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Home Tourist Attraction An unexpected tour of Jamaica changed my entire outlook on holidays

An unexpected tour of Jamaica changed my entire outlook on holidays

by Staff
Here’s how to fit as much into seven days as possible… (Picture: Getty Images)

‘Welcome home.’ This is how I was greeted minutes after I arrived in Jamaica, a charming first taster of a nation that is sweet in more ways than one.

After touching down at Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay and getting an instant hit of that late November 30 °C warmth, I quickly learned that this island is different to anywhere I’ve been before. Everyone instantly treated me like family, like I belonged and like they really were glad I came.

Of course, I’ve always known Jamaica is a beautiful place populated by enormously kind people, and I have long wanted to visit. However – and I know this is controversial – I’ve never been one for the all-inclusive, beach-focused, laying around from dawn to dusk on a sun lounger sort of holiday.

You’ll usually find me schlepping 20,000 steps a day through the winding Old Town streets of a history-packed European city or sweating my way through a hike across a breathtaking, hilly landscape hugging a coastline.

And, while I love to visit beaches when I’m on my travels, it’s only for a couple of hours at best, a mere jaunt between ruins and restaurants. The idea of an all-inclusive holiday fills me with dread, like being trapped in a shiny, soulless white tower block with uber-tanned, loud Americans jostling for limited space around a pool.

I wrongly considered Caribbean holidays to be mainly of that ilk: all-inclusive, beach-focused, chill times. A lovely holiday, sure, but not one for me. But I so craved being in Jamaica – as a south Londoner I am well-versed in the culture, the food, the music, the vibes. There’s a lot of Jamaican influence my side of the Thames.

lucy mapstone in jamaica
I was more than ready to experience a different pace of life, and a different sort of holiday, in Jamaica(Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
Kingston's Water Lane
Some of the vibrant art on display in Kingston’s Water Lane (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

So, when the chance came up to see and do as much as I could in Jamaica in seven days to challenge my preconceptions, it was a no-brainer. I was ready.

It took me about five minutes being in Jamaica to ‘get’ it: it is truly one of the best countries in the world, and it transformed my entire outlook on holidays in general.

It was – and this isn’t hyperbole – a truly transformative trip for me, and I’m already desperate to go back and feel the way I felt while in Jamaica. I came home a changed woman. European cities, you’ll be seeing a lot less of me now.

If you want to have a similar experience in Jamaica while challenging your perceptions, here’s a run-down of how to fit as much into seven days as possible.

What to do in Jamaica if you want to experience nature

I enjoyed two of the most breathtaking experiences of my life in Jamaica, and one of them was snorkelling.

At 36, I had never done this before (see above for my strong inclination towards city breaks), but finally getting my turn to strap the fetching apparatus to my face and get in the sea among the coral and the fish was a moment I’ll cherish forever. Everyone on the trip around me felt the same.

The first thing I did with my travel companion, my best friend, was hop on a catamaran just off Montego Bay, with Dreamer Catamaran Tours.

A family-owned business, they help you shimmy into the culture as well as enjoy the sea: rum punch was doled out on the deck along with delicious national snack banana chips as everyone whined along to some of the island’s best-known hits (Murder She Wrote by Chaka Demus & Pliers was a featured classic). It was a fitting first taste of Jamaica, feeling the vibes of a nation known for its carefree character, reggae riddims and rum.

Lucy snorkelling
We got our snorkels on thanks to Dreamer Catamaran Tours, but sadly you’ve got to look at us in our gear rather than the beautiful fish (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
the sea
The view at the end of the catamaran tour, when you get to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville after an afternoon of sailing and snorkelling, is pretty spectacular (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

The crux of the trip was, however, the snorkelling, and I was desperate to get in the water.

When I did, I was so taken by the multicoloured marine life around me that I shed a tear in my goggles. It could have been the minor rum punch haze, sure, but mainly it was the electric blue and canary yellow fish swimming around me that kicked my emotions into gear.

Dreamer Catamaran Tours have a few different trips available, including kid-friendly ones, adult-only and longer tours to Negril – check their website for more details.

dunn's river falls
Dunn’s River Falls honestly had me weeping a bit, but that also could have been the endless gush of water down the rocks (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

I was lucky enough to also experience Dunn’s River Falls, that second breathtaking life moment. Described as one of Jamaica’s national treasures and billed as its top tourist attraction, the waterfall near Ocho Rios forms the bulk of an adventure park with a massive difference. Climb a waterfall you say? I was utterly perplexed as to how the hell I was meant to do this, but I was game for a challenge.

After putting on some hideous but necessary water shoes, my friend and I climbed the 180m rocky falls, along with around 15 other go-getters and skilled guides. Hoisting our way up wet terraced rocks, which sit nestled in the landscape like the wildest staircase ever, we could see the river flowing straight into the Caribbean Sea just below us. It was stunning. Yes, I may have cried again, just a bit.

dunn's river
A river raft cruise was just the ticket for this weary traveller, ensconced in the spoils of nature… (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
lucy at dunn's river
… but also with a prosecco firmly in hand (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

Later on, floating away on a rafting cruise (one of many such trips on the island thanks to Chukka Good Hope and its many outposts), we were treated to a serene ride through the leafy landscape by a local guide, who also gave us leg massages using the natural limestone rocks found in the waterbed. It was a tranquil hour, one of the most relaxing on what was otherwise quite an active trip, sipping on prosecco as we meandered down the river, enjoying the canopy of waterside trees on either side.

If you want to try a similar experience, check it out at Chukka Good Hope.

The Jamaican culture is so entrenched in its flora and fauna and what the island can provide, so I was thrilled to be given a lesson on how much the land can offer you on a visit to the Sun Valley Plantation.

Owned by Lorna and Nolly Binns, the working plantation in Ocho Rios is bursting with trees bearing all kinds of fruits including a variety of mangoes and bananas as well as ackee and breadfruit, and also has a small population of hummingbirds. Discovering how rich this land is with produce was an eye-opener. And watching a coconut get broken down into something that can be consumed in several different ways has made me realise the humble fruit is so much more than a bit of sweet desiccated powder and milk for Thai curries.

food at Sun Valley Plantation
A lunch of breadfruit, green banana, ackee and saltfish and plantain was the perfect end to an insightful tour around the Sun Valley Plantation with the wonderful Lorna (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

What to do in Jamaica if you want to experience the culture

If you want to immerse yourself and get a deeper understanding of the island, its people and its plants, a visit to the Rastafarian Indigenous Village just outside of Montego Bay is essential.

It’s a community that celebrates and preserves Rastafari traditions and their way of life, and visitors are welcomed for either a day tour or longer stays.

Learning about the ital diet (ital is a Rastafari phrase stemming from the word vital) and cooking their food – vegan, no salt, no preservatives or additives – was a privilege. Visitors can also enjoy the sound of the drums made by the residents, take part in soap-making, learn about the history and heritage of the Rastafari way of life, and get in touch with their spiritual side.

I was moved by the experience and, after the exhilaration of dragging myself up a waterfall, it was a welcome moment of pause – although we did have to take a very grounding barefoot river walk to access the village. Seeing this simple and honest way of living alongside nature was a real tonic to my usual hectic London life. You’ll want to take many, many notes.

on atour of the Rastafarian Indigenous Village by Queen B
We were treated to a tour of the Rastafarian Indigenous Village by Queen B (right), who showed us how they live off the land and from the trees (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
Rastafarian Indigenous Village
The Rastafari village was an eye-opener, the ethos of its people shining out at you at every opportunity. You’ll not want to leave (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
Lucy cooking on a stove
We got stuck in with cooking Ital food in the camp, proving that salt, additives and meat aren’t needed for a tasty meal (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

You’re going to want to take something home with you, something intrinsically Jamaican and unique. Enter Marie who, from Montreal via England to Jamaica, has built a business crafting jewellery, giving visitors the chance to take home a piece of the island with them – all through a stress-relieving hour or two arranging beads and shells in intricate patterns.

A few hours spent at A Mi Mek It, a small Jamaican souvenirs business housed in Marie’s luscious cat-filled garden, showed me that a) I’m pretty creative when it comes to making bracelets and anklets and b) those long European city days are starting to feel like quite an exhausting way to spend my annual leave. This was idyllic.

making a necklace
Making jewellery at A Mi Mek It was a calming introduction to my life (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
at First Class Dance studios
We danced ourselves silly at First Class Dance studios – silly being the operative word (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

It’s difficult to spend time in Jamaica and not come to understand that, on this island, music is life, and everyone has rhythm.

To dance is to live and feel joy, and feel joy we did when my pal and I went along to First Class Dance studios to learn the history of the different genres of the island’s dance… and also make fools of ourselves.

Our instructor guided us through different eras of movement, right up until the more modern-day styles of dancehall and reggae. A hilariously fun hour, I don’t think we were any better off at dancing, but we’d learnt an awful lot about how to loosen our hips.

Where and what to eat and drink in Jamaica

I ate well in Jamaica. Seriously well. The culture of food is the lifeblood of the island, and its vibes are apparent in every mouthful. As a gluten-free traveller, I was initially concerned, but I needn’t have been. I devoured plantain (so much plantain) daily, as well as ackee and salt fish, jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk salmon, rice and peas and bammy, a traditional Jamaican cassava flatbread.

Pier One restaurant in Montego Bay came highly recommended, and it was a treat to have so many homegrown dishes on offer in a waterfront setting, including jerk salmon with rice and peas, braised oxtail and coconut-crusted shrimp.

jerk chicken on the beach
Jamaican food is culture is heavily entrenched in jerk – and if you can have it on a beach, even better (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
food on the beach
You’ll love everything on the menu at Kamila’s Kitchen, if you can tear your eyes away from that view (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
Scoops Unlimted
I had the most alcohol-soaked rum and raisin ice cream of my life at Scoops Unlimted, the world’s fourth-best ice cream parlour (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

If you want some vegan food with a view, a must-visit is Kamila’s Kitchen, an ital and plant-based eatery on the edge of the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston. From salads and soups to wraps and burgers, everything is vegan and most of it is gluten-free, too. Wash all that goodness down with a Red Stripe overlooking the stunning scenery and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better lunch spot.

Kingston boasts the world’s fourth-best ice cream, according to National Geographic, at Scoops Unlimited at Devon House. And, after navigating a relatively respectable 30-minute queue, I had in my hands one of the best tubs of ice cream ever, with the booziest rum and raisin scoop that probably exists on planet Earth.



What to do in Jamaica when you’ve got a spare hour or two:

There is so much to do in Jamaica, you may end up initially feeling sad to leave the glorious beaches behind. I know I did, and that’s coming from me – I know, right?

But if you do manage to drag yourself away from the view of the turquoise-blue Caribbean Sea, here are a few things you must do:

  • Rose Hall Great House for one of their historic night tours. Jamaica’s haunting history is laid (chillingly) bare in this 18th-century plantation mansion, once home to the notorious Annie Palmer, known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. The tour, a combination of history and folklore, will leave you absolutely terrified but also entertained and informed, as you hear tales of murder, voodoo, mystery, and the supernatural.
  • Devon House for a tour. Based in Kingston, this glorious building is a restored and very majestic Jamaican site of cultural heritage and was once home to Jamaica’s first Black millionaire, George Stiebel. The rooms are expertly filled with antique furniture, (devonhouseja.com). Afterwards, you can pop to its very own Scoops Unlimited for one of those world-class ice creams.
  • UCC Creighton Coffee tour in the lush coffee plantations in the Blue Mountains, this guided experience invites visitors to explore the rich heritage and artistry behind each cup of Jamaica’s world-renowned Blue Mountain Peak coffee. You also get a taster, too, and you’ll not want to stop.
  • Water Lane in downtown Kingston brings you back to what Jamaica is all about. A stunning and multicoloured outdoor gallery, it’s adorned with murals, each of which tells a unique story weaving together different elements of culture, history and imagination. You can really feel the energy walking down this otherwise quiet street thanks to the storytelling and talent of local artists.
street art at Kingston's Water Lane
Some of the stunning mural artwork in Kingston’s Water Lane – a walk down here is strongly recommended if you’re in the city (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

Where to stay in Jamaica

All-inclusive hotels are, actually, the best way to experience the island. I know, I know – who am I please? But two experiences I had have completely changed my mind about that sort of stay, and I am well and truly eating humble pie.

S Hotel in Montego Bay is on the boutique end of the spectrum, a smaller establishment in size but with three restaurants and a café pool bar serving jerk chicken and other BBQ food, I couldn’t have wanted for more. Add in the perfectly-sized pool and white sand beach right next to the hotel, and we were onto a winner.

S Hotelin Jamaica
The pool at S Hotel is perfect – not too big, well-equipped, generous sunloungers and it’s right next to the bar (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)
S Hotel in Jamaica
S Hotel was chosen as the number one hotel in the Caribbean and Central America 2023 by Conde Nast Travellers in their Readers Choice Awards (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

The adults-only luxury boutique hotel (ranked the number one hotel in the Caribbean and Central America 2023 by Conde Nast Travellers in their Readers Choice Awards) is brimming with Jamaican cultural gems, from a Cool Runnings bobsleigh to Bob Marley vinyls and record players in the rooms. It screams Jamaica, the rooms are lavishly plush, some with a view of the Caribbean Sea, and the overall sense is of extreme chill.

There’s a gym downstairs, too, and the calming Irie Spa, with a plunge pool and plenty of treatments on offer, including foot massages, facials and full body wraps. A stay here will do everything to convince you that you’ve made the Right Choice to come to Jamaica and kick-start your trip to Montego Bay.

The Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains as seen from the UCC Creighton Coffee tour – and yes, they are actually blue (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)

After a few days we moved onto Moon Palace in Ocho Rios and it was a whole new world, a chance to see a very different side of this magnificent island.

Glamorous, chic, and well-catered to every single visitor, four-diamond resort Moon Palace is gargantuan, but not overwhelming. Situated just over 20 minutes from Ian Fleming International Airport and 90 minutes from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, it’s well-catered to its hundreds of guests, with some of the most attentive staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of being assisted by.

Despite the 680 guest rooms, the hotel was never overcrowded, as equipped as it is with several different pools, two snack bars and six restaurants (Asian-focused Momo is outstanding and booking ahead is strongly advised), and two bars. There’s even entertainment for those on family trips.

The beach attached to the hotel is small but flawless, and the rum punches that somehow kept finding their way to my sunlounger were irresistible. The piece de resistance of Moon Palace, though, is its spa.

A big hotel must come with a big spa, and the Awe Spa (the largest on the island) is massive at 34,982sq ft. I was treated to a blissful hydrotherapy session, taking me through a journey of pools and saunas and an ice room, ending with a massage.

Rooms at Moon Palace
The rooms at Moon Palace are lavish, well-equipped and many come with a stunning sea view (Picture: Moon Palace Jamaica)
sunloungers at Moon Palace
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the idyllic beachfront and sunloungers at Moon Palace (Picture: Lucy Mapstone)



How to get to Jamaica and where

Hotels

Moon Palace – Ocho Rios

An all inclusive stay of 7 nights for 2 people in June, in a Deluxe Resort View room – prices start from £2,520.

An all inclusive stay of 7 nights for 2 people in November, in a Deluxe Resort View room – prices start from £3,178.

Find out more and book here

S Hotel – Montego Bay

An all inclusive stay of 7 nights for 2 people in June, in a Mini King room – prices start from £3,557.

An all inclusive stay of 7 nights for 2 people in November, in a Deluxe Double Ocean View room – prices start from £4,277.

Find out more and book here

Where to stay in Jamaica on a budget

For those looking to stay in and explore Jamaica on a smaller budget, there are plenty of options across the island. Here’s our pick of the best value for money:

Flights

I flew with Virgin Atlantic, which direct between London Heathrow and Montego Bay with return fares from £507 per person, including complimentary food, drink, inflight entertainment and taxes. For further information visit www.virginatlantic.com or call 0344 8747 747.

This fare is available for departure in on March 14 2024 and is for 7 nights. Prices given are correct as of December 21 2023 and are subject to change.

Seven nights in Montego Bay from £1938 per person
Seven nights in Montego Bay with Virgin Atlantic Holidays, including scheduled Virgin Atlantic Economy flights direct from London Heathrow to Montego Bay. All-inclusive accommodation at Moon Palace Jamaica. Price is based on two adults travelling and sharing a Deluxe Resort View and includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Price is based on a departure on September 18 2024. Virgin Atlantic Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected. To book: https://www.virginholidays.co.uk/or call 0344 557 3859.
Prices subject to change and availability. Virgin Atlantic Holidays terms and conditions apply.


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