Known as the happiest island in the Caribbean, Jamaica is world-famous for much of what we take for granted today, like Bob Marley and jerk seasoning. Oh, and Ian Fleming made a villa at Goldeneye his home for two months every year from 1946 until his death and wrote most of his James Bond spy novels there.
Other claims to fame are Sandals, the Caribbean’s first all-inclusive resort; the use of the friendly expression “ya mon” (which means okay or no problem); and the island’s ubiquitous street foods. Two popular street foods are patties, a thin flakey crust of dough filled with spicy meat or vegetables, and baked pudding, made with either bread fruit or cornmeal.
Mother’s in Kingston is THE island go-to for patties, while Puddin’ Man, proprietor of the Just Coool Green Grocery and Variety Store near St. Ann’s Bay, makes the best puddings.
I stayed at the intriguing Round Hill Hotel and Villas in Montego Bay. A small hotel known for its privacy has made it a haven for the glitterati and Hollywood A-listers since the day it opened in 1953. Sir Noël Coward, Adele Astaire (wife of Fred), Bill and Babe Paley, and J.F. Kennedy all stayed there, followed by Ralph Lauren, Paul McCartney, and Ryan Gosling, and more recently Lupita Amondi Nyong’o.
Coward loved Jamaica and had a vacation home there, Firefly Estate, where he hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Sophia Loren. He is buried at the estate, and his house has been transformed into a writer’s home museum. Errol Flynn also had an estate on the island, and a nearby marina is named after him.
Round Hill was the perfect starting point to discover—along with a definitive history lesson given by the hotel’s loquacious managing drector—the island that gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, but is still a Commonwealth country recognizing Queen Elizabeth as the Queen of Jamaica.
The third-largest island in the Caribbean, Jamaica abounds with greenery, waterfalls, and rivers, and boasts an undulating landscape set off by the Blue Mountains, the Caribbean’s highest mountain range. It can take several hours to get from one part of the island to another so it’s best to plan to stay at least a few days so you can have time to swim, sunbathe, and explore.
The island vistas are expansive and best viewed from hilltops. One excursion worth taking for visitors looking for a more authentic Jamaican experience is a trip to St. Ann’s Bay, where Christopher Columbus landed in 1494 and where the island’s first sugar mills were established by the Spaniards. A few historic buildings from the mid-1800s showcase the typical Jamaican architecture, including the church and the courthouse.
Up in the hills, beyond the paved roads and reachable by car or on foot, is a plateau called Free Hill where it is possible to view the northern coastline for miles in all directions. Your journey will be rewarded by an exquisite daytime dining experience at Stush in the Bush, a vegetarian restaurant at Zionites Farm owned by Lisa Binns (a former Brooklynite) and her husband Chris (a Bob Marley lookalike, Jamaican-born, Canadian-educated). The couple built the entire place from scratch, using roughly hewn wood for the walls and furniture.
One of the highlights for me was a languid river tour aboard a bamboo raft on the three-mile Martha Brae River—a veritable exotic paradise of foliage and birds.
Kingston, the island’s capital and the world’s seventh largest natural harbour, has some serious cultural sites. Reggae music lovers can tour the home of Bob Marley, now a museum. History buffs can explore Devon House, built in 1881 and home of Jamaica’s first millionaire. There are two dozen museums and galleries in the city, from the African Museum to the National Gallery of Art, where you can absorb the history and culture of Jamaica.
For those who want to overdose on the outdoors and water sports, Negril is well known for diving and snorkeling. Ocho Rios boasts the Dunns River Falls and Dolphin Cove. Frenchman’s Cove is fed by clear water from a natural spring, and the small river flows into the sea so that when the tide is ebbing you can float out into the warm sea water and enjoy a natural aquatherapy session. And for the adventurous, there’s cliff-diving at Rick’s Cafe.
Locals are full of friendly smiles, and don’t be put off by the commonly encountered “hustling” attitude. It’s part of the Jamaican culture to make ends meet in daily life. It’s as though everyone’s got a second job selling something! Ya mon.
For more information about Round Hill Hotel and Villas, visit: www.roundhill.com/
Isabelle Kellogg is a writer and public relations consultant in the luxury sector, with a passion for diamonds, jewelry, watches, and other luxury products, including travel.