Photograph by Michael Melford

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Colorful boats rest at anchor along Jamaica's thoughtfully developed southwestern coast.

Photograph by Michael Melford

Jamaica: Southwest/Northwest Coasts

99 Coastal Destinations Rated

(Score: SW 70/NW 45) The coast of Jamaica offers a tale of two shores: the party-hearty northwest coast, headlined by the popular resort towns of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, and the low-density alternative along the southwest coast, where you can form rewarding bonds with the locals. (In between lies Negril, which earned a subpar score of 46 in our 2004 rankings and is something of a mixture of both places.)

The southwest coast embraced eco-friendly tourism in the 1970s and touts its abundance of attractions—old-growth forests, bird-flocked estuaries, centuries-old sugarcane plantations, and miles of beaches. “Both Jamaicans and foreigners [here] are trying to learn from [the mistakes of] other parts of Jamaica by developing while maintaining the sense of place,” says sustainable-tourism consultant Chris Seek. Jamaican-born Jason Henzell, owner of the local Jake’s resort, says: “Here you can be part of a community of people full of pride in where they live.”

Treasure Beach, a series of four coves blessed with golden sand (hence the name), offers the classic Caribbean pastimes of sunbathing, beachcombing, and snorkeling in the atmosphere of an art colony: A popular art school teaches painting, and the area’s annual Calabash literary festival—organized by Henzell’s sister, Justine—draws Nobel Prize-winning writers like Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott.

Nearby Bluefields Bay is home to a string of fishing villages, where you can hire a boat to angle for snapper, kingfish, and tuna. Boat tours bring you face-to-face with crocodiles, egrets, hummingbirds, owls, and grebes at the portentously named Black River Great Morass, the largest wetland in the English-speaking Caribbean. And you can pay your respects to a reggae pioneer at the Peter Tosh Memorial Gardens, a tiny museum and monument maintained by his family in the village of Belmont.

This region also is considered Jamaica’s breadbasket. Local organic farmers offer free-range chicken, fresh-caught fish, and heaping platters of just-picked sweet peppers, pumpkins, papayas, mangos, eggplants, and melons. The drink of choice? Appleton Rum, made at a nearby estate.

Jason Henzell notes that communities here are implementing a sustainable master plan for development that emphasizes environmental awareness. But threats remain, including bauxite mining in the neighboring hills. Also of concern to some locals: the advance of all-inclusive resorts from the north. In 2005 the Sandals chain opened a posh resort, Whitehouse, designed to look like French, Dutch, and Italian villages. “We’re really hoping no more are planned,” says Henzell.

Such all-inclusive resorts, where you never have to leave the grounds, define the lower-scoring northwest coast around Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. The area, according to Larry Bleiberg, a former editor at Coastal Living magazine, is “more a resort theme park than an authentic slice of the Caribbean.” Also affecting the region: a proliferation of new hotels, weak coastal-management plans, careless snorkelers (and outfitters) who damage the reefs, trash (both on land and in the waters), and increased bauxite mining. But some panelists express optimism, citing Ocho Rios for being “aesthetically pleasing with vibrant colors and local architecture,” and plans that call for the historic town center of Falmouth to “be landscaped with many palm trees, flowering plants, and benches, and restricted to pedestrian traffic.”

Contributing editor Jay Walljasper writes about sustainability issues.
From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler