What a year this is for Jamaica. With the island having already caught the world’s attention with Kevin Macdonald’s excellent big-screen documentary on Bob Marley, the countdown is well under way to what could be the wildest 48-hour party the Caribbean has ever witnessed.
Sport, music and partying are pastimes that are readily enjoyed in Jamaica. Yet there is so much more to this island paradise.
This is a country that leaves you feeling energised and inspired at almost every turn, but one that also rewards those willing to resist the sun lounger.
As the flight carrying my wife and I dips down towards Montego Bay, what strikes me is just how green the land is. The lush, densely packed hills burst out like giant heads of broccoli, offering evidence that there is far more on offer here than just sun, sea and sand.
Montego Bay provides everything a sun-worshipper needs. But first we head south through the mango and ackee trees, and past the tempting jerk chicken shacks that line the hilltop villages.
We eventually hit St Elizabeth, one of 14 “parishes” in Jamaica.
Stopping at Jake’s at Treasure Beach, we are glad to put up our feet at a charming coastal retreat that has won recognition for its charitable reinvestment – a generosity that has helped revitalise the surrounding community.
It also does a thumping rum punch at Dougie’s Bar. Sitting here, watching the waves as they crash in from the ocean, is a fine way to finish any day.
After shrugging off the jetlag, it is time to explore. We take the short drive to Black River – which owes its name to the peat that darkens these undulating waters, which stretch for 53km.
The key advice here is to hop on a boat and keep your fingers away from the waiting crocodiles. They grow up to 4m, with teeth that could crunch through metal. Chunks of raw chicken are snapped up and a boatful of onlookers holds on tight.
“Don’t worry, they prefer posing for photos,” our guide chuckles. I’m not convinced.
Upstream, mangrove roots drop from great heights into the water, like giant dreadlocks. The country’s name – Xaymaca under Spanish colonial rule, before the British took control – translates as “land of wood and water”. It is easy to see why. Egret birds bounce from lilypad to lilypad, seemingly ignorant of the crocs that cruise nearby, eyeing their next meal.
With the day heating up, we decide it is time for a dip. But not here. Not with those wide-jawed beasts lurking with intent. Instead, we head to YS Falls – a stunning seven-tier waterfall.
The brave can take a 200m zipline all the way down – but I pass up this “opportunity”. We opt to cool off instead in one of the adjacent natural pools, immersed in refreshing spring waters and surrounded by red ginger lilies. This beats any hotel.
We would have happily spent the rest of the afternoon there if we did not plan to watch the sun go down at Rick’s Café, in the south of Negril.
This is a great place for those looking for more of a splash – if not a splash of their own making.
Here, you can grab a cold drink and settle down to watch the cliff divers who earn pocket money by making outrageous leaps into the water from swinging trees or rickety old platforms.
If you have enough spirit in you – and I don’t mean rum – you can even attempt a dive of your own. Again, we left that to the brave.
Returning to the north coast, it is time to meet the locals. We are introduced to Ed and Ramadal, who are going to give us a tour around their home at Sandy Bay.
Both have four legs, and let out a snort as they bear the brunt of two British tourists making their debuts on horseback.
“Steady boy,” our guide Tony tells Ramadal, as he threatens to carry me away at a gallop.
After a nervous start, we soon relax and enjoy the tranquil trot through hills lined with avocado and almond trees. Lime leaves scent the soothing coastal breeze as the sun beats down on our backs.
Don’t worry if, like us, you are a first-timer. These horses are ably cared for by accomplished staff and don’t even flinch when a beach buggy roars past.
Our tour is a perfect introduction for those who are new in the saddle, and we even end with a ride through the sea. The animals – neck deep in the water – flex their leg muscles to fetch us back to dry land.
Next we head east from our base at Montego Bay to Ocho Rios and the home of Dolphin Cove, where we tick off a long-held dream by swimming with those magical mammals.
Ritchie and Misty – real names and real flippers – are perfect hosts, welcoming us with a kiss, before showing off their dance moves and 5m leaps out of the water. All in tandem of course.
Greeting their visitors, the dolphins offer up their dorsal fins so we can hitch a ride around their pool. And soon they are propelling us through the water and up into the air – by driving us forward with their noses pressed against the soles of our feet.
What a feeling. You don’t need to be a kid to enjoy this.
Saying farewell, we take the 1.6km-long canopy chairlift towards the Mystic Mountain adventure park.
The views over Ocho Rios and back to Falmouth, visible at an ever-increasing height during this peaceful 15-minute ascent, are breathtaking.
And once you are there, you can race back down through the trees on a bobsleigh.
Yes, a bobsleigh. Remember the film Cool Runnings, the (true) tale of the adventures of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the Winter Olympics? The winter sport remains a big deal here, and Jamaica is trying to raise the profile further with this roller coaster ride.
Cocooned in a small metal pod, I am thrown into corners – and feel an impressive lot of G-Force. It is the fastest I will go on an island that defines the term “laid-back”.
It is a slight relief to slow down at the idyllic Half Moon resort – where Prince Harry rested on his recent visit (after being pictured with Bolt in the athlete’s iconic “To Di World” pose).
Feeling less energetic, we grab a cool beer and sit down in front of the fading sunset. It is an unforgettable end to an impressive holiday. This really is the year to make that trip to Jamaica. – Daily Mail
l For more on Jamaica, see www.visitjamaica.com