Jamaica: Traveller's Guide

Its idyllic beaches are rightly celebrated, but closer inspection of this Caribbean gem reveals quiet coves, waterfalls and verdant mountains

For many people, Jamaica is the archetypal Caribbean beach holiday, a fly-and-flop destination of all-inclusive resorts. But recently – perhaps inspired by the spring in Usain Bolt's steps – travellers have started to realise that the country offers so much more than rum punch and a beautiful sunset. And perhaps the biggest surprise is the capital itself.

Kingston has frequently been regarded as the sort of place you would arrange your trip to avoid, but these days the city is very much on the way up, brandishing a rich cultural life that is tempting travellers back through fine dining and local festivals.

The music scene is extraordinarily vibrant and a real eye – and ear – opener for anyone who thinks Jamaican music begins and ends with Bob Marley. From live jazz and roots poetry to raucous dancehall street parties, Kingston lays it on with the knowing self-confidence that is the country's stock-in-trade.

But while Kingston is definitely worth a re-visit, the temptations of Jamaica's natural beauty are never far away. This is a mountainous country, draped in green and crying out to be explored. A whole guidebook might be written about its waterfalls alone – some packed with passengers from the many cruise ships that sail between Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, and others that await the pleasure of discovery by the tourist canny enough to pack a swimming costume in their day-bag on the off-chance of a swim in little-visited pools.

Rivers such as the Rio Grande can be floated down on bamboo rafts – Errol Flynn supposedly came up with that neat idea in the 1940s when he bought a mansion in Port Antonio, a town that's recently experienced a renaissance – or, if you prefer to get completely submerged, the north coast offers fabulous snorkelling and scuba diving.

For hikers, the Blue Mountains and Cockpit Country offer some of the best treks in the Caribbean, with local guides taking you through Maroon communities, descended from slaves who escaped the plantations, or the slopes where some of the world's finest coffee is cultivated.

And after all this, perhaps a bit of beach time is deserved. The long, white crescent of Negril's Seven Mile Beach is deservedly celebrated, but the whole coastline is dotted with sandy getaways. Treasure Beach, in the south, is a relaxing retreat (and home to an unexpected annual literature festival). But if you want to experience the beach as the Jamaicans do, head for Winnifred Beach, near Port Antonio, or Hellshire Beach, a popular weekend getaway for Kingstonians. At both you'll find wooden shacks doing a brisk trade in cold beer and fried fish, lively sound systems and Jamaica at play.

Steppes Travel (01285 880980; steppestravel.co.uk) can take you on a 14-day trip that steers well away from the all-inclusive resorts, for £3,995 per person, including flights.

In Jamaica, Kingston-based Jamaica Cultural Enterprises (001 876 540 8570; jaculture.com) offers tailor-made cultural tours, with a strong focus on food, music and history.

Finally, a word about crime. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office says: "Be vigilant at all times, even if you're staying with friends and family. Don't walk alone in isolated areas or on deserted beaches, even during the day. Take particular care when withdrawing money from ATMs. Don't carry large amounts of cash or wear eye-catching jewellery. Avoid using buses at night."

You can find more information about Jamaica on the tourist board's website, visitjamaica.com.

The great outdoors

The island's lush green mountains offer plenty of ways to be active on holiday. In a country of waterfalls, the most celebrated is Dunn's River Falls (001 876 974 2857; dunnsriverfallsja.com; J$2,300/£13) outside Ocho Rios.

The cascades are seemingly tailor-made to splash and climb up – but arrive early to beat the cruise-ship crowds. Even more beautiful are the eight extravagant YS Falls (001 876 997 6360; ysfalls.com; J$2,300/ £13) on the south coast.

Reaching the summit of Blue Mountain Peak at 2,256m is just about possible as a long day-trip from Kingston, but best enjoyed as an overnight experience to catch dawn from the peak.

Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (001 876 960 2848; jcdt.org.jm) can arrange guides and accommodation.

A ride with Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours (001 876 974 7075; bmtoursja.com; day tours from J$12,000/ £68) will allow you to enjoy the same scenery, with vehicle support and plenty of relaxed, downhill runs.

If you really want to get rugged, head for Cockpit Country, which was once a hideout for runaway slaves.

Guides from Cockpit Country Adventure Tours (001 876 610 0818; jamaica cockpitcountrytours .com; day tours from J$6,000/ £35) can lead you through the area's mountain trails and caves. The 15km Troy-Windsor trail hike is a real highlight.

Food and drink

Jamaica's classic taste is jerk, a scorching marinade and spice rub for meat and fish. But there are plenty of opportunities to expand your palate beyond hot peppers or rice and peas.

Falmouth Heritage Walks (001 876 407 2245; falmouthheritagewalks.com; J$5,000/ £28) offers delicious foodie walking tours while taking in the town of Falmouth's Georgian architecture. At Treasure Beach, Jake's (001 876 965 3000; jakeshotel.com; J$11,000/£60) hosts moonlit "farm to table" dinners, featuring local, organic produce.

Wet your whistle on a tour of the Appleton Rum Estate (001 876 963 9216; appletonrumtour.com; J$11,000/ £60) in St Elizabeth, or see prized Blue Mountain coffee transformed from bean to cup at the Craighton Estate (001 876 929 8490; J$2,000/£11).

Book ahead for next November's Restaurant Week (go-jamaica.com/rw). It is the climax of the Jamaican food year, with nearly 80 participating restaurants.

Song and dance

This place is synonymous with just one name, making a trip to Kingston's Bob Marley Museum (001 876 927 9152; bobmarleymuseum.com, J$2,000/£14), his old house and recording studio, an essential experience. For a more modern take on the country's music scene, head for Kingston. Elsewhere live music is mostly the domain of resort hotel bands playing reggae and calypso covers.

Red Bones Blue Cafe (001 876 978 8262; facebook.com/RedbonesBluesCafe), has regular concerts, but you can find club nights and street parties in the city virtually every night of the week. Two of the most popular are the dancehall-inflected Weddy Weddy Wednesdays (facebook.com/stonelove.jamaica; J$500 /£3) and Rae Town Sundays at the Capricorn Inn, which spins oldies, ska and reggae.

Also on Sunday, Kingston Dub Club (facebook.com/officialkingstondubclub; free) offers what is perhaps Jamaica's best club setting, playing in the open air in the hills looking down over the city.

Festival spirit

The two biggest music festivals are the roots-heavy Reggae Salute (facebook.com/rebelsalutejamaica; 16-17 January; day tickets J$3,500/£20), held at Richmond Estate in St Ann, on the north coast, and Montego Bay's mammoth Reggae Sumfest (facebook.com/ReggaeSumfest; weekend tickets J$15,000/£85) every July, which always attracts plenty of international talent.

Calabash Literary Festival (calabashfestival.org; 30 May-1 June; free) on Treasure Beach must have the best location of any book festival anywhere and carries an ever-growing reputation; Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie were among recent attendees.

If you want to spot the next Usain Bolt, make your way to Kingston in the last week before Easter for the Boys & Girls Championship (issasports.com; 24-28 March 2015; pricing details not yet announced) – a four-day national athletics meet and festival where you'll jostle with international talent scouts amid a 30,000-strong crowd.

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Where to stay

Jamaica has plenty of options beyond the chain resorts. Homestay-style Neita's Nest (001 876 469 3005; neitasnest.com) sits in the hills above Kingston, with doubles from J$13,000/ £75. Downtown, private rooms at the lively Reggae Hostel (001 876 920 1596; reggaehostel.com), are J$8000 (£45) a night.

In Treasure Beach, you'll find bright colours at Calabash (001 876 818 9830; calabashhouse.com), with doubles around J$9,500/ £55. The villa-style Polkerris B&B (001 876 877 7784; polvista.com) in Montego Bay has doubles from J$19,000 (£105).

If you prefer to be slightly out of town, the historic Richmond Hill Inn (001 876 952 3859; richmond-hill-inn.com) has doubles from J$13,000 (£75) – for J$22,000 (£120) you can sleep in the suite Roger Moore stayed in while filming Live and Let Die.

Negril Treehouse (001 876 957 4287; negril-treehouse.com) has rondavel rooms from J$18,000 (£100). In Port Antonio, recent high-end openings include Geejam (001 876 993 7000; geejamhotel.com) and Trident (001 876 633 7000; tridentportantonio.com) hotels.

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Kingston four times a week, and Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) from Gatwick to Montego Bay three times a week. Thomas Cook Airlines (0844 855 0515; thomascookairlines.com) flies from Manchester to Montego Bay once a week.

Jamaica is a small island. Car-rental companies are based in Kingston and the main resorts, but the Foreign Office warnings about self-drive are strident: "If you aren't familiar with Kingston, don't drive in the city. If you get lost, you risk putting yourself and your passengers in personal danger. Road accidents and fatalities are common. Many roads are badly maintained with poor signage. Roads in rural areas are narrow, winding and poorly lit at night. Speeding and drink-driving are common." So you may prefer hiring a driver. JUTA Tours (001 876 952 0813; jutatoursltd.com) set official rates.

A good alternative are the comfortable, air-conditioned coaches of Knutsford Express (001 876 971 1822; knutsfordexpress.com), which serves all major destinations in the country.

A dedicated tourist ferry linking key resorts of Montego Bay and Negril is due to start running by the middle of 2015.

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