Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

WESTJET FLYFREE CONTEST: Jamaica blends spicy, cool offerings

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There is no other place that has the hot-and-spicy, cool-and-mellow, groovy vibe of Jamaica.

Take its white sand, pristine blue waters and friendly people, and combine them with rum punch, spicy food and a healthy dose of reggae music, and you've got something special.

This is Jamaica, mon.

There is something unique about the Caribbean island that sets it apart as a destination for winter-weary Canadians. In 2010, for the seventh year in a row, Jamaica recorded an increase in Canadian visitors. Some 325,000 of us slapped our flip-flops into the white sand.

Other islands have the sun, sand and surf, the all-inclusives (which Jamaica does particularly well) and the cheap winter flights.

But Jamaica has a unique vibrancy that draws visitors back many times over. And there are the accommodating people, who seem to regard it as a point of national pride to act as personal ambassadors for their culture. The Jamaica Tourist Board offers a unique program called Meet the People, in which you can sign up with a Jamaican host family who will give you a taste of the real lifestyle. They will tour you around, take you to their favourite restaurants and help you to mingle with the locals (www.visitjamaica.com).

Each side of the mountainous, 10,000-square-kilometre island offers something special, and where you go will depend on what you're looking for.

You can do the beach and adventure thing at a resort on the north side, or you can find a secluded eco-hotel on the south side and spend your days at one with nature.

It's fair to say most visitors make the trip to the north side of the island, where the music is reggae, the food is spicy, the beaches are silky white, the waters warm and the rum punch cold. This is where you'll find the large resorts, the shopping and the nightlife.

In most of the resort areas on the north side, you can try out dune-buggy tours or jeep safaris, canopy zip-line tours, horseback riding on the beach, and river tubing. The most popular tour company is Chukka (www.chukkacaribbean.com), based in Montego Bay and Negril, which offers a range of tours for every adrenalin level.

Negril is a resort town of just 3,000 located on the northwest tip of the island, with a good mix of large resorts and small villas. Rick's Grill is famous in the area, a fantastic place for cliff diving (whether you wish to take the plunge or just take in the spectacle) and renowned for astonishing sunsets. Negril also boasts Seven Mile Beach, a stretch of pristine white sand that in reality stretches six kilometres down the coast. The area, rated one of the Top 10 best beaches in the world, offers a playground for snorkelling, scuba diving and horseback riding.

Montego Bay is perhaps the best-known city on the north side. Here you will not be disappointed by the top-notch, all-inclusive services that are so prevalent. It also has the "hip strip," a great place to look for some nightlife.

There is great shopping to be had here, too; the high-end shops of Rose Hall are the most popular.

This is a great place to tour some of the original "great halls," the big sugar-cane plantation homes of the area. You can also sign up for any of the wonderful activities you'd expect, from zip-line tours to deep-sea fishing or golfing.

Moving west along the north coast to Ocho Rios, you'll find another slice of Jamaican life.

This town offers a number of well-known attractions.

Dunn's River Falls is a natural wonder of a waterfall. You can clamber 180 metres up through cascading water, taking in the scenery or stop for a dip in one of the many small pools along the way, and experiencing what is arguably one of the top sites in the Caribbean.

Mystic Mountain is a place for the adrenalin-seeker. Remember the Jamaican bobsled team at the '88 Calgary Olympics? Well you can experience a thrill-a-moment rainforest bobsled run that plunges you down 1,000 metres.

The Green Grotto Caves, another natural wonder, provides a stunning display of stalactites and stalagmites and the famous Grotto Lake. If you saw the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, you may remember the scenes shot inside the caves.

If it's solitude or eco-adventure you're after, you'll want to head to the lesser-travelled south coast. Fewer tourists make that journey because it's a little harder to reach. With no direct flight to a major city, (Jamaica's two airports are located in Kingston and Montego Bay) you're looking at an extra three-hour drive or a charter flight. Most people fly into Montego Bay and travel from there. There are no big resorts here; the area is dominated by villas and very small hotels. Jake's Island Outpost, a chain of eco-friendly boutique hotels is popular here.

The south coast has an undiscovered, almost jungle-like feel to it that will appeal to anyone looking to commune with nature. It's picturesque, with a lot of stunning cliffs; but the beaches are not as sandy, and the roads are mostly unpaved. It's rugged, not commercial, a place to go if you truly want to get away from it all.

That's not to say there are no tourist attractions.

YS Falls is a spectacular waterfall that gets far fewer visitors than the popular Dunn's River Falls. And Black River Safari offers an adventure up the Black River into wild, tangled mangrove forests. But watch out for crocodiles.

No matter which part of the island you choose to visit, you can enjoy the fantastic local food. In Jamaica, resorts and hotels embrace the local cuisine. There's nothing quite like the Jamaican specialties of curry goat, salt fish with ackee (the national fruit) and jerk chicken. The best place to find authentic jerk chicken is Scotchie's in Montego Bay; it may look like a little shack on the side of the road, but it's worth the stop. A spicy Jamaican patty makes the perfect lunch on the go.

You can't talk about the Jamaican vibe without the music. Though there are many genres here, including ska, rocksteady, dance hall, and calypso, Jamaica is best known for reggae. You'll hear plenty of it. If you're a fan, you'll want to check out the Bob Marley Centre & Mausoleum near Ocho Rios.

Jamaica does have a hurricane season (June through November), but for the most part there is consistently good weather on the island. Just as most Canadians are beginning to scrape off their windshields in the morning, temperatures there settle in at about 28 C, always tempered by a refreshing breeze off the water.

-- Postmedia News

Did you know?

-- Christopher Columbus landed here more than 500 years ago and uttered his famous proclamation that this was "the fairest island ever eyes beheld."

-- The most famous Great House in Jamaica, known as Rose Hall, is said to be haunted by the ghost of the notorious Annie Palmer, who murdered three husbands before being murdered herself, by her slave lover.

-- The Appleton Estate distillery, on the south coast, has been making award-winning rum since 1749.

-- Jamaica is the place rap was born. Here, it started as a tradition called toasting.

-- Jamaica boasts more than 30,000 rooms, from five-star resorts and hotels to private villas and small inns and guest houses.

-- Agricultural products include sugar cane, bananas, coffee, cocoa, citrus fruits, pimento, vegetables, poultry and milk.

If you go

More information on package holidays to Jamaica can be found at westjetvacations.com

Enter to win free travel

This fall, you can win one of six $10,000 travel prizes from WestJet and WestJet vacations. To win, find the Fly Free game board in the newspaper each week from now until Oct. 28, and then collect daily game pieces from the paper. More information is at winnipegfreepress.com/flyfree

Week one: Hawaii
Week two: Jamaica
Week three: Caribbean
Week four: Cancun and Cozumel
Week five: Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan
Week six: Florida

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2011 D5

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