Jamaica has perfected the art of the all-inclusive vacation. You pay one price upfront, which covers all meals, entertainment and most activities, including watersports and provides peace of mind to the budget-conscious.
The one downside problem to an all-inclusive vacation? It makes the resort experience so seamless and easy that sometimes, families may find it hard to tear themselves away to explore beyond the walls of the resort.
During my Caribbean travels with my young son, I dealt with this by alternating days at the resort with off-resort sightseeing experiences. This kept things fresh while still allowing plenty of unstructured time to kick back and relax at the resort.
Here are a few ideas for getting the most memories out of your family’s Jamaican adventure:
Make Ocho Rios your base of operations
While some Caribbean islands are compact, Jamaica – at 146 miles in length – is the third largest island in the region. The majority of visitors will fly into Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Most of the tourism development is on Jamaica’s north shore, so family trip planners would do well to give Ocho Rios a serious look as their base of operations.
There’s a great selection of family-friendly resorts in Ocho Rios, including Beaches Ocho Rios Resort & Golf Club, Moon Palace Jamaica (formerly Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort) and Hotel Riu Ocho Ríos. Other recommendations throughout the island include Beaches Negril, Franklyn D. Resort in Runaway Bay, and Jewel Runaway Bay Beach & Golf Resort.
Adventure outside the resort walls
If you stay at a resort in Ocho Rios, you won’t have to go far: most of the family attractions are right there.
Dolphin Cove offers guests an up-close-and-personal dolphin experience, as well as the chance to observe exotic birds and interact with stingrays and sharks.
Mystic Mountain has ziplines, treetop chairlift rides, a waterpark, and their pièce de résistance, a Jamaican bobsled ride that zips along a track through a rainforest while offering ocean views.
Green Grotto is a famous cave system that is easily accessed via guided tours, while Enchanted Gardens offers strolls along lovely garden paths, with the option to enjoy a variety of birds in an aviary.
Dunn’s River Falls offers the unique experience of climbing the face of a cascade in the company of a guide, with participants linking hands. This has the potential of being an unforgettable family team-building experience.
In the Negril area, families can visit Kool Runnings, a waterpark that mixes it up with paintball and go-kart tracks.
Eat at least one meal off-resort
Most families will be taking their meals at their all-inclusive resort, where they’ll have the choice of island fare as well as kid-friendly hamburgers and pizza.
I’d recommend that they get off the resort at least once for a meal at one of the island’s roadside jerk restaurants. This is Jamaica’s signature cuisine of pork, chicken or fish cooked over a fire of smoky pimento wood.
The spice level hits the roof when hot sauce is applied, but otherwise shouldn’t be too much for kids, especially if they’re adventurous eaters. The jerk meat is usually accompanied by starchy breadfruit, yam and a barely-sweet cruller called festival.
Three of the best jerk restaurants on the island are the Scotchies in MoBay, Ocho Rios and Kingston.
Explore the other coastline
Families staying on Jamaica’s north coast should consider exploring the southern shoreline through a day trip, for which there are a range of choices.
I’d recommend families include a visit to YS Falls and to take an eco-excursion on the Black River. YS Falls is primarily a sprawling country property where families can enjoy a picnic, a zipline, explore a series of eight waterfalls, and try their hand at an authentic Tarzan swing over a natural pool.
Black River is a former 19th-century shipping port that offers visitors a view of everyday island life, something that’s not all that easy to glimpse as a tourist in Jamaica. Explore more of the river with a guided boat excursion, during which you will cruise past mangroves, a wealth of colorful birds, and past the haunts of American crocodiles.
While Jamaica has numerous tour operators, two companies stand out from the pack: Island Routes Caribbean Adventures and Chukka Caribbean Adventures. Families can book tours such as horseback riding along the beach and in the surf, river tubing adventures, ATV tours and catamaran sailings.
Kingston: Come for the history, stay for the ice cream
Although Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, is a center of business and culture, it doesn’t hold that many attractions for families.
But if you do find yourself in Kingston, one must-see stop is the historic Devon House, the residence of George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire and a National Heritage Trust monument.
Kids may not find the house tour all that exciting, but they’ll likely love the on-premises ice cream shop. The shop is famous for its Caribbean-flavors ice cream, including Blue Mountain Coffee, Dragon Stout, guava and soursop. Your best bet is the tasting menu, which allows a person to sample the full variety of flavors.
If you’d like your picture-perfect vacations to include a little bit of the bigger picture, consider devoting a few hours to volunteer work.
Thanks to the Sandals Foundation, families who stay at a Beaches resort can enrich their island vacation through a voluntourism experience to a local school, where they can meet local kids, donate school supplies, or spend time reading to students. This could end up being the highlight of a family’s Jamaica vacation.