Rose Hall Great House offers candlelit tours at night. // © 2015 Jim Smith/Jamaica Tourist Board
Feature image (above): Visitors to Jamaica can opt for a tour of Good Hope Estate. // © 2015 Jamaica Tourist Board
Those choosing to vacation in Jamaica most likely have their minds set on kicking back on the beach, enjoying their resort’s amenities, playing a round of golf and maybe going on a tour or two — perhaps a catamaran cruise or an ATV excursion.
What many travelers miss, however, is a chance to connect with Jamaica’s colonial-era heritage. One of the best ways a traveler can deepen their connection with the destination is to take a great house tour of one of Jamaica’s historic estates. Doing so is especially convenient for those staying in resorts in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
Traditionally, the great house was the crown jewel of a country estate and was usually an impressive two-story structure made of stone and wood. These estates were often sugar plantations, since sugar was the economic driver of Jamaica’s colonial period. Part of the great house heritage is a legacy of slavery, which gives these estates an extra measure of poignant history.
Bellefield Great House & Gardens, Montego Bay
The 17th-century Bellefield Great House & Gardens was originally a militia outpost before becoming a thriving sugar plantation. Visitors can explore the main house, which is filled with mementos from 11 generations of continuous ownership by the Kerr-Jarrett family. Outside the house, guests can stroll through the estate’s gardens and view an on-site sugar mill. Bellefield is especially popular as a wedding venue.
Tours are by appointment only.
Bloomfield Great House, Mandeville
While Mandeville — located in the center of the island — is a bit off the beaten path, it’s worth the trip for a beyond-the-coast Jamaica experience. The 200-year-old Georgian-style Bloomfield Great House, a former coffee plantation, now houses a fine-dining restaurant with views of the historic town.
The main house is open for tours Monday through Saturday.
Good Hope Estate, Trelawny Parish
The 18th-century Good Hope Estate is owned and operated by the Melville family, who also own Chukka Caribbean Adventures. Chukka utilizes Good Hope as the staging ground for its countryside tours, which include horseback riding, carriage rides, ziplining and river kayaking. The estate, which is spread out over 2,000 acres and affords beautiful views of Jamaica’s lush, green Cockpit Country, is a 15-minute drive from the Port of Falmouth, making it easily accessible for cruise ship passengers.
Good Hope Estate is open for tours every day.
Greenwood Great House, Montego Bay
Greenwood Great House once belonged to the wealthy Barretts of Wimpole Street, London. The head of the family, Hersey Barrett, was the uncle of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the renowned Victorian poet who was married to Robert Browning, also an acclaimed Victorian poet.
While the house is filled with antiques, the highlights of my tour were several antique musical instruments, including a polyphone that played a lovely minuet and a barrel organ from 1874 that played a creaky version of “Bicycle Built for Two.” The views are also a bonus: Greenwood’s second-floor balcony overlooks grounds that slope down to the sea.
The tour ends with the option to have a drink in the great house bar, which is decorated with antiques, including odd, round-bottomed bottles unearthed on the property.
The house is open for tours every day.
Rose Hall Great House, Montego Bay
Rose Hall is probably the most famous of Jamaica’s great houses. This is partly because of its magnificent architecture of cut stone and a hilltop location overlooking the sea. But Rose Hall’s primary claim to fame is its legend of Annie Palmer, also known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. Even though there is very little actual history to support the legend, it has had remarkable staying power.
As the tale goes, Annie Palmer, a young beauty, came to Rose Hall in 1810 to marry John Palmer. Over the next 20 years, she poisoned him and her subsequent two husbands. She then dispatched one slave lover after another until she was murdered by rebellious slaves in 1831. The house and grounds of Rose Hall are interesting as they are, but the legend adds drama to a tour.
The house is open every day for tours, including spooky, candlelit tours at night.