When one thinks of a Jamaican vacation, Bob Marley, jerk chicken and idyllic beaches may come to mind. But there's much more to Jamaica than just spicy food and a good reggae beat. It is a country of proud people with serene hilltops and a myriad of vacation options, from the adventurous to the slow-paced.
While Negril and Montego Bay are well-known tourist locations, the northeastern parish of Port Antonio is a relatively underdeveloped, sleepy seaport just 60 miles northeast of Kingston.
If you are looking for a mix of a beautiful beach, some peace and the option of a nightlife, Negril might be your best bet. When you read suggestions of the world's best beaches, Negril's seven-mile beach will often land on the list, and for good reason. Miles of powdery white sand and calm, aqua blue water stretch as far as the eye can see.
If you prefer views over beaches, staying on the west end in the cliffs is ideal.
But, to be right on the beach and in the midst of all the fun, try a small boutique hotel, like The Palms Resort. Owned by Washington, D.C., native Kristyl Nelson-Vickers, the Palms mixes serenity with prime location.
What particularly sets the Palms apart is that it is run completely on solar energy and is in the process of becoming "green globe certified," which means conserving energy and fewer pollutants for hotel guests.
Grab a seat at Kristyl's Restaurant in the morning for some ackee and saltfish, or enjoy jazz on Sundays and a meal right on the beach. Don't forget the rum punch; you are in Jamaica, after all.
To enjoy cuisine beyond your hotel, something as simple as stepping out on the road will lead you to a variety of choices. Fuming pits burning wood chips emit flavorful spices. The portions are large, and the flavor is even larger at many roadside food stops.
National dishes like oxtails, brown stewed chicken and, of course, jerk chicken abound in Negril, but a quick cab ride into town will lead you to Sweet Spice, and the ride is definitely worth it.
The meal starts with a spicy chicken soup to prepare your palate and open your taste buds. Most meals are under $10 and provide more than enough food to take back to the hotel for a late night snack. Brown stewed chicken falls off the bone, and a bountiful side of rice and peas completes the meal.
For an exceptional meal with the most breathtaking views, head straight to Ivan's Bar at the Catcha Falling Star hotel on the western end of Negril. Here, it is possible to feel like you are sitting on the edge of the world, as you watch the sun sink into a burnt orange-and-pink sky.
For another national treat, head to Niah's Patties on the seven-mile beach. Patties are never hard to find in Jamaica, but the dedication and care put behind it at Niah's Patties may be. A German woman named Nikki works out of a small wooden stall alongside a man named Niah, often in sweltering weather, to create her own special take on patties on a wood-burning fire, from Italian (red peppers, cheese and onion) and even to lobster. The flakiness of the patty is owed to kneading the dough by hand as soon as you place your order. It's the perfect to-go snack to take on the beach and wash down with a Red Stripe or ice cold Ting.
And what about the best jerk chicken in Negril? There will perhaps, never be a resolute answer for this, but Bourbon Beach, which does not shy away from the ever-spicy Scotch bonnet sauce, key to any jerk sauce, is definitely worth a try. It's location directly on the beach doesn't hurt either.
Negril is but one of many options for any traveler headed to Jamaica. As you leave and take in the scenery of roadside bars, communal gatherings by the ocean, and the pride of the Rastafari movement, you realize that there is so much more to come back to enjoy, and even more to learn from Jamaica's culture.