A multiracial population and varied scenery are primary components of Jamaica's charm. Most Jamaicans are descendants of African slaves brought to the island between the 17th and 19th centuries, but Chinese, East Indians, Lebanese, Europeans and North Americans as well as nationals from neighboring republics, also have made the island their home. This multiplicity, most evident in the port city of Kingston, reflects a special unity in the country's motto, “Out of many, one people.”
Third largest of the Greater Antilles, Jamaica is 550 miles (885 km) south of Florida. About 146 miles (235 km) long and 51 miles (82 km) wide, the landscape is primarily one of contrasts, ranging from misty forest-clad mountains to bare scrubland and fields. The island's diverse terrain also is reflected in its beaches, which vary from fine coral sand in sheltered bays and inlets to black sand along the rugged coastline, where the mountains plunge straight into the sea. Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio are some of the most popular resort centers. Small towns and mountain villages might lack the comforts of the developed port cities but are rich in island lore and natural beauty. With peach trees and wild strawberries, the summit of 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak provides a 90-mile (145-km) panorama on clear days.
The Indians in Cuba had told Christopher Columbus of Xaymaca, the “land of wood and water.” He attempted to land at St. Ann's Bay in May 1494, but was met by hostile Taínos and had to remain offshore. After overcoming lighter resistance, he came ashore at Discovery Bay the next day, then landed at Montego Bay before moving on. Columbus made an inauspicious return in 1503; the last two ships of his fourth voyage were forced to run aground at St. Ann's Bay, and he and his crew were marooned there for more than a year. It wasn't until a small charter could be sent from Hispaniola that Columbus was able to return home, where he died 2 years later.
Diego Columbus, son of the explorer, returned to St. Ann's Bay in 1509 and founded Sevilla Nueva. The marshy site was soon abandoned, however, in favor of Santiago de la Vega (St. James of the Plain) at present-day Spanish Town. Having depleted the Taíno population through overwork and disease, the Spaniards turned to Africa for slaves and in 1517 imported the first of Jamaica's current majority race. The island was never fully developed as a Spanish colony, however, and in 1655 a British expedition took over Spanish Town. The island was officially ceded to England in 1670 by the Treaty of Madrid.
Also during this time, West Indian buccaneers had made Port Royal their headquarters, giving the city a reputation as a bawdy mecca for the adventurous and the wicked. These were the days when Sir Henry Morgan rose to a commanding position among the privateers who dominated the Caribbean. His widespread successful adventures, however, overlapped the signing of peace with Spain, and he was recalled to England under arrest in 1672. When the Spanish again became a threat, he was knighted by Charles II and returned to Jamaica in 1674 as the deputy governor and the island's only honored pirate.
Kingston, the present capital, was built after an earthquake destroyed Port Royal on June 7, 1692. The flourishing slave trade and sugar and cotton plantations made Jamaica rich during the 18th century.
The cause of the slaves was supported by a group known as the Maroons, slaves freed by the Spanish to harass the English before the Spanish fled the island in 1660. Taking refuge in the hills of the Cockpit Country and the eastern mountains of Portland, these former slaves were joined by other fugitives. Together they successfully waged a guerrilla war against the English, and in 1738 the Maroons were granted self-rule and given title to their lands free of taxes. Descendants of the Maroons still live in this area; they are free of taxation and all government laws, except in the case of murder.
Although the slave trade was finally abolished in 1808, the oppression of this group did not improve. An uprising against the treatment of slaves took place in 1831; Baptist preacher Sam Sharpe led an islandwide revolt that forced the governor to declare martial law. So incensed were members of Britain's Parliament at the government's bloody crackdown, during which Sharpe and thousands more were executed, that abolition came shortly thereafter. Today Sam Sharpe is a national hero.
As a result of these frequent rebellions, slavery was abolished in 1834. Jamaica's newly freed population underwent years of economic and social hard times. As plantation life came to a gradual end, most workers took to the hills and practiced subsistence farming, a way of life that was to continue for generations. The 20th century, however, brought about sweeping reforms and a national identity. Marcus Garvey engendered racial pride, Alexander Bustamante organized a labor union and Norman Manley a political party. Increasingly, Jamaicans were making a place in the world.
The first civil governor of Jamaica was appointed in 1661, and the island was governed by a representative council until 1866, when a crown-colony government was established by act of Parliament. The island became independent within the British Commonwealth on August 6, 1962. A prime minister heads the government, which has its executive power vested in a cabinet; a governor general represents the British monarch. Legislative functions are assigned to a bicameral house. Sugar, bananas and coffee continue to fluctuate in prominence but are still the chief export crops. Since the 1960s bauxite and alumina exports and tourism have become the main earners of foreign exchange for the island.
Jamaica was rich with the plunder of a continent in the days when Capt. Henry Morgan swaggered down the streets of Port Royal. Today the island is rich with merchandise from the four corners of the Earth. Free-port shops in Kingston, Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios have good buys on Swiss watches, cameras, French perfumes, British woolens and cashmeres, imported liquor, silverware, crystal, jewelry and bone china. Boutiques feature Jamaican resort clothes.
Island handicrafts include woodcarvings, inlaid boxes and trays, Jamaican dolls, straw hats, colorful baskets, pottery, shell articles and yard goods with vivid tropical prints. They are sold in specialty shops at the Kingston Crafts Market, north of the cruise ship pier in Kingston, and the Crafts Market at Harbour and Church streets in Montego Bay. Port Antonio has a straw market downtown, and the Ocho Rios Craft Park, Olde Market and Pineapple Craft Circle are along Main Street in Ocho Rios.
Islanders often set up stalls along the roadside; you should be prepared to barter for good prices. The skill of Jamaican needlewomen has made the island's embroidered Irish linen dresses valued throughout the world. Paintings and sculptures by local artists make lasting souvenirs. A pound or so of Jamaica's excellent Blue Mountain Coffee also is a favorite take-home item.
Several shopping centers cover the southern end of Constant Spring Road leading to the Half Way Tree area, Kingston's main shopping district. A shopping complex is on the grounds of Devon House, a 19th-century great house on Hope Road. There also are several shopping malls in the Kingston area. Mall shopping in Montego Bay is available at the Hip Strip (Gloucester Avenue), Half Moon Shopping Village, Fairview Shopping Centre and the town center. In Ocho Rios there are the Island Plaza, Island Village, Little Pub Shopping Complex, Ocean Village Shopping Centre, Soni's Plaza and the Taj Mahal—all on Main Street. Kingston shops are open Mon.-Sat. 9-5. In Ocho Rios retail stores also are open Mon.-Sat. 9-5.
Food and Drink
The Jamaican national dish is ackee and saltfish, a dish made from imported salted cod and the fleshy lobes of the seeds of the ackee tree, cooked with onions, tomatoes and pepper in oil. Another staple is boiled rice and peas (red beans). On more exotic menus, gourmets will find goat cooked with Indian curry and served hot with boiled green bananas and rice, baked crab and pepperpot soup, a thick green “hot-pot” made of callaloo (a spinach-like vegetable), Indian kale, salted pork, vegetables and pepper. West Indian lobster and red snapper dishes are abundant.
Another peppery-hot island specialty is jerk pork. This was a favorite dish of the Maroons, who roasted wild hogs over a wood fire. The special flavoring is achieved through spices from a rich, peppery marinade and the type of wood used—the pimento (allspice) wood. Jerk pork and jerk chicken are available at roadside stands throughout the island.
Jamaica has a mouthwatering assortment of locally grown fruits and vegetables: mangoes, papaya, naseberries, sweetsops, soursops, ortaniques, gooseberries, star apples, melons, rose apples, guinep, avocado pears, ugli fruit, tangerines, limes, pineapples, yams, green bananas, plantains, breadfruit, yampie, cocoa, cho-cho, turnips, pumpkins and beetroot. A delicious ice cream is made from coconut, papaya, pineapple and soursop. Another favorite dessert is matrimony, a refreshing dish of oranges and the pulp of the star apple.
Rum is Jamaica's national drink. Consumed in an endless variety of concoctions, it can be mixed with ginger ale or coconut water, brewed with pimento berries to produce Pimento Dram Liqueur, aged with citrus peel, heated to a toddy or blended with coffee to produce Tia Maria Liqueur. Rumona is another rum liqueur. The island's most popular rum-based beverage is Planters Punch. Popular rum brands are Appleton, Myers's and Wray and Nephew's White Overproof.
Jamaica also brews a strong light beer called Red Stripe. Cooling nonalcoholic drinks include ginger beer; sorrel, a Christmas favorite; and fruit punches made with pineapple, banana, orange, melon and tamarind juices and coconut water. Also popular is Ting, a grapefruit-flavored soft drink. Tap water is chlorinated and filtered.
Among eateries offering local cuisine, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios also have their share of Chinese, Italian, French and Continental restaurants. Tips average 15 to 20 percent.
Sports and Amusements
Swimming heads the list of sports and amusements for visitors to Jamaica. The most noted beaches with miles of white sand and crystal waters are on the north shore; Doctor's Cave Beach and Cornwall Beach at Montego Bay share an excellent strand. Negril Beach is on the western shore. Good beaches on the south shore include Alligator Pond and Bluefields near Savanna-La-Mar, and the black sand beaches in Kingston and Black River. Outside Kingston Harbour are the white sand beaches of Lime Cay and Maiden Cay. Mineral spas reputed to cure certain rheumatic ailments are Milk River in Clarendon, Rockfort Spa in Kingston and the Bath Fountain in St. Thomas.
Countless water sports opportunities await guests not content to merely lie on the beaches. The offshore islands and cays near Kingston, the coves around Ocho Rios, the offshore reefs at Montego Bay and the waters surrounding Port Antonio and Negril are good diving areas. Diving operators offer both guide services and courses for beginners.
Snorkel and scuba equipment, water skis, jet skis and small sailing craft can be rented from the larger resort hotels and at Turtle Beach in Ocho Rios. Arrangements for sailing can be made through the Montego Bay Yacht Club, where colorful regattas are held each winter. The Jamaica Tourist Board maintains a current list of charter companies.
Rafting is popular on the Río Grande, Martha Brae and Great rivers. Less adventuresome visitors can discover the mysteries of the undersea world in a glass-bottom boat.
Mountain streams offer good fishing for mullet; the sea yields marlin, dolphin, tarpon, barracuda, bonefish, snook, wahoo and small tuna. Boats can be chartered for deep-sea fishing for half- or full-day trips at Kingston, Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Negril and Whitehouse. A fishing license is not required. Annual fishing tournaments include the Montego Bay and Port Antonio marlin tournaments in early autumn.
You can attend horse racing Wednesday, Saturday and holidays at Caymanas Park, 6 miles (10 km) west of Kingston; pari-mutuel and quinella betting are permitted. Kingston has cricket matches on Saturday afternoons, January through April. Polo matches are held at Caymanas in Kingston, at Chukka Cove near Ocho Rios and at Drax Hall, also near Ocho Rios. Horseback riding is offered at Chukka Cove and at resort centers.
The island has several golf courses as well as tennis and squash courts that are open to hotel and villa guests. Among the major golf tournaments held is the Jamaica Invitational Pro-Am in November.
Most hotels in Jamaica offer after-dinner entertainment, with many doubling as nightclubs and restaurants. Nightclubs and cabarets are available to suit almost every taste. Many clubs echo with the distinctive rhythms of calypso and reggae bands. Floor shows are presented regularly in many of the larger clubs.
Jamaica's reggae sound, made world famous by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and associates, is a prominent fixture in the lives of Jamaicans. Shows featuring the nation's top performers take place regularly throughout the island. The most popular is Reggae Sumfest, held in late July in Montego Bay.
Winter visitors to Kingston can enjoy a series of local plays, as well as the “Pantomime”—colorful social commentary—at The Little Theatre. The National Dance Theatre Company also performs in Kingston. Films are shown in Kingston, Montego Bay and Mandeville. For more information contact the Jamaica Tourist Board, which publishes a calendar of events.
With more than 3,000 miles (5,000 km) of primary roads and 2,800 miles (4,500 km) of secondary roads linking every village and hamlet, Jamaica is popular for motor tours. Possible itineraries are numerous, the only limitation being the time you can spend.
Beginning and ending at Kingston, a driving tour around the island takes about 2 days. A condensed circle tour of the island out of Kingston might follow Rte. A3 to Ocho Rios and St. Ann's Bay on the north coast and return via A1 by way of Spanish Town, and include such sites as Castleton Botanical Gardens, restored plantations, Dunn's River Falls, Fern Gully and the Cathedral of St. James.
South and west of Claremont via unimproved roads is the village of Rhoden Hall in Nine Miles, St. Ann. Musician Bob Marley was born in Rhoden Hall in 1945 and interred there in 1981. The mausoleum grounds are open to the public; admission is charged.
Rte. A2 heading east from Negril skirts the pristine South Coast and passes through quaint seaside villages, their shores lined with colorful fishing boats. Near Black River roadside vendors tempt visitors with such local delicacies as fresh escovitch fish, bammy and shrimp. A coastal road south leads to the peaceful town of Treasure Beach.
Tour buses offering 3-hour tours of Kingston drive past the historic residences of the prime minister and governor general and through the campus of the University of the West Indies. They also include stops at the National Gallery of Jamaica, Royal Botanical Gardens and Hope Zoo and the Kingston Crafts Market.
The 3-hour Ocho Rios Tour takes in such area highlights as Prospect Estate, Dunn's River Falls, Shaw Park Gardens and Fern Gully. A 3-hour trip from Ocho Rios to Port Maria and Brimmer Hall Plantation also is available. Departing from Montego Bay, the 3- to 4-hour Great Houses Tour includes a complimentary drink at either Rose Hall or Greenwood; reservations can be made through your hotel. Bus tours that include stops at YS Falls, the Black River and Appleton Estate provide lunch, drinks and hotel pickup; inquire at your hotel for information and reservations.
Scheduled morning and sunset cruises are available for tours of Montego Bay; snorkeling cruises also are available. Arrangements can be made through the tour desks at most hotels.
Jamaica is easily accessible by air from several North American cities to Kingston's Norman Manley International Airport and Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport. Air service linking Kingston, Port Antonio, Ocho Rios, Negril and Montego Bay is available by charter. Falmouth, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay are ports of call for many cruise ships; a few smaller ships also call on Port Antonio.
There are nearly 11,000 miles (17,700 km) of roadway in Jamaica. Since long-distance cab and limousine rides can be expensive, it is recommended that you secure an accommodations package that includes transportation between your hotel and the airport.
Several transportation companies operate on the island including the Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) and Jamaica Cooperative Automobile & Limousine (JCAL). Licensed transportation providers have a red license plate on their vehicle. Taxis are unmetered; maximum rates are merely suggested by the government, so it is always wise to determine the fare in advance. A typical fare runs around $25 U.S. for every 10 miles; from midnight to 5 a.m. the fare increases by 25 percent.
Cars can be rented by the day, week or month; a U.S. driver's license is valid for 3 months. Driving in Jamaica is complicated, and, at times, dangerous. Driving on the left side of the road (with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle) complicates navigation of narrow, ill-maintained, two-lane roads often found in the interior of the island. Be prepared to relinquish your right-of-way. Though traffic is relatively light in smaller towns, sidewalks are nearly nonexistent, and thus roadways are shared with animals, pedestrians and those on mopeds and bicycles. Maps are often not helpful, as streets may or may not be marked. When driving across the island, allow 40 miles (64 km) to the hour. In larger cities, expect congestion; busy, unmarked intersections; poor road conditions and streets crowded with pedestrians.
If you're not up for a challenge, it is recommended you rent a car with a driver or hire a tour operator. Half- and full-day excursions are available from all the resort areas. Minibuses, inexpensive but usually very crowded, serve all areas of the island.
Area10,991 sq km (4,244 sq mi.).
Highest Point2,256 m (7,402 ft.), Blue Mountain Peak.
Lowest PointSea level, Caribbean Sea.
Time Zone(s)Eastern Standard.
LanguageEnglish and a local patois.
GovernmentIndependent. Member of the British Commonwealth of Nations.
CurrencyJamaican dollar. $1 U.S. = approx. 149 Jamaica dollars. While Jamaican law requires that Jamaican currency be used when paying for all goods and services, this is not enforced. Most hotels, restaurants and attractions accept U.S. dollars, and credit cards may be used. Jamaican currency is available at airport and hotel exchange bureaus and commercial banks. Keep all exchange receipts; you must present them upon departure when you reconvert unspent Jamaican currency.
Electricity110-220 volts, 50 cycles AC, single and three phases; voltage varies with location.
MINIMUM AGE FOR DRIVERS21-25, depending on the rental car agency; an underage surcharge may apply. U.S. license valid; drive on left.
Seat Belt/Child Restraint LawsSeat belts are required for driver and front-seat passengers.
Helmets for MotorcyclistsRequired.
HolidaysJan. 1; Ash Wednesday; Good Friday; Easter Monday; National Labour Day, May 23; Emancipation Day, Aug. 1; Independence Day, Aug. 6; National Heroes Day, Oct. (3rd Mon.); Christmas, Dec. 25; Boxing Day, Dec. 26.
TaxesA 10-15 percent room tax and a 10 percent service charge are added to most hotel bills. A 17.5 percent government tax is charged on food, beverages and merchandise. A 20 percent tax is charged on rental cars. Departure tax $37 over age 11.
ImmigrationPassport or proof of U.S. citizenship and a return or onward ticket are required. No visa needed for stays up to 6 months. After 3 months, all U.S. citizens must apply for the additional 3 month stay at the Office of Passport, Immigration and Citizenship in Kingston or Montego Bay. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security requires all U.S. citizens returning from the Caribbean to present a valid passport.
PHONING THE ISLANDSTo call Jamaica from the U.S. or Canada, dial 1 + 876 + the 7-digit local number.
Further Information Jamaica Tourist Board, United States 5201 Blue Lagoon Drive, Suite 670 Miami, FL 33126. Phone:(305)665-0557 or (800)526-2422
Jamaica Tourist Board, Kingston 64 Knutsford Blvd. Kingston, JAMAICA . Phone:(876)929-9200
Jamaica's distinctive reggae sound found its way onto the world's popular music scene in the early 1970s. Desmond Dekker announced its arrival with his 1969 hit “The Israelites,” and in 1972 Johnny Nash popularized the sound with “I Can See Clearly Now,” as did Paul Simon with “Mother and Child Reunion.” But it was Bob Marley and his group the Wailers, featuring Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, and later the back-up vocals of the I-Threes (Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt), who brought reggae to worldwide prominence.
As his European and American contemporaries did to rock 'n' roll, Bob Marley brought to reggae lyrics of pride and protest. He sang of black unity, in the tradition of national hero Marcus Garvey, and of the tenets of Rastafari, the uniquely Jamaican religion of which he was a devout follower. Bob Marley and the Wailers released nine albums, as well as several compilations, outside of Jamaica. Among his more popular songs are “Get Up Stand Up,” “Jamming” and “Is This Love.” Eric Clapton recorded Marley's song “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974, bringing international acclaim to both Marley and the reggae sound.
Bob Marley died from cancer in 1981; he was just 36 years old. During his lifetime, many Jamaicans granted Marley the veneration usually accorded to their political and religious leaders. Shortly before his passing, Marley was awarded the Order of Merit—Jamaica's third highest honor—and he is still spoken of in legendary terms. His birthday, February 6th, is recognized as Bob Marley Day.
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