined pits contain the murky, mould- and molasses-scented fluid that will be brewed in four pot stills the size of small elephants to make Hampden’s legendary pot still rum. After the visit we try the spicy Hampden Fire rum, followed by the smoother Hampden Gold. The guide is telling us about all the other sights we’ve missed: “There’s the Bob Marley Museum and Dunns Falls waterfalls and Scotchies. “So will you be coming back to Jamaica?” she asks. “Yah mon!” comes the rum-happy chorus of replies.
Enjoy all-inclusive luxury by the tropical paradise surrounding Montego Bay at the Excellence Oyster Bay, which has more than two miles of white sand around it. (excellenceresorts.com), or try the newly-opened S hotel, a chic and relaxed hotel that brings a South Beach vibe to Montego Bay, below (shoteljamaica.com).
Now that is fast food: Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records (tracksandrecords.com) delivers classic Jamaican dishes, burgers and beers, while paying homage to the Olympic sprinter. Island Lux Beach Park (islandluxbeachparkja.com) in the beach town of Negril serves Caribbean fare in the most peaceful of surroundings.
No trip would be complete without a rum or two. Hampden Rum Estate (hampdenrumcompany.com), found in the beautiful Queen of Spain Valley in Trelawny, is one of the best places to enjoy it. More than 217,000 British nationals visited Jamaica in 2017 and most visits are trouble-free. However, visitors should see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice before travelling