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Montego Bay Overview
The north coast town of Montego Bay makes for a very lively and colorful welcome to Jamaica for the many visitors who arrive here by air or sea. MoBay, as it's called, offers a steady schedule of food and cultural festivals, and some of the Caribbean's most entertaining beaches (offering water sports, waterfront bars and more) fringe its shores. Add in golfing, duty-free shopping and easy access to the island's active adventures, and visitors can have as lazy or as action-packed of a day as they choose.
Jamaica's second-largest city after Kingston, Montego Bay is a market center for locals, in addition to being a package tourism hotspot for Canadians, Americans and Europeans. You might not know it with the abundance of U.S. hotel chains and even chain restaurants like KFC, but the town has a storied past that dates back centuries to the arrival of the original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, and later Christopher Columbus and Spanish control in 1494. For 300 years after, the British ruled Montego Bay, and the town was a center for plantations and the slave trade. It wasn't until the late 1800's that tourism really began to gain a foothold there. It's an industry that still supports the local economy today, along with banana, sugar and bauxite exports.
One of Montego Bay's most important historical events occurred in 1832, when Sam Sharpe, a slave who preached nonviolent resistance, was lynched in the center of town in what is now Sam Sharpe Square. (There are memorial statues there dedicated to his courage.) Sharpe was hanged for leading the Christmas Slave Rebellion of 1831, but by 1838, slavery was abolished. Today, MoBay's population is a diverse one, with people from other Caribbean islands, European and North American ex-pats and an influx of Chinese, too.
Visitors come, largely, for the idyllic tropical weather and beaches, which are among the prettiest in the Caribbean. However, cruisers will find that many of these sandy hotspots are accessible only to the guests of whichever mega-resort or all-inclusive hotel is backing them. That said, there are several scenic beaches for whiling away onshore days, both along the Hip Strip in MoBay and closer to the cruise port.
The town is a hotspot for reggae music and hosts some of the best live concerts in the Caribbean. But, high on most tourists' to-do list (in addition to sipping fruity cocktails and beach-lounging, of course), are visits to the area's duty-free shopping venues and terrific golf courses.
The port makes an excellent base, too, for arranging tours and excursions to nearly every other major Jamaican attraction, including Dunn's River Falls near Ocho Rios, Negril's famed Seven Mile Beach and the many old plantation homes (called Great Houses) in the area.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Mobile • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Tampa
Try Jamaican Rum Punch, a blend of juices from seasonal fruits (which might include locally grown pineapple, oranges and limes) and Tia Maria, the island-produced coffee liqueur.
Jamaica is known for beautiful artisan work, especially the wood carvings that are sold all over the island. With designs inspired by mother Africa, the carvings run anywhere from 80 to several hundred dollars, depending on intricacy and size. You'll find lots of options at Montego Bay's craft markets, and it's well worth bringing your best bargaining skills to the table to save a few bucks.
English is widely spoken and understood in Jamaica. But, when the locals talk among themselves, it's with a colorful patois, based on English but with a thick accent and different vocabulary that makes it hard for new arrivals to understand. To make it clear to salespeople and would-be chauffeurs that you don't need their wares or services, you can always invoke a friendly "Me no wanti" -- patois for "I don't want it" -- to make your point.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Jamaican dollar is the national currency, but U.S. dollars are readily accepted at most places, including all of the favorite haunts in Montego Bay. Be prepared: If you pay with U.S. dollars, your change might be returned to you in the local currency. For current currency conversion figures, visit Oanda.com or Xe.com.
There is no ATM machine at the Montego Freeport port, but cash machines can be found throughout town. Several stops along the Hot Spots Shuttle have Scotiabank ATM's, including the Harbour Street Craft Market, the Yacht Club and the Hip Strip across from the Jamaica Bobsled Cafe.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock a few miles outside of Montego Bay proper at the Montego Freeport port -- a rather unsightly complex surrounded by office parks. It's a five-minute, fixed-rate ride into Montego Bay from there ($5).
There's not a whole lot to see or do at the port itself, save for browsing the usual smattering of shops selling touristy items like Tortuga rum cakes and Red Stripe Beer baseball hats, complete with bottle openers in the visors. There is a small, indoor tiki bar of sorts inside the airy but dated terminal building, just in case you can't be bothered to venture farther afield for a tropical drink, but it lacks atmosphere in a big way. The port does serve its purpose as a departure point for catching taxis into town, and there's a Jamaica Tourism Board kiosk inside, too, where you can get tour advice and area info.
Just outside of the official port complex, behind a chainlink fence, is a rather ramshackle shopping area called the Montego Freeport Shopping Center. It's little more than a collection of beachwear and souvenir shops and empty offices. There is one homey-looking restaurant, Swizzle's, which sells inexpensive jerk specialties; the crowds, however, seem to be mostly due to the fact that there's free wireless Internet with your food or beverage purchase. Though you'll find a few restaurants within about 10 minutes' walking distance of the port (including a juice bar and seafood restaurant), you're better off heading into town for the most options and atmosphere.
On foot: Downtown Montego Bay is a 20-minute walk from the cruise port along a two-lane road that's fairly busy with traffic. Unless the weather is cool and you're up for some exercise, definitely spring for a taxi instead. As long as you're walking in daylight hours, safety is not an issue.
Taxis: Taxis line up where you exit the terminal building, and all of the taxis arriving there are licensed JUTA (Jamaica Union of Travelers Association) vehicles. (Look for the stickers.) Touts will often try to beckon you hither (and off port property) from behind the chainlink fence of the external shopping area, but you're best off going with a licensed JUTA taxi departing from the port itself for haggle-free, set fares. The cost of a cab ride from the cruise port to downtown Montego Bay is $5, and if you get off anywhere along the way, you'll have to pay another $5 to get back into town with another taxi or back to the ship. Rates are listed inside the terminal for taxi fares to popular north coast destinations, too, such as Falmouth and Dunn's River Falls.
Shuttles: If you'd like the option to hit a few of the town's sites (the Market, the beach, the Hip Strip) throughout the day, it's worth buying a Hot Spots Shuttle pass, which allows you to get on and off an air-conditioned bus as much as you like throughout the day for a flat $15 fare. The shuttle departs from the cruise ship terminal, and tickets can be purchased inside the port.
Car rentals: There are no car rentals at the port, but you can take a taxi to Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport, where Hertz, Budget, Avis and several local companies (Island Car Rental and Champagne Car Rental) are all represented. Expect to pay between $65 and $150 per day, and don't forget that Jamaicans drive on the left!
Watch Out For
While there aren't too many touts outside the terminal building itself, you're likely to be approached with offers for everything from tours and souvenirs to more illicit things in the town of MoBay itself. A firm "No, thank you," usually does the trick if you're not interested. Make no mistake that marijuana is illegal in Jamaica, and more than a few cruise-ship passengers and tourists have found themselves entangled with the local law after choosing to ignore that fact.
Mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies can be particularly brutal in Jamaica, due to its tropical climate. Be sure to use insect repellent frequently to avoid bites and potential illness. And don't forget the sunscreen, either.
Jamaica is known for its high crime rates, so be careful when carrying cash, purses or wallets, and leave any unnecessary valuables stowed in your in-cabin safe.
Duty-free shopping. Montego Bay's duty-free shopping in the City Centre shopping area stretches along one block downtown; there, you'll find gold, timepieces, perfumes, crystal, leather goods, souvenirs and boutique clothing.
MoBay's most upscale shopping center is located at Half Moon Shopping Village in the Rose Hall area, featuring fine duty-free shops, souvenir shops, clothing, restaurants and a post office in case you want to send some stuff home. You can buy everything from designer lingerie to Cuban cigars there. (Just smoke them before you head back to the U.S.!) Nearby, a new upscale shopping center is in the works at Whitter Village Centre .
Craft shopping. For sourcing everything from hand-carved wooden statues of eagles and sea turtles to rasta-themed baby clothes and those ubiquitous coconut-shell purses, set your sights on MoBay's two bustling craft markets. The Harbour Street Craft Market has the largest selection, and it's a good place to buy straw hats and bags and to meet the Montegonians who carve the wood sculptures onsite. The Old Fort Craft Park, next to the old fort, is a collection of wooden stalls with some good local wares, too. Just bring your bargaining skills to the table!
Golfing. Montego Bay has five championship courses within a short ride of the cruise port. If you only play one MoBay-area course, however, it's got to be the Tryall Club. Consistently ranked among the best in the Caribbean, the course has remnants of a historic 1800s estate incorporated into the holes, including an aqueduct at the seventh hole. The White Witch Golf Course, a par-71 course designed by Robert Van Hagge and Rick Baril, is spread on 600 acres and has panoramic ocean views from the 17th hole. Cinnamon Hill Golf Course at Rose Hall Resort underwent a redesign in 2001 and has a very challenging back nine overlooking a great house that was Johnny and June Cash's former home. SuperClubs Ironshore course is known for its challenging layout -- it's a par-72 and 6,633 yards long. And, the Robert Trent Jones-designed Half Moon Golf Course is a hit for its gorgeous ocean views and challenging drives.
Mystic Mountain. Ochos Rios' Mystic Mountain is a rainforest adventure park that's great for kids and adults and home to some very unique outdoor activities. The adventure begins with a ride on the Sky Explorer, a chairlift that soars 700 feet over the lush landscape below. Once at the top, travelers can opt to try the park's signature Bobsled Jamaica ride, the Zip-Line Canopy tour or a twisty slide that ends up in the mountaintop swimming pool. Have lunch, and take in the view from Lookout Tower before making your way back down the mountain on the chairlift.
Margaritaville. It's a Caribbean cliche, but high on the list of must-dos for many visitors to MoBay. Smack dab on the Hip Strip, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville us the spot to down a boatdrink (Buffettspeak for a fruity cocktail) and cheeseburger in paradise while watching people bounce on the trampolines in the ocean and fly down the waterslide that drops dead into the sea.
Hip strip. A stroll along the Hip Strip (also known as Gloucester Avenue), past bars and shops in MoBay's most bustling tourist district, which fronts the beach, is a must-do for every new arrival. Margaritaville is the hub of the Hip Strip action, but in the blocks nearby, you'll find other fun bars and hangout spots like the Jamaican Bobsled Cafe, Blue Beat jazz and blues bar and shops selling everything from swimwear to souvenir T-shirts.
Dunn's River Falls. It takes about an hour and a half by taxi to get from Montego Bay to Dunn's River Falls, these most famous of Jamaica's cascades near Ocho Rios, where you can climb 600 feet up from the base of the falls or retreat to the beach where the rushing water exits into the ocean.
Dolphin Cove. With Dolphin Cove locations both in Negril and Montego Bay, this marine theme park of sorts is the place to have encounters with dolphins in a controlled lagoon, pose with parrots and interact with stingrays and other marine animals.
Been There, Done That
Great Houses of Montego Bay. Tour the great houses near Montego Bay, including the magnificently restored 1760 Rose Hall Great House, Jamaica's most famed great house, which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, also known as the "The White Witch." Also in Montego Bay, the Greenwood Great House is more than 200 years old and was owned by the family of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, the famous English poet. Other great houses in the area include Bellefield Great House and Hampden Great House, home to a rum distillery and factory tour.
Richmond Hill Inn. Hire a taxi for the short ride (10 to 15 minutes from the port) to Richmond Hill Inn, where you can sit on the terrace and sip a cold beverage while taking in amazing vistas. Perched high over Montego Bay, you'll have views of the city and of your cruise ship, too.
YS Falls. Hire a taxi for the roughly 50-mile ride southwest to YS Falls, a seven-tiered waterfall in Jamaica's rugged Cockpit Country in St. Elizabeth parish, where you can swim in a setting with far fewer crowds than what you'd find on any given day at Dunn's River Falls.
Rocklands Bird Feeding Station and Sanctuary.: Spend the day at the Rocklands Bird Feeding Station and Sanctuary in the town of Anchovy (20 minutes by taxi from Montego Bay), where you can stroll a nature trail and hand-feed the friendly birds on property (and hopefully encounter a few of Jamaica's more than 20 endemic species, too).
Best Party Beach: Doctor's Cave Beach, on the Hip Strip and a stone's throw from party central hotpot Margaritaville, is the most happening party beach in MoBay. It's also the go-to destination for families and couples looking to lounge on the beach with amenities -- showers, food, and chair and umbrella rentals -- at the ready. And, locals claim the waters there have healing powers (all the better reason to spend your day splashing). It's a 10-minute and $5 taxi ride from the port to the beach.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Seawind Beach is a private club, a short walk (or ride) from the port, fronting an immaculately maintained if small stretch of sand that's dotted with lounge chairs and catamarans. With your entrance fee, you'll get access to the pool, too, and there's an on-site restaurant, as well. The shallow, protected beach there is great for families, and there are catamarans and other watercrafts available for rent.
Best Beach for Active Types: Formerly known as Walter Fletcher Beach, the beach now called Aquasol is an oceanfront theme park of sorts. There's a water park, go carts and a nice stretch of sand where you can rent jet skis and pedal boats and go on banana boat rides.
Best Secluded Beach: Cornwall Beach, on a crescent bay not far from the Hip Strip, has lots of room so you can wander off and find a quiet stretch of sand for spreading out your beach towel. You can rent lounge chairs there, too.
Jamaica's most famous cooking method is the process called jerking, wherein meats are marinated with dry or wet rubs made of a concoction of spices that might include pimento (all spice), sugar and scotch bonnet peppers. The meats are then cooked over wood coals. Don't leave Montego Bay without trying it, and wash it down the way the locals do -- with a cold Red Stripe Beer.
While there are a few restaurants along the road from the port to the town of MoBay, your best bet for the most varied dining options is the area in and around the Hip Strip. From laid-back restaurants where smoke from the jerk pits clouds the air to the more refined atmosphere of resort restaurants, there's a lunch niche for everyone. Here are some suggestions:
For something authentic and cheap, pop into one of the Jamaican patty shops (like the Tastee chain) for a hot, meat-filled dough pocket that goes for less than a buck.
Right on Doctor's Cave Beach, the Groovy Grouper is your quintessential island-style lunch spot, with things like jerked calamari, escovitch fish, bammy (cassava flatbread) and conch fritters. (Gloucester Avenue; it's open all day for lunch.)
The Pelican Bar & Grill, across from the ocean at the start of the Hip Strip, is a great place to try Jamaican fare like steamed snapper with pineapple ginger sauce, curried goat and fried johnnycakes. There are American standards like pork chops and roast beef on the menu, too. (Gloucester Avenue; it's open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
The Pork Pit, near Aquasol, has the best jerk chicken and pork in town. The restaurant is open-air, with lots of picnic tables set up around it and various bottles of hot sauce at the ready. (It's open all day from 11 a.m.)
Head to Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville on the Hip Strip for grilled fish, fajitas, cheeseburgers in paradise and Key lime pie, along with 52 flavors of margaritas. There's a water trampoline, rooftop hot tub and monster slide that plunges 110 feet into the Caribbean. (Facilities open from 10 a.m. daily, and lunch is served from 11 a.m.)
At The Native, a gourmet, open-air restaurant with ocean views, Jamaican fare is elegantly rendered in dishes like smoked marlin, grilled lobster and jerked seafood and meat. (Gloucester Avenue; it's open for lunch from 11 a.m.)
Splurge. The range of accommodations (from grand oceanfront villas to conventional hotel rooms) and endless activities (swimming, golf, tennis, scuba-diving, deep-sea fishing, horseback-riding, croquet, kids center, etc.) at Half Moon (888-830-5974) make it one of the top Montego Bay properties. (Hey, if it's good enough for celebrities, from the Queen of England to Spike Lee….) The beach at Rose Hall is one of the prettiest in MoBay -- you'll feel like you've had a vacation before you even leave for your cruise.
Family-friendly. Kids 12 and younger stay and eat for free at the Holiday Inn Sun Spree Resort Montego Bay (876-953-2485), an all-inclusive resort that fronts a half-mile stretch of sand just a few miles from the airport.
Close-to-Port Budget Option. Stay in the heart of the Hip Strip action and just five minutes by taxi from the port at Doctors Cave Beach Hotel (876-952-4355). Room decor is dated, but rates are reasonable for the location. Rooms and suites can accommodate up to four people.
Staying in Touch
While there's no Internet access in the port terminal itself, the nearby restaurant, Swizzle's, offers free wireless Internet (bring your own laptop) to guests who purchase food or drink there. Along the Hip Strip, you can get online at Internet Zone (47 Gloucester Ave.) and Cybershores Cafe at Doctor's Cave Beach.
Best for First Timers: The all-day "Dolphin Encounter Swim and Dunn's River Falls" tour has you climbing the 600-foot-high falls at Dunn's River Falls and swimming in the refreshing waters before heading next door to Dolphin Cove, where you'll learn about dolphins before swimming with them in the park's lagoon.
Best for Families: Add some action to your beach time at Sandy Bay by taking part in the half-day "Chukka Horseback Ride 'n Swim" tour. Kids 12 and older can saddle up for a ride along the coastline. Your horse will swim through the water at points, but you'll have time to swim on your own after the ride, too.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've been to Jamaica a few times already, chances are you're on a first-name basis with the country's pride and joy tipple, Appleton rum. Take part in the all-day "Appleton Estate Rum Tour," and you'll spend the day at the pretty 11,000-acre estate, a two-hour drive from Montego Bay. You'll learn about the process of rum-making, from cane grinding to distillation and oak barrel aging, and you'll even try your hand at crushing sugar cane.
Best for Active Travelers: Pair two adrenaline-fueled activities -- kayaking and zip-lining -- into one excursion with the half-day "Chukka Ultimate Kayak & Canopy Adventure" on the beautiful grounds of the Good Hope Great House. You'll paddle the currents on a two-mile course along the Great River before disembarking on the riverbank to ride a zip-line course over the forest canopy.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitjamaica.com
Tourist information: Jamaica Tourist Board, 800-JAMAICA (800-526-2422). A JTB kiosk is set up inside the port.
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--by Terry Ward, Cruise Critic Contributor