Wild Jamaica: Exploring the other side of the Caribbean’s famous party island

Hannah Hopkins

12 October 2021

Best known for its rum, music and mystic religion, Jamaica is an enchanted island of dramatic waterfalls, verdant mountains and underground caverns. To experience the country at its most magical, you need to step into the wild 

12 October 2021 | Hannah Hopkins

J

amaica is famous for having a big personality. The Caribbean island with the spicy city culture that’s always ready to party. Rastafarians and reggae. Red Stripe and rum. Usain Bolt and, err, a bobsleigh team. 

What doesn’t get talked about so much, is the natural beauty of the island’s rugged interior. To experience the best of Jamaica, you have to go off-piste and into the hills. Here are the natural wonders no Jamaican schedule should be without...

The Blue Mountains

The misty Blue Mountains, on the eastern side of the island, are the highest peaks in the Caribbean. A large expanse of the mountains is a National Park that's also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2015. Thanks to its undeveloped nature, this verdant paradise is home to diverse flora and fauna that can only be found in Jamaica, as well as natural springs, waterfalls, heritage sites and small villages. The mountains are a fantastic place to kick off a holiday spent exploring the island’s wilder side. On a clear day, you can see as far as Cuba.  

You can hike up the Blue Mountains. Alternatively, you can pay someone to take you to the top and then cycle to the bottom, taking in a tropical rainforest that’s home to hundreds of species of birds, butterflies and blossoming plant life. Along the way, you can stop off at the famous Blue Mountain Coffee plantations. At the Coffee Factory, which has been around for 98 years, you can enjoy coffee tasting under a charming gazebo, while at the Coffee Estate you can arrange a plantation tour and meet locals working on the farms. Blue Mountain Coffee is known for its smooth taste, aromatic flavour and the fact that beans are inspected by hand. 

The Dunn's River Falls and Konoko Falls 

The island’s original Arawak name was Xayamaca, meaning the land of rivers and springs. Dunn’s River Falls are the most famous waterfalls in Jamaica — and are unusual because they’re the only travertine waterfall in the Caribbean, meaning instead of falling at a steep angle, water cascades down a flight of naturally-formed stone steps. They’re also a fun challenge to climb. Around 55 metres high, a brisk 90-minute hike takes you along the travertine terraces — geological formations that look like natural stairs to the top. Along the way, you’ll find small pools in which to relax. Rock shoes are a good idea. So is a waterproof camera.  

For an even more memorable experience, you can visit the falls by boat before starting the climb. This way you get to see Jamaica’s coastline from a totally different perspective and watch the waterfalls flow down into the sea.

Nestled in the hills of St Ann, overlooking Ocho Rios, Konoko Falls are one of the island’s best-kept secrets. As well as the waterfalls, you can explore botanical gardens, a Jamaican artefact museum and a zoo. There’s history, too. Take a guided tour and learn about Jamaica’s ancient inhabitants, the Tainos, who Columbus met when he arrived here at the end of the 15th century. At the nearby White River Valley, you can try your hand at river-tubing. There’s also kayaking and zooming.

The Green Grotto Caves 

The nearby Green Grotto Caves is another must-visit. A geological wonder, you may recognise this labyrinth of underground caverns from the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, in which the caves are used as the backdrop for villain Doctor Kananga's underground lair.

Named after the bright-green algae-covered walls, the Green Grotto Caves were originally used as homes by Jamaica's first inhabitants, the Tano Indians, from around 600AD. Over the centuries they've been used as a hideout for pirates and Spanish refugees, to store vast amounts of rum, and even as a nightclub in the 1990s. 

Visitors can expect to see nine different species of bat inside the caves, as well as unusual rock formations such as tooth-like stalactites and stalagmites and the Grotto Lake – which is filled with tiny fish and other marine life.

Rose Hall Great House

Originally a Georgian plantation house that's now run as a museum, the Rose Hall Great House was built in 1770 and was once the home of the legendary White Witch of Rose Hall, Annie Palmer. Legend has it that Palmer was an accomplished practitioner of Haitian Voodoo and during her reign at Rose Hall murdered three of her husbands and countless slave lovers. Her reign of terror ended when she was murdered by one of her slaves and a ritual was carried out to banish her spirit from earth. Many islanders believe that Annie still haunts the Rose Hall estate. 

Where to stay?

For a memorable stay in Jamaica, check into the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay, one of the Caribbean's longest established and much-celebrated resorts. The complex is built around a perfect, crescent-shaped sandy beach, hence the name, and comprises white-washed Georgian-style villas and cottages dotted through beautifully landscaped gardens.

Request an Estate Ocean Room in the newest part of the hotel, called Eclipse, overlooking the pristine beachfront. Wonderfully spacious, each has its own wrap-around balcony, king-size bed and a private outdoor shower. The resort is a destination to explore in its own right, offering water-based activities including kayaking, pedal-boating, standup paddleboarding and snorkelling. There’s also an equestrian centre, three pools and, of course, vast stretches of fantastic white-sand beaches. Fancy another chilled fruit punch? Simply order from one of the resort’s beach butlers. At the Fern Tree Spa, set in tranquil tropical gardens, you can get a massage in an overwater cabana.

Food is also a real highlight at Half Moon. Don't miss the Jamaican barbeque the hotel arranges on Sunrise Beach. Jerk dishes and hot pots are served to a backdrop of steel bands and congo drums, as well as fire eaters and dancers. Be sure to book a table at the resort’s Sugar Mill, too. Awarded Jamaica's Best Restaurant, it overlooks a lush tropical landscape and serves mouth-watering dishes like green plantain rosti, grilled lobster tail with yam risotto, and breadfruit gnocchi with coconut tomato sauce.

With a focus on low-key elegance, the Half Moon resort is the perfect place to unplug and relax after an adventure-packed itinerary. Ian Fleming wrote many of his James Bond novels while languishing in what he described as “the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday”. Where better to write your own adventure?

Read more: The world's best beach resorts

Direct flights from Gatwick to Montego Bay, Jamaica, cost from £434 with British Airways, ba.com. Rooms at Half Moon cost from £255 per night. Book directly at halfmoon.com