Things to do
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Climb Dunn's River Falls
This one-of-a-kind adventure involves scaling a 186-metre series of waterfalls. The journey begins from the shore at Dunn's beautiful white sand beach. It's an exhilarating and challenging experience, courtesy of the slippery rocks and force of the churning water.
Your safest way up is to follow a guide. Be sure to wear proper, grippy reef shoes and stay in group formation for physical (and moral) support. The group holds hands in a supportive daisy chain where you'll enjoy the camaraderie with visitors from around the world. You may want to come in the morning to beat the cruise ship rush hour, since the port of call in nearby Ocho Rio can unload up to 3,000 tourists a day.
Climb the falls multiple times, or just relax in refreshing, shaded eddies of mineral spring water. The guides will help you, telling you where to step, jump and soak.
Suitable footwear is available for sale or rent in the kiosk area, along with refreshments and photo services. You'll exit through a craft market featuring a variety of souvenirs. Bring cash for merchandise and to tip your guide. Park entrance here is free and the cost to climb is US$15 for non-resident adults and US$12 for kids (age 2 to 11).
Tube through the White River Valley
This 90-minute adventure launches under the arch of the 17th-century Spanish Bridge. Guides provide lifejackets, a comradely spirit and resident knowledge. Bring along cash for jerk chicken and a chilled Red Stripe at the rest stop downriver. Pay attention when the guides say “elbows in” at the narrows and tip them afterwards for a job well done.
The river-tubing safari winds to a satisfying end where amenities are painted in candy colours and built to look like a village. Chukka Coke operates this tour, priced around US$64 for adults and US$45 for kids (age 6 and older). A great value combo includes a zipline canopy tour.
See the breathtaking view at Firefly
A statue of Sir Noel Coward in repose captures the playwright and performer in his favourite garden spot at Firefly. The cliff-top panorama overlooks Port Maria Bay and Cabarita Island. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Cuba!
Coward built a simple cottage here in 1956 and lived year-round in Jamaica until his death in 1973. In fact, he's buried under a white marble slab on the property's northeast corner. The plateau once belonged to a Taino settlement. Later, pirate Henry Morgan roosted here to spot Spanish galleons at sea. He built a tunnel hundreds of feet down to the shore. Centuries later, Coward and friends used the tunnel as a shortcut to the water.
Coward's house is open to visitors who can walk the halls once roamed by guests such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. Not to mention, neighbour Ian Fleming, who recommended Coward to play the super-villain Dr. No in the first Bond film. A dining table is set much as it was for the Queen Mother's visit in 1965. You'll even get to see Coward's paintings, writing notebooks and two polished pianos. Firefly also has a visitor's veranda and bar. Admission is around US$10.
Explore the great outdoors in parks and gardens
Savour the natural beauty away from busy tourist attractions. Elevated on 10 hectares, Shaw Park Botanical Gardens has a view of the Ocho Rios Bay, a dazzling waterfall and greenery lush with orchids and ferns. See the profuse, 31-metre banyan tree from India, planted here in 1920. Admission is US$10. A bar and gift shop are also located on site.
At Coyaba River Garden nearby, George the peacock struts around among the hot pink ginger lilies, heliconia, jade vines and massive cedars. Bunches of blue mahoe, the national tree, overhang the waterfall. A wheelchair-accessible bridge ends with a view of Ocho Rios below. There's also a mini-museum of the island and St. Ann Parish, plus a cafe and gift shop. Park admission is US$10 and the guides work for tips.
Cranbrook Flower Forest, midway between St. Ann's Bay and Runaway Bay, is a 52-hectare nature getaway brimming with begonias and philodendrons, giant bamboo and exotic birds. The peaceful forest has landscaped grounds, mountain biking and a hiking trail along the Little River that leads to waterfalls. Admission is US$10.
Cash is king in St. Ann Parish, especially Jamaican dollars (JMD), accepted island-wide and almost exclusively in rural areas. Small denominations are handy, such as JMD$500 bills. Credit cards and U.S. dollars are also widely accepted in tourist areas.
The Island Village Complex
The open-air shopping and entertainment complex in Ocho Rios’s west bay is postcard-pretty with its pastel clapboard shops. If you’re looking for duty-free goods at a range of price points, this is a good place to start. Here you’ll find kitschy Rasta-themed souvenirs, world-famous Blue Mountain coffee and fine jewelry. You’ll even find Rolex and Tissot watches at the Swiss Store next to the Margaritaville Bar & Grill.
The Puma store is next door to a massive thatched amphitheatre with a waterfall at the foot of the stage. The neatly landscaped lawn area is graced with a famous statue of reggae icon Bob Marley. Duck into the shade of a cinema showing current films. This one-stop-village-shop concept is hugely popular with the cruise-ship masses.
Ocean Village Shopping Centre
The humble Ocean Village Shopping Centre by Turtle Beach in downtown Ocho Rios is where locals go for sundry supplies and services.
There’s a hair salon, barber, bank, pharmacy, supermarket and ice cream parlour. Western Sports sells top brand name sportswear and gear such as spear fishing equipment, cricket bats, tennis racquets and even chic handbags. Across the way is Engen Fine Clothing, home to hip brands like Jah Reason from Jamaica and Black Jack from L.A. The quiet boutique carries sundresses, linen pants, funky jeans and snazzy dress shirts.
Ocean Village is adjacent to Joseph’s Department Store. This clean, air-conditioned emporium of low-priced everyday items has a wide variety of kids’ clothing and accessories. It is right next to the decidedly different Craft Market.
The Ocho Rios Craft Market
For a fun adventure in the market, put on your best game face. Negotiate your price for embroidered linens, straw hats, beaded necklaces, conch shells and carved-bamboo shot glasses. You can also try to get a three-for-one deal on whimsical T-shirts.
Under blue tarps in stalls no wider than an arm’s length, merchants try almost anything to get your attention. If you’re not interested, keep moving. A polite smile goes a long way as well.
You can also watch painters and woodworkers create their wares. Some of the finest handicrafts found here are intricate cedar and mahogany carvings of Caribbean wildlife.
Sangster International Airport
Your entry point to Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay is Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport, home to the country’s largest indoor duty-free mall.
The Coffee & Spice Shop sells Blue Mountain coffee beans packaged in burlap pouches. You can also get small tins of jerk seasoning and bottles of banana ketchup, Busha Browne’s pepper sherry (for soups and bloody marys) as well as Scotch Bonnet sauce and other fiery dips.
Best buys: The Blue Mountain liquor store carries a wide range of products specific to the island. Appleton Extra 12 Year Old rum (US$24 for one litre) and Rum-Bar Premium White Overproof (US$7 for 750 ml) are good buys. Even better, because of its rarity on the northern mainland is a bottle of pimento liqueur by Wray & Nephew (US$10). It is woodsy and tastes like a new warming holiday tradition. For your convenience, the store staff bundle up your bottles in sturdy carry-on boxes.
Evita’s (Italian, $$-$$$)
Evita’s has something for everyone. It is popular with locals, families and couples, thanks to its gorgeous hillside view and scrumptious food at good value. The owner and namesake has been dishing up no-frills “Jam-Italian” cuisine since 1989. Guests are treated to Jamaican twists such as the Reggae-Toni, a pasta fusion of sauteed chicken and mushrooms in a curry cream sauce, topped with walnuts and raisins.
Evita, or Eva as the locals call her, cherishes all of her customers, which have included British royalty, Jamaican royalty (“Mama” Marley and Chris Blackwell) as well as Rolling Stone Keith Richards. No matter how busy it gets here, the host greets everyone at their table to describe her “dishes with a smile.”
Start off with antipasti. The grilled jumbo shrimp cocktail is excellent. It’s served in a martini glass with a refreshing salsa and giant lemon wedge. Mains include jerk spaghetti, lasagna Rastafari (vegetarian), rack of lamb and grilled lobster. Dessert also has “something familiar with a little adventure,” as Evita will tell you in her sweet Venetian accent.
Her rich chocolate Bobsled pie started as a homemade Valentine’s dish but turned out so well that she decided to add it to the menu here. To cap off the night as the sun sets on Ocho Rios below, try a snifter of pimento liqueur.
If you have a chance, ask Evita about the comical love connection that brought her to Jamaica. She loves to tell the story. And as for why she opened a restaurant? “I kept coming to Jamaica but I couldn’t find a good pasta dish,” she says. Dinner reservations here are strongly recommended.
Scotchies Too (Caribbean, $$)
Your local experience isn’t complete without trying this jerk stop in St. Ann’s Bay. Legend has it that Scotchies got a secret recipe from the Maroons who invented jerk cooking.
The jerk chicken and pork here are cooked while you watch. The meat is placed on pimento tree trunks laid across huge grills, covered by sheets of galvanized iron roofing to capture the smoke. Dig in at picnic tables in al fresco-style thatched huts.
This casual restaurant/pub stems from the original Scotchies in Montego Bay, deriving its name from the zippy Scotch bonnet pepper. Make sure you also get some Scotchies sauce, as well as some corn fritters and an ice-cold Red Stripe to wash it down.
Also on the menu is breadfruit – a starchy island staple that tastes a bit like fresh bread.
Toscanini (Italian, $$-$$$)
This Italian restaurant is on the ground floor of a 19th-century gingerbread mansion housing the Harmony Hall Art Gallery. Dine inside at a tastefully set table decorated with potted tropical flowers. Or sit outside on the garden verandah. Start your romantic dinner with a top-notch bottle of wine. End with tiramisu.
Siblings Lella and chef Pierluigi (P.G.) Ricci have run Toscanini’s since 1998 after culinary tours in Antigua, England and Italy. Their Jamaican ristorante focuses on the freshest local ingredients available. The signature dish is lobster, but chances are P.G. will be cooking up something new.
Local fishermen bring their catches to the chef, who likes to dish up rarities like marinated blue marlin. Sprinkled with dill, the delicate slices have the consistency of smoked salmon with side servings of fresh greens, bread and garlic butter.
Located east of the White River Valley, Toscanini offers complimentary transportation from your Ocho Rios hotel. Be sure to make dinner reservations.
R2 at Mystic Mountain (Eclectic, $$)
There’s no mystery as to where you’ll find the area’s most-spectacular view of Ocho Rios. The summit at the all-ages Mystic Mountain amusement park is 213 metres above the sea. R2 makes a great dining perch for families and couples. The menu features West Indies curry, plenty of vegetarian options, classic American burgers (jerk burgers, too) and a kids menu. Caribbean dishes include jerk kabobs, conch fritters and a pimento-smoked turkey breast sandwich.
The Ruins (Caribbean, $$-$$$)
The rush of the 12.5-metre Eden Falls is your soundtrack at this popular spot for special occasions. Entrées include lobster dishes, curried goat and fried whole, deboned red snapper, flambeed with Jamaican white rum. The Chinese Dragon Fish sounds scary, but the giant grouper is tender and flavourful. If you don’t want to dine al fresco by the falls, the restaurant has tables indoors on the second floor.
The Terrace at Jamaica Inn (Caribbean, $$$-$$$$)
If you want upscale dining suited for grown-ups, look no further than the romantic terrace at this renowned hotel. Since it opened in 1950, Jamaica Inn has hosted world-famous guests such as Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe. Semi-formal wear is expected for evening cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and the six-course dinner. It often includes Jamaican pepper-pot soup, but varies with seasonal catches like lobster. Have an aperitif at the wood-panelled bar inside before dining on the moonlit terrace. Dinner reservations are required.
Jamaican patties at Mother’s, Tastee or Juici Patty (Caribbean, $)
All three locations serve popular, budget-friendly Jamaican fare. Patties are golden half-moon pastries stuffed with an assortment of options – from spiced beef and curried chicken, to shrimp and vegetarian options. These franchises have extensive menus and are national fast-food favourites.
Mother’s makes excellent fried chicken. Juici makes soups, porridges and breakfast dishes like ackee and saltfish served with dumplings, sliced yam and banana. Tastee makes sandwiches and sides like pumpkin rice and okra. Complete your authentic Jamaican meal with coconut water or a Yardy Shandy ginger beer.
Golf and spa
KiYara Ocean Spa ($$$-$$$$)
Indulge in a holistic sensory experience at Jamaica Inn’s cliff-top spa. Located in Coral Bay, the colonial-style hotel is famed for its immaculately kept white balustrades and trademark periwinkle-blue villas. The spa’s name, meaning “sacred place of the earth spirits,” is derived from the pre-Columbian Taino language.
KiYara uses organic, hand-pressed liniments sourced from plants gathered by local farmers. Raw sugarcane, crushed Blue Mountain coffee beans and coconut, pineapple and ginger oils are all used and are wonderfully fresh.
The outdoor treatment rooms – namely the Treehouse, Ocean Pavilion and Sea Spray Hut – outshine the more clinical vibe of other spas. Pamper yourself with a two-hour rejuvenation massage, hot-stone tissue relaxation or herbal “beauty ritual.” Or, opt for a couples’ candlelit treatment to the sound of the waves splashing against the cliff walls. Advance reservations are highly recommended.
Windsor Mineral Spring ($)
Bravely venture to Windsor Mineral Spring near Runaway Bay via the ragged road that leads to a jungle shantytown with a somewhat informal setup. The small, natural pool gushes carbon dioxide, dissolved minerals, methane and sulphur gases. It is called “fire water” by local Rastas who spark the gases into dancing flames and its curative powers are said to treat gout, arthritis, eczema and muscle pain.
Hamid Chambers provides visitors with a soak, hot-towel massage, clay mud bath or vegetarian meal cooked over the fire water. He’s a Rasta who says his 109-year-old grandmother, Granny May, discovered the spring when she was 20.
If you stick around, you’ll learn even more history lessons and insights into Rasta life. This is a one-of-a-kind experience, so do pay accordingly with a minimum “donation” of US$10. Or, says Chambers, “leave it to your own conscience.”
Sandals Golf and Country Club
As the only golf course in the busy cruise and resort hub of Ocho Rios, the Sandals Golf and Country Club manages to run efficiently and play quickly, even when large groups show up to tee off. To help, the 18-hole course starts groups off on four separate holes, as opposed to the more common starting positions on just the first and tenth holes.
Once on the course, the greatest test comes in the form of smaller greens, some of which are preempted by blind approach shots. The reward, however, is in the incredible condition of the course. The 6,404-yard, par 71 course has recently undergone improvements. At US$45 (plus a mandatory US$20 caddy fee), the course is a bargain for non-Sandals Resort guests. And for guests staying at any one of the six Jamaican Sandals Resorts, the deal is even sweeter – the golf is free!
For the quickest loop around the course, tee off before the cruise ship and resort shuttles begin dropping guests off at 8:30 a.m.
Breezes Runaway Bay Resort and Golf Club
West of Ocho Rios and less than 30 minutes by shuttle, the all-inclusive Breezes Runaway Bay course offers up the length so many other land-strapped Caribbean courses cannot. In fact, the original 1960 design included seven par 5s, of which five still remain on the scorecard. The other two have been redesigned into lengthy par 4s.
However, all that length doesn’t necessarily translate into a more difficult course. The fairways are gentle and wide, and there are relatively few areas where errant shots can’t be tracked down in the friendly rough. Healthy cedars and lush fruit trees line many fairways without impeding most shots. So swing away from the 6,870-yard-long back tees, which play longer when faced with stiff trade winds.
As part of the SuperClubs group of resorts, guests staying at any of the four Breezes Resorts play (and can take private lessons) for free. Non-resort guests pay a modest US$35 per round – plus US$16 for a caddy. And while golf cart rentals can be the most expensive component to playing Runaway Bay, this course remains extremely walkable, despite its length.
Experience the heights at Mystic Mountain (all ages)
Take the Sky Explorer chairlift over the lush forest canopy and you’ll find your feet skimming the tops of almond trees. Passion fruit vines bear brilliantly coloured orbs that look like Christmas ornaments. But it’s at the peak – 213 metres above sea level – where the real fun begins.
On the canopy tour, you’ll glide a total span of 470 metres on five different ziplines. If you’re a speed freak, take the 1,000-metre ride called Rainforest Bobsled. The solo roller coaster swoops through hairpin turns at 40 km/h in the jungle gorge. Both rides are open to kids age eight and older, but they must be at least 3’10” tall. There is also a waterslide and infinity pool overlooking Ocho Rios Bay, okay for kids big and small.
Trek into the sea on horseback (age 6 and up)
Brace your britches for the bareback swim-and-ride on retired racing and polo horses. The two-and-a-half-hour adventure at Chukka Cove starts with a short riding lesson. You’ll travel past Papillon Cove, named for the classic 1973 Steve McQueen film – you may even recall the movie’s dramatic ocean-cliff escape scene filmed here.
The bouncy walk suddenly gets surreal when the horses step off sandbars and start swimming in the turquoise sea.
The vision of Chukka Caribbean Adventures founder and CEO Daniel “Danny” Melville is to give animals a new lease on life. A stable of nearly 80 quarter horses ensures they get a few hours of exercise and plenty of down time as well.
Aside from the horse rides, Melville’s friend Jimmy Buffet (the Margaritaville guru) sponsors Chukka’s Jamaica Dogsled Team. The dogs are rescued from animal shelters and trained to “mush, mon!” Kids of all ages can help harness the pooches and watch them hit speeds of up to 48 km/h pulling bikes and buggies.
Get dirty on a dune buggy (age 6 and up)
The rainy season is the best time to go for a muddy ride in a two-seater dune buggy (drivers must be 18 years and older). Drive off-road or ride as a passenger through orchards into the mountains. The 90-minute, all-terrain ride ends in the spectacular White River Valley, where you can rinse off in the crystal-clear river.
Chukka Caribbean Adventures also offers solo ATV rides for kids age 16 and older. The four-wheelers travel through old plantation country and jungle, across riverbeds and hillocks. The 90-minute ride ends at Chukka Bay, a natural cove where guests can wash up by jumping off a 3.7-metre cliff into deep seawater.
Meet the wildlife at Dolphin Cove (all ages)
This marine park has something for the little pirate in everyone. You can also watch dolphins perform amazing acrobatics from the pier.
Wade into a shark tank to learn about, feed and hold one of the beasts. You can also snorkel with the sharks and harmless stingrays. Or just watch the hijinks of the cheeky shark trainers who ramp up the fear factor with a hilarious pirate act.
Walk the Jungle Trail for more animal encounters. Hold and feed gentle birds, like the exotic Indian ring-necked parakeet. Squeamish? Test your mettle as a Jamaican yellow boa constrictor wraps around your arm right next to a giant green iguana. Dolphin Cove also has a beach, glass-bottom kayaks and casual, kid-friendly restaurants.
Age limits vary for different wildlife encounters. Ask your hotel concierge or WestJet Vacations representative for details.
Go batty in the Green Grotto and Runaway Caves (all ages)
Put on a hard hat and disposable hairnet before entering the lair of nine species of bats. The furry flyers won’t hurt you, but your heart may skip a beat when you look up to see the ceiling teeming with them. The caves have been home to many species over the years.
Legend has it the Taino Indians worshipped here and Spanish troops used it as a hideout from the British. Runaway slaves – hence its name – found freedom in the maze of dark, dank underground trenches. They used natural “talking drum” formations for coded messages. Tap the hallow limestone structures like a bongo to send your own echoing beats.
The grotto is an underground lake that’s more than 15 metres across, 6 metres deep and 37 metres below sea level. The guided tour is 45 minutes, lit well and suited to young explorers.
Climb, swim and sun at Dunn’s River Falls and Beach (all ages)
The benchmark for all nature trips in Jamaica is as soaked (interactive) or dry (totally safe) as you choose to make it. Climb to the top or exit at the halfway point, but always pay attention to the guides who are well-trained and know all the nooks, crannies and no-go zones.
The guides here monitor one tier where climbers can safely fall backwards into a deep pool. Another cascade forms a short, naturally smooth slide where kids can plunge into the river. Others spend time on the white sand beach or watch the waterfall shenanigans from the shade of several viewing platforms.
Climbing is at parents’ discretion, but not recommended for kids under the age of seven.
Margaritaville Bar & Grill (Dance Club, $$)
Party central in Ocho Rios keeps it simple, fun and goes by Jimmy Buffet’s slogan, “no shirt, no shoes, no problem.” This is hands-down the most popular day or night spot for locals, resort guests and cruise-ship day trippers.
The 1,115-square-metre venue in the Island Village complex is splashed with a parrot motif. It has two bars, its own pool and gift shop, and it backs onto a public beach and volleyball court. Wednesday is club night, but things also get wild most Fridays and Saturdays.
Beer flows in torrents here, but when in Margaritaville, do as the “Parrotheads” do. You can’t miss with a mango daiquiri or any of the concoctions on the boat drinks menu. Try the 5 O’Clock Somewhere, a blend of orange and pineapple juice, sour mix, a drop of grenadine and two Jamaican rums – Appleton Special and White Overproof.
Ocean’s 11 (Bar, $$)
This bar and grill has a prime location on the pier. It draws daytime cruise ship sightseers and uses a sliding price scale at peak times. Upstairs, you’ll find a coffee bar, art gallery and patio overlooking the sea and port depots across Ocho Rios Bay. The best setting is at the waterside tables and counters.
Beyond the usual cocktails is one named the Dunn’s River Duppy (“duppy” means ghost). It’s a “secret” blend of vodka, rum, gin, wine and fruit juices, and if you drink three Duppies, the fourth is free. Oddly enough, kids are welcome anytime, except on Tuesday nights (karaoke nights), which get crowded and sometimes a bit rambunctious – or in other words, fun.
Baywatch Bar & Grill (Dance Club, $$)
Located across the street from Ocean’s 11 at Fisherman’s Point, Baywatch gets sexy on Wednesday’s Girls Rush night. Ladies get free tequila shots, while others huddle by the bar, drinking rum punch. Groovy laser lights in geometric shapes spin in sync with pulsating dancehall remixes of pop hits.
John Crow’s Tavern (Bar, $$)
A long bar, beer signs, televised soccer matches and good grub at reasonable prices give this tavern a homey vibe. The food and drinks menu is varied and extensive, catering to all tastes and inclinations. A favoured Jamaican dish is slow-cooked Country Man’s, a mix of oxtail, butter beans and dumplings. The All American Jerk is a 12-inch pizza with smoked pork sausage, chicken, sweet peppers and onions. Ask for a side of Walkerswood sauce.
Behind the bar is a half-fridge dedicated to Magnum Tonic Wine. The bottled Jamaican energy drink is marketed as an aphrodisiac and has 14.6 per cent alcohol, undisclosed flavours and ingredients that include iron, minerals and vitamin B6. It tastes a bit like chilled, peppery cough syrup.
In the Garden Parish, be fruitful and multiply your island experience. If you’re intrepid and want to explore the north shore, hire certified local transportation. Jamaica’s highways – and especially byways – are challenging to navigate and so renting a car is not advisable. Better to leave driving in these parts to the experts.
Reliable drivers are mostly affiliated with the Jamaica Union of Travelers Association (JUTA). Hotels often have them stationed on property and JUTA-affiliated taxis and vans have a red licence plate and official JUTA branding. Always negotiate your price and agree on the itinerary beforehand. Expect to pay between US$140 to US$175 for a day trip. Feel free to tip accordingly.
Take a day trip west of Ocho Rios to the Runaway and Discovery Bay areas. Head to popular Puerto Seco Beach, where Columbus first landed on Jamaican shores and lunch seaside. Beach stands sell jerk, patties and Red Stripe here. On hot days, duck into the naturally cool Green Grotto Caves.
You can also grab a picnic lunch at Scotchies Too and find a spot to relax in the natural expanse of Cranbrook Flower Forest. Then head to the parish capital of St. Ann’s Bay and walk in the footsteps of its most famous son, Marcus Garvey (an outspoken Black Nationalist activist). Complete the day with a sunset dinner at Evita’s Jamaican-Italian restaurant in the hills above Ocho Rios Bay.
Take a day trip east of Ocho Rios to St. Mary Parish to see the breathtaking views at Sir Noel Coward’s estate, Firefly. Then head to the gorgeous James Bond Beach in Oracabessa Bay (so named because part of Dr. No was filmed here, including the iconic scene in which Ursula Andress emerges from the sea) and enjoy fresh seafood for lunch at the Moonraker Bar & Grill (named after another one of local resident Ian Fleming’s Bond novels).
Stop at Harmony Hall. The gallery of mostly first-edition art showcases local talent and mixed media, from watercolours and casein paints derived from milk to soda-fired stoneware. Toscanini’s fine Italian restaurant is conveniently located on the ground floor.
Soak up some history at Rio Nuevo Bay and Battle Site, where the English wrested control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1658. “I’ll tell visitors the whole story, start to finish,” says Dawn Duncan, chair of the Rio Nuevo Heritage Park. “The fullness of the story brings it to life.”
Pilgrimage to Bob Marley’s mausoleum
Pay homage to the world’s most legendary reggae artist with a trip through the Dry Harbour Mountains to Nine Mile. The winding drive on narrow, cratered roads deep into the hilly countryside is best made in one of Chukka Cove’s vehicles. The Zion Bus Line tour is a five-hour guided trip catering to adults and fans. The retrofitted rural-market bus is emblazoned with Rasta colours and blasts music tailor-made for travelling reggae parties.
Marley was born, raised and laid to rest in Nine Mile. Visitors can see the house where Cedella “Mama” Marley gave birth to Nesta Robert (“Bob”) on February 6, 1945. The summit above it is what local Rasta disciples call Mount Zion and where both mom and son are entombed in separate mausoleums.
Mount Zion is considered sacred ground and is well protected but it’s not suitable for children.
The mausoleum site is a walled compound entered through massive purple gates under Ethiopian banners of red, green and gold. Red represents the shared human essence and the Rastas’ devotion to earthly gods. Many Rastafari worship the late emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
The quasi-spiritual experience at Nine Mile’s top (and only) attraction is shaped by your entrance and exit through gift shops. But this is Jamaica’s Graceland, so check any cynicism at the door. Get mellow with the Rasta vibe and stroll at your leisure into the domain of the King of Reggae.
The journey begins with a series of stairways toward Zion. A latticed veranda leads to replica versions of Marley’s gold and platinum records. From a rustic amphitheatre, the lilting sound of reggae played live on an acoustic guitar sets the scene mere steps away at the Gates to Zion. Cameras and other recording devices are not allowed inside the holy place.
A steep, inlaid-stone pathway leads you past the gravesites of Marley’s grandparents to a wooden cottage where Bob lived from age six to 13. Inside is “the shelter of my single bed,” referred to in Marley’s hit, Is This Love. Outside, you’ll find the sculpted meditation stone immortalized in Talkin’ Blues.
Take your shoes off before entering Marley’s mausoleum, where he’s buried with his guitar. A stained-glass window sheds a red-green-gold spectrum on the marble crypt draped in an Ethiopian flag. Some pilgrims leave behind photos, notes, footballs, bibles and even tiny urns with cremated remains. They rest among lit candles and a collage painting of Marley’s own idol, Marcus Garvey.
The mausoleum tour is about 30 minutes in length, but you can linger at the restaurant if you wish. It serves jerk chicken and plenty of vegetarian dishes catering to even the more stringent Rasta vegetarian diets. Ingredients are sourced from the estate farm. You can also try a Reggae Shot at the bar. The mix of overproof rum, creme de menthe, creme de banana and grenadine is lit on fire and sipped through a straw.
Jamaica’s central region of St. Ann is commonly referred to as the Garden Parish for its abundant natural beauty.
The nickname has figurative meanings too, thanks to St. Ann’s year-round bounty of crops and floral plant life. Of course, the parish also produced world-music legend Bob Marley and the beloved patriot Marcus Garvey.
The original Taino inhabitants called the island Xaymaca, meaning “land of wood and water.” Eco-tourists love the concentration of both found in the Garden Parish.
Quench your thirst with world-class water
Ocho Rios derives from the British mangle of the original place name Las Chorreras, Spanish for “gushing” water. Countless rivers and tributaries flow north to south from high hills running parallel to the coast. Safe drinking water is a remarkable bonus for visitors to Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay. In fact, Jamaica’s potable tap water is ranked among the world’s best.
A wealth of mineral springs bubble through the porous limestone that covers the island. Flammable methane and sulphur gases provide a reason why the Windsor mineral spring near Runaway Bay is called Fire Water. Scientists discovered calcium, magnesium and 20 more human-friendly components here. The lukewarm brine is charged with millions of carbon-dioxide bubbles and contains the most dissolved minerals of any known spring in Jamaica – and even more than the world-famous Vichy Baths in France.
Try local market produce and pimento jerk
Roadside stands and farmers markets throughout the parish brim with fresh crops. They sell locally sourced produce like yams and fruit such as lychee, bananas, coconuts and citrus. Numerous varieties of mango, lemon, grapefruit and orange trees also flourish here. Pineapples are widely available and nationally recognized on the Jamaican coat of arms.
The national passion for jerk barbecue owes much to the pimento tree. The indigenous tree yields aromatic leaves and berries, otherwise known as allspice. Pimento is often confused with store-bought “allspice” mixes of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper – all hallmarks of Jamaica’s one-stop flavour source. The fruit, both dried and ground, makes standard jerk seasoning. Delicious liqueurs are made from fresh berries soaked in Jamaican rum.
See the peaks and valleys of Cockpit Country
Agriculture is the mainstay for country folk in rural St. Ann. A trip to Bob Marley’s mausoleum in Nine Mile takes visitors past many cattle ranches. Banana, cabbage, corn and root vegetable farms are also sprinkled throughout the Dry Harbour Mountains. The terrain of dramatic peaks and valleys is nicknamed “cockpit country,” referring to the pointy comb on a rooster’s head.
The geography, including soluble limestone eroded into basins and sinkholes, conceals numerous caves – but at least one is easily accessible. The Green Grotto Caves near Runaway Bay contain slippery-smooth limestone formations outdone only by the region’s most popular attraction, Dunn’s River Falls and Beach.
The famous Dunn’s River Falls and White River in Ocho Rios
If the most authentic spa experience is a natural one, look no further than the spectacular 180-metre cascade at Dunn’s River Falls. Experienced climbers revel in the freedom of finding their own handholds and footholds in various limestone formations. The Falls’ cooling mineral springs, clean air, tropical beauty and tactile sensations seem to hold powers to invigorate and rejuvenate.
Another incredible natural experience is river tubing through the White River Valley. The divide between the parishes of St. Ann and its eastern neighbour St. Mary is a mix of pastures, dense jungle vegetation and crystal-clear waters.
This relaxing tubing safari includes swimming in the azure water. As you float under a canopy of palms, ferns and bamboo shoots that grow up to 31 metres, keep your eyes peeled for kingfishers and “doctor” birds. The “doctor” hummingbirds have iridescent green plumage and black tail feathers resembling medical pincers. River fish called mullet and crayfish the size of lobsters live in the depths of the river and may give pause to anyone brave (or crazy) enough to enter without shoes.
Stroll through beautiful parks and botanical gardens
There are few places that better demonstrate what the Garden Parish is all about than the parks and gardens dedicated to nature. Cranbrook Flower Forest is a 50-hectare outdoor getaway brimming with begonias, philodendrons and more than 500 varieties of ferns. The roadway in a river valley known as Fern Gully is shaded by a stretch of ferns almost 5 km long. It is so lush and dense that headlights are a daytime requirement.
The 50-year-old Shaw Park Botanical Gardens feature a dazzling waterfall and greenery filled with orchids. Vivid heliconia flowers include the appropriately named Lobster Claw red variety. Your attention is then drawn skyward to the 31-metre tall Indian banyan tree. Hundreds of golden silk orb-weavers impress here with their tropical engineering. Commonly called banana spiders, they spin webs as big as fishing nets!
Nearby, Coyaba River Garden is notable for its regal columns of giant palm trees. Coyaba comes from the pre-Columbian Taino peoples’ word for heaven. After a visit to St. Ann, you’ll appreciate why most people proudly call it the Garden Parish.
Calendar of events
Bob Marley Week (February)
Weeklong island-wide events around Marley’s February 6 birthday include concerts, live DJ nights and symposiums. Parties are held at Marley’s birthplace in Nine Mile and at James Bond Beach in Oracabessa.
Jamaica Fat Tyre Festival (February)
The mountain-biking exhibition takes place in and around Ocho Rios. It features rural trail rides, single-track daredevilry, breadfruit roasts on the beach and party vibes summed up in the motto, “two wheels, one love.” It kicks off annually at festival headquarters at John Crow’s Tavern.
Carnival (Ash Wednesday to Easter)
In Ocho Rios, mini-festivals are held in resort areas. Carnival peaks in St. Ann Parish from Holy Thursday and Good Friday through Easter Monday with mostly family-oriented activities like evening fish frys on the beach.
Jamaica Kite Festival (April)
This popular family day at Drax Hall Point in St. Ann’s Bay showcases colourful homemade kites flying hundreds of feet in the air. The largest kites are constructed using bamboo and recycled plastic bags. They’re big enough to stand in and require ropes to control.
National Senior Cup (May to July)
The cricket tourney is played in all parishes on weekends. The classy national sport has two-inning day matches and test matches lasting up to five days.
Labour Day (May 23)
The national day of community involvement honours the May 23, 1938 labour rebellion that started Jamaica on the road to independence. The public holiday is celebrated in the camaraderie of volunteers working on community projects such as school maintenance.
Ocho Rios International Jazz Festival (June)
Jamaica’s original jazz festival started in Ocho Rios but has grown into a weeklong, island-wide event that draws top performers. Shows in Ochi (many free) take place in amphitheatres and hotels. Check local listings in the Jamaica Tourist handout, or pick up the Daily Gleaner or Star at newsstands to learn more.
Emancipation and Independence Week (August)
This is a festive, happy time to be in Jamaica. National culinary and performing arts competitions take place in each parish. Celebrations start in July to commemorate the people’s emancipation from slavery on August 1, 1834, and the country’s independence within the Commonwealth on August 6, 1962.
National Heroes Day (the third Monday in October)
Church services and primary school kids dressed in holiday attire honour Jamaica’s seven national heroes: Nanny of the Maroons, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, George William Gordon, Marcus Garvey, Alexander Bustamente and Norman Manley on this important day.