You should be feeling irie (good) if you're going to Jamaica. At around 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, it is one of the few Caribbean islands big enough to offer a real variety of scenery, from misty mountains and jungle to classic white-sand beaches, rolling pasture and even the bizarre, broccoli-like hills of Cockpit Country. It may be best-known to holidaymakers as the home of the all-inclusive resort but, sandwiched between Cuba and Honduras, with the Cayman Islands to the west and Haiti to the east, it has far more to offer than simply sun, sand and sea.
From the scruffy but lively capital, Kingston, in the south, Jamaica spreads out east across the Blue Mountains to the remote, lush districts of St Thomas and Portland. In the west are the big tourist resorts of Montego Bay and Negril, and, in the centre, industrious St Catherine, St Mary, St Ann (which includes the third in the Jamaican trinity of big resorts, Ocho Rios) and Clarendon. The south-west of the country, around the rural parishes of St Elizabeth and Manchester, is further off the tourist track, but there is a whole host of quirky places to stay (see below) and visit here.
The "one love" ethos that's bandied around may not always ring true, but with music serenading you on your way, the colourful Rasta culture, delicious plates of jerk meat and ackee and saltfish to tuck into and rum punch to wash it down with, Jamaica is one of the most exciting destinations in the Caribbean.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
With some history. The first people to live on Jamaica were the Taino Indians, who paddled their way across from what's now Venezuela around 1,100 years ago. Most of what you'll see on the island today, however, is colonial or post-colonial since almost all traces of the Tainos (including the people themselves) were wiped out by Jamaica's Spanish conquerors within 150 years of arriving on the island (Christopher Columbus was the first European to step ashore, in 1494).
The Spanish initially settled in St Ann's Bay on the north coast but soon established a capital at Spanish Town in the south. This remained the capital until the late 19th century when it shifted to Kingston, although in the middle of the 17th century Jamaica was wrested from the Spanish by the British; the "Maroons" who today live under semi-autonomous rule in parts of eastern Jamaica are descended from the African slaves the Spanish freed on their way off the island.
The British quickly developed Port Royal, outside Kingston, into a military base, cleverly persuading the infamous local buccaneers to defend the harbour in return for letting them use it as a base (in a bizarre twist, the most famous of these, Henry Morgan, was eventually made Lieutenant Governor of the island).
But perhaps the biggest impact that British colonists had in Jamaica was by establishing massive sugar estates and, later, banana plantations. Not only did this affect Jamaica's economy and strategic power, but, until slavery was abolished in 1834, these were run on slave labour. Although immigration would later bring significant numbers of Chinese, Indians and Germans to the island, it was the African slaves who made up the majority of Jamaican society. Gradually the call for independence grew louder and, in 1962, the island finally achieved it.
WHAT CAN I SEE?
There are a lot of architecturally important buildings in Jamaica but preservation doesn't seem to be a priority, so if you're interested in history go now before they crumble altogether.
If you're flying in to Kingston, start near the airport, in Port Royal. One of the world's biggest ports in 17th century, this was Henry Morgan's favourite haunt and was commonly dubbed "the wickedest city in the world". Earthquakes and lack of funds have reduced it to a scruffy fishing village these days but there's still plenty to see if you seek it out, from what's left of Fort Charles and the grandiose old naval hospital to balconied old buildings and an interesting church. …