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Jerk chicken cooking over a pimento-wood grill at Scotchies (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

Is Jamaica Kid-Friendly?

Right or wrong, Jamaica isn’t always considered the most “family-friendly” destination in the Caribbean. Some parents I know associate the island with reggae, Rastafarians, and reefer, and media reports of serious crime, particularly around the capital of Kingston, haven’t helped matters.

Plenty of my friends have traveled to Jamaica for romantic getaways, some R&R, and yes, to party and have a good time. But is this a place I could visit with my children without trepidation? I decided to join a recent press trip to Montego Bay to find out for myself.

In reality, your experience of Jamaica, or of any other island destination for that matter, is largely determined by your choice of accommodations. As it turns out, though four of the top ten resorts on Travel + Leisure‘s latest “Best Resorts in the Caribbean” list are in Jamaica, all four fall into the “Couples” category. Since children are off limits (or certainly taboo) at many places of repute, we split our time between two resorts that welcome families with open arms while offering two distinct experiences.

The Grand Palladium, owned by the Fiesta Hotel Group in Spain, is a massive complex located 30 minutes from Montego Bay on the island’s north coast. With 1,000+ suites, seven themed restaurants, 12 bars, nightly entertainment, a casino, a spa and fitness club, and “miniclub” for children ages 4 to 12, there’s a heck of a lot going on here. And though the sand at the resort’s many beaches isn’t ideal for making sand castles or playing sports, its five pools, one of which is just for kids, more than make up for the shortcoming.

By contrast, Half Moon, located in the exclusive enclave of Rose Hall just outside Montego Bay, offers a far more intimate experience. Though the AAA Four-Diamond resort sits on a sprawling 400-acre property, it boasts fewer than 200 rooms and suites, with an additional 33 multi-bedroom villas (which come complete with a private pool and personal butler, cook, and housekeeper) available at an additional cost.

Half Moon has something for everyone. Kids will go nuts over the exclusive equestrian center, private dolphin lagoon, and colorful children’s village while parents can unwind at a top-of-the-line spa or by trying their hand at a round on an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of spending my entire vacation within the confines of a resort, no matter how luxurious it may be. After all, if passports are required for entry, I want my kids to know they’ve been in another country.

Fortunately, there are plenty of activities and attractions around the island to your family resist the temptation of staying “on campus.”

Here are a few highlights:

  • The Dolphin Cove (Luccea): If swimming with dolphins doesn’t make your child’s day, nothing will. They also offer stingray and shark encounters – and camel rides to boot.
  • Island Routes Reggae Catamaran Cruise (Montego Bay): A great way to get out on the water and see the island from a different perspective. Family cruises (offered Wednesdays and Fridays) include snorkeling, a 120-foot waterslide, and giant water trampolines.
  • Chukka River Tubing Safari: Chukka operates various adventure activities around Jamaica. Perfect for children 6+, riding (gentle) rapids in a comfortable river tube down the Rio Bueno is one of them.
  • Horseback Ride ‘n’ Swim (Sandy Bay): Chukka also offers horseback rides. But not just any horseback ride. After a leisurely stroll through the hills and countryside, you end up on a beach and in the waves of the Caribbean Ocean!
  • Scotchies Restaurant (Montego Bay): For some families, eating out is an activity unto itself. While in Jamaica, don’t miss out on the most authentic jerked chicken on the island. Along with the great local cuisine, kids will love the rustic atmosphere. Seeing the meat cooked over a pimento-wood grill is pretty cool, too.
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The “Horseback Ride ‘N’ Swim” tour in action (Photograph by Rainer Jenss)

Most of us appreciate the fact that you need to venture beyond major tourist attractions to really get to know a place and understand its culture. But as friendly as the tour guides, hotel staff, and merchants I encountered were, I’m not so sure I got to experience the “real” Jamaica.

When I do return with my children, I’m going to sign us up for “Meet The People,” a program designed for those of us who want to get to know some of the locals. After filing an application and getting approved, you’ll be connected (for no fee) with one of the approximately 500 ambassadors who have been vetted by the Jamaica Tourist Board. Some lucky applicants have even been connected with Usain Bolt!

Meet The People is apparently quite popular with families. Previous child participants have visited Jamaican schools, played soccer with local kids, attended church services, even eaten a home-cooked meal at another family’s house. This type of personal encounter may not be for everyone, but wouldn’t it be a shame to travel all the way to Jamaica and potentially miss the best part?

Rainer Jenss is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel. Follow his story on Twitter @JenssTravels.