An Insider's Guide to Black River, Jamaica
Where to stay: Lashings has a hotel, villas, a beach club and a stunning tree-top bar. It also has a gallery of works from local artists, and a lively restaurant overlooking a field of herbs and vegetables, which provide ingredients for their menu.
Named after the longest river in Jamaica and largest wetland in the English-speaking Caribbean, the seaside town is home to mangrove forests of crocodiles, waterfalls rife with hummingbirds, and waterfront seafood spots serving up classic Jamaican dishes.
You won't find the tiny, historic coastal town of Black River—my childhood hometown—on the itinerary of most visitors to Jamaica. Visitors tend to frequent the touristy towns on the North Coast such as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, or the town of Negril on the western-most end of the island. Located on the southwest side of Jamaica, Black River is named after the nearby river that meets the Caribbean sea. Though it isn’t popular as a tourist destination, it is a great base for exploring some of the island’s more unique outdoor activities, ecotourism, and authentic Jamaican food.
Because of its almost non-existent hotel offerings, most tourists who stay on the South Coast are based in Treasure Beach (40 minutes away by car)—making Black River a worthy day trip from that resort area. From the Montego Bay airport, Black River is a two-hour drive south: You can rent a car, hire a taxi , or catch the Knutsford Express coach to Luana, where a taxi will take you into town about five minutes away. If you’re staying in Negril, it’s an hour and 20 minutes away by taxi or rental car. Check with your hotel tour desk for South Coast tours that include some combination of Appleton Rum Tour, YS Falls, Pelican Bar and Black River Safari.
What to do
The town is named after the Black River, the longest river in Jamaica and largest wetland in the English-speaking Caribbean which is home to mangrove forests, crocodiles, and dozens of species of birds. Charles Swaby’s Black River Safari will take you for a ride up the river to see this stunning ecosystem and maybe some wild crocodiles. No visit to the south coast is complete without a visit to Pelican Bar—a very unique bar and restaurant located on a sand bar in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and only accessible by boat. Built by fisherman Floyd Forbes in 2001, it was originally just a spot for his fisherman friends, and is now one of the coolest beach bars in the world. A rag-tag structure built of driftwood, it's decorated with flags and license plates from around the world and sports a kitchen, tiny gift shop, and eco-toilet. It is standing room only on weekends, especially at sunset when a cold Ting, Red Stripe, Guinness, or a strong rum punch is the perfect accompaniment to fresh fish done your way as you watch the sun show off her colors.
A stunning alternative to the world famous Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios, YS Falls is my favorite place on the whole island. It features seven stunning cataracts of waterfalls, situated in lush jungle that stars long-tailed hummingbirds (the national bird), bright red ginger flowers, and many types of orchids and bromeliads. Aside from the falls there are several interconnected heated spring water pools, a poolside restaurant, gazebos, and gift shop, with rope swings and a zipline for the more adventurous. Once you buy a ticket for the falls in the street side gift shop, you get on an open-air bus that drives alongside the YS River through verdant fields where the owner’s family raises cattle and horses as it takes you to the falls.
Further north on the main road is Holland Bamboo Avenue, a two-mile stretch of road where huge bamboo trees on either side of the road arch over the middle making a stunning bamboo tunnel. If you want to learn how world famous Jamaican rum is made, and sample and purchase some of the best on the island, take a 45-minute drive from Black River to the historic Appleton Rum Estate for a tour that includes a glass of rum punch. Lastly, between the Black River Market and High Street, there is a historic marker for the 1781 Zong massacre of enslaved people, when 130 occupants of a British slave ship named the Zong were killed by crew members in a fraud to get reimbursed by insurers, after the ship ran low on drinking water.
Where to eat
Black River has a variety of food options with an emphasis on fresh fish by the sea. Juici Patties on High Street is part of the island’s largest fast food chain, and offers the Jamaican lunch time staple in beef, chicken, veggie and shrimp varieties, to be enjoyed with local beverages like the award-winning Ting grapefruit soda or D&G Ginger Beer. Or wash it down with fresh coconut water straight from the coconut sold by vendors in the parking lot. Score fresh fruit and local arts & crafts at the Black River market which features the produce of St. Elizabeth, known as the breadbasket of the island.
Cloggy’s on the Beach on Crane Road over the bridge from the center of town has been a popular local fish spot since opening in 1998 by local (who’s now deceased) Victor “Cloggy” Clarke. Cloggy’s has a small bar and a covered beachside dining area, and food cooked traditionally over a wood-fired flame. Select your choice of fish: parrot, grouper or snapper (my favorite) from a cooler and decide how it is cooked: steamed, fried, stewed, or escoveitched. Eat with a side of fried bammy—a chewy, flat bread made with cassava. Escovitch is a Jamaican version of the Spanish style of cooking after which it is named: fried and dressed with spices, in this case scotch bonnet peppers, onions, bell peppers and vinegar. While you wait, you can dip your feet in the Caribbean, then try a large cup of ‘fish tea’ (the Jamaican term for fish broth) and a couple ‘festivals’ (small logs of slightly sweet fried bread) for starters. Cloggy’s also serves up lobster and conch done your way when they’re in season. Lobster season closes April through June each year, and conch season usually closes from August until the end of February, during which it is illegal for the mollusk to be served. Less than a quarter mile away you will find Las Vegas Cafe, another beachside spot that’s more upscale than Cloggy’s, with outdoor covered eating spaces and an air-conditioned interior. On weekend nights it’s very busy with locals and out-of-towners who dress up for a night out. Both Cloggy’s and Las Vegas have vegan and vegetarian options.
For home-style Jamaican staples such as curry goat, oxtails, and stewed chicken, check out Tastee Restaurant (near the Black River market), and Waterloo Guest House on the High Street— a great spot to watch a blazing sun quickly drop over the horizon at sunset. Waterloo makes great fried chicken and made-to-order Jamaican-Chinese versions of fried rice and chow mein. Drive ten minutes north into the interior and you will find Middle Quarters, the home of spicy peppered shrimp and crawfish caught locally in the swamps connected to the Black River, made by women traders who sell roadside and do a drive-up business. The only place to find this delicacy on the island, ‘pepper shrimp’ is not for the faint of heart, as the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers with which they are prepared will make your eyes water and your nose run.
Where to stay nearby
If you are inclined to stay on the South Coast, there are a few options in the coastal towns of White House, Bluefields and Treasure Beach. In White House, 15 minutes west of Black River, there is the all-inclusive Sandals South Coast. Nearby and closer to Black River is Bluefields Bay, a group of all-inclusive villas with private pools, that comes with full staff. Twenty minutes east of Black River is the quiet fishing village and resort town of Treasure Beach, known for its ecotourism, sandy coves, and empty beaches. Your options there include Jakes, a group of villas and bungalows on the rocky coastline with a stunningly located and highly reputable restaurant, and Lashings, which has a hotel, villas, a beach club and a stunning tree-top bar. It also has a gallery of works from local artists, and a lively restaurant overlooking a field of herbs and vegetables, which provide ingredients for their menu.
This article first appeared in Conde Nast Traveller on 10th January 2023