Sydney-based author MICHELLE BALTAZAR endures 29 hours on a plane to travel to one of the most visited island-country on the planet - Jamaica - and every second of the flight was worth it.
When I mention to friends that I've been to Jamaica, their eyes light up and they talk about wanting to go. Who can resist sunset on the beach, Bob Marley music and the Caribbean seas?
As appealing as the images are, I can see them wrestle with the idea. There are other island destinations close by. Unlike Fiji, Bali or Phuket (staple holiday destinations to many Aussies), the Caribbean presents the great unknown: how to get there, where to go, is it safe (yes, it is) and the list goes on.
But after spending 10 days in Jamaica, I have come up with 10 reasons why you should just close your eyes, take a deep breath and start saving up for an epic trip.
Reason number one: Dunn's River Falls
Waterfalls remind me of my childhood in the Philippines. School kids back then grew up on posters of the country's famous waterfalls, Pagsanjan, as a place to visit during the summer break.
Dunns River Falls
Now imagine then if you can visit the mother of all waterfalls. That's what happens once you put on your wet shoes and climb the 800 metres of gentle incline that spans Dunn's River Falls. I use the words "climb" and "gentle" loosely so as not to deter those of you who think you're not up to the task. I was part of a group that included someone in her 70s and she did just fine. Our main tour guide is duly assisted by a couple of other guides who watched over everybody and allowed us to complete the tour in our own pace (You don't have to do the whole tour if you don't feel like it.)
And if there was a great photo of you or a moment that you just want to relive when you're back at the office, the tour comes with a videographer. Just press play and rewind all the memories in a nifty DVD that you can get straight after the tour.
Reason number two: Blue Lagoon, Port Antonio
If you were old enough to watch movies back in the '80s, then you would remember actress Brooke Shield's controversial (at the time) breakthrough film 'Blue Lagoon'. Well folks, the Blue Lagoon exists and it's in Port Antonio.
When you're Australian (ergo, seasoned traveller), you sort of become spoilt for choice and are a bit harder to impress. But there is something unworldly about the Blue Lagoon that makes you feel like you're about to walk into an enchanted liquid forest.
It gets its deep blue colour from the gradations in depth, from 131 metres deep in some parts to as deep as 200 metres. To borrow a line from Lonely Planet, the colour of the lagoon changes from jade to emerald throughout the day, depending on weather conditions.
The spot would earn extra bonus points to free divers as it's one of those few places you can truly test how you'd fare without scuba gear.
The water is refreshing, neither cold nor warm. There's a freshwater spring next to the lagoon where you can take a cooler dip (and drink the water) or you can swim to your heart's content where the lagoon meets the sea. My friends and I anchored our small boat at Monkey Island. The Blue Lagoon and its surrounds is so picturesque you'll find it featured almost regularly on music videos of reggae and dancehall artists.
Reason number three: Bob Marley Museum, Kingston
Bob Marley Museum
The king of reggae, and one of the most famous names on the planet, once had a home in Kingston. It's now a museum that houses his numerous awards (the museum curator needed more than two rooms, and that's not even for all the awards that he's received, alongside The Wailers). A couple of rooms were wallpapered with articles written about him and his music. The piece de resistance is the final room we visited, which was Bob Marley's bedroom. I felt a bit overwhelmed, and humbled by the privilege, of walking into the private sanctum of such a public persona. Besides the bed sheet that covered the bed frame, every part of the room was as it would have been when he was still alive. From the slippers he wore, the bare decor and the hammock just outside the bedroom where he used to rest and relax.
Several of the shirts he wore at concerts were framed and adorned the walls just outside the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. The kitchen was small (by rockstar standards) and the laundry room downstairs still bore the marks of the bullets that tore through the room in one of the failed attempts to assassinate him.
If you're a Bob Marley fan, I suggest looking up the details on Tuff Gong tours, which allows you to enter the sound studio on the ground floor level. This home studio is still in use and available for recordings. It's where Lauryn Hill and Damian Marley recorded their duet, a remix of 'Turn the lights down low'.
Reason number four: Seven Mile Beach, Negril
It would be absolutely unforgivable to go to Jamaica without stopping by Negril. The Seven Mile beach (11 kilometres) is lined with beach huts to relax in (if you're staying in one of the resorts), a few restaurants to dine in and, cover your ears (and eyes), the Hedonism Resort.
This is a PG-rated travel review so I'll focus on the family-oriented activities (hah!). You can pretty much do any or all of the watersports, including scuba diving, snorkelling, waterskiing, kayaking and, if you're like me, just paddling/swimming near the shore. This is the Caribbean so any photos you take along the beach are all Facebook-worthy.
Bring a bottle of sunscreen. You're going to need it.
Reason number five: Beach party, Montego Bay
Be warned. When you go to a beach party in Jamaica, remember that clothes aren't worn to keep you warm. You wear them to make a statement. I can just see my Filipino aunties shaking their heads in disapproval if I show them how scantily clad some of the women were at the Aqua Sol beach party I went to in Montego Bay. That night was an exposure to the Jamaican dancehall culture that totally messed with the repressed Filipino Catholic gene in me. But to put in perspective, this is the tropics and you don't go to the beach dressed for church. Come as you are. YOLO.
I think this video footage of the night says it all.
Reason number six: Jamaican food, everywhere
Jamaican cuisine requires an entire book in itself. But let me honour the inventor of jerk marinade and say that you cannot leave Jamaica without having jerk food. My personal favourite is jerk pork. It's like a cross between Chinese bar-b-q pork and Filipino lechon (roast pork), but different (hah!).
I must admit that I went on a bit of a calorie rage when I was there, tasting as much of the local cuisine as I could. I will not admit to how much junk food I ate but for a casual lunch, try Scotchie's Bar, where you can have your fill of all things jerked. For dinner, and for extra bragging rights, try Tracks & Records in Kingston. It is owned by none other than the supreme being of the tracks. Usain Bolt. 'Nuff said.
Reason number seven: Jamaican bobsledding, Ocho Rios
In 1993 (exactly 20 years ago), there was a low-budget film called 'Cool Runnings' loosely based on a true story about four Jamaicans who dared to compete in the sport of bobsledding and try out for the Winter Olympics. There's just a couple of problems: They've never seen snow and they don't know how to bobsled.
The feel-good comedy became a blockbustre and grossed more than $150 million worldwide, ten times the $15 million budget spent to make the film.
I think watching that movie many years ago on a TV set while I was still living in the Philippines was the precursor to what became my lifelong love for all things Jamaican - the music, the dance, the culture and the positive vibe of its people.
So a visit to the Mystic Mountains was a given. It was an adrenalin rush to do the triple combo of activities that my friends and I enjoyed on the day. We bobsled and ziplined through the rainforest and enjoyed a bird's eye view of the Mystic Mountain through a chair lift that cut across the top foliage of the trees and the rainforest down below.
Hang in tight. You're in for a ride.
Reason number eight: Swim with stingrays, Ocho Rios
I've always had an irrational fear of stingrays. That fear went into overdrive after Australia's beloved wildlife icon, Steve Irwin, died in a freak accident when a stingray's tail tore through his chest and killed him. Talk about feeding my phobia!
What I learned in life, however, is that the best way to overcome your fears, irrational or otherwise, is to face them head on. Anyone who knows anything about stingrays will tell you that they are the most docile creatures on earth. But to me, swimming with stingrays is like swimming with sharks. And so it was with a lot of trepidation that I touched a stingray (for the first time) and swam with them at the Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios. While I admit that my phobia hasn't disappeared, I think my heart won't beat as fast as it used to next time I encounter one.
There are other fears you might want to conquer while you're in Jamaica: fear of heights, fear of deep waters or, maybe, just maybe, fear of a super-tasty beef pattie pastry sandwiched inside a cushiony, full-flavoured coconut bread, downed with the original, genuine Jamaican Overproof rum (that fear I conquered almost immediately).
Reason number nine: Tensing Pen, Negril
Jamaica is a honeymooner's delight. There are newly married couples everywhere floating on a cloud of wedding bliss. But that shouldn't stop you from enjoying the same luxurious facilities designed for those who want a bit of privacy and a lot of pampering. Tensing Pen in Negril was a standout place to stay if you want to be away from the tourist crowds and, dare I say it, want a bit of serenity. You'd truly feel like you've got the world all to yourself when you stay at one of their self-contained cottages. I'd go as far as saying I'd like to design my house exactly the same way if I ever win the lottery.
More to the point, Tensing Pen served us tasty chipolatas for breakfast. One of the highlights of my trip was having a big breakfast at the restaurant, overlooking a postcard-perfect view of the sea.
A hearty breakfast in a soulful place. And make sure you take a photo of yourself on the resort's private bridge, one of the most photographed places in Jamaica, if not the world.
Reason number ten: Rio Grande River rafting, Portland
When you live on the fast lane, it's very hard to pull the brakes up and unwind. Three to four hours spent rafting idly down the Rio Grande river will fix that, allowing you to lift your foot off the pedal, even for a short while.
The raft allows for four people at most (the boatman, two adults and a kid). The best way to enjoy the experience is to fully immerse yourself in the moment. I know Jamaica is blue, the colour of its deep waters, but it's only when I got there that I realised that it's also very green, the colour of its lush mountains and forests. The added bonus is that I swam to my heart's delight as the river is freshwater so unlike a full day in Bronte beach, I didn't go home with salt-stung eyes.
You can, of course, dial the party volume up by going in a group, bringing your electronic gadget of choice (in a waterproof bag) or, as the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn used to do, run a moonlight race.
River rafting had a calming effect on me and I felt my heartbeat slow down a notch after the ride. Let me end it there before I start waxing lyrical and write poetry. It is that kind of place that inspires you to channel your inner creative.
In the end, I discovered that 10 days wasn't enough to truly get my fill of what Jamaica has to offer. That leaves me with one choice. I just have to go back.
This article is part of a series from Michelle Baltazar's "Love, Jamaica: 10 Days, 10 Discoveries" feature. The author would like to thank the Jamaican Tourist Board (www.visitjamaica.com), Dolphin Cove, Rainforest Adventures Mystic Mountain Park, staff at Dunns River Falls and Rio Grande Rafting Tour, for their help and support during her travels.
PHOTO CREDIT: Vernadeen Gayle and Keelin Stewart.