White sand beaches, scenic mountain peaks, waterfalls and rivers — it’s easy to see why Jamaica would be a favorite in the Caribbean to unwind.
But with new hotels complementing its momentum to become a republic, now is the time to experience Jamaica’s energy and spirit. Sheri-kae McLeod takes the stress out of planning and shows you how to unwind in Jamaica in four days.
I’ve been a travel writer for over seven years, focusing mainly on Caribbean destinations. I’m what Jamaicans call a “dry-land tourist“ – someone living in Jamaica who spends her time exploring the island. Although I love visiting new countries, there’s no place I love to explore more than my home island.
Why you should visit Jamaica
One of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, tiny but mighty Jamaica packs a lot of punch. The Indigenous Taino people named the island “Xaymaca,” meaning the “land of wood and water” – a lyrical description that evokes the country’s beautiful white sand beaches, scenic mountain peaks, waterfalls and rivers. While one of the Caribbean’s largest countries, Jamaica is fairly easy to explore since its points of interest and attractions are clustered close to one another. Beyond its glorious landscapes, Jamaica’s culture and friendly locals also make for an unforgettable visit. The food, the music and the infectious joy of Jamaicans form memories visitors will take home with them, no matter where they come from.
Start in Kingston
Kingston is the capital city of Jamaica and the center of all business activity on the island. While on the east side of the island, the city offers easy connections to anywhere else, making it the perfect place to start your trip. Stay at the central R Hotel, where almost every room offers a breathtaking view of the city. Rates range between $150 to $300 per night, with breakfast included.
Start the morning of your first day by visiting Kingston’s most popular tourist site: the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Rd, just a five-minute cab drive from the R. The former home of the King of Reggae also doubled as a recording studio, and was transformed into a museum after his death in 1981. Today, visitors can see personal belongings that belonged to Jamaica’s most famous superstar, including his old guitar, clothing and records. Guides offer 75-minute tours of the house and studio for $25 per adult. Also on site are a theater, photographic gallery, record store, gift shop and cafe.
Devon House for patties
After exploring Marley’s domain, head to lunch at Devon House, a short cab ride away (10 minutes; $3). This sprawling property features the mansion of Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel; with no entry fee to get on the property, it’s a popular hangout spot for families. The grounds contain various shops and restaurants, including the famous Devon House Bakery, whose famous patties draw flocks of lunching locals. This baked delicacy is ubiquitous in Jamaica, but Devon House is the only place in Kingston where you’ll find patties with unique fillings like lobster (an absolute must-try) and ackee (Jamaica’s national fruit). For dessert, don’t miss the highly popular ice cream from Scoops, whose unique flavors include soursop and Blue Mountain coffee.
Next, spend your afternoon exploring the massive mansion, a national heritage site. Starting at $15 per adult, 30-minute tours are offered by guides who detail the history of the deluxe house and its occupants.
Then, round out the afternoon by exploring the site’s Artisan Village. Whether you’re just window shopping or looking to buy unique Jamaican crafts, you’re sure to find something that catches your eye here: The Commissary offers delicious Jamaican food products, Rosie’s Crystal Gallery sells jewelry made of gemstones and crystals and Gimi Cool Cottons has a range of comfortable, wearable pieces. If you feel the need to relax after your splurge, the Spa at Devon House by Island Rituals will fit the bill nicely.
National Gallery of Jamaica then dinner at Gloria’s
There might be no better way to immerse yourself in Jamaicans’ world-famous creativity than by visiting the National Gallery of Jamaica. A 20-minute cab ride from Devon House, the gallery displays paintings, sculptures and other artwork by famous Jamaican artists, as well as temporary exhibitions, many by international artists. Museum admission of $2.70 lets you roam the galleries on your own, and guided tours can be arranged.
End your evening with dinner at Gloria’s, just a few blocks from the gallery, which has Kingston’s most delicious seafood. (Try the mouth-watering escovitch.) Overlooking Kingston harbor, it’s also an ideal place to watch the sunset. If you happen to see youngsters jumping into the water, don’t be alarmed: this is a common and fun way for them to let off steam.
Rural Jamaica’s natural beauty
Jamaica’s stunning landscapes and natural attractions lie outside its bustling towns. One of the few parishes in Jamaica still untouched by mass tourism, Portland provides a fine introduction to the island’s beauty. Begin your second day by traveling to the Blue Lagoon, a little under 2 hours from Kingston via taxi (about $120 for two people). Stunning and serene, the lagoon is approximately 200ft (60m) deep, and several movies have been shot here, including the aptly titled Blue Lagoon (1980). The best part? The attraction is completely free to access – though if you aren’t an expert swimmer or wish to explore the huge lagoon in its entirety, boat tours are available for $30.
Jerked meats at Boston
After taking a swim, take a taxi to Boston for lunch. The jerk style of cooking meats was invented by the Maroons of Portland Parish in the 17th century. Today, many descendants of this community operate jerk shacks in Portland, offering the most delicious and authentic jerk meals you’ll find anywhere in the world. Beyond classic jerk chicken, you can also get jerk pork, jerk fish, jerk lobster and even jerk rabbit. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!)
Raft the Rio Grande
In the afternoon, take an hour-long taxi ride to the Rio Grande river. Rather than boats, Jamaicans use rafts made of bamboo to travel down rivers, each guided by an experienced captain. (Rafting in Jamaica was popularized by American actor Errol Flynn, who lived in Portland during the 1950s.) You can choose between a 1- and a 3-hour ride downstream, which costs $80 for two adults. At the Rafter’s Rest complex at the river’s mouth, unwind after your adventure at the restaurant and bar, and pick up a gift from the several souvenir shops.
Dinner in Port Antonio
After your ride, take another taxi into Port Antonio for dinner. Perhaps the most popular restaurant in the town is Roots 21 Bar and Kitchen, which draws both locals and tourists with its delicious seafood, pastas and traditional Jamaican meals (the braised oxtail is a must-try). Relax in the upstairs dining area and watch the sunset before heading back into Kingston.
Adventures in Ocho Rios
Many of Jamaica’s most popular attractions are located on the north coast, particularly in tourist hotspot Ocho Rios. Since no trip to Jamaica is complete without a visit to “Ochi,” your third day will involve exploring the best of this lively town. Premium public-transportation service Knutsford Express offers several daily 75-minute trips between Ocho Rios and from Kingston, from $30-40 round trip.
First up in Ocho Rios is a visit to Dunn’s River Falls, one of the island’s most famous tourist attractions ($25 for adults, $17 for children). At 180ft (55m) high, this massive waterfall features giant (if slippery) natural stairs that make climbing the falls a popular activity. Reaching the top is a huge achievement – and if you need a hand, guides are on hand to help you up.
Ocho Rios fishing village for Lobster Dave’s
After working up an appetite at the falls, take a five-minute cab ride to Ocho Rios Fishing Village, a hangout for locals who love to be near the sea. Here, fishermen sell their fresh catch to local restaurant owners. Head upstairs to Lobster Dave’s Seafood Restaurant, where you’ll get hearty servings of seafood – especially, yes, irresistible lobsters – along with a spectacular view of the water.
Mystic Mountain for adventure
Make sure you’ve fully digested your lunch before heading to an afternoon adventure at Mystic Mountain. Attractions here like the Sky Explorer chairlift, zip lines and a web-rope course offer the chance to ride through the mountains and take in aerial views of Ocho Rios below. The most popular activity is the bobsled ride, a tropical spin on the winter sport that whisks you down the mountains via a twisting track. A variety of admission packages start at $49 per adult.
Popular Plantation Smokehouse for dinner
As the evening winds down, take a 20-minute cab ride to Plantation Smokehouse, one of the most popular hangout spots in town. In addition to terrific food and drinks, the lively atmosphere is another big draw. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself there on a Friday night, you’ll be entertained by a live band that rocks the crowd until closing time.
Exploring the South Coast
Your fourth day will involve exploring Jamaica’s South Coast, offering the opportunity to see more of rural Jamaica’s beauty. The first stop is Appleton Rum Estate in St Elizabeth Parish. At more than 2 hours from Kingston (make sure you have breakfast before departing), you’ll need to hire a taxi to get here (about $150 for two passengers). The oldest and most famous sugar estate in Jamaica, Appleton produces an award-winning rum that’s one of Jamaica’s most sought-after tipples. The estate offers 90-minute tours ($39) that include visits to the distillery and aging house to see how the rum is made – followed, happily, by a rum tasting.
Ocean bar at Floyd’s Pelican Bar
After your tour, take a cab to Black River, St Elizabeth’s capital, about 40 minutes away ($30 for two passengers). Yet you’ll need a different kind of vehicle to get to your next destination: Floyd’s Pelican Bar, a rustic shack in the middle of the ocean that’s a 25-minute boat ride from Black River ($20 per adult). The bar’s unconventional location, ironically, makes it extremely popular, especially among tourists and adventure lovers. Many visitors go to the bar to sunbathe, swim and even catch their own seafood; the bar’s menu includes, unsurprisingly, lobster, fish and other fresh bounty. Be sure to bring cash: $150 should cover meals, drinks and the round-trip boat ride for two adults.
Treasure beach’s white and black sand
From Pelican Bar, take a boat ride to Treasure Beach ($25 per adult), a 6-mile stretch of white and black sand. A work and hangout spot for locals in the area, most of whom are fishermen and small-business owners, Treasure Beach has four main settlements. Frenchman’s Bay and Calabash Bay are perfect for swimming and sunbathing, while Billy’s Bay and Great Bay are popular among snorkelers. The beach can be rocky and the waves do sometimes get rough – so if you choose to stay on the shores, you’re likely to be entertained by groups of friendly fishermen who have restaurants nearby.
Relaxing dinner at Jack Sprat
In the evening, head to dinner at Jack Sprat at Jake’s, the most popular hotel on Treasure Beach. On the menu, you’ll find freshly caught seafood, along with pizza and ice cream. There’s always a chill party vibe out front, and guests are kept entertained after dark by regular beach bonfires. This spot is the perfect place to unwind and relax before heading back to the hustle and bustle of Kingston.