Jamaica needs to be experienced to be appreciated — but what you experience while on the island can vary widely from one resort area to another. There are so many resorts located all around this large and populous Caribbean island — but mostly in the three main beach areas of Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios — that you may not know where to book.
And your uncertainty is valid: Jamaica has a vibrant, outsized personality, but its mood varies from place to place so it helps to know what to expect. Do you crave anything-goes all-inclusive fun or want to embrace vintage Jamaica style amid luxurious surroundings? Are you willing to drive a few hours to your vacation paradise or prefer to arrive and be on the beach ASAP? Here’s a look at what Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios can offer you.
Vibe: Vintage Jamaica style — from an era when some of Hollywood’s top stars maintained homes here — blends with mass-market hospitality in the largest of Jamaica’s main resort areas.
Montego Bay lays out its welcome mat to visitors of every budget with hotels offering options to suit most vacation styles. Against a backdrop of emerald mountains, its beach-lined coast buzzes with music and commerce, but also features quiet pockets of retro-chic charm.
Best for: Families, golfers and couples seeking all-inclusive ease or a classic resort experience.
Access: If you want to clear customs and be sipping rum punch at a swim-up bar 30 minutes later, it can happen in Montego Bay, which is located on the north coast and home to Sangster International Airport. The trade-off at some resorts: airplane engine noise (although not overnight). If you only have a few days’ vacation, consider the convenience of Montego Bay.
Top things to do: Like many Caribbean resort areas, Montego Bay delivers thrills on (sailing or jet-skiing), under (snorkeling and scuba diving) and above (parasailing) the water. To enjoy Jamaica’s lush interior, opt for a bamboo raft excursion on the Martha Brae River, take the wheel of an ATV or dune buggy on the dirt roads of Blue Hole Estate or zip-line the Flight of the White Witch.
Golf on three excellent courses, horseback ride at the Half Moon Equestrian Center, or visit a Great House, such as Rose Hall or Greenwood.
Where to stay: The classic romance of Round Hill Hotel & Villas never gets old. 36 hotel rooms (designed by Ralph Lauren, who has a residence here) and 27 multi-bedroom villas exude by-gone-era charm: four-poster mahogany beds, crisp white linens, louvered windows and cooked-to-order private breakfasts.
At 400-acre Half Moon, which is just completing an extensive renovation, you’ll enjoy hours of relaxation along a crescent beach as well as an award-winning spa, a stable of 28 horses and a championship golf course.
At 227-room, adults-only Sandals Royal Caribbean, there’s an international vibe: Much of the architecture is British colonial, there’s an Asian influence on its private island, and it’s home to 17 Tahitian-style overwater bungalows and villas, as well as eight restaurants serving Thai, Italian, French and Jamaican cuisines among others.
Vibe: Certain places embrace an anything-goes attitude and Negril is one of them. It’s basically a small town stretched along a white-sand party zone called Seven Mile Beach and flanked on one end by Instagram-worthy cliffs lapped by translucent turquoise water.
If it sounds hedonistic, it is — and it’s home to a long-time resort named for that lifestyle, as well as other clothing-optional properties. Day and night tend to blur together here for some visitors, but there’s also plenty of romance and all-inclusive family fun — not to mention incredible sunsets.
Best for: Party-centric singles and couples who love laidback days and reggae-filled nights, as well as families seeking an all-inclusive resort with ultra-calm surf and watersports.
Access: Negril, located on Jamaica’s west coast, is about 90 minutes’ drive from Montego Bay. Many resorts offer airport transfers, but you may spend time waiting for other guests to arrive before your group transport departs for Negril.
Top things to do: Negril is an ideal playground for water-lovers. This includes all the usual fun stuff like snorkeling, kayaking, windsurfing and parasailing, but also something this area is uniquely known for: cliff jumping.
Head to legendary Rick’s Café, a cliff-side bar/restaurant in the West End where beer and rum flow freely and emboldened patrons accept the dare to plunge 35 feet into the sea. You can also just be a voyeur and enjoy live music and amazing sunsets.
Where to stay: The ambience at 312-room Couples Swept Away is, as the name implies, geared to romance, but with an active twist as it’s set on 19 tropical beachfront acres with three pools and a massive sports & fitness complex.
Part of the Island Outpost hotel group, The Caves is a 12-room boutique all-inclusive property set atop scenic cliffs in the West End that’s all about cheerful, handcrafted escapism. The resort’s Blackwell Rum Bar was chosen by our editors as the best bar in the 2019 Islands All-Inclusive Awards.
Vibe: They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but very few would challenge this coastal enclave’s amazing natural good looks. Lushly landscaped Ocho Rios is home to some of Jamaica’s most scenic bays and serene beaches and offers access to multiple waterfalls and rivers as well as popular land and sea adventures.
Best for: Couples seeking a relaxing old-school resort escape that goes beyond a mass-tourism experience — although there’s plenty of that here, too, as Ocho Rios’s natural attractions make it a popular cruise ship destination — and families who love outdoor adventure.
Access: Located on Jamaica’s north coast, Ocho Rios is about one hour and 45 minutes’ drive Montego Bay; check with your resort about provided airport transfers or other transportation options.
Top things to do: In addition to all the usual water sports, Ocho Rios offers easy access to two of Jamaica’s best-known attractions: Dunn’s River Falls, which the adventurous can climb up and the not-so-sure-footed can admire, and Mystic Mountain, where bobsled, zip-line and chairlift experiences await.
If you’re up for a different kind of adventure, shop for souvenirs at the open-air crafts market — but be prepared to negotiate with the often overzealous vendors. More leisurely options include golf, spa treatments and catamaran sails.
Where to stay: Dreamy blue hues — from soothing periwinkle blue walls to vivid aquamarine surf — surround you at retro-chic Jamaica Inn, an oasis of charming, old-school Jamaican hospitality (there are no TVs or clocks in the 55 suites and cottages).
Vintage Jamaica is also alive and thriving at Goldeneye, the onetime estate of James Bond author Ian Fleming that now offers 48 luxury villas, cottages and beach huts set on several private beaches along with a focus on fresh local cuisine.
If you’re traveling with kids, all-inclusive resort Beaches Ocho Rios has you covered with family-friendly rooms and suites, three pools, seven restaurants, Sesame Street characters and a Pirate’s Island Water Park.