The small island of Jamaica has many blessings – sunshine, palm trees swaying in the warm breeze, steel pan or reggae music playing somewhere in the distance, and miles of beautiful white sand beaches that edge warm blue and turquoise waters. But Jamaica has so much more to offer than sun, sea and sand. A rich and vibrant history, a diverse culture and an amazing and varied landscape makes this island one of my favourite places to visit.
Jamaica has not always been thought of as a destination for European and North American travellers. The changing image of the island has corresponded quite closely to its relationship with, and its history within, the British empire.
When the English first took the island from the Spanish in 1655, Jamaica was known more as a ‘den of inequity’ than for its beautiful beaches. By the 18th century, the island was attracting more English migrants – mostly men, looking to make money from its natural resources. It was not long before Jamaica became the most profitable, and perhaps most important, part of the British empire. Sugar, molasses and rum were the island’s primary exports, produced from the brutal exploitation of enslaved African labour. But the blazing Caribbean sun, plus the prevalence of diseases such as yellow fever and the fear of slave revolts, garnered the island a reputation as a place of death throughout this period. Indeed, for many British soldiers and sailors, as well as other colonial officials, being posted to the Caribbean was akin to a death sentence. Europeans did not view the islands’ coastlines in the same way they are viewed today and it was not until much later, after Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962 and the advancements of long-haul jet travel, that this image of the island began to change.
My favourite part of Jamaica is not its famous beaches or the other parts of the island marketed on tourist brochures and commercials. When I visit, I head off the beaten track towards the eastern part of the island, into the lush and fertile mountainous region dominated by the Blue Mountains.
Famous for incredible coffee, the Blue Mountains and the surrounding towns and villages, is an area rich in history and natural beauty. Along the winding roads, around 40 miles from Kingston, is the small town of Morant Bay, the capital of St Thomas parish. It is home to the burnt-out courthouse that was the site of one of the most historically significant protests in the post-slavery period. In 1865, hundreds of peasants, led by Baptist preacher Paul Bogle, set fire to the courthouse in opposition to incredible social inequality and dire living conditions.
Heading away from the coast into the mountains across the Plantain Garden river, is the small village of Bath, another of my favourite places to visit. You may not be able to tell based on the look of it, but this small village was once one of the most fashionable places for the English and other Europeans who settled on the island in the early 18th century. Legend has it that an enslaved man running away from a plantation in the area fell into a spring of water. He had been suffering from ulcers but, after emerging from the spring, discovered his ailment healed.
Word spread and soon many flocked to discover the healing waters for themselves, and a settlement developed around the fountains. The fountain is still open for visitors to experience. Although a bit of a hike up a narrow trail from the village – and notwithstanding the many hucksters you may encounter trying to sell you their wares – an afternoon soaking in the soothing waters will prove an ample reward for your efforts.
Another favourite destination for me is the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, which encompasses a large area and a range of easy to manage bike and hiking trails. These lead to some of the most spectacular views of the island. It is said that on a clear day you can see to Cuba from the Blue Mountain Peak. But before you head into the mountains, stop off at Boston Beach where you are sure to find some of the best ‘jerk centres’ on the island.
Jerk is a traditional method of seasoning made up of pimenta, which is widely grown on the island, and scotch bonnet pepper. First developed by runaway Africans and Taino communities in the 17th century, jerk chicken and pork are a national favourite. Still cooked in an old oil drum or coal BBQ, the spicy fatty deliciousness is a real treat – especially if accompanied with fried dumpling and a Red Stripe.
Jamaica is many things to many people. For me, it is about history and culture, the mountains and lush fertile rainforest. It is the small villages and towns, away from the busy hustle and bustle of the cities and crafted tourist-dominated resorts. Despite its brutal history, a history that in many ways continues to shape the current climate on the island and its relationship with other countries, Jamaica remains for me one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Jamaica’s warm, tropical climate means temperatures rarely fall below the mid-twenties. Humidity levels drop slightly in the summer months although temperatures can reach an average of 33°C. Jamaica’s hurricane season usually runs from June to November.
The flight time between London and Jamaica is between nine and ten hours and the island boasts three international airports.
What to pack
A good quality sun cream, lightweight clothing to combat the humidity and heat, and a comfortable pair of walking shoes with which to make your way up to the Blue Mountain Peak.
What to bring back
A few bags of the world-famous Blue Mountain coffee, locally made coconut oil (great for your cooking and your hair), and jerk seasoning to liven up mealtimes when you return home.
Dr Meleisa Ono-George is a senior teaching fellow in Caribbean history at the University of Warwick
Next month: Jonathan Healey explores Chiang Mai, Thailand