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.
Port of Montego Bay
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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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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.
Good to Know
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. Marijuana or ganja is smoked openly, but make no mistake: Drugs are illegal in Jamaica.
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.
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 are all represented. Expect to pay between $65 and $150 per day, and don't forget that Jamaicans drive on the left!
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 www.xe.com or www.oanda.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.
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.
Food and Drink
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; 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; 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. (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.)
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.
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.
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