It was a dark and stormy night … actually it was a bright and early Key West morning, but I was ready for a dark ’n’ stormy. Fortunately, I was headed to Jamaica for 24 hours.
While the Florida Keys are a vacation destination for over 2 million travelers a year, one of the best things about living here is that we can be in a wildly different country over a weekend, or even for a day. Jamaica is one of those destinations.
With its mountainous blue hills (yes, the ones where that damn fine coffee comes from), its extraordinary food and music, and its warm and friendly locals, it deserves more than a day. But if you only have a day to spare? It’s incredible how much Jamaica still has to offer. I had that opportunity last weekend, and, to quote locals, “Mi loike it.” A lot.
9:30 a.m. Depart Key West International Airport
10 a.m. arrive in Miami*
*Upper Keys readers: start here!
(Enjoy a coffee, a hearty breakfast and reading “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” a brilliant novel by Marlon James that narrates the Bob Marley assassination attempt through a fictional lens. Spoiler alert: it will take you longer than a layover, at 704 pages).
12:30 p.m. Depart Miami for Kingston
2:15 p.m. Arrive in Kingston
2:30 p.m. THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
I got picked up from the airport by Chris Thompson from Juta Tours (Jamaican Union of Travelers Association), who has lived in Kingston for most of his life, and was knowledgeable and candid. Chris and I talked family, music, religion — pretty much everything you aren’t supposed to talk about at bars — and the lyric “emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” which was actually first written by Marcus Garvey. Chris was great company and a brilliant driver. He also was my patois translator, and I credit him for the lines I use here.
3 p.m. The Bob Marley Museum
Bob Marley grew up in a part of Kingston call Trench Town, a neighborhood that espouses the “blending of the rural and urban cultures.” It sits on the site of former livestock pens and grew into a famous neighborhood that many credit as the birthplace of reggae. Back in the ’60s in Trench Town, Marley went by “Robert,” eventually taking up the name “Bob” at the suggestion of a producer. He recorded his first single at 16 and now has sold over 75 million records worldwide. He was also a catalyst of social change. When Marley moved into the Island Records house and studio on Hope Road, people questioned Rastas moving into the posh neighborhood. “I’m bringing the ghetto uptown,” said Marley.
The museum tour takes an hour and a half, through Marley’s home, where he recorded several albums (he also recorded at Tuff Gong studios, a site for another trip) and called home with wife Rita Marley. The pretty two-story home has been restored as it was when the Marleys lived there, and the downstairs living spaces are adorned with gold records, Grammy awards and original tour posters. At the center of the story is the Rastafarian religion, to which Marley dedicated himself with the same fervor as he did his music. He was called “Skipper,” which signified his position in the religion.
Our tour guide Johnoy made the experience fun and fascinating, singing Bob Marley and the Wailers’ songs throughout, dropping knowledge bombs that spanned from the story behind Marley’s assassination attempt (the bullet that lodged in his elbow remained there for his life) to his life philosophy (life is only worthwhile if used to help others), to his early end (he died from rapidly spreading melanoma). On the light side, we also sang “One Love” together and learned nicknames for ganja (“Kaya,” also the name of a Wailers album, was my favorite). Highly recommended, and shoutout to Johnoy for being the best singing tour guide south of Key West.
5 p.m. Arrive at the Spanish Court Hotel
The Spanish Court Hotel is welcoming and modern, located centrally (and across from a pretty thorough supermarket with ATM) in Kingston. I checked into my room and got ready to head to the spa for a relaxation massage. The massage therapist had an incredible touch, and it was definitely a deep tissue treatment, not for the thin-skinned. It felt great and loosened me up for a swim at the gorgeous pool and cocktail at the cabanas. The hotel also boasts a separate Sky Bar with another pool.
7:30 p.m. Dinner
My travel companion (okay, boyfriend Andrew) and I enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Spanish Court’s Rojo Restaurant. The wait staff was friendly, and the food was decidedly not boring hotel food. I had a crisp green salad with shrimp, goat cheese, shaved veggies and candied walnuts and a tangy mustard vinaigrette. Andrew had a jerk chicken wrap that was super moist and flavorful, of which I ate exactly half (sorry, babe). We had a nightcap of Appleton 12-year-old rum and called it a night. The next morning starts early!
10 p.m. Lights Out
6 a.m. Lights On!
7 a.m. Pick up
Chris arrived at 7 to take us on an adventure. We brought swim suits, towels and a change. Remember some cash to tip your drivers and tour guides. ATMs are few and far between. The drive out to YS Falls was long, bumpy and beautiful. The small towns that dot the countryside evidence the country’s relative poverty, but I observed more simple living rather than extreme poverty. The facts hold this up: Jamaica is considered a middle income country — while the 15% poverty rate is a bit higher than the U.S. (12%), it’s significantly lower than neighboring countries Cuba and Haiti. The towns are charming, colorfully painted and bustling with activity. Vendors set out their fruit and wares, doors and windows open. The ever-changing landscape of lush countryside and small towns brings verdant context to the Buju Banton classic “Hills and Valleys.”
9:30 a.m. Arrive at YS Falls
We took a bus pulled by a tractor up to YS Falls, part of the Black River. It was $20 to get into the park, where there are lots of places to swim and sun, gardens, refreshments and even a rope swing. We did the zipline through the canopy ($35 per person), which offered a great view of the foliage and falls below, as well as a real thrill on the ride over the falls. We relaxed in the natural pools and got Mother Nature’s massage under the falls. You could easily spend the day at YS Falls, but we had to keep it moving. After an hour and a half, we packed up and headed to Appleton Estate, about a half hour down the road.
11:30 a.m. Arrive at Appleton Estate
The Estate’s “Appleton Experience” was one of the coolest distillery tours I’ve been on. At the heart of the experience were stories of Joy Spence, the first female master distiller in the world and the brilliant chemist behind Appleton Joy, their 25-year-old top-shelf blend. Our tour guide, also named Joy, guided us through the sights, scents and tastes of the distillery. We started with chewing sugar cane, which has been harvested on the estate since its genesis in 1749. The estate was a sugar cane plantation before the distillery existed — since 1655.
We met Paz, the donkey that demonstrates how sugarcane was originally crushed; we tasted the (surprisingly delicious) molasses that functions as the base for the rum; we toured the (super hot) actual distillery and checked out the huge warehouse where barrels are stored. The tasting concluded the tour, and we agreed that the 12-year-old was far and away the favorite. The distillery has great food, but we opted to try out the authentic jerk pit experience on the way back to Kingston.
2 p.m. Murray’s Fish and Jerk Hut
Murray’s Fish and Jerk hut rises out of the Jamaican countryside like a phoenix, emitting a curl of smoke and the scent of roasting meat. The “hut” is big and open air with a thatched roof, and the meat is roasted on a grill over a wood fire — the “authentic” way. The chairs are made of barrels and the drinks are inexpensive and simple — we had Appleton Reserve and coconut water, which was dangerously smooth and light. On the menu? Jerk chicken, pork, rabbit, homemade sausage and whole roasted fish. The sausage and rabbit were our favorites, smoky and sweet, accompanied by festival (sweet fried bread), plantains and a raw veggie slaw.
3 p.m. That’s all, mon.
Sad our 24 hours had come to a close, we packed it up and headed back to the airport. Actually, that’s not entirely true — we opted to make a few pit stops. First we stopped by our new friend Joy’s bar on the way back, an unassuming rum shop built onto her house. She serves popular (and stiff) cocktails like “the steel bottom”—Campari and overproof white rum—which you can calm down with a floater of Red Stripe beer. It was like a perfect and bracing goodbye kiss from the island.
Finally, we stopped by the “duppy church,” (duppy means “ghost” in Jamaican patois), a beautiful, broken place with an above-ground cemetery. It served as a haunting reminder of how people remain in a place after they are gone — likewise, I imagine a place like Jamaica stays within a person for years to come. You’ll definitely want to stay at least another day, and maybe return forever. As Chris taught me to say, “Mi wa fi guh back a Jamrock.”