Jamaica beyond Montego Bay and Negril: Five easy escapes from the beach, it's ajungle out there
Although it may be hard to believe, there's more to Jamaica than Montego Bay and Negril.
Are you ready to escape the beach?
Swamp it up at the Royal Palm Preserve
No doubt, Jamaica’s beaches and waters are beautiful. But everyone needs a break from the sun-stoking melanin production.
The Royal Palm Preserve is the perfect place to seek some shade and quiet — and just a short taxi ride from Negril Beach. The sanctuary harbors the last extensive stands of royal palms, a tree unique to Jamaica, many reaching over 100 feet.
It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of the Great Morass, an area of swampland, without getting your feet wet. A wooden walkway traverses wetlands and winds through palm groves for half a mile.
As a note of caution, before visiting, check the current status of the preserve, as there is talk of closing it to the public — which would be an unfortunate loss.
Enjoy a black sand lunch at Farquhar’s Beach and digest it in a mineral dip in Milk River
A day’s travel east of Montego Bay and Negril lies Farquhar’s Beach, or just “the beach” as it is locally known — a laid back slice of dark sand. The dirt road ends among a cluster of shacks that serve up some of the freshest seafood in Jamaica. Boats arrive throughout the day, unloading catches of fish, lobster, and shrimp.
After a good meal, continue digestion in one of the mineral baths at Milk River, near May Pen. Of course, wait one hour before plunging into the hot waters.
Supposedly containing some of the highest radioactivity and mineral content of any bath in the world, the Milk River mineral springs are said to cure a wide range of ailments. Sunburns might be one of them.
I settled in for the night in the spa-turned-hotel right on the grounds of the springs. Among the hospital décor and simple rooms, I felt transported to a 19th century sanatorium. The mineral baths consisted of nine tiled pools in a windowless basement. The restaurant’s excellent food served up a day’s worth of relaxation in a place where things haven’t changed much in the past 100 years.
Paddle bathtubs and go overboard with the manatees in Alligator Hole
Another attraction within the Milk River area is Alligator Hole. For a few dollars, we were able to rent a small aluminum hull of questionable seaworthiness, received two pieces of wood shaped roughly like primordial paddles, and a plastic jug for bailing.
The boat moved as efficiently as paddling an upside-down brass tub. Fortunately, we soon realized the water lay still among dense reeds and the pond was of finite size.
Several years ago, three manatees had been captured by local fishermen and brought to the clear waters of Alligator Hole. A thick net strung across the only exit ensures the future protection of these rare animals and continued tourist dollars.
The easiest way to see these gentle behemoths is during feeding time in the evening, but a few bubbles betrayed their presence to us in the middle of the afternoon.
The creatures were shy and disappeared after I dove in. I hoped the crocodilians were taking a break.
We paddled, bailed water and paddled some more, exploring the tangled mangrove forest before returning the vessel to port.
Perfect your balancing act on bat guano in the Cockpit Country caves
What many visitors to Jamaica don’t realize is that just inland from Montego Bay awaits an area of wild and untouched jungle. It’s a place where the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere wings through the forest during the day, and innumerable bats emerge from hundreds of caves at night.
The Cockpit Country of western Jamaica derived its name from hundreds of caves and sinkholes found in its Karst Mountains. Early explorers found temperatures and humidity in these caverns to be akin to the climate of cockfighting rings.
Always going below the surface for all of my travel stories, I had just slipped on wet bat guano several feet thick and my torch went out. In pitch black, I fumbled with my flashlight as hundreds of thousands of bats chattered and whirred above. I was soaked with perspiration and struggled to breathe in the hot, humid air.
After recovering, I continued deeper into the cave. I could make out some rough limestone columns, stalagmites, and stalactites. Tiny gnats buzzed by my face — first hundreds, than thousands. When I couldn’t help but breathe insects, I beat a quick retreat, slipping on the guano one more time on the way out.
Covered in sweat, insects, and excrement, I felt like I had gained a deeper understanding of the place and its name. I rinsed in one of the rivers, flowing clean and cold out of the hills that rise like steep domes from the forest.
Refreshed, I walked to a roadside store. Dango, a true-to-the-bone Rastafarian, was the proprietor-sometimes-guide, as well as a local legend. Since he didn’t have anything to sell other than tepid bottles of Coke, I bought one. He offered to guide me to a nearby cave to see some bats. I appreciated the offer, but told him I had just seen a few.
Relive classic Hollywood moments in the Blue Lagoon
Yes, the Blue Lagoon of movie fame lies near Port Antonio on the east coast of Jamaica. Crystal clear waters continue to pour from underground springs into a small bay open to the warm Caribbean on one side.
During the week, it’s possible to have the whole lagoon to yourself, and the perfect waters invite you to swim and snorkel.
The entire east coast of the island sees much lower numbers of tourists. Dramatic cliffs give way to empty beaches and small towns offer looks at day-to-day Jamaican life.
There are many other interesting places and beautiful corners remaining to be explored. People are friendly and helpful throughout, the food delicious, and there is much more to Jamaica than reggae, Montego Bay, and Negril.