Explore the magic of Montego Bay
A heady mix of reggae, rum and royalty – Pippa Park travelled to Jamaica to find out how to do Montego Bay properly…
His long mane of black matted dreads hid most of his face as he bent to pick up the long machete. With his startling appearance it was all I could do not to stare. The tall native man crouched all but naked, with nothing but a huge green leaf slung around his slim hips.
I was wildly reminded of Tarzan as the strange man slung the machete carelessly over his shoulder. His hair fell back to reveal a happy-looking smile and two friendly chocolate eyes, crinkled in welcome.
Had I been anywhere else, perhaps I would have been terrified. As it was, I was in Jamaica, arriving at my auntie’s house in Hamden. A little bemused, I smiled back at the skinny man, noticing the sinewy muscles on his long arms and legs from working the land.
The Jamaican way of life could melt the frostiest of hearts with its laidback attitude and friendly nature. These special people could make any traveller feel at home by their tropical shores, with a heady mix of rum, reggae and Rasta culture. The incomparable Caribbean charm is something I have never encountered anywhere else and is perhaps unique in the world.
With the English winter leaving much to be desired, my mum and I boarded flight to Montego Bay – or Mo Bay as the locals say – to pay a visit to my auntie and her family, who live out here.
Thanks to my family ties to the area, I’ve always experienced a different side to the country than your average tourist. I’m saddened to hear of so many honeymooners who fly all this way and then don’t leave the hotel.
Yes, it’s paradise. You have the weather, the scenery, those white sandy beaches you dream about, the pretty cocktails that beg to be Instagrammed and the dreamy palm trees that blow in the breeze.
But you also have the rainforest to explore, waterfalls to discover, the brightly painted roadside shacks selling jerk chicken and ginger beer, locals with baskets offering freshly cut cane for you to suck and friendly locals to share a rum with (just don’t opt for the clear stuff – you won’t stand after more than one.)
British Airways fly straight into Mo Bay, so transfer time is minimal. But pick your hotel wisely, as heaven forbid you should be over a flight path and find your beach time interrupted every ten minutes by planes.
Half Moon is perfect for avoiding this. My mum once said to me when I was little, ‘If I ever won the lottery, I’d take the whole family to Half Moon for two weeks.’
She really would have to win the lottery too, as our family is fairly sizeable motley crew of about 30 individuals. But if you have a more sensible number to treat, Half Moon is yours for the taking!
A fabulously elegant once-in-a-lifetime kind of place, Half Moon has played host to countless royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Prince Harry, the Prince of Wales and even John and Jackie Kennedy, as well as countless movie stars and celebrities.
Originally built by 17 families in 1954, after they fell in love with the island and wished for a holiday home here, the resort is mainly made up of exclusive cottages.
Half Moon, named after the fabulous crescent of white beach on which it sits, provides truly delightful accommodation, with each suite differing from the next. Service is beyond impeccable and rooms come complete with a golf buggy to get around the 400 acres of resort.
Seagrape Terrace is the place to dine alfresco at breakfast, but take your lunch on the beach where there’s a BBQ of jerk meat and fish. For dinner try the Sugar Mill at the foot of Half Moon’s famous golf course.
This restaurant is the best place I’ve dined on the island, with perhaps the exception of my auntie’s house – well, she’s a professional chef, after all!
My mum and I kicked things off at Sugar Mill with wickedly strong rum cocktails – there are no small measures here. The coconut-fried shrimp starter was so good I refused to share, while the sizzling wagyu steaks were perfectly accompanied by inventive jerk peppercorn sauce.
To top off the evening we devoured coffee and chocolate puddings, coffee and petit fours. In a blissful food and rum induced coma we lazily wandered back over to the Seagrape Terrace, where guests had gathered for a musical nightcap with a local singer.
As we wondered back along the beach to our cottage the familiar lyrics travelled to us on the light wind, ‘Good friends we had, good friends we lost…’
It’s impossible to describe Jamaica without mentioning the food. Despite being a poor and often corrupt country, poverty is an unheard of concept. The island is rich in nutrition and local cuisine includes plenty of fresh seafood.
An island speciality is jerk chicken which is available everywhere and utterly delicious. Curried goat or soup with doughy dumplings are popular choices, while ackee (the national fruit) is served with saltfish for the Jamaica’s breakfast of champions. Then there’s all the fresh, flavoursome fruit on offer such as mangos, papayas, coconuts, breadfruit and bananas.
The island is home to plenty of top eateries, in particular The Houseboat Grill, which floats on the calm waters of the Montego Bay Marine Park Fish Sanctuary.
Book a table on the upper deck and eat fresh fish under the stars for an intimate evening you’ll never forget. Make sure you lean over the edge and check out the luminous jellyfish too – you won’t believe how big they get here!
Perhaps it’s this heavy cuisine that decides a fuller figure be favoured by women in Jamaica. My auntie’s helper, Shauna, looks pleased on the last day of my stay and ‘compliments’ me on how much fatter I am upon leaving.
I’m appalled at her rudeness, until my auntie explains that it’s very kind to tell a woman she’s fat; it’s not desirable to be skinny in Jamaica. Could this place get any better?
Locals are as partial to a drink as they are to a meal. The local rum is the island’s favourite but Red Stripe beer is sold everywhere as well as Jack Daniels. With its colourful streets, lively markets and plentiful bars, Mo Bay has a vibrant nightlife.
Head to the ‘hip strip’ and check out Margaritaville for the best margaritas on the island or Sundaze is a popular choice for hip swinging music.
Jamaican’s sure know how to party, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained during daylight hours too. At Half Moon you can ride horseback down the beach and even swim with the horse in the ocean, before a round of golf at the world famous golf course.
If you’re staying for a couple of weeks, spend a night or two in the legendary Blue Mountains, where the best coffee in the world is grown.
A boat trip down the Black River proves pretty terrifying when the guides reach out and actually touch the ‘friendly’ crocs! Go water rafting down still rivers, snorkel the coral reefs or visit Jamaica’s legendary white witch’s home at Rosehall Great House.
On my eighth day in Jamaica, I felt brave enough to visit Dunns River Falls. This may not sound courageous, but in Jamaica you don’t just look at waterfalls; you climb them! I was mollified slightly when a gaggle of small Jamaican children galloped barefoot up the waterfall in front of me.
Climbing Dunns was one of the most amazing things I’ve done and not a moment I will forget quickly – not least for throbbing in my legs! The rainforest was so captivating that I was constantly reprimanded by the guides for not looking where I was going.
Another day trip worth booking is Chukka Caribbean Adventures. There are a few of these on the island, but we headed inland to Falmouth, in the Trelawny parish. Check what days the cruise ships arrive and avoid going then as it can get busy!
We went on a Tuesday and pretty much had the place to ourselves. Rum tasting in the barn is best left to the adults (and preferably done on the way out – trust us!) but zip lining through the rainforest canopy is a rush that will excite all ages.
Then hop on a dune buggy and hurl through the citrus fields at full speed! We stopped for a quick lunch at the buffet (a feast of jerk chicken, cabbage, rice and peas with a deep fried ‘festival’ and plenty of spicy sauce all washed down with a refreshing fruit punch) before grabbing a bottle of Red Stripe and floating down the Martha Brae river on an inflatable ring.
It was at Chukka that I learnt about the Jamaican ‘prove your love’ tree. Many years ago when men were fighting over a woman, the father of the girl would make suitors climb naked to the top of this tree. The tree in question is covered in leaves but has a very spiky trunk.
Whichever chap could knock off the most leaves by shimming down the tree would win the hand of the daughter. Although I wouldn’t like to guess what sort of state the naked men were left in after such an ordeal…
Driving around the island is something of an experience – twisting along the windy, potholed lanes is best done in a 4×4 – but surprisingly enjoyable. Look out for the open-air buses full of happy children on their way to school, singing songs while the driver orchestrated from his seat.
Also note the houses, which all vary in size and colour and have many storeys piled precariously high! Poorer families build their houses with flat roofs, when they have more money, or their family expands, they build upwards for more space.
Everything is a riot of colour and the country feels alive, in every sense. Whether it’s the roadside reggae, the buzz of the crickets in the grass, the deep croak of tree frogs or the constant fluttering overhead from various birds, it’s an island of sounds!
The thing to bear in mind with Jamaica? It’s a tropical island. Don’t be surprised if your wi-fi cuts out or a sporadic ten-minute rainstorm interrupts your afternoon.
It’s not unusual for people to run late and nothing is too much trouble. There’s no rush here; it’s island pace. Jamaica is perfectly unpolished – a diamond in the rough – and that’s the whole point, really.
We stayed in a Royal Hibiscus Suite at Half Moon, from £428 a night, which sleeps up to four.
Address: Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Phone: +1 800-626-0592
TOP TRAVEL TIPS
Pay in Jamaican dollars for the best rate on local purchases, but US dollars are widely accepted.
Go in January for the best hotel deals.
Book Club Mo Bay – the best money you’ll spend! You’ll be greeted off the plane, walked straight passed the 40-minute queue for customs and delivered to an air conditioned lounge where you can eat, drink and freshen up.
It’s also a must for the way back home too – the lounge is far more peaceful than the rest of the airport! Price start from just £21. Contact vipattractions.com/mobay-info