Montego Bay, Jamaica
Known fondly as MoBay, Montego Bay is the second-largest city in Jamaica and the country's lively epicenter of tourism: Cruise ships frequent its port, and many of the visitors who arrive in Jamaica by plane land just east of Montego Bay at the Sangster International Airport.
The waterfront is lined with white-sand beaches, hotels and elegant resorts. Its main attractions include championship golf courses, excellent beaches, the Montego Bay Marine Park, and some classic Georgian architecture downtown. Gloucester Avenue, known locally as the Hip Strip, parallels the shore and is the commercial tourist hub.
Because it's a much larger city than Jamaica's other tourist areas, Montego Bay offers more in the way of sightseeing, shopping and nightlife.
Must See or Do
Sights—Snorkeling and diving at Montego Bay Marine Park; Doctor's Cave Beach, with its fine vistas across the bay.
Museums—Rose Hall Great House, recalling the historic significance of the plantation-slave era; Croydon Plantation, granting a latter-day perspective on the workings of a modern sugar plantation.
Memorable Meals—Hearty Jamaican fare at the historic Town House By the Sea; nouvelle cuisine at the Houseboat Grill International Restaurant; mouth-searing jerk chicken, pork or fish at Scotchies.
Late Night—Nonstop partying on the Hip Strip; letting your hair down at Margaritaville; the Monday-night street party on Gloucester Avenue; jazz and drinks at Blue Beat on the Hip Strip.
Walks—The historic downtown, with its colorful, bustling life, Sam Sharpe Square, St. James Parish Church and the craft market.
Especially for Kids—Go-karts and safe swimming at AquaSol Theme Park; exploring the undersea world aboard a semisubmarine with bubble-dome windows.
The largest town on the north coast, Montego Bay occupies a broad valley and the slopes of the surrounding Bogue, Kempshot and Salem hills. The beaches line the east side of the bay, north of downtown.
Residents tend to live downtown, south of the square and in the hills. Hotels, tourist-oriented businesses and vendors are concentrated to the north along Gloucester Avenue—the main tourist strip. The main all-inclusive resorts line the sandy shore and extend for several miles/kilometers east of the airport, which is northeast of town.
Highway A1 (the North Coast Highway) is the main thoroughfare. Upgrades to the road have reduced the drive time from Montego Bay to the other major cities.
Christopher Columbus named the bay Golfo de Buen Tiempo, or Gulf of Fair Weather. Montego's modern name comes from the Spanish Bahia de Manteca, or Bay of Pigs' Lard, after the large quantity of lard exported by the Spanish. (It came from the wild boars that lived in the hills around the bay.) The Spanish also planted sugarcane, importing slaves from Africa to work the plantations. After the British drove the Spanish out in 1655, they continued the plantation tradition. The town grew with warehouses and lavish homes sprouting up along the waterfront.
Around Christmas 1831, slave and part-time preacher Sam Sharpe convinced other slaves to stage a nonviolent strike. The rebellion turned violent, however, and it was brutally suppressed by British troops. Sharpe and several other slaves were hanged in Montego Bay. The square where the gallows stood is now named for Sharpe (a statue there honors him as a national hero).
Early seeds of tourism were sown in Montego Bay when wealthy plantation owners took their families to Doctor's Cave Beach, where the mineral springs were thought to have curative powers. By 1908, the Montego Bay Citizens' Association was promoting the city as "the most beautiful spot in Jamaica." Although hotels emerged, tourism remained limited until the advent of commercial jet aviation. Ensuing decades witnessed construction of top-class hotels in the hills, and all-inclusive resorts were built in the 1980s. Cruise traffic has been given a boost by enhancements to the harbor, and a new convention center is located just east of the city.
As many as four cruise ships can dock at the pier in Montego Bay's Freeport zone, about 3 mi/5 km west of downtown. The city spreads east and north around the harbor from the Freeport zone past the town center and the tourist district. There's a tourist-information booth in the cruise-ship terminal, a telecommunications center (phone, Internet and fax services), a refreshment stand and many duty-free shops.
When you get off your ship you'll walk into a fenced, secure area that's off-limits to vendors and unlicensed taxis. There's plenty of licensed transportation available. A taxi ride to the city center will cost about US$5. We advise against walking from the terminal to town: It's a hot, shadeless 3-mi/5-km hike. There is no bus service between the pier and town.
Another option is to take one of the JCAL (Jamaica Cooperative Automobile & Limousine Tours; phone 876-971-8063) or JUTA shuttles (phone 876-952-0813) that run from the pier. They charge about US$5 to the city center. If you specify a time that you want to return to the pier, the driver will return for you.
The Jamaica Tourist Board office has moved from its previous location on Gloucester Avenue to the Jamaican Tourism Centre, 18 Queens Drive. It is open Monday-Friday 8:30 am-4:30 pm and Saturday 9 am-1 pm. Phone 876-952-4425.
The Tourism Product Development Co. (TPDCO) licenses attractions (Jamaica has 150 licensed attractions, more than any other Caribbean island). It is located in the Jamaican Tourism Centre and is open Monday-Thursday 8:30 am-5 pm and Friday 8:30 am-4 pm. Phone 876-979-7987. http://www.tpdco.org.
Consider signing up for the excursions offered by your ship. They may not be the least expensive way to see the island, but you won't have to waste your limited time making arrangements yourself—and you won't have to worry about missing the ship.
Typical excursions out of Montego Bay are tours of historic houses and plantations, a round of golf, overland treks by bus or on horseback, and forays to explore underwater mysteries in a semisubmersible boat or through a snorkeling mask.
Shore excursions—and their prices—vary from cruise line to cruise line. Check with your ship's shore-excursion staff or your travel agent for additional information.
The expanse of land from the Hip Strip to the Parish Library was once part of the shore, and all development there is fairly recent, within the past 30-50 years.
Doctor's Cave Beach does not have a cave. It was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1800s.
The Morant Point Lighthouse—an unmistakable red-and-white, 100-ft/31-m tall, 18-ft/5.6-km wide cast-iron tower—was built in 1841 and is the oldest lighthouse in Jamaica.
The Burchell Baptist Church was a haven for freed slaves and was where Sam Sharpe, one of seven national heroes, instigated the rebellion that led to the 1834 Abolition Bill.
The Montego Freeport was originally a group of keys to the west of Montego Bay. The harbor was dredged and the land built up to facilitate this development.
The tiny cemetery at the end of the Hip Strip is the little-known Jewish cemetery, with gravestones dating back hundreds of years. The cemetery was declared a national monument in 1993.
Montego Bay is a golfer's nirvana with several championship courses within a 10-minute drive of one another.
How Stella Got Her Groove Back was filmed at Villa No. 11 at the Round Hill Resort in 1998. After romancing Angela Bassett in the film, actor Taye Diggs returned to the luxurious resort in 2003 to marry Broadway singer Idina Menzel in a fairy-tale seaside wedding.
See & Do
You can easily explore downtown Montego Bay on foot if you have tolerance for vendors (keep your sense of humor). The town is almost always crowded with local shoppers and noisy with the sounds of reggae music wafting from the clubs and from car radios. Much of MoBay consists of modern structures built on land reclaimed from mangrove keys in the 1960s, but there are many fine historic buildings of note concentrated around Sam Sharpe Square.
Several elegantly restored homes from the 1700s now contain restaurants. One example is the Georgian House on Orange Street, which also has an art gallery.
Northeast of downtown are the meager ruins of Fort Montego, built in 1752 on a hill overlooking the harbor. Three of the fort's 17 original cannons are still pointed out to sea.
Two of Jamaica's best-known "great houses," Rose Hall and Greenwood, are near Montego Bay. Built and lavishly furnished by English aristocrats, they recount the island's plantation history better than any history book or tour brochure. Tours of both houses are offered.
Bellefield Great House
Located on the 3,000-acre/1,215-hectare Barnett Estate near Montego Bay, this restored historic house is open to visitors and offers guided tours. The great house is furnished in period style, and the former overseer's home, also restored, is today a museum retracing the history of the Montego Bay region. The museum focuses on the Kerr-Jarrett family, which has owned the estate for around 300 years. The Bellfield Restaurant is a popular stop for tourists. Daily 10 am-5 pm. Tours US$20 adults; meals US$20. Highway A1, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-2382. http://www.bellefieldgreathouse.com.
Greenwood Great House
The large collection of antique musical instruments and original furniture make this mansion well worth a visit. The house, which is about 5 mi/8 km east of Rose Hall on the North Coast Highway, was built in the latter part of the 1700s by former Jamaican planter-politician Sir Richard Barrett, a cousin of the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A collection of antique carriages is also on display, as are antiquarian books and slave shackles. The property has a traditional pub and a gift shop. Daily 9 am-6 pm. Last tour starts at 5 pm. US$20 adults, US$10 for children younger than 12. Highway A1, Montego Bay. Phone 876-953-1077. http://www.greenwoodgreathouse.com.
Rose Hall Great House
Built in the late 1700s on a hillside overlooking the sea, Rose Hall was considered the finest house on the island when completed. It was destroyed by fire in the 1831 Christmas Rebellion and, fortunately, rebuilt and restored to its former grandeur in 1966. Besides its fine position and magnificent antique furnishings, Rose Hall's main attraction stems from a legend that the house is haunted by one of its previous occupants, a woman named Annie Palmer (also known as the White Witch of Rose Hall), who is buried on the grounds. According to legend, she killed several husbands and lovers in the mansion before she was murdered. (The truth is tamer: The original mistress of Rose Hall, Rose Palmer, did have four husbands, but she was happily married to the last one and died peacefully before him.) The graves of her husbands are said to be marked by three palm trees, which are visible from the house. Daytime guided tours begin whenever visitors arrive, starting at 9:15 am and ending at 5:15 pm. Tours last 45 minutes and end in the gift shop and pub, where traditional fare is served. Nightly tours are available Monday-Saturday 6-10 pm. US$20 adults, US$10 children younger than 12. Highway A1, Montego Bay. Phone 876-953-2323. http://www.rosehall.com.
Sam Sharpe Square
Also called The Parade, this small cobbled square forming the node of downtown is one of Jamaica's most revered sites. It contains a fountain and a statue of Sharpe, a black Jamaican preacher who led an 1831 slave rebellion and advocated nonviolent resistance. (Sharpe was hanged for his actions.) The square is surrounded by Georgian buildings. To the northwest corner stands The Cage, a cut-stone building once used as a jail for runaway slaves that now sells T-shirts and phone cards. The handsome Civic Center, to the southwest, has a small museum tracing local history. It occupies the former site of the Court House, which was built in 1804 but destroyed by a fire in 1968. St. James and Market streets, Montego Bay.
St. James Parish Church
Dedicated to St. James, patron saint of Spain, this Anglican church was built between 1775 and 1782. It stands in an overgrown graveyard that has seen better days but is intriguing for its weathered gravestones—many dating back more than two centuries. It has been restored following damage caused by a devastating earthquake in 1951. The church contains fine marble statuary, an elaborate Palladian window behind the altar, and fine examples of stained-glass windows. Church Street, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-2775.
The Old Jewish Cemetery
At the end of Gloucester Avenue and managed by the St. James Parish Council, this is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the Caribbean. The gates are kept locked, but the Jamaica National Heritage Trust can arrange entry. Phone 876-922-1287.
What may be the island's best-kept secret, the Fire Hole in Runaway Bay is a saltwater spring bubbling with flammable natural gases that create floating flames when lit. The mystical firewater (officially called Windsor Spring) is believed to relieve symptoms of tired muscles and itchy insect bites.
Montego Bay Marine Park
The park is an area that runs for 6 mi/9 km along the coast and encompasses the Bogue mangrove system and most of the bay. Motorized watercraft are regulated, and fishing is prohibited. Visitors can see the Bogue shoreline and reefs, and learn about efforts to stabilize and protect marine life across Jamaica. The underwater world proves fascinating to snorkelers and divers. Monday-Friday 9 am-5 pm. Free. The Resource Center, Pier 1 Marina, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-5619. http://www.mbmp.org.
Parks & Gardens
The heritage tours at this family-owned estate show you what it was like living and working back in the plantation days. Unfortunately, Belvedere was one of the first estates to be burned during the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, so most of the historic sites on the plantation are in ruins or have been reconstructed. However, a jitney tour through the working plantation provides a fascinating insight into the raising of tropical fruits and of cattle. There is a re-creation of a post-emancipation village that is staffed by locals in period costumes, including a blacksmith, baker, herbalist and canoe-maker. Lunch is served daily at Trash House Restaurant and Bar, where the sugarcane trash (cane fibers that were burned for fuel) was once stored, and visitors can also picnic on the grounds. Daily 10 am-4 pm. US$15. Chester Castle, off the B-7 (near the village of Montpelier), Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-6001.
This place is a 132-acre/53-hectare working pineapple and coffee plantation. The property was the birthplace of Samuel Sharpe, who led the 1831 Christmas Rebellion that helped bring about the abolition of slavery. On a half-day estate tour, you can learn about the preparation of coffee, honey, pineapples and more. (Tastings of various types of pineapples are part of the experience.) Guided tours are offered 10:30 am-3:30 pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is reserved for cruise ship visitors. Office open daily 8:30 am-4:30 pm. US$70 tour includes a barbecue lunch and Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee. Off Highway B-6 (near Catadupa), Montego Bay. Phone 876-979-8267. http://www.croydonplantation.com.
AquaSol Theme Park
This stretch of sand offers the usual watersports and is a perfect beach for young children. There are go-karts and tennis courts on-site. It has fine white sand nestled in the arm of the bay, and the water is calm even on windy days. Open daily 9 am-6 pm. Bar stays open until 10 pm. Admission: US$5 adults, US$3 children younger than 11. Rental prices: Jet Ski US$75 per half-hour, waterskiing US$55 per 15 minutes, banana-boat ride US$25 per 10 minutes. Walter Fletcher Beach on Gloucester Avenue, Montego Bay. Phone 876-979-9447.
Pirate's Paradise Water Park
Features a pirate ship, fort, waterslides and Blackbeard's Lazy River. Open daily 10 am-6 pm. All-inclusive day pass US$60 adults, US$40 children. Located at Sunset Beach Resort and Spa (west of the Montego Freeport cruise docks), Montego Bay. Phone 876-979-8800. Toll-free 800-234-1707. http://www.sunsetbeachresortjamaica.com.
Sugar Mill Falls Water Park
Even those who are not guests of the Rose Hall Resort & Spa can spend the day splashing through cascading waterfalls, a 280-foot thrill slide, lagoons, a lazy river and three terraced pools. The jungle garden lets adventurers explore a suspension bridge, faux rock formations and replicas of the aqueducts of the former Rose Hall Plantation. US$65 adults, US$45 children. Prices include meals. Phone 876-953-2650. http://www.rosehallresort.com.
Zoos & Wildlife
Children will love this attraction in the hills south of MoBay. Dozens of tropical bird species can be seen in cages, and geese and other fowl roam wild. Be sure to check out Rasta Fowl chickens with feathers that resemble dreadlocks. Donkey rides are offered, and it has a petting zoo. Trails lead into the adjacent forest. Open Monday-Friday 10 am-5 pm. US$3. Phone 876-899-0040. http://animalfarmjamaica.com.
Fish World Attractions
This attraction in Savannah-la-Mar is an hour away from Montego Bay through the mountains. The 200-acre/81-hectare property, which was once a rice and sugar plantation, offers fishing (you can have your catch cooked), horseback riding, an ATV trail and a nature tour. Open daily 9 am-6 pm (open Monday only if a cruise ship is in port). Activity prices range US$30-$45. US$82 combo packages include lunch and transportation. Phone 876-955-4929 or 876-492-5631.
Rocklands Feeding Station
Tour this sanctuary to see various trees and birds that are indigenous to Jamaica. Guests are permitted to feed the birds. Be aware that there is no snack bar or gift shop. Open daily 10 am-5 pm. Admission fee is US$15 for adults. Children are half price. Located in Anchovy, a 20-minute ride south from Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-2009 or 876-871-4759.
Montego Bay is all about the water. Visitors flock to the lovely beaches to indulge in sailboarding, fishing, snorkeling and glass-bottomed-boat tours. Even horseback rides on the beach can be arranged, and local golf courses sport a few holes with great views of the bay. If you want a more relaxing day on the water, you can take a raft ride down the Martha Brae River in nearby Falmouth.
Montego Bay is bordered by lovely white-sand beaches, most of which offer changing facilities and a variety of watersports. Cornwall Beach
A stretch of white sand with a range of facilities, this beach is ideal for travelers not staying at a seaside resort or for those who go into Montego Bay but want a few hours away from the stores. A restaurant, gift shop, changing facilities, umbrellas and chairs are all on-site, and snorkeling gear is available to rent. US$5. http://www.cornwallbeachja.com.
Dead End Beach
This beach is located where Kent Avenue dead-ends near the airport. The narrow strip of sand is more exposed than the public beaches in town but a lot less crowded. Its waters are part of the Montego Bay Marine Park, so take your snorkeling gear, bottled water and a snack: There are no facilities or concessions. Also be aware that there are no lifeguards. There is a tiny strand where photographers and aviation aficionados go to watch jets take off and land.
Doctor's Cave Beach
This is MoBay's most popular beach, located north of the city center. The white sand is fine, the waters are safe for swimming and there are several tree-shaded restaurants and bars. The waters are reported to have healing powers and are fed by an underground system of streams. You can also snorkel in the underwater park along a coral reef that you can swim to from the beach. Families tend to go on Sunday, along with cruise-ship passengers. Admission is US$5. Rental of snorkeling equipment is US$5. Off Gloucester Avenue, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-2566. http://www.doctorscavebathingclub.com.
Walter Fletcher Beach
A relaxing city oasis facing the Hip Strip, the beach is a compact cove with calm, kid-friendly water and ample shade.
Rocklands Bird Sanctuary
This world-famous birding site was the lifework of the renowned late ornithologist Lisa Salmon. More than 100 species of native and migratory birds have been spotted, including Jamaica's national bird, the doctor bird (or streamertail hummingbird). Visitors are given hand-feeders that attract the tiny doctor birds. Be sure to take a camera (and extra memory and batteries) as the photo ops are awesome. Daily 9 am-6 pm. Tours start as early as 7 am and should be arranged in advance. The best time to feed the birds is between 3 pm and dusk, when they flock in. US$8. Near Anchovy, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-2009.
Boating & Sailing
The sea is rough outside the protected bays and coves, so no one rents powerboats or large sailboats. For fun in the bay, try a small Sunfish, available for rent at all major beaches (US$30 per hour).
Party cruises are offered by several boat operators. Because the lineup of companies is subject to change, contact the Jamaica Tourist Board for current information on tour operators and trips. Phone 876-952-4425.
If you want to observe marine life, book a glass-bottomed-boat tour from any of the main beaches and sail out to the airport reefs for around US$30 per half-hour. If you are feeling adventurous, try a trip in a semisubmersible vessel that takes you 10 ft/6.5 m underwater.
In Falmouth, about 25 mi/40 km east of Montego Bay, you can go rafting on the Martha Brae River. It's a relaxing way to experience the tropical rain forest. (Wear clothes that can take a good soaking.) Open 9 am-5 pm. Two per raft US$55. Trip lasts one and a half hours. Contact River Raft Limited at 876-952-0889. Another option is Mountain Valley Rafting, west of Montego Bay, which takes you on a ride down the tranquil Great River, stopping for a swim whenever you like. Open 8:30 am-4:30 pm. Two per raft US$45. Trip lasts one hour. Phone 876-956-4920. Calico Sailing & Undersea Tours
This company is a popular choice for an outing. The pirate ships Calico A and Calico B are wooden, gaff-rigged, semisubmersible schooners. Daily except Wednesday. Day sail US$60 10 am-1 pm. Sunset sail US$40 5-7 pm. Tours sail from Pier 1, Montego Bay. Phone 876-952-5860. http://www.calicojamaica.net.