Fave Five: Off-the-Beaten-Path Jamaica

Contributing Editor Mark Rogers shares his five favorite Jamaican adventures

By: By Mark Rogers

I’m a big fan of Jamaica, having traveled there often. One of my most memorable trips was an eight-day drive around the whole island, including the less-visited interior. This deepened my love of the island’s vibrant culture and proud people. Jamaica has a well-oiled tourism machine and on subsequent trips I experienced many of the mainstream delights and enjoyed them totally. But I also realized that, if I wanted to have a unique Jamaican experience, I’d have to color outside the lines. Here are some of my favorite off-the-beaten-path sights, hotels and activities to get you started dreaming your own travels in the birthplace of reggae.

Port Antonio
Back in the 1940s Port Antonio became a favorite port-of-call for the international yachting crowd. Celebrities such as Errol Flynn would regularly drop anchor to enjoy Port Antonio’s unspoiled charm on the northeastern coast of the island. Even up until the 1960s Port Antonio’s hotels were welcoming such celebrities as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

When Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios bloomed as vacation hotspots, Port Antonio languished, since it didn’t have an international airport of its own and until recently the North Coast Highway to PA was potholed and torturous (although the highway is now much improved). This caught-in-time aspect is one of Port Antonio’s modern day charms. There are no chain hotels or organized distractions. Instead you’ll find a slow pace, plenty of locals happy to welcome visitors, some of the best jerk pits in Jamaica and hotels with a capital “C” for character. Visit soon – Port Antonio is one of those magical untouched places in the world that will change forever once it becomes more accessible.

Jakes is a beachfront boutique hotel on Jamaica’s Southern Coast // © 2009

Jakes is a beachfront boutique hotel on Jamaica’s Southern Coast // © 2009

Even though I’ve never stayed overnight at Jake’s, a beachfront boutique hotel on Jamaica’s Southern Coast, it’s still one of my favorite places on the island. Jake's is run by the Henzell family; the creators of the cult classic film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff. Twice I’ve had lunch at the property’s al fresco restaurant and toured the grounds and both times; when it was time to leave I had to tear myself away. Jake’s has 31 colorful, thatch-roofed cottages and 29 rooms. The buildings have comfortable lounging decks and oceanfront views that create a cloistered laidback vibe. Highlights at the resort include a mosaic tiled sea-water swimming pool and paved pathways between rooms and to and from the beach. Jake’s has the perfect atmosphere for a writer, which is probably why Jake’s hosts the annual Calabash International Literary Festival, which draws Jamaican and international writers for readings, discussions and musical performances.

Bob Marley House and Museum
It may seem a little strange to single out a Kingston attraction as being off-the-beaten-path, but the truth is that relatively few tourists venture to Jamaica’s capital. If for some reason or other you find yourself in Kingston, try to find the time to visit the Bob Marley House and Museum on Hope Road.

This was both Marley’s home until his death in 1981 and the recording studio of Tuff Gong, where many of Marley’s greatest songs were recorded. Inside you’ll find plenty of exhibits and artifacts, including an informative video. But for me the highlights of the visit were standing in the yard where Marley would play soccer with his friends and many children, or touring the house and coming upon a kitchen counter and seeing the coffee mug Marley would use each morning.

Experiences like these made me feel as though I was sharing an intimate moment with one of the world’s most iconic figures.

Blink and you’ll miss Scotchies. This is an authentic jerk restaurant only a mile or so from the Montego Bay airport on the main highway. If you’re heading east from the airport toward your resort you’re probably going to pass Scotchies. If you’re in the mood for a smoky side of the road real jerk experience, standing elbow to elbow with hungry Jamaicans while cooks sling the jerk under zinc-roofed sheds, then this is the place for you. You can choose from jerk pork, chicken or fish slathered with spices and slow-cooked over a pimento wood fire. Don’t forget to try the roasted breadfruit – it’s the yin to jerk’s yang. Ask your driver to make an unscheduled stop at Scotchies – he’ll know where it is. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

Cycling Blue Mountain
An excursion into Jamaica’s interior to the Blue Mountains is sure to add some variety to a Jamaica beach holiday. You’ll leave behind the bright sunshine and glittering sea to ascend into misty cool environs. One of the most enjoyable ways to experience the mountains is to book a downhill cycling excursion. Generally the tours meet in the morning to depart from Ocho Rios. After being outfitted with a bike and helmet, it’s a deep-green downhill ride of nine to 18 miles depending on the tour. Be prepared to use your brakes a lot more than your pedals. Many operators – including Blue Mountain Bicycle Tours Ltd. – schedule a lunch break at a waterfall with time for a dip, so pack a swimsuit.