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Jamaica Travel Guide

How to Take a Road Trip to Jamaica’s Lesser Known Gems

Don't miss out on all Jamaica has to offer by only staying at your all-inclusive resort.

Jamaica is known for its stunning beaches that attract tourists from all over the world but when it comes to accommodations, visitors have choices of many different all-inclusive experiences, such as resorts and fully-staffed Airbnbs. These experiences reign the North Coast, tucking the local community behind and in the mountains.

If you’ve been to Jamaica before, the North Coast is probably all you know. Upon arrival, you most likely flew into Montego Bay, where you received a warm tourist welcome. But this sliver of the country can feel isolating when cooped up in your all-inclusive resort. With new highways and better routes to the local towns and the capital city of Kingston, more and more tourists are venturing beyond their hotels to discover all that Jamaica has to offer.

Jamaica Tourist Board

My mother’s side of the family is Jamaican. My grandmother and her 10 siblings grew up in St. Elizabeth, and my grandfather and his eight siblings grew up in Mandeville. These towns are situated at the top of mountain ranges on the southern edge of Cockpit Country. I’ve been to these towns countless times in my life, taking in the views of steep drops and hills that seem like there is never a peak, but in recent years it’s been amazing to see the transformation of the countryside and its roads. 

Each time I go back to this part of the island, more potholes are filled. Those hairpin turns from my childhood (the culprit of past car sickness) have new warning signs, while those bumpy, unpaved roads are now smoothed with tarmac. With the arrival of the toll road in 2021, making a trip from Kingston to Mandeville can take under two hours. With more direct flights to Kingston from New York, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami, it’s easier than ever to plan a trip to the local side of Jamaica.

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INSIDER TIPHire a driver! Jamaican roads are made for driving on the left, which can be difficult for tourists used to driving on the right side of the road. 

How to Spend Time in Kingston

I landed in Kingston, a business-centric city with low buildings and diverse neighborhoods. While not the best for beaches, Kingston has the seventh largest port in the world. At night, the port looks like a mega-city, with millions of small lights twinkling against the stark black night. It’s a breathtaking view while you dance the night away at a party or enjoy dinner at a waterfront restaurant. This is the perfect spot to start a road trip through the South Coast, a trip that I have been doing since before I could walk.

When the sun rises and the phantom city fades, the actual city becomes alive. Commuters come in from different parishes and the outskirts of Kingston and the routine bustle begins. Start the day with a few museums in the city. A must-visit is the Bob Marley Museum housed within the last home he lived in Jamaica. Other great attractions in the city include the National Gallery of Jamaica and Devon House, the home of the first Jamaican millionaire.

Jamaica Tourist Board

Manchester and St. Elizabeth

A day or two is all you really need in Kingston. The city is largely a business center but can still serve as the perfect base if you want to see both the east and west sides of the South Coast. You can take a day to head up to the Blue Mountains. Make sure to try to get a tour of the many coffee houses in the mountain range, where experts demonstrate the process of Jamaican coffee making with the traditional way of explaining things in Jamaica—a long-winded speech with many deeper meanings.

Once you’ve exhausted most of what Kingston and the Blue Mountains have to offer, the next places for you to go on this road trip of the South are the two parishes that my family comes from, Manchester and St. Elizabeth. Manchester parish should pop up first on this trip, with many roadside stops along the way. You can pick up jerk-spiced meals, steaming soups, refreshing coconuts, and much more by pulling over to the vendors on the side of the smaller roads once you get past the main new highway that takes you to and from Kingston and its respective parish.

Jamaica Tourist Board

The main town in Manchester is Mandeville. This land-locked town is known as the capital and largest town of the parish, with over 50,000 people. You’ll run into views of the inside of the island, looking down from Spur Tree Hill to see the specks of homes and towns in the valleys below and the other mountain ranges in each direction. If you need a break here, head into the town center and try one of the local restaurants, but be patient, as Jamaican meals take time to make. This would also be a good place to stop for a night before continuing your trip through the South Coast.

As you continue to drive through Mandeville to the west, you’ll soon come to some of the top nature attractions in the South Coast. The first notable place is Bamboo Avenue, a 2.5-mile road lined with bamboo trees that create a shaded canopy along the road. Vendors are scattered along this road, and it’s a perfect place to make a quick stop for local snacks and souvenirs. I have many memories on this road with some of the people I cherish most in this world. It’s a part of the trip that’s always been unavoidable for me, as it connects my family to some of the top tourist attractions in the South Coast.

Once you’re past the avenue, Y.S. Falls are not too far from this point. From zip-lining through the canopy of the forest to the falls below, this is a stellar option for adrenaline junkies looking for some adventure.

Jamaica Tourist Board

Jamaica’s West Coast

At this point, the West Coast should slowly start to appear. The last roadside stop to make is on the road that takes you through Middle Quarters. Vendors here have a specialty called peppered shrimp, a snack that marks you are closer to the west beaches and the dramatically large Black River.

There is plenty to do here and it is a peaceful, unique escape from the crowded beaches of the North Shore. The river tours explain the history of the longest river in Jamaica and show off the diverse flora and fauna. These river tours are maybe the most serene experience in the west, so don’t be surprised if you or anyone else on the boat takes a quick nap. From here, finish with a late lunch or early dinner at Floyd’s Pelican Bar. This bar is off the coast and quite literally in the middle of the ocean. You’ll have to take a small boat, or be a triathlete who can swim up to the bar. Order traditional Jamaican meals and while you wait, take a swim around the bar or enjoy an ice-cold Red Stripe lager.

After a jam-packed day (or a few) of seeing a part of Jamaica that most tourists have never seen, you can choose what you want to do next. From Black River, you can either head back to Kingston to catch a flight home or back to Montego Bay to relax at one of the all-inclusive resorts that the island is known.

Jamaica will always be home for me. Each time I come to this island, there is something new that makes the trip to the South and West Coast both easier and more accessible. On my last visit, I could see how much Jamaica has grown and yet retains those unique characteristics that make this island so special.