Picture yourself on a postcard-perfect Caribbean beach — white sands kissed by crystal clear waters, palm trees snoozing over sun loungers — and then turn to someone and, in your worst Jamaican accent, say: “One love.” That is something close to what it means. It is how you feel. It is peace; it is love; it is joy and it is a close relation to the other two sayings, with “respect” being obvious and “irie” being a positive term close “cool” or “good.” With sayings like these, how could you not fall in love with Jamaica?
However, there are downsides. Most visitors will arrive in either Kingston on the south coast — the capital — or Montego Bay on the north coast, Jamaica’s second city, and both are noted on numerous travel sites as having perilous, no-go areas. You need to aware, but not permanently wary. Just as you would avoid areas in London, New York or New Delhi, so you need to be aware of not straying into the wrong neighborhoods of Jamaica’s major towns and cities.
For most tourists, this advice is academic as the majority will power their way to the nearest sun lounger, but for those taking a short swing at Kingston, be sure to take a tour around Port Royal, a historic British settlement that was once known as the wickedest place on Earth. The original vice-laden, pirate-ridden town mostly disappeared beneath the sea following an earthquake in 1692 that killed around 2,000 people. Today, it is a fishing village toured by history buffs keen to see the impressive Fort Charles, a fortress that never saw battle, but did struggle to keep relevant, its guns originally pointing over the sea. Following centuries of earthquakes and sand deposits, however, they now point across scrubland, not able to see even a drop of water.
Most tourists do not want history tours, they want sun, sea and sand. Nowhere in Jamaica is better for such needs than Negril, a resort town on the west coast that boats a 11-kilometer beach of creaminess, dotted with beach bars and hotels. This is where Jamaica locks horns with beach offerings across the Caribbean, competing for travelers and package holiday makers, yet it is able to offer something unique: Jamaican culture. It is a lure that brings people back year after year, highlighted by an American couple I met who had been returning to Negril for 23 years running.
Your Jamaican beach holiday should start early. Rising at 6:30 a.m. is not normally associated with relaxation, but it is only with the dawn chorus that you will have the beach to yourself, devoid of daytime hawkers flogging cigarettes, T-shirts, carvings, music, wraps and patties. Rising early will also guarantee cooler temperatures and calmer seas and during hurricane season, it is most likely the weather will be best as daytime heat usually whips up short afternoon rains, forcing sunbathers to flee for shelter. As an added bonus, you will also be first in line for the breakfast buffet.
Being offered the choice between a full English breakfast and a Jamaican breakfast is a tough decision, but when in Rome — so a Jamaican breakfast was tried and devoured. Fried plantains, callaloo, ackee and salt fish, papyrus and fried dumplings. Nothing on the menu was familiar, but broken down, plantain is a cousin of the banana, served sliced and fried; callaloo is a West African dish of green leafy plants — you can use spinach or kale — chopped, steamed and spiced; ackee and saltfish is a yellow tree fruit diced up with salted white fish, resulting in a specialty not too dissimilar in appearance to scrambled eggs, yet far, far saltier and dumplings are akin to small scones, deep fried. The combination of these ingredients, alongside papyrus, results in a Jamaican treat, one that is sure to re-energize you after your early morning swim.
Another Caribbean dish served across the region is jerk chicken. The reason I mention it is not to fawn over its simplistic beauty, but to flag the number of businesses claiming to make Jamaica’s finest jerk chicken. Yet buyer beware, the street vendor may claim greatness, but your stomach will likely prefer the hotel’s version.
For those travelers to Negril able to tear themselves from a sun lounger, the highlight of the area is a visit to Rick’s Café. This bastion of entertainment perched on the West End Cliffs is wildly overpriced for the area, but it has been in business since 1974 and offers the chance to watch — or take part in — cliff jumping. The more risk-averse may wish to check their travel insurance, but the jump is easy — impressing the crowd is far harder. For those wishing to steer clear, there is live reggae music, with wafts of Bob Marley recreating a similar vibe to bars up and down the main beach.
The classic, stereotypical version of Jamaica, tinged with Bob Marley, is everywhere and while there is much more to Jamaica, there is no shame in relaxing with a cold drink, admiring the sunset and humming along to “One Love,” It is how the maestro himself would have wanted you to feel.