Top 10 Jamaica: land of wood and water

Asked to list the top ten things to do in Jamaica, Nazma Muller was spoilt for choice

Blue Mountains. Photograph by Varun BakerJake’s al fresco dining room. Photograph courtesy Sally HenzellOn Black River approaching “Mangrove Avenue” Photograph by Jeremy FrancisSunset on Jake’s Sprat Beach, Treasure Beach. Photograph courtesy Sally Henzell

As a child, listening to reggae on the radio in Trinidad, I dreamed of Jamaica; a land of great adventure, it seemed to me. All that sweet-sounding rebel music must come from a place to be reckoned with, I reasoned. And then, in 1995, I made my first trip, and the dream became reality. Everything I’d seen on TV, the images painted through reggae songs, was right in front of me. “While I’m living, thanks I’ll be giving/To the Most High…” On the streets the music was everywhere, from pirate DJs selling cassettes (imagine! Cassettes!), pon the bus, late at night from the clubs on Constant Spring Road. I could see the Blue Mountains, rising and falling across the heart of the island. I could smell the pungent ganja, mingling with the smoke from the grills of the pan chicken man. I could taste the jerk pork, sizzling and popping as it came off the woodpile. If I put my hands out, it seemed, I could feel the air vibrating with a riddim, so strong it made me feel to dance all the time.

And that was just Kingston. The other nine-tenths of the country, where the other half of the population lives, was another world. It was a world of pink sunsets on stunning beaches, rippling, mysterious rivers, and almost-spiritual waterfalls. There the ancient, mystical magnetism of the island that the Arawaks named Xaymaca, “the land of wood and water”, was even more powerful.

In the last 15 years, Jamaica has changed a lot: it’s more modernised, more sophisticated in many ways, and in that time, I have traversed all of the 14 parishes, and experienced some things that most of the million visitors to the island each year will never do, like walking alone at night along a mountain ridge at 7,000 feet, only the moonlight to guide me. It was scary at first, but then, when I let go of the fear – of the dark, of wild animals, of bandits waiting in the bushes – and I looked out across the mountain valley, to the Blue Mountain Peak, and the hundreds of glittering stars above, I felt as if I were standing on top of the world. I’ve been to King’s House, the official residence of the head of state, when Howard Cooke was Governor General, and he was raising rabbits in the backyard (or one-tenth of the backyard – it’s a massive, sprawling ground in the middle of Hope Road); and then again for the inauguration of Jamaica’s first female prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller.

So many amazing experiences in one place: I swam in the sea in water so clear I could see transparent jellyfish (Lime Cay); ate jerk chicken linguini at Jake’s in Treasure Beach; and climbed Mahoe Falls, above Ochi, where I played out my fantasy of being the girl in the red T-shirt on the Jamaica Tourist Board ad from way back in 1972. (Ironically, she was a Trinidadian, Sintra Arunte-Bronte.) The waterfalls are not as steep as Dunn’s River Falls and more secluded. On my visit I had the falls to myself.

But even though I’ve also done the tourist circuit and visited many of Jamaica’s attractions – Frenchman’s Cove (stormed a sold-out party there by sea); taken a boat up Black River among the alligators (met the friendliest ganja farmer selling drinks on the bank); and climbed Dunn’s River Falls without any help (not an easy feat, let me tell you) – I was flipping through a Destination Jamaica book the other day and realised that there are still at least ten more things I must do before I die. (It’s really 20, but one must not be greedy.)

I already have my Jamaican itinerary for my next life planned, too: Kool Runnings water park; Oktoberfest, the annual festival with German beers and wine put on by the Jamaican German Society; and the World Championship of Dominoes. Oh, and since I’ll be young and fit again, I’ll hike to Blue Mountain Peak and peer through the swirling mist for a glimpse of Cuba.

Jamaica Top 10

1   Ride camels! (Prospect Plantation in Ocho Rios)

2   Go parasailing in Negril

3   Go rafting
down the Rio Grande

4   Learn to play golf so I can try out the courses that the PGA tours have played on at the Tryall Club in Montego Bay

5   Learn to dive so I can swim with nurse sharks and turtles on the reefs; then go on a treasure hunt dive off Port Royal. In 1692, there was a huge earthquake and the northern part of the “wickedest city on earth” sank into the sea. On the seabed are also ships bearing gold and jewels. It is considered the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere, with 16th- and 17th-century artifacts and treasures from pirate ships that sank in Kingston Harbour

6   Stay at Half Moon Resort
. Any resort that boasts a Robert Trent Jones golf course, 13 tennis courts and four squash courts, and 51 swimming pools must be experienced, even if it costs your arm and leg

7   Eat shrimp at Jake’s in Treasure Beach. And when I say eat shrimp, I mean eat all the shrimp dishes. A week of dinners there should do me: garlic shrimp, stir fry shrimp, shrimp in coconut cream, crusted coconut shrimp, shrimp kebab… of course I will probably die from all the cholesterol, but it would be worth it

8   “Zip” on a wire through a densely forested canyon, 1,200 feet above sea level, on the Zipline Canopy tour

9   And then, just to compare, I’d do the Jamaica Zipline Adventure Tours in Lethe, Hanover. The 250-foot jungle bridge looks intriguing – very Indiana Jones

10  Soak in Mayfield Falls and Mineral Springs (near Negril and Montego Bay).