Most visitors to Jamaica hole up in large, characterless all-inclusive hotels – but you don't have to. Here are five quirkier, small-scale and affordable alternatives with oodles of local charm
Jamaica arguably has more to offer visitors than any other Caribbean island. On a recent week there, I climbed spectacular waterfalls, visited coffee plantations high in the misty Blue Mountains, traversed jungle hillsides on zip wires, downed cans of Red Stripe in classic beach bars and feasted for next to nothing on spicy barbecued pork at roadside jerk centres. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the concept of the all-inclusive hotel – which encourages guests to stay within the confines of their hotel – was born here.
Fortunately, there are some enticing small hotels dotted across the island, geared more towards the independent-minded traveller. I've picked five below. Prices are in US dollars, including taxes, for the cheapest double room in low season (mid-April to mid-December).
With a fantastic, long beach and lots of laid-back bars, Negril is the most alluring of Jamaica's main resorts. Surprisingly, the most characterful places to stay are not on the beach itself, but on low, rocky cliffs in a once hippyish, now just funky, area called the West End. The Rockhouse Hotel has lush gardens and sunbathing platforms spread over the volcanic rock, with flights of steps and ladders into an incredibly clear sea (the snorkelling is good), as well as a big, minimalist ocean-side pool. There are two excellent restaurants with terraces right over the water: the newer one, the Pushcart, serves tasty Jamaican street food such as conch fritters and jerk pork. The cheapest bedrooms are tasteful and comfy, if conventional, while the pricier villas are stone, wood and thatched cottages with outdoor showers. Prices from $148, room-only.
Down in Treasure Beach, a supremely laid-back little community on the isolated south-west coast, casual-chic Jake's is the antithesis to Jamaica's gated hotels. At Jack Sprat, its café/restaurant behind the tiny beach, you will find both locals and tourists playing dominoes and tucking into fantastic lobster pizzas and coconut ice cream. Jake's is, above all, a place to chill out – to watch the pelicans dive-bombing for fish during the day, and to prop up Dougie's Bar until the small hours; Dougie closes the bar only when the last person is ready to leave. Spread across the cacti-filled grounds (it's dry and scrubby down here) are quirky cottages and rooms, decorated with driftwood, shells, old bottles and bits of colourful tiles. Top-of-the-range accommodation attracts rock stars – Lily Allen being one of the most recent – but the simplest rooms, which are still pretty nice, are dirt cheap. Prices from $112 a night, room-only.
Goblin Hill Villas at San San
The sleepy, lush north-eastern corner of Jamaica, around the ramshackle Port Antonio, was a playground for movie stars such as Errol Flynn half a century ago. It may have lost its cachet, but the pristine beaches are still drop-dead gorgeous, as is the surrounding jungly countryside. A great-value place to stay is Goblin Hill Villas at San San, magnificently placed on a hillside above San San beach, one of the loveliest strands around here. Along with simple but spacious and airy self-catering apartments, the beautiful grounds include a pool, tennis courts and a bar set around a giant ficus tree. Rates for a one-bedroom apartment start at just $146, including the services of a housekeeper who will shop and cook for you.
Hotel Mocking Bird Hill
Another enticing option near Port Antonio is the pretty, 10-room Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, on a hilltop just inland from the coast. Plus points are the panoramic views, the six acres of mature gardens with outstanding bird-watching opportunities – and the food. Expect creative Jamaican food in the evenings and home-made bread and jams for breakfast. Bedrooms are traditional in style, with lots of bamboo, and no air conditioning. To be happy here, you need to be sympathetic to the owners' principles of sustainable tourism. There is a free shuttle to nearby Frenchman's Cove, the area's most famous beach. Prices from $140 room-only, though most from $200.
Spanish Court Hotel
Kingston – Jamaica's sprawling and, in parts, dangerous capital (see footnote below) – is not somewhere you should spend a large chunk of your holiday. If you're passing through at the beginning and/or end of your trip, however, you might want to stay a night in the Spanish Court Hotel. Opened in 2009, this trendy hotel has cool, contemporary-styled public areas, a pencil-thin pool (more decorative than user-friendly) and bar up on the roof, and plush high-tech bedrooms. In short, it looks as if it has been transported from Miami. The hotel is in salubrious New Kingston, far from any no-go neighbourhoods. The Bob Marley Museum, the singer's fascinating one-time home, is a short drive away. Prices from $166 b&b.
Bear in mind that, though safety is an issue on Jamaica, virtually all the violence is Jamaican on Jamaican and away from areas where tourists go. Still, you should check the Foreign Office's advice at www.fco.gov.uk.