What to Do in Kingston

Deepen a Jamaica vacation with a visit to the island’s cosmopolitan capital By: Mark Rogers
Kingston’s Devon House is a National Monument. // © 2012 Jamaica Tourist Board
Kingston’s Devon House is a National Monument. // © 2012 Jamaica Tourist Board

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Jamaica Tourist Board

Most tourists visiting Jamaica fly into Montego Bay’s international airport on the island’s north shore. This puts them in close proximity to the beaches, resorts and attractions that typify a Jamaica holiday. A very small percentage of these visitors ever make it down to Kingston, the island’s cosmopolitan capital on the southern side of the island. This is a shame, because to really know Jamaica, visitors have to experience Kingston, the beating heart of the island, where business and culture go hand in hand. Repeat visitors to Jamaica may want to try flying into Montego Bay and flying out of Kingston’s international airport. A few nights in the capital will give them a taste of urban Jamaica and deepen their experience on the island.

Kingston first came into being when England seized Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. A dramatic history of pirates, slavery and hurricanes followed. In 1907, an earthquake virtually demolished Kingston, and the city was rebuilt from the ground up as the modern capital it is today. Anyone with an interest in Kingston knows that, for a long time, it was a hotbed of political and criminal turmoil. While today conditions are much improved, it makes sense for visitors to exercise caution in some areas. Neighborhoods such as Trench Town and Portmore are best explored with a guide or trusted local.

Most visitors will want to make the neighborhood of New Kingston their base. Here, they will find the best hotels, shopping dining and nightlife. Popular hotels include The Jamaica Pegasus, Courtleigh Hotel & Suites and the Wyndham Kingston.

Visitors will have an easier time of it if they forego the rental car and instead rely on taxis. This means they won’t have to adjust to driving on the left or hassle with looking for parking spots. Taxis don’t have meters, so make sure that your client and the driver agree on a price beforehand. Also, clients should never hire unlicensed or gypsy cabs (referred to as “robots”). Instead, the taxi should be a Jamaica Union for Travellers Association (JUTA) cab, which is licensed by the Jamaica Tourist Board.

Jamaica’s worldwide sensation is the late reggae musician Bob Marley. Even casual fans of the legend will enjoy visiting the Bob Marley Museum, which is housed in a building that was Marley’s home until his death in 1981. While touring the house, travelers will see mementos and artifacts from Marley’s life, including the bullet-pocked wall from a 1976 assassination attempt on the singer. Take the time to enjoy some Ital (Rastafarian/vegetarian) food from the museum restaurant and relax in the yard where Marley played soccer with his kids — it’s a great opportunity to commune with his spirit.

Devon House is a three-story, 19th-century mansion that is designated as a National Monument. Its owner, George Stiebel, was known as “Jamaica’s First Black Millionaire.” The guided tour tells his story against a backdrop of Jamaican, Caribbean, English and French antiques. The former stables have been converted into an ice-cream parlor, where you can enjoy such flavors as coconut coffee and soursop ice cream.

National Heroes Park contains monuments of three of its most-beloved heroes, Marcus Garvey, Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley. All three are buried within the park. On the first Sunday of every month, at 9 a.m., there’s a ceremonial changing of the guard with music by the Jamaica Military Band.

Jamaica’s pirate past is on display at Port Royal harbor, which lies just across from Kingston. It’s easily reached via a $1 ferry ride from Princess Street pier. Port Royal’s Archaeological Museum displays maritime memorabilia including ship models and a recreation of the living quarters of Horatio Nelson. Port Royal was devastated by an earthquake in 1692. Some say Port Royal is haunted by ghosts who roam the port in broad daylight.

Coronation Market is the bustling center of Kingston’s bare bones wheeling and dealing. The market teems with swarms of vendors selling all types of produce, as well as clothing and electronics. There’s nothing pretty or orderly about the scene, but it’s a great glimpse into local Jamaican life. As Anthony Bourdain observed when his television show “No Reservations” filmed in Coronation Market, almost every Kingstonian has been touched by Coronation Market in some way.

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