My favourite corner of Jamaica is the Blue Mountains without a doubt. This commanding mountain range spans several parishes in the eastern end of the island and was recognized as Jamaica’s first UNESCO world heritage site in 2015. The Blue Mountains are an ecotourist’s paradise with an abundance of conifers, ferns, bromeliads and endemic birds not seen in most other parts of the country.
There’s also quite a lot to see, taste and do in these rugged hillsides, so let Adventures from Elle be your guide to this magnetic Jamaican destination which is still relatively unexplored in comparison to the resort towns up north.
Spend a day at Holywell. Less than an hour’s drive from Kingston, Holywell is a must-see for all lovers of nature and hiking trails. The park is blessed by the fragrance of fresh mountain air and pine trees, and at 900m above sea level, the cool temperature allows its ecosystem to support a wide variety of ferns, flowers, and trees which are rarely seen in other parts of Jamaica. It’s also a great spot for bird-watching especially in the winter months when iridescent migratory birds from the North pay us a visit, but you’ll have to be an early riser to get the full experience.
Observe army drills at Newcastle. It’s estimated that some 12,000 civilians traverse Newcastle each year en route to higher stops such as Holywell or over the mountain range into Portland. Newcastle was founded in 1841 by British Major General Sir William Maynard Gomm when he observed that deaths from yellow fever were much fewer in the mountains than at Up Park Camp, an army barracks on the Liguanea plains. Newcastle gives a breathtaking view of the rugged Jamaican topography all the way out to the Kingston Harbour, and the red-roofed barracks against the misty blue hills make for a charming stop on your commute to higher destinations.
Enjoy some of the world’s best coffee at its source. Blue Mountain Coffee is only grown in the Blue Mountain range of eastern Jamaica ranging from 3,000 to 5,500 ft. above sea level, giving our coffee its signature mild flavour, sweetness and lack of bitterness. Dating from the 1800s, many coffee estates tucked away on these cool wet green hillsides still plant, harvest, roast and prepare coffee using time-honoured methods with minimal modern input. One place to have a farm-to-cup coffee experience is at the Lime Tree Farm, a delightful working farm which also makes for a comfortable and memorable stay.
Jump into an ice cold waterfall, because why not. You have quite a few to choose from, many of which are unnamed or run through private property such as the one at the Raf Jam B&B. Pictured above is the waterfall in Penfield, Gordon Town but there are more past Holywell into the Portland parish–namely Fish Done Falls and Cascade. Both are still uncrossed from my bucket list at the time of writing this post but I hope to get around to both soon, fingers crossed.
Have a delicious meal on the Blue Mountain Culinary Trail. The Jamaica Tourism Board has crafted an excellent initiative to draw attention to the lovely eateries perched alongside the road on the drive up from Papine to Irish Town and beyond. I’m familiar with Crystal Edge Restaurant and Cafe Blue, both of which I’d recommend for good Jamaican food and coffee al fresco, but be sure to check out this excellent post on simplylocal.life for other ideas.
Let’s go camping! Did you know you can get an outdoor forest camping experience right here in the Jamaican Blue Mountains? There are several locations to consider– namely Holywell, Cinchona, Clydesdale and Portland Gap. Bring or rent a tent, light a campfire to keep warm, make S’mores and roast marshmallows.
If roughing it in tents and sleeping bags isn’t your fancy, you can stay at a cabin in Holywell or Portland Gap instead but be sure to reserve early. Cabins tend to be booked out for weeks in advance.
Hike to its most formidable point: the Peak. Blue Mountain Peak is Jamaica’s highest point at 2,256m above sea level in Portland and can only be accessed on foot from a point known as Jacob’s Ladder. The walk is physically demanding but well worth it. The breathtaking views, pine trees, elfin woodland, mosses and lichens will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a primeval era. You may be skeptical about hiking at 2am to make it for sunrise but the twinkling unspoiled views of the Milky Way, the sight of Jamaica bursting alive from the mountaintops and the green earthy wonderland which awaits on the way down when there’s no longer need for flashlights is truly an unforgettable experience. I cannot over-stress the importance of dressing warmly though. Temperatures at the Peak often hit single-digit. Check out part 1 + part 2 of my experience in 2017.
Visit the highest botanical garden of the Western Hemisphere, that is, the Cinchona Botanical Gardens. Sitting at an altitude of 4,500 to 5,500 feet, the garden was established in 1868 to plant cinchona trees that would be used in the production of quinine, a medication used to treat malaria. Today, the garden isn’t as well maintained as in its glory days but it’s still a beautiful treasure with spectacular views and plant varieties to admire.
Tackle a gentler summit, maybe? Catherine’s Peak is the highest point in the parish of St. Andrew. It is named after Catherine Long, the wife of once Governor of Jamaica Sir Henry Moore, because she is thought to have been the first white woman to climb the 5,050-foot-high peak in 1760. Catherine’s Peak quickly becomes visible towards the right as you drive up to Newcastle from Red Light, a small community following Irish Town. The summit is easily identified by a cluster of communication antennas and is accessible via a one-hour hike from the Parade ground at Newcastle.
Learn more about Jamaica’s indigenous people. The Jamaican Maroons are African descendants who escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountainous interior dating from as far back as the 1500s. To this day, the Maroons have remained autonomous and separate from Jamaican culture to an extent. Of the four remaining official maroon towns, three are found deep within the Blue Mountains– namely Moore Town, Charles Town and Scott’s Hall. Locals and foreigners alike are allowed to visit for sightseeing and educational purposes once accompanied by a guide, as well as attend many of their events. Singing, dancing, drum-playing and preparation of traditional foods form a central part of most gatherings. Moore Town in particular was listed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 for its rich heritage.
Hike the Cunha Cunha Trail the way our ancestors did. This 5.5 mile mountain trail was first used by the Windward Maroons as an escape route during battles with the British centuries ago. The trail connects Hayfield and other parts of St. Thomas with Bowden Pen and the Rio Grande Valley in Portland. The area is resplendent with numerous streams and waterfalls, and serves as the main habitat for the endemic giant swallowtail butterfly – the largest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere.
Wake up to these stunning views from a hotel. One day isn’t enough to appreciate all the magic of these mist-covered slopes! Wake up to these stunning views from a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or inn, complete with the modern conveniences of electricity, Wi-Fi and hot water which isn’t available at the overnight cabins and campsites I’d mentioned earlier. Pictured above is the most luxurious option (and obviously the priciest) but there are a lot of other great places to choose from such as the Serendipity Resort, RafJam B&B, Blue Ridge Cottages and the cottages at Lime Tree Farm.
All in all, the Blue Mountains is a stunning and diverse corner of Jamaica and I hope you’ll appreciate now why it’s by far my favourite. Remember to dress warmly or at least carry warm clothing because it gets chilly very quickly once dusk approaches. Be prepared for rain too– it’s no surprise that this corner of Jamaica gets a lot of rain. Take care on the roads; they’re very winding and the quality gets deplorable in some districts. Do your homework and find out which places are navigable by car, 4WD or foot before venturing, and of course, help us preserve the Blue Mountains by taking nothing but pictures and leaving nothing but footprints!
Have you visited any of these places or would like to? Did I leave out your favourite place or activity in the Blue Mountains too? Let me know in the comments.
‘Til next time, ✌🏽.