The big question ahead of any vacation is often along the lines of which are the best areas to stay in to make the most of your vacation? Travelers with Jamaica in mind will find this question a little harder to answer, because island hotspots like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril are spread out across Jamaica, and visitors might not always have time to visit them all.
All three hotspots are incredibly scenic and full of character, with lots to do. Montego Bay for starters, is a major cruise ship port with a multitude of beach resorts and some amazing golf courses. Ocho Rios is a former fishing village known and loved for its numerous rainforests, rivers and waterfalls. In fact, the popular Dunn’s River Falls of Jamaica is located in Ocho Rios. Negril on the other hand is located in western Jamaica, and it is often associated with beautiful bays and beaches, like the postcard worthy Seven Mile Beach.
Travelling with kids? Negril is the place to be if you're looking for the best family-friendly beaches. Older kids will love the waterfalls, Blue Hole, White River tubing and Mystic Mountain adventure park near Ocho Rios, which is a good option for a more active vacation with the kids.
Also read: 17 surprising things Jamaica is known for.
When going to either of these areas, it’s recommended to get a flight to Sangster International Airport (MBJ) in Montego Bay. From Montego Bay, Ocho Rios is 90 miles away in one direction, and Negril is just about the same distance away, in the opposite direction.
It doesn’t stop there! Aside from these three areas, there are five lesser known places that could potentially hold exciting adventures for your Jamaican vacation, but first let’s talk about the reasons Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios have remained at the top of the list of places to stay for visitors to Jamaica for so many years!
Negril in a nutshell: Duane Stephenson’s ‘Cottage In Negril’ lyrics tell a story of love and simplicity, which emphasize the charming and romantic atmosphere of Negril. The beauty of this area is inspiring to most who travel there, and visitors often gravitate to beaches in Negril, which are fun in the day, offering even more amazing views at sunset. Negril is perfect for first time visitors to Jamaica.
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport (Montego Bay): 90 minutes.
Picture: Sands as soft and white as powdered sugar as far as the eye can see. Water that's always perfect and flat. Fresh east-blowing breezes. These are the things you can enjoy on Beaches Negril.
Number 1 on our list, and for good reason! If you’re heading to Jamaica for the first time, Negril is an amazing place to start. Negril has the best beaches in Jamaica, which are ideal for relaxing during the day, and partying at night. The Negril Cliffs, positioned 40 feet above the sea are a sight to behold. Visitors also enjoy taking a trip down to the Appleton Rum Estate, river rafting down the Martha Brae River, watching and participating in cliff jumping at Rick’s Café, marveling at the Mayfield Falls, and more. Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular activities in Negril as the water is usually calm enough to allow for great visibility. Take in as many Negril sunsets as you can, as they are sure to be one of the highlights of your vacation!
Insider tip: Negril is a tourist-oriented area, and most of the action happens within the resorts, which means your choice of accommodation can make or break your stay. Sandals Negril is great for couples looking for a romantic adults-only resort, while families will love the waterpark action and other inclusions at Beaches Negril. Both all-inclusive resorts are located on the famous Seven Mile Beach, arguably the most beautiful beach in Jamaica!
Main points of interest around Negril: Seven Mile Beach, Mayfield Falls, Appleton Rum Estate, Martha Brae River, Rick’s Café. More things to do in and around Negril.
Montego Bay in a nutshell: Montego Bay, the capital of Saint James Parish, is often associated with luxury vacations in Jamaica, as some of the most opulent all-inclusive resorts on the island can be found in this area. It’s lively, colorful, and a tourist hotspot that’s here to stay. In Montego Bay you can go duty-free shopping, beach hopping, or visit popular sites like the Montego Bay Marine Park which is great for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport: Less than 10 minutes.
Picture: At Sandals Montego Bay, the fun never stops and the beach never ends.
You’re unlikely to be disappointed with a Montego Bay (MoBay) vacation if you’re looking for a posh resort experience; at least four top-rated resorts can be found in this area. Most people don’t recommend shopping in Jamaica or any other Caribbean island for that matter, but in Montego Bay shopping is surprisingly good, partly due to purchases being duty-free. Montego Bay is the tourism hub of Jamaica, and it is the second busiest cruise ship stop on the island aside from Ocho Rios. ‘MoBay’ is known for having great golfing opportunities, nice beaches, great diving and top-notch restaurants. It’s an energetic city which will make you want to get out and explore, and you’ll find lots to do including plenty of quality excursions. If you’re still trying to decide where to stay, a deciding factor may well be how close Montego Bay is to the airport, which equates to reduced transfer times! This makes Montego Bay the perfect place for tropical island getaways.
Insider tip: You won’t have to think about long airport transfer times if you decide to spend your vacation in Montego Bay, particularly if you stay at all-inclusive resorts like Sandals Montego Bay and Sandals Royal Caribbean, which are located about 10 minutes from the airport. Stay at one resort, make use of the amenities and restaurants at both - for free! Transfers between the two luxury resorts are provided at no extra costs. It’s like going on two vacations in one go.
Main points of interest around Montego Bay: Ras Natango Gallery and Garden, Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, Martha Brae River, Rose Hall Great House, Doctor’s Cave Beach. More things to do in and around Montego Bay.
Ocho Rios in a nutshell: Ocho Rios is a former fishing village, developed with tourism in mind. It is usually at the top of the list for vacationers looking for the ultimate tropical adventure and is home to the busiest cruise ship port on the island. Popular attractions near Ocho Rios include the Dunn’s River Falls (the most popular attraction in Jamaica) and the Ocho Rios Blue Hole (the best rated attraction in Jamaica). Visitors love this area because of its many resort options, including all-inclusive luxury resort Sandals Ochi - featuring 16 restaurants on-property, and over 100 swimming pools!
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport (Montego Bay): 90 minutes.
Picture: Family beachfront getaway with intimate private beach available at Beaches Ocho Rios.
An Ocho Rios vacation is great for the outdoorsy traveler as there are lots of tours you can embark on while there, including visits to Dunn’s River Falls, Dolphin Cove, the White River, Ocho Rios Blue Hole, and Mystic Mountain. Located on the northeastern shore of Jamaica, there are lots of amazing resorts to stay at, including Sandals’ largest (Sandals Ochi) and best rated (Sandals Royal Plantation) luxury resort. Even the traveler who prefers to stay within the secured gates of their resort to enjoy the countless amenities, will be right at home.
Travel tip: If you’re a Sandals lover or looking to have your first Sandals experience at the popular award-winning resort chain, Ocho Rios is the place where you can find two distinct Sandals properties. Sandals Royal Plantation is enchanting and intimate, where Sandals Ochi offers a more vibrant experience and tons of amazing dining options. Both are popular resorts amongst honeymooners, each for their own reasons. Beaches Ocho Rios is great for families, and kids will love the adventure water park! All three resorts include green fees for the nearby Sandals Golf & Country club.
Main points of interest around Ocho Rios: Ocho Rios Blue Hole, Dunn’s River Falls, Konoko Falls, Mystic Mountain, Dolphin Cove. More things to do in and around Ocho Rios.
Going off-the-beaten track is not recommended when visiting Jamaica for the first time, but if you’ve been to Jamaica before and want to try somewhere different this time around, try areas like Port Antonio, South Coast, Runaway Bay, Kingston, or Mandeville. Each of these areas offer their own authentic Jamaican experience.
Port Antonio in a nutshell: Port Antonio is considered a gateway to the jungles and mountains of Jamaica, and it is an area best suited for visitors who want to get away from the noise and enjoy a quiet, beachside holiday in a location which promises many more amazing adventures.
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport (Montego Bay): 4 hours.
Transfer time from Norman Manley International Airport (Kingston): 3 hours.
Once considered the ‘banana capital’ of the world, some residents of Jamaica describe Port Antonito as one of the safest parts of the island. It is not as popular with tourists as some of the areas previously mentioned, but during your time in Jamaica this can well work in your favor as you won’t have much trouble booking accommodation, at a time most convenient to you. As Port Antonio is still relatively undiscovered by travelers looking for the ‘in’ thing, those who go elsewhere may well miss out on the great beaches that can be found in this area, including San San beach and Frenchman’s Cove Beach. Port Antonio has a history of receiving guests of the rich and famous variety, and this has always had to do with getting away from it all and enjoying paradise in a more intimate way. Activities like river rafting (Rio Grande River), hiking, scuba diving and snorkeling are all available in ‘Portie’, and overall, you’ll love the nostalgic feel of this area, which is quite the refreshing change of pace! It’s just a bit more difficult to get to, with transfers from the airport taking up to 4 hours.
Main points of interest around Port Antonio: Reach Falls, Frenchman’s Cove Beach, Rio Grande River, Boston Bay, Winnifred Beach.
Jamaica’s South Coast in a nutshell: Another escape that is not as well-known as the more promoted parts of Jamaica is the South Coast / Treasure Bay area. Here you can enjoy Jamaica at its most authentic, and ride on a wave of inspiration much like artistes and poets from this area do, and soak in nature at its best.
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport: 90 minutes.
The adventurer looking for something away from the norm is likely to find just what they need most in the South Coast. This area is considered one of the hidden gems of Jamaica, and within it lays even more loot, like Treasure Beach, which is a true gem. There are a few hotels and villas around Treasure Beach if you have your heart set on a beach vacation, and the great thing about this area is that no matter where you stay, you’ll get a sense that you’re experiencing something more low-key and authentic. You’ll find a few restaurants around town serving classic Jamaican dishes of all varieties, and you can dine there to complete that living local experience. Overall, South Coast is on the quiet side, with the ‘floating’ Floyd’s Pelican Bar spicing things up occasionally.
Insider tip: Jamaica’s South Coast isn’t the easiest place to find all-inclusive resorts, but fortunately Sandals has one property in this area, Sandals South Coast, which lives up to the expectations of guests of the luxury all-inclusive brand for couples. Sandals South Coast is located within a 500-acre nature preserve and an amazing romantic getaway. Perfect for honeymoons!
Main points of interest around Jamaica’s South Coast: Floyd’s Pelican Bar, YS Falls, Appleton Rum Estate, Treasure Beach, Black River.
Runaway Bay in a nutshell: As history tells it, Runaway Bay was once an escape route for runaway slaves. Today it is described as one of the most beautiful parts of Jamaica. It is laid back and quiet with enough to do to keep you occupied if you decide to stay for a day or two, including visiting the Green Grotto Caves.
Transfer time from Sangster International Airport: 75 minutes.
Runaway Bay is becoming increasingly popular, particularly with divers hoping to explore the waters of Cardiff Hall Beach and Fisherman’s Beach. Both are reported to have super clear views, and there are a variety of coral types that you can encounter in this area. Runaway Bay isn’t as developed as areas like Negril, but it is slowly and steadily growing. Runaway Bay is 10 miles from Ocho Rios and boasts attractions like the Green Grotto Caves. It is also the place where you can visit Reggae icon Bob Marley’s childhood home: Nine Mile Village.
Main points of interest around Runaway Bay: Ocho Rios Blue Hole, Dunn’s River Falls, Konoko Falls, Mystic Mountain, Green Grotto Caves.
Kingston in a nutshell: Kingston is the city that keeps on giving. It is fast-paced, fun, with a lifestyle that’s easy to get addicted to. As it is the capital of Jamaica, it is the most convenient place in terms of finding cultural things to do and connecting with locals. Although you wouldn’t go here for a beach vacation, visitors to Jamaica love going to Kingston for day trips and exploring the city’s rich history.
Transfer time from Norman Manley International Airport (Kingston): 45 minutes.
Kingston on the southeast coast is where you go to handle your business affairs while in Jamaica, but vacationers can also have a memorable experience in the lively capital city of Jamaica. Staying in this part of Jamaica means you’ll be close to all the action, near the city’s museums, galleries, clubs, and historic sites. This isn’t a great place to vacation if you’re looking for white sand beaches, but it is if you’re looking for a more cultural experience. Kington is the largest city in Jamaica, with a population of about 750,000. Kington is known as the Reggae capital of the world, and it is one of the more developed Caribbean city capitals. In places like New Kingston you’ll find high rises and expensive homes, while there are other areas which are poverty stricken with high crime rates that are not advisable to visit. Even if you don’t stay in Kingston for your entire trip, it’s worth spending the day there to check out the top attractions, including the National Gallery of Jamaica. You can also get to Spanish Town easily from Kingston, about a 20-minute drive.
Main points of interest around Kingston: Dub Club, Emancipation Park, Devon House, National Gallery of Jamaica, Bob Marley Museum, Port Royal.
Mandeville in a nutshell: Mandeville is a charming small town in Jamaica, saturated with history. It is known for its 19th-century houses, beautiful greenery, and relaxed atmosphere. Much like the South Coast, it isn’t a tourist hotspot, but it is absolutely worth exploring, especially on a second visit, and in combination with some of the more understated areas on the island.
Transfer time from Norman Manley International Airport (Kingston): 2 hours.
Visiting Mandeville will allow you to see a different side to Jamaica. It is a small city, with a population of about 72,000, and is the capital of the parish of Manchester. Mandeville is a well-developed part of Jamaica and a great place for casual, intimate getaways. While in Mandeville, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to connect with the locals, and see what life is really like in this part of the world. You’ll also be able to find some great spots to experience Jamaican cooking at its best. Despite being well developed, this area manages to hold onto its small city charm, and a perfectly peaceful ambiance.
Main points of interest around Mandeville: Floyd’s Pelican Bar, Appleton Rum Estate, Treasure Beach, Black River.
Picture: If you're looking for a family beachfront getaway with an intimate private beach, a Pirates Island Waterpark, extra large accommodations, the only all-inclusive golf program for kids and near Jamaica's best attractions, Beaches Ocho Rios is for you.
There you have it: three tourist hotspots in Jamaica and five lesser known areas for you to explore. Jamaica is one of those destinations that cater to travelers of all types, and it is definitely an island you need to visit at least once in a lifetime. Whether you stay in the popular three areas, or in a less touristy part of town, you will not soon forget the magic of this island experience.
The island is known for its amazing all-inclusive resorts, both family friendly and for couples only. Have a look around, and maybe even combine a luxurious resort stay with some off-the-beaten track traveling!