Outside magazine, October 1995
From the 7,402-foot Blue Mountain Peak, one of the Caribbean's loftiest vantage points, you can survey all of Jamaica's undulating coast. And on a clear day, you'd swear you can just make out Cuba off to the north. The Blue Mountains are about as far as you can get from the frenzied self-indulgence of Negril on the west coast; if you just want to hang out and listen to reggae and dance hall, go there. But if you want to cool out amid the fern forests and orchids of the upper elevations, base yourself on the island's eastern end.
Start the seven-mile ascent of Blue Mountain Peak from Penlyne Castle, 32 miles from Kingston. The trailhead begins at the village and follows a road through coffee plantations and towering eucalyptus trees; from there it's a moderate but steady two-mile climb up Jacob's Ladder and through dense ferns to the rarely manned ranger station at Portland Gap. (Hiking boots are recommended; the trail is loose gravel in places.) The last three miles to the summit are fairly steep, but the heart-stopping views are worth the effort.
In the town of Jacks Hill, in the foothills six miles from Kingston, the Maya Lodge (doubles, $30; 809-927-2097) is a rustic hostelry with cabins, dorm rooms, and campsites. Owner Peter Bentley also operates Sense Adventures (809-927-2097), which runs overnight hikes into the Blue Mountains ($125 per person) and three-day canoe trips on the Black River ($250 per person). Bentley can customize hiking, canoeing, and snorkeling trips upon request. Another foothill lodging, at 3,100 feet in Irish Town, 15 miles north of Kingston, is a big step up in style. Recently opened Strawberry Hill (doubles, $214; 809-944-8400), owned by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, has 12 villas with balconies overlooking the mountains and the city.
Hardware Gap, in Newcastle, five miles away, is the starting point of the Fairy Glade Trail, a three-and-a-half-hour scramble over roots and rocks to the 4,037-foot summit of Mount Holeb. You'll pass through tropical montane and elfin forests dense with orchids and ferns, and you'll bushwhack through thickets of wild ginger. After the climb, suck down a Ting (a grapefruit drink) or a Red Stripe at the Gap Restaurant. From there, Blue Mountain Tours (809-974-7075) will meet you with beach cruisers for the scenic 18-mile bike ride to Wakefield ($80 per person, including brunch). For a less commercial experience, they'll customize a two-day bike trip on mountain trails through coffee plantations and tropical forest ($150 per person).
To the south, you'll find some of Jamaica's best diving off the cays and reefs of Port Royal, at the entrance to Kingston Harbor. While most of Jamaica's reefs have been plundered by overzealous fishermen, these are in relatively good shape. The Buccaneer Scuba Club (two-tank dive, $50; 809-924-8464), which operates out of Morgan's Harbor Hotel (doubles, $116), will take you to sites like the Edge (a virgin reef where you're likely to see dolphins, parrotfish, nurse sharks, and turtles) and the Texas (a gunship covered in black coral). Reportedly the Sunken Reef, the section of Port Royal that sank into the sea during the earthquake of 1692, will soon be open to commercial dive operations. Call the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (809-922-1287) to verify the site's status.
The best beaches on this side of the island are to the north in Port Antonio, a slow-paced banana port two hours from Kingston. Frenchman's Cove is a protected inlet fed by a swimmable freshwater stream. Stay above the beach at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill (doubles, $120- $140; 809-993-3370), a small, environmentally friendly hotel with ten double rooms.