Kingston to Montego Bay: Vegan Eats, Soundsystem Parties & Coconut Oil Massages in the New Jamaica
Spanish Court Hotel
Repeatedly invaded, conquered, and enslaved, first by the less than accommodating Chris Columbus, and subsequently by the British, Jamaica finally achieved independence in 1962 after almost 500 years of turmoil. Having a rock (as the country is endearingly referred to) the size of Tennessee subjected to that amount of historical upheaval, however, has resulted in a national culture as deep, complex, and visceral as anywhere you’ll find.
These days, it’s almost impossible to overstate how teeming with joie de vivre Jamaica is; and on our most recent visit, our only goal was to meet every experience, and person, with that same spirit.
While the majority of tourists fly into Montego Bay on way to the island’s western beaches, our first stop was the southeastern capital city of Kingston, a San Francisco sized metropolis where we holed up at the charmingly refined Spanish Court Hotel. Long beloved as a civilized oasis in the heart of New Kingston, the central area known for its live music and arts scenes, the recently refurbished property boasted all the accoutrements we could possibly ask for, including a couple of pool bars, outdoor hot tub and luxuriously comfy rooms. Our first afternoon, we barely left the place.
Spanish Court Hotel
When we did eventually venture out, it was for dinner at the curiously diverse Reggae Mill, which was remarkably both a Greek/Jamaican restaurant and nightclub. Housed in the elegant Devon House complex, which includes a number of shops and cafes that have grown up around the celebrated eponymous mansion, it’s one of only a handful of eateries that serve Greek food on the island. While the atmosphere in the dining room was relatively sedate, we were told that in just a few hours, after packing up the tables and turning on the strobe lights, the place would be thronged with hundreds of clubgoers. And indeed, the growing line of exotically clad revelers outside suggested just that. Not quite ready for that kind of party, we headed back to the Spanish Court for a poolside nightcap.
The following morning we trekked up into the Blue Mountains for coffee at the Strawberry Hill hotel and resort, the fabled – and absolutely gorgeous – mountaintop enclave of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. After taking in the spectacular view, we marveled at the ubiquitous photos of visiting rock stars – Sting, Jagger, Marley – cavorting around the place in more free-wheeling and decadent times.
Back at sea level we grabbed lunch at the thoroughly unique Veggie Meals on Wheels, a vegan restaurant with an ardent mission. Operating out of empty shipping containers in a nondescript strip mall, the place is an oasis of delicious food and good vibes that also caters music and arts events throughout Kingston, produces a weekly radio show from a tiny studio in the back, and runs an Airbnb in another container. Our lunch of tasty delights included brown stew tofu, tofu wrap with ackee and greens, veggie wraps, and ackee with sweet potato…with nary a beef patty in sight.
The musical heritage of Jamaica hardly needs an introduction; and there’s perhaps no one musical genre more universally embraced than reggae (along with its sub genres dub, dancehall, and yes, hip-hop). It all pretty much started at one place, specifically Rockers International Records, the veritable birthplace of reggae. After a quick stop to browse the racks in the tiny space, we headed to a more formal tutelage of the art form at the Bob Marley Museum, where our guide not only lead us through the groundbreaking artist’s home and studio, but also regaled us with personal anecdotes about the man himself…and even led us in a sing-a-long of some of his beloved hits. (Jamaica does have a way of letting down your too-cool-for-this guard.)
Bob Marley Museum
Full of good vibes, we then headed west to Kingston’s Caymanas Park racetrack to lose a few bucks on the horses, while downing a Red Stripe or two as the sun went down.
We settled in for dinner at the Spanish Court’s Rojo restaurant, supping on Rasta Pasta – penne with sautéed sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, baby corn, and zucchini – and deep fried crusted chicken breast stuffed with ham, bell peppers, mozzarella and parmesan, served with a garlic cream sauce. But not for long, as exalted Brit radio host and DJ David Rodigan was in town and performing up the road at the five-years-running soundsystem party Dubwise. So we conjured a third wind and headed out to party with the locals.
Rojo at the Spanish Court
After two pretty jam-packed days, we headed west to Montego Bay, on the other side of the island. Previous trips to Jamaica made the thought of a cross-rock drive a little daunting, as some Jamaican roads are not really highly recommended. But thanks to a newish modern highway, the 100-mile-long trip was a zip, and we were soon ensconced in the fabulous new S Hotel.
If our time in Kingston was all about Jamaican culture, M’Bay was focused on sun and sand – and the S was the epitome of a contemporary resort cool. Its open plan lobby ushered us straight to the magnificent pool just steps beyond, and the beach was only a few more steps from there. Our room was rather enormous – something that happened in the conversion of the old building – and had a million dollar view of both pool and ocean. Taking advantage of the space, we actually unfurled the in-room yoga mat and got in an hour of vinyasa the following morning.
S Hotel Montego Bay
But before that there was more relaxing to be done, i.e. a cold-pressed coconut oil massage at the S’ Irie Baths and Spa. The S had more dining options than we could ever get to, but a prosecco at the Sky Deck Bar – beholding the glorious sunset – and a dinner of coconut curried shrimp and Jamaica braised oxtail at the hotel’s elegant Rocksteady restaurant were definitive epicurean highlights.
After a deep sleep in our opulent chamber, we made the most of the following morning before taking a 4-minute drive to the airport for the easy flight stateside. A dip in both pool and sea and coffee at the S’ airy Ska Café and we were off – with enough Jamaica memories to keep us warm through another NYC winter.