Monday, February 27, 2006

Jammin' away winter in Jamaica

This Caribbean island offers visitors a blend of the familiar and exotic
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 02/26/06

While it looks relatively small on a global map, the Caribbean is a richly diverse area, culturally and geographically.

From tiny islands to the coastal countries of Central America, escapes there can be urban or ecological.

If you must choose just one Caribbean destination for a quick winter getaway, the 4,400-square-mile island country of Jamaica could be just the place.

Thanks to such exports as jerk chicken, Blue Mountain coffee and reggae music, U.S. visitors will find a few familiar features in this otherwise exotic destination.

Because of Jamaica's history as a British colony (the Brits captured it from Spain in 1654 and were in charge until autonomy was granted in 1947), the official language of the country is English, peppered with patois catch phrases such as "No problem, mon."

But be prepared for the rough-and-tumble of the cities. Hustlers and drug dealers often approach tourists. Therefore, many first-time visitors opt for resort stays.

Jamaica's capital is a city of about 700,000. It's a good base of operation if your stay is limited and you want to experience the country's history, cuisine and night life, with a sprinkling of beach activities.

Reggae fans should check out the Bob Marley Museum, situated in a red brick house that served as the Tuff Gong recording studio. It's Kingston's most visited tourist attraction.

Another popular attraction is Devon House, an 1881 mansion furnished with period antiques that provides a glimpse into the island's colonial history. Two of the city's better restaurants, the Grog Shoppe and Norma's on the Terrace, are inside a former carriage house and in the courtyard.

Venture across Kingston Harbor to Port Royal for a tour of a now-sleepy backwater that was once the pirate capital and later the center of British naval authority in the Caribbean.

Montego Bay

MoBay, as it's known locally, is Jamaica's second-largest city (population 120,000) and its resort capital. From budget-conscious tourist hotels to private, upscale resorts, there are accommodations for all size bank accounts.

Downtown has a collection of late-18th- and early 19th-century stone and timber buildings, with the cobblestone-paved Sam Sharpe Square as a focal point.

For recreation, there are several beaches, including Doctor's Cave Beach and Walter Fletcher Beach. Both are home to food courts, cafes, changing areas and facilities for water sports. Reggae parties are regularly scheduled. Three championship golf courses — Half Moon Golf Club, SuperClubs Golf Club and Tryall Club — are just east of Montego Bay near Ironshore.

Guided tours of Montego Bay Marine Park, which stretches along the coast for almost six miles, include coral reefs and mangrove islands. Waterfowl residents include pelicans, egrets and herons, while the tea-colored water is home to barracuda and tarpon.

Restaurants tend to stay open into the wee hours, with music blaring and drinks flowing. The famous Pork Pit features open-air munching on jerk chicken and pork on picnic tables.

Negril, with a population of 4,000, is at the western tip of Jamaica. It has the reputation of being the most laid-back city on the island. There are nude beaches here. But in recent years, it also has developed a notable ecotourism industry.

This is due, in large part, to the Great Morass, a dense mangrove swamp that is a refuge for rare animals and plants including crocodiles.

Negril also is famous for its nightly reggae concerts. Big-name bands perform at MXIII and Roots Bamboo.

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