When you think of Jamaica, what comes to mind? A tropical island, its distinctive Patois and often poorly imitated accent, sandy beaches. reggae and Bob Marley. Perhaps Cool Runnings and the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team if you’re old enough to remember its debut. For food and drink, you might be familiar with jerk chicken or fish, rum and sugarcane. But Jamaica is as quirky as it is nuanced. And there is a lot of it to explore, more than your average Caribbean isle.
So here we go! For my first trip to Jamaica, unlike my typical Culinary Diplomat self, I did about zero research until I arrived. Preoccupied with life, I relied upon the friend that invited me along for a relaxing girls’ trip that quickly went from lazy beach weekend to a series of rainy season adventures. Sometimes, it’s really nice to just go with the flow. That is ideal in Jamaica, where one should enjoy the ride, which might take you in a few directions you wouldn’t expect, but you’ll want to pay attention along the way so that you get the best value for your money.
Jamaica is a lush and surprisingly large Caribbean gem. With one of the largest English-speaking populations in the Western Hemisphere, it can be easy to navigate. Yet the Patois, though a derivative of English, is almost impossible for most of us to understand, especially when spoken at its usual rapid clip. While everyone speaks English as well, it can be a little disconcerting when you know locals are speaking about you, but you can’t understand. We found Jamaica’s people to a bit of hot and cold – alternating turns of effusive friendliness, indifference bordering on ambivalence, and (especially from Jamaican men to women) aggressive overtures.
If you’re a woman traveling solo or even in a small group, that latter quality can make one feel uncomfortable and wary of venturing out. The flip side is all of the other tourists (including locals) were very friendly, and it was the easiest place for us to make friends and build bonds of community away from home.
Negril is a both a town and larger resort area spanning about nine miles of coastline in Westmoreland parish on the westernmost point of Jamaica. The 90 minute ride from Montego Bay seems like an eternity compared to many other Caribbean destinations, but once there, it’s easy to see why the journey is worthwhile for many travelers. I have traveled to coasts and beaches across the globe, and hands down, 7 Mile Beach in Negril is one of the best beaches I’ve ever experienced. White sands and tranquil turquoise waters are free of rocks and coral that make many other beach destinations a tricky place to navigate. While snorkeling is not ideal here, swimming and paddleboarding are tops. The sheltered cove of 7 Mile Beach also ensures minimal variation in tides, so its hotels are literally just steps from the sea. The southernmost peninsula in Negril features up to 80 foot high cliffs and no beach, but its hotels offer swim ladders (or small cliff jumping for the more adventurous) and dramatic rock ledges for sunbathing. It’s important to note that your outdoor time may be limited if you choose to visit during one of Jamaica’s two rainy seasons (May-June and October-November). Daily rainfall can really put a damper on one’s afternoon and evening plans, as many restaurants and venues are understandably open-air and have limited (and often stuffy) covered seating. But it can be tempting to visit when prices are much cheaper, so it was an annoying lesson we were forced to learn on this trip.
Most hotels in Negril are fairly small and have a boutique feel – a far cry from some of the massive resorts of Hawaii or the Bahamas. Each can be quite charming, but there are few international brands for the first-time traveler to rely on, so travelers should carefully read reviews of the properties. Many “luxury hotels” lack the full amenities and service of international standards, so prepare to lower those expectations.
If someone offers you an amenity you haven’t seen advertised as free, it’s a fair bet they will try to charge you (if you’ve traveled to a few developing nations before, this tactic will sound familiar). The Jamaican entrepreneurial spirit is intense; Jamaicans will try to sell you just about anything – and often before you have processed that you somehow agreed to this new transaction. Vendors appear everywhere, whether you’re sunning yourself or dining, hawking everything from fresh fruit. If someone offers you anything, make certain to agree to a price before the service is rendered. Negotiate and be prepared to walk away. Typically, one or two “no, thank you”s and a bodily shift in your position away from the vendor will suffice for them to give the message. Unlike in many other cultures, it is not rude to say “no” without explanation.
Ok, now that we’ve talked customs, let’s move on to the food!
Every hotel has one restaurant; quality can range, but most hotels – as in other resort areas – charge quite a bit for ambience and service, with varying levels of food quality. Do your research before you choose a dinner location. Also, don’t be too afraid of street food (in this case, it becomes beach food). Some of the best bites I had came from roving patty peddlers strolling up and down the beach. Also, just because you pay more for Jamaican food, it doesn’t mean it’s better. Some of the driest rice and peas (red beans and rice, Jamaica style) came from “luxury hotel” restaurants.
Here’s an outsider’s primer on Jamaican cuisine:
Jerk, or Jamaican barbecue, is Jamaica’s most famous export, but in the US, Jamaican jerk is synonymous with spice and heat. In Jamaica, jerk alone is full of herbs and spices, but not as much heat as one might see when exported to Jamaican restaurants around the world, though some jerk sauces can add the heat.
Jamaica’s British West Indian colonial heritage is evident in its yellow curries, full of heat and flavor, but with perhaps less depth than their South Indian cousins. But add curry to a patty filling, and have a bit of heaven. Many add the potent Scotch Bonnet pepper, which packs a punch.
Jamaican patties are nothing the name suggests. Flaky hand pies in the spirit of empanadas or turnovers, they feature a crispy, flaky orange pastry crust and fillings of minced meat, veggies, and/or seasonings. Beach vendors in Negril sell everything from minced beef or chicken to shrimp to vegetarian-friendly veggie and even pumpkin fillings. They are the ultimate in delicious, convenient beach lunch fare. They also are the ultimate in messiness, so it’s nice to have the sea handy for a post-patty hand rinse.
Fish and conch are ubiquitous – and often cooked jerk-style. Lobster is plentiful and sold in all sorts of restaurants – when in season. This category is fairly self-explanatory and expected in an island nation, so I’ll leave this one here.
Jamaica’s national leafy greens are cooked like kale or spinach and are found in a wide array of dishes.
Jamaica’s national fruit is a labor of love to cook and eat, as the edible flesh is interspersed with poisonous seeds. It often accompanies fish for a fruity counterpoint.
Vegetarians quickly will become acquainted to this pasta dish, as it’s often one of the few vegetarian options at smaller restaurants.
See below for my unexpected discovery that (some) Jamaicans love the flavor of the Grape Nuts cereal and incorporate it in things that …aren’t cereal.
Rockhouse Hotel is a win for ambience and decent, if not overpriced food. Perched cliffside along a north-facing cove, its rustic, open-air Rockhouse restaurant has an inviting Island vibe with a touch of luxury. It features an array of internationally-influenced Jamaican cuisine. Its Pushcart restaurant is a bit more casual and centers around grilled/jerk meats and fish. The hotel also has a poolside cafe that makes for a nice lunch excursion for those who tire of their daytime surroundings.
Blue Mahoe (say that one out loud!) is a tasty and elegant restaurant housed in the boutique Spa Retreat Hotel, also on the south end of Negril along its cliff-laden peninsula. Like Rockhouse Restaurant, also features Jamaican cuisine and international fusion. While prices are steep, the quality of food well exceeds Rock House’s. Its indoor dining area has the sleek wood roof of a Scandinavian spa, while its charming outdoor patio and bar offer dramatic views of 7 Mile Beach and its twinkling lights. It offers a fairly extensive vegetarian selection, and, when available, gluten-free pasta.
Kenny’s Italian Café may sound like an oxymoron (American redneck attempts Italian?), but its charming white-washed decor and attentive staff make it feel downright Continental. It had the liveliest atmosphere of any restaurant we visited, and the large number of cars parked outside told us it’s a favorite haunt for locals and tourists alike. Its Italian menu is Jamaica’s take on Italian standards, along with a few fish dishes. Calamari made for an outstanding appetizer – fresh and expertly cooked, while our pastas were tasty, if not memorable. I don’t usually order ice cream at most restaurants, but I made an exception when I found out their flavor of the day was Grapenut. Part confused, part intrigued, I ordered it to see if it was, in fact, flavored with the Post Grape Nuts cereal I loved as a child (Grape Nuts itself is worth more than a mention in this blog, as it was a rare unsweetened cereal that I absolutely loved as a kid – with a few teaspoons of sugar added and drenched in milk to attempt to soften its tooth-chipping hardness. I think I even may have lost a tooth from Grape Nuts.).
The verdict: Despite the server’s side eye when I asked if Grape Nuts referred to the cereal, it was, in fact, studded with Grape Nuts. It turns out that ice cream is the perfect, creamy vehicle needed to soften the malty Grape Nuts to a pleasant crunch. I would eat it again any day! It also turns out that Grape Nuts are a thing down in Jamaica, and Kenny’s isn’t the only eatery to capitalize on the delicious flavor of Grape Nuts Who knew? I think that discovery was my favorite food adventure in Jamaica.
Rick’s Cafe is worth mentioning, not for its culinary value, but for its cultural value as a mecca and right of passage. To learn the essence of Rick’s, check out this website, as well as some of the You Tube cliff jumping videos. If you choose to take a sunset cruise or bus tour, you inevitably will stop or end at Rick’s. When we visited, it was storming and pouring rain, so the views and typically sparkling water were dull, and I was not tempted to jump off of the slick stone cliffs. I did, however, enjoy an overpriced beverage under shelter, while dripping wet. The ambience inside is more corporate Margaritaville (which also has a location on 7 Mile Beach) than unique local dive, but that’s a tourist attraction for you!
Whether – or whenever you are able to make travel plans, when considering Jamaica, I hope this post has given you a fun and insightful diversion from our mundane lives in quarantine. And just remember, everything is going to be irie, as they say in Jamaica.