Known fondly as MoBay, Montego Bay is the second-largest city in Jamaica and the country's lively epicenter of tourism: Cruise ships frequent its port, and many of the visitors who arrive in Jamaica by plane land just east of Montego Bay at the Sangster International Airport.
The waterfront is lined with white-sand beaches, hotels and elegant resorts. Its main attractions include championship golf courses, excellent beaches, the Montego Bay Marine Park and some classic Georgian architecture downtown. Gloucester Avenue, known locally as the Hip Strip, parallels the shore and is the commercial tourist hub.
Because it's a much larger city than Jamaica's other tourist areas, Montego Bay offers more in the way of sightseeing, shopping and nightlife.
The largest town on the north coast, Montego Bay occupies a broad valley and the slopes of the surrounding Bogue, Kempshot and Salem hills. The beaches line the east side of the bay, north of downtown.
Residents tend to live downtown, south of the square and in the hills. Hotels, tourist-oriented businesses and vendors are concentrated to the north along Gloucester Avenue—the main tourist strip. The main all-inclusive resorts line the sandy shore and extend for several miles/kilometers east of the airport, which is northeast of town.
Highway A1 (the North Coast Highway) is the main thoroughfare. Upgrades to the road have reduced the drive time from Montego Bay to the other major cities.
Christopher Columbus named the bay Golfo de Buen Tiempo, or Gulf of Fair Weather. Montego's modern name comes from the Spanish Bahia de Manteca, or Bay of Pigs' Lard, after the large quantity of lard exported by the Spanish. (It came from the wild boars that lived in the hills around the bay.) The Spanish also planted sugarcane, importing slaves from Africa to work the plantations. After the British drove the Spanish out in 1655, they continued the plantation tradition. The town grew, with warehouses and lavish homes sprouting up along the waterfront.
Around Christmas 1831, slave and part-time preacher Sam Sharpe convinced other slaves to stage a nonviolent strike. The rebellion turned violent, however, and it was brutally suppressed by British troops. Sharpe and several other slaves were hanged in Montego Bay. The square where the gallows stood is now named for Sharpe (a statue there honors him as a national hero).
Early seeds of tourism were sown in Montego Bay when wealthy plantation owners took their families to Doctor's Cave Beach, where the mineral springs were thought to have curative powers. By 1908, the Montego Bay Citizens' Association was promoting the city as "the most beautiful spot in Jamaica." Although hotels emerged, tourism remained limited until the advent of commercial jet aviation. Ensuing decades witnessed construction of top-class hotels in the hills, and all-inclusive resorts were built in the 1980s. Cruise traffic has been given a boost by enhancements to the harbor, and a convention center is located just east of the city.
You can easily explore downtown Montego Bay on foot if you have tolerance for vendors (keep your sense of humor). The town is almost always crowded with local shoppers and noisy with the sounds of reggae music wafting from the clubs and from car radios. Much of MoBay consists of modern structures built on land reclaimed from mangrove keys in the 1960s, but there are many fine historic buildings of note concentrated around Sam Sharpe Square.
Several elegantly restored homes from the 1700s now contain restaurants.
Northeast of downtown are the meager ruins of Fort Montego, built in 1752 on a hill overlooking the harbor. Three of the fort's 17 original cannons are still pointed out to sea.
Two of Jamaica's best-known "great houses," Rose Hall and Greenwood, are near Montego Bay. Built and lavishly furnished by English aristocrats, they recount the island's plantation history better than any history book or tour brochure. Tours of both houses are offered.
Most nocturnal activity centers around Gloucester Avenue—the Hip Strip—where music, dancing, satellite TV, live entertainment, food and drink mingle in a lively, street-festival setting. There are street parties on most Monday nights.
Friday and Saturday are the liveliest nights in the discos. You can purchase evening passes at many of the all-inclusive resorts and enjoy the entertainment there, along with plenty of food and drinks.
The two restaurant strips in Montego Bay are Gloucester Avenue, on the waterfront, and Queen's Drive, on the hillside overlooking Montego Bay and the harbor (a spectacular view, but you pay for it). Prices are generally moderate compared with much of the rest of the Caribbean, although lobster will lighten your wallet. Many restaurants provide free transportation for dinner guests. You can request this service when you make your reservation—ask about the dress code, too.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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