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Explore Jamaica



   Towering behind Kingston , the Blue Mountains - named for the mists that colour them from a distance - are an unbroken, undulating spine across Jamaica's easternmost parishes. At 28 miles, the mountains form one of the longest continuous ranges in the Caribbean, and their cool, fragrant woodlands, dotted with coffee plantations , offer some of the best hiking on the island. The most popular hike is to Blue Mountain Peak - at 7402ft, the highest point in Jamaica - but there are dozens of other trekking possibilities such as the marked trails within the gorgeous Hollywell Recreational Park . Otherwise, coffee is the chief interest is here, and you can visit several of the estates producing some of the most expensive - and delicious - beans on earth.

   On the other side of the Blue Mountains (here officially known as the John Crow range), the northeastern parish of Portland is justifiably touted as one of the most beautiful parts of Jamaica, with jungle-smothered hillsides cascading down to a postcard-perfect Caribbean shoreline. If you stay in parish capital Port Antonio , you'll be close to the lovely Reach waterfalls and fabulous swimming at the magical Blue Lagoon . Inland, you can hike in pristine tropical rainforest or take a gentle rafting trip on the Rio Grande .

   You'll need a car to get the most out of the mountains. The principal access road, the B1, cuts straight through the slopes, connecting Kingston with Buff Bay on the north coast; a right fork at the small village of The Cooperage leads to Mavis Bank, the main access point for Blue Mountain Peak . jamaica-blue-mountains Landslides are inevitable in the wet season and you can expect bumpy roads throughout the year. You'll need to be extra-attentive when behind the wheel here. Though the roads appear wide enough only for a single vehicle, delivery trucks loaded with precariously balanced crates frequently barrel up the slopes, sounding their presence with blasts on the horn. It's wise to turn off the radio here and listen for oncoming traffic, and also toot your horn at every corner. 
   Public transport will only take you as far as the main settlements - from Papine in northeast Kingston , buses (roughly J$60) go to Newcastle via Irish Town (with the occasional minibus managing to get up as far as Hollywell), and to Mavis Bank via Gordon Town. Ask around in Papine square the day before you plan to travel, and avoid starting out on a Sunday.   Cycling is an attractive option if you've got your own mountain bike (finding one to rent can be difficult). Several hotels run day-long biking expeditions, among them the Mount Edge Guesthouse (tel 876/944-8151; US$60). Blue Mountain Tours (tel 876/974-7075 or 1-800/982-8238; US$89 including transfer, brunch, lunch and refreshments) will pick you up from Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay, drive you up into the mountains and let you freewheel sixteen miles or so down to a waterfall near Buff Bay.
   There's no charge to enter most parts of the Blue Mountains; however, visitors pay J$200 to enter the managed Hollywell Recreational Park area and walk its trails. Park information is available from each of the Blue and John Crow national parks ' three ranger stations , located at Hollywell, Portland Gap and Millbank . Theoretically always open (though Hollywell is the liveliest and by far the most accessible), these can provide advice on weather conditions and trail access, and ordnance survey maps are on display. None of the ranger stations has a phone, but you can make prior contact through the administrative park office at Guava Ridge (tel 876/997-8044 or 8069; Mon-Fri 10am-4pm).
   No matter where you're walking in the Blue Mountains, it's almost always advisable to use a guide ; given the changeable weather conditions and poor hiking maps (in a terrain with few obvious landmarks), it's very easy to get lost. Security can also be a problem for unaccompanied hikers, particularly on the Kingston side of the mountains. A guide will ensure your safety, clear overgrown paths and provide an informed commentary. You can arrange a guide through any of the accommodation options listed in this section, but if you just want a day tour or guided hike, contact Sun Venture, 30 Balmoral Ave, Kingston 10 (tel 876/960-6685, fax 920-8348, ), which offers trips to the gorgeous Cinchona gardens, as well as various day-long mountain walks (US$60-80), and a hike up the peak trail, with a night at Wildflower Lodge in Penlyne Castle (US$130). Prices are based on groups of two to four people and transport is included.


   The main route east out of Kingston, Windward Road, follows the coastline. It scythes through an industrial zone of oil tanks and a cement works that towers over the ruined defensive bastion of Fort Rock - now the Rockfort Mineral Baths , where you can take a therapeutic soak for J$700. A mile or so further on, turning right at the roundabout takes you on to the Palisadoes , a narrow ten-mile spit of land that leads out past the international airport to the ancient city of Port Royal , from where it's a short hop to the tiny island of Lime Cay

   Southwest of Kingston, a causeway connects the city to the bland but booming dormitory town of Portmore in the neighbouring parish of St Catherine. Portmore lies at the eastern fringe of the Hellshire Hills , an arid and scrubby expanse of "makko " thorn bushes and towering cacti that shelters the closest beaches to the capital. Virtually the only inhabitants are the migrant birds, a few conies and a handful of Jamaican iguanas , once thought to be extinct. From the small fishing community of Port Henderson, the signposted road to the Hellshire beaches runs under the flanks of the hills. Follow the road to Hellshire beach (no set hours; free), separated from the less enjoyable Fort Clarence beach (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat & Sun 8am-6pm; J$100) by a barrier reef that makes the Hellshire water a lot calmer. Hellshire buzzes at the weekends, with booming sound systems and a party atmosphere . Most Jamaicans come here for the fish restaurants as much as the sea and sand, and Hellshire fried fish, best eaten with vinegary home-made pepper sauce, beats anything you'll find in town; for excellent cooking and friendly service, try Flo's shack . On weekends, watersports operators offer jet-ski rental and snorkelling equipment, and there are horse rides for children

   A short drive or ferry ride from downtown Kingston, PORT ROYAL captures the early colonial spirit better than any other place in Jamaica. Originally a tiny island, this little fishing village is now joined to the mainland by the Palisadoes , a series of small cays that silted together over hundreds of years and, with a bit of human assistance, now form a roadway and a natural breakwater for Kingston's harbour.

   After wresting Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the British turned the island into a battle station , with five separate forts and a palisade at the north to defend against attackers coming over the cays. As added protection, they encouraged the buccaneers who had for decades been pillaging the area to sign up as privateers in the service of the king. Merchants took advantage of the city's great location to buy and sell slaves, export sugar and logwood, and import bricks and supplies for the growing population. The privateers wreaked havoc on the ships of Spain, and the fabulous profits of trade and plunder brought others to service the town's needs; brothels, taverns and gambling houses proliferated, and by the late seventeenth century, the population had swollen to six thousand.

   The huge earthquake that struck the city on June 7, 1692, dumped sixty percent of Port Royal into the sea, killing two thousand people in seconds; within a week, a thousand more had died. Most of the remaining population fled for Kingston; almost all who remained later died or deserted when a massive fire swept the island in 1703.

   Despite the destruction, Port Royal continued to serve as the country's naval headquarters until the advent of steam ships saw the British Navy close its dockyard in 1905. Though Port Royal still retains its naval traditions as home to the JDF naval wing and the Jamaican coast guard, it's a far less exotic place today, a small and tidy fishing village, proud of its very low crime rate and happy to serve up some of the tastiest fresh fish you'll find anywhere in Jamaica.


   With its high-rise blocks, buzzing jet skis and duty-free stores , the classic resort town of Ocho Rios typifies the commercial feel of Jamaica's north coast . Home to a wealth of managed attractions - from the famous Dunn's River Falls to Dolphin Cove and a couple of lovely botanical gardens - the town is geared to the needs of cruise shippers and beach vacationers . East of town, the quiet coastal villages of Oracabessa and Port Maria boast a funky beach club and Noel Coward's former home, while west of town hotels line the shore at the resort-oriented coastal sprawls of Runaway Bay and Discovery Bay . The lush St Ann hills hold one of Jamaica's major draws, the Bob Marley Mausoleum at the singer's birthplace, Nine Mile. (See you also Bob Marley Museum in Kingston)
   If you want to catch a glimpse of Jamaica as it was before the tourist boom, head south . Mass tourism has yet to reach the southern parishes - none of the all-conquering all-inclusives has opened here yet, and the beaches aren't packed with sun-ripened bodies - but there are some fantastic places to stay and great off-the-beaten-track places to visit. It takes a bit of extra effort to get here, but it's definitely worth it. The parishes that make up south-central Jamaica are immensely varied; the landscape includes mountains, cactus-strewn desert, lush jungle and rolling fields.
   To the west, in the beautiful parish of St Elizabeth , Treasure Beach - an extremely laid-back place with decent beaches and some lovely accommodation options - is the area's main draw. If you want to do some sightseeing, you can visit the rum factory at Appleton or the fabulous YS waterfall , or drive around the tiny villages of the attractive Santa Cruz Mountains. Black River is the main town - an important nineteenth-century port that today offers popular river safaris and a handful of attractive colonial-era buildings. New roads have opened up large parts of the south coast in the last few years and it's now possible to drive along large stretches of it without losing sight of the sea. The scenery is often wild and unspoilt down here, though you'll need a car to see most of it; buses and minibuses tend to stick to the main, inland roads, making side-trips down to coastal villages as required.
   Home to two of the island's busiest resorts, western Jamaica is firmly on the tourist track. Montego Bay , once Jamaica's tourist capital , is losing out a bit to the hedonistic pleasures of Negril at the extreme western tip. In many ways, though, MoBay, as it's usually called, still delivers. Sitting pretty in a sweeping natural harbour and hemmed in by a dazzling labyrinth of protected offshore reefs, it remains the grand dame of Jamaican resorts and is particularly lively during its world-renowned summer reggae festival. Sybaritic Negril, boasting the longest continuous stretch of white sand in Jamaica and a front-row sunset seat, has a geographical remoteness that lends it a uniquely insouciant ambience . "Discovered" by wealthy hippies in the 1970s, it is still immensely popular with those who favour fast living and corporeal indulgence, and is easily the best place outside Kingston for live reggae and nightclubs . There are plenty of natural attractions around Negril, too, including the pleasant river walk at Mayfield Falls and the blue hole at Roaring River

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