There aren't very many tourists on my flight from New York to Kingston – it's mostly Jamaicans going home. The tourists usually favour the trip to Montego Bay, from where they're immediately shuttled into carefully cloistered resorts and served a jolly medley of reggae and other clichés of island life along with the necessary TVs, ATMs, fast-food chains, souvenir shops and multiple pools. Many travellers who visit Jamaica attend a "destination" wedding or a retreat; many never venture outside such compounds.
Kingston, a busy Caribbean business and culture hub struggling with a troublesome past, maintains a negative stigma because of the violence that has paralysed much of the country since the 1970s. But in Kingston, true Jamaica thrives, with its musicians and frenzied parties, the thousand mad stands of Coronation Market and streets filled with poetry and history.
As my taxi races on snaking roads through clouds of dust, the radio is blaring not Bob Marley but political commentary on the upcoming general elections. The dusk rises over the sea, streaking the sky like a watercolour; in the distance, the thick silhouette of the Blue Mountains appears through the mist. Hotel offers here are limited to New Kingston, a business-friendly zone near Uptown that keeps visitors away from Trench Town or Orange Street.
Orange Street is credited as being the birthplace of reggae. Known as Beat Street, it was the centre of the extraordinary creative boom of the post-independence era, with ska hits that brought the Jamaican sound to the world in the 1950s. The sound then evolved into the romantic tunes of rocksteady, the spiritual roots reggae championed by Marley, and, later, more aggressive dancehall beats.
Today, Orange Street plays host to a long stretch of merchants selling anything from fringed bikinis to televisions and phones, plus street food such as jerk chicken and spicy patties. Installed on the sidewalks with their massive speakers, hawkers lure walkers with hyperbolic praise for their products, sung in patois over dancehall beats. Locals hang out at roadside bars, also blasting dancehall.
Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey memorials abound. Facing a mural covered with portraits of reggae greats Dennis Brown, Augustus Pablo and Gregory Isaacs, is a tiny shop, Records International, which sells original, rare rocksteady, ska and roots records (and some dancehall). Along with other shacks that have survived the decay of the last decades, the store remains a meeting spot for musicians. Legends stop by and say hello, gather at the nearby Obo Spice for ital (vegan Rastafari food) or record at the area's remaining studios. Prince Alla, who walks in wearing his big Rasta hat, tells me stories from the early days of rocksteady and sings me his 1976 hit Stone on the pavement.
Farther along Orange Street are a series of historical monuments, including the beautifully ornate Ward Theatre, painted pastel blue and white, and suffering from semi-abandonment; and churches in various styles from Latinate to Georgian. There’s also the excellent National Gallery of Jamaica, buried in the odd Kingston Mall, perched over the ocean. This is where the best contemporary art from the Caribbean, along with a collection of remarkable indigenous artefacts and historical paintings, are exhibited.
Nearby, Moby Dick is a lunch joint that was opened circa 1900 to serve sailors and ship workers coming from the port, run by Jamaicans of Muslim-Indian descent who make their own curry powder. The curried goat is delicious, although you can still find tastier versions of the West Indian classic at street shacks.
Marley grew up in Trench Town, the urban-zoning project that was home to many rocksteady and reggae musicians, including Alton Ellis and Joe Higgs, and became the theme of so many classics, such as Marley's Trench Town Rock. Today, it's still ravaged by violence and poverty, but the Trench Town Culture Yard, a community project, offers an insight into the life of the musicians who lived and worked here. The tour begins in the yard where Marley and his pals lived and played, and goes around the housing area. Marley moved to the posh Hope Road in 1975, into the colonial house where he founded his Tuff Gong recording studio and survived an assassination attempt in 1976. Today, the Bob Marley Museum is filled with memorabilia from the era, including gold records, Rastafarian accessories and his favourite denim shirt.
The roads up the hills to the Blue Mountains are windy and bumpy, and sometimes dangerous. The tropical forest gets denser as we approach the peaks. Tucked in the jungle, producer Chris Blackwell’s Strawberry Hill hotel has for decades offered a retreat away from the city buzz to the likes of Marley. Originally built as a colonial mansion, the hotel has kept the rustic charm of its original architecture, with white cottages surrounded by nature for absolute peace and privacy. At breakfast, the jungle wakes up to the songs of birds, crickets and leaves shaking in the breeze. The pool, rocking to the sounds of Jimmy Cliff and Marley, looks across the hills, city and ocean beneath. The Blue Mountains are filled with vast coffee plantations, where the cool, misty air and abundant torrents produce the bean relinquished all over the world for its mild aroma.
Portland, on the north coast, has been the elite’s resort of choice since the 1960s, including the likes of Grace Jones, The Rolling Stones and Errol Flynn. In Port Antonio, past the town centre, the ocean is lined with palatial residences and hotels. At the end of a tiny road, hidden in the foothills, Geejam is where Drake and Rihanna record in the sea-view studio and relax in glamorous villas. The owner, Jon Baker, is a British man with a biography that includes playing in a ska band, producing records and opening a club in New York, as well as partnering with Blackwell. His daughter, Savannah, is a stylist and musician who mixes pastel ruffles and Rasta colours, and wears a puffy blonde afro. I drink a glass of coconut water from the grove around the pool, which overlooks the limpid San San Bay and the untouched green hills.
Savannah takes me to the paradisiacal Blue Lagoon, with its deep turquoise water and lush greenery. On the way back, we have lunch at the Boston Jerk Center, which claims to be the hometown of spice-rubbed meats and fish, where a series of brightly painted shacks sell coconuts, juices, grilled meats and jerk. A DJ scratches vinyls in the blazing sun. My meat is slightly dry, but the festive atmosphere and adjacent beach are worth the stop.
The last stretch of the road trip takes us around the northern coast of the island, through Montego Bay, which is thick with traffic, crowds and commercial attractions. We end the journey in Negril, once the secret spot of hippies and Rastas, and now a popular holiday spot. Rockhouse is a boutique hotel and restaurant opened by Australian entrepreneur Paul Salmon, who also owns the Miss Lily’s Jamaican restaurant chain, which also has an outlet in Dubai. Rockhouse plays a groovy reggae soundtrack to a young crowd tanning around the pool; the lively bar and restaurant are animated by the best DJs and live acts on the island. The food here is delicious; I devour plates of jerk, fried plantains, fresh seafood and patties. With a view on the dramatic cliffs and ocean, and laid-back festive vibes, this is the perfect place to relax before getting on the plane again – this time from Montego Bay – back to the concrete jungle of New York.