Jamaica With Kids
With its long white sand beaches, tumbling waterfalls and festive atmosphere, the yeah-mon spirit of Jamaica is contagious…and kids love it! The Gold Coast of the north shore of the island is the most touristy and has the most in the way of activities and attractions. The two main resorts areas are Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Although the west coast has been welcoming tourists for decades, development has been slow and contained making for a more authentic experience with smaller hotels and local-owned restaurants and shops. The beaches in Jamaica are pure white sand and the interior is a tangle of lush tropics.
The north coast airport is Montego Bay making it a very popular tourist destination. The coastal road here is lined with shops and touristy restaurants like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. There are huge, all inclusive resorts here with acres of tropical gardens, pools and beachfronts with water activities galore. Although most of Montego Bay’s attractions revolve around island and water activities, there is a good museum at Rose Hall – a museum set in an 18th century plantation house with a history of witches and rebellions. The kids liked the story of the White Witch who is rumored to still haunt the grounds. We took a few tours with Chukka Adventures near Montego Bay. We took dune buggies across their grounds and out to some amazing sea cliffs, we went horseback riding through their fields and onto the beach. Nathan (9) loved going in the water with his horse, at one point we were practically swimming. Seamus (7) thought it was “a little scary, but fun”. One of the highlights of the day was meeting the Jamaican Dog Sled Team…yes DOG, not BOB. Based on Chukka’s grounds the team uses rescue dogs to practice dog sledding in the tropics and they offer tourists rides. And although it seems quirky (afterall one of the their main sponsors is singer/songwriter/beach bum Jimmy Buffett) they actually go to snow covered places and compete. Read more of their story in the article “Meet the Jamaican DOG Sled Team”.
Between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios is the great historical town of Falmouth, which was Jamaica’s busiest port in the late 1700/early 1800s. It’s worth a stop to see the old buildings, church and learn about Jamaica’s history. Also, nearbyGlistening Waters runs tours of the bay with its bioluminescent waters. At night these waters glow with a green intensity from microscopic animals that are bioluminescent. The kids loved watching the glowing water around the boat and couldn’t wait to jump in! Inland on this coast is Nine Mile, famous as the birthplace of legendary reggae artist Bob Marley. You can go there on your own or take a tour with Chukka Adventures.
Ocho Rios area
East of the airport/Montego Bay on the north coast is the Ocho Rios area, another very popular tourist destination filled with huge, all-inclusive resorts. One resort that stands out to us here is Franklyn D. Resort, which is great for families because each family is assigned a personal nanny on check-in. See more under Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Jamaica below. Ocho Rios is also a main port for cruise ships, so there are lost of activities catering to tourists here. One very popular attractions is here is hiking Dunn’s River Falls, a series of cascading waterfalls dropping 600 feet over many multi-layered tiers. Visitors can climb up the falls, stopping along the way to frolick in mini-waterfalls. Seamus (7) was a bit overwhelmed by the strength of the water, so be careful with the little ones. There are exits all along the falls, so we hiked through the tropical garden watching the rest of our group climb the waterfall. Right next to Dunn’s River Falls is Dolphin Cove, the largest natural dolphin lagoon in the world. But the dolphins here aren’t wild, they are trained and tourists are allowed to swim with them. There is also a swim with sharks and sting rays programs and kayak and mini-boat rentals. The kids enjoyed hiking through the tropical grounds and meeting the “locals” like parrots, iguanas, and one cooky pirate! And, of course, they loved swimming with dolphins! They got to pet them, feed them, kiss them and even take a short ride.
Negril and the West Coast
The west coast of Jamaica is much less developed than the north coast, making for a more authentic Jamaica experience. However, there is less to do as far as activities and attractions. Negril is the most popular resort town on the west coast and its Seven Mile Beach is incredible…a long swath of white sand bordered with calm turquoise waters and backed by swaying palm trees (pictured above). With this beach, who would ever want to leave? However there are some fun things to do here. There are some great local restaurants along the beach and a nice craft market. Down the coast a bit, the beach gives way to small cliffs where its fun to watch the nightly cliff diving. Rick’s Cafe is the most popular spot to watch the sunset and the cliff diving. And although Nathan tried a jump from a very low cliff and had a great time, the higher cliffs can be very dangerous. There are many injuries here every year, so keep the higher cliffs to the professionals! Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is another fun sunset spot and is accessible from Seven Mile Beach. There also lots of other small, locally owned bars that are just as much fun and have swing bar stools, dominoes and other games. We had lots of fun hanging in Tony’s Bar.
A fun day trip from Negril involves a drive down the south coast to Black River, where visitors can take a boat through the Great Morass to view mangroves, egrets and crocodiles. Several boat companies run tours from the docks in the town of Black River. Just north of Black River, YS Falls offers fun and refreshment in the cool waters of YS River. There are seven waterfalls cascading down the river here and you can float down stream on inflatable tubes, hike through the tropical forest and frolic in the cool ponds. The kids loved swinging on the rope swing over the pooling river like Tarzan and it was much less crowded than Dunn’s River Falls.
Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Jamaica
There are plenty of big, all inclusive resorts in Jamaica, but if that’s the way you go, be sure the one you book is kid-friendly as there are also a lot of couples and single oriented resorts here. Smaller, family-run hotels may not offer all the amenities of the big resorts, but they have easier access to the beach and to local Jamaican life. We took advantage of both styles while we were in Jamaica and they both were wonderful experiences. Here’s where we stayed:
Ocho Rios: Franklyn D. Resort is just outside Ocho Rios. It has several pools, one with a huge waterslide known as “Big Blue”, and lots of fun activities like soccer, snorkeling, fishing, tie-dye lessons, glass bottom boat rides and more. But, the thing that makes this resort a stand-out in the family category is that is assigns a private nanny to each family upon check-in. The nanny will spend time with your kids, either with you or on their own. It makes it nice because you don’t feel like you have to choose between sending your kids off to kid’s club for day or being with them. The nanny will take care of all the mundane tasks like re-applying sunscreen, getting dry towels, feeding and nap times, while you get to enjoy having fun with your kids without the work! The rooms are spacious and have full kitchens and separate living areas and there is an adjacent beach and craft market.
Negril: Nirvana on the Beach is located on the beach in Negril. And by on the beach, I mean on the beach, just a few dozen steps from my front porch to the beach. It is a small hotel consisting of several cottages with screened in living areas and kitchens and separate bedrooms and luxury suite and beach house. There are no planned activities here, but the kids find plenty to do on their own, hunting for bugs, playing imaginary games in the hammock garden, taking the kayaks out in the shallow water and snorkeling with the resident sting ray. It allowed plenty of family time and lots of relaxation!
Getting to Jamaica
There are two international airports in Jamaica one in Montego Bay on the north coast and one in Kingston on the south coast. Most tourists fly into SangsterInternational Airport in Montego Bay. Kingston’s airport is 3-4 hours from main tourist areas, and potential for safety issues is higher in the city. Popular departure points in the U.S. for Montego Bay includeMiami, New York, Atlanta and more.
Getting Around Jamaica
Although Jamaica is a relatively small country, the landscape is rugged with lots of mountains, and most of the roads are two-lane and windy, so keep in mind drive times tend to be longer than expected. For example, it takes over two hours to drive from Montego Bay to Negril. However, rental cars are the best way to really explore the island. Island Car Rentals is a local chain and has lots of pick-up points and great rates. They also offer transfers from airports to most large hotels. If you are not comfortable driving yourself (remember it’s left-hand drive in Jamaica), many tour operators will pick you up for excursions right from your hotel. One of the biggest operators is Chukka Caribbean Adventures (www.chukkacaribbean.com). Many resorts also have shuttles to town or airports. And there is public bus service for the more adventurous traveler.