Reggae, rastafarians, rum and resorts. That's what comes to mind for most people when you mention Jamaica. Unfortunately, it also has a reputation for being dangerous in parts, though the violence tends to be gang and drug related and happening in the poorer parts of Kingston. While we were careful during our stay of just over a week we also found the Jamaican people to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming we've ever met.
If you have limited time and want a couple of ideas for things to do here are 5 activities that are done out of the three biggest towns: Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. We chose to visit these three because they are easily accessible by public transport. The very comfortable and affordable buses run by Knutsford Express run daily between them.
1. The Bob Marley Museum, Kingston
If you're not of fan of Bob Marley's music this museum won't mean a lot to you. But, if like us, you are a fan, it's a great place to spend a couple of hours.
The museum is the house that Bob lived and recorded in during the last years of his life. For $US20 p.p you receive a guided tour of the house with lots of interesting commentary about Bob's short but colourful life – he died at 36 from a rare cancer and had 12 children, 4 of which were to his wife.
There are murals and enlarged photos on the outside of the museum and around the grounds. You can photograph these but not inside the house.
At the end of the tour there is a short film of Bob talking and some of his music.
2. Devon House, Kingston
Only a short distance from the Bob Marley Museum is Devon House. This grand colonial house was built in 1881 by George Stiebel, Jamaica's first black millionaire.
The $US10 entry gives you a short guided tour of the house which is extremely well preserved and a bit over the top (George was going to make the most of his millions).
Mention Devon House to any of the local Kingstonians and they'll immediately say “ice cream”. The grounds of Devon House have a range of bakeries, souvenir shops, restaurants and other shopping possibilities, but the one with the longest queue is the ice cream shop.
Our taxi driver took us directly to the shop on arrival so we gobbled down a large cone before we did the tour. What we didn't know was the colonial house tour price includes a free ice cream cone. I'm feeling a little ill just thinking about it – needless to say we ate the freebie as well.
3. Dunn's River Falls, Ocho Rios
It is around an hour and a half’s drive from Kingston (on the Caribbean) to Ocho Rios, Jamaica's third biggest city, on the Atlantic north coast. Ochi, as the locals call it, is a popular day stop for cruise ships and is well geared up for tourists. Though when we visited no cruise ships called in.
We decided to visit Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica's top grossing "natural" tourist attraction, on the 2016 Jamaican Independence Day Holiday, along with around half of the entire population of Jamaica.
Dunn's River Falls is an unusual attraction to our thinking. It is a series of waterfall cascades that run down to an ocean beach that vast numbers of people pay to climb from bottom to top.
For non-residents the price is $US20 entry. There are lockers available for a small additional charge where you can store your possessions while scaling the falls.
Many people do the climb in groups with a Falls Guide. The guides lead them up the various cascades in a line, holding hands. Don't be fooled. Unless you're seriously out of shape or approaching your 90th birthday you can do the climb without a guide and it's much more pleasant to find your own way up.
We did it twice – it takes around 20 minutes if you do it independently, longer in a group.
There's also swimming at the ocean beach at the base of the falls.
It's 3 kms east of Ocho Rios town.
4. Ocho Rios Bay Beach, Ocho Rios
Ochi sits on a nice little bay and the beach is white sand and fairly clean, though the water is a bit silted from run off from the nearby hills. It's a $JA200/$US2 entry to the beach.
We went on the day after the Independence Day holiday. It was a Sunday and we think that most of our compatriots from the Fall's climb were now at the beach.
To add to the fun the beach was divided in half – regular beach goers on one side and a giant inter-church picnic on the other. The church folk were encouraging non-congregation members onto their side as they got to keep the $JA200 that way. What the heck, we went with them.
As it turned out our side was much more interesting. There were a series of contests of various sorts, including a kids bible facts quiz* and a newly married couples “how well do you know your new spouse” quiz. All broadcast over a loud speaker system with plenty of gusto.
The mixed tug-o-war was particularly entertaining.
The beach scene overall was very Bruegelesque and entertaining.
It was all very good natured, and as usual, people asked us where we were from and were we enjoying our visit to Jamaica.
We most certainly were.
*Just for the record Jesus didn't feed the 5,000 on ackee and saltfish or hamburgers as some kids thought during the Bible quiz broadcast, it was loaves and fishes.
5. Doctor's Cave Beach, Montego Bay
The focal point of beach action in Montego Bay is Doctor's Cave Beach. It is a $JA600/$US5 cost to enter and if you want a beach chair add another $JA600 and the same again for an umbrella. So the costs can quickly add up but it does make for a comfortable few hours if you lash out for these mod cons.
The beach itself is not very big. Nice white sand and clean clear water with some good snorkeling. The entry fees mean that the touts are kept out. And the usual range of beach services are available: cocktails and other cold drinks, food and ice creams.
Jamaica, like just about every other place we visited in the Caribbean suffers the same fate – rubbish. Lots of rubbish: especially plastic bottles and styrofoam. So, don't go expecting a picture perfect paradise with blemish free beaches and totally clean water. This only occurs to some degree in the package resorts where the rubbish problem can be managed.
That said, what will stick in our memories will be the friendly, positive and relaxed attitude of Jamaican people. There is a strong national identity and confidence that shines through, and how can one resist the fabulous accent. A'right!