Shocking. I’m standing in the lobby of a Jamaican resort, and I’m listening to a Bob Marley tune. Four musicians play “Buffalo Soldier” at Sandals Montego Bay as honeymooners sip umbrella drinks and tap feet to the song’s unmistakable reggae rhythm. The resort’s perfect beach, 50 yards away, runs along the shimmering blue-green ocean. “We play a lot of Bob Marley,” bassist Fitzroy Thompson says later. “He’s the foundation,” adds drummer Nordy Lewis.
Of course, Marley didn’t invent reggae or its older sibling ska. Their roots are in mento, an offshoot of calypso. And since Marley’s death in 1981, reggae has morphed into dancehall, an electronic style resembling American hip-hop. Jon the photographer and I have come to trace those transformations. At hallowed studios and dance clubs — sites that document both gentle, spiritual reggae and loud beats — I plan to ask key players what exactly makes reggae reggae? How did it evolve? And where does Marley, still revered, fit into today’s mix? The answers lie somewhere in Jamaica’s gritty streets and green hills.
by ISLANDS photographer Jon Whittle
See his interactive Google map
Days 1-3: Jam at Sumfest
- Fly direct from Miami to Montego Bay on American Airlines. Rent a car at the airport. I think the freedom of your own car on Jamaica is crucial. This trip starts with craziness, so get ready. If you can, I recommend timing your trip to see Reggae Sumfest, the annual music event usually held in July. A major lineup of artists performs in Montego Bay. This is the concert festival that Jamaicans save up all year to attend. They follow their own local performers with a loyalty that rivals soccer fans’.
- Stay at the luxurious Half Moon resort. During the day, chill on the beach and load up on iconic souvenirs like Bob Marley T-shirts and CDs for sale along Gloucester Avenue. And nap when you can. Then at night, hit the music scene. And hit it hard.
- Head to the central stage just outside Montego Bay proper, where big reggae headliners jam from about 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Bring a blanket to sit on, and settle in for the long haul. Sing along and feel like a local among the crowd.
- Dancehalls also go off all night. Dancehall music can be described as hip-hop punching reggae in the face. Brace yourself.
Day 4: Visit Bob Marley
- After three days of crazy music bliss, drive east along the northern coast toward Ocho Rios.
- On the way, take a detour off the A1 highway and stop at the Bob Marley Mausoleum to pay tribute to the man who made reggae huge. Pass by small villages on cliffside dogleg turns. Your camera will be firing constantly. There you’ll see where the reggae legend was born and where his body now rests — Nine Mile. You can almost hear the music, as if the island is playing it.
- For some all-inclusive R&R, check in and mentally check out at Sandals Grande Ocho Rios. It’s the all-inclusive Caribbean at its easiest. And it is couples-only. If you go with an ISLANDS writer like I did, you’ll need two rooms.
Day 5: Hike the Falls and See Fern Gully
- You’re on a Jamaican vacation, so hike Dunn’s River Falls. Millions of tourists can’t be wrong.
- After you dry off, drive through Fern Gully. This aptly named three-mile loop circles through a green dream of ferns. I had my camera out the whole time.
- Piña coladas and soothing steel drums beckon. Head back to the beach. Sit and relax.
Day 6: Stay in the Jungle at Kanopi House
- Say goodbye to the all-inclusive and brave the roadways again. Go a couple of hours east along the coast toward the town of Port Antonio. Beautiful beaches line the drive. My big challenge was looking at them and the road.
- Stop in Port Antonio and stroll through the Musgrave Market, where you can pick up local breadfruit, plantains and handmade crafts. You can also get super-authentic jerk chicken for lunch.
- In town, ask for really good directions to Kanopi House. It’s hard to find, but it’s well worth it. You can take a helicopter and land five minutes away, though you’ll miss out on roadside Jamaica.
- Check into the Kanopi House, an eco treehouse retreat that quietly opened in December 2007. The five sprinkled treehouses still feel like what they started as, a retreat for Jamaica’s Hew family.
- Relax on the deck of your private treehouse. You’ve really escaped it all. For dinner, eat organic veggies and fantastic fresh fish speared in the bay.
Day 7: Raft Down the Rio Grande
- I went in the afternoon, but I’d love starting the day with a morning raft ride down the Rio Grande. You glide for four mellow hours from the Blue Hills to Jamaica’s northeastern coast. Your guide does all the work for you, poling with the current.
- Back at Kanopi House, make your way down the path through the jungle of 100-foot banyan trees to the blue lagoon. Swim in the waters of the springs, which bubble up from an estimated 180 feet at the deepest point.
- Hire a boat operator to take you along the shore to tucked-away beaches that are loved by locals and Hollywood directors alike, including movie-perfect Cocktail and Winnifred beaches.
- That night, dine on the chef's choice of the day in the “Living Room” social treehouse. Savor it.
- For your last full day, cross the mountain road from Port Antonio to get closer to Kingston.
- Check into historic Strawberry Hill, a resort acquired by reggae legend Chris Blackwell. At 3,100 feet up in the Blue Mountains, you’ll feel like a reggae star.
- Indulge with a Blue Mountain Coffee scrub at the resort’s Living Spa. And try the island conch fritters, grilled snapper and mixed-seafood ceviche martinis.
- When the sun sets on the night before your departure flight from Kingston, sit at the pool, look down to the city and flip through your favorite Jamaica moments.