Circling Jamaica by Car - 6 day road trip
Driving a leisurely full circle around the island of Jamaica takes a minimum of two days, but that is pushing it with not much time for pit stops. The distance is only about 398 miles using the major roads but takes 14 to 16 hours to complete with minimal stops. The distance is similar in distance to New York to Pittsburgh, but takes significantly longer; over twice as long as it would in the USA.
A more leisurely way is over 4 days, starting in Montego Bay and overnighting in Port Antonio, Kingston, Negril, but even this option does not leave much room for exploring. A more ideal pace is 6 days, overnighting in Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, Kingston, Treasure Beach, Negril, then back to Montego Bay. This gives a full day in each of the major coastal towns. The itinerary below is based on this option, but before embarking on this journey, we recommend taking the time to familiarize yourself with the main roads in Jamaica.
Driving around the entire island of Jamaica
Day 1 - Montego Bay to Ocho Rios
Overnight in Ocho Rios
Starting in Montego Bay, head east along the A1 towards Ocho Rios, home of Dunns River Falls, one of the most famous tourist destination on the island. This stretch of road is a main artery in good condition along the northern coast of the island with many resorts sitting on large acreages on either side of the highway, many with their own private beaches. This leg takes you through 3 parishes; St James, Trelawny and St Ann, skirting Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny, which is considered one of best-preserved Georgian towns in the Caribbean. Many late 18th-century and early 19th-century buildings still stands and in its heydey, the town was called the Paris of the Western Hemisphere because of its wealth and infrastructure derived from being the central trading point for sugar. The wealth concentrated along the north coast of Jamaica during this era was staggering. Large sugar cane plantations were cultivated by slaves, with opulent Plantation Great Houses built for the land owners.
Discovery Bay is the next major town on entering St Ann parish. It is named to commemorate the place where it is believed Christopher Columbus first set foot on Jamaica. Discovery Bay is home to Columbus Park, an open-air museum featuring various Columbian and Colonial artefacts. From there, this coastal route takes you through Runaway Bay, a name of unknown origin. It is believed to be named after the fleeing Spanish soldiers retreating from English troops in the 1600s. Another theory is that it was so named after the fleeing slaves ran away from sugar plantations to Cuba.
The road continues by Dunn's River, the island's famous waterfalls popular with tourists and Mystic Mountain, the zip lining and adventure flume rides themed around the Jamaica bobsled team, then on into the town of Ocho Rios.
Highlights: Rose Hall Great House , Greenwood Great House, Good Hope Great House, the Town of Falmouth, Dunns River Falls and Mystic Mountain.
Day 2 - Ocho Rios to Port Antonio
Overnight in Port Antonio
Continue east on the A3 from Ocho Rios. You will eventually need to pick up the A4 to Port Antonio about 12 miles outside of Port Maria where the A3 turns south towards Kingston through the interior mountains. This is a beautiful leg of the journey meanderinging up into the hills of the parish of St Mary, through Oracabessa and past Golden Eye, the home of Ian Flemming where he wrote the James Bond novels. Today, it is an exclusive resort built on the original grounds, an expansive 52-acre property with a private beach and lagoon. Sting wrote the song "every Breath you Take", while staying here.
From there the drive winds down into the town of Port Maria, above the coast line descending from the mountain with jawdropping vistas. Port Maria, the capital of the parish of St Mary is a small seaside town with a village feel, hugging the ocean. From there the road travels a bit inland through the countrysides of farmlands and lush banana trees. The A3 meets the A4 at a roundabout about 12 miles outside of Port Maria. The A4 continues east towards Annotto Bay and Port Antonio, and the A3 turns south (right at the roundabout) and on through the interior mountains to Kingston. Continue on the A4 through Annotto bay, where the road begins to hug the ocean shoreline for most of the remaining journey to Port Antonio. Buff Bay is the next major town after crossing into the parish of Portland, continue through the town along the coastline. The B1, a secondary road, links Buff Bay to Kingston via the interior Blue Mountains, a most beautiful but unpredictable drive because the road is sometimes closed because of landslides caused by heavy rainfalls (see Driving the B1 through Blue Mountains National Park).
Still mostly unspoilt, Port Antonio, the capital of the parish of Portland, is reputedly one of, if not the most beautiful region of Jamaica. Located on the windward side of the island at the foot of the Blue Mountains (the highest mountain range in the caribbean), Portland receives more rainfall than most other parts of the island, and as a result is green and lush; a natural rain forest. It is off the beaten path of the tourism industry, so the pace is slow with little to no night life... ideal for a good book and total immersion in nature. It is served by its own airstrip and has historically been an area of investment by wealthy and famous foreigners. The local Marina is named after the Errol Flynn, the famous British actor of the 1950s who setteled here. It was he who started rafting which is now popular across the island, an idea he developed for transporting bananas on bamboo rafts down the Rio Grande river to the port in Port Antonio.
Hotels are generally located east of the town, along the 5-mile stretch between the town and the San San area. Several large, expensive properties - hotels, villas and private homes - exist in the San San area.
Highlights: Somerset Falls, Rio Grande River Rafting, Errol Flynn Marina, Blue Lagoon (San San area).
Day 3 - Port Antonio to Kingston
Overnight in Kingston
Continuing east from Port Antionio along the A4, takes you through Boston Bay, the area of the island where jerk pork, a way of seasoning and preparing meats, was created by runaway slaves living in the mountains. Stopping to sample this spicy cuisine in this part of the country is a must, the flavors are different from other "jerk centers" across the island. From here, the road begins a gentle change in altitude above the water's edge, while continuing to hug the coast. It continues south east through the town of Manchioneal and past the turnoff to Reach Falls in the mountains, an unspoilt area of natural beauty and secluded waterfalls, eventually passing into the parish of St Thomas to the eastern most tip of the island. The coast line along this stretch is rugged with rocky outcrops, often with a restless sea creating large waves that crash against rocks, sending sprays of water upward and unto the road... a very beautiful sight.
The parish of St Thomas is the least developed on the island, with very poor road infrastructure. Being the most eastern of the parishes, it is subjected to the most rainfall and weather coming in from the eastern caribbean sea. The rainfall, and the run off from the mountains creates a lot of erosion. There is not a lot of tourism traffic through this parish and as a result, it gets the least investment for maintenance.
The Parish has a rich history. Morant Bay, the parish capital, is the location of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, a riot of local citizens protesting the poor economic and social conditions in the country. The local militia and police assembled in front of the court house with the Custos addressing the crowd from the portico to no avail. The militia eventually fired on the mob and in the ensuing violence the courthouse was burnt and the Custos and several militia men were killed. Martial Law was declared across the island and Paul Bogle, a national Hero and leader of the rebellion, was hanged. George William Gordon, a politician and member of the House and also a national hero was court marshalled and executed for his alleged involvement with Bogle. Paul Bogle's statue still stands in front of the courthouse, which is now a shell of its former self.
The drive through St Thomas eventually arrives in the parish of St Andrew at Bull Bay then on to Kingston after passing the narrow spit of land that creates the peninsula on which Port Royal and the Normal Manley International Aiport is located. Kingston is a throbbing city, and it has the seventh-largest natural harbor in the world, about 10 miles long 2 miles wide. Often bypassed by the tourism trade, there is much to see and do in Kingston. Port Royal is rich in history, once the largest and most economically significant English settlement in the Americas, it was known as the "richest and wickedest city in the world", during the era when pirates made it their home. Half of the city sank to the ocean floor during an earthquake in 1692, during a time when piracy was at its height.
Highlights: Boston Bay (the origins of the Jamaican Jerk cuisine), Reach Falls, Port Royal, Devon House, Bob Marley Museum, Blue Mountain tours (coffee region).
Day 4 - Kingston to Treasure Beach
Overnight in Treasure Beach
The southern coastline of the island is generally poorly maintained. This leg of the trip heads west through the southern interior plains of the island. The drive from Kingston to Treasure Beach, starts with the choice of the T1 highway, a toll road that stretches between Kingston and May Pen, or the A2, which traverses inland for most of the way before heading towards the coast towards the end of the leg in St Elizabeth. The T1 Toll plazas are located at Spanish Town, Vineyards and May Pen, and you will eventually pick up the A2 in May Pen for the rest of the journey. The entire journey is scenic, through the flat plains that produced the cash crop of the island; sugar cane, when sugar was king. The drive takes you through four parishes; St Catherine, Clarendon, Manchester and the eastern portion of St Elizabeth where Treasure beach is located. The first two parishes are predominantly flat, but the scenery is freeing and relaxing.
The T1 is fast and convenient but it bypasses the local towns. Using the A2 from Kingston, the next major town is Spanish Town, the capital of St Catherine and the original capital of the island before Kingston got that honor in 1872. The pirate, William Rackham aka Calico Jack, was tried here and subsequently hanged near Port Royal. From Spanish Town, the drive continues through the countryside to the town of Old Harbour, known for fish and bammy then on to May Pen, the capital of Clarendon (the T1 toll road ends here). From May Pen, the road begins to ascend into the mountains of the parish of Manchester, skirting Mandeville, it's capital, before beginning a steep descent down a section called Spur Tree into the parish of St Elizabeth.
Treasure Beach resides on the southern coast, and requires leaving the main roads and navigating narrow hillside lanes for access. The Treasure Beach area is a collection of small fishing villages and coves along the southern coast. It is very laid back, tranquil and serene. A great place to enjoy the simplicity of the seaside villages in Jamaica.
Highlights: Colbeck Castle (near Old Harbour), Lovers' Leap, Mandeville.
Day 5 - Treasure Beach to Negril
Overnight in Negril
The journey from Treasure Beach to Negril, covers two parishes; the remaing portion of Elizabeth and Westmoreland. It takes you north along the A2 back through the hills along narrow lanes to the A2 before heading west towards to Negril. This leg is quite scenic taking you through Bamboo Avenue, a stretch of the A2 that is covered by bamboo trees on either side of the road. This part of the island is flat with sugar cane being the main crop during the planation era. The Appleton Estate, a working sugar plantation and factory where Appleton Rum is manufactured, is located in this region. It is located bit further north on the B6.
The A2 eventually takes you through the coastal town of Black River, a sleepy town with a rich historic past, perched at the mouth of the Black River where it meets the sea. It is capital of the St Elizabeth parish and was once a major sea port and a major commercial center on the south coast of Jamaica. It's wealth led to it being the first town in Jamaica to be lit by electricty in 1893, the first town to have cars in 1903 and the telephone just 10 years after it was invented.
From Black River, the road stays relatively close to the coast line as it enters the parish of Westmoreland, progressing through Whitehall, an area that is slowly seeing some investment by tourism dollars then on through Bluefields, birth place of Peter Tosh, a member from Bob Marley and the Wailers, who also had his own success as a solo reggae artist. Bluefields is lush and beautiful, set at the foot of mountains that descend rapidly to the sea. West of Bluefields at the border of the parishes of St Elizabeth and Westmoreland, is an area called Scott's Cove commonly known as "Border", where the road widens as it takes a sharp right away from the coast, creating a wide cove of land where street vendors have setup small huts for cooking and selling of local foods to local traffic. Fried fish, chicken or conch soup are some examples of the fare. Areas like these truly capture the essence of true rural Jamaica and the simplicity and freedom of its lifestyle. Don't be afraid to stop, it is a worthwhile experience.
The journey continues west through Savanna-la-Mar, the capital of Westmoreland, also called, "Sav-la-Mar" or "Sav", a coastal town that was established by the Spanish. It is a major point of commerce on the south west corner of the island. From there the journey progresses to Negril known for its seven miles of pristine white sand beach. Negril is well developed with many large resorts and smaller boutique hotels, a thriving night life and popular bars such as Ricks Cafe, located on the cliffs overlooking the western caribbean sea. Sunsets are beautiful in this part of the country.
It was here, off the coast of Negril that the pirate Calico Jack (William Rackham) was captured by the British. His ship was anchored off Point Negril. On board were two of Jack's most fearsome crew members, Anne Bonney and Mary Read, women disguised as men. It was not until the trial of Calico Jack, that it was discovered that these two crew members were actually women. The British Navy sloop, headed by Captain Jonathan Barnet, surprised them during a binge of drinking. The drunken male pirates hid below deck, leaving only Anne and Mary to defend their ship.
Highlights: YS Falls, Appleton Estates, Bluefields, Rick's Cafe.
Day 6 - Negril to Montego Bay
Overnight in Montego Bay
This leg of the trip hugs the coast line all the way to Montego Bay, covering 3 parishes; Westmoreland, Hanover and St James. It does not take long from Negril to enter into the parish of Hanover, the Negril strip actually spans both parishes, with new resorts constantly being built along the coastline. The north-east stretch of this leg is a series of coves of different sizes, but large enough to make it less evident during driving that the road is actually meandering through several semi-circles.
This route takes you through Lucea, the parish capital settled on the largest cove, Tom Pipers Bay, located almost due north of Savanna-la-Mar. The B9 provides a direct connection between the two towns over the mountains. The town is known for its secluded beaches. Fort Charlotte was built at the mouth of the bay by the British and is said to be connected to the 18th-century Hanover Parish Church via a tunnel. The Hanover Museum is housed in an old jail dating back to the late 18th century. Many historical atefacts from the towns history are on display.
Further east from Lucea, is Tryall, a 2200 acre estate and home to one of the remaining Great Houses from the Jamaica plantation era. It is now an exclusive country club named by Condé Nast Traveler as "one of the best places to stay in the whole world". From there the drive continues east where it crosses into the parish of St James, at the mouth of Great River Bay, where the maginificent Great River pours into the Caribbean sea. This stretch is a verdant green and lush expanse of vegetation stretching up into the mountains around the banks of the Great River, known for rafting and tubing. The river snakes in and out and between the neighboring parishes of Janover and St James, up to its origins in St Elizabeth.
Highlights: Tryall, Hanover Museum, Great River Adventures (rafting, tubing, kayaking), Hip Strip.