The Best of Ocho Rios and Jamaica’s North

Ocho Rios and Jamaica’s north coast offer lagoons, bays, rivers, and waterfalls—and even a drive through a lush fern gorge. Thanks to its resorts and nearby water parks, the Ocho Rios region is popular with families; this part of Jamaica has plenty of outdoor adventures, too. Honeymooners also find their bliss here among luxurious boutique escapes such as GoldenEye and Jamaica Inn.

A3, Tower Isle, Jamaica
I’m not usually an all-inclusive-hotel fan. I like the intimacy of an inn or a boutique hotel. I can really appreciate when some of the larger hotels pay attention to details and style that makes for intimacy in a more mass market setting. Couples Tower Isle in Ocho Rios is such a success story. “All inclusive and style?” you question……..yes, the perfect couple here! The rooms include fabulous vintage styled rattan furniture and their vignettes in their main lobby area in particular are wonderful and indicative of this new breed of large hotel. Pops of colour, cozy corners and modern artwork were among my favourites………..Oh and the porridge as well at the breakfast buffet!
Race Course, Oracabessa, Jamaica
Goldeneye, to be clear, is not an easy place to leave. The land—the former home of Ian Fleming, where he wrote each of the 14 James Bond thrillers that would cement his place in literary and cinematic history—sits next to the tiny town of Oracabessa, on the northern coast. A warm, blue-green lagoon curls from the ocean around a small island and then lets out into a bay. You can look one direction and see a jungle, then turn around and see pristine white sand.

Blackwell bought the property in 1976 as a vacation home and a space to entertain family and friends but later he decided to transform it. In 2016, Goldeneye debuted a jumble of new huts, arranged around a small cove, a short walk from Fleming’s house and the resort’s original villas. The huts vary in height, designed to capture cooling breezes and allow guests to forgo air conditioning. And, crucially, they’re much cheaper to book than the Villas. Which is key because, up until this point, if you wanted to plan a visit to Goldeneye, you needed to either know Blackwell personally or have the excess capital to shell out potentially five figures on a vacation. (Part of the resort’s enduring gravitational pull is that many of the celebrity guests check both boxes.) With the beach huts, Blackwell has expanded, once again, the ambition of his famous resort.
Discovery Bay, Jamaica
Directly off the northern highway is Columbus Park, overlooking the scenic harbor at Discovery Bay, where Columbus was thought to have first anchored—although recent indications are that he sailed there from St. Ann’s Bay. The park is the only open-air museum in Jamaica, displaying artifacts dating back to Arawak times. Take in the glorious views, ideal for a photo op, and step back into a slice of Jamaica’s history.
Main Highway, A1, Falmouth, Jamaica
Adventurous souls should plan on a moonlit dip in the bioluminescent Glistening Waters, also known as Luminous Lagoon. Boats leave from a marina, located an hour north of Montego Bay, on scheduled night tours. As your tour boat speeds out into the dark of night, you’ll spot fluorescent blue streaks in its wake—bioluminescence that’s created when living microorganisms (in this case, dinoflagellates) are disturbed. You can jump in for a swim, too, and glow in the dark as you splash about. It’s an amazing phenomenon to witness, and it’s said to exist in only five lagoons or bays in the world. Back at the marina, the Glistening Waters restaurant offers beautiful views, as well as pre-cruise drinks and food.
A3, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
One of the most romantic drives in Jamaica takes you just outside Ocho Rios and onto the A3 highway, through “Fern Gully": a stunning three-mile gorge surrounded by sky-scraping, 30-foot fern trees. You’ll feel as if you’re on a completely different island as you pass through this natural, green tunnel, once a riverbed. Pull off to the side where possible to stop and take in the views, and even a walk. Because this is a road often taken by visitors and is one of Jamaica’s natural wonders, there are vendors lining up the road, but not so many that it spoils the view. Keep an eye on the road at all times—there might be a man on leaf-adorned stilts appearing before you. Never a dull moment in Jamaica.
Runaway Bay, Jamaica
A stone’s throw from the gated all-inclusive resorts in the Runaway Bay area is a public beach known as “Flavours,” named after the on site restaurant and bar. This beach has a lovely laid back vibe and is perfectly safe. Neighboring residents, families and those on a highway pit stop come here to relax during the day. Beware of the occasional hustler trying to sell you “ganja” and just politely refuse. Aside from a beautiful, long white sand beach, there are picnic benches and shaded seating areas where you can mingle and watch the world go by. Sample some authentic jerk and other local dishes from the restaurant and shoot the breeze while you soak up an authentic Jamaican beach town scene.
Port Maria, Jamaica
Port Maria offers a glimpse of Jamaica’s colonial past, and is one of the most scenic towns on the north coast. The area is believed to have been one of the first Taino settlements, before it was established by Spanish settlers who gave it much of its still-standing colonial era architecture. It’s a contrast of the old—with centuries old architecture—and the new, with bustling local activity. Architecture buffs will enjoy a slow drive along the coast to admire ancient buildings like the 1861 St. Mary Parish Church, towering over a postcard-perfect bay and winding coastline. There isn’t much to do here, but it’s worth passing through for a sense of Jamaica‘s past. And for the scenery, of course.
Mystic Mountain is one of the most fun and relatively new attractions in Jamaica for both adults and adventurous kids. It’s hard to say what’s more exhilarating: the gorgeous rain-forest backdrop and mountain views, or the roller coaster–like bobsled ride that takes you along winding tracks while you scream your lungs out. If that’s still not enough, hop on the Sky Explorer—a chairlift that will carry you slowly above the canopy, at 700 feet high, for breathtaking views of the entire Ocho Rios area and even adjacent Dunn’s River Falls. Or get your bathing suit on and hop inside the steel waterslide that will dump you into an infinity-edge pool overlooking Ocho Rios’s stunning bay below.
Thatch Hill Rd, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
With a 20-foot waterfall, a deep turquoise pool, and underwater caves, the Irie Blue Hole is a special find. You’ll need to hire a guide in nearby Ocho Rios to bring you up the mountain to explore this off-the-beaten-track place, but it’s one of Jamaica’s most stunning swimming holes. The lush setting, surging blue waters, and options for cliff-jumping will keep you there for hours. This gorgeous blue hole is now attracting more visitors, but it never feels too crowded. Yet!
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
If you’re looking for a break from the beach and the noise, head to Konoko Falls Park (formerly known as Coyaba River Garden) for a quiet picnic, swim, and nature walk through beautifully manicured gardens. The Mahoe tiered waterfalls—a smaller, just-as-picturesque version of Dunn’s River Falls but rarely crowded—cascade through the park, and an on-site museum showcases the history of Jamaica’s first inhabitants, the Taino. The park offers gorgeous views of Ocho Rios’s bay below. Climbing and swimming in the falls, at your own pace, is great fun.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Go tubing on the White River with Ocho Rios Jamaica Tours and cool off in one of Jamaica’s most picturesque bodies of water. The jade colors of White River, dotted with fishing boats along its banks, rocks, and leafy banks, make it an ideal choice for shutterbugs and nature lovers. Combine your tube float with a stop at Irie Blue Hole, for a fun leap into the river-fed sinkhole.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Jamaica’s most touristy site—famous for being featured in the James Bond movie Dr. No.—is also one of its most beautiful, in spite of the countless bodies that visit and attempt the climb daily, both locals and tourists. The view of the falls is spectacular. And call it cheesy, but it’s actually fun trying to ascend stone steps while being splashed by 600-foot-high powerful falls that cascade down into a jade pool. Grab a licensed guide on-site if you need one, otherwise latch on to one of the human chains you’ll spot when you arrive. The falls are just a stone’s throw from Ocho Rios, so any route or shared taxi will make a stop here for a few bucks.
Main Street, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Opened in 1950, the Jamaica Inn is one of the oldest and most gracefully aged of the classic Jamaica luxury resorts. It sits on its own private beach, which is rare in Jamaica, and each of the 52 suites and cottages has a Caribbean view. It is a timeless place, which may be why there are no TVs, radios, or clocks in the rooms, with a quiet serenity about it that may have been the appeal to such guests as Marilyn Monroe, Ian Fleming, and Katharine Hepburn. The grounds are immaculately kept, and the dining is as romantic as starlight and live music can make it. But the standout feature is that each suite has an oversize covered veranda that guests could literally live on. On it, they’ll find a full-size sofa, wingchair, breakfast table, coffee table, and, should one want to write home about it, writing desk.
The newly reopened and family-run Irie River Park is a stunning 103 acres of rainforest, flowers, and gardens with pimento and ackee trees, through which a jade river and small waterfall flow. It’s a dreamy spot for a daytime swim and picnic (US$10 entry), away from the tourist crowds yet a five-minute drive uphill from the main road in downtown Ocho Rios.
CRJQ+52C, Greenwich Park, Jamaica
Located in the town of Ocho Rios, Mammee Bay Beach is a sight for sore eyes—wide and spacious with powdery white sand and electric blue water. Even though half of this beach is private for guests of the gigantic RIU Resort, the other half is accessible to the public. Drive over to Bamboo Blu Restaurant (30 Beach Road), where you can park your car and enjoy the beach with a meal or some cocktails.
Jamaica’s interior beauty includes several botanical gardens. Shaw Park, located in Ocho Rios’ surrounding hillside at up to 800 feet above sea level, is a great stop for families, with a large waterfall cascading through, gorgeous flower gardens and plenty of picnic space. When you want to get away from the heat and chaos of downtown Ocho Rios, head up to the hills and relax here. It’s a US$10 entrance fee and the park is open during regular business hours.
Mansfield Way
The north coast is home to a handful of beaches that are accessible for a fee and attract cruise ship day-trippers. One of these is the laidback Reggae Beach (US$6 pp.)–a spacious blond stretch that’s worth the short taxi ride. There are restroom facilities, along with a lively bar and grill. While it’s popular, it doesn’t feel cramped and makes for a fun day at the beach. (Image courtesy of Dub Dem Sound System)
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