Jamaica on a Cruise: 6 Ways to See the Island

There’s a reason why Jamaica is one of the most popular Caribbean cruise destinations: The Caribbean’s largest English-speaking country is also one of its most diverse. A cruise to Jamaica holds the promise of delicious food, adventure and a quiet place to relax. From beaches to Bob Marley, waterfalls to woodcarvings, here are six things to see and do in Jamaica that are guaranteed to wow Caribbean cruisers of all varieties.

For Beach Bums
Beach in Montego Bay

An apple a day might keep the doctor away but saltwater is still the ultimate cure-all, or so Jamaican doctor Alexander McCatty believed. Back in the early 1900s, he and his friends would venture through a now-collapsed cave to take a morning dip in the sea off Montego Bay, which he believed had healing properties. The private club the good doctor established in 1906, now called Doctor’s Cave Bathing Club, has been an institution ever since.

Cruisers may visit the private club by purchasing a day pass, granting access to Montego Bay’s warm waters, mountain views and an oceanfront food court that sells Jamaican patties and tropical-flavored ice cream. Renting an umbrella, hanging out on the sand and indulging in a Red Stripe beachside is practically doctor’s orders.

For Foodies
Jerk Chicken in Montego Bay

Welcome to the one place in the world where referring to something as “jerk” is actually a good thing — as in mouthwatering, gotta-have-it good. Jerk, you see, is Jamaica’s unique brand of barbecue, a centuries-old method of smoking spicily seasoned meat on a grill fashioned from fragrant pimento logs that have been covered with sheets of corrugated metal. The result is pork that’s juicy, chicken that’s fall-off-the-bone tender, and an overall peppery flavor that’s irresistible to most.

While the northeast coastal town of Boston is the official home of jerk, you can quench your craving at roadside shacks and restaurants all over the island. Scotchies (with locations in Montego Bay, just outside Ocho Rios and at the cruise port in Falmouth) is my pick for the best foil-wrapped jerk pork and jerk chicken. Enjoy yours as I do, with some traditional local sides: the slightly sweet fried cornmeal fritter called festival; a slice of hard dough bread (similar to sourdough) bread; or the deep-fried cassava-flour cake, bammy. Wash it all down with a swig of Ting, the local grapefruit soda.

For Thrill Seekers
Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios

No cruise to Jamaica would be complete without scaling a 600-foot-high, naturally occurring staircase, better known as Dunn’s River Falls which is also the island’s most popular attraction. Since opening to the public more than 40 years ago, the spectacular waterfalls in Ocho Rios have beckoned hundreds of thousands of intrepid cruisers to tackle the ascent.

You’ll start your adventure on the beach, where the waterfalls spill into the sea and an expert guide awaits with instructions. With your guide in the lead you’ll form a human chain, holding each other’s hands as you step gingerly on moss-slickened natural steps that have been carved into the mountainside by centuries of gushing water. During the 45-minute climb you’ll plunge down a natural waterslide; marvel at the lush canopy of tropical trees and flowers that shades the cascade; and, of course, stop for numerous, once-in-a-lifetime photo opps.

For Shopaholics
Arts and crafts in Montego Bay

Fellow cruisers, please skip the knitted caps with fake dreadlocks attached. Instead peruse Jamaica’s outstanding array of arts and craft, made with love by artisans all across the island. In Montego Bay, my must-stop shop for authentic souvenirs is the Gallery of West Indian Art. Tucked away in the residential neighborhood of Catherine Hall, about a five-minute drive from the cruise terminal, it’s a trove of local art for the souvenir shopper who wouldn’t dream of buying a “Jamaican Me Crazy” T-shirt.

The tiny gallery’s walls are a colorful, floor-to-ceiling patchwork of original canvases by established and emerging artists from Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean nations. But GWIA’s signature product is its “spotties:” carved wooden animals that are hand-painted in sun-drenched hues and then stippled with white polka dots of acrylic paint. Think whimsical and distinctive.

For History Buffs
The Calendar House in Montego Bay

At just 4’ 11” tall, Annie Palmer was both diminutive and deadly. Jamaica’s infamous White Witch of Rose Hall murdered all three of her husbands and her slave lovers, and cruisers with a taste for the macabre can visit the scene of the crimes on a 30-minute guided tour of the stately — and reputedly haunted — Montego Bay mansion she called home.

The 18th-century “calendar house” (named for its 365 windows, 12 bedrooms and 52 doors) presides over a rolling 6,600-acre hillside estate just outside Montego Bay. The two-story property is a colonial-era throwback, complete with toile-covered walls; antique furniture; bulletwood beams; and a coral stone dungeon where the lady of the house would torture her slaves. Climb creaking, mahogany stairs to the upper level to see the bedrooms where, as the guides say, “all the loving and the killing took place.” (Annie’s modus operandi ranged from pouring hot oil into the ears of one husband to adding arsenic to the coffee of another.)

The tour ends where Annie met hers — the shaded tomb where she now lies. Your guide just might treat you to a few bars of the “Ballad of Annie Palmer,” written by Johnny Cash, a frequent Jamaica visitor, about the murderous mistress.

For Music Nerds
Playing reggae music in Ocho Rios

A cruise to Jamaica without Bob Marley as the soundtrack is like eating a PB&J minus the jelly or sitting down to a rum and coke without the rum. It just doesn’t make sense, which is why reggae heads will appreciate the Zion Bus Line tour to Bob’s hometown and final resting place in Jamaica’s “garden parish” of St. Ann.

From the cruise terminal in Ocho Rios, you’ll board a colorful country bus and make your way uphill along winding roads to the village of Nine Mile, reggae blasting all the way. Your guide will share insider intel about the reggae king (his father was a 50-year-old Englishman; his mother an 18-year-old local girl) but it’s when you finally reach Bob’s childhood home that things really start, ahem, Jammin.’ You’ll walk through the quaint museum where some of his awards and one of his guitars are displayed, and see the tiny two-room house Bob called home. You’ll take off your shoes and walk through two mausoleums: the first belonging to his mother, the second Bob’s, filled with memorabilia and notes left by the legions of fans who visit annually. You can leave your own tribute to the “natural mystic” who gave voice to a nation and reggae to the world.

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