From Jamaica : The Rough Guide (Rough Guides), by Polly Thomas; Adam Vaitilingham Introduction

Rightly famous for its beaches and music, beautiful, brash Jamaica is much more besides. There's certainly plenty of enchanting white sand, turquoise sea and swaying palm trees but, less expectedly, there's lots to see away from the coast: spectacular mountains and rivers, tumbling waterfalls, and cactus-strewn savannah plains. The cities, meanwhile, provide a reminder that the island is more than just a tourist attraction, particularly Kingston - the dynamic, sprawling and unrepentantly Jamaican metropolis which helped to inspire the music of Bob Marley and countless other home-grown reggae superstars.

Despite the island's immense natural allure, it's not just the physical aspect that makes the country so absorbing and, to many visitors, so utterly addictive. Notwithstanding the invasion of tourists and American satellite tv, Jamaica retains an attitude - a personality - that's more resonant and distinctive than you'll find in any other Caribbean nation. It's a country with a swagger in its step - proud of its history, sporting success and musical genius - but also a weight upon its shoulders.

For Jamaica has not avoided the familiar problems of a developing country - serious poverty, dramatic inequality of wealth, and social tensions that occasionally spill over into localized violence and worldwide headlines.

The mixture is potent, and has produced a people renowned for being sharp, sassy and straight-talking. Don't expect anyone to beat around the bush here; Jamaicans get on with life, and this can sometimes make them appear rude, uncompromising, even aggressive. Particularly around the big resorts, this direct approach is often taken to extremes, with harassment (including sexual harassment) sometimes reaching infuriating levels.

But there's absolutely no reason to be put off. As a foreign visitor, the chances of encountering any trouble are minuscule, and the Jamaican authorities have spent millions making sure the island treats its tourists right. As the birthplace of the "all-inclusive" hotel, Jamaica has become well-suited for those who (like many people) want to head straight from plane to beach, never leaving their hotel compound. But to get any sense of the country at all you'll need to get into exploring mode. It's undoubtedly worth it, as this is a country packed with first-class attractions, oozing with character, and pumping with the irrepressible strains of dancehall music, Jamaica's current obsession.

Where to go

Most of Jamaica's tourist business is concentrated in the "big three" resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril which, between them, pull hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Probably the most evocative name in the Caribbean, Montego Bay is a busy, commercial city with hotels lined up along its main strip, a stone's throw from a couple of Jamaica's most famous beaches. Though "MoBay" has lost some of its old lustre, the place retains a gritty vitality, with a busy street life and a great entertainment scene, most obvious during the annual Reggae Sumfest. West of here, its low-rise hotels slung along seven miles of fantastic white sand and two miles of dramatic cliffs, Negril is a different type of resort - younger, more laid-back, and with a long-standing reputation for unbridled hedonism that still carries a hint of the truth.

East of MoBay, and the least individualistic of the big three, Ocho Rios embodies high-impact tourism - purpose-built in the 1960s to provide the ultimate package of sun, sand and sea. It's not an overly attractive place, and the beaches don't compare favourably with Negril and MoBay, but tourist infrastructure is undeniably strong - the place is packed with shops, restaurants, bars and watersports - and you're right by some of Jamaica's leading attractions, including the famous Dunn's River waterfall, dramatic Fern Gully and the lovely botanical gardens at Shaw Park.

Away from these resorts, you'll have to look a bit harder to find your entertainment - Jamaica's quieter south and east coasts offer a far less packaged product - but there are plenty of real gems worth hunting out, particularly if you're keen to escape the crowds.

In the island's lush, rain-fed northeast, sleepy Port Antonio provides a gateway to some of Jamaica's greatest natural attractions, like the cascading waterfalls at Reach and Somerset, and outdoor activities; rafting on the majestic Rio Grande, and hiking through the dense rainforest of the John Crow Mountains. The south coast offers different pleasures, from gentle beach action at the terminally easygoing Treasure Beach - a useful base for exploring local delights like the YS waterfalls and the gorgeous lagoon at Gut River - to boat safaris in search of local wildlife on the Black River.

Last, but in no way least, Kingston is the true heart of Jamaica, a thrilling place, pulsating with energy and spirit, that is home to more than a third of the island's 2.5 million population. This is not just the nation's political capital but its art, theatre and music centre, with top-class hotels, restaurants and shopping, and a clubbing scene that is second to none. A stunning backdrop to the city, the Blue Mountains offer more cool hiking possibilities, while the nearby fishing village of Port Royal, once a great pirate city, and the former capital of Spanish Town, with its grand Georgian buildings, provide more historic diversions.

When to go

For many visitors, Jamaica's tropical climate is its leading attraction - hot and sunny all year. The weather is at its most appealing during the peak tourist season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April, when rainfall is lowest and the heat is tempered by cooling trade winds.

Things can get noticeably hotter during the summer and, particularly in September and October, the humidity can become oppressively intense. September is also the most threatening month of the annual hurricane season, which runs officially from June 1 to October 31, though it's worth bearing in mind that, on average, the big blows only hit about once a decade.

As you'd expect, prices and crowds are at their highest during peak season, when the main attractions and beaches can get pretty packed. Outside this period - from Easter to early December - everywhere is quieter and, though the main resorts throb with life pretty much year-round, quieter tourist areas like Port Antonio and Treasure Beach can feel a little lifeless. The good news is that hotel prices everywhere fall by up to 25 percent, there are more bargains to be had in every field of activity, and a number of festivals - including the massive annual Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay - inject some summertime zip.

--From Jamaica : The Rough Guide (Rough Guides), by Polly Thomas; Adam Vaitilingham. 1997 by Polly Thomas; Adam Vaitilingham, used by permission.