From the hamlet at Papine on the northern tier of Kingston, you can continue on the winding road north to Irish Town, going via the Cooperage, 3km (1 3/4 miles) to the north, a tiny hamlet taking its name from the Irish coopers who lived and worked here in the 19th century. They made wooden barrels to hold the Blue Mountain coffee that was transported to Kingston, where it was later shipped to the ports of New York, Boston, and London.
From here, you can continue north to Irish Town, also named for the coopers who lived here, or swing east toward Mavis Bank.
For this route, however, we'll continue north to Irish Town, home to Chris Blackwell's magnificent Strawberry Hill. This is the premier place for food and lodging in the Blue Mountains; Bob Marley was brought to this site to recover in 1976 after an attempt on his life by a gunman. In later years other visitors have included Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, and U2.
Nearby is a hamlet called Redlight that was once one of the most notorious villages in the West Indies, filled with whorehouses catering to the soldiers stationed in barracks at Newcastle.
After Redlight, the winding B1 takes you to:
This village has one of the best views of Kingston from any vantage point in the Blue Mountains.
Towering over Newcastle is the 1,542m (5,060-ft.) Catherine's Peak, named for Lady Catherine Long, the first woman to scale it -- in 1760! It's the highest point in the parish of St. Andrew. A little road off the B1 just north of here takes you to the summit, often shrouded in mist.
Three kilometers (1 3/4 miles) past Newcastle the road continues to:
This hamlet at the crest of Grand Ridge is a famous stopover point for those doing the tour of the Blue Mountains. Visitors drop by the restaurant (reviewed) for a welcome bite.
Just 183m (600 ft.) above the Gap Cafe you arrive at the:
Holywell National Recreation Park
This 121-hectare (300-acre) park, part of the greater Blue Mountain park, is the end of the line for most visitors who want to have a glimpse of the Blue Mountains but don't want to venture forth on any arduous hikes into unknown terrain. If you brought the makings of a picnic lunch, it is also an ideal spot.
The enveloping forest covers Oatley Mountain, a sanctuary for wildlife, mainly tropical birds, which are seen in abundance here. For those who'd like short hikes to sample the mountain scenery without having to do much difficult hiking, this is the place to go. The main trails, and also the most scenic, have been outlined on bulletin boards in the area. The ranger station here (tel. 876/997-8044) will provide more details, and perhaps a ranger may even accompany visitors on short hikes.
Our favorite is the 3km (1 3/4-mile) Oatley Mountain Trail, which goes into an almost junglelike interior. There are also lookout points where you can enjoy panoramic views. Another trail, the Cascade Water Trail, is only 2km (1 1/4 miles) or so and takes you to a beauty spot where you can plunge into the chilly waters to cool off.
The Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust, 29 Dunbarton Ave. in Kingston (tel. 876/960-2848), rents a trio of cabins in the area for those who book in advance. Six people can fit comfortably into the bigger cabin, four overnighters in a smaller cabin. The cost of a cabin for the night ranges from J$2,750 to J$4,200. Tent sites are J$200.
The cost of entering Holywell Park is US$5 for adults and US$2 for children ages 4 to 12. The park is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm.
After leaving Holywell, and after another 5km (3 miles), you arrive at the hamlet of Section, the heart of the coffee-growing district. The road to the left takes you all the way to the coast and Buff Bay if you're going on to Port Antonio, a distance of 29km (18 miles).
Other than the gorgeous scenery, the attraction at Section is the Old Tavern Coffee Estate (tel. 876/924-2785; www.oldtaverncoffee.com). A British fellow, Alex Twyman, started this estate when he arrived some 3 decades ago; his coffee is the finest in the Blue Mountains. Caffeine aficionados pay US$42 for a .5kg (1-lb.) bag, and it's worth it -- ask Martha Stewart. Visitors are allowed to tour for free the 52 hillside hectares (130 acres) and learn more about coffee than they ever wanted to know. You should, however, call in advance. There's even a waterfall where you can take a dip.
Back at the Cooperage, if you had driven north instead of east, you would arrive in the hamlet of:
En route east to Gordon Town, you pass through the riverside village of Industry. In spite of its unattractive name, this is a good spot for river swimming. Gordon Town is the only settlement in the Blue Mountains that could be called an actual town. It takes its name from the Gordon Highlanders of Scotland, who were once billeted here.
There's little to see, but hikers come to take the winding Gordon Town Trail above Industry and Redlight until they reach the Sugar Loaf, at 2,100m (7,000 ft.). This 21km (13-mile) trail (called a "track" here) is one of the most scenic and rewarding in the Blue Mountains.
Continuing east from Gordon Town, the road takes you to the hamlet of Guava Ridge, from which you can head north for 5km (3 miles) to explore Content Gap, another center of coffee production. Many hikes are possible from here, including one that goes back to Gordon Town. There are only a few meager hostels and campsites for sleeping, however.
This hamlet is filled with evocative memories, as it was once the site of a well-known coffee plantation that went belly-up in 1937. Today the Jamaica Forestry Department runs this lone commercial tree plantation in the Blue Mountains, with picnic spots and a waterhole where you can jump in buck-naked if you wish.
Towering over Clydesdale is the spectacular Cinchona Botanical Gardens at 1,500m (5,000 ft.). You can only go with a car about 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the gardens. You'll have to follow a signpost the rest of the way. The admission-free gardens keep no set hours, but it's best to show up any day of the week between 9am and 4pm. This 4-hectare (10-acre) site was once planted with cinchona trees for producing quinine used to treat malaria in the old days. The slopes are also covered with wild coffee plants. If a gardener is free, he might take you on a Panoramic Walk where he'll point out some of the rarer botanical species. A tip would be nice.
Hikers strike out from here for a 10km (6 1/4-mile) bit of trailblazing down to Mavis Bank.
Back south at Guava Ridge, the road continues directly east and into:
This mountain hamlet, in the Yallahs River Valley, is the last true settlement on the trail to the Blue Mountain Peak. If you're driving into the Blue Mountains, this is the end of the road for vehicles; there's a parking lot close to the police station. Some Land Rovers go beyond, but we find the roads disastrous.
There's one attraction in town worth a visit: the Jablum Coffee Company (tel. 876/977-8015), open for tours by appointment, costing US$8. Hours are Monday to Friday 9 to 11am and 1 to 3pm. This century-old enterprise, one of the most famous coffee factories in Jamaica, produces from 75,000 bushels of Blue Mountain coffee a year. At the start of a tour you're offered a cup of the delectable brew, then led through the entire process of production "from the coffee bean to the steaming cup." This is very much a working factory, not something gussied up for visitors. Afterward, you may want to purchase some bags of coffee -- it's far cheaper here than in Kingston.
Although some hikers begin at Mavis Bank, others prefer to go all the way to Abbey Green 8km (5 miles) to the northeast in order to begin their long trek to the Blue Mountain Peak. This is an almost magical part of Jamaica, some 1,350m (4,500 ft.) above sea level.
Blue Mountain Peak
The ultimate goal of the adventurous hiker, this mountain, at 2,220m (7,400 ft.), is the tallest in Jamaica. The first time we visited, our Jamaican guide told us, "This is where God takes you when he wants a compliment about how wonderful he created the world." You wander into a lush Eden filled with orchids, bromeliads, ginger lilies, cheesebury, and lichens.
Many hikers prefer to come here very early to watch the sun rise. The climb from Abbey Green is about 13km (8 miles), and you'll need a guide to take this trail to the top.
The first part of the trail, called Jacob's Ladder, is the most difficult. After walking for about 2 hours, a distance of more than 6km (3 3/4 miles), you come to the Portland Gap Ranger Station. It's wise to stop in and alert the ranger on duty that you're taking this trail. Leave your name and that of a contact person. At the station you'll find potable water, foul pit toilets, and a trio of basic cabins where you can crash on the floor for US$10 a night. Bookings can be made with the Jamaican Conservation and Development Trust, 29 Dunbarton Ave. (tel. 876/960-2848), in Kingston.
Beyond the ranger station, it's still another 5km or more (3 or more miles) to the panoramic peak. Some hikers give up when they reach aptly named Lazy Man's Peak at 2,100m (7,000 ft.). There's a good view of the main peak here. But if you're determined, it's another 30 minutes to reach the summit. There is no more spectacular panorama in all the West Indies: You feel you're standing at the top of the world.
The downside? You have to get back down that mountain -- and return to civilization.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.