Montego Bay Jamaica has two distinct faces: there are the smooth tourist resorts that tempt you into its white sanded, smiling faced beauty in travel brochures; and there’s proper MoBay, a pretty gritty city, second only to Kingston in terms of status and chaos. Both are unique in their own right and deserve your time and attention during any visit to the area.
Most of the big all-inclusive resorts are located in the fancy suburb of Ironshore. Few tourists dare to leave the confines of their hotel unless on an air conditioned bus tour to point at local life from a safe padded seat. The city downtown is a far cry from the serene resorts, offering a riot of smells, car horns and bustle that offers an uncensored slice of Jamaican life.
I had imagined Montego Bay would glitter with opulent hotels and restaurants, clubs and shops — and it did, in the resorts. But, the town’s Hip Strip (Gloucester Avenue) was a letdown, lined with midrange hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, hostels, souvenir shops, jerk food stands, hustlers, and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, maybe MoBay’s most popular club. It was the version of Jamaica that its tourism folks wanted to rethink.
The Hip Strip (aka Gloucester Ave), with its midrange hotels and ubiquitous souvenir shops flogging Bob Marley T-shirts, acts as a kind of decompression chamber between MoBay’s two halves. You won’t find many hipsters here, but in among the hustlers and smoky jerk restaurants there’s a detectable Jamaican rhythm to the action on the street. Think of it as your tipping point, your moment of ‘should I?’ – and yes you definitely should.
I hit the city on the last Friday of the month, when folks get paid and go downtown to spend their money. St. James Street was a clogged artery of cars, trucks and buses, a revolving elbow-to-elbow mass of people going through food stalls, bars, clothing stores, haberdasheries, computer depots, supermarkets, carwashes and plazas. These reverberated with the earsplitting sounds of hawking vendors, chattering voices and full-volume music. I wanted to step down and join in, but I also wanted to get out of there.
After fumes and crowds, I was hoping for a drink and fabulous food. Friends had talked up Scotchies, the island’s best known jerk emporium. I had expected one of those smoky places with picnic tables and paper tablecloths. I found a quaint roadside joint with an open-air bar and a few outdoor tables for large groups. A dozen customers, foreigners mostly, were knocking back Red Stripe and digging into servings of jerk pork crying out the obligatory drunken ‘Yeah man’ (cringe). I ordered the same as despite my pretence, I’m one of them. The beer was ice-cold, but the pork was tough but at least it was real, served with heat and love.
Montego Bay city is very safe and tourists are welcome however there are aggressive hucksters in MoBay who will size you up and either try to charm or intimidate you out of a few bucks (or more) if they think you’re an easy target. This happens anywhere though so just walk with purpose and don’t be afraid to ask for help or directions – this is a friendly island. The only areas to avoid are Canterbury and Flankers which can be a bit dodgy at night’ oh and ‘Dump Up’ beach can be gross. Also, always make sure you get a legal taxi so you aren’t stung on the price.
I could give you a list of things to see and do in MoBay city but I won’t as it’s a place to absorb on the basis of its noise, bustle and life rather than heading to any particular landmark to photograph for an Insta moment. It’s stinky, loud and a bit overwhelming but the sights, sounds and colour will stay in your mind forever. If I had to recommend anything I would vaguely say: go to the markets, eat REAL jerk chicken but mainly just grab a beer, pull up a chair and watch life unfold as your horizons expand beyond your hotel bar.