From the guest rooms of The Courtleigh Hotel & Suites in Kingston, you can catch a beautiful view of the setting sun bathing the city’s rooftops gold while the Blue Mountains fill the horizon. It’s a surprisingly picturesque scene for this city of about 660,000 that has, historically, been cited more often for its crime statistics than its scenery.
But that’s all changing. Jamaica’s capital is no longer just a stop on the way to the beach. Crime rates are down and visitor numbers are up, as is investment in Kingston’s infrastructure. A new revitalization plan for Downtown Kingston is intended to rehabilitate blighted areas and attract residents, businesses and tourists.
While improvements will continue for years, transformation is already well underway in the city through grassroots projects such as Life Yard, an urban farm and restaurant celebrating Rastafarian culture and promoting social change. A few years ago, a farm-to-table vegan restaurant would have been unexpected in Parade Gardens, one of the city’s grittiest neighbourhoods. Today, a graffiti mural of a Rastafari lion welcomes people to Life Yard, and visitors can enjoy dishes like sweet potato pudding in the open-air restaurant or take one of Life Yard’s tours of the murals at 41 Fleet Street. Created by Paint Jamaica, these murals are part of a street-art movement promoting community pride and literacy.
While music has always been a defining element of Kingston’s culture, the city was designated a Creative City of Music by UNESCO in late 2015 in recognition of the important role reggae, ska, dance hall and rocksteady have played in shaping the city’s economic, political and cultural identity.
There are plenty of spots to pay homage to Kingston’s greatest musicians, including the new Peter Tosh Museum. As a founding member of the Wailers and a successful solo artist, Tosh is a reggae legend, and the museum celebrates his life with a small collection of musical and personal memorabilia. The museum also hosts special events that feature up-and-coming musicians such as Tosh’s granddaughter, Jahzarah Tosh.
To get a glimpse of Kingston’s more classic musical history, a visit to the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road is a must. Here, you’ll see where the legendary reggae star lived and recorded hits until his death in 1981. Platinum albums line the walls, yet his sleeping quarters are spartan with just Rastafari religious objects and a guitar. More musical inspiration awaits at Trench Town Culture Yard, located on the site of a government housing project developed in the 1940s that drew impoverished rural families to Kingston and produced some of Jamaica’s most talented musicians, including Marley, Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Today, the home where reggae classics such as “No Woman, No Cry” were composed is a Protected National Heritage Site.
Evidence of Kingston’s evolution can also be found in the infrastructure changes that are slowly starting to take shape across the city. The most highly anticipated new developments are centered around Kingston’s waterfront—the new Victoria Pier, which sat unoccupied and unused for nearly two decades, has received a makeover and reopened late last year with restaurants, outdoor entertainment and an art gallery.
Not far from the waterfront, the sprawling Coronation Market—a fascinating mix of farmers’ market, swap meet and food court—is another one of the areas targeted for restoration. Brimming with vendors hawking fresh fish, herbal remedies and tropical fruit, the market is surrounded by 19th-century buildings, many with fine Victorian latticework that is faded and crumbling. Revitalization plans include restoring these buildings back to their former grandeur and upgrading vendor facilities while keeping the district’s dynamic spirit—an encouraging sign of the potential that awaits in Downtown Kingston.
Three Stops Along Kingston’s Blue Mountain Culinary Trail
The nearby Blue and John Crow Mountains are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to their rich biodiversity and history. They’re also home to a new culinary trail. Here are some top spots.
Sample celebrated Blue Mountain coffee at this seed-to-cup cafe. Pair your java (grown on Cafe Blue’s own estate) with a slice of Espresso Cappuccino Cheesecake or Jamaican bread pudding.
Book well in advance for the popular Sunday Brunch at this luxury resort owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Breezy views of the infinity pool and Kingston are complemented by contemporary Jamaican dishes such as escovitch prawns.
Perched on the edge of a misty valley, this hippie-chic restaurant offers incredible views and European twists on classic Jamaican dishes such as janga (crayfish) soup.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Kingston, Jamaica, twice a week from Toronto.