Jamaica: beyond the all-inclusives

by Fred.Mawer

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).

Rockhouse Hotel

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.

Jake's

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.

Fred.Mawer

As a travel journalist with over 20 years of experience, I have written numerous articles on Amsterdam for the travel sections of newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and The Independent. I've also contributed to guidebooks on Amsterdam for the AA and Dorling Kindersley.

For my portfolio of writing, I am proud to say that the Netherlands Board of Tourism has voted me Journalist of the Year 2010.

During my many and frequent visits to the Dutch capital, I've stayed in most of the best hotels (in all price brackets - not just the expensive ones), and visited dozens of others. I've eaten and drunk in more restaurants, cafés and bars than, even sober, I can remember. I've explored the canals by boat and bike and on foot. I've hunted for bargains in the markets. I've admired the art - and worked out how best to avoid the crowds and queues - in the must-see museums. When not in Amsterdam or on my travels elsewhere, I'm at home in Bath.

My Amsterdam

Where I always grab a beer - Café t' Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12), a cosy, classic "brown café" with its own canalside terrace.

My favourite dining spot - Café de Reiger (Nieuwe Leliestraat 34), an atmospheric eetcafé in the Jordaan that is always packed with locals.

Best for people watching - A window seat in Snackbar Bird (Zeedijk 77), a great little no-frills Thai café on one of the main thoroughfares into the Red Light District.

My favourite stroll - Pick a canal, any canal...but the stretch of the Prinsengracht along the Jordaan district is particularly lovely.

Where to be seen - MiNiBAR (Prinsengracht 478), an unusual, newish bar near the Leidseplein where you get your own minibar (and unlike many of Amsterdam's trendy nightspots, it's easy to get in).

The most breathtaking view - from the top of the tower of the Westerkerk.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - Vondelpark, the city's main park - especially towards its less visited western end.

Shopaholics beware! The gourmet shops, funky art galleries, fashionable clothes boutiques and oddball stores that line the charming Negen Straatjes or Nine Streets quarter.

Best new attraction - Hermitage Amsterdam, which lays on no-expense-spared exhibitions of treasures from St Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

Don’t leave without...exploring the Eastern Docklands on a bike. The avant-garde modern architecture there is as memorable as the old gabled canal houses in the centre.