The nation is recasting itself as a glamour and eco-tourism destination, but its African-inflected culture is what lulls you.
With such high stakes in tourism, the island has begun looking beyond its traditional market, the sand-and-sun visitors and the stable of honeymooners who reliably fill the giant middlebrow Jamaican-owned Sandals and Couples resorts. Jamaica has been promoting celebrity and Hollywood, like the seaside villa “GoldenEye,” onetime retreat of the James Bond creator Ian Fleming and now a resort where one night in the least expensive cottage can set you back $1,400 in the high season.
Glossy videos and magazine advertising showcase a paradise island of multiple attractions including eco-tourism, bohemian tourism, spa and wellness tourism, even small-bore niche tourism like Jewish Jamaican Journeys. It’s an all-out campaign to drum up travelers to Jamaica’s alchemy of nature, adventure, night life and sensuality.
Jamaica has, of course, been a player in the Caribbean tourist game, but competition is stiffer and so are the stakes now that Cuba has opened up and inched ahead of Jamaica in the number of visitors in 2015. Jamaica already lags well behind the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but it hopes that new mega-resorts and other investments will create badly needed jobs and energize the private sector.
With a per-capita income estimated at $9,000 (it’s $15,200 in Puerto Rico and $9,700 in the Dominican Republic) and an approximate 16 percent unemployment rate, Jamaica is grappling with the steady exodus of thousands of its 2.9 million people to New York, Miami and London.
With few options but to expand tourism, which makes up about 27 percent of the nation’s revenues, the government passed development and casino legislation that will bring the first casino-hotel resort to the island, Celebration Jamaica Hotel and Resort, a 2,000-room, 90-acre project set to open in a year or two in Montego Bay. The resort has a Canadian company behind it, but much of the new tourism investment comes from Spain and Mexico, posing a challenge to longtime Anglo-American dominance.
For all the three centuries that Britain ruled Jamaica, though, the island’s deepest influence is not English. It is African. It is folk magic, spiritual and superstitious. It is musical, the poetry of the hills and the streets, the rhythms you hear in the way Jamaicans speak, the imploding pulse that runs from east to west, from the resort-strewn north coast to the rougher south, through bamboo-shaded foothills and cloud-covered peaks and the wind-driven tides that roll up on this island of old myths and spiritual power.
Folk magic out of West Africa, not unlike Haiti’s voodoo and Cuba’s Santeria, feeds the Jamaican belief in superstition, witches and ghosts. Magic runs through a pervasive fundamentalist and evangelical Christian society that breeds revivalist cults that speak in tongues and believe in spirit possession. Rastafarians are something else. Born out of poor and black Jamaicans, they worship inner divinity, hold ganja smoking as a sacrament, and are as essentially Jamaican as reggae.
“Reggae is synonymous with social consciousness,” a young Jamaican woman told me. “It means black empowerment. It means Marcus Garvey (the father of the black power movement). It means Rastafarianism.”
This was the Jamaica that I wanted to get to know better.
So after lunch at the historic Devon House in Kingston, the former estate of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, I made the rounds of several history museums with the chairman of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, Ainsley Henriques. As we browsed through rooms of ancient artifacts, pictures and other paraphernalia, Jamaica’s heroes came to life. There was Paul Bogle, hanged after the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865, and Nanny of the Maroons, who led slaves to freedom in the Blue Mountains, and Sam Sharpe, hanged after the Christmas Rebellion of 1831. More recently, there was Norman Manley, the Oxford-educated nationalist who helped bring about independence in 1962. His face on wall-size posters in airport corridors greets Jamaica visitors.
And there’s Bob Marley. There’s a museum outside Kingston for the reggae icon. He’s the myth, the mystic, who spoke to God, they say, who conquered the world. But I didn’t have to go look at the museum. All of Jamaica is a Bob Marley museum. A stream of gifted Jamaican musicians cycled through mento to calypso, jazz, rhythm and blues, and ska. Then came Marley, son of a white British officer named Norval Marley and a black woman, Cedella Malcolm Booker, and with Bob Marley came reggae, and reggae took everything in its path.
So that night I avoided the mobbed dance hall parties like Weddy Weddy Wednesdays and went to Redbones Blues Cafe, the highly acclaimed venue for Bob Marley’s musical heirs and a beehive of culture, art exhibitions, foreign films and poetry nights.
I hit it on a poetry night. It was raining off and on. The stage was soaked, and managers were fussing around, clipboards in hand. The bar was buzzing. Next to me, a graying ponytailed foreigner in a white seersucker suit was whispering to his blond girlfriend. Dressy couples held up cocktails and clustered under the bar’s roof. Eavesdropping while sipping a Jamaican-style caipirinha, I ran my eyes over bar walls papered with photos of jazz and blues greats, while, oddly enough, American lounge music played in the background.
The next day, after a three-hour, stomach-churning ride through the mountains, Jamaica’s limpid blue skies and gorgeous seashore came to view. The resort city of Ocho Rios and the smaller coastal towns were bustling. People mingled on sidewalks and plazas, storefronts and markets, food stalls and at the Juici Patties, the local fast-food joints. I wanted to walk around, have a bite, but time was short. I had to get to Montego Bay.
MoBay was just 30 or 45 minutes away on the North Coast highway. Its fabled resorts are secluded behind high fortress walls, forests of trees and steel gates. Once behind those gates, Jamaica seemed to disappear. Well, not all Jamaica. The sea was there, and the hills, and bartenders, housekeepers and porters speaking English salted with patois, exclaiming, “Milady, milady, welcome!”
I wanted nothing more than sunshine and to lie by the sea. On a narrow stretch of the Coyaba hotel beach, Joni from the Netherlands was reading a paperback in German. She and her husband, Jos, a professor with the graying, thinning hair and serious mien of academia, had been there a week and had five more days to go. They were running out of things to do, had gone to the Blue Mountains and to Port Antonio’s Blue Lagoon (site of the namesake movie starring Brooke Shields) and to Dunn’s River Falls and Mystic Mountain near Ocho Rios. Now they were wondering if they should make the long trek to the Appleton Rum estate in the distant inland southwest. I had no answers for them. I hadn’t seen half as much as they had.
I had imagined Montego Bay would glitter with opulent hotels and restaurants, clubs and shops — and it did, in the resorts — but the town’s Hip Strip (Gloucester Avenue) was a letdown, lined with midrange hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, souvenir shops, jerk food stands, hustlers, and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, maybe MoBay’s most popular club. It was the version of Jamaica that its tourism folks wanted to rethink.
I hit the city on the last Friday of the month, when folks get paid and go downtown to spend their money. St. James Street was a clogged artery of cars, trucks and buses, a revolving elbow-to-elbow mass of people going through food stalls, bars, clothing stores, haberdasheries, computer depots, supermarkets, carwashes and plazas reverberating with the earsplitting sounds of hawking vendors, chattering voices and full-volume music. I wanted to step down and join in, but I also wanted to get out of there.
After fumes and crowds, I was hoping for a drink and fabulous food. Friends had talked up Scotchies, the island’s best known jerk emporium. I had expected one of those smoky places with picnic tables and paper tablecloths. I found a quaint roadside joint with an open-air bar and a few outdoor tables for large groups. A dozen customers, foreigners mostly, were knocking back Red Stripe and digging into servings of jerk pork. I ordered the same. The beer was ice-cold, but the pork was tough and tasteless. I kept pouring a spicy goop over it but it didn’t help.
A day later, on my way to Negril’s West End — after my debit card was “eaten” by a Scotiabank A.T.M. at a Kingston shopping mall and after putting up with unreliable land transport — I wasn’t sure I would ever have a great day in Jamaica, or worse, that I would ever feel that inexplicable connection to the island that I had felt in Antigua and San Juan and Havana.
Two hours down the Norman Manley Highway south to Negril, flashing by speeding bicyclists and motorcyclists, herds of baby goats, bold-paint wood-and-tin homes and the open sea, Jamaica began to work its charms on me.
Then, there was Negril’s West End and the Rockhouse Hotel. Magic!
It was visually fabulous with flowers in bloom, bougainvillea vines and almond trees, and shaded winding paths that led to hexagonal thatched-roofed villas of timber and stone looking out to the sea. At a glance, Rockhouse lived up to its reputation, one of the loveliest boutique hotels in the Caribbean.
But extreme contrasts are inevitable in Jamaica. Across the road from Rockhouse’s fancy gift shop, several ramshackle souvenir shops sold typical tourist wares — T-shirts, flimsy dresses, scarfs, hats and trinkets — and a short ride from the eco-centric serenity of Rockhouse, hundreds of tourists flocked to Rick’s Café, a boisterous bar-restaurant-music hangout with a cliff-diving show, super bars and sensational sunsets.
I checked out the scene one afternoon, tried to get a bar stool but gave up fighting the crowd. A singer was dancing on the stage, and people swilling from paper cups clapped to the rhythm. Soon, rather suddenly, as it does in the tropics, the sun went down, and with that the party broke up. The crowd streamed out, pushing and shoving. Tour buses, vans and taxis packed with riders lumbered out of the parking lot. It was a crazy scene, as crazy as Negril’s infamous boat parties and bar shuttles.
That evening at the Rockhouse, I was having a drink and chatting with an American couple who came back every year, had married and honeymooned there. Even with its high occupancy rate, the hotel opens its restaurants to the public. Expats living in Negril make it their club, where you might meet old-time hippies in sandals like Janet, a blustery San Franciscan who married a local 27 years ago and is building a house with a swimming pool on a hill.
Early morning, I was on a sleep cloud, tucked in on a pillowed four-poster bed, a slow ceiling fan ruffling a pinned-up muslin mosquito net. Jumping off the bed, I opened the shuttered doors to my private deck. The roiling sea melded with the distant blurry horizon, and I watched as a small boat with a single passenger, man or woman I couldn’t tell, heaved and tossed in the rough sea. Waves leapt, crashed and spat foam maybe 50 feet high against the Rockhouse cliffs. From somewhere on the nearby road drifted the lilting music you hear everywhere you go in Jamaica, the soundtrack of the island.
Later, only a 15-minute drive away, I was dipping my feet in the sea, strolling along the popular (and overbuilt) Seven-Mile Beach. The fluffy white-sand strip was crowded already. Tourists were ensconced in lounge chairs, their bodies laid out to toast. A rangy vendor with dreadlocks, hollow cheeks and bony legs followed me, dangling a bunch of bananas in one hand and clutching a plastic sack containing who knows what. Peddlers and hustlers are a plague all over Jamaica, but this guy didn’t push it. When I said “no” politely, he backed off.
Grateful, I picked up my walk on the lumpy wet sand. The sea sloshed around my feet, splashing my legs. Glass-bottom boats and fishing charters swayed in shallow waters, waiting to take divers and snorkelers to the coral reefs and grottoes that make this Jamaica’s dreamiest coast.
I had been in Jamaica five days, and finally I was steeping myself in the singsong and blithe spirit of the island.
My trip was now winding down, and I returned to Montego Bay to the Half Moon resort. Half Moon was a palace, elegant, serene, welcoming. Queen Elizabeth II has stayed there and Prince Philip and the Prince of Wales and John and Jackie Kennedy, and countless movie stars and celebrities, honeymooners and lovers on a fling. It is a once-in-a-lifetime place.
I had a few hours left, so I went out to the sun, ordered a gin and tonic at the beachside Cedar Bar, and found a lounge chair near a gaggle of young Brits, Virgin Atlantic crew members on a two-day layover. That evening they had a party and wanted me to go along. I had other plans. I had a predawn wake-up call to catch my flight out.
After a wonderful dinner outdoors at the hotel, I took my time going through Seagrape Terrace, where guests had gathered for a musical nightcap with a Jamaican singer. I listened for a while and walked down the beach. In the distance I thought I heard the familiar words, “One love, one heart, let’s get together and be all right.”
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
Daily rates, shown in U.S. dollars, may change seasonally and do not include taxes and fees. Ask about all-inclusive rates when you book.
The Half Moon, host to royalty and celebrities over its 60-year history, lives up to its reputation as one of the Caribbean’s most prestigious resorts with a pristine beach, plantation-style cottages, shops and a golf course. Rooms start at $299 in peak season; suites at $524; villas go up to $3,000. Rose Hall, Montego Bay; 1-876-953-2211; halfmoon.rockresorts.com.
Rockhouse Hotel, one of the loveliest boutique hotels in the Caribbean, stretches across the rocky cliffs of Negril’s West End. Stone and timber rooms have thatched roofs, private decks and lush gardens. Rooms from $180 in peak season; villas at $450. West End Road, Negril; 1-876-957-4373; rockhousehotel.com.
GoldenEye has one- and two-story huts. Near Ocho Rios; one-bedroom from $1,400 in peak season; 1-876-622-9007; goldeneye.com.
Where to Eat
Rockhouse Restaurant & Bar, which serves fusion Euro-American-Jamaican dishes, has some of the best food on the island.Pushcart, also at the Rockhouse Hotel, specializes in jerk dishes, grilled spice-rubbed meats, fish and poultry cooked over an outdoor grill.
Il Giardino, at Half Moon resort, mixes the flavors of Italy with Jamaican tastes; 1-888-830-5974.
Redbones Blues Cafe, a restaurant, bar and live-music venue, is a Kingston fixture. 1 Argyle Road; 1-876-978-6091; redbonesbluescafe.com.
Grog Shoppe, a onetime servants’ quarters at Devon House, serves Jamaican specialties and American staples. 26 Hope Road; 1-876-929-6602: devonhousejamaica.com.
Where to Drink and Dance
Weddy Weddy Wednesdays and other nightly free outdoor sound system parties, a mix of block party, dance-offs, fashion shows and stereo wars. Parties start around 11 p.m. For listings, check with the front desk at your hotel or the Friday issue of The Observer.
Tracks & Records, sports-music bar owned by the Olympics champion Usain Bolt. 67 Constant Spring Road; 1-876-906-3903.
Famous, mecca of dance hall culture. Gerbera Avenue, Portmore; 1-876-988-8801; www.facebook.com/FamousNightclubJa.
Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest is the island’s premier reggae festival, held every year in late July; reggaesumfest.com.
Pier One, an open-air restaurant and music venue on a dock, is a favorite of stylish locals and foreigners. Howard Cooke Boulevard; 1-876-286-7208; http://pieronejamaica.com/
Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is one of the most popular clubs in MoBay. Gloucester Avenue; margaritavillecaribbean.com.
Sandals is Negril’s night-life emporium with theme nights and shows. Norman Manley Boulevard; sandals.com.
Jungle,Negril’s one big nightclub outside the all-inclusive resorts, has top D.J.s and two large dance floors. Norman Manley Boulevard.
Article author: Luisita Lopez Torregrosa, a journalist and author, is a professor at Fordham University and a former editor at The New York Times.