Ocho Rios, affectionately referred to as "Ochi" by the locals, is situated on the northern coast of the island of Jamaica, midway between the capital, Kingston, and the popular tourist resort of Montego Bay. The Spanish translation of Ocho Rios is "eight rivers," but the area is best known for its abundance of waterfalls. The shoreline is dotted with one hotel resort after another, with the Caribbean's trademark warm sands and turquoise waters in their backyards. Beyond the shoreline, rainforest-like greenery blankets the mountainous landscape. The strikingly lush tropical foliage makes it easy to see why Saint Anne Parish, of which Ocho Rios is a part, is known as the "garden parish."
Set just slightly past the cruise port, the town of Ocho Rios offers plenty of craft vendors, duty-free shopping bargains, open-air eateries and happening bars on its two main drags: Main Street and DaCosta Drive (which run parallel to each other). Although the town is worth checking out, spending an entire day there would be overdoing it. For cruise ship tourists, primary points of interest and attractions -- like Dunn's River Falls, Mystic Mountain and James Bond Beach -- lie beyond the actual town and are short five- to 20-minute taxi rides away.
Ocho Rios gets its fair share of precipitation with the most rain falling in October, and average temperatures in the 80s and 90s. (July and August are the hottest months, while February is the coolest.) Watch out for hurricane season from June into November.
The port has two piers for cruise ships. The Turtle Bay Pier is located next to the town's restaurants and shops and the James Bond Pier, which is industrial in nature but serves cruise ships, is located farther west.
The piers are right beside the downtown area where shops, restaurants and bars can be found just minutes away on foot.
As with many other ports, and when traveling to foreign places in general, it's always best to proceed with caution. While in port, be aware of your surroundings, leave valuables and nonessentials on the ship, and take measures to keep yourself and your personal belongings safe. While you're shopping, merchants might come off as pushy but responding with a respectful "no thanks" should do the trick.
On Foot: You can walk into downtown. If you are docked at the James Bond Pier, take Main Street to the west to get to town -- it takes about 10 minutes.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available at the dock; just make sure you hire a licensed JUTA taxi. Negotiate a price before you go and the time to be picked up; round trip fares are $50 to Dunn's River Falls from outside the port area.
The currency in Jamaica is the Jamaican dollar but U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Most shops, restaurants and attractions accept credit cards. ATMs are located at the cruise terminal and in town at Island Village, Soni's Plaza and Gem Palace. Be prepared to pay a higher service fee than you normally would from home, and make sure the machine is marked dual currency if it's U.S. dollars you want.
Standard English is spoken in Jamaica but the locals speak an English-based patois with a thick accent.
Jamaican food tends to be on the spicy side, especially such iconic dishes as jerk chicken and beef patties. Seafood figures heavily into the diet but at local joints you will also find curried goat, oxtail and the national dish called ackee and saltfish -- a local fruit with a texture like avocado, sauteed with onions, hot peppers and salted codfish.
Rum, Blue Mountain coffee and coffee-flavored Tia Maria liqueur are all island-produced beverages with worldwide reputations for top quality. The Hummingbird is a Jamaican classic cocktail made with coffee liqueur, rum cream liqueur, milk, strawberry syrup and bananas and then blended with ice to a smooth, frozen consistency.
Ocho Rios Jerk Centre: With its lively atmosphere, the Jerk Centre is the epitome of fun, local dining. This open-air eatery is a great place to enjoy authentic island flavors; menu items include jerk chicken and pork, barbequed ribs and fresh fish. (14 DaCosta Drive; open daily, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; 876-974-2549)
Juici-Beef Patties: This shop, between Main Street and DaCosta Drive, sells Jamaica's most signature finger food, spicy empanada-like patties. It's a pan-Jamaican franchise and you will hear locals debating its attributes over the Tastee franchise. It's a great place for a quick snack with a cold Red Stripe beer. (1 Newlin Street; open Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; 876-974-5444)
The Ruins at the Falls: Featuring two restaurants and a diner, The Ruins is a dining destination all centered on a 40-foot-tall limestone waterfall, surrounded by tropical gardens. Lunch is served buffet style. Asian fare dominates the dinner menu but Jamaican-style cuisine is available, too. (17 DaCosta Drive, 876-974-8888)
Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville: For something more familiar, head to Margaritaville at the Island Village shopping center. (876-675-8800)
Evita's: Set in an 1860's Victorian house on a hill overlooking Ocho Rios and the ocean, Evita's is a Northern Italian restaurant. (Owner Eva Myers hails from Venice.) It's considered a prime celebrity magnet and is only a 10-minute walk from the cruise port. (Eden Bower Road; open daily from 11 a.m.; 876-974-2333)
Toscanini's: This venue also brings authentic Italian cuisine to the Caribbean. Toscanini's has a great reputation and a convenient, historic location in the Harmony Hall Art Gallery. It's priced in the mid to high range but service is attentive and the atmosphere is charming -- especially for couples. (Tower Isle; open Tuesday to Sunday, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m.; 876-975-4785)
Haggle in classic Jamaican style at the craft market; you can get good prices on straw items, woodcarvings and souvenirs. Downtown, head for the Taj Mahal Shopping Center and Soni's Plaza. Both offer shops featuring unique jewelry, clothing and gifts. In the duty-free arena, you can get good buys on jewelry, cameras, china and crystal. Good souvenir choices include the island's well-known coffees, Blue Mountain (top-shelf) and High Mountain (a less expensive blend); Tia Maria, the made-in-Jamaica coffee liqueur; and Jamaica rum.