It was a steamy Saturday night in Kingston, Jamaica, and the Sky Bar was jammed with its usual weekend crowd: professionals in their 20s and 30s, by all appearances fit for the next flight to Miami’s chic South Beach neighborhood. Ladies in strappy stilettos and sundresses mixed with men in jeans and crisp blazers while the rhythm-and-blues-heavy soundtrack veered from Stevie Wonder to Ne-Yo and Kanye West.
I’d positioned myself on a red barstool beside the mosaic-tiled infinity pool. At the table beside me, two South American business travelers, ties loosened, were tearing into a plate of jerk chicken and drinking Red Stripe beers. It seemed almost quaint. I ordered a more trendy combination: one dirty martini and one sushi roll made with smoked marlin and ackee, Jamaica’s butter-textured national fruit. I chatted with the locals about business and politics, drank in the dramatic vista of the Blue Mountains and relished a muted symphony of car horns, reggae snippets and animated chitchat emerging from the sweeping boulevard below.
If this scene seems to defy the prevailing image of Kingston, it isn’t the only one. These days Kingston is filled with stereotype-busting options for travelers looking for a new, more authentic Jamaican experience. At Pure — a new, gleaming white lounge with chiffon draperies and celebrity skyboxes — techno music trumps reggae. At the newly opened 107-room Spanish Court Hotel, home of the Sky Bar, the lobby makes one wonder if New York’s bohemian SoHo neighborhood has been transported to the Caribbean. Exit wicker and florals; enter bean-shaped white leather sofas, animal-print accents and jatoba-wood floors.
For most travelers, of course, Kingston stereotypes are irrelevant. They would no sooner consider vacationing there than they would in, say, the Gaza Strip. Gang-related violence has plagued Kingston’s so-called garrison communities since the 1970s, and the country’s high murder rate, though it almost never affects tourists, is a potent deterrent. So is the very urban-ness of the place, which stubbornly refuses to allow for beach chairs, umbrella drinks or “Jamaica, Mon” T-shirts.
But new developments, high-end amenities and a cosmopolitan vibe are poised to change Kingston’s public face — and to drive home a point: Bypassing Jamaica’s vibrant, culturally rich, music-soaked capital city is like taking a grand tour of America and skipping New York.
The Jamaican government is invested in making that point, having begun a 10-year revitalization plan last year for a place that, with upward of 700,000 residents, is the largest English-speaking city in the Americas south of Miami. The current makeover has its roots in the 1960s, when a developing reggae industry offered the potential for revenue that, civic leaders feared, would be undermined by the city’s urban blight. Renovations were slow to be made, though, so the 2008 Urban Development Corporation plan is far-reaching. Development incentive packages and public investment programs are scheduled to produce new government buildings, a 200-room hotel and conference center and a number of city parks, among other things.
Thus far, many of the city’s noteworthy new offerings, including Pure and the Spanish Court, are in tourist-friendly New Kingston, a triangular area whose skyscrapers and strip-mall-like boulevards have the feel of Anycity, USA. Surrounding New Kingston, the city is divided, broadly speaking, into “uptown” and “downtown,” which are not so much indicators of geography as of class.
Like Los Angeles, Kingston is a car-friendly sprawl where the wealth gap is baldly visible. Just as one could spend years in Los Angeles and never set car tire in Watts, one can easily visit Kingston, stay in one of many neighborhoods uptown and leave thinking the city consists of palatial residences and suburban serenity.
Uniting uptown and downtown, though, is music. Kingston has been called the nerve center of Jamaica; really, it’s the country’s disc jockey booth. Ever-evolving trends in reggae and dancehall, reggae’s digitized contemporary incarnation, are born in the abundant studios and street dances of Kingston, where the week is parceled into parties with regular monikers like Early Mondays, Boasy Tuesdays, Weddy Weddy Wednesdays and so on.
People from uptown venture to rough-and-tumble areas for these weekly dances, which can confound even the most jaded traveler: They require little or no cover charge, they are not designed for tourist consumption, and they are only minimally intended for capitalist gain. They are — dare I say it? — pure, uncommercial homage to music and dance.
It’s a homage that Jamaicans take seriously, which is why new night-life options are the most prominent feature of Kingston’s makeover. “The economy has provoked Jamaicans living overseas to move back home, and their taste is of a high caliber,” said Ard Zuar, a Kingstonian entrepreneur. “They’re bringing new, sophisticated products to the marketplace, and they’re willing to invest in them.”
Zuar is part owner of one of these new “products”: Fiction Lounge, a Kingston nightclub that is so trendy I could barely talk my way past the bouncer on one particularly crammed night and came face-to-face with the Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt on another. Zuar’s design company, Zuar Ltd., built Fiction as what he described as “a hybrid space: one location catering to multiple demographics.”
On the main dance floor, futuristic murals and oversize chandeliers indulge a pop-culture aesthetic; the adjacent Johnny Walker Lounge caters to more mature (namely, sober) patrons. Once a month Fiction hosts unplugged performances featuring old- and new-school Jamaican musicians. Oh, and nonreggae thrives there, too: Wednesdays spotlight world beat and electronica, and on one late-night visit I found myself dancing, curiously enough, to Coldplay.
“In many countries, entertainment options increase during tough times,” Carleene Samuels, a Jamaican film producer, yoga enthusiast and Fiction regular, told me. “So with music being Jamaica’s main way of coping with stress and tension, Kingston really rocks, maybe more than ever.”
Like so much in Kingston, eating entails a choice between extremes — from fish heads to oxtails.
To fully indulge, try the new Truck Stop Grill and Bar, Jamaica’s take on Texas, complete with electric blue cocktails and indoor-outdoor seating on wooden barrels. Though the menu is an unofficial homage to Jamaican street food, which means plenty of jerk — pork, chicken, or lobster rubbed with spices and cooked over a wood fire — there are grilled fish options, too.
On the other side of the spectrum are the many restaurants that adhere to the Rastafarian dietary laws (no meat, fish or salt). One of them, Ashanti Oasis, lives up to its name: It is on a veranda along the manicured lawns of Hope Gardens, the largest botanical gardens in the West Indies. There are plenty of delights, including sweet-and-sour soy meatballs, curried chickpeas, fried brown rice and fresh mango juice.
You’ll feel guilty if you don’t pay homage to the man who made Jamaica a brand name, so visit the Bob Marley Museum, in the clapboard house where he lived and recorded until he died. Kingston’s waterfront downtown area also has its share of historic buildings and museums. Worth a visit is the multimedia exhibition inside the restored Liberty Hall, former home to the Kingston division of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association.
There are plenty of options for shopping. Clock some time at the Cooyah shop — the label that calls itself “the official reggae brand,” and sells summer gear in the bright colors of the Jamaican flag (yellow, black and green) and the Rastafarian movement (red, gold and green). I bought a pair of flats that are sexier than stilettos at the organic-chic Bridget Sandals store, a center of locally made footwear that Caribbean fashionistas swear by.
And when the sun-and-sand urge kicks in, it’s only a 35-minute drive to Hellshire Beach, which is certainly not the tourist beach haven of Negril but makes up for it in other ways. Throngs of city folk co-opt the scene on weekends, and at stall after stall delectably fresh fish is served in brown stew with bammy, a kind of yucca cake. There are no umbrella drinks, but after a few glasses of Appleton rum, you won’t miss them.