White-sugar sand, spicy plates of jerk meat, waterfalls, reggae, copious amounts of rum, jungle-covered mountains: Jamaica has long been the place where everything is irie (“all right”) – and today, as the island nation celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence, things have never been more so.
Over the decades, Jamaica has seduced many a visitor. Ian Fleming was so captivated by the Caribbean isle when he visited as a naval officer during the Second World War that he built an estate in Oracabessa Bay called Goldeneye and wrote all his James Bond novels there – it is now a luxury hotel and resort (goldeneye.com). Nearby is playwright Noël Coward’s final home, Firefly – so called because of the glowing creatures glimpsed from the property – which is now a museum (firefly-jamaica.com).
Winston Churchill was a fan, too, as were Marilyn Monroe and Hollywood hell-raiser Errol Flynn, who apparently declared it “more beautiful than any woman I have ever known”.
In 2009, it was my turn to be seduced. I was living on the neighbouring island of Grand Cayman, and nipped across for the weekend. Landing in Jamaica was akin to flicking on a light switch: everything was more vibrant, more colourful – with the sound of Bob Marley and the smell of jerk chicken and coconut on the breeze. It was unlike any other island I had been to. Here, finally, was the Caribbean of my imagination.
How do I love Jamaica? Let me count the ways. First, and most obviously, it’s the weather. Jamaica has sunshine when Europe is under the dark blanket of winter, and nothing beats the feeling of holiday sun sinking into your bones. So far, so Caribbean.
Then there are the beaches. Compared with other shores, Jamaica’s are playing in the Premier League – and unlike the often indistinguishable coves elsewhere in the Caribbean, are all totally different in character.
At Negril’s Seven Mile Beach (actually only four miles long), you can walk the entire length of white sand before joining the crowds at the always busy Rick’s Cafe (001 876 957 0380) to watch plucky locals dive from the rocks into the warm turquoise waters below as the setting sun fades from deep red to pink. Or enjoy a gentle stroll while admiring the shifting colour of the sea at bohemian Treasure Beach – this time on darker sand, and likely without seeing another soul if you go before breakfast. Don’t fancy either of those? On the east coast, you will find Frenchman’s Cove (frenchmanscove.com), where a £10 beach pass gives you access to a small strip of postcard-perfect white sand ringed by miniature forested headlands and flanked by an azure lagoon.
So yes, plenty of beaches – but don’t make the mistake of writing off Jamaica as nothing but pretty stretches of sand. There are other magnificent natural wonders, too: rivers, waterfalls and the almost unnervingly tranquil Blue Mountains range (where some of the best coffee beans in the world are grown). Among the spectacular natural attractions is the Luminous Lagoon (from £10.20; glisteningwaters.com), east of Falmouth, where the water glows as a result of bioluminescence (microscopic organisms that emit light when disturbed). It is one of only a few places in the world where this phenomenon occurs and it is truly magical – the hyperbole is justified.
On the south coast, there is YS Falls (£16.30; ysfalls.com) – a series of cascades set amid acres of lush vegetation and limestone cliffs that are every bit as beautiful as the more famous (and crowded) Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios (£20.40; dunnsriverfallsja.com). And in the sleepy, Eden-like eastern parish of Portland, there is thrilling bamboo rafting on the Rio Grande river (from £53.20 per raft; 001 876 993 5778) where you can sail past former banana plantations.
But it’s not just nature – the cities are special, too, and Kingston particularly so. The capital has reinvented itself as a vibrant melting pot, full of charisma, colour and culture. Start with a guided tour of the Bob Marley Museum (£20.40; bobmarleymuseum.com) at 56 Hope Road – a colonial-era wooden house where Jamaica’s first son lived until his death in 1981. Rooms remain untouched and filled with artefacts, including Marley’s clothing and gold and platinum records. Then make a pilgrimage to the nearby Peter Tosh Museum (£16.30; petertosh.com) which tells the story of the reggae icon, equal rights activist and proponent of Rastafari who was murdered in 1987, through memorabilia such as his unicycle and gun-shaped guitar.
Imbibe the reggae spirit even further at Tuff Gong (£16.30; tuffgong.com) – the legendary Kingston studio where Marley cut tracks such as Buffalo Soldier and Redemption Song.
And then, of course, there is the food – a vital part of Jamaican life and culture; delicious and joyful. National favourites such as jerk chicken, spicy patties, ackee and saltfish, rice and peas abound at restaurants and roadside stalls (all vendors have to be certified, so street food is perfectly safe).
But if you only eat one meal, make it jerk – a style of barbecuing native to Jamaica, in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a hot spice mix. Try it with plantain at Boston Bay’s jerk shacks (about 10 miles east of Port Antonio). Or have escovitch – fish cooked with vinegar and allspice – at Miss T’s Kitchen (misstskitchen.com), an Ocho Rios institution where everything is served on rainbow coloured tables to a soundtrack of (what else?) reggae.
And wherever you go, expect rum. To ensure full holiday bragging rights, order a potent punch at Floyd’s Pelican Bar (001 876 354 4218; open 10.30am-sunset). Built by fisherman Floyd Forbes in 2001, after he envisaged it in a dream, this watering hole made from driftwood and palms stands on stilts in the Caribbean Sea just off Jamaica’s south coast, with pelicans perching nearby.
But the best thing about Jamaica – the highlight eternally at its core – is the people: their spirit, strength and warmth. Here, moreso than on any other Caribbean island, hospitality is truly a national obsession. The sunny welcome you will receive is extraordinary; the enthusiasm for life infectious. All over the island, on any given afternoon, you will find the streets filled with friendly locals singing and grooving to dancehall beats.
After two difficult Covid years – and with one in 10 Jamaicans directly employed by the tourism industry – there is no question that the island needs its international visitors to return. I would argue that our need for Jamaica is just as great – after all, couldn’t we all do with a bit more irie island spirit in our lives?
Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com) offers a nine-night Explore Jamaica tour from £2,829 per person, including accommodation, tour guides, transfers and selected meals.
The itinerary takes in the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, the Blue Mountains, Frenchman’s Cove, Negril’s photogenic Seven Mile Beach, and a rum tasting at the Appleton Estate Distillery before ending with a visit to the unspoilt Treasure Beach