Jamaica: What to know before you go

For Joe Yogerst, who has visited 110 countries in his nearly 30 years as a travel writer, shaking hands with a wild crocodile in The Great Morass was a first. "He could easily have taken my hand off," Yogerst says, "but the guide knew him, so I was only marginally worried."

As a foreign correspondent in South Africa, Yogerst covered the end of apartheid, the Namibia border war with Angola, and Zimbabwe's independence. He found Jamaica to be "more accessible than you'd think," adding, "The diverse history and cultural background attract more characters with an offbeat sense of what life's about than anyplace in the world."

Photographer Nik Wheeler is no stranger to adventure, either -- he earned acclaim as a combat photographer during the Vietnam War, the '73 Arab-Israeli war, the civil war in Jordan, and the fall of Saigon. He went on to cover such world events as the Montreal Olympics, the coronation of the king of Nepal, and the funeral of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

Wheeler was impressed by the great variety of Jamaica's scenery and its "amazing" resorts; he also thought that tourists "could be a lot more adventurous."

BEACH TIME Frenchman's Cove in Port Antonio is the perfect beach, according to Yogerst. ("It had white talcum-powder sand, lots of shade, turquoise water, waves crashing against rocky headlands on either side of the bay, and a clear freshwater stream flowing into the bay on one end.") For the best surf, hit Long Bay, on the northeast coast, and for an interesting shore walk, head to Treasure Beach on the south shore to look for shells and watch the fishing boats come in. For a sunset experience, set yourself up with some Appleton Rum at Rick's Café in Negril.

ROOM KEY Wheeler and Yogerst both liked their stay at Jakes at Treasure Beach. The funky seaside retreat ($95 to $225 per night) is an assemblage of bungalows with colorful interiors, and a mosaic-lined swimming pool shaped like Jamaica. ("Hollywood stars and music people hang out there," says Yogerst. "Treasure Beach is like Negril 20 years ago.") Yogerst also liked the vibe at Sanwood Villas ($200 to $600 per night) in Port Antonio. ("It had a quirky international scene, and we were welcome to sit in on the production sessions for a Latin reggae album.") In Negril, the Rockhouse ($70 to $210 per night) is a pleasant boutique inn. Its thatched-roof, pine-and-stone bungalows occupy a cliff over the water.

DON'T MISS Twenty miles from Mandeville, YS Falls is an unspoiled alternative to the more crowded Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios. Walk up the ten waterfalls, cool off in the jade-colored pools, swing on a Tarzan rope, and have a picnic.

WHAT'S TO EAT This rich, spicy, creative cuisine is a delicious blend of Spanish, English, Indian, Chinese, and African influences. The most famous dish is jerked meat, marinated in a mouth-searing mix of Scotch Bonnet peppers (among the hottest on earth), pimento seeds, scallions, thyme, nutmeg, and other ingredients, then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood. The national dish is saltfish (salt cod) with akee (a yellow fruit that is fried like scrambled eggs). The best Yogerst had was at the Bloomfield Great House, a former coffee plantation in Mandeville. He also recommends the Rockhouse Restaurant in Negril for Jamaican-style seafood, and the famous Sunday brunch served at Strawberry Hill, a colonial plantation-house hotel in the Blue Mountains. Devon House, a museum in Kingston, has great ice cream. ("It's rich and handmade," says Yogerst. "I always get a scoop of mango and a scoop of coconut.") For a collection of Jamaican recipes, check out http://people.delphi.com/tgdf/food.htm

ON THE ROAD Rental cars are pricey -- high-season rates start at $50 a day for a compact and can easily top $100 a day, while gas is about $2.90 per gallon. Combine that with the need to drive on the left and negotiate rough, poorly marked roads, and you might opt for ease -- and an insider's view -- by hiring a guide/driver through your hotel (about $50 a day plus the cost of the rental car). And don't forget to tune your car radio to Irie FM Radio, 105.5, for road-trip reggae.

READ IT AND LEAP The comic novel The Lunatic, by Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler, is written in patois and captures village life in the 1980s. Yogerst says that Lonely Planet Jamaica (2000) by Christopher Baker is the best guidebook. On the Web see www.virtualjamaica.com, www.jamaicans.com, and www.caribbeansupersite.com/jamaica. For a good Rasta/patois dictionary, check out www.rockol.it/rockol/reggae/dizio.htm

SPECIAL SCREENING Jamaica has served as a backdrop in scores of films, from Papillon and Cocktail to Cool Runnings, the story of the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics.

CASH FLOW Changing money is easy; ATMs are common.

WHEN TO GO Book a few months ahead if you plan to visit during high season (December through mid-April), especially during holidays and in February. Hurricane season lasts from June through November.