The answer is Montego Bay. The question? Where can you find many of Jamaica's best beaches, best festivals, best golf courses, best luxury hotels and best historic sites? It's not that other parts of the island -- which just celebrated it's 50th year of independence -- don't have a lot to offer, but in Montego Bay -- Jamaica's second largest city -- you can find many of the top sites all in one place. A nice bonus -- it's just 3 km from Sangster International Airport, where most international flights land, so you can begin your holiday minutes after touching down.
Beautiful beaches are the main reason for Montego Bay's enduring appeal. Eighty years after some early tourists, among them a famous British osteopath, declared the waters had curative powers, Doctor's Cave Beach remains one of the standouts. It's now part of Montego Bay Marine Park (Jamaica's first national park), which protects a variety of marine life among the coral reefs and is good for snorkelling.
It's all about the water in Montego Bay -- or MoBay, as it's affectionately known. After the beach, the Aquasol Theme Park, and horseback riding in the sea (with Chukka Caribbean Adventures), there are two other water-based experiences worth checking out in the Falmouth area because they can't be done very many places.
One is a pleasant one-hour ride on a bamboo raft down Martha Brae River -- a quintessential Jamaican experience through the lush countryside. Another is a trip to Glistening Waters, billed as "Jamaica's only natural nighttime attraction." Boats take you out for a 35-minute tour on the luminous lagoon, which is filled with microscopic organisms that emit phosphorescent light when agitated. You can also swim, and the restaurant serves authentic Jamaican cuisine before or after the tour.
FUN AND FESTIVE
They call it the "Hip Strip" -- an almost 1-km-long stretch of Gloucester Ave. that fronts the beach and is the centre of the action in Montego Bay, with lively bars, restaurants, shops and food stands selling reasonably priced jerk chicken, local Red Strip beer and more.
MoBay is also the location for two of the island's top annual music events: Jamaica Jazz & Blues festival (Jan. 24-26), which usually attracts about two-dozen major international acts, and Reggae Sumfest (July 21-27) with big names in the reggae and dance hall scene performing amid parties both on the street and on the beach.
LAP OF LUXURY
Visitors will find a wide selection of hotels in MoBay from small inexpensive properties to all-inclusives, as well as several well-established deluxe properties that have many repeat guests. Most of the upscale hotels are on a beach, have excellent amenities, and typically include not just rooms, but suites and villas often accented with marble and mahogany. Round Hill, which traditionally caters to wealthy socialites and aristocrats, remains a popular choice for the well-heeled.
Half Moon, with 160 hectares of landscaped grounds (and a great lap pool), and sprawling Tryall (with its 166-year-old Great House) are both Green Globe Certified. The upscale Ritz-Carlton, which is new by comparison, also has its fans.
Once occupied by plantation owners, several of Jamaica's Great Houses are still standing, many of them renovated and open for guided tours. Some of the best ones are in the MoBay area. Two of these can be visited in one day: The 15-room Greenwood Great House was built by Richard Barrett, cousin of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and contains the original family library; the legendary Rose Hall Great House (dating to the 1770s) was once the home of Annie Palmer -- the so-called "White Witch of Rose Hall" -- who reportedly murdered three of her husbands. Others worth seeing are the Barnett Estate, owned by the Kerr-Jarrett family since 1775, Bellfield Great House, and Good Hope Great House.
When it comes to golf on Jamaica, most would agree Montego Bay is the best spot. The region is home to four championship courses including the Tryall Club (often the site of major tournaments); the Half Moon Golf Course (designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. has a traditional country club feel); the White Witch Golf Course, which one avid golfer called one of the most spectacular courses in the Caribbean; and Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, which meanders from the hills to the beach and back again.
NEED TO KNOW
For details on upcoming events, attractions and accommodations in Montego Bay or elsewhere in Jamaica, check the Jamaica Tourist Board at visitjamaica.com or call 1-800-JAMAICA.