A Mini City Guide
It’s very rare for me to write a guide for a location that I never really get to grips with. Jamaica may seem teeny on a map, but it actually spans 146 miles and would take you around 7 hours to get from one end to the other. The capital Kingston is pretty vast (about a third of the size of London) but as I’ve never had the chance to explore alone, I’ve found it tricky to work out where everything is in relation to each other.
Usually this would stress me out when I travel, but I’ve come to realise that my relationship with this city is going to take a little longer to develop. My family live about twenty miles away from Kingston, so although it’s the nearest big city with an airport, most of our trips there can be pretty fleeting (plus there’s rush-hour traffic to deal with). You head to where you want to go, stay for as long as you need to and don’t really discover anywhere in between.
I’m by no means an expert (and woefully unfamiliar with the nightlife), but I thought I’d share a few unmissable parts. Although Kingston is the capital, the majority of tourists fly into Montego Bay on the other side of the island and head to the big resorts. There’s so much history to be discovered here, whether you want to learn more about the national hero Marcus Garvey or explore the area where pirates plundered the high seas.
Logistically it makes sense to spend a few days in town. Hotels around the island can provide excursions, but this often means a long drive and I’d always advise visitors to mix up locations. Spend a few days at the beach and balance it out with exploring a major city.
Here’s a few things I’d recommend seeing, in order to get a fuller picture of what Jamaica is really like.
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The Grand Architecture At Devon House
People were starting to comment on my Instagram photos (well my Mum) as I’d visited a certain location three times, but hear me out! In a similar way to a National Trust property (but with far better weather), Devon House is just a nice, relaxing place to pass the time. The 19th century mansion offers tours, shopping and the tastiest ice-cream you’ll find on the island. I used it as a meeting point for friends since it’s far more scenic than the shopping centres, plus there’s a lot of security.
I’ve been on the mansion tour a few times and I always learn something different during each trip. The style of architecture is Victorian Caribbean, so although it may seem familiar, ventilation is cleverly built into the design and even the sofas can be partially made from sugar cane. It’s also been on quite the ownership journey after being built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire, George Stiebel in 1881 and was almost demolished before the government stepped in fifty years ago.
Once you see the exterior and all the artefacts inside, then you’ll understand why they wanted to preserve it. It’s a great place to kickstart your Jamaican knowledge, as your guide will mention Port Royal and other locations that may be of interest.
The tour costs around J$2000 (roughly £11) and includes a free ice cream or a patty (we also tipped our guide J$500 – £3). If you’ve purchased tour tickets, then it’s fine to take photos in front of the mansion as we did but there is a charge otherwise (plus filming isn’t allowed inside). Once you’ve filled up on history, claim your free treat and explore the gift shops nearby. The ice-cream shop has been refurbished, so there’s a robust queuing system, but note that the popular flavours will go early. I’m still a bit gutted that I never got my mango fix.
Watch Devon House on my Jamaica vlog
All The Jamaican History At Liberty Hall
I must admit that my knowledge of Jamaican history gets a little rusty once we get into the mid 1800s. When I went to the Making Jamaica exhibition in Shoreditch last year, it was the first time I’d seen photos from this period and and a glimpse of what the country was like just after slavery.
Liberty Hall fills in more gaps and focuses on Marcus Garvey, a former printer’s apprentice who became the leader of the Pan-Africanism movement. Basically he wanted to unite the African diaspora (remember that most enslaved and colonised countries were not independent at this time) and was disturbed by the lack of opportunities given to black Jamaicans.
Garvey shook up the status quo by giving speeches and boosting morale, but was also met with opposition leading to him being arrested, deported and almost assassinated. The building used to be the headquarters of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a safe space that advertised employment opportunities, a venue for political meetings and social activities. It continues to make an impact with a reference library upstairs and an after-school club.
Entry costs J$600 (£3.40) and I’d plan your visit carefully, as the museum is open from 10-4pm and closed at weekends. There’s always a worry that these places will close without the public support, so I’d recommend visiting to learn more about the issues Jamaica has faced in the past. There’s also interactive exhibits that clearly help you understand how colourism is affecting society today. Fun fact, I actually share Marcus Garvey’s 17th August birthday, and he was born exactly a hundred years before me.
Watch Liberty Hall on my Jamaica vlog
The Best Blue Mountain Coffee At Craighton Estate
Did you know that coffee was first brought to Jamaica in 1728? Now it’s one of the country’s biggest industries and over a million kilos of the Blue Mountain grade is exported per year. Although you may spot bags labelled as ‘Mountain Coffee’ or ‘Blue Mountain Blend’, the real deal is grown at a certain elevation and has a certification of 83 out of 100 points.
The Blue Mountains may be a short drive away from Kingston, but they have their own microclimate due to the pure unpolluted air, volcanic soil and cool temperatures (it’s usually 7-10 degrees cooler, so dress accordingly). This leads to Arabica beans with a slightly sweeter, less bitter taste that you may not want to have with milk.
If you’re a coffee buff or just want a complete contrast to the bustle of Kingston, then the Craighton Estate tour will give plenty of insight into how things work here. Mick Jagger actually bid on the property in the 80s but it’s now owned by Japanese company UCC, which aims to preserve the heritage and create employment opportunities (I am curious however to find out about coffee farms owned by black Jamaicans).
Our guide explained the wider context of the industry and I found the changing perception of coffee fascinating. The plants were first taken from Ethiopia in 1508 and soon after the drink was seen as a threat to Christianity. It was once traded illegally in Venice under the guise of being an expensive tea.
We were guests of the tourist board for this excursion, but the tour costs $20 USD and includes a brief tasting session. If you like buying souvenirs, then a small bag of blended coffee will cost you $13 USD.
Watch Craighton Estate on my Jamaica vlog
Basket Bags Galore At Kingston Craft Market
Ah the craft markets of Jamaica! They can be quite an intense experience if you’re used to making decisions in peace but it can be a great way to support local communities, instead of just giving money to the foreign-run tourist shops.
Life as an independent trader can be tough. From what I understand, if most tourists are taken elsewhere on excursions by their hotels, then the markets can stay pretty empty. There’s also lot of competition and after a devastating fire in 2017 destroyed 18 shops here, you can perhaps understand why you’re constantly greeted with ‘Come and look at my shop!’
Kingston Craft Market is pretty large and the only place where I spotted the slightly moon-shaped basket bags and large fans. I could kick myself for not picking one up. Fortunately the raffia number above fit perfectly into my suitcase and cost around £10 even after a bit of half-hearted haggling. This post offers even more context.
Many stalls have similar items, but if you spot something different that you’re drawn to, then buy it on the spot. It may be from a particular region and not available anywhere else, as I soon found in Ocho Rios.
I’m tempted to go back and work out how I can import some of the baskets, as they’re so beautifully made and deserve to be seen by more people. The Harbour area is being redeveloped, so hopefully there’ll be more visitors and investment in the coming years.
Watch Kingston Craft Market on my Jamaica vlog
The Colourful Shacks At Hellshire Beach
This technically isn’t in Kingston, but Hellshire Beach is about an hour away by car and has the best fried fish on the island. I can still remember trying crispy snapper for the first time at age ten and will always compare every attempt to what can be bought there.
This is a local beach, so although there’s no charge to get in, once you approach the arches a random guy will most likely try and beckon you over to his shack. Head straight to Prendy’s. Once you’ve shown your loyalties, you can keep your perching spot and your food will be brought over to you. Lucy and I shared a whole lobster, escovitch snapper, plus a basket of festival and paid around £17.
It goes without saying that you should keep an eye on your belongings and expect some hustling. People will try and sell you paintings, prawns and bracelets and we did encounter some begging children. A firm ‘No thank you’ or ‘I’ve already ordered food’ a couple of times should suffice.
Watch Hellshire Beach on my Jamaica vlog
We also briefly visited Emancipation Park, which boasts a monument featuring a naked man and woman, signifying the strength and resilience of Jamaicans. Next time I’d love to visit Port Royal again for fried fish at Gloria’s (prepare for a wait) and Trench Town to spot the Bob Marley murals.
I’m going to cover logistics in my next post, as there’s a few things to bear in mind when getting around the city. If you’re not able to organise transport via your hotel, then my friend Tanaka recommends the Gadgepro taxi company (try 876-434-3050 or 876-342-1081) and to always check over the phone what numberplate and car model your driver will have. Kingston is a vibrant bustling city, but remember to use your common sense and not flash your tech when walking around.
At the moment Kingston seems like lots of disparate places fused together, but I’m keen to bond with it properly next time I visit and actually go ‘Out Out’. I need to dance to ‘Fling Yuh Shoulder’ in real life!
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