Searching the “Real” Jamaica – Caribbean

Jamaica lures many with its white sand beaches, tropical climate and rich musical history. But many are disappointed shortly after arrival, finding their surroundings a bit too trite and commercialized. Although many destinations deserve their worldwide reputations, there are other locales in which it’s still possible to experience the natural beauty of the island and to engage in an authentic cultural experience.

Most tourist activity is concentrated along the northern coast from Ocho Rios to Negril, leaving much of the southern coast gloriously free of tacky cigar shops, Marguaritavilles and corporate resorts. From the hectic and dynamic capital of Kingston to beautiful Port Antonio, with its stone town center, Georgian architecture and cerulean waters, here are a few worthwhile stops along the southern coast.

The road not usually taken
Kingston is the most populated area in Jamaica; it has its share of crime and city strife. However, any traveller will find it easy to navigate utilizing the same common sense and metropolitan skill employed in any major city. Women travelling alone face a good deal of harassment; more often a nuisance than a threat in daylight. Shopping is lackluster and points of interest for tourists are few. This is a business-minded city whose main draw is the thriving population itself.

The drawbacks of Kingston’s day are made up in nightlife; this city truly is king. After dusk, music blasts all through the night; local sound systems lay claim to every square mile. New Kingston, the sleek and modern business center, teems with restaurants, nightclubs and four-star accommodations. The clubs play primarily dance hall, sometimes with a bit of American R&B, or hip hop thrown in. If night clubs aren’t your speed, you can find a more sophisticated atmosphere by cruising the uptown streets. Keep your eyes up; some of the best bars and restaurants sprawl across rooftops. For information on parties, live shows and on-off events, pay attention to the posters that line the streets.

Just east of town towards Bull Bay is Copacabana nightclub; an open-air club that pulls in the energetic Kingston crowd with popular selectors and a warm sea breeze. If you’re in the mood for something more relaxed, head west to Hellshire Beach. The restaurants stay open quite late for dining, sometimes past midnight if a sound system is playing.

When you are ready to leave the city and experience the countryside, check out some of the following destinations between Kingston and Port Antonio. It’s hard to get completely lost since you’ll drive along the coast. Just make sure to contact locals for directions.

Though close to Kingston, nearby Bull Bay lies near Cane River Falls; the most dramatic fall in the Kingston area. A staircase cut through stone leads deep into a canyon; breathtaking glimpses of the falls can be found all the way down. When you reach the bottom, you are met with a river and wading pool, fed by falls that you can stand before, behind and right underneath for a vigorous water massage. (Entrance fee: $3.00 U.S.) Hot and cold mineral springs beckon visitors to Bath Fountain. Though a bit out of the way, at four kilometers from the town of Bath, it’s easy to find en route from Morant Bay.

The main building is Bath Fountain Hotel & Spa, an inn, restaurant and bathhouse that’s run (rather poorly) by the Jamaican Tourist Board. Built originally as an infirmary for mineral baths, it maintains a clinical and somewhat dismal atmosphere, although the rooms are clean. More interesting than the accommodation, however, are the springs located in the ravine below. Most travel books and brochures advise against venturing into the springs due to the presence of touts, offering their services as guides or masseuses. This seems to be unduly influenced by the Tourist Board, which would prefer to end financial support for the activity. Unfortunately, this advice causes many tourists to miss out on the springs and the communities that surround it.

To get to the springs, follow a clearly marked trail over a small bridge and through the woods. During your short hike, you pass a hut tended by an elderly Rastafarian who sometimes offers delicious coconut-porridge bars steamed inside banana leaves (U.S. $1.00). If touts harass you, be polite yet firm about your intentions. Massages are also offered (usually for $20.00 U.S.). You can always hire a guide, tip no more than ($3.00 U.S.) and feel at ease knowing you’ve benefitted yourself and the community. After all, if it were up to the Tourist Board, you wouldn’t know that access to the beautiful, bamboo-lined natural springs exists. You may use the baths inside the inn for about the same amount of money, but if you’re not a guest there, it hardly seems worth it; not much more exciting than the locker room of your local YMCA.

A short hike leads to a spectacular series of cascades and gorgeous swimming and wading areas. Further upriver, you’ll reach Mandingo Cave, where the jungle-like surroundings seem to cradle the invigorating pools below. Cold, white water rushes through crags and crannies, ready to sweep you away.

The Zion Country Bed and Breakfast is built on the side of a cliff; overlooks its own private rock beach. In the morning, manatees can sometimes be seen swimming into the estuary. In the afternoon, a kayak is available for paddling around the bay.

If you’re finally ready for a real beach setting, venture further to Long Bay, a mini-Negril with the same sand and surf, but with one tenth the congestion. A few restaurants and bars are on the beach; they charge tourist prices, but may be worth it for the atmosphere.

Glass House wins out for the price and the security. It’s right on the beach; far enough from the main strip to offer you privacy from hackey-sackers and beach scrubs. More importantly, the doors and gates feel solid, unlike many of the beach shacks nearby. It’s also probable you’ll be the only guest, affording a fully appointed seaview apartment with television, a living room and a kitchen. There is also a cheap and delicious vegetarian food on the premises, but the hours in which food is offered are limited. (US $40.00) Telephone: 876.913.7275.

Boston Beach offers a similar, even more miniaturized version of the sandy idyll, with a jerk restaurant and bar overlooking a small turquoise cove. Surfboards are available for rental. If you’re feeling adventurous, hike to a secluded part of the beach by following a trailhead that starts near the Boston Beach road sign.

When you reach Port Antonio, expect to fall in love with the town’s unpretentious charm. Beach side restaurants provide the freshest seafood, as fishermen line their boats along the coast, bringing in their catch daily. You might be able to persuade one to give you a ride to nearby Navy Island, a small green island whose cliffs crown Port Antonio’s West Harbour. You might also walk the main square or tour the lighthouse. Thursday through Sunday, the night life picks up at bars in town and at dances along the shore.

If you have time for a day trip, go to Nanny Falls. It’s an unforgettable destination that, if your feet or tires can make it, is well worth the trek. From Port Antonio, follow the road to Moore Town. Locals can point you in the direction; it requires a good hike (or painstaking drive) up a rugged road that’s all uphill. However, you’ll be rewarded with beauty and tranquility. Crystal clear waters shoot forcefully into emerald pools deep enough for swimming, while sunlight cuts through the trees and glistens off the falls. Due to its remote location, there are rarely any tourists about; often you’ll find yourself completely and spectacularly alone.

Above all, keep a sense of adventure. Forget your schedule; it will suddenly seem out of place. And make sure to allow yourself time to wander – and wonder – as you ease into the pace of island life.

In view of recent violence, I would not recommend going to the Copacablana or the Bath Fountain & Spa alone; I was there with locals.

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