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Just as Colorado cools off for winter’s second act, Jamaica is heating up to a consistent 85 degrees, with clear skies and little to no precipitation in the forecast.
Sound tempting? On Feb. 24, Frontier introduced its first direct route from Denver to Montego Bay, cutting down to around five hours a trip that used to take all day, with a stopover.
The flight lands 500 miles south of Miami on Jamaica’s northwest coast and tourist capital. And as you make your way across the coasts and inland to the cultural center of Kingston, the island builds in intrigue, its golden sand beaches giving way to lush and misty mountains and to an increasingly cool capital city.
Not quite the size of Connecticut, the whole country is divided into 14 parishes established during the 300-year British rule, and each has maintained its own community and identity. In 1962, a year before The Wailers got together in Trench Town, Jamaica gained independence as a nation.
Today, you’ll notice artists and musicians, actors and models, writers and activists still flocking to Jamrock. It is a place to lose yourself at sound-system dance parties and to find yourself surrounded by unbridled nature.
And it is one of the few tourism destinations I’ve visited where hospitality feels like a way of life, rather than an industry. Here are a handful of spots to stay, eat and play in order to experience some of the singular Jamaican spirit, or as the Rastafarians call it, that ever-living “livity.”
From Montego Bay circling the island, there are boutique hotels, resorts and villas that offer a mix of family-run charm and five-star views. Best of all, many have a story to tell.
On Treasure Beach, in the southwest’s St. Elizabeth Parish, the Henzell family is celebrating Jakes Hotel’s 30-year anniversary.
“Our mother, Sally Henzell, was born in 1941, and that year her parents bought a piece of seaside property in Treasure Beach,” explained Justine Henzell, Jake’s second-generation co-owner. “Fast-forward 50 years, and Sally buys herself a small house down the beach from her childhood home, and two years later, in 1993, Jakes welcomes its first guests.”
Fast-forward another 30 years and Jakes has become a staple of this once sleepy fishing community on the south coast. The hotel now encompasses its own village of rooms, cottages, bungalows and villas, all decorated in a bohemian style that the Henzells lovingly call “Jimi Hendrix meets Antoni Gaudí.” And aside from the bedrooms, the property’s Jack Sprat restaurant and Dougies bar are always buzzing with locals and tourists.
On Thursday nights, travelers can stop by for dinner and a movie screening of Jamaican classics, including “The Harder They Come,” which was directed by Perry Henzell and art directed by his wife and Jake’s founder, Sally.
– Jamaica Inn, a 65-year gem in Ocho Rios on the island’s north coast, has one palatial suite that previously hosted esteemed guests like Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe and still books up to two years in advance.
– Nearby, Goldeneye is one of three Island Outpost hotels owned by Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell. It sits on Oracabessa Bay and includes among its rentable rooms the villa where Ian Fleming wrote some of his James Bond series.
– Boutique hotel lovers will want to book Skylark, a mid-mod beach house, along Negril’s famous Seven Mile Beach. Its owners also operate Rockhouse nearby, where palapa-roofed rooms are perched on cliffs above the Caribbean.
– If you make it all the way to Port Antonio in eastern Jamaica’s Portland Parish, Geejam is a world-class recording studio-cum-hotel featuring Bushbar, which hosts epic listening sessions and DJ sets.
– And for the most catered stays, check out the luxurious Round Hill in Montego Bay, or the all-inclusive Excellence Resort in Oyster Bay.
In the cool hills of St. Ann, a 20-minute drive inland and 2,000 feet above the north coast, Chris and Lisa Binns are running what is possibly Jamaica’s coolest dining experience from their own home surrounded by farmland that Chris cultivates.
Stush in the Bush is a twice-weekly multicourse meal of Ital (pronounced EYE-tal) Jamaican cooking, meaning entirely plant-based food made from all-natural ingredients. The name “stush” is a local term that Lisa Binns describes as “frou-frou” – “knowing or wanting quality above quantity,” she said. The meal consists of eight courses punctuated by a walking tour through the Binns’ garden.
“Although Jamaica has a 365-day growing season, there are many different microclimates,” Lisa explained. “We live onsite, so this is our home. When you book the visit, the response that you get is that it’s an invitation to our home to dine with us.”
And she recommends booking online as soon as you know you’re coming to the island. The 30-person experience fills up, mostly with locals.
“It’s kind of like a day out from Kingston or the city,” Lisa said, “an opportunity to kick back, relax and enjoy the cool hills of St. Ann.”
– Zimbali Culinary Retreats is a one-stop shop to stay, eat and explore the island’s culinary scene with the help of owners Alecia and Mark, who have created an oasis 30 minutes into the mountains from Negril.
– For a laid-back but hip beach bar, head to Pineapple Beach outside Montego Bay. There are drive-in movie nights, live music nights and weekend fish grills.
– A mile off the coast of Parottee Bay, in the southwest, Floyd’s Pelican Bar is a sea shanty built atop a sandbar and serving Red Stripes and fresh catches to fisherman as well as tourists. The trick is to kayak out in the morning or take a boat out before sunset.
– In Ocho Rios, Summerhouse is a restaurant, bar and garden terrace located on the ground floor of a renovated 1800s manor house. The grounds at Harmony Hall have been transformed with galleries and shops. Chef-sisters Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau are behind the modern Jamaican menu as well as the curated Caribbean goods for sale.
– For a classic Jamaican jerk experience, follow your nose to the open-air grills at Scotchies, with multiple island locations and a menu of grilled chicken, pork and sausage by the pound, plus proprietary sauces and traditional sides such as roast breadfruit and fried festival cakes.
Beaches from Seven Mile in Negril to Lime Cay off the coast of Kingston are Jamaica’s calling card. On a trip last fall, from the private bay behind Jamaica Inn, I took a morning boat ride with the sea so still and the sky so blue that I could barely make out the horizon separating them.
While it’s easy to get lost in that clear blue sea, Jamaica has so much more to offer in terms of nature and cultural activities.
Kingston is a place of rough contrasts – between a thriving art and music scene and palpable crime and poverty. But a guided tour of the capital, including the mural-lined Fleet Street, the National Gallery, Bob Marley Museum, Peter Tosh Museum and more is an important part of any Jamaica itinerary.
After sightseeing, the tony grounds of Devon House are relaxing, especially with some local pastries or an ice cream in hand.
– Aside from the beaches, Jamaica is also a playground of swimming holes and waterfalls. Head to Blue Hole, also known as Cool Blue Hole, in Ocho Rios; Reach Falls near Portland; and Luminous Lagoon in Falmouth, which shows off its bioluminescent waters after nightfall.
– Bamboo rafting on the Martha Brae, the Rio Grande, or the White River makes for a relaxing afternoon floating through jungle scenery, with the option to dip and stop ashore for lunch.
– Some of the local hotels listed above are active in environmental committees and sustainable tourism programs. You can inquire about their work with coral reefs and sea turtles, and if you’re lucky, you can visit one or both while on the island.
– Jamaica is known for its rum and coffee, and tours are available with the large producers for both – Appleton Estate and Craighton Estate are the mainstays. Smaller coffee farms can also be found throughout the Blue Mountains, including Devon’s Coffee Ranch, which is accessible from the north side of the island.
Airports: Sangster International (MBJ), Norman Manley International (KIN), and Ian Fleming International (OCJ)
Passport needed: Yes.
Currency: Jamaican Dollar (but the U.S. Dollar is also accepted)
Time zone: Eastern Standard Time
Language: English with Jamaican Patois
Weather: According to Visit Jamaica, the island’s climate stays hot and humid year-round. Temperatures range from 65 to 100 degrees, and two rainy seasons occur from May to June, and September to November. Travelers should be aware of hurricane forecasts from June to November.
Driving: On the left side of the road. (Note that most hotels and resorts offer shuttle or driver services.)
Typical foods: Jerk chicken, escovitch fish, ackee and saltfish (breakfast), and Ital (plant-based) Rastafarian cuisine
Marijuana (ganja): You may notice medical marijuana dispensaries around the island, because the substance has been legalized for medical and religious (Rastafari) purposes, but only decriminalized for public consumption. Any public possession or use could result in a fine.
U.S. travel advisories: Find the latest official travel guidance from the U.S. State Dept. on the government’s website, including areas to avoid, especially after dark, due to crime.
Flying time from DEN to MBJ is about five hours, and roundtrip airfares start around $300 (not including luggage). This is Denver airport’s first new, direct beach route to take off in 2023 and the airport’s only direct flight to Jamaica.
Other new direct flights, added carriers and reintroduced routes from DEN in 2023 include San Jose, Costa Rica, on Southwest, starting March 11 (but also served by United); Bellingham, Wash., on Southwest, starting April 15; and Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Southwest, starting June 4 (but also served by Frontier).
In 2022, Frontier introduced two new direct routes from Denver International – West Palm Beach, Fla,, and Rochester, N.Y. And Southwest introduced a direct flight to Cozumel last year, adding to United’s existing direct service to the Mexican island.
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