Montego Bay ("Mo Bay" to the locals) is the tourist capital of Jamaica and the second-largest city, with about 100,000 people. Many rate Mo Bay higher than its competitor for cruise line passengers, Ocho Rios, but the latter port does have the advantage of being close to Dunn's River Falls, one of Jamaica's key attractions. More about that later.
Jamaica shares the same British heritage as its Caribbean cousins, the Bahamas, Barbados and the British Virgins, but unlike its cousins, it's a very large Caribbean island (4400 square miles), third only in size to Cuba and Hispaniola. Jamaica is a mix of jungles, rivers, waterfalls, mountains and great beaches. Jamaica is an independent democracy with a parliament and a prime minister, and a member of that informal association known as the "British Commonwealth." At about 2 1/2 million in population, Jamaica's residents are primarily (76%) of African descent. English is the official language but not always understood at first because of the West Indian lilt and local slang. The Jamaican dollar is the official currency, but most tourist sights advertise in US dollars and accept US currency. The Jamaican dollar is worth less than a nickel, so make sure you know which dollars are being quoted.
Jamaica, unfortunately, has a reputation for crime and racial tension, but then so do Los Angeles, Miami and New York. The aggressive vendors on the beaches and in the markets are probably what turns off tourists the most. The Jamaican government is trying to crack down on the vendors with large fines, but fines don't have much effect on those who are already poverty-stricken. But you can visit Jamaica (and Montego Bay and Ocho Rios) with no hassle if you use a little common sense. There's no end of ship-organized tours that can keep you insulated from the worst. And if you do do your own touring, make sure you know what you're doing ahead of time. I find myself unable to understand that segment of cruisers who insist on walking from the docked ship, and not paying for the inexpensive shuttle that takes you to a convenient and safe place in the port city.
Enough of the heavy stuff, here's a trivia question for you: Which of these is not native to Jamaica (or the Caribbean) - sugar cane, bananas, mangoes, breadfruit, bamboo or bicycle wheels? (Answer at the end of this article).
Mo Bay the Easy Way
Later in this article I will be summarizing the Mo Bay tours offered by Carnival. If you want to have an easy glimpse of Mo Bay without a ship's tour, here are my suggestions:
Us men know that it's important to get the shopping frenzy satisfied early so that we can do some fun things (grin). A shuttle bus will take you from the dock for $2 per person through colorful if untidy Mo Bay to "City Center," which is not in the city center! Here you'll find 14 ship-approved duty free stores where you can buy jewelry, T-shirts, liquor, hand-painted clothing, Martha Stewart paintings on velvet, etc. Only authorized locals are allowed in the shopping area, so it's hassle-free. My wife particularly wanted to buy some Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee - James Bond's favorite non-alcoholic drink - which is supposedly the world's most expensive breakfast brew. When we tried it out on returning home, we didn't care for it much, so we either have different tastes from James Bond author Ian Fleming, or we were ripped off.
Lunch At Margueritaville
From City Center, it's a $2 per person cab ride to Margueritaville, a funky restaurant/bar, primarily for tourists, which has great views across the harbor to the cruise ships, and out to sea. Margueritaville is really two places in one - an upscale yet informal seafood restaurant, and a separate "Sports Bar & Grill." Naturally, both places specialize in margaritas and background Jimmy Buffet music. We enjoyed our drinks, the meal, the view, the swinging chairs, and the service. One of our group tried out the 110-foot enclosed water slide, called the "Mobay Monster," which dumps you into the ocean at an incredible speed. We saw the cruise director eating in the restaurant - usually a good sign that that's the best place to eat in port. Tip: Get there early to get a good table in the outdoor portion of the sports bar, but look around first - there are various decks on different levels which are not apparent at first. Another tip: unless you're into Señor Frog's type of fun, keep away from the indoor sports bar after lunch, when the DJ gets the younger tourists into beer-drinking competitions, and the like. (Many of these people will be your fellow cruise passengers who stop briefly at Margueritaville as a stop on cruise line excursion). A ten-minute taxi ride at $3 per person will get you back to the cruise ship.
Although there are organized ship's tours for snorkeling and swimming, our ship (Carnival's Celebration) did advise that you could get your own taxi to the "Hip Strip," a "very safe" tourist-oriented area with many beaches, restaurants and stores. The best snorkeling, says Carnival, is at Doctor's Cave Bathing Club Beach where admission is $5 for which you also get access to restrooms, showers and changing facilities. Carnival provides beach towels for passengers, and underwater cameras and beach shoes or aqua socks can be purchased from the "snorkeling desk" on board. If you're snorkeling, don't forget to take bread or crackers to feed the fish.
On our cruise (February 1999), Carnival offered an impressive 16 different options. While there is no doubt that you could organize your own tour that was cheaper - especially if you had a group - Jamaica is not the place to take chances, especially with the many unlicensed taxi drivers. Renting a car is also not recommended - and you're going to have to drive on the left, if you do drive.
Dunn's River Falls
A walk "up" the Dunn's River Falls is a classic Jamaica experience, but it's a long bus ride to get to the falls because they're over near Ocho Rios. You can walk up these stair-stepped falls if you're energetic (and suitably dressed), with the help of your paid guide (who will also take photos of you with your camera). I loved the experience when I tried it many years ago, and it's probably worth the long bus ride and (so I hear), the hassle of the crowds nowadays and the persistent vendors. The excursion includes a tour of Ocho Rios.
5 1/2 hours; $46 (plus $6 for water/climbing shoes)
Belvedere Plantation Tour
This 3½ hour tour visits the historic plantation which featured in the 1831 slave rebellion (leading eventually to the abolition of slavery in 1838). In addition to viewing the ruins of the original overseer's house and sugar factory, one can see smaller, re-created buildings, visit a craft fair, and watch a demonstration of sugar cane syrup production.
Cost: $42 p.p.
Lethe Village Tour
I'm sorry I didn't take this tour. I was fascinated by its description in the brochure, which starts off: "You board air-conditioned buses at the pier for a drive through the interior mountains to arrive 30 minutes later at a village called Lethe (means 'to forget', and you'll soon understand why)." Forgettable Lethe includes visits to Lethe Springs, gardens, a banana plantation, a Piña Colada-making demonstration and, clearly the highlight, "witness Barney climb a 100-foot coconut tree bare-footed, and see him throw down coconuts for you to taste the water directly from the nut." One assumes that Barney is not one of the passengers.
3½ hours; $42 p.p.
Black River Safari
After a bus tour across the island, passengers are treated to a one-hour boat tour through Jamaica's largest wetland area, the Black River Lower Morass, home to over 100 species of birds. "The endangered American crocodile [alligator?] inhabits this area, and sightings are frequent." "On feeding days, watch one-armed Charles Swaby hand feed his pet crocodile Herman."
5½ hours; $45 p.p.
This classic Jamaica experience on 30-foot bamboo rafts can be done on the Martha Brae river or on the Great River, both "overgrown with tropical vines and inhabited by colorful butterflies and birds." Great River is closer to Mo Bay and less expensive; Martha Brae is, however, a more interesting river. With just two passengers on each raft, your guide will steer your raft while he tells you facts about the flora and fauna, and will perhaps entertain you with his singing. I tried the Martha Brae trip many years ago, and it was a great experience.
Martha Brae excursion: 4 hours; $46 p.p.
A catamaran boat cruise, with a stop at Margueritaville. Watch out for the "unlimited love potion #9, solid rum punch" available on board.
2½ hours; $48 p.p.
Pirate Boat Cruise
A "55-foot, gaffed-rigged pirate ketch" (once featured in a Walt Disney film), visits Jamaica's coastal reefs where one can snorkel or swim. Includes a visit to Margueritaville. Snorkel equipment included.
2½ hours; $44 p.p.
Montego Bay Highlights
This tour visits beaches, as well as Mo Bay itself, and has a stop at Margueritaville. Meet many members of the driver's family at the frequent shopping stops.
3½ hours; $26 p.p.
A boat takes passengers directly to Marine Gardens. Equipment included.
1½ hours; $31 p.p.
Rose Hall Beach & Water Sports
A bus trip of 20 minutes takes you to the Rose Hall Beach Club and includes entrance fees. Water sports include kayaks, paddle boats, sail boats and windsurfing.
4 hours; $35 p.p.
Wet 'N Wild Cruise Party
Snorkeling and swimming are offered on this catamaran cruise. Music, rum and Jamaican dance lessons are featured on the way back. Visits Margueritaville for 20 minutes.
Beach Shuttle By Boat
A water shuttle takes you to and back from a "beautiful beach" for a two-hour stay. This one wins the prize for the "least-descriptive" shore excursion.
2½ hours; $27 p.p.
A fully-equipped dive boat takes accredited SCUBA divers to a site just ten minutes away.
1½ to 2 hours; $57 p.p.
Sub Sea Adventure
Passengers ride on the deck of this semi-sub to Marine Gardens where you go below to sightsee through underwater windows.
2 - 2½ hours; $42 p.p.
All of them! All were brought to Jamaica at some time in its colonial history.
Mo Bay can, with a little planning, be as much fun, if not more fun, than the other Caribbean ports that enjoy a better reputation.
Take care, and enjoy!
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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