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A Jamaica vacation is usually sold as a serene, ocean-blue getaway—and that’s wonderful if a laid-back vacation is what you’re looking for. A visit to Kingston couldn’t be more different—it’s wired, gritty and in your face. Kingston is the only place on the island where visitors can have a cosmopolitan experience. In the resort areas almost every Jamaican you meet will be working in a service capacity, while in Kingston you’ll be face-to-face with city folk going about their daily business. Let your guard down (but not all the way) and you’ll have the kinds of person-to-person exchanges that make a trip memorable. If you’re in the capital on business, it’s easy to shoehorn in some sightseeing. Eating and shopping are as easy as falling off a log, but also try to make time to visit Kingston’s historical attractions, city parks and cultural institutions. And once you have your fill of the urban scene, the nearby beaches and harbors, and the mist-shrouded Blue Mountains, beckon.
The United Congregation of Israelites—known as Shaare Shalom Synagogue—has a sand floor, which remains as a memorial to the Jews who were forced to observe their faith in secrecy. The sand floor muffled the sound of the Jews footprints and when swept showed no trace of their presence. The 100-year-old Sha'are Shalom synagogue is Jamaica’s only synagogue and a treasure trove of Jewish-Jamaican history. The present building was erected in 1912 to replace an earlier structure dating from 1881. The synagogue has a stark white exterior and an imposing mahogany staircase. Inside check out an Ark of the Covenant, 14 Torah scrolls brought from Israel, and two burning lights commemorating the 1921 union between Jamaica’s original two congregations. The synagogue is used for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, but since they’ve been without a rabbi for 40 years, a couple or family interested in a ceremony must provide a letter from their hometown rabbi to confirm they are Jewish. Visiting hours are Monday through Thursday, 10AM to 4PM. There are two further sites of interest adjacent to the synagogue; the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Centre displays an inspiring collection of Jamaican Judaica, and the Jamaica Jewish Genealogical Institute traces ancestry from as far away as Panama and Venezuela.
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Neighborhood: Port Royal
Historic Port Royal—once Jamaica’s richest city—is located across the harbor from Kingston, a $1 ferry ride from Princess Street pier. Back in the 17th century, the English tolerated Port Royal’s pirates as long as they were pillaging foreign ships. The buccaneers' swashbuckling earned Port Royal a reputation as "the wickedest city in Christendom." An earthquake in 1692 destroyed the port and today locals are convinced that ghosts of men killed in the earthquake roam the earth on extra hot days. Today you’ll find lazy fisherman and Kingston’s only sidewalk restaurant and seaside hotel called Morgan’s Harbour. You can also dip into the past at Port Royal's Archaeological Museum, which is housed in the building that served as headquarters for the British Royal Navy during the 1700s when they watched over this volatile entrance to the harbor. The museum has a small but impressive collection of memorabilia: scale models of sailing vessels and a mock-up of Horatio Nelson's private quarters among them. The admission price of $4 allows you to tour both the museum and Fort Charles. The museum is closed on weekends and opens from 10AM to 5PM on weekdays.
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If you find yourself staring at Downtown Kingston’s tallest building, you’ve found the Central Bank, home to the National Coin and Currency Museum. Inside are exhibits of Jamaican tokens, coins and paper money spanning centuries. Standout items on display are 700-year-old paper notes from China and a gold artifact belonging to the Taino Indians, Jamaica’s first inhabitants. This being the Land of Reggae, you’ll also find a handful of Bob Marley commemorative coins. Admission is free; the museum is closed weekends and open weekdays during banker’s hours. Keep in mind you’ll go through a metal detector to enter the bank.
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Hope Botanical Gardens is the largest botanical gardens in the West Indies. It was once the estate of Major Richard Hope, one of the English officers who helped capture Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the tract of land was a sugar estate. The Hope Aqueduct—still in evidence at Hope Gardens, Mona Heights and Mona Road—was built to carry water from the Hope River to turn the estate’s mills. The 200 acres of land became Hope Gardens in the late-1870s. When Queen Elizabeth II came to Jamaica in 1953, the gardens were officially renamed the Royal Botanical Gardens, although locals still know it as Hope Gardens. Don't miss the orchid house, cactus garden and lily pond. Sago palms are among the oldest living trees in Jamaica, and Hope Gardens is the site of aptly named Palm Avenue. Other attractions include a small zoo, a lake, military band concerts and even a poet's corner. You can also grab a bite to eat at the gardens' Ashanti Oasis Ital (vegetarian) restaurant. If the love bug bites, the gardens are a favorite venue for weddings.
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The 74-acre National Heroes Park is the largest open space in Kingston and serves as the resting place for three of Jamaica’s national heroes: Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, and cousins Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley, who together advocated for universal suffrage for Jamaica in 1944. Although in need of a spruce-up, the park is a big hit with history buffs who come to pay their respects to the greats buried in the park. After Jamaica gained its independence from Britain in 1962, the park was redesigned and changed its name from George VI Memorial Park to National Heroes Park. In addition to sculptures of Jamaica’s national heroes, and a cemetery where past Prime Ministers Michael Manley and Sir Donald Sangster are buried, visitors can see the Jamaica War Memorial erected in tribute to soldiers killed during World Wars I and II. Even more intriguing is the Memorial to 1865, commemorating the Morant Bay Rebellion. This has a rock on a pedestal flanked by bronze busts of Abraham Lincoln and a black slave brandishing a sword. Marcus Garvey is also buried in the park, as is ex-premier Norman Manley, whose body was flown here from England in 1964 and interred with state honors. The Manley Monument, honoring his son Michael, was dedicated in March 2002. And, on a different note, the park shades the final resting place of musician Dennis Brown, who died in 1999. Bob Marley dubbed Brown the “Crown Prince of Reggae.” A ceremonial changing of the guard, complete with music by the Jamaica Military Band, happens the first Sunday of every month at 9AM. For some more local color cruise the National Heroes Circle, where mostly women hawk fresh crab, macaroni pie and corn on the cob. The vendors are delighted to chat with tourists who come with an appetite for both Jamaican history and their delectable homemade snacks. Crowds start lining up at noon for the crab and corn. Although the ladies are photo-worthy, it’s not polite to snap their pictures unless you’re also munching on one of their snacks. If you’re not hungry, slip them a dollar or two and they will happily pose in front of their large iron pots, flashing their warm island smiles.
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Neighborhood: Gordon Town
The best Kingston art gallery for local discoveries is Jamagination Gallery, which presents an intriguing cross-section of some of the island’s most celebrated artists. The gallery has a roster of 20 artists (including one who, interestingly enough, lives in a cave) and offers original art, as well as certified artists' prints for sale. Jamagination is a 15-mile drive from Kingston to where it’s located at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Sitting pretty in a serene and green valley in Gordon Town, this private home is also a gallery with museum-quality works of all sorts hanging on every available inch of wall space, floor space and shelves. Walls painted in multi-colors lend a Caribbean feel as your eyes move from one masterpiece to the other. By appointment only, jovial art curator Wayne Gallimore provides commentary and is delighted to discuss the story behind each piece of art displayed in his home. Works exhibited include “Standing Nude,” a life-size bronze sculpture by deceased Master Alvin Marriot; works by intuitive artists like Raz Dizzy, whose painting, “An African at Home,” is a stunning depiction of the island's history; contemporary artists, such as Bryan McFarlane and Stafford Schiefer, and up-and-coming young Jamaican talents Oliver Myrie and Michael Flynn Elliot. Gallimore can also arrange tours of artists' studios, including a drive up to the mountains and into the caves of nearby Fern Gully, where he will introduce you to some of the finest expressionists on the island.
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Neighborhood: New Kingston
Kingston’s Emancipation Park is the city’s equivalent of NYC’s Central Park—a green oasis in the midst of a bustling city. Here’s where you’ll find joggers burning calories and laid-back locals “lyming” (Jamaican slang for "relaxing") the day away. A nice touch—hidden speakers that look like rock boulders are hidden in the grass and play reggae tunes. If you’re staying at the Jamaica Pegasus or Courtleigh Hotel you’re in luck—the park is right across the street. Among the red Poinciana flowers and towering Royal Palms are two bronze statues that caused quite a stir when they were first installed. The super-sexy, 11-foot-tall naked man and 10-foot-tall nude female are more than anatomically correct—they’re anatomically astounding. They’re called the Redemption Song Monument after the Bob Marley tune that symbolizes the end of slavery. Sunday afternoon is family time in the park and it's not unusual to find multiple weddings taking place at the same time. During weekday mornings, you’ll find a gaggle of elegant Jamaican men discussing the latest headline in the daily Gleaner newspaper. Join in the conversation, as the park motto is definitely “the more, the merrier.”
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Devon House is a must for a glimpse of 19th-century Kingston. This restored Great House on Hope Road is a three-story white mansion constructed in an architectural style that's part Georgian, part Jamaican (essentially, Georgian details have been adapted to meet the demands of a tropical climate). In 1990, Devon House was named a National Monument by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. It was built in 1881 by George Stiebel, the black son of a housekeeper and a Jewish merchant. Steibel knew how to roll. When the rebel slaves of Cuba wanted guns, young George began running them to the island, but only until he was thrown into a Cuban jail cell. The Cuban pokey didn’t hold him for long, and soon he was back in Jamaica romancing and marrying a missionary’s daughter. In his 50s and with money in the bank, Stiebel bought sugar estates and 99 Jamaican properties—the most deeds a person could hold at the time. It wasn’t long before Steibel transformed his sugar into gold, earning him the sobriquet, “Jamaica’s first black millionaire.” Our favorite features at Devon House are a gambling room reachable by a hidden staircase and a 200-year old clock that still ticks. Man does not live by history alone; that’s why you’ll have to stop in the property’s former horse stables, which is now a shop selling the best soursop ice cream in the city (it's made from the white pulp of the tropical fruit). Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children under 12. Devon House is closed on Sundays.
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Another top Kingston attraction is the National Gallery of Jamaica—the island’s largest public art gallery. It's the best place on the island to see a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica. There are eight permanent exhibitions, including a pre-20th-century collection of historical artifacts that can be traced back over seven centuries—from religious effigies made by Taino Indians, the first people of Jamaica; to national hero Marcus Garvey’s walking stick. The permanent collection displays works of Carl Abrahams, Cecil Baugh, John Dunkley, Edna Manley, Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds, Barrington Watson and other legends of Jamaican art. A recent exhibition of "Young Talent V" really blew the lid off, with captivating art from young Jamaican artists not hesitant to mix high art and popular culture. The gallery offers guided tours and children’s art programs; there’s also a gift shop with an impressive collection of art books and a coffee shop. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Take note, the entrance is on Orange Street. To familiarize yourself with the gallery, check out their page on Facebook, which is updated regularly.
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If Bob Marley’s music resonates at all with you, make tracks for the Bob Marley Museum at the corner of Marley Road. This is a top Jamaica attraction that was both Marley’s home until his death in 1981 and the recording studio of Tuff Gong, where many of Marley’s greatest songs were recorded. If you can swing it, February is the time to visit (Feb. 6 is when Marley's birthday is celebrated, but there are events that take place to honor him all month long). The museum has two stories: the lower made of masonry and the upper of timber. Marley's bedroom has his star-shaped guitar by the bed, his gold and platinum records and the bullet holes that ripped through the rear wall following the failed gangland-type assassination attempt on his life on Dec. 3, 1976. His room has been preserved and there are many newspaper clippings from as far away as Japan and Africa detailing the intense media attention paid to his life. A 20-minute video provides insight into the reggae star’s life and times. You can walk into the kitchen as if it is still 1973 and come upon the coffee mug Bob Marley used each morning. Look out the window or stand in the yard and watch the children playing soccer. It could be the same scene, the same moment of reverie and levity that Marley had in that same place day after day. Photographs are not allowed inside the museum, although you can snap photos outside. Guards at the entrance will also search for tape recorders, which you cannot take inside. On site is a Rasta-inspired gift shop and vegetarian restaurant. The museum is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9:30AM to 4:30PM and Wednesday and Saturday from 12:30PM to 5:30PM. If you’re lucky, a Marley relative will be at the entrance and happy to talk about his or her memories of the reggae superstar.
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