When people ask me where I’m headed and I respond “Jamaica,” they ooh and aah. No doubt because they’re picturing sun, sea and long stretches of white sand. And they would be right – Jamaica is one of the Caribbean’s most popular island destinations, as we all know. But what many visitors also don’t realize, is just how many beautiful, accessible, safe and secluded beaches Jamaica offers. From west to east or north, and from white sand to black, the beach choices go way beyond the ones that are plastered in ads (like Doctor’s Cave beach in Montego Bay). And I dare say, the variety and quality rivals some of the Caribbean’s more “beach-driven” destinations like Barbados.
After four years of traveling around the island and spending several months at a time, I keep discovering more. But for now, these are my top 10 favorites (in no particular order of preference).
1. Best for People Watching, Partying & Watersports: Negril Beach or “Seven Mile” (Western Jamaica)
Aaah Negril! Seven miles of uninterrupted, fine sand, turquoise waters and quite possibly the best people-watching factor of any beach in Jamaica. Everyone loves Negril - even Jamaicans, who call it “the capital of casual” and flock here on national holidays. There’s an infinite choice of affordable, tasty street food (think jerk grills), and local restaurants and hotels sprinkled all along the beach, making it easy to hop-around and mingle with residents. The watersport options are endless, not to mention the nearby rivers (Negril River, Black River, Martha Brae), so you can juggle sunset cruises with river boat safaris and even rafting. And last but not least, music late into the night – from dancing to live reggae barefoot in the sand at Alfred’s Ocean Palace to partying at the Jungle Nightclub until sunrise. And if you just don’t do crowds, visit during the low (hurricane) season from May to September, or stay on the “more Jamaican” and cliffside of Negril just five minutes away so you can choose to head to the beach whenever you choose.
2. Best Alternative to Negril Beach, With No Vendor Interruption and Delicious Seafood: Cosmos Beach (Western Jamaica)
For some reason even I forget about Cosmos Beach when I’m in Negril. But it’s a great alternative for getting away from the hustle and bustle of Seven Mile beach. It’s only a short ride from Seven Mile and there’s a minimal entrance fee (about US$5). You may even get that waived if you eat at the Cosmos restaurant – which serves some of the best seafood in town (even octopus!). Cosmos offers Jamaican dishes as well as simple beach foods like burgers.
3. Best Alternative to Doctor’s Cave Beach in Montego Bay: Cornwall Beach (Western Jamaica)
You could never tell Doctor’s Cave Beach and Cornwall Beach are right next to each other. Though they appear to be separated by a small wall on the beach side, you can walk along one to get to the other. But the two scenes couldn’t be any more different. While Doctor’s Cave is sprinkled with rainbow-colored umbrellas and so many tourists you actually lose sight of the sand, Cornwall Beach is peaceful and just as beautiful if not more spacious. It’s also where most expats and residents go on a Sunday or weekday after work to relax. The entrance to Cornwall Beach costs between $300-$500 Jamaican dollars (or US$3-$5), and there’s a bar and restaurant on site that are well worth the try. Every Sunday, Cornwall Beach hosts a sunset beach party for residents, from 5pm until late, with a DJ and a “bottomless” Appleton mug option (read: all-inclusive rum all night) for JA $600.
4. Best for Seclusion: Long Bay Beach, Portland (Eastern Jamaica)
The far eastern coast of Jamaica is absolutely stunning. Long Bay, about 15 minutes’ drive from Port Antonio, is a small fishing village, rural but yet sprinkled with a few small guesthouses along the coast here and there. It has fewer tourists than Port Antonio, and it feels more like the “real” Jamaica. If I needed to get away from it all, this is where I’d stay – and I’d pick the Blue Heaven guesthouse (a great choice for budget or simple travelers). It’s also very close to Manchineal, another stunning fishing village with more beach, and the prettiest waterfall in Jamaica (in my opinion): Reach Falls. To spend time on the East Coast of Jamaica, it’s best (and cheaper) to fly into Kingston rather than Montego Bay.
5. Best for Stunning Landscape and Views: Silver Sands, Duncan’s (Falmouth, Northern Jamaica)
When I first laid eyes on Silver Sands, I gasped. It is one of the top 3 most stunning beaches I’ve seen in Jamaica, without a doubt. It’s the perfect size stretch of fine sand, the views are incredible with individual villas tucked away in the hills behind the beach. There is complete privacy, and the water is so clear it glistens. You can lie back, read, swim, eat at the restaurant on site, or nap without any interruption. It’s quite frankly close to perfection. I would go back there in a heartbeat, and I’m not as much a beach person as I am an “interior” (waterfalls) kinda gal. To have access to this gated property, you would need to stay at one of the Silver Sands villas or maybe “know someone who knows someone” (smile) but it is well worth it.
6. Best for Lovers: Burwood Beach (Falmouth, Northern Jamaica)
Another stunner: Burwood Beach, a public beach near Ocho Rios and near Silver Sands. When I was there, I saw maybe one couple on the far end – otherwise, just me and the sea. I’m told this is a popular one for honeymooners, and I could see why as I watched that couple on a leisurely stroll with all that space to themselves. But hey, who says only lovers get to enjoy the prettiest beaches?
7. Best for Some Surf-Action: Boston Beach, Portland (Eastern Jamaica)
A beautiful small cove-like beach with waves good enough to surf. It’s also right next door to the famous Boston Bay jerk stands – where you will taste the best jerk cuisine (and jerk sauce) on the island. Can you say ieal location?
8. Best for Overall “Vibe” & Family Beach Day: Winnifred Beach (Portland, Eastern Jamaica)
Winnifred Beach is now one of my favorites. I discovered it earlier this year on a roadtrip to the Eastern side of Jamaica, in the parish of Portland. There are jerk stands on site, lots of pretty trees and a beautiful stretch of white sand. There’s also some live local reggae in-season. I stopped by in the early morning so the grills and the music weren’t going yet, but I hope to be back some day.
9 & 10. Best for Off-The-Beaten Path: Rafter’s Nest Beach (Eastern Jamaica) and Duncan’s Bay (Northern Jamaica)
Rafter’s Nest Beach: A beautiful, fine black sand beach, hidden below the Rio Grande bridge, where one would normally catch a rafting excursion. We took one wrong turn, went down a dirt path and stumbled on this hidden stretch, even larger than Reggae Beach. A couple of residents were swimming on the far end, on this otherwise deserted beach.
Another off-the-beaten path public beach in the North, and a very short ride from Silver Sands, is Duncan’s Bay Beach (below). It’s mostly residents and expats on this beach, while tourists flock to Runaway Bay or Ocho Rios. There’s a small bar on one end of the beach, for drinks and freshly grilled food.
Duncan’s Bay would be a great base for the off-the-beaten path traveler wanting to experience Jamaica safely and away from the “all-inclusives” – and one of the more recommended, cozy guesthouses in Duncan’s Bay is Jamaica Jewel. If I get to experience it myself one day, I will post a review here.
And of course, as with any beach excursion anywhere in the world, please take precautions: don’t swim alone and definitely not in rough weather, don’t swim right after you eat, leave your valuables at your hotel, stay hydrated all day and lather up with sunblock.
So many beaches, so little time! I think of the south coast of Jamaica too but that will be for another post. Am curious to know what everyone’s favorite beach is in Jamrock, and if it’s listed here?
Coming Early Fall 2014:
JAMAICA’S BEST BEACHES: A MINI GUIDE
My mini guidebook is geared toward new (or not so new) travelers to Jamaica, focusing on the major beach destinations around the island and helping you plan your first trip. It saves you lots of time!
Get the skinny on:
* the best beaches in each resort town/area (including additional ones not mentioned in this post)
* my top recommended places to stay and eat
* what sights not to miss near your chosen beach town
* the best of Jamaica – what not to miss and iconic things to do
* key maps to each area, with fun sketches!
There will be bonus Top 10 lists as well – one for lovers and one for families
This mini guide is based on my months and over five years of traveling across and living on this vibrant island, and will be filled with my full color photographs.
COMING FALL 2014!