By Kristine Ziwica
Some tropical islands feel a bit sanitized, but Jamaica has an edge, depth, and history—and no shortage of diversions. River-rafting, an island tradition introduced by Errol Flynn, is excellent on the Martha Brae River, near Falmouth (River Raft Ltd., 876/952-0889; www.jamaicarafting.com). You can hike the tropical forests of the Blue Mountains, tour an organic coffee plantation—try the Old Tavern Coffee Estate in Newcastle (876/999-7070)—and dance to reggae hits at Port Antonio's Roof Club (11 West St.; 876/715-5281). Or sample a little of everything at Island Village in Ocho Rios (876/974-5831; www.islandjamaica.com), which has beaches, a reggae museum, and an open-air concert hall. There'll be more music at the annual Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival in Montego Bay (January 30-February 1; 800/568-3247); this year's headliners include Angie Stone and Lou Rawls. All that—plus sunshine, countless white-sand beaches, villages, resorts to suit every taste, and more direct flights from major U.S. cities than any other Caribbean island—makes Jamaica perfect for the winter-weary.
Jerk chicken on Boston Bay Beach, near Port Antonio, the undisputed center of the fiery national dish. Don't forget a bottle of Red Stripe.
Insider's Guide: Chris Blackwell
The founder of Island Records (he discovered Bob Marley) and creator of the hotel group Island Outpost shares his picks.
BEST BEACH "Port Maria, between Montego Bay and Port Antonio, is an unspoiled spot with fishing boats and a great little bar that serves fish and french fries."
BEST EATING "I love the street food in the Faith's Pen area between Ocho Rios and Kingston: curried goat, codfish, and ackee, or roast breadfruit."
BEST POST-BEACH ACTIVITIES "Visit Reich Falls and Dunn's River Falls. Take a sunrise hike up Blue Mountain peak, the highest on the island. Most of all, stop and meet the Jamaicans—they are the most wonderful and welcoming people."
BEST WAY TO TRAVEL "I'm a JetSki fanatic. It's a great way to explore the coast. You might even find some undiscovered beaches."
BEST-KEPT SECRET "Swimming in and out of the caves in Negril. It's not often that you can float in the sea and keep out of the sun at the same time."
Air Jamaica flies direct from 12 U.S. gateways to both Montego Bay and Kingston; American also has direct flights from New York and Miami.
WHERE TO STAY
Round Hill Now in its 50th year, this 124-room classic on a former pineapple plantation is reinventing itself as a 21st-century wellness center, with a new 10-acre oceanfront spa. Doubles from $420; Round Hill Bluff, Montego Bay; 800/972-2159 or 876/956-7050; www.roundhilljamaica.com
Rockhouse The 28 rooms at this favorite carved into the Negril caves have been redone with bright colors and Polynesian accents. Doubles from $100; West End Rd., Negril; 876/957-4373; www.rockhousehotel.com
Jake's A chic shack: 10 thatched-roof huts decked out in a riot of colors, on the island's less-traveled southern shore. Doubles from $115; Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach; 800/688-7678 or 305/531-8800; www.islandoutpost.com
WHERE TO EAT
Norma's The Julia Child of Jamaican cuisine, Norma Shirley has a new restaurant at Negril's SeaSplash resort, a sister to her Kingston outpost. Dinner for two $80; Negril: 876/957-4041 Kingston: 876/968-5488
Bloomfield Great House A restored 200-year-old coffee plantation and art gallery in the hills above Mandeville. Dine on nouveau American food with a Jamaican twist, such as escabeche with bammy (cassava-flour bread). Dinner for two $60; 8 Perth Rd., Mandeville; 876/962-7130