Jamaica gets my vote as one of the best all-around family beach destinations anywhere in the world. It’s easy to access, easy to get around, and easy on the eyes — you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier Caribbean landscape. Family-friendly accommodations are plentiful, with a lot of upscale options in the mix and a few that are truly special. And best of all, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to activities and excursions that appeal to kids of all ages.
From waterfalls to river rafting to historic plantation homes, Jamaica offers a wealth of things to do that will suit adrenaline junkies, history buffs and more. Here are a few top picks from my recent visit to the island. You can fit all three of these into a day if you’re ambitious, or spread out the excursions if you don’t want to tear yourself away from the beach.
It’s tough to find Rocklands Bird Sanctuary unless you’re looking for it — and if you aren’t, you’re missing out on a treat. The unassuming little cottage, in the hills near Montego Bay, sits at the end of a bumpy dirt road surrounded by acres of tropical foliage. Opened in the 1960s by local environmentalist Lisa Salmon, known as the “Bird Lady,” it’s a refuge for dozens of indigenous species, from hummingbirds to orioles to parakeets.
Although Ms. Salmon died in 2000, her family has kept the sanctuary open to the public, and it’s managed by a kind caretaker who lives on the property. He leads you to a sheltered patio and hands you a tiny bottle filled with nectar; your job is simply to hold it and wait, as he makes occasional clucks, chirps and calls of “birdie, birdie.” It takes patience, but the reward is worth it: Out of nowhere, birds flit in, perch on your finger to sip from the bottle, then zoom away.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a visit from a Jamaican doctor bird (a.k.a. red-billed streamertail), the country’s beautiful national bird. Its green and yellow plumage and swooping tail feathers are unmistakable. Even without that highlight, the sanctuary is still a sweet, off-the-beaten-path way to spend the morning with kids in tow.
Swimming with Flipper? Yes please! It’s hard to imagine a kid (or adult) who wouldn’t be excited at the thought. Dolphin Cove has three locations around Jamaica, all similar. I visited the one near Negril, but any of them will make for a delightful outing. Although there are stingrays, sharks, and even camel rides onsite, the dolphins are the hands-down highlight.
After an orientation, you’ll don a life jacket and dive in to play with the lovable creatures in cordoned-off ocean pools. Trainers lead them in a cute series of tricks and demonstrations, then you get a chance to stroke them, smooch them and grab hold of their fins for a quick ride across the water. The whole program is adorable.
Kids who are too young to swim, or anyone who prefers not to, can opt for the Dolphin Encounter, which lets guests interact with the dolphins while standing in the shallows. If your brood is truly crazy about marine life, look into the Sea Keeper for a Day program, where they can shadow trainers while they work with, feed and care for the dolphins (for ages 10 and up only).
Who knew that Jamaica is crawling with crocodiles? I had no idea until my trip to Swamp Safari Village near Falmouth, a simple zoo-style habitat for more than two dozen endangered American crocs rescued on the island. As soon as they spot the entrance sign that reads “Trespassers Will Be Eaten,” kids will be hooked.
Guides lead groups on a tour through the grounds, which takes a little over an hour. My guide was a walking encyclopedia of crocodile facts, and it was fun to learn more about these often-misunderstood reptiles. I even got to hold one (no bravery points — it was a baby). Many, many more animals are on display here, including monkeys, snakes, iguanas and an aviary’s worth of rare birds.
Depending on where you’re from, you might even see a few that the kids recognize from home, such as raccoons, deer and screech owls. James Bond fans, take note: Swamp Safari Village is where the famous crocodile jump scene in Live and Let Die was filmed, so keep an ear out on your tour for some fun behind-the-scenes facts.
We don’t often get into restaurant recommendations on Ciao Bambino, but Scotchies is too good not to share. This hole in the wall near Montego Bay serves the best jerk chicken I have ever eaten, smoked right on a pile of native pimento tree logs. Sauce comes on the side; start sparingly or you’ll have flames shooting from the ears. Although Scotchies gets a steady flow of tourists, plenty of locals pack the open-air tables too — that’s always my litmus test for quality.
Traditional sides include rice and peas, roasted yams, plantains, and festivals (faintly sweet bread fritters, a Jamaican specialty). Chased with an icy Red Stripe, or a Ting soda for the kids, this is heaven in a foil packet.
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Editor’s Note: Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, Dolphin Cove and Swamp Safari Village provided complimentary activities for our review. As always, our opinions are our own.
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