For me, the Morgan Harbor Hotel was a place of legend – personal legend. My father was briefly stationed in Jamaica during his time with the US Navy, running drug patrols in the waters off Jamaica. He came home with keepsakes: a gold necklace, stories of the beautiful beachfront bar at Morgan Harbor, and a tattered picture book of Jamaica still found in most hotel rooms. I looked at that book a thousand times as a little girl. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidence that as an adult I would make many business trips to Jamaica, making it feel like a second home.
The Morgan Harbor Hotel and Marina overlooks Kingston Harbor, a curving inlet against the dramatic backdrop of the Blue Mountains, with its deceptively sandy beaches and imposing industrial touches – the cranes, winches, and other pieces of equipment used on the docks of this thriving port town. The Harbor waters, although cleaned up in recent years, are too polluted from industrial activity for good swimming. Still, sitting in the outdoor bar under the shade of a giant palapa with an ice cold Red Stripe in hand, I was sampling some of the best that Jamaica had to offer.
Sun, sand, and sea – the classic terms used to describe Jamaica. They evoke images of white sand beaches beneath swaying palm trees, frosty tropical drinks, and the lyrical rhythms of Bob Marley’s reggae drifting through the air. High-end resorts, like Sandals and Breezes, offer sprawling resorts that can entertain their guests for a week without ever leaving the grounds. Water sports in Montego Bay, relaxing on the beach in Negril, and braving the climb on Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios. These are the most common experiences of the millions of tourists that visit the island each year. However, Jamaica has another side, Kingston. While frequently only experienced by the business traveler or the most intrepid tourist, this city of more than 650,000 has much to offer the visitor willing to explore.
My first experience of Jamaica was very different from visiting the usual sprawling Caribbean retreats of Jamaica’s coastal areas. I took a small plane from Miami. The plane was one-step up from a puddle jumper. We flew low on the hour-long flight, low enough that I could see reefs beneath turquoise waters and people moving about other Caribbean islands we passed. After landing, I walked down the steep portable stairway onto the tarmac and was nearly flattened by the heat and smog that encircled Norman Manley International Airport.
Kingston vibrates with energy. Constant activity clogs the streets with sometimes-unbearable traffic, which leads visitors past a cement factory, small houses, and colorful shops into the modern business center, New Kingston. This area boasts some excellent hotels, including a Hilton and a locally flavored Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. The Pegasus is geared to the business traveler with spacious rooms and bright, Caribbean-inspired décor, and market that Pope John Paul once stayed there. The hotel is comfortable with good service and breakfast consisting of delectable fresh fruit served poolside every morning. A morning that includes flipping through Kingston’s daily newspaper The Gleaner, lulls the traveler into a vacation-like tranquility.
The culinary scene in Kingston offers more than one might expect. Curried goat and the local Ital cuisine, vegan food favored by Rastafarians. It must be sampled. However, for the more demanding palette, Restaurant Japan at the Hilton offers some of the finest Japanese stir-fries and sushi I have ever had. Another local favorite, the Devonshire Restaurant, is in a restored 19th century mansion, and specializes in locally caught seafood with a Jamaican twist. Be sure to try the fresh squeezed fruit juice.
Old Port Royal sits at the end of a single, bumpy road not far from the Morgan Harbor Hotel. The 17th century center of commerce and military activity in Jamaica has fallen victim through the centuries to a string of unfortunate history. It thrived until 1692, when an earthquake destroyed the town and two-thirds of it tumbled into the sea. Once known as the “wickedest city on earth,” Old Port Royal was a haven for pirates, had a reputation for great wealth, brazen women, and a staggering one bar for every ten residents.
Today, there is little commercial activity and minimal economic opportunity for the current residents, although various projects have been put forward to revitalize Old Port Royal and develop a full-scale tourist attraction from what is left of an overlooked set of ruins. The ancient buildings are fascinating – the most telling detail of their history are the slanted stone floors forming the foundation of buildings never righted after more than 300 years after the devastating earthquake.
Of course, no trip to Kingston would be complete without a visit to the Bob Marley Museum. The city’s most famous son is memorialized in a small, colorful museum with a garden of marijuana plants surrounding the front door. With a complete collection of memorabilia including an extensive photography exhibit, the museum is a fun stop for Marley fans.
Wrapping up a trip to Kingston with a weekend trip to escape the city’s bustle and the heat is easy. Visitors can fly to Montego Bay in less than 20 minutes or drive across the island to Ocho Rios, and stop at the open-air markets to sample slow roasting jerk pork. Less common but perhaps more beautiful, the Blue Mountains offer an opportunity to escape the city and take in refreshing mountain air, the view is breathtaking. On a clear day, the fortunate can see as far away as Cuba.
Chris Blackwell, of Island Records fame, has taken to property development and definitely gets it right. One of his resorts is luxurious Strawberry Hill. Rooms are expensive, but worth every penny for the solitude and service. Spa treatments are also available, and Individual bungalows connect by meandering mountain paths and a blanket of beautiful wild flowers, which evoke a sense of pampered peace that warmed my soul. Perfect for a weekend getaway, Strawberry Hill is an hour from Kingston by car.
For those willing to explore, Jamaica has a lot to offer. With an alluring mix of energy, a vibrant music scene, world-class cuisine and hotels, and an interesting history just under the surface, Kingston is well worth a visit.
Morgan Harbor Hotel 1 876 967 8075
Pegasus Hotel – (876) 926-3690
Bob Marley Museum – http://www.bobmarley-foundation.com/museum.html
Strawberry Hill – 1-876-960-8134
Written and photographed by Elizabeth Hooper