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Where Should You Stay in Jamaica? Ocho Rios vs. Montego Bay vs. Negril

Rosheda Stephenson always has a laptop stuck to her fingers. When not penning women's fiction, she writes about travel, lifestyle and law.

Interacting with dolphins is one of many things to do in Ocho Rios that will make the more adventurous travelers choose this as the best resort town.

Interacting with dolphins is one of many things to do in Ocho Rios that will make the more adventurous travelers choose this as the best resort town.

Years ago while doing research for another travel article, I read an interesting study on vacation planning.

Apparently, people have as much fun planning their vacation as going on the actual trip. While that may be true, choosing which resort town to stay at on an island far away can seem quite a task. What if after spending big bucks, the town you choose is a big miss? Or, worse, if you have kids, what if they end up complaining the whole time because the area you settle on has little to no children's activities?

This mini guide will put all these worries to rest if you're wondering where to stay in Jamaica when you visit.

The major resort areas on the island are Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril. While the three towns are within short driving distances from each other, they each have a different personality that will be a big hit, or a big miss, depending on what you are looking for in a resort town. Luckily, I've been to all three multiple times and have some insight to help you choose the right one for you.

But first, a caveat.

The Caveat in the Jamaican Resort Town Debate

Each of the major resort towns in Jamaica have all-inclusive hotels. Since the towns are all coastal, they all have beaches too. The all-inclusives take advantage of this, and each come with their own private stretch of beach. If you've been researching accommodations in Jamaica, it may seem like I am stating the obvious. But you'll soon see where I'm heading.

Because many visitors to the island stay in these all-inclusive resorts and never leave the grounds of the hotel, it really doesn't matter what town these visitors choose. If you plan on staying in an all-inclusive and never venturing out, then you can be sure of a private stretch of beach, night entertainment, organized kid's activities, water sports, multiple onsite restaurants, and everything else you need to have a memorable vacation. Because of this, the town you choose won't matter. You will have the tropical vacation you want without having to do much planning on where to stay.

If you don't plan on going the all-inclusive route, or you still want to explore the island while staying in an all-inclusive, here is an in-depth look at what to expect in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril.

Negril

Way back in the 1960s, Negril gained a reputation as the place to be and let be. At the time, the hippies and flower children flocked to the remote beach town to enjoy a beach that stretched for miles and miles and shimmered under the Caribbean sun.

As there were no hotels, visitors would rent rooms in the homes of locals or pitch tents on the beach. Undiscovered by tourists, the beach was heaven for those who wanted to lay on a beach with a beer in hand while life passed by slowly and reggae music played in the background.

Negril Is Still All About The Beach

Today, Negril is a popular destination in its own right, but the town has retained much of its laid-back beach bum vibe. The popular town is basically one long stretch of white sands and turquoise waters dotted with hotels, restaurants, and bars. On any given day, you will find people lounging on chairs or towels while they soak in the sun between lazy laps in the ocean. And if you get hungry, you never need to leave the beach. A walk up the beach in any direction will inevitably take you to some shack or more formal restaurant serving unbelievably delicious local foods and beer.

Negril Beach stretches and bends along the coast for miles. This is why the town in the best place to stay in Jamaica for beach lovers .

Negril Beach stretches and bends along the coast for miles. This is why the town in the best place to stay in Jamaica for beach lovers .

Because the town is all about the ocean, nobody goes there looking for anything but sea, sun, and sand. At least, not in the daytime.

At Night The Partying Begins

At night, Negril comes alive with live reggae bands or DJ music streaming in the air. If the daytime is all about the slow life, night is about dancing on the sand.

You never have to go far to find a party in Negril. All the bars seem to ubiquitously come alive when dark descends, and even the hotels on the beach have nightly parties. And to be completely honest, many of the bars seem to have day-long parties as you can hear music on the beach at any time of day.

As proof of Negril's bona fide party status, one only has to look to the world-famous Rick's Cafe Bar. The bar is Jamaica's hottest party spot and consistently get's Tripadvisor's Traveler's Choice Award for its party atmosphere, which includes cliff jumping and an infinity pool with a slide.

Speaking of cliff jumping, there is another side to Negril that will influence the decision of where to stay in Jamaica there.

Negril's Extreme Diving

Although the beach is king in the town, some visitors go for the largely unspoilt natural features of the area. The most lauded are the cliffs and the coral reefs.

Partying at Ricks Cafe while divers jump from the cliffs on Negril's West End

Partying at Ricks Cafe while divers jump from the cliffs on Negril's West End

Where the beach ends, Negril's cliffs begin. These cliffs, known as the West End of Negril, border the ocean and make for a study of the extremes in nature. Imagine black rocky cliffs extending up to 40 feet, with sharp edges in some areas and smooth tops in others. Now picture the blue ocean lapping at the bottom of these cliffs.

This, in a nutshell, is Negril's West End and my favorite part of the town ever since I first visited as a child. The whole area holds a beauty of its own that nature lovers will enjoy. And those into extreme adventures will love a taste of the cliff diving that has become popular in the area (Rick's Cafe offers some of the best cliff diving at heights of 30 feet).

The coral reef in Negril also draws a fair share of snorkelers and scuba divers to the area. Trips out to the reef are easy to organize, either from the hotels or from any of the many boats that show up on the beach early in the morning looking for clients.

Verdict

Go to Negril if all you want to do is lay on a beach with a drink in hand and take in an amazing sunset at the end of the day. Party lovers will also appreciate the party vibes on the beach. Finally, those looking for good diving will find that Negril is the place to stay in Jamaica for its unmatched scuba diving and extreme cliff diving.

Ocho Rios

Ocho Rios, Spanish for eight rivers, was given its name when the Spanish occupied Jamaica from 1494 to 1655. As you may guess, the name is a clue to the many rivers that call the town home. This is, of course, in addition to the gorgeous beaches scattered around the town. And because the town sits in a forested part of Jamaica, there is also greenery and tangled rainforests everywhere you look. This diverse geography makes Ocho Rios arguably the prettiest resort town you can stay in while visiting Jamaica.

Ocho Rios's beach and the mass of greenery in the background, exemplify the resort's rugged beauty. It has nature and is the perfect resort for those seeking access to some fun activities.

Ocho Rios's beach and the mass of greenery in the background, exemplify the resort's rugged beauty. It has nature and is the perfect resort for those seeking access to some fun activities.

A Genuine Tropical Paradise With Action Added

The variety of nature is also responsible for the many activities the town offers. For beach lovers, there are pretty beaches with water spanning the whole spectrum of blue. For those who want to see waterfalls or raft down river rapids, there are numerous other waterbodies to explore. And those who want to hike or zipline through one of Jamaica’s forests will also find much to please.

Ocho Rios is, therefore, the place to visit for those who want to feel like they are in a tropical paradise while having access to some of the best activities on the island. There will be hikes up waterfalls like the world-famous Dunn’s River Waterfalls. There will also be ziplining and hiking at outfits like Mystic Mountain. The adventurous types will love ATVing or horseback riding in the ocean, and of course, beach lovers will enjoy the dozens of white sanded beaches the area is known for.

Ocho Rios is Perfect For Families

Those with kids will also find that Ocho Rios is well equipped to keep boredom away. I started really exploring the town after I had my daughter because of the varied family-friendly activities in the town. In addition to all the fun activities mentioned above, things to do in Ocho Rios for families include an excellent swim with dolphins program, tours of an ancient-looking cave system called Green Grotto Caves, ziplining in the rainforest, kid-friendly hikes, a beach with an inflatable waterpark in the ocean, glass bottom boat rides, bobsledding, and rope courses.

Because of Ocho Rios’ topography, one cannot just walk down the beach to find these activities. These and the other things to do are scattered around town and will take some driving to get to (but don’t worry, everything is within ten to 20 minutes of each other).

Verdict

Ocho Rios is best for those looking for off-beach activities that run the gamut from ziplining to waterfall climbing. Those looking for family activities will also enjoy the variety of adventures in the town. This is not to say that the town has no beaches. Ocho Rios is home to dozens of gorgeous beaches that will be a constant reminder that the town is indeed a tropical paradise.

Montego Bay

Montego Bay is Jamaica's second largest city and feels like it. In addition to housing one of Jamaica's two major airports, Montego Bay combines a beautiful coastal location with the intensity of a city. This means that if you are trying to figure out where to stay in Jamaica and you live for the hip and happening, the town may just be for you.

Montego Bay Is The 'It' Town

Montego Bay's main thoroughfare is called the Hip Strip, mainly because one can find anything one desires there. There are nightclubs, art galleries, bars, restaurants, jewelry shops, souvenirs, fast food, people hanging out until the wee hours of the morning, and just about everything else to please those looking for the undeniable rush that city energy provides.

But There's Also Beaches

Combined with this adrenaline is the relaxing vibe that being next to the coast brings. One can easily alternate between a gorgeous beach and heady nightlife while in Montego Bay and never miss a beat. And the town is chock full of activities that can fill a day and make for a fun-filled vacation for watersports lovers and families with older kids.

Have you gotten any closer to choosing a resort town for your Jamaican vacation? Let me know in this quiz before reading the final verdict on the three towns!

The Final Verdict on Where To Stay in Jamaica

Negril is for those looking for a pure beach and the laid-back lifestyle that comes with it. Beach bums, those who want to lay on a beach with a drink in hand all day, and those who love to party at night and take in the sun in the days will love Negril.

Ocho Rios has many pretty beaches scattered around the town, but unlike Negril, there is much more to the town than the beach. Because of the town's geography, there are out of this world waterfalls, rivers, greenery, and forests that all provide opportunities for endless entertainment.

For this reason, Ocho Rios is best for those who want lots of activities both on and off the beach and for those who appreciate the tropical paradise feel of a naturally beautiful place. Families will also love Ocho Rios because of the variety of activities the town offers.

Montego is like Ocho Rios in that it has quite a good offering of activities and nice beaches. However, being Jamaica's second-largest city, it has a more city feel than Ocho Rios and will be best for those who want their vacation to include good nightlife and the high-energy feel of a city.

With this guide you should be well on your way to planning your perfect Jamaican vacation. But if you need more help, check out the official source of all things Jamaican, or check out these things to do with kids in Jamaica if you're planning a family trip.

Happy Travels!

© 2021 Rosheda Stephenson