Feature: Out and About in Ocho Rios

Jamaica’s north coast is an idyllic family getaway.

By Sunshine Flint | Photograph and video by Jessica Sample

Slightly east of Jamaica’s midline, the resort town of Ocho Rios is all white-sand beaches, turquoise waves and emerald hills. It’s peaceful here and well suited for families, not least of all because it’s accessible, appealing all year weather-wise and, thanks to the island’s new network of highways, simple to reach. Travelers are catching on and love playing on beaches straight out of Caribbean central casting, knowing they are also just a few minutes away from dense rain forest, crystal clear pools and rushing waterfalls. Even the littlest adventurers can enjoy an early-morning catamaran cruise or a chairlift ride up into the mountains. Read on for how to explore this tropical playground that quietly keeps getting better and better.

Lay of the Land

Your adventure begins on the way to Ocho Rios, as you zip along the coast-hugging Northern Coastal Highway from Sangster International Airport, only 62 miles away. The road passes through Trelawny Parish, whose mountainous backcountry is where retired Jamaican sprinter and world-record-setting champion Usain Bolt—known as the world’s fastest man—grew up. Some locals say his speed is a result of growing up on a diet of Jamaican yams, a super-carbohydrate. If you pull over at one of the roadside stalls selling roasted yams cooked over an open grill, you can taste its sweet flesh for yourself, with a side of breadfruit or salted red herring or cod. There’s a good chance the stall will also offer you a fresh coconut with a straw to wash it all down with before you press onward.

Once you’ve arrived, it’s a short walk through a shopping and souvenir area from Turtle Bay Pier, where cruise ships dock multiple days a week, to the center of Ocho Rios (or Ochi, as the town is called), which is scheduled to debut a renovated Main Street and a new artisan’s village later this year. Ochi is set in St. Ann’s Parish, known as the garden parish because of its lush greenery and forests fed by rushing rivers and waterfalls. To take it all in and feel like you’re deep in rural Jamaica, you need drive only a few minutes on Milford Road into the hills. Continue your tour by driving up the A3 through the magical Fern Gully. Just above town, the road becomes steep as it wends its way through sheer-sided hills crowded with dense green cover that turns even the sunniest of days dark. More than 300 varieties of fern, including iridescent tiger ferns, whose delicate fronds shimmer in tones of jade and purple, grow in the gully.

Roadside stalls sell wooden carvings and statues, and after three miles, the road pops out into the country town of Colgate, where you can either turn around and head back to Ocho Rios or continue on past the village of Walkerswood, where the tasty jerk marinades and hot pepper sauces of the same name are made, and to the bustling capital of Kingston, 40 miles away.

Go With the Flow

Ocho rios means “eight rivers” in Spanish, and of all the rivers that flow down the town’s nearby mountains, Dunn’s River leads to one of the area’s most popular attractions: Dunn’s River Falls (Belmont Rd.; 876-974-4767; guided tours, $20*; children, $12), a waterfall surrounded by a water park and craft village. If there’s a cruise ship in port, you’ll want to arrive when the gates open at 7:00 a.m. (gates open at 8:30 a.m. on non-cruise-ship days) to avoid the crowds. You’ll get a good preview of the rushing waterfalls as you take the stairs alongside the falls down to a beach, where guides will organize you into groups of up to 12 people. You’ll link hands and start up the falls themselves (water shoes and a decent sense of balance are a must), carefully climbing over boulders and pulling your companions up and through the water, with guides offering support. It’s exhilarating fun, and reaching the top takes about an hour if you pause for lots of refreshing dips in the clear pools along the way. At the top of the falls, there’s a café and a water park that caters to the littles (children must be at least 36 inches tall to climb the falls).

Just down the road at Dolphin Cove (Belmont Rd.; 866-393-5158; dolphin encounters, from $99; children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult), the entire family can either go for a thrilling swim with dolphins or stand in knee-deep water to get a kiss from one. The number of visitors is limited to ensure one-on-one time. For more splashy fun, Hooves Jamaica (Belmont Rd.; 876-972-0905; two-hour beach rides, $70; children 13 and under, $50; children must be at least 36 inches tall) runs horseback rides along the beach into the shallow waves.

To experience the coastline, you can ask your resort to arrange for a catamaran or a private boat to ply the area’s translucent waves, past limestone cliffs and headlands covered in sea grapes, and stop at swimming beaches that catch your eye. Halfway between Ocho Rios and the town of Oracabessa is a tiny stretch that is great for a quick swim and snorkel (many catamaran cruises will provide snorkel gear, or you may be able to rent through your resort). Just around the next headland is Bamboo Beach (876-975-5122; admission, $11), outfitted with lounge chairs and a bar-slash-restaurant with live reggae.

Cap off your day of exploration with dinner at the always buzzing Miss T’s Kitchen (65 Main St.; 876-795-0099; dinner for two, $60), whose bright dining room and new extension is tucked away in a garden. The history of Jamaica is reflected in the restaurant’s cuisine, influenced as it is by many of the cultures who have lived on the island over time, from the Arawak people onward. Miss T herself makes everything fresh, from marinated fish to jerk chicken.

Mountain High

Adrenaline junkies love Mystic Mountain (876-974-3990; chairlift, bobsled and zip-line tours, $138; children 12 and under, $115)—even getting there is a blast. Hopping aboard the chairlift, you’ll slowly ascend 700 feet until you’re above the treetops. You’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the coast and Ocho Rios and can see the colors of the ocean turn from pale aquamarine to navy blue past the reef line. At the summit, you can have lunch at the café, which serves authentic Jamaican fare and tip-top views, and contemplate doing the bobsled or zip line next. The bobsled (a two-seater option is just right for small children) whizzes down the mountain on a fixed track, and you can go as fast as you can stomach. The zip line, meanwhile, traverses the forest canopy from platform to platform, high above the track below.

Afterward, consider visiting the Blue Hole, a deep limestone swimming hole in the hills south of town—either on your own or with a tour booked through your resort—or take a tube or bamboo raft down the White River to where it meets the sea at White River Bay. Calypso Rafting (876-817-8433; tours, from $25) offers outings. At the mouth of the river, schools of silver fish flash under the water while people swim and play music in the dappled shade.

History Lesson

It will surprise no one that the island’s most famous resident was musician Bob Marley, who was born in the small town of Nine Mile, a 30-mile drive into the mountains, where the singer is buried at the Bob Marley Centre and Mausoleum (Nine Mile; 305-665-5379; admission, $19). What may is that Jamaica (a British colony until 1962) was home to one of England’s most renowned 20th-century playwrights and composers, Noël Coward. His Firefly Estate (Firefly Hill Rd.; 876-725-0920; admission, $10; tours and afternoon tea available by appointment), about half an hour’s drive from Ocho Rios, sits high above the town of Port Maria on a swath of land that was once a lookout for the pirate Henry Morgan. Coward entertained the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and the Queen Mother here until his passing, in 1973. A tour takes in the house and grounds, with sweeping ocean views from east to west and across to Cabarita Island, showcasing this part of Jamaica as the natural wonderland that it was then and is now.

RCI® affiliated resorts in Ocho Rios include:
Breathless Montego Bay Resort & Spa by UVC—4 Nights DD71

Spend the day by the rooftop pool looking out on Montego Bay, or at the Beach Club with its palapas and wait service. A59 Montego Freeport, Montego Bay
Member Review: “The restaurants were terrific.”

Secrets Wild Orchid by UVC—3 Nights D541

Shares amenities with Moon Palace Jamaica. Lot 59A, Freeport, Montego Bay
Member Review: “The staff was so friendly!”

Iberostar Rose Hall Beach DB89

Expect gorgeous beaches, vibrant gardens and ocean views. Rose Hall Main Rd., Montego Bay
Member Review: Not yet rated

RCI® Tip

Did you know Jamaica is a popular cruise port? RCI® subscribing members can exchange their Points or a qualified Deposit and save toward the purchase of select cruises.** Visit cruiserci.com for more terms and conditions.

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Ocho Rios include:
Hermosa Cove

A quiet nine-room boutique property in Ocho Rios with a private beach, Christopher’s restaurant and bar and three recently added cascading pools. Hermosa St., Ocho Rios; 855-811-2683; hermosacove.com; doubles from $400 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **RCI Cruise is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 7720 N. Dobson Rd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services. For more information, go to www.cruiserci.com.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Spring 2018