Story by Jess Signet
Jamaica has always fascinated me—the land of reggae, Rastafarianism, jerk chicken and carnival. An island spirit that is so fervent and passionate that it travels with its people all over the world. So when I booked my flight to finally go visit, I was determined to stay as far away from the resorts as possible.
Although some tourists enjoy the ease of “all-inclusive,” the Jamaica I wanted to see lived outside the walls of hotels, sun loungers and swimming pools and in the streets, local bars and dancehalls with the vibrant and energy-filled locals. What I found did not leave me disappointed: heading to Kingston for Carnival season before traveling up to Port Antonio to experience the country’s natural landscape and then finally onto Negril for some well deserved relaxing in the sun.
I’d heard mixed reviews about Kingston, particularly regarding its safety and crime rate, so when landing in Norman Manley International airport, I was definitely feeling a flutter of nerves. I’d coincided my landing date with the world famous Bacchanal Carnival to get a taste of traditional Caribbean Carnival vibes in the festivals new permanent home—Mas Camp—and no amount of online fear-mongering was going to persuade me to miss this spectacular event. However, as soon as I left the airport and jumped into a taxi to my accommodation, my drivers friendly chatter, in thick and enthusiastic patois, was enough to put me at ease.
The festival itself posed no problems. With a long history of uniting races and class divides with bright costumes and infectious Soca music, the carnival tradition—which originates from Trinidad—was perfectly encapsulated in Bacchanals two month event. I’d arrived toward to end of the program but just in time to take part in the Bacchanal road march, in which dancers from all ethnicities wined and grinded around the carnival route in colorful headdresses, jeweled bikinis and unmatchable enthusiasm. The atmosphere was elating, the music was pounding, and it was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had at a festival anywhere in the world.
The Blue Mountains
After getting my fill of the lively city life that Jamaica has to offer, I moved up northeast to the sleepy town of Port Antonio. This region of the island is far away from the traditional tourist belt and boasts some of the most beautiful scenery that the country has to offer. Located at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, you get the best of both worlds—from mountain adventures to wide stretches of sandy beaches.
I chose to stay in Porty Hostel, the only dorm accommodation available in the town, to try to get some inspiration for things to do while there. As it was only a five-minute walk to the town center, I quickly set out to explore. Although there’s not much in terms of shopping and nightlife, there are a few amazing eateries where I managed to pick up some of the best jerk chicken I’d eaten so far at the Boston Jerk Centre.
After getting a list of recommendations from the owner, the next few days were spent touring the local attractions. As one of the rainier parts of the island, Port Antonio is known for is lush greenery and spectacular waterfalls. One of the best examples of this was the Somerset Falls. For only a $5 entry fee, I spent the day climbing, jumping and swimming around this luxurious location.
On the other side of town, I stopped off to visit what might be Jamaica’s most beautiful and famous landmark—the Blue Lagoon. Brought to notoriety by the 1980 film of the same name, the pool is an idyllic spot and not to be missed by anyone wanting to see what the “real” Jamaica has to offer.
The last stop on my trip was Negril in the west. Although this is a well-known resort town, I figured there’d still be places to avoid the tourists and was quite looking forward to a bit of self-indulgent sunbathing and beach time. Although I struggled to find any dorm hostels online, my final choice of accommodation was definitely worth it.
The Negril Yoga Centre is a small and quaint guesthouse, with only twelve rooms. But what they lack in size they more than make up for in character. As well as offering the obvious yoga and massage classes, they also make their own yogurt and cheese and grow their own sprouts. Guests can request local and delicious meals from staff at any point during their stay.
The communal kitchen was a great place to meet guest, and the atmosphere was so enchanting it was sometimes hard to even leave. I ended up having a movie session with a few other fellow travelers who were amazed that I was still about to access US Netflix content while abroad through the use of a Virtual Private Network—which is something I highly recommend that all travelers install as alongside bypassing geo-blocking it also encrypts your data and increases your online security!
I also must confess that I spent most of the time in this town sunbathing on the sand. The seven-mile beach is a world famous stretch of golden sands. Unfortunately large portions of it are filled with resort fronts so you have to pay to enter, but there are some sections that can be enjoyed for free.
Also, due to the tourism of this area, there are lots of souvenir salesmen, which some people find harassing, but personally, it was great to be able to have a chat with locals while relaxing on the sands. There’s also a prominent busking culture so you can listen to a variety of talented musicians alongside the soothing sounds of the ocean.
I have already mentioned the jerk chicken, but the food all over Jamaica is so good it deserves a section all to itself. The street food on offer during the Carnival was by far some of the best I have ever tasted. I opted from a goat curry and rice and peas from one of the stalls and was immediately immersed in subtle aromatic flavors and was left feeling hugely satisfied from my heartwarming meal.
Similarly, while trying to get off the tourist trail in Negril, I discovered a great little spot called “Just Natural” whose grassroots décor, comprised of mismatched, home made tables, chair and artwork, and friendly and welcoming atmosphere was the perfect accompaniment to their delicious cuisine.
As a vegetarian restaurant I was forced to move away from the classic Jamaican dishes that I knew and loved from back home, but the lobster salad I eventually chose was an explosion of flavor! The lobster meat itself tasted as fresh as if it had been caught that very day and salad was crisp and well dressed. These are just two of my favorite food spots, but there are so many good-eats on this island that you’re sure to find something to enjoy!
Jamaica is a beautiful and thrilling destination is it’s own right, and it doesn’t need the safety and conformity of the resorts to make for a unforgettable vacation. My adventure only explored a few parts of what this island has to offer, so if you know of any more great destinations or things to do, then be sure to comment below.