My Rough Guide: Jamaica - Charm, sensuality, rum and reggae - and don't forget the crocs

Biggest surprise

Having tossed a coin with my Rough Guide co-author and lost, I was saddled with the daunting task of researching Kingston, a city more loaded with scary stories than any other in the region.

Within hours of arriving I loved it - a pulsating place full of colour and action with a brilliant art gallery, the island's best nightlife and restaurants and 30 minutes by a cute little ferry from Port Royal, Jamaica's atmospheric 17th-century pirate hangout.

Best discovery

In a country packed with fantastic scenery and oozing charm and sensuality, a crocodile sanctuary may sound an unlikely highlight. But the wildlife reserve at Font Hill offers the most glorious beaches on the relatively unexplored south coast, stunning but deserted strips of sand straight out of the Bounty adverts, peaceful woods, plenteous bird-life and a mini- safari across desert scenery to look for crocs.

Favourite place to stay

Treasure Beach was long one of the most isolated parts of Jamaica and, though tourism has finally kicked off, it remains the calmest place on the island to hang out and do nothing. At the top of an impossibly steep hill, the entrance marked by a pink Ford Prefect, Caijan is the ultimate hideaway - a tiny mountain commune with, at its centre, a house built into the rock using outcrops for floors, ceilings and walls. Accommodation is very basic, with a couple of simple cottages and a patch of land to pitch a tent, but the atmosphere is incredible, especially at night when John, the Rasta owner, gets the African drums out and the mountains echo to the pulsing rhythms. If it all gets too rustic, head downhill to the Moorish cottages at Jakes - the trendy Caribbean retreat - where the pace of life is a fraction quicker and the Red Stripe keeps coming all night long.

Biggest let-down

Montego Bay has long been up there in my list of dream destinations. Sadly, though the beaches and watersports are great, it's a pretty unattractive city where hassling tourists is an art form. Wandering around the few "sights" to a ceaseless backdrop of supposed local wit is not Jamaica at its best.

Best food

There are plenty of good international restaurants in Jamaica, but I always go back to a handful of dead cheap but world-class local places. Cosmo's on Negril beach is worth a major detour for his chunky conch soup; Alex's Curry Goat Spot has a more limited repertoire but serves the best spicy goat on an island that excels at it; but my favourite is always the fresh fruit on roadside stalls - mangos, paw-paws and many others that you'll rarely find in Britain, such as acorn-like sweetsops, june plums and, above all, sugary naseberries - worth the flight on their own.

Strange encounter

At the end of a long dirt track through the sugar (and ganja) plantations, in a tiny bar, an ancient man called Elva was delighted to meet me because it gave him an chance to display his great knowledge of British history and geography. He didn't know how old he was, only that he remembered the death of Queen Victoria (1901), but he knew all about the political battles of Gladstone and Disraeli, the topography of the Cheviot Hills and the batting average of WG Grace. And he had never, in his life, left his home parish.

Best rum factory

The "chemistry lab" at World's End - a small, brightly-muralled building clinging to the slopes of the Blue Mountains - is the unlikely birth-place of the island's tastiest rums and liqueurs. I found it by accident after a morning hike to Blue Mountain Peak. A leisurely visit, sampling a dozen varieties while looking out over the mist-shrouded mountains, humming birds flitting around my ears, got all the senses nicely intoxicated.

essential listening

Birthplace of reggae and inventor of many other styles, Jamaica is the most dynamic place for music on the planet. Everywhere you hear the latest tracks booming on ghetto-blasters. Buju Banton's relentlessly played Till Shiloh - one of the greatest Jamaican albums since the Bob Marley era - always evokes my most potent memories of the island.

Getting There

The ferry from Kingston to Port Royal leaves from downtown Kingston at the bottom of Princess Street. It runs seven or eight times a day and costs about 10p.

Font Hill Wildlife Reserve is on the south coast, a couple of miles west of Black River and less than an hour's drive from Negril or Montego Bay. Buses plying between Black River and Negril will stop outside for you, and there's no entrance fee.

To arrange a room at Caijan or Jakes (and transport to either place if you need it) call Jason or Sally Henzell at Jakes on (tel: 001 876 965 0552). You can occasionally reach John at Caijan directly (001 876 990 6641) or, in the UK, book a room at Jakes through Island Outposts (0800 614790). The cottages at Caijan cost around pounds 15 a night; at Jakes they go for pounds 45-pounds 55.

Cosmos (001 876 957 4330) is on Norman Manley boulevard in Negril; Alex's Curry Goat Spot is on Spur Tree Hill, just west of Mandeville.

The World's End liqueur factory (001 876 926 8888) is three miles east of Gordon Town and is open Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm. Call ahead to book a time and avoid the tour parties.

Adam Vaitilingam co-wrote 'The Rough Guide to Jamaica' (pounds 9.99). Keep up with travel developments with the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times a year. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free 'Rough Guide' to the first three subscribers each week.

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