Golf, rum and golden sands bring visitors flocking to Jamaica but the island also has a notorious yet fascinating history.

If you’ve ever considered a visit to Jamaica, it comes with a glowing recommendation from Christopher Columbus himself. The explorer takes the credit for the island’s discovery by Europeans in 1494 and described it as “The fairest isle mine eyes ever beheld.”

Dramatic mountain ranges, superb beaches, fantastic hotels and its own unique raw vibe – Jamaica has much to attract visitors wanting to explore one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful islands and immerse themselves in its musical heritage.

It has long been a popular cruise stop, with ships docking at the north coast resorts of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, though now they are being joined by the historic Georgian town of Falmouth which in 2011 will become a port of call for the world’s largest cruise ships.

It’s also proving extremely popular with UK and Ireland visitors – numbers increased by 13% year-on-year in August to 17,085, their highest since August 2006, while those from Ireland were up 11%.

Ochos Rios Port on the northern coast

Diverse past

Jamaica gained its independence in 1962, but Britain and Jamaica have a long history together. During the 1650s, the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish. Under the British, Jamaica became one of the leading sugar exporters. By the 1800s, some 22 per cent of the world’s sugar was produced here, but at great cost to the native population of Africa, whose men, women and children were brought over in their thousands to work on the sugar plantations as slaves. This grim episode in history is thankfully gone but not forgotten and can be explored during historical tours of the island.

So, what is it that makes Jamaica so special? “Jamaica has always had an edge to it,” explains William Tatham, Vice President of Cruise Shipping and Marina Operations at the Port Authority of Jamaica. “Interesting people, athletes, music and our own distinctive food.” He’s right. After all, Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae and, of course, Bob Marley. More recently, Usain Bolt has thrilled the world with his lightning sprint speeds and gold medals, while Andrea Levy’s prize-winning novel about Jamaican immigrants, Small Island, was recently adapted for television and shown on BBC1.

What to see and do

There’s a lot going on here. You have all the variety of a bigger destination but lengthy coach trips are not required to see the sights. As William Tatham explains, “Of all the Caribbean islands, Jamaica offers the greatest variety of things to do in the closest proximity to the port.

Snorkel with sharks
One of the islands major visitor attractions is Dunn’s River Falls, which is one of the few waterfalls in the world to empty directly into the sea. Whether you arrive by kayak, sailboat or jeep it’s a spot that attracts visitors and locals alike, many of who make the reasonably easy climb up the staggered falls. You’ll also find Dolphin Cove nearby. It’s the largest marine park in the Caribbean and you can interact with dolphins and snorkel with sharks.

However if you’re seeking something a little more exclusive, try YS Falls; visitor numbers here are monitored to protect its seven cascades. You can swim in its natural pools, take canopy rides from the top of the falls to the bottom and explore the beauty of the surrounding gardens.

Alternatively, while away a peaceful few hours floating down a river on a bamboo raft, or try tubing or white-water rafting. Search out Jamaica’s reggae past by visiting the former haunts of local legend Bob Marley.

If you need even more action, you’ll find plenty more across the rest of the island. Splash through the surf on horseback with Chukka Caribbean Adventures; go zip lining through the tropical forest canopy; or, intriguingly given the climate, have a go at a bobsled ride through the tropical forest at one of the island’s most recently opened attractions, Mystic Mountain.

Voodoo magic

Rose Hall – once home to ‘The White Witch’, Annie Palmer

Action aside, the island is steeped in a rich history and folklore that’s worth exploring. Visit the former sugar plantation estate of Rose Hall, now a luxurious hotel, for tales of black magic. In the 1820s, Rose Hall was home to Annie Palmer – also known as ‘Infamous Annie’. Annie was adopted by her Haitian nanny after her parents died, and it’s claimed that she was then educated in voodoo and witchcraft. How much is fact and how much is fiction is up for debate, but Annie is said to have killed her husband and begun a reign of terror, placing curses on those who crossed her. To this day, people claim to see her ghost wandering through the impressively restored Georgian mansion.

A grim piece of Jamaican history that’s rooted firmly in fact is the entwined stories of the slave and sugar trades. One of the most interesting explorations of the subject can be found at Prospect Plantation. Your guide will bring the history of the estate to life and, along with sugar cane, you can see other local crops, such as allspice, cassava, coffee and bananas being grown. You can pick from a number of modes of transport, too. Open-air jitney is the easy option, but you can go on horseback, take a camel safari, hike or cycle. Other attractions at the plantation include a butterfly aviary and the chance to feed ostriches.

Rum Tasting
If you’re curious about what happens to the sugar cane once it has been harvested, visit the Appleton Estate to find out how it’s used to make rum. Appleton has been producing rum since 1749, and the resident donkey Paz helps in demonstrating the traditional method of extracting the juice from the cane as part of a tour.

Rum isn’t the only souvenir you should bring back with you; a wide array of interesting commodities will be discovered by hose who delve deeper. Other local produce includes coffee, spices and sauces such as Pickapeppa Spicy Mango Sauce and Walkerswood Jerk Seasoning, as well as craft market carvings.

Beach life
Above all else, people come to Jamaica to enjoy the beaches. Turtle Beach and Mallard Beach are two of the most popular, and are geared up to tourists, with plenty of facilities. But elsewhere you will find smaller prettier beaches, all with the same crystal-clear waters and golden sands. Beach parties are legendary on this Caribbean island and the music will soon have you swaying beneath the palm trees.

Where to eat

Spectacular sunsets are the order of the day at the famous Rick’s Café in Negril which serves up snacks, seafood and sundowners. Dine in a beautiful tropical setting at The Ruins restaurant in Ocho Rios or go Italian at Evita’s in Ocho Rios “the best little pasta house in Jamaica”. Taste traditional Jamaican jerk fare at Scotchies in Montego Bay or the Town House by the Sea, known for its celebrity patrons.

Where to drink

Try the buzzing Margaritaville bars in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios where the atmosphere is bold and boisterous. For an Irish pub vibe, the Twisted Kilt is the Celtic hangout in the so-called Hip Strip of Montego Bay where many bars and restaurants are located. In Ocho Rios, hit the road at the Harley-Davidson bar.

Where to stay

The choice is huge, from the extensive Half Moon Resort and the elegant Jamaica Inn to all-inclusive resorts such as Sandals and chic boutique hideaways such as Jake’s and uber stylish Geejam, which has its own recording studio.

Fact File
When to go The best weather is during peak tourist season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April. At this time, rainfall is at its lowest and the heat is tempered by the cooling trade winds. Outside this period – from Easter to early December – you can expect hot summers and extreme humidity, especially during September and October. The annual hurricane season officially runs from 1 June to 30 November.
Climate Jamaica has a tropical climate that’s characterised by generally hot weather and heavy rainfall during the wet season. Temperatures rarely fall below 25°C at any time of year.
Currency £1 is equal to $144 (Jamaican dollar).
Visas Visitors from the UK do not need a visa and may stay in the country for up to six months without one.
Getting there There are two main airports: Sangster International Airport (MBJ) is three miles east of Montego Bay, Jamaica, and is the most accessible airport for cruise passengers. Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) is located 20 minutes from Kingston’s business centre. it’s the primary airport for business travel to and from Jamaica.
Main ports – Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio, for smaller ships. For large cruise liners, Falmouth.
Useful Websites www.visitjamaica.com