Nonstop: Jamaica in winter – or anytime

For The Baltimore Sun
What to do in Jamaica in winter

Nonstop: One in a series of occasional articles exploring destinations easily reached from BWI-Marshall Airport.

Yes, there are gorgeous sugar sand beaches, fabulous resorts and year-round temperatures that average about 80 degrees, but Jamaica is so much more than just another sun-filled Caribbean beach destination.

Just 200 miles south of Miami, Jamaica offers a diverse cultural experience unlike that on any other nearby island. Its breezy reggae music scene launched the likes of Bob Marley and Grace Jones, and its people are renowned for their laid-back "don't worry, be happy" attitude.

But Jamaicans represent a hybrid culture evolved from a complex history of slavery and servitude dating to British rule beginning in the mid-1600s. Slaves worked the plantations as the island prospered from the production of sugar and coffee. The slaves were emancipated in the 1800s, replaced by Chinese and Indian indentured servants.

The rise of the People's National Party led to decolonization, with Jamaica ultimately winning its independence in 1962.

So it's no surprise that Jamaicans today claim a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, the island's 4,044-square-mile landscape is a geographically diverse playground for adventure-seekers.

There are lush tropical rain forests in which to hike and, perhaps, meet with a shaman to learn about bush medicine. Hike mountain trails to peaks above 7,000 feet, climb waterfalls, explore caves and frolic on natural water slides. The island is home to some of the West Indies' most idyllic white and black sand beaches.

Jamaica's cuisine is a fusion of locally cultivated ingredients prepared in ways that reflect its African and Indian influences. The resort areas are filled with chefs turning out imaginative translations of traditional fare. Make a point of stopping at one of the island's many "jerk huts" to enjoy bona fide jerk chicken and pork, along with everyday favorites such as goat curry, oxtail soup and meat patties.

Escaping to Jamaica in January and February is ideal. While some travelers caution against visiting in the high season, it is when the country is abuzz with the most vibrant festivals and events.

Getting there

From BWI-Marshall Airport, Southwest Airlines operates two daily nonstop flights to Montego Bay, Jamaica's second-largest city. Once the original settlement site of the Spaniards, today the city hosts the island's largest concentration of tourist accommodations, inspiring a plethora of fine dining options, nightlife, independent tour operators and a sprawling craft market, with 15 miles of beachfront. While the resorts have privatized many of the area's most beautiful beaches, locals and day-trippers swear by Doctor's Cave and Dead End Beach. (montego-bay-jamaica.com)

Where to go

Jamaica is composed of 14 parishes, each containing diverse towns, villages, beaches, jungles, farms and mountains. Montego Bay is in the Parish of St. James.

Ocho Rios: Less than two hours east along the island's north coast is Ocho Rios. Formerly a fishing village, it has evolved into a bustling resort region and a popular port for cruise lines. Nearby are some of Jamaica's most famous attractions, including the Bob Marley Museum and Dunn's River Falls. (visitjamaica.com/explore-the-island/ocho-rios)

Negril: Famed for its Seven Mile Beach, Negril is one of Jamaica's most popular destinations for families, honeymooners and the party crowd. The beach, considered by many to be Jamaica's most beautiful, is packed with all-inclusive resorts, water-sport concessions, destination wedding venues and rollicking beach bars. (negril.com)

Port Antonio: One of Jamaica's newer destinations for travelers is Port Antonio, the capital of the Portland Parish, on the northeastern coast. Revered for its eco-treasures — jungles, three major waterfalls, deserted beaches — the country's main banana port also has an esteemed artist colony. (portantoniojamaica.com)

Port Royal: The skinny peninsula of Port Royal in Kingston Bay was once a hub for the pirates who roamed the Caribbean in the 17th century. This den of vice and ill repute was also an important trading port. On June 7, 1692, an earthquake and tsunami washed away the city, a disaster termed "God's Punishment" by clergy. Now a protected heritage site, many relics are preserved underwater just offshore, and excavation efforts are underway.

Kingston: Jamaica's largest city lies about 16 miles from Port Royal, in the shadow of the spectacular Blue Mountains. While once visitors often were advised to avoid the city because of crime, excursions to see its nightlife and culture are becoming more popular. The Institute of Jamaica features a fascinating collection of museums featuring works by prominent local artists. While in town, check out 689, the newest restaurant of Brian Lumley, Jamaica's celebrity chef and once private chef to the ambassador of France.

Treasure Beach: Often called Jamaica's desert coast because of the sparse rainfall, remote Treasure Beach, on the island's south side in St. Elizabeth Parish, is well worth the harrowing drive on curving roads. This six-mile string of private coves, quiet beaches and sleepy fishing villages reflects the island's unadulterated beauty. It's also worth trekking up into the hills to spend an afternoon at YS Falls. The falls are actually seven tiers with some that cascade into natural pools perfect for a tropical swim.

What to do

Culture

•For an insider experience, the Jamaica Tourism Board's "Meet The People" program pairs visitors with a local with whom they share a common interest or profession and join in an array of activities, including cooking, painting, hiking, shopping for local textiles or visiting a school. (visitjamaica.com/feel-the-vibe/people/meet-the-people-program).

•Visit Boston Beach, the birthplace of jerk cooking, where friendly proprietors line the oceanfront. While there, check out the Fairy Hill Paper Factory, a papermaking operation created to provide employment for local women, where visitors can make their own notecards.

•Don't bypass the currency exchange kiosk in the corner of Montego Bay's Sam Sharpe Square. This circa-1822 brick and stone building, known as The Cage, was once a holding cell for unruly types.

Eco-activities

•Jamaica's Blue Hole is a spectacular waterfall and natural pools about 45 minutes into the mountains from Ocho Rios. It's almost impossible to find on your own because getting there requires an uphill trek through the rain forest, so it's best to book a guide. It's so authentic that there's no dedicated website.

•What makes the Luminous Lagoon, about 24 miles from Montego Bay, glow iridescent green-blue at night? Scientists say microorganisms called dinoflagellates glisten when shifted by movement, reflecting the outline of fish and everything else swimming around. Boats filled with tourists are trailed by gleaming water streams.

•Although just 21 miles from Montego Bay, Mayfield Falls is a world away from bustling beaches and city life, providing an alternative to touristy Dunn's River Falls. The largest fall is called the Washing Machine. A bamboo stairway leads to a wooden bridge that lands in a traditional Rasta village, where locals serve native dishes and fresh juices. Nearby are the beautiful falls, mineral pools and natural whirlpool baths. (mayfieldfalls.com)

Lodging

Jamaica has some of the most beautiful and wide-ranging accommodations in the Caribbean. There are resorts offering suites and private cottages with celebrity chefs preparing five-star meals; all-inclusive resorts with an endless array of activities and pools; and mountain guest houses, to name just a few. It's a good idea to check reviews online at websites like TripAdvisor.com before booking.

•The family-friendly Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall and its adults-only sister property Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall recently reopened after major renovations. Billing itself as a "six-star" property, the Montego Bay resort offers more than 500 rooms, a slew of fine-dining establishments, dramatic cascading pools and beach butler services. (rosehall.ziva.hyatt.com)

•Many of the rooms at the secluded Rockhouse Hotel sit upon their own private bluffs, where guests can reach the beach via a ladder from their bungalow. Amenities include a 60-foot infinity pool, watersports, a daily yoga class and a program that provides guests the opportunity to volunteer in the local community. (rockhousehotel.com)

Dining

While the establishments of Jamaica's celebrity chefs and big-name resorts may be better known among tourists, there are many options to sample authentic cuisine, ranging from jerk shacks to outdoor barbecues.

•If you are after jerk cuisine, check out the open-air setting at Scotchie's in Montego Bay, where your meal is cooked in a genuine jerk pit. It's fun to dine at the bar; old beer kegs take the place of bar stools.

•Let your nose, not your eyes, lead you to the Pork Pit Bar & Grill in Montego Bay. The aroma alone makes up for the dilapidated location. Once inside, order at the bar — jerk chicken, fish, shrimp and pork accompanied by corn, sweet potato and greens — and take a seat at one of the gritty picnic tables surrounding the cooking pit to sip a Red Stripe or Ting (Jamaican grapefruit soda).

•3 Dives Restaurant on West End Road in Negril is a little-known treasure overlooking limestone cliffs where locals make a show of free-diving into the sea. Arrive before dusk for spectacular sunset views and order garlic lobster served with callaloo, rice and peas.

•Zimbali Retreat, 20 miles up in the mountains outside Negril, is an organic farm that grows most of the food it serves. A pricey package tour includes the farm tour and three or four courses featuring Rastafarian recipes on an open grill. Ask to sample the coconut sushi. (zimbali-retreats.com)

• If you're really brave, you'll try the house specialty, Goats Head Soup, at Miss T's Kitchen in Ocho Rios. Other standouts at this pretty eatery set in an outdoor garden are Shrimp Rundown, in a sweet coconut sauce, and a roti wrap, flatbread stuffed with curried goat, plantain strips and sweet Jamaican slaw. Main Street. (misstskitchen.com)

•Don't leave Jamaica without having a roast yam at Yammy's, a roadside shack in an unassuming part of the town of Falmouth. Top it off with a scoop of curry-coconut ice cream.

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If you go: Safety in Jamaica

While many travelers have good vacation experiences in Jamaica, safety can be a concern. The U.S. State Department warns that "crime, including violent crime, is a serious problem particularly in Kingston, Montego Bay and other major tourist areas." The agency says theft is a particular concern for tourists and recommends avoiding inner cities, remote villages and public buses, which are frequent venues for crime. Some travelers have reported being robbed inside their hotel rooms while they slept. As with any international travel, check the State Department's website before traveling. For more information on Jamaica, go to visitjamaica.com.

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