Jamaica is best known for its palm-fringed coastline dotted with all-inclusive beach resorts, but completion of the island’s new North-South Highway has made it easier to explore the country’s upbeat capital and its surrounding regions. Not only is this city of 600,000 the seat of government, it’s the heart of Jamaica’s music, art and culinary circles. It’s also an excellent base for nature-inspired excursions like trekking through orchid-draped mountains, enjoying tastings at a coffee plantation or chilling out in an urban park.
Visit the country’s finest art collection in downtown Kingston at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Afterwards, view the street murals at 41 Fleet St., part of the Paint Jamaica project that’s transforming the inner city. In New Kingston, stroll Emancipation Park with its reflecting pools, fountains and the striking Redemption Song statue. Then, lunch on smoky jerk chicken at Sweetwood Jerk Joint.
Escape the heat at Devon House, a Georgian-style mansion built in 1881 by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. The former servants’ quarters are now charming cottages housing shops such as Devon House Bakery (try the flaky Jamaican patties) and I-Scream (popular for its creamy stout ice-cream).
Head 30 minutes out of town to Port Royal. By nightfall, the laneways around the town’s dockyards and historic Fort Charles transform into a street party with dancehall music spilling out of bars. For dinner, try curried conch at Gloria’s, followed by nightcaps at the Grand Port Royal Hotel Marina & Spa where the James Bond flick Dr. No was filmed.
Drive 60 minutes to Holywell Park in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. Take a morning hike through a misty landscape of ferns, waterfalls and primary forest 900 metres above sea level. On your winding descent, pull over for a lunch of barrel-roasted chicken and another incredible mountain view at EITS Café, a funky farm-to-table eatery owned by father-daughter duo Michael and Robyn Fox.
In the nearby hamlet of Irish Town, sample celebrated Blue Mountain coffee, and tour the hilltop plantation at Craighton Estate Great House, built in 1805. Cross the road to Strawberry Hill resort, owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and browse memorabilia from the careers of music greats such as Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Marianne Faithfull. Afterwards, head to The Restaurant to sip a Blackwell spiced um punch on the veranda while enjoying an unobstructed view of Kingston.
Upon your return to Kingston, keep the musical vibe going with a stop at Redbones Blues Cafe for mojitos. For two decades, this hideaway on Argyle Road has been the place to soak up live reggae, jazz and blues music. There’s even a dance floor set beneath the canopy of ackee and mango trees, so you can practice your dancehall moves.
Make your way to Fort Clarence Beach, just 30 minutes from Kingston. Popular with locals as a swimming and sunbathing spot, it also features three cook shops serving fried fish, conch soup and fresh lobster—perfect for lunch. Picnic under an ancient almond tree, then float in the turquoise waters.
Explore Kingston’s musical heritage at the Bob Marley Museum inside the late, legendary reggae star’s home on Hope Road. The hour-and-a-half-long tour offers insight into Marley’s family life, his musical success and his Rastafarian beliefs. Afterwards, head to Trench Town Culture Yard in Trench Town, the inner-city tenement that shaped his music, and Tuff Gong International, a recording studio where classics such as “No Woman, No Cry” were recorded.
At sunset, head to Marketplace, a hub of date-night restaurants and pubs where you’ll find Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records sports bar. Watch a cricket match on the giant screen, or take the stage on karaoke Wednesdays. Try the Nine.58—a potent rum punch named for Bolt’s 100-metre world record—and a Jamaican specialty such as escovitch fish.
Where to stay
This luxurious, yet charming collection of white cottages and villas in the Blue Mountains overlooks Kingston. Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell’s collection of music memorabilia, a cliffside infinity pool, spa and dreamy four-poster beds make for a stylish stay. (strawberryhillhotel.com)
Choose between harbour or mountain views at this hotel overlooking Emancipation Park in New Kingston. Enjoy complimentary breakfast (Jamaican dishes such as sautéed callaloo) on the poolside terrace or sprawl out in a spacious suite with living room and kitchenette. (courtleigh.com)