A Caribbean getaway, our first foray onto the South American continent, many teary farewells, a cosy New Year’s party in Manhattan, our big move back to Asia, re-joining the corporate workforce… and a new exciting – HUGE – project that is now underway.
That sums up our last five months or so in a nutshell. It’s been a whirlwind – thus the radio silence – but we’re grateful for everything that has happened. What an end to 2011, and a momentous kick-off to the new (ok, by now not-so-new) year!
We have no major vacays in the pipelines, but I’m not planning to cease last year’s overarching theme of wanderlust.
And I can’t think of a better destination to get the cogs turning again than spirited Jamaica, which we visited late last year.
Initially, it was difficult to shake off the mental image of a shady, crime-filled city, with people lurking at corners trying to sell you ganja or assaulting the hapless at knifepoint. After all, it was consistently rated as a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.
But there was something extremely alluring about its beauty, sunshine and sea, and most importantly the people. Nowhere else in the Caribbean is the African vibe so predominant. Beyond idyllic sights of swaying palm trees and powder-white sand – some other Caribbean destinations might offer even more in this respect – we wanted to soak in the culture of the people, and there was lots of it, with some spunk and attitude thrown in as well.
So we took precaution, exercised loads of common sense, and were determined to scratch beneath the surface.
Here were some of our favourite activities in Jamaica.
1. Go Cliff Diving
There’s something inspiring about watching lithe and supple Jamaicans scale rocky cliffs and dive dramatically into the crystal-clear waters below.
You’ll feel geared up to try it, or in my case, goad the husband to do it.
A good place to try this is by the famous Rick’s Cafe, also a great place to watch the sunset. Beginners can try mounting lower levels before incrementally demonstrating more bravado.
Note there will be stuntmen touters who expect a tip from their ‘audience’, but you’ll get used to it after a while.
2. Be a Beach Bum, Soak in Reggae at Negril
If you’ve been longing to lounge around on powder-white sand and frolic in the turquoise Caribbean sea, Negril is the place to be.
There are plenty of beach-side bars and cafes to pop into, many blasting Bob Marley music so you can soak up the reggae atmosphere and bob your head to the beat. In or out of the water.
Much of the seven-mile beach hardly offers respite from the tourist hustle and bustle, but some will enjoy the fun and vibrancy of the place. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, take a romantic stroll down to the south-westernmost tip where there are usually more Jamaicans than tourists.
3. Ride a Horse into the Sea
It is the dream of many to ride a horse by the pristine shoreline fringed by gently lapping waves. Honeymooners in particular will find this very romantic.
In Jamaica (and many Caribbean destinations) you can go horse-back riding through lush plantations, by the beach and if you’re up to it, right into the sea.
4. Visit the Coolest Bar in the World
It’s called the Pelican Bar, opened by fisherman Floyde Forbes. And no, I didn’t bestow on it the ‘coolest bar’ accolade; The Guardian (no less) did it.
To get there, you take a rickety old boat from the beach. And just as you’re wondering where you headed – without a lifevest – you heave a sigh of relief as you spot a wooden shack built on stilts on a sandbank in the middle of the sea.
Pelicans fly around those stilts and, if you’re fortunate as some were just hours before we arrived, see dolphins playing in the distance.
Here, you can chill out over a Red Stripe beer and music, and when hunger sets in order a freshly-caught fried fish or diced lobster over rice.
No frills at all – it’s all very rustic.
5. Eat Jerk Chicken
Jerk is a native Jamaican style of cooking where a hot spice rub – including pimento and Scotch bonnet peppers – is applied over meat that is grilled over hardwood charcoal.
We really liked the flavoursome and juicy jerk chicken served at Scotchies along the north coast, famed for dishing out authentic jerk dishes.
6. See Wild Crocodiles in Black River
Come face to face with wild crocodiles on a safari tour along Black River, Jamaica’s longest navigable river and largest wetland area.
Sightings of endangered saltwater crocodiles are frequent, and we saw two on our trip. It was somewhat thrilling to have these wild creatures gliding towards your boat as the guide made cawing noises to attract them.
7. Get Drunk on Rum
Okay, not necessarily drunk… but that surely got your attention?
Given that the Caribbean is somewhat the epicenter of the world’s rum production, visiting a rum estate is pretty worth it.
In Jamaica, visit the Appleton estate and witness the distillation process of rum.
Of course, the favourite part for most people is the rum sampling of 16 whole varieties of rum (try the rum cream!), and buy bottles at a supposedly good rates at the gift shop.
8. Get to Know the Locals (FAVE!)
If you’re still reading this article, congrats for coming to my absolute favourite part of the trip – going beneath the touristy surface and making a point to interact with the locals.
We wanted to avoid being herded around in tourist buses, and had hired a local driver to take us around each day based on our interests. This was a great decision, because it freed us from stresses of driving in road conditions that were more, well, foolhardy than we were used to, while allowing us the freedom of exploring at our own pace. Our guide also acted as some form of security as people saw we were accompanied by a local at all times.
We were blessed to have established a great rapport with our driver.
When we shared our interest to see how the locals really lived, he took us on our third day to his neighbourhood where we ate with his family and neighbours, played ball with kids, entered little provision shops attached to homes and visited the local markets – hardly an itinerary travellers ask for, he said.
This was hands-down the best part of our trip.
From our interactions, Jamaicans can be so aggressively forthright and blatantly opinionated… but they can be awesomely laid back, passionate and kind all at the same time.
Really, you can like Jamaica for its beauty, reggae, sun, sand and sea… but above all, we loved it for its spirit!