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Visit the Rose Hall Great House

This gorgeous white limestone and ballast brick mansion once overlooked a massive sugar plantation run by John Palmer and his wife, Annee, mistress of Rose Hall. A US$2.5-million renovation by the current owners restored Rose Hall to its original glory.

Rose HallHere, you can wander through the mahogany-trimmed and tapestry-laced grand halls that Annee, a beautiful woman notorious for her cruel disposition, once walked. Nicknamed the White Witch of Rose Hall, Annee's spirit is said to wander the 1780 home and lush, palm-lined grounds. Goosebumps tingle even the most jaded guest when they wander to the former dungeon and hear stories from visitors who claim to have seen her or have had her image appear in their photos and videos.

Most of the antiques are reproductions, but they paint an accurate portrait of Annee's lavish life. Ninety-minute tours are conducted daily for US$20 a person and the hall is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. There's also a golf course and hotel adjacent to the property.

After the tour, guests are welcome to explore the trails among the rubber trees and giant palms and invited to raise a toast at Annee's Pub in the darkened dungeon. Despite the scary stories, this tour is an eye-opener and suitable for older children.

Get a sense of history at Greenwood Great House

This sprawling mansion and property pay homage to the nation's sugar cane industry. The house sits high on a hillside overlooking Montego Bay and has what may be the best view in Jamaica. From the second-storey veranda, you can actually see the curve of the earth's horizon as you look north toward Cuba.

Jamaican Bob Betton and his New Zealander wife, Ann, have owned the property for some 35 years. They are a rarity among owners of grand houses here because they actually live on the property.

Most of the artifacts here are authentic, including the old water cannon and hand pump. The library has more than 300 books, some dating back hundreds of years. Check out the crank barrel organ, circa 1880, which still works. Each of the four bedrooms is decorated with a different colour scheme and a rare 1595 map hangs on a wall. An 1820 grandfather clock still chimes to mark the passing hours.

The great house is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and features a licensed bar, souvenir shop and flower gardens. There's a crumbling road that takes you up to the heritage site so you're best to hire a taxi or book a tour and let someone else drive.

Head downtown to Sam Sharpe Square

Sam Sharpe SquareThere are some great people-watching opportunities along the narrow, winding streets going past Sam Sharpe Square. It's a memorial to a national hero who led the rebellion that ended slavery in 1839. It resulted in emancipation and independence from British rule.

Day or night, there's always a hive of activity downtown. Vendors sell everything from flip-flops and sunglasses to skin cream, cold drinks and snacks. You'll see Jamaicans playing dominoes, hanging out in shop windows and playing cards with boom boxes blasting in the background.

Hit the beaches in Montego Bay

BoatingThere are nearly a dozen beaches in Montego Bay, and most are free and open to the public. Some with extra amenities such as Denali Beach and Doctor's Cave Bathing Club charge a small admission (about US$4) for bathrooms, showers, snorkelling and water sports. Aquasol Beach Park, a small seaside theme park on the beach across from The Altamont West hotel, also has a fee.

The best beaches are along Gloucester Avenue near the Hip Strip. Here, you can join a game of impromptu volleyball, snorkel just offshore (especially near Doctor's Cave Beach) and frolic in the surf. If you have a car, check out the many quiet coves and beaches off the highway going west toward Negril, or east to the historic town of Falmouth and beyond.

Go horseback riding at the Half Moon Equestrian Centre

This equestrian centre, adjacent to the swanky Half Moon Bay Resort & Spa, is on the main east-west road as you head away from the airport toward Falmouth.

Owner Trina Delisser tells guests that animals rule here, and it's true. Kids of all ages are welcome, whether they are horse enthusiasts or not. You can interact with ponies, rabbits and goats as well. The polo area is popular with some of the island's best players who come here to practice. There's even a show-jumping area and lessons available.

Half MoonRiders age eight and older can take part in the different rides. The Jungle Jaunt for beginners starts with lessons in the arena, then a gentle walk across the grounds. Well trained professionals provide solid instruction with a ratio of one guide for every two guests and take groups of eight people maximum.

The Sand Shuttle is one of the most popular rides. It features a ride along sweeping Half Moon Bay, with a chance to spot dolphins. You can also choose to ride your horse into the ocean – you might want to wear your swimsuit for this one.

Half Moon Golf Club

Golf and spa

Would you rather hit the links or have your cares massaged away? Why not do both!

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Margaritaville

Nightlife

If you've still got plenty of energy at the end of the day, these options will get you moving.

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Outameni Experience

Kids

For family-friendly ideas in Montego Bay, look no further.

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Shopping

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Shopping in Montego Bay can take you anywhere from markets to local strip malls to glitzy shopping centres. Since many of the items at the markets are mass-produced and can be found at most stalls and stores, shop around and feel free to barter. Even in some gift shops, prices are negotiable.

Old Fort Market

This colourfully painted, tidy market near downtown caters to travellers. Dozens of yellow huts sell everything from crafts, to jewelry, beachwear and paintings. Many vendors sell similar items but there are a few gems you’ll find here, such as wood carvings by local artisans. If you can, negotiate in Jamaican dollars. Vendors are friendly so take the time to chat while you barter.

Charles Garden Market

The most interesting day to visit the city’s main food market is on Saturday when residents of Montego Bay and area stock up on supplies for the week. The outdoor market is best on weekends.

Here you can buy fresh meat and fish, but it’s the fruits and vegetables that make this experience so interesting. These include dried cinnamon leaves, fresh thyme, turmeric root and pimento wood – scented with the flavours of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon – used to make jerk chicken and pork.

Explore the spread of root vegetables and fruits such as soursop and ackee (a local staple served with salt cod for breakfast). There’s also callalloo - a spinach-like green used in pepperpot soup, salads and cooked as a filling for Jamaican patties. You’ll also find the usual tropical treats like pineapple, banana, coconut, papaya and, of course, the fiery Scotch bonnet pepper used in jerk barbecue sauce.

The wooden-wheeled pushcarts used by vendors to haul goods are also worth noting. These are the same kind of contraptions used by the Jamaican Bobsled Team to train for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary!

Tortuga Market

Next to rum, Tortuga Rum Cakes are the pride of Jamaica. You’ll find them served or sold at most hotels. This shop on the west side of Montego Bay near the airport bakes and sells the rum cakes in three sizes, from individual to six-person servings.

These rum-infused, moist cakes are flavoured with everything from lime and coconut to orange. And aside from good prices, this tempting little shop also offers a range of local specialties. It carries jerk sauce, Blue Mountain coffee (or the less-expensive High Mountain coffee, grown at lower altitudes), candy, incredible fruit ices and sorbet. You can also get cappuccino, breakfast items and a light lunch.

Fontana Shopping Centre

For inexpensive clothing and household items, head for the cluster of shops west of the airport at the Fontana Shopping Centre. The movie theatre here offers a nice break from the heat. Nearby, other options include Moxie, the Sinclair Bargain Centre and Bogue.

Mega-Mart

Jamaica’s answer to big-box stores is the massive and sparkling clean Mega-Mart, which sells everything from refrigerators and deli jerk chicken to fresh-baked bread and cakes. You can also find plenty of great picnic fare here.

Half Moon Shopping Village

Half Moon ShoppingAdjacent to the resort at the east side of town, Half Moon Shopping Village is a new upscale shopping centre where you can find designer clothing and accessories.

Ironshore District

There are numerous strip malls in this area as well, where you’ll find everything from Burger King to Harley Davidson memorabilia. For a supermarket, laundry, food court and gaming centre, the Blue Diamond Shopping Centre has reasonable prices. Whitter Village Shopping Centre has souvenir shops and a good grocery store.

Dining

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Street food is a must when visiting Montego Bay. Countless jerk vendors line the Hip Strip and other busy sections of town. Even the hotels offer Jamaican specialties like grilled plantain, fried-dough johnnycakes and bammy, a type of bread made from cassava flour.

All-inclusive resorts dish out lavish buffet spreads that manage to cater to all tastes while still paying homage to home-style Jamaican cuisine. On the coast highway through towns like Falmouth and Lucea (pronounced Lucy), you’ll come across hundreds of painted shacks fashioned of tin, wood and bamboo. These spots sell takeout food, beer and other refreshments.

There are local chain eateries here as well, such as Juici Patty, Tastee Patties and Mother’s, serving traditional baked patties stuffed with fish, pork, goat or chicken. Buy a piece of folded white coco bread and slide the patty inside for an extra treat.

Rick’s Café

No trip to Montego Bay is complete without a visit to Rick’s Café. Built along one of Jamaica’s most beautiful coves, this popular spot features some of the best jerk chicken on the island. If you can, time your visit with sundown as Rick’s is well known for showcasing a world-famous sunset each night. After dark, Rick’s takes on a cool lounge vibe.

Scotchies Restaurant (Jamaican, $)

This thatch-roof restaurant just east of the Ironshore District is a big draw. Business is brisk here, even after the building was expanded in 2011. Grab a seat on a padded overturned metal barrel under an umbrella and watch the long line of patrons order specialties from a small window to takeout or eat in.

A massive jerk shack in the rear of the restaurant slow-roasts the meat for four hours over logs of pimento covered with tin sheets. Flowering trees provide shade and huge portions of conch soup, jerk chicken, ribs and rice with peas (beans) are served and quickly devoured. You can get a meal with a cold drink here for about C$5.

The Pork Pit (Jamaican, $$)

Situated in an indoor/outdoor space along busy Gloucester Avenue on the Hip Strip, this longtime favourite is most well known for its pork dishes. The succulent jerk chicken and rice and peas are also popular. The decor is simple and the food is spiced and melt-in-your mouth tender. The drinks are cold and frothy. Watch cooks chop giant cuts of meat before placing heaping portions on paper plates just for you.

The Twisted Kilt Pub and Grub (Pub/International, $$)

Attentive service and a great view of the bay at sunset are just two good reasons to visit this Irish pub, tucked back on Gloucester Avenue. Try grilled snapper, curried shrimp and other ethnic dishes featuring German and Indian foods. North American fare (giant hamburgers and french fries) is also available on the menu. Prices run around C$20 for two.

Jamaican Bobsled Cafe (Cafe, $$)

A tip of the hat goes to the Jamaican national bobsled team. This team caught the world’s attention when they competed in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and inspired the movie Cool Runnings. (Chances are you’ll see the movie playing on a big screen while you dine.)

The thin-crust pizzas earn top marks for innovation and freshness. Try the caramelized onion with goat cheese or the jerk sausage sandwich. Prices are in line with most other Hip Strip eateries, so you can expect to pay around C$30 for two meals.

The Native (Jamaican, $$)

Another Hip Strip favourite, this open-air eatery serves simple Jamaican food that tastes good and costs less than many other restaurants in the hotel zone. If you’re an adventurous eater, try the stewed oxtail (flavourful with a slightly gummy texture), curried goat, jerk pork and chicken with the ubiquitous stew peas (red kidney beans).

The breakfast specialty is ackee and saltfish (dried cod that is flown in from the Maritimes), along with smoked marlin and other seafood. Prices are about C$30 for two. The decor consists of bamboo walls and wicker chairs.

Golf and spa

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Fern Tree Spa (Half Moon Resort) ($$$)

Montego Bay is home to a few major destination spas, though just about every large hotel has its own facility – even if just for pedicures, massages and yoga classes. One of the best is undoubtedly the Fern Tree Spa at Half Moon Resort – a a lovely whitewashed resort with seaside villas.

Dark wood archways provide shade for guests moving inside to outside, perhaps to relax in the swimming pool or ease stress by sitting under a refreshing waterfall. You can also book a private outdoor spa cottage with a soaker tub for couples, weddings or getaways with friends. Get your treatments in one of two peaceful cabanas perched on rocky outcrops on the sea.

Many celebrities and politicians have stayed here. Signature treatments include the Jamaican Green Coffee Envelopment and sea algae body wraps. Couples and pre-wedding packages are also popular.

The marine algae wrap is soothing and the herb-laden Jamaican bush bath helps anything that may ail you. There is also a range of massages, reflexology and facials offered here. Advance reservations are recommended.

Renova Spa (Riu Hotel Montego Bay) ($$)

The Renova Spa at Riu Hotel Montego Bay may be small, but it offers a diverse menu of treatments including scrubs, wraps, massages and other body work. The Shiatsu and Hot Stone are two popular treatments, while up-dos, manicures and collagen facials are a big hit with bridal parties. A small area on the beach can also be booked for treatments.

Soothe Spa (The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort & Spa) ($$$)

The Soothe Spa at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort & Spa at Rose Hall is famous for its sugar cane scrub, but also for the historic 18th century buildings it’s housed in. The property used to be a sugar plantation. A wooden pavilion on a cliff provides a fabulous treatment venue.

The Red Lane Spa (Sandals) ($$-$$$)

The Red Lane Spa is the signature spa for Sandals properties, and the one in Montego Bay is picturesque. It has an inviting sitting room, glorious white-sheeted seaside cabanas and an innovative mix of treatments.

Try the West Indian massage, Lively Coffee wrap and the popular Sunburn Rescue Treatment. Montego Bay, like much of Jamaica, has perfected the art of using local products like coffee and fruit essences to enhance tropical bliss for travellers.

Montego Bay golf

With four superior golf courses all located within a 30-minute drive of each other, the quantity and quality of golf offerings around Montego Bay are as good as any in the Caribbean.

Half Moon Golf Club

The Half Moon Golf Club is a 7,119-yard Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that underwent renovations in 2004 and 2005. Half Moon is a relatively flat course that offers long hitters a chance to swing at full power. Golfers who fail to take the advice of the well trained and mandatory caddies surely pay the price. As of May 2011, green fees ranged from US$130 to US$150, not including the US$25 caddy fee.

Cinnamon Hill

The Cinnamon Hill course, previously known as Three Palms is adjacent to Half Moon Golf Club. Thanks to a 2001 renovation, its overall design and agronomy has been greatly improved. Ultimately, it is the on-course features, such as the elevation from the 17th tee (350 feet above sea level!) and ocean-side 7th green framed by sand and sea on three sides, that golfers remember.

Ample off-course distractions remain and can test any golfer’s attention. Rose Hall Great House can be seen from the second tee box and the greenside waterfall on the 15th hole appeared in the Bond flick Live and Let Die. As of May 2011, non-Rose Hall Resort guest rates ranged from US$130 to US$150 per round including caddy.

Tryall Club

The Tryall course is best described as two courses in one, with nine holes located alongside the Caribbean and nine rolling holes leading up the emerald hillside. Fortunately, both halves are equally majestic. The course plays tougher on the front nine but levels out with more scoring opportunities on the back.

At just 6,221 yards, Tryall doesn’t test golfers with overly long shots, but rather puts a premium on precision – as seen on holes like the par-3 4th, requiring a seaside shot over the Flint River. As of May 2011, green fees at Tryall cost US$125 per player, which includes the mandatory caddy.

White Witch Golf Course

As the newest of Jamaica’s top golf courses, White Witch has already made a name for itself. With ocean views on 16 of its 18 holes, the course is undoubtedly among the most picturesque in the Caribbean. The quality of service as part of the Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort is equally as strong.

The course has elevated tees, dogleg fairways and narrow landing areas scattered throughout. From the White Witch tees, the course measures 6,758 yards but plays even longer. Not to mention its 74.0/139 rating and slope are a testament to its difficulty. As of May 2011, rates for non-resort guests ranged from US$130 in the summer and fall to US$185 during peak winter season.

Kids

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Learn about local history at Outameni Experience (age 4 and up)

Outameni ExperienceThis five-acre cultural centre in the parish of Trelawny is a great place to introduce kids and adults to Jamaican history. It is situated near the town of Falmouth, east of Montego Bay. Learn about the indigenous Arawak Indians, the nation’s “discovery” by Christopher Columbus in 1494 and its subsequent colonization by the Spanish, and later, the British.

You’ll be greeted by costumed dancers when you first arrive and led on a 90-minute tour of six recreated villages that represent eras including Spanish, British, African and Jamaican. Art, music, film, dance and drama are used to tell the nation’s story and tours run every half hour. Hours of operation vary, so advance reservations are encouraged. Cost is about C$20 per person.

Speed along a zipline at Montpelier Estate (age 6 and up)

If you or your kids have never ziplined, Montepelier Estate run by Chukka Caribbean Adventures is a great introduction. Soar through the trees on one of eight ziplines offered here. About 45 km inland from Montego Bay, the former sugar plantation and orange groves give way to fig and cottonwood trees.

The informative guides are extremely safety-conscious and also offer river tubing when the water levels are high enough – as well as a jeep safari tour. Tours include pickup and drop-off from your hotel.

Raft down the Martha Brae River (age 8 and up)

River Raft Limited operates 6 km floats down river on a 10 metre bamboo raft guided by a raftsman using a bamboo pole. Take in the scenery along Martha Brae River, east of Montego Bay. You’ll also float past an old water wheel and other 18th-century buildings once used by the sugar plantation.

Your guide will describe the plants and animals found around the river, and most tours include a complementary welcome fruit drink and a tour of Miss Martha’s herb garden. There’s also a pool, two full-service bars and souvenir shops. Just make sure you watch overhead for turkey vultures and massive termite nests.

Trips last around 90 minutes and are suitable for most ages. Another tour operator, Chukka Tours, offers a more mellow float in tubes down a different stretch of the river, beginning at Good Hope Great House. You can also take ATV tours of the former sugar plantation.

There are lunch facilities here and lockers for rent, and a photographer follows your two-hour float in hopes of selling you a picture. Well-known Jamaican artist David Pinto, whose pottery is shown in the National Gallery of Jamaica, operates a small studio here as well, running workshops for local and international visitors and selling his work.

Experience a unique culture at the Rastafarian Indigenous Village (age 6 and up)

This cultural centre, about a 15-minute drive from Montego Bay, is an important showcase of the much-misunderstood Rastafarian lifestyle found in Jamaica.

Start your tour of the four-acre village by crossing the shallow river barefoot. Then, follow the gentle trail to the village centre, where a fire is kept burning to represent Rasta consciousness and the “one life, one love” philosophy made famous by Bob Marley.

A thatch-roof hut replicates the traditional focal point of Rasta life – a place where children are educated at home and families gather to share stories. A guide will also lead you to a grassy area where you can examine the fruits, herbs and produce that form the basis of Rastas’ vegetarian lifestyle. Rastas typically don’t eat animal products out of respect for all living things.

Guides give tours through a lush herb garden where each of the more than 300 plants and trees are labelled to describe the plant’s medicinal properties. A serene crystal and bamboo labyrinth offers a chance for meditation. You can also watch herbs such as lemongrass being pounded for tea and other foods.

The 90-minute visit lands you back in the village centre where drummers and singers perform reggae music while guests enjoy fresh tropical fruit and coconut water. A small gift shop sells locally made and imported crafts to raise funds to promote further development of the centre.

Nightlife

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For a city of its size with more visitors than anywhere else on the island, Montego Bay has a thriving nightlife. Most of the evening excitement can be found on the Hip Strip, a stretch of cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and private beaches. In fact, you can only get to some of these private beaches after paying a modest fee. 

Nearly all the resorts as well as the smaller hotels and motels offer at least one watering hole, jerk vendors and snack shops. Places near the beach generally cater to the late-night crowd (midnight to 3 a.m.).

Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville (Bar, $$-$$$)

Catamarans, boats and other watercraft gather at this famous hotspot to drop off passengers for a drink and meal after an afternoon out on the waters. The view of the bay is stunning here and the food – international with a Jamaican twist – is quite tasty.

Day or night, children are welcome here. There’s even a 40-metre waterslide running from the rooftop to the sea, two giant water trampolines and a floating deck anchored offshore! Big-screen satellite televisions keep sports buffs occupied by day. But night is when Margaritaville really shines, often with long lineups to enter.

Many celebrities have visited Maragaritaville, including American rappers Nelly and Sean Combs, model Cindy Crawford and hip hop group Run–D.M.C. In-house DJs choose the music here – mostly reggae and dance tunes – and they’re happy to play requests as well. The partying at this spot continues well into the morning (3 a.m.).

The Brewery (Pub, $$)

The Brewery is an interesting mix of old-style English pub and jerk shack. This eatery and bar with a covered verandah hosts live reggae music several nights a week and friendly karaoke contests. If you get hungry, there’s also a good selection of burgers (at last count, more than a dozen), an array of salads, sandwiches and seafood.

Coral Cliff Hotel and Gaming Lounge (Lounge, $$)

This 24-hour lounge across the street from Margaritaville boasts the requisite neon lights, about 120 slot machines and big-screen televisions. Try the more than 100 varieties of rum at the bar. There’s also an elaborate live music cabaret featuring Latin, reggae, calypso and world beat music, as well as cultural shows and comedy nights.

Pier 1 (Music venue, $$-$$$)

While not located on the central Hip Strip, this seaside eatery off Howard Cooke Boulevard specializes in seafood and serves hamburgers, steaks, chicken and salads. It’s mostly known for its pretty sunset views and a good assortment of live music, especially its Friday night reggae parties. Sunset happy hours are weekdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Wednesdays are “open stage” nights where anything goes.

All-day adventures

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See new and old come together at historic Falmouth

Established as a shipping port in 1769, Falmouth was once a major hub for the nation’s sugar cane exports. The town boasts gorgeous Georgian architecture that’s visible in the delicate designs adorning many buildings. Don’t miss the gorgeous St. Peter’s Anglican Church, especially its inlaid floors featuring cross-shaped blue mahoe wood and mahogany.

At night, check out the Glistening Waters Luminous Lagoon, where the Black River meets the sea. Watch the light show created by micro-organisms in the water that glow when disturbed by the fish that swim past. You might even be invited for a closer look by taking a dip here in the lagoon – so bring your swimsuit.

A new US$180-million cruise ship port opened here in early 2011, bringing a swell of travellers on port days to this historic village 25 km east of Montego Bay. Stroll the busy streets around the town whose claim to fame is having piped water even before New York City.

Spend a day at YS Falls

Thousands of visitors come to this pristine park and waterfall each year. A buggy hooked to a tractor pulls guests up a dusty road to the base of the falls. You’ll then go on a short hike up a gravel trail to a natural swimming hole beneath the falls of the Black River.

Make a day of it and bring a picnic. Food is also served on site as well. Visitors here are also invited to swing, Tarzan-style, from a rope and land in one of the pools. There are also change rooms and a gift shop, as well as eager guides waiting to help you make the gentle climb to the falls.

Relax in the Bubbling Springs Mineral Bath

Take a short drive from the YS falls through the village of Middle Quarters. It’s a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it community made famous by the tiny red crawfish, known as “pepper shrimp” and sold by the bagful by street vendors. Boiled in salt water that is seasoned with crushed hot peppers, these local delicacies are caught in the freshwaters in nearby Black River and the surrounding swampland.

Bubbling SpringsThe Bubbling Springs Mineral Bath is a quirky, colourfully painted pool and park with mineral waters certified by organizations including the Ministry of Health and Jamaican Scientific Research Council.

Most of the visitors here are friendly locals. The water is said to be beneficial for arthritis, skin diseases, headaches and other ailments. The site also includes go-karts, table tennis, a merry-go-round and rafting in a 140-metre pool.

Tour the Appleton Estate Rum Factory

Jamaica is famous for its rum – especially Appleton Estate, which has been making rum in a scenic valley near Black River since 1749. Your tour of the factory begins with a welcome drink, and as you continue the tour, you’ll see antique equipment used to crush the sugar cane and extract the sugar crystals.

Once extracted, the crushed sugar is fermented in either giant batch processors or white pot stills, each giving off a different flavour and richness. Barrels of the liquid are stored in the aging house – one of 17 buildings on site. The largest holds 36,000 oak barrels. The lighter rums are aged only a couple of years while the darker, more robust ones are aged up to a maximum of 50 years.

Guests can try “wet sugar” (a blend of molasses and sugar), as well as the natural cane juice byproduct. End your visit by trying all 13 rums produced by Appleton, from simple white rum used in mixed drinks to rum flavoured with coconut, pimento and other spices. For this reason alone, you may want to hire a driver or book a tour. The drive is about two hours inland from Montego Bay.

Local feature

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If you want to sample some authentic Jamaican cuisine, go on an off-road food adventure. Legendary island chef Walter Staib is the culinary ambassador to Sandals Resorts. A inductee of the Caribbean Culinary Hall of Fame, his knowledge of Jamaican cooking comes from experience in local kitchens – from remote jerk huts to riverside canteens; spice orchards to local markets. For a real taste of the island, head outside your resort and visit some of the locations where Staib learned his trade.

Float on a raft down the river to Miss Betty’s Riverside Canteen

It’s a long, zigzagging float downriver to Miss Betty’s Riverside Canteen at the base of the Blue Mountains on Jamaica’s northeast coast. To get there, you’ll need to buy a ride down the brawny Rio Grande aboard a bamboo raft, steered by a barefoot captain with a long pole. Rio Grande Rafting in St. Margaret’s Bay starts at US$72 per raft (each fit two people, plus a captain.)

The only other route to this riverside culinary hideaway is a 40-minute trek on the “ankle express” through thick brush. That’s how cook Miss Betty Wilson and her daughter, Miss Wissy, have got here since 1979 – lugging pots and pans to the same sandbank every week.

Miss Betty started out cooking corn and roasting chicken for the rafters, but in no time, her restaurant and down-home cooking culled from century-old recipes became a destination for travellers rather than just a stopover.

Today, you can order chicken fricassee, curried goat with rice (Miss Betty’s personal favourite), salt fish and ackee (Jamaica’s national fruit). There’s also mackerel rundown (mackerel with custard made from boiled coconut milk), steamed callaloo (similar to spinach) and fire-roasted breadfruit. Make sure to try the much-loved river shrimp pepperpot soup as well. Most of the food here is still cooked over an open fire.

Slurp the juice from a coconut, then slip in for a swim in the natural eddy that pools near the sandbank. Call ahead to book lunch with Miss Wissy (she runs the place now). Prices vary, but a full lunch with dessert costs about US$6, and there’s always a cooler full of Red Stripe (Jamaica’s national beer) on ice.

Enjoy spicy food at Billy’s Grassy Park

At Billy’s Grassy Park, a roadside shack with an open coal pit, owner Bilroy Kerr blends spices to perfection. For 14 years, he has dished out five types of fiery shrimp to hungry locals and in-the-know travellers. The most popular is his shrimp sautéed in Scotch bonnet peppers. Follow this up with some raw sugar cane to cool the burn.

This grab-and-go place with little seating has no street address. Just head to Middle Quarters, the shrimp capital of St. Elizabeth province on the south coast of the island, and ask a local. It’s about 40 minutes east of Whitehouse on the South Coast highway, accessible from any resort between Bluefields and Treasure Beach.

Little Ochie Seafood Restaurant does seafood with a Jamaican twist

At Little Ochie Seafood Restaurant in the rural fishing village of Alligator Pond, the roasted turbot, curried conch and lobster and jerk crab are delicacies. Owner Evrol “Blackie” Christian’s specialty is escoveitch fried fish made with a spicy, vinegar-based marinade.

Here, fresh-caught fish is barbecued on wood seasoned with pimento. Soak up the snapper sauce with some “bammy,” a traditional sweetbread made from cassava and cornmeal. But the flavours aren’t the only draw here. Meals are served in thatched huts on a remote sand beach on the island’s rustic south coast near Mandeville. The only people in view are the fishermen catching your lunch and the locals playing dominos.

Jam-Asian fuses cooking styles

Though nearly all of Jamaica’s spicy cuisine incorporates Scotch bonnet peppers, traditional island eats are more international than you might think. There are cultural influences in the foods here, including Chinese, West African, British, Indian, Middle Eastern and Spanish.

The tastiest food fusion has got to be Chinese-Jamaican cuisine. Today, there are more than 70,000 Chinese-Jamaicans living in the country. Chinese culture has been largely preserved through traditional foods, only now they’re blended with some local spice. Staib’s name for this delicious hybrid is Jam-Asian. Think Scotch bonnet peppers in soy sauce or jerk pork in chow mein.

International flavours come together at Jade Garden Restaurant

“The best meals are cooked in the home,” Staib says. If you can’t get yourself invited to dinner, the next best thing is the Jade Garden Restaurant located at the Sovereign Mall – one of Kingston’s busiest shopping centres. Owner Edmond Lam has been serving Jamaicans gourmet Jam-Asian delights for over 25 years. Reservations are a must when the food is this good. Mains start at US$30.

Calendar of events

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Bob Marley Week (February)

If you want more of Jamaica’s biggest musical export, join in on Montego Bay’s island-wide celebrations of reggae icon Bob Marley. Concerts and other events pay homage to Marley and celebrations take place on Montego Bay beaches, bars and at local attractions.

Reggae Sumfest (July)

When it comes to Caribbean events, the granddaddy of them all is the Reggae Sumfest. Since 1993, it has been one of the world’s most-beloved music festivals. Big-name performers take the stage for the Greatest Reggae Show on Earth during this weeklong festival in July.

With nods to R&B/Hip-Hop and Dancehall musical styles, reggae always takes the spotlight. Past performers have included Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and LL Cool J. A huge beach party kicks off the open-air festival, with main-stage shows on the final three nights. There are also plenty of craft vendors, great food and ice-cold Red Stripe beer.

Emancipation and Independence Celebration (August)

The first week of August is a national holiday in Jamaica that marks the emancipation of Jamaican slaves and the country’s eventual freedom from British rule. Events include music competitions, beach parties and many other special events.

Rose Hall Triathlon and Wellness Festival (October)

Athletes from around the world come to Montego Bay to compete in this scenic race of swimming, cycling and running. The 1,500-metre swim starts at the coastal Iberostar resort, and the 40-km cycle covers a steep course heading along the sea to Rose Hall Resort.

The 10-km foot race begins at the Cinnamon Hill championship golf course, built by the late country music legend, Johnny Cash. This uphill course is very scenic, with the ocean as the backdrop. The race concludes at the 17th-century Rose Hall Great House.

This event also features smaller, more family-friendly races as well as a wellness festival and other activities.