Traveller's guide: Jamaica

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Lonely Planet's Anna Kaminski sums up the diversity of this Caribbean gem, from tropical beaches and mountains to fiery food and reggae

Sunshine, warmth, white-sand beaches against a backdrop of palm trees, balmy evenings, crowds swaying to reggae music, Rastafarians with matted dreads, air fragrant with spices and sea salt, and friendly, smiling locals. All of the above are a reality in Jamaica, yet they are only fragments of what makes this Caribbean island so alluring.

Jamaica's national motto, "Out of many, one people", reflects the island's rich and diverse cultural heritage – from indigenous Arawaks (also known as Tainos) to Spanish settlement, the slave trade and plantation culture, to mass immigration and the birth of Rastafarianism. Today, these influences are as evident in the historic buildings and ruins that dot the island as they are in the music and the distinctively spicy, fragrant cuisine, created through the fusion of cultures.

The island's geography is as diverse as its people. The capital, Kingston, provides an authentic insight into Jamaican life. Little touched by tourism, it sits around a deep harbour on the south coast, with the historic village of Port Royal lying at the end of a narrow spit. North-east of here are the densely forested Blue Mountains, named after their distinctive hue when seen from a distance and formerly a refuge for Maroons (runaway slaves). These peaks are still home to a small number of fiercely independent villages, peopled by the descendants of Maroons. The dense vegetation of the Blue Mountains also plays host to a bewildering variety of feathered life, including the elusive streamertail hummingbird – Jamaica's national bird. Together with the central Dry Harbour Mountains and the arid Cockpit Country – a spelunker's paradise – the Blue Mountains make up the island's spine.

Much of Jamaica's coastline is fringed with white sand beaches, the longest and most-visited being along the north and west coasts. The most popular resorts are Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril. However, the north coast deserves further exploration to visit the grand colonial houses – remnants of a bygone era when sugar was king and Jamaica was Britain's most prized colony – and secluded mansions, reminders that the island was popular with the likes of Errol Flynn and Noël Coward long before the beach crowds arrived.

For a more relaxed experience, you shouldn't miss the less-peopled gems along the laid-back southwest coast, such as the unspoilt fishing village of Treasure Beach. The region is dominated by the Black River Great Morass – a vast expanse of mangroves and swampland, home to crocodiles, manatees and a wealth of birdlife.

Jamaica's rainy and lush north- west corner is all forested mountains, lush gorges and small, vacant coves. The island also offers plenty to keep the active traveller occupied – from hiking and biking in the Blue Mountains and surfing on the east coast to world-class diving off the west and north coasts.

Meanwhile, music permeates every fibre of Jamaican life. Look out for posters advertising gigs; these tend to be all-night, multi-act concerts. One of the biggest music events of the year is Montego Bay's Reggae Sumfest (reggaesumfest.com), held in late July.

Jamaica is compact – you can drive from one end to another, just over 200km, in six hours – and is covered by an extensive network of private minibuses and communal station wagons known as route taxis. With the exception of the comfortable, air-conditioned Knutsford Express coaches (001 876 971 1822; knutsfordexpress.com) connecting Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, buses depart only when full to the brim with passengers.

If you're unfazed by the fast and often reckless driving, Avis (001 876 952 0762; avis.com.jm) and Hertz (001 876 979 0438; hertz.com) offer car rental from Montego Bay and Kingston airports; but note that the Foreign Office warns against driving to or from Kingston airport "unless you are fully acquainted with the route and are driving in daylight hours". You'll need a 4x4 with high clearance if you plan to drive around the steep, pitted roads in the Blue Mountains.

There is a high incidence of violence in Jamaica. While much of it is gang-related crime in areas away from tourist centres, the Foreign Office is strident in its warnings. The official advice starts with your hotel: "Follow hotel security procedures such as using room or hotel safes, locking windows and doors and reporting suspicious activity". Outside the hotel, "Vigilance is particularly advised when drawing money from ATMs. Don't walk or use buses at night. Only hire taxis authorised by the Jamaica Tourist Board, usually operated by the Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA), or taxis ordered from hotels for your sole use. Try to vary which restaurants you use. Frequenting the same place too often might make you a target for thieves."

Direct flights to Kingston and Montego Bay are offered from Gatwick by British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com). From 25 March, however, the schedules change substantially – BA is axeing flights from Montego Bay, and increasing flights to Kingston from two to three. And Virgin Atlantic is withdrawing from Kingston – and deploying the aircraft instead to Cancun in Mexico. There will be no increase in services to Montego Bay. As a result of the removal of competition, fares to both destinations are increasing steeply.

In addition, Thomson (0871 231 4787; thomsonfly.com) flies from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to Montego Bay.

The most pleasant months to visit Jamaica are December-April; however, in the Blue Mountains, it can get positively cold at night. You can catch numerous concerts and the raucous Bacchanal Jamaica carnival (bacchanaljamaica.com) during Christmas and Easter, respectively, though hotel prices and crowds go up accordingly. July and August tend to be particularly hot and sticky and there's a possibility of hurricanes in August and September, but summer is also a great time to catch the music festivals and the Independence Day celebrations.

Rainfall during the May-October "rainy season" depends on the location: the north-east coast receives the most rainfall year-round, while the southwest barely gets a sprinkle. Scuba divers should avoid coming in April – the windiest month – when the visibility is poorest.

Lonely Planet’s Jamaica guide (sixth edition) is out next week, priced £14.99. See lonelyplanet.com

Port Antonio and the north-east coast

Port Antonio – a friendly tangle of streets with crumbling Georgian architecture – serves as a good base for exploring the lush and rainy northeast coast.

The picturesque coastal road leads east to Frenchman's Cove, a lovely white-sand beach bisected by a freshwater stream. Further east is Boston Bay, a prime surf spot synonymous with jerk – a Maroon style of cooking that involves smoking highly spiced meat over pimento wood fire; Mikey's Jerk Pit stall is best.

Delve into Maroon culture just south of Port Antonio, in the northern reaches of the Blue Mountains, with Grand Valley Tours (001 876 858 7338; portantoniojamaica.com/gvt.html); four-hour hikes from Moore Town cost US$50 (£33), including transport. West of Port Antonio, follow in Errol Flynn's footsteps by gliding on a bamboo raft along the Rio Grande River with Rio Grande Experience (001 876 993 5778), from US$65 (£43).

Doubles at Jamaica Heights Resort (001 876 993 3305; jahsresort.com), a hilltop plantation home, start at US$75 (£50), B&B. Just west of Port Antonio, seek out Dickie's Best Kept Secret (00 1 876 809 6276) – a couple of tiny rooms overlooking a sheer drop serving sumptuous five-course dinners (US$30/£20).

South-west Coast

A laidback, friendly community of fishermen and expatriates, the south coast's Treasure Beach comes alive in late May, when writers and poets descend on the village for the Calabash Literary Festival (calabashfestival.org).

Teddy Parchment (001 876 854 5442) and Dennis Abrahams (001 876 435 3779), reliable boat captains, arrange trips from Treasure Beach to Jamaica's most unusual watering hole, the Pelican Bar, pictured left, on a sandbank a mile out at sea, and further afield into the Black River Great Morass. Boat trips cost US$35-70 (£23-47) per person.

Also within easy reach are the 36-metre YS Falls (ysfalls.com), pictured below, comprising seven cascades, interspersed with pools of cool water for dipping. Admission US$15 (£10).

Stay at Nuestra Casa (001 876 965 0152; billysbay.com), a guesthouse with a tropical garden where doubles start at US$50 (£33). Worth the drive is beachside Little Ochie (001 876 852 6430; littleochie.com) in Alligator Pond – a top pick for seafood meals.

Kingston & Port Royal

With its chaotic traffic, blaring music, and tenement yards, Kingston is the beating heart of Jamaica. The capital is divided into Uptown, where most of the hotels and restaurants are, and Downtown – the historical centre surrounded by ghettos.

While most "yards" are off-limits, there are parts you can visit: Bob Marley fans can take a taxi to the singer's Trench Town home (001 876 572 4085), immortalised in "No Woman No Cry". Tours cost US$20 (£13.30). Also downtown, the superb art collection at the National Gallery of Jamaica (001 876 922 1561; natgalja.org.jm) ranges from Taino wood carvings to surrealism and post-modern installations. Closed Sundays and Mondays; admission J$250 (£1.90). Grab some lunch around the corner at Moby Dick, 3 Orange Street (001 876 922 4468); meals from US$20 (£13), celebrated for its curry goat.

Uptown, Marley fans should not miss the excellent Bob Marley Museum (001 876 927 9152; bobmarley-foundation.com/museum.html), the singer's home in later years, adorned with personal items. Closed Sunday; admission US$20 (£13).

Near the museum, Devon House (001 876 929 6602; devonhousejamaica.com; J$750/£5.60), the restored colonial home of the first black millionaire George Stiebel, sits amid landscaped grounds next to one of Kingston's top restaurants, Norma's On the Terrace (001 876 968 5488; J$1,290/£10 for two courses).

Before Kingston even existed, Port Royal was the wealthiest (and wickedest) pirate capital in the New World, reduced to a shadow of its former self by the disastrous earthquake of 1692 and still largely ramshackle in the absence of redevelopment. You can still visit the largely intact Fort Charles (US$5, £3), and dine at Gloria's at 5 Queen Street, justifiably famous for miles around for its fish dishes (meals from J$1,000/£8).

Exuding minimalist chic, rooms at the Spanish Court Hotel (001 876 926 0000; spanishcourthotel.com) start at US$253 (£168), including breakfast. Alternatively, try the Knutsford Court Hotel (001 876 929 1000; knutsfordcourt.com) where B&B is US$168 (£112).

Ocho Rios and the North Coast

Ocho Rios is a major port of call for cruise ships, which churn out thousands of visitors who set out to scramble up Dunn's River Falls (dunnsriverfallsja.com; US$20/£13), an impressive series of cascades just west of the town.

However, it is easy to avoid the scrum and find solitude in a region that is rich in history: here you'll find the birthplace of Bob Marley, Nine Mile, now home to a modest museum (001 876 999 7003; ninemilejamaica.com) and the marble mausoleum where he was buried 30 years ago. It's a remote location, but full-day tours are offered by Chukka Cove Farm (001 876 972 2506; chukkacaribbean.com) from Ocho Rios, costing from US$74 (£49). The tour operator also offers trips taking in more unusual adrenalin-pumping activities, such as buggy rides pulled by a trained dog team, costing US$43 (£29) per person, including transport.

By St Ann's Bay, Seville Great House & Heritage Park (001 876 972 2191; jnht.com) comprises the ruins of the first Spanish settlement in Jamaica and an 18th-century plantation house. Explore the property on horseback with Hooves (001 876 972 0905; hoovesjamaica.com); a three-hour tour costs US$70 (£47).

East of Ocho Rios, visit Firefly, Noel Coward's beautiful hilltop home with Yardie Tours (001 876 567 5619, yardietours.com) for US$45 (£30), including admission and transport.

The region is also home to Goldeneye (001 876 975 3354; goldeneye.com), Ian Fleming's home in Oracabessa. The house is now part of Chris Blackwell's hotel portfolio and has recently reopened after major renovation. B&B starts at US$538 (£359).

Meanwhile, the Blue House B&B (001 876 994 1367; thebluehousejamaica.com) in Ocho Rios offers doubles from US$180 (£150) and excellent Jamaican-Chinese-Indian fusion cuisine.

Montego Bay & Negril

These two resorts are among the most popular with sun-seeking visitors to Jamaica. The best beach in "Mo'Bay" is the white sand Doctor's Cave Beach, offering snorkelling and other water sports. On the west coast, Negril's Seven Mile Beach – a long crescent of white sand, famous for its beach parties and lined with lodgings and restaurants – competes with Montego Bay for popularity. Tall cliffs at its southern end provide a jumping-off point (literally) for local daredevil divers.

The coral canyons of Montego Bay's Airport Reef – considered to be Jamaica's best dive – are home to vast shoals of tropical fish. Negril's best dive site, The Throne – a cave teeming with octopi, nurse sharks, and barracuda – is its biggest rival. Jamaica Scuba (001 876 381 1113; scuba-jamaica.com) offers one-tank dives in both resorts for US$60 (£40) per person.

East of Montego Bay, Rose Hall Great House (001 876 953 2323; www.rosehall.com) is a plantation house made notorious by the White Witch, Anne May, who murdered three of her husbands and who is said to haunt the grounds. Admission US$20 (£13).

In Montego, Tobys Resort (001 876 952 4370; tobyresorts.com) offers comfortable doubles from US$120 (£80) room only, while Firefly Beach Cottages in Negril (001 876 957 4358; jamaicalink.com) has both tiny, rustic chalets (US$140/£93) and luxurious penthouse suites (from US$165/£110).

Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountain range dominates eastern Jamaica. Take the night hike (eight hours return) that reaches Blue Mountain peak (2,256m) at dawn. On clear days, you can see Cuba from the summit. The owners of Whitfield Hall (001 876 878 0514; whitfieldhall.com), a former 18th-century plantation house within the Blue Mountains, offer tours for J$14,400 (£107).

To witness the growing process of Blue Mountain coffee, a mild, smooth tasting variety, arrange a visit to the family-run Old Tavern Coffee Estate (001 876 924 2785, exportjamaica.org/oldtavern).

A luxury mountain retreat comprising secluded cottages, Strawberry Hill (001 876 944 8400; islandoutpost.com) is due to reopen on Tuesday following a refurbishment. Easily reached from Kingston, it has doubles from US$282 (£180).

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