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Travel off the beaten path in Jamaica

Travel off the beaten path in Jamaica

Posted by Shanelle Weir on May 14, 2014

Most vacationers flying into Jamaica are booked into one of the resorts lining the island's northern coast. These guests may leave the hotel properties for an excursion or two to iconic sights such as Dunn's River Falls, but many vacationers are content to simply relax by the pool only steps away from the buffet. This is unfortunate, because Jamaica's true charms are found through serendipitous encounters beyond the walls of the large resorts.

It takes an adventurous spirit to experience off-the-beaten-path Jamaica, but the rewards are worth it. Less visited areas like Port Antonio and the south coast have a caught-in-time aspect and present a glimpse of what the Caribbean was like before the advent of mass tourism.

Off-the-beaten-path travel can also encompass interactions with the locals. Jamaica's Meet the People program matches visitors with residents who share a common profession or interest, making it easy to form a quick bond. The Jamaica Tourist Board can make arrangements for visitors to participate in the no-cost Meet the People program.

Over the last few years, the road system in Jamaica has been vastly improved, making it much more feasible to tackle an independent journey. Those who are apprehensive about renting a car and setting off on their own can always hire a driver to get them from Point A to Point B.

Port Antonio

Port Antonio is on the eastern side of Jamaica's north shore, 120 miles from Montego Bay's International Airport. This has isolated "Porti" from mainstream tourism, which many will say is a huge plus for the region. Ask Jamaicans where they go to relax and chances are Port Antonio will be their answer. The pace is slow, the hillside lush and green and the beaches are secluded. There's also a range of hotels that fit a variety of travel budgets, including boutique properties.

Back in the 1930s, before airplanes became the preferred method of travel, Port Antonio was the hottest tourism spot in Jamaica. Yachts owned by the rich and famous set anchor in Port Antonio. The most famous of these early tourists was swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who is still fondly remembered by the residents for his remark, "Port Antonio is more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen." Over the decades, celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton took romantic sojourns in Port Antonio. In the 1970s, as tourism shifted towards Montego Bay, Port Antonio languished; this now gives it an appealing retro ambience.

A visit to Port Antonio can include waterfall hikes, bird watching, swimming in the turquoise ocean, and dining on authentic jerk cooking — many Jamaicans claim the best jerk cooking can be found in the roadside stands along Boston Bay.

Romantic couples will want to book a rafting trip upon the Rio Grande. There's nothing whitewater about the experience. This is a gentle, scenic ride along a river edged with towering trees. The raft only holds two passengers and is guided by an individual raft captain. For an extra boost to the romantic mood, there's also the option for a nighttime trip, when the moon is full.

Over the last several years, Port Antonio has become a music recording hotspot of sorts, with artists like Keith Richards, Bjork, Common and No Doubt recording at Geejam Studio. There's even the option for visitors to book time at the studio and record their own tracks.

Southwestern Jamaica

Those looking for slightly less isolation should consider exploring southwestern Jamaica, just a 90-minute drive from Montego Bay. Jamaica's southwestern coast lacks an international airport, and much like Port Antonio, the region is less accessible to mass tourism. There are several top notch tour operators — including Island Routes Caribbean Adventure Tours and Chukka Caribbean Adventures — that provide a comprehensive one-day experience of the south coast. For an immersive experience, travelers will want to book a few nights in one of the region's hotels.

Major southwestern coast sights include a safari excursion on the Black River, where crocodiles can be observed; a tour of the historic Appleton Rum Estate (including a tasting) and kicking back at YS Falls, where visitors can hurl themselves over a waterfall pool via a Tarzan swing. Be sure to make time for a visit to Treasure Beach, site of Lovers Leap, a 1,600-foot sea cliff where two star-crossed Jamaican slaves leapt to their deaths rather than be separated.

One of Jamaica's most iconic off-the-beaten path destinations is the Pelican Bar. To get there, travelers will have to take a 20-minute boat ride to a ramshackle bar out on the sea, perched on stilts sunk into a sandbar. The owner is Floyd, who will set up visitors with a frosty Red Stripe and some fresh-caught seafood.

Those looking to delve deeper into the attractions of the south coast will want to stay a few nights. A full-on resort experience can be had at the all-inclusive Sandals Whitehouse European Village & Spa. If travelers are looking for a more intimate place to lay their head, they could do no better than Jake's, a beachfront boutique hotel with an appealing hand-crafted ambience. A stand-out at the property is the mosaic tiled sea-water swimming pool. There are 31 thatch roofed accommodations to choose from, including those that resemble traditional modest, tin-roofed Jamaican homes.

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