Jamaica is glistening. Near Montego Bay's beachfront, sweat pops on the brow of local Alicia Hines as she tries to teach us patois. After all, a little patois can go a long way, as former US President Barack Obama discovered when he greeted Jamaicans with "Wa gwan" – which translates as "What's going on?" Try as we might, we don't sound the least bit Jamaican. Hines throws back her head, laughing at our pronunciation and confusion over the language's flexibility. "In patois, there are no rules," she explains in her sing-song way. "Patois is just a beautiful language that can be spelled whatever way you want."
There's certainly a loose anything-goes vibe to this Caribbean island that makes it feel completely different to the Bahamas on the other side of Cuba. Beyond Hines' shoulders, the sea glitters. Before we can wade into that water, though, our group has a date with some Rastafarians.
It's the first full day of Intrepid's eight-day Best of Jamaica tour. Nine of us, drawn from Australia, the US, Norway and Switzerland, try not to do a double-take when a guy trundles past with a cart selling "reggae brownies". It's perfect preparation, though, for the Rastafari Indigenous Village outside town. After Queen Berhan, a village guide, leads us across a shallow river, explaining the medicinal use of plants along the way, we reach our red-eyed, dreadlocked hosts. They put down their doobies long enough to explain their philosophy and the importance of the herb ("It's a key that opens up your mind"), to make a little music on their drums and to half-heartedly sell us souvenirs.
Back in Montego Bay (also known as Mo Bay), we make a beeline for Doctors Cave Bathing Club. The beach club is on Gloucester Avenue – the city's so-called "hip strip" – and a hop and a skip from our no-frills hotel. For a mere $US6 admission, we suddenly feel like the moneyed set that's been jetting into Jamaica for decades. Author Ian Fleming wrote all 14 of his James Bond novels at his estate near Ocho Rios to the east. In Kingston on the south coast, the Rolling Stones and other musical luminaries have frequented the Terra Nova, a boutique hotel fashioned from the former home of Chris Blackwell, the producer who discovered Bob Marley and founded Island Records.
We splash out on deckchairs and umbrellas, and summon a waitress, who is dressed in a crisp white shirt, navy shorts and tennis shoes, to bring us a round of pina coladas. "Let's swim to the pontoon!" says one of my companions, high on an intoxicating mix of cocktails and Caribbean sunshine.
Yes, it feels good to be in free-wheeling Jamaica, even though the country comes with an edge. High fences and guard dogs protect many homes. Hotels station guards in their foyers. Our guide, Andrew Brooks, warns us about the parts of town to avoid after dark. We buddy up for after-dark wanderings.
Word is that the hottest place to eat in town is KFC but we head to Pier 1, an open-air restaurant that packs away the furniture after dinner to transform into a disco. The women are all strut while the heavy-lidded men don't do very much at all. Our Norwegian cracks up everyone with his high-speed dance moves.
Our Norwegian also has a beautiful way of describing our swim at Glistening Waters Luminous Lagoon, 37 kilometres away. We slip out into the darkness by boat but only some of us jump in to activate the bioluminescence. The water is shallow – our tippy toes can just touch the lagoon's spongy bottom. We swish our arms to become glow angels catching stars in our hands. "It's an electric disco," says our Nordic party boy.
Who needs a disco ball when Jamaica is blessed with so much sparkle? Nature shimmers at Mayfield Falls – a location so remote that our driver needs directions to find the blissful series of cascades (Intrepid's tour now incorporates another waterfall, Dunns River Falls, where hordes of visitors link hands and form a human chain to clamber up the slippery rocks).
Another tour tweak has added a second night at the beach resort town of Negril in the west. Our hotel puts us within strolling distance of Rick's Cafe – a hot spot where high-divers play to the crowd before arcing into the sea below. As we knock back frosty daiquiris and Red Stripe beers, we squint at a catamaran yacht that's manouevred closer to shore. Hang on – most of its pink and white passengers are naked. We laugh and order another round.
Jamaica swings and sings. We hum the Bob Marley tunes that waft from shops and public buses. In Kingston, it's de rigueur to tour the late reggae superstar's home – a 19th-century, two-storey timber house where seven bullet-spraying gunmen tried to kill Marley in 1976. Bullets hit Marley, wife Rita Marley and manager Don Taylor, with Marley later immortalising the politically motivated crime in the song Ambush in the Night. The still-unsolved assassination attempt is commemorated in The Shot Room at the house-museum.
Kingston's backdrop is the rugged World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, which once provided refuge for indigenous people fleeing slavery and then for former African slaves known as Maroons. Today, the mountains are famous for the eponymous coffee. Instead of staying overnight in the capital, we corkscrew up into the cool rainforest-clad peaks to stay at a quirky B&B. One room features a massive balcony so we hang out there in the dark, drinking beers and shooting the breeze until someone notices the fireflies. Twinkle, twinkle little stars.
What an eye-opener it's been. We've eaten our weight in jerk chicken and sampled other national favourites such as beef patties (a mince-filled flat pastry), johnnycakes (fried dumplings), festival (cornmeal dumplings) and more. We've also brushed up on our domino skills so we can join a game anywhere anytime.
Back in Montego Bay, as the setting sun gilds my final day, I head to a locals' beach that provides a front-row view of planes swooping in low to land at the neighbouring airport. And this is where I feel it most – the Jamaican joie de vivre. Kids cartwheel along the sand, families laugh and splash each other, lovers canoodle. I want this to be my abiding memory of Jamaica. Right on cue, a teen defies gravity with a long-lasting handstand on the sand. His teeth flash in an upside-down smile. Snap. I got you, Jamaica. Or maybe you've got me.
FIVE OTHER JAMAICA HIGHLIGHTS
Mayfield Falls is an idyllic spot between Negril and Montego Bay. Slosh along the country's longest river walk with a guide to reach natural pools and cascades, including the tallest one, nicknamed the Washing Machine. See chukka.com
TRACKS & RECORDS
The world's fastest man, retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, is the celebrity behind Tracks & Records, a restaurant with three Jamaica locations. At the Kingston outlet, try the barbecue wings infused with Appleton rum, jerk pork, pan chicken with fried plantain, and curried mutton with coconut rice. See tracksandrecords.com
On the same road as the Bob Marley Museum, this Georgian-style mansion was built in 1881 by Jamaica's first black millionaire, George Stiebel. The landmark's serene grounds include the popular I-Scream ice-creamery – go for a scoop of the rum and raisin. See devonhouseja.com
For more Georgian architecture, head to Jamaica's former capital of Spanish Town, a half-hour drive west of Kingston. Emancipation Square is home to the Old King's House where, in 1838, the Governor of Jamaica, Lionel Smith, read out a proclamation abolishing slavery. A 1925 fire destroyed most of the red-brick structure but the façade still impresses. See jnht.com
LIVE THE LIFE
Chris Blackwell's Island Outpost collection of luxury hotels and villas includes GoldenEye (with the Fleming Villa) east of Ocho Rios, The Caves at Negril and Strawberry Hill in the Blue Mountains, where the married Bob Marley "enjoyed many a romantic rendezvous" and recuperated from his 1976 shooting injuries. In Montego Bay, bust the budget with an haute seafood dinner at the seafront fine-diner Marguerite's. See islandoutpost.com margueritesjamaica.com
Intrepid's eight-day Best of Jamaica tour starts and ends in Montego Bay, and includes the beachside resort of Negril and the capital of Kingston. Prices start from $2261 a person twin share. See intrepidtravel.com
Multiple airlines fly to Montego Bay including Jetblue, which flies direct from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in Florida. See jetblue.com
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.