48 hours in ... Kingston

Leave preconceptions at home and head for paradise. James Ferguson's lightning tour of Jamaica's capital takes the heat out of one of the Caribbean' s coolest hotspots
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

The hurricane season (Jul-Oct) is over, and you're almost guaranteed 80 degrees and 10 hours of sunshine a day, tempered by the cooling "doctor breeze" from the sea. Or, hold on for a couple of weeks: February is when the world-famous Reggae Sunsplash takes place - at a variety of locations, but none more than two hours from Kingston - as well as the capital-based Bob Marley Week. If round-the-clock reggae and ganja aren't to your taste, more wholesome alternatives are the Kingston Marathon or hiking in the nearby Blue Mountains.

Beam down

A return flight on British Airways (0345 222111) costs around pounds 560. A cheaper option is to fly to Miami (around pounds 209) and get a connection from there to Kingston for around pounds 200. Taking a taxi is the only sensible way to travel the 11 miles into town from the Norman Manley airport. Make sure the vehicle has a PP red number plate, and establish the fare before you set off: it should cost no more than about pounds 10. Taking the bus is a false economy, especially at night, as it will deposit you in one of the more unsavoury districts of Kingston.

Get your bearings

The Jamaica Tourist Board (0171-224 0505) has offices at the airport and in the business district, New Kingston, plus a useful website (www.jamaicatravel.com).

Kingston is divided into the "downtown" - mostly poor and occasionally risky areas; and the more salubrious, suburban "uptown". The dividing line is Cross Roads, a large intersection at which the wealthier and higher parts of town begin.

Watch out for ...

Kingston's reputation as a strife-torn hellhole of warring Yardies and crack-crazed muggers is slightly exaggerated. Most crime is confined to specific ghetto areas in West Kingston, and revolves around political and increasingly drug-related turf wars. Some 90 per cent of Jamaica's impressive 1,000 annual murders take place in three of the island's 18 police districts - all in the ghettoes. Do not venture, even in broad daylight, into areas west of Orange Street. It is also common sense not to wander around at night with large sums of money, Rolex watches or cameras. You can also expect to be pestered a good deal by people selling every item imaginable, but they're usually harmless.

Check in

Although Kingston isn't a beach mecca like Montego Bay or Negril, it has a large selection of hotels. Most are geared towards the expense-account business traveller, but there are some reasonable exceptions. The Mayfair, next to the Governor General's residence, has a faintly faded colonial air and does good breakfasts (pounds 40). Squeezed between the concrete towers of the pricey Pegasus and Wyndham, and offering pleasant rooms (pounds 45), is the Altamont Court. Once the private home of reggae-entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, it's now a tastefully renovated haven, set in tropical gardens and well situated for exploring the city.

Take a ride

Buses are congested and chaotic. A better, if dearer, bet is to hire a taxi for a couple of hours and cruise from the downtown waterfront up to the leafy suburbs of Barbican Heights or Constant Spring. Some of the views from the vantage points of Red Hills Road or Skyline Drive are truly spectacular, revealing the city's remarkable natural harbour and the cloud- covered Blue Mountains that rise up behind the urban sprawl.

Take a hike

Kingston is not a walker's city. It's usually too hot, and you have to spend too much time explaining that you don't actually want a taxi. However, Hope Road, which climbs up from the modern New Kingston business area to the university campus at Mona (becoming Old Hope Rd half way up) is a pleasant enough area for some gentle exercise.

Start at Devon House, the beautifully restored mansion of a Victorian Jamaican millionaire and alleged gun-runner, where tourist shops, a bar and a wonderful ice-cream shop are clustered in shaded grounds. From here, it's maybe a mile to the Bob Marley Museum, the shrine to Jamaica's national icon. For pounds 6 you get a guided tour of the house where Marley lived and survived an assassination attempt. The exhibits are nothing special, but the pervading smell of ganja from resident Rasta staff makes passive smoking an exhilarating experience.

Between Devon House and the Marley Museum is Jamaica House, the Prime Minister's residence, set back from the road in well-tended gardens.

Lunch on the run

Across the road from the Marley Museum is the Boston Jerk Centre, where you can sample the spicy, marinated Jamaican speciality, jerk chicken or jerk pork: delicious and good value at about pounds 3, including a cold drink.

Cultural afternoon

Kingston boasts a surprising number of theatres and top-quality art galleries. A trip to the National Gallery, in a modern office block by the downtown waterfront, is an opportunity to take in the vitality and originality of modern Jamaican painting and sculpture. There is a permanent exhibit of work by Jamaican artists such as Edna Manley, Cecil Baugh and Albert Huie, and occasional special shows (currently Guyanese Aubrey Williams).

Window shopping

Two blocks away is the Crafts Market, a hot, bustling, not to say intimidating, maze of stalls selling handicrafts, paintings and the ubiquitous "no problem" T-shirts. Check out the latest reggae releases at Harriott's Chariot, on Twin Gates Plaza, owned by ex-singing star Derrick Harriott.

An aperitif

You're spoilt for choice, with everything from upmarket-hotel cocktail lounges to raunchy rum shops. Safe, but still atmospheric, are Carlos' Cafe (22 Belmont Rd) and Peppers (31 Upper Waterloo Rd). The drink of choice, of course, is rum, but beware the 80-degrees "overproof" variety (rocket fuel), or simply stick to the deservedly famous Red Stripe beer.

Demure dinner

Norma Shirley is the big name in the island's cooking, and her "nouvelle Jamaican" style is a departure from the high-starch yams and rice'n'peas school. Her Redbones (21 Braemar Ave) is not cheap at about pounds 25 a head, but it's a subtle culinary experience. The New Kingston area has plenty of restaurants, including the cheap and highly recommended Hot Pot (opposite Altamont Court), where filling goat curry or red pea soup cost no more than pounds 7.

Sunday morning: go to church

Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere in the world. If you go to St Andrew Parish Church (ecumenical), at Half Way Tree, you're likely to spot Prime Minister PJ Patterson and the Governor General among the smartly dressed congregation.

Bracing brunch

Jamaican brunches are a seriously calorific event, encompassing fried chicken, saltfish and ackee, and oxtail stew. The feast at Ivor Guest House, Jack's Hill, is among the best, with wonderful views of a sweltering Kingston below. Expect to pay pounds 12, but you'll never be hungry again.

A walk in the park

Fight off the ensuing torpor with a gentle walk around Hope Botanical Gardens (free entrance), a 200-acre park with a small zoo attached. The place was damaged by the 1988 Hurricane Gilbert and is past its best, but still contains a fine collection of orchids and other local flora, including the beautiful national plant, the lignum vitae (tree of life), with its dark blue flowers.

The icing on the cake

Five miles beyond the airport, on the Palisadoes sand-spit, are the ruins of Port Royal, once the lair of pirates such as Henry Morgan and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. The "wickedest city in Christendom" was destroyed by a tidal wave in 1692. A British naval base was later built here, and some fascinating, if crumbling, colonial buildings remain. The naval hospital and Fort Charles (commanded by Nelson between 1779 and 1780) can be visited within an hour or so. It is a melancholic site, awaiting a multi-million- dollar redevelopment scheme, but offers a great view of Kingston across the bay.

James Ferguson is the author of `The Traveller's History of the Caribbean' (Windrush Press, pounds 8.99)