A Family Vacation in Kingston, Jamaica
Updated: Nov 16, 2019
I travelled to Kingston, Jamaica in July of 2019 with my wife and three young children. We rented a vehicle and stayed in the heart of Jamaica's capital city for seven days - a resort-free trip. If you choose this option, most of your money should go to local communities. Despite the United States Travel Advisory, United Kingdom’s warnings about Jamaica’s crime, and the Canadians telling their citizens to exercise caution when traveling to Jamaica; you can survive and have a good time in the ‘real’ Jamaica - with your children.
About me: I moved from Jamaica to the United States when I was three and I’ve been back to Jamaica several times since. On this trip the family consisted of two adults and three children; the children were all under five years old.
Kingston Travel Tips
Question: Is it safe in Kingston, Jamaica? Answer: It depends on where in Kingston you go and at what times.
Keep in mind that Kingston is the capital of Jamaica. That means Kingston is filled with government bureaucrats, business folks, and distinguished diplomats. During weekdays, Kingston is crammed with these people and others crossing the streets wherever they please contributing to the rush hour congestion. Coach buses, overloaded minibuses, and speeding cabs seem to all be competing for the most irritating horn, or for the vehicle able to produce the largest amount of black billowing smoke from a modern exhaust. If the streets are paved, they are pockmarked with holes of every variety.
It’s a city, so keep your head on a swivel and move with purpose. Don’t loiter in areas far from your lodgings where you don’t see professionals or other travelers. Go to areas which are paved, well-lit and guarded; think about avoiding areas that don’t meet all or some of those conditions. Shun night-time excursions to areas of town you haven’t been to during the day. Or adopt the motto: When is doubt ask it out. If you’re not sure if a destination makes sense ask a relative, a local, or a hotel concierge about the place you want to go. Basically, use some common-sense.
Question: Where to stay in Kingston?
Answer: New Kingston (hotels); or Cherry Gardens (Homestay)
We stayed in New Kingston near the British embassy and Emancipation Park. I’ve stayed in different hotels in New Kingston on a number of visits to Jamaica and I’ve never been disappointed. There are nice hotels in that area, along with convenient access to arterial roads. I won’t promote any hotels in this article as I’m confident you will find a good hotel on your own.
Question: What to eat in Kingston?
Answer: Figure it out on your own.
There are dozens of great places to eat in Kingston, so you should have no problem finding them. Kingston has a slew of imported fast food joints if you need some of that. Local fast food joints like Tastee Patties, Juici Patties, and Island Grill that serve food that will taste good to anyone who doesn’t eat Jamaican cuisine regularly. And you will have no problem finding local food on your excursions throughout Jamaica.
I do have one recommendation though for anyone that wants Jerk Chicken, go to the Sweetwood Jerk Joint next to Emancipation Park.
Question: How to get around in Kingston?
Answer: Rent van/SUV (family); Use taxis/ride-hails apps (individuals/couples)
From the airport you can either take a taxi, or get a shuttle to your destination. To access your destination you have the following options: taxi, hotel shuttle, ride-hailing service or bipedal forward propulsion. We decided to rent a vehicle since it gave us more autonomy. See more of my thoughts below in the Appendix.
Question: How do I use my mobile phone in Kingston?
Answer: SIM card, local phone, Internet only
I suggest at least one adult in the group get a local SIM card for his/her phone. Depending on when you land in Kingston, you should be able to purchase a sim card with prepaid mobile phone and data access - see more on this in the Appendix. You should have a local phone with data for two main reasons:
o Emergency phone calls,
o GPS data - especially if you rent a car
Question: What to do in Kingston?
Answer: My itinerary is listed below and it contains some suggestions on things to do with families visiting Kingston. However there are a lot of other good resources from Kingston to use for ideas.
Question: What’s the weather like in Kingston, Jamaica? Answer: It’s super hot. Dress appropriately.
Question: Are there any beaches in Kingston, Jamaica? Answer: Yes there are a few beaches, but they’re nothing like the beaches on the North coast of the island where you find the major resorts. I recommend Fort Clarence Beach in St. Catherine parish, next to Kingston parish.
My Itinerary: Kingston, Jamaica
Here is a summary of my trip. It might give you some ideas on how to navigate Kingston safely while having fun.
Evening: After landing in nighttime Kingston, we clear immigration & customs and get a rental car from the airport lot. We load the luggage and the car seat into our van and follow a local to the hotel. Driving at night in Jamaica on the other side of the road is concerning at first, but it becomes natural after a few minutes.
Later, we eat dinner at the hotel. I had Escoveitch snapper and it was damn good. Don’t be afraid to lean on the hotel food, it’s mostly Jamaican fare.
Lesson of the day: Even if you have a local meeting you at the airport, if you are renting a car I suggest you have GPS and paper maps at the ready. See more on driving in the Appendix.
Morning: We eat breakfast in the hotel and then take the kids swimming in the hotel pool. This was essential for us. The kids wanted to swim and we wanted them to use their energy.
Afternoon: We drive to the John R Wong Supermarket. It’s a good-sized market, clean and takes US dollars and credit cards. Parking is guarded by security guards and barrier gates. The existence of gates and guards is a primary factor when determining the viability of an establishment in Kingston. After that, we drove to the Eastwood Park neighborhood of Kingston to visit family.
Evening: It was a slow Sunday, but I wanted an Americano and the nearby Starbucks was closed. The only thing open for coffee was at the Devon House so we drove there. The property was filled with children and families playing on inflatable slides. I think the Devon House has a Sunday family event there, although I cannot be sure.
Lesson of the day: On Sundays Most things are closed in Kingston.
Morning: At around 8:00 a.m. I drove out to Spanish Town to visit Jamaica’s Registrar General Department. While I was there, I worked with the department of Genealogical Research to see if I could build a family tree from records of births and deaths. There was a minimal fee and short line to hand over your money. The entire office visit took about an hour. The service is supposed to take eight weeks; as I write now, eight weeks have not yet ticked off.
Afternoon: We drove for about forty-five minutes (map) to Fort Clarence beach. According to locals, this is the best beach in the Kingston area.
o The good things about Fort Clarence: lifeguards; secure parking lot; warm water; great beach-side food options; good for families and tourists.
o Bad things about Fort Clarence: red seaweed (an occasional annoyance) and trash washed up on the beach.
Evening: We went to the Devon house in the evening after resting; The Devon House is multi-acre gated property that features a restored mansion that is part museum and part tourist magnet that is filled with restaurants, little gift shops, a famous ice cream place, and families from local and foreign ranks.
Lesson of the day: Be aggressive in retail stores.
Morning: Had breakfast at the hotel; swam in the pool. I drove to the Flow telecom retail store and bought a second local SIM card. Don’t let the lines intimidate you. Actually, don’t get in a line, find someone in a uniform or behind the counter and tell them you need a local SIM card. Stand in line as a last resort.
Afternoon: The kids and I drove (map) to the Sovereign Centre near the US embassy. The Sovereign Centre is a basic shopping mall connected to a large grocery store. There’s a food court downstairs.
Evening: We drove to gated community near Spanish town (map) to drop off a relative. On the way back the GPS led us down a dirt road lined with corrugated metal shelters. We followed a dump truck down the narrow path as it spit clouds of dust into the faces of the indifferent pedestrians of the area.
Lesson of the day: In Jamaica it sometimes pays to drive behind large vehicles.
Morning: We had a hotel breakfast, then another swim in the pool.
Afternoon: We drove to Hope Zoo near University of Technology (map). The zoo is clean, quiet and like most zoos well-suited for family entertainment. It’s not large; the entire zoo tour can be done with toddlers in about an hour or so.
Evening: We drove to a relatives house in the Eastwood Park section of Jamaica and traveled back to our hotel at around 8:00pm.
Lesson of the day: They do not have daylight savings time in Jamaica so it gets dark earlier than we are used to in the Summer in the United States.
Morning/Afternoon/Evening: Thursday was our planned family beach day. It meant that we gathered everyone in the family from Kingston and drove off to Puerto Seco beach. Thankfully, the van/minibus we rented fitted 12 persons, because we packed in 5 adults, 3 kids and a pile of beach stuff and hustled up and over the Jamaica mountains to a wonderful, sparsely populated, full-service beach facility in Discovery Bay. Once you pass the parking lot guard, and pay the entrance fee you walk into a sprawling beachside campus with multiple restaurants, bars, pools, a battalion of beach chairs, his and hers locker rooms, and of course an inflatable floating obstacle course. I call it the resort without the hotel. Everything that can be found at famous North Shore resorts can be found at Puerto Seco, save the hordes of tourists and a hotel bed. On a weekday the wide beach is barely populated by a few dozen souls; about half are locals and the other half foreigners.
To be honest, you will feel so blessed/lucky to be on what at times seems like a secluded beach. I recommend this beach to anyone visiting Jamaica. It’s a one and a half hours drive from Kingston if you take the North-South highway (Highway 2000). Please note this is one of the strangest highways I have ever been on in my life. The highway surface is new and smooth yet devoid of actual vehicles; at times you imagine yourself some weird movie where all of the cars have disappeared. The highway also features some steep climbs, steep enough to take out the occasional travelers who can be seen every so often on the side of the road, scratching their heads and peering into their engine compartments. They even have ‘escape lanes’ for large runaway trucks. The minibus we rented struggled and strained up the mountain during portions of the climb, but thank God, we made it to the beach and back. Most importantly though, the toll on the highway was unreasonably high - about $25.00 USD.
Lesson of the day: The North-South highway is bizarre.
Morning: We checked-out of the hotel, drove to the airport, returned minibus and flew back home to the United States.
A1 | Driving in Jamaica for Foreigners:
Here are specific tips for driving in Jamaica.
1. Rent an SUV, Minibus or Van if you are a family. Book a vehicle larger than the one you would drive in your home country. A big vehicle will give comfort and confidence on Jamaican roads.
2. If you can’t get the vehicle you want, settle for a vehicle with high ground clearance: there’s a lot of potholes, bumps and unpaved paths in Jamaica so be prepared.
3. Call rental company before arriving in Jamaica and double-check that they have your vehicle on the lot; if they don’t have you vehicle see 1 and 2 above.
4. GPS is the best: families should have 2 working GPS devices at all times. Make sure your mobile phone has GPS data - see advice in Appendix below. If possible, rent a GPS from the car rental agency.
5. Concentrate on driving on the left, driving on the left, driving on the left- keep saying it to yourself at every intersection and as you leave parking lots.
6. Avoid driving at nights but if you have to drive in the dark stay on the big, well traveled arterial roads; in Kingston that means roads like Trafalgar, Old Hope Road, Hope Road, Halfway Tree and so on.
7. Get used to aggressive drivers: taxi drivers and motorcyclist follow their own rules and will often seem to be characters in a video game.
8. Gates and guards: Park in lots protected by gates/walls and uniformed guards.
9. Stop before entering a round-about. Look to the right before proceeding.
A2 | Communications
The goal: make sure you can make phone calls and use a GPS in Jamaica.
SIM card option:
Get a Jamaican SIM card or a local Jamaican phone before you travel if possible. Don’t fret about it if you can’t get it before, just visit a telecom store in Jamaica as soon as you land. For SIM cards, Make sure your phone is unlocked and/or able to take SIM cards. Consider using an old - but not too old - phone for this job if possible. If someone can give or lend you a phone with data when you get to Jamaica (or before), take it.
Current phone plan option:
This is where you enable or pay for access to Jamaica telecom services using your current mobile phone provider. Check to see if this is possible with your cell provider.
119 is the emergency phone number in Jamaica similar to 911 in the states. 911 works too.
Investigate local hospitals before your trip.
The Jamaican government has an app called ‘Stay Alert’. According to the Jamaican Information Service, The application allows citizens to contact the police for assistance. All information sent through the “Stay Alert” app is anonymous.
Fat Dad aka Mark Cameron has been a financial technology (fintech) professional for over a decade. His interests include but are not limited to entrepreneurship, entertainment, travel and the general well-being of the human intellect. He is also a husband, father and problem-solver.
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