What to Do in Montego Bay and Jamaica’s West Coast

Montego Bay and the west coast of Jamaica attract first-timers to the island, and it’s easy to see why: white-sand beaches, the most glorious sunsets in Jamaica, plush resorts, a wide variety of restaurants, and a lively music scene. But there’s also plenty to see and do in the west coast interior away from Montego Bay: rivers, cenotes, and waterfalls such as the stunning Mayfield Falls.

Negril, Jamaica
Negril, or the “Capital of Casual” as it’s known in Jamaica, is everyone’s favorite getaway, from locals to the visitors who return year after year. The buzz of activity on Seven Mile Beach’s powdery white sands is tempered by the breathtaking, serene views of the West End’s cliffs towering over the Caribbean. Lots of bars, hotels, and restaurants line Seven Mile Beach, and local eateries and smaller boutique resorts are perched up on the cliffs. While there’s more hustle and bustle and throngs of tourists on this end of Jamaica, the region still offers many secluded spots and unique experiences.

Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica
Watching the sun set on Jamaica‘s west coast is a bona fide activity. The island’s red skies are a sight to behold. I have yet to experience a better Caribbean sunset than in Jamaica. From Montego Bay all the way to Negril--famous for having the best--to Whitehouse, get your camera and Red Stripe ready for the last hours of daylight. You won’t lack for choice of seafront bars or scenic spots--from the trendy Pier One in Montego Bay to the wooden shack watering holes along Negril’s West End cliffs. Wherever you end up, there’s a very good chance you’ll get hooked on this daily sunset viewing routine.
Norman Manley Boulevard, Negril, Jamaica
The west coast of Jamaica doesn’t sleep. If it isn’t some daytime live tunes on the beach, or a street party in the wee hours, it’s the evening live Reggae available in multiple seafront venues. At night, the island takes on a different energy and everyone comes out to enjoy the fresh air and the tunes. Almost every other Jamaican seems to have a natural talent for music. It’s no wonder, then, that there are plenty of local acts to go around, often performing covers of Bob Marley, from MoBay to Negril. Recording artists also show up regularly--from Beenie Man to Beres Hammond. Along the highways and neighborhoods streets are the latest posters, flyers or billboards announcing upcoming live Reggae shows. When in doubt, head to Pier One in Montego Bay, or Alfred’s, Bourbon Beach and Jungle Nightclub in Negril. Better yet, ask the locals, who love their music. The sound of Reggae is never too far off.
Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica
Skip the shops and the hassle along the tourist-packed “Hip Strip” in Montego Bay and instead, catch a taxi ride to the beautiful Half Moon Resort’s Shopping Village. Just 15 minutes by car from MoBay, this outdoor mall with over 25 shops is open to outside visitors and offers original items, from gorgeous local designer summer wear--don’t miss Staysie’s--to local crafts and duty free items. There are two restaurants and an Irish pub on site, for breaks after all your shopping. If you’ve got extra time, head to The Bob Marley Experience theater to watch a free hourly documentary screening on the life of Bob Marley.
Sunset Drive
If you’re looking for a unique fine-dining experience under the stars, away from tourists and with gorgeous night skyline views, look no further than Robbie Joseph’s Seahorse Grill. Tucked on the grounds of the Montego Bay Yacht Club, this restaurant is popular among expats and residents and remains a best-kept secret. Classy yet unpretentious, it offers outdoor, waterfront dock, and terrace seating and “global cuisine with a twist of West Indian flair.” From a juicy steak night—hard to find in Jamaica—to pastas and Jamaican seafood specialties, you’ll be talking about that dinner under the stars for a while to come. The cocktails are pretty fabulous, too. This restaurant is a west coast gem.
Lighthouse Road, West End, Negril ., Jamaica
The Caves, just west of Negril, is aptly named. While the 12 cottages and one villa sit atop honeycombed cliffs, the Blackwell Rum Bar, a private dining venue, and the massage table of the hotel’s Aveda Concept Spa are actually in underground grottos open to the sea. The setup is very Treasure Island, and the flicker of candlelight and the echo of waves off cave walls make it uniquely romantic. Each of the thatch-roofed cottages is as colorful as a paint box, and each gives a sense of being alone at the end of the land. This is one of music mogul Chris Blackwell’s Island Outpost properties, so the vibe at the Jacuzzi, sauna, or salt-water swimming pool is hip but relaxed. Although famed Seven Mile Beach begins almost where the cliffs end, the hotel itself has no beach, which is why a tradition at the Caves is to begin the day by jumping from the cliffs into the usually calm Caribbean below—or at least thinking about it.
Jamaica
Chill out from the sun at the Blue Hole Mineral Spring, a 50-foot deep turquoise natural pool sitting 20 feet below a cave opening. Jump off the cliff edge like the Jamaican divers on site, if you’re feeling brave. Otherwise, head down slowly on the ladder and let go from a closer distance (like I did). There’s a small entrance fee to this park--located about a half-hour drive south of Negril in the town of Brighton--which includes access to an on site bar and restaurant, as well as an outdoor traditional swimming pool. But my guess is you’ll be too tempted by the underground shimmering and therapeutic fresh water.
The hike up the Mayfield River to the waterfall nicknamed the Washing Machine requires walking in the river itself at times, and at one point, swimming through a tunnel. Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by lush fern trees and bamboo. You’ll need water shoes, a swimsuit, and a sense of adventure to take part in this, one of the best ways to see Jamaica‘s verdant interior. The trailhed is an hour’s drive from from Negril, and you’ll find lockers and a small restaurant there. Guides are always on hand to show you the way—you won’t make it without them, they know all the right places to place your foot. (Be generous with your tips—they may be having a great time, but this is their job.) The reward at the end of your hike? Two waterfalls. Swim underneath and feel the refreshing force of nature.
Pier 1’s greatest appeal is its setting: The open-air restaurant and nightclub occupies a pier that extends out into the Caribbean in Montego Bay. By day and into the early evening, the restaurant draws visitors and locals interested in a good meal with a stellar water view. At night, regular parties start late and run into the wee hours of the morning. Skip the noisy chain restaurant-bars down the street and try something more Jamaican, instead.
Whithorn, Jamaica
Aqua Nature Park, a well-maintained and verdant retreat 40 miles east of Negril, offers visitors a chance to take a dip and cool off in the Venture River. The river, which flows through a swimming hole on the property, has small, colorful fish and a cascade. Owner Steven delights in conducting walking tours of his family’s property, and can teach you quite a bit about the Jamaican plants and fruits he grows. (Don’t miss seeing the enormous cotton tree.) A casual restaurant and bar, with some reggae playing in the background, rounds this experience out into a lovely, low-key afternoon escape for couples, families, or anyone looking for a taste of real Jamaica.
John Pringle Drive, Montego Bay, Jamaica
On the still-bucolic site of a former coconut plantation just west of Montego Bay, Round Hill is another of the legendary hotels created in the early 1950s to accommodate wealthy Brits and Americans who were discovering the pleasures of a Jamaican winter. Since then, it has evolved into a thoroughly modern resort that manages to retain its original, exclusive, clublike spirit. In the beginning, Round Hill consisted of a group of shareholders (British playwright Noel Coward was one) who rented out their private villas when they were absent. That’s how it still works, although the celebrity shareholder most mentioned these days is designer Ralph Lauren, who rents neither of his two villas. Along with 27 other villas, which can be divided into 86 suites, there’s the Pineapple House, a seafront block of 36 rooms, all decorated, predominantly white on white, by Lauren. The ambience is quiet luxury, the service is relatively formal (the doorman wears white), and the children among the guests are treated as the heirs and future holiday decision makers that they are. Almost every villa has a story, whether it has to do with Coward, the Kennedys, or How Stella Got Her Groove Back. And Montego Bay, whose city lights can be seen only from the highest villa (#28), is still another world away.
Negril, Jamaica
Hammond’s Bakery sells Jamaica‘s most popular and affordable snack: the patty. And not just any patty but Tastee patties, a brand many Jamaicans claim to be the best. Lines of customers stroll in and out of this bakery for the crusty, thin pastry filled with spiced beef, chicken, cheese, or vegetables. The bakery also sells coco bread and juices. Located in Negril Square, between the beach side and the cliffs, it’s the ideal pitstop while exploring Negril on foot.
Sam Sharpe Square,, Montego Bay, Jamaica
One of the newest and most exciting additions to Montego Bay is the Montego Bay Cultural Centre. Located in the heart of the historic Sam Sharpe Square, in a renovated former civic center, it houses a museum and an art gallery–both are the western branch of Jamaica‘s National Museum and National Art Gallery in Kingston. The center opened last year, in an effort to preserve cultural heritage, and features an informative display of Jamaica’s complete history and timeline, as well as period artifacts from the Taíno days to the slavery period and postmodern Jamaica. The first of the museum’s rotating exhibits was on the Rastafari culture and lasted a year.
A1
Just outside of Montego Bay, in the Ironshore area, you’ll find one of the coolest, little-known beachfront bars and restaurants: Memorabilia Bar & Grill. A favorite haunt of some reggae stars as well as locals and expats, it’s the perfect daytime escape from the crowds, with an on-site seafood restaurant, serving seafood and burgers, as well as cheap drinks (under US$5 for a rum punch). The kicker: there’s a small but gorgeous white sand beach with an eclectic assortment of chairs. You’ll feel a world away from the city yet a ten-minute drive away. There’s even an over-the-water gazebo where you can sip on your cocktail and take in the blissful Caribbean breeze.
Gloucester Avenue
A Google search of beaches in Montego Bay will undoubtedly turn up Jamaica‘s most well-known beach: the often-crowded, white sand Doctor’s Cave Beach Club ($6 pp. entry fee). Although a small stretch, it is indeed hard to resist, with its multicolor umbrellas, clean water, and passing jumbo jets on their way to or from the nearby airport. Come here to mix and mingle or sit back and enjoy some people watching.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River—a float down a three-mile segment of the river on a 30-foot bamboo raft—provides a pleasant hour or so in one of Jamaica’s gorgeous ecosystems. Passengers can slip into the water and swim beside the raft, or look for birds in the lush trees along the river’s banks, or just sit back and be carried along. The staging area is 20 miles away from Montego Bay.
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