Jamaica holiday guide: for a true taste of Caribbean culture, get your musical fill at Reggae Sumfest
The spirit of Bob Marley still permeates the Caribbean island’s culture – a cipher for the country’s music, politics, heat, chaos and beauty
He died nearly four decades ago, but Bob Marley still casts a long shadow across Jamaica. From 8ft murals of him smoking spliffs as big as traffic cones and the reggae beats vibrating from every speaker to his face gazing up from jars of shoe polish, he is everywhere: a cipher for the country’s music, politics, heat, chaos and beauty.
It is, of course, a cliché to go to Jamaica and wax lyrical about Marley, but until you visit, it is impossible to understand how integral he is to the island’s identity. Especially when you’re there, as I was, for Reggae Sumfest, Jamaica’s largest concert festival, with a sound system loud enough to make your chest vibrate. Damian Marley, the youngest of Bob’s 12 children, headlines on the final night, stamping across a stage blazing with lights, sampling his father’s “War” and “Exodus”.
My first stop, though, is quite different. From the hotel in Ocho Rios on the north coast, we drive to the capital Kingston on the south-east coast along a new motorway that cuts through the mountains, arriving after an hour-and-a-half at the Culture Yard. This is the government yard in Trench Town where a teenage Marley lived with his mother in the 60s. His battered VW van stands in a corner of the small, dusty estate, and his narrow, single bed is tucked inside one of the buildings.
There is always a tour guide on hand to show visitors around. Donnette “Sophia” Dowe, who is in charge of the yard, takes me through concrete rooms, sweltering under tin roofs, pointing to photographs of artists including Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. They all lived nearby throughout the 50s and 60s, spearheading a sound that would come to be known as reggae, after Toots and The Maytals’ 1968 “Do The Reggay”.
Outside the yard, in a weed-scented reverie, half a dozen men sit in the shade of a mango tree. One pulls an armful down, hands me one and tells me to eat the thing whole, biting straight into the green skin. This, they tell me, is the real Kingston – although, they press urgently, it is safe for tourists. Jamaica has had some bad press recently. During my visit, a state of emergency in Kingston has just come to an end, and there is one still ongoing in Montego Bay. Some care is taken over where I can go and what I can see, but I never feel unsafe.
From Trench Town, I head to the house on Hope Road that Marley bought when he found success. “I’ve brought the ghetto uptown,” he told a journalist in 1979, when she asked if he found it difficult to keep in touch with his roots. The road runs from the foothills of upper Kingston to the capital city’s palm-dotted waterfront.
Today the house is the Bob Marley Museum, processing more than 10,000 visitors every year. This tour is far more polished, capitalising upon the Marley legacy in a clearly lucrative venture, but it does give some interesting insights into his life as a star. Our group trundles around, peering into his recording studio, bedroom and kitchen. Photos of him cover every wall: on tour, playing football, frowning in front of a mixing desk, sitting on the house’s front steps.
Montego Bay is where a lot of tourists stay in Jamaica – and a 10-minute drive away is the Rastafari Indigenous Village in St James. To reach it, you must take off your shoes and wade through a river lined with sharp rocks. First Man – who meets my group – strides across. Along with two others, he founded the village a decade ago to show the cultural contribution of Rastafari to Jamaica.
They give us coconut water and fruit from the trees, in keeping with the Rastafari commitment to an “ital”, or natural diet, as First Man describes a philosophical worldview that prioritises debate.
Stir it up
Two dreadlocked men and a woman dressed in a long black dress play Nyabinghi music – a blend of 19th-century gospel music and African drumming which contains ideas of black redemption and repatriation, and is used to reach states of heightened spirituality.
Rastafari was founded in the 30s but spread globally thanks to Marley. He, and artists from Dennis Brown to Burning Spear used reggae as a medium for Rasta messages. “It means social consciousness, black empowerment and Marcus Garvey,” says First Man.
Over in Montego Bay, Reggae Sumfest starts at 9pm, gets going at midnight and runs until dawn. The sound clash on Thursday night – a reggae and dancehall battle between rival DJs – is the most frenetic, the air filled with klaxons and smoke. The festival itself, on the Friday and Saturday, is more relaxed. The audience is half tourists, half locals, many of whom set up deck chairs. We watch Ding Dong, Popcaan, Bounty Killer, Spice and Beres Hammond. But everyone stands up when Damian Marley arrives.
When to go
Jamaica has a tropical climate, and daytime temperatures are about 30°C all year round, with little difference between winter and summer.
During the rainy season, from late April to October, it is hot and muggy. Rainfall occurs mainly in the form of thunderstorms in the late afternoon. The most pleasant weather is in November and December.
Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest is the island’s premier reggae festival, held every year in late July. Tickets from £24.
How to get there
British Airways flies from Gatwick to Kingston, while Virgin Atlantic and TUI fly from Gatwick to Montego Bay, from around £500.
Where to stay
The Jamaica Inn is an upscale resort in Ocho Rios dating from the 50s, set on a white-sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Doubles from £335, room only.
The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel is in the financial and business district of Kingston. Doubles from £252, room only.
The Westender Inn is a family-owned hotel in Negril that blends island charm with laid-back luxury. Doubles from £75, room only.
Where to eat
Get a taste of real Jamaica at Tracks & Records, the sports-music bar owned by the Olympic champion Usain Bolt. 67 Constant Spring Road, Kingston. (There are spin-offs on Main Street, Ocho Rios, and Gloucester Avenue, Montego Bay, too). Try the curried mutton, jerk buffalo wings or coconut and cassava shrimp, or a traditional soup, such as country-style janga.
Pier One is an open-air restaurant and music venue on a dock in Montego Bay serving dishes such as grilled conch and jerk chicken. For dessert, try the hot skookie (skillet cookie).
Tours of Trench Town Culture Yard cost £1. Bob Marley Museum tickets cost £16.