(by Don Philpott) Kingston is the capital and the commercial, administrative and cultural heart of Jamaica. It is the largest English-speaking city in the Caribbean, has the seventh largest natural harbor in the world, and lies on a wide plain with the sea to the south and the St. Andrew Mountain as its backdrop to the north. It was founded in 1692 after an earthquake devastated the capital Port Royal.
The survivors moved to what is now Kingston and were able to plan a new city from scratch. It was laid out in a grid pattern, which remains today and makes it very easy to get around, especially in the downtown area. It became the capital in 1872, and considerable rebuilding was needed after an earthquake and fire on 14 January 1907 that killed almost 1,500 people.
It is now a modern, bustling, sprawling city that never seems to sleep. It is the seat of Government, has an international airport, busy port and modern cruise ship facilities as well as a wealth of tourist facilities from accommodation to restaurants and gift shops to galleries.
The town was built on the waterfront but has gradually spread inland over the Liguanea Plains, with new business and shopping districts. New Kingston has emerged as he commercial heart of the capital and with its skyscrapers, is like a mini-Manhattan in New York. A major renewal scheme is underway to revitalize the former downtown area. The downtown area also houses many banking, commercial and government institutions.
Residential Kingston is a charming mix of old and new, with wonderful traditional gingerbread homes with their elaborate balconies and fretwork, classic eighteenth century Georgian mansions, and modern houses and apartment blocks. It has to be added, however, that while Kingston has many fine old buildings and some hugely expensive new ones, it also has appalling slums, especially in western Kingston. While the downtown area, close to the waterfront, is the place to explore, the heart of Kingston is now in New Kingston, a triangular area to the north, largely bordered by Half Way Tree Road, Old Hope Road and Hope Road.
Exploring Kingston on Foot
Start your walking tour by the cruise ship piers in front of Ocean Boulevard, although cruise ships no longer call at Kingston. The area just inshore, between Princess Street and Duke Street which both run inland parallel with each other contain a number of interesting buildings. The Oceana often hosts live conferences, and the main post office is on Temple Lane.
Kingston Mall runs between Princess Street and King Street parallel with and one block in from Ocean Boulevard. The National Art Gallery – 922-1561, is between Orange Street and King Street. Open from 10am to 5pm daily, it is in the Roy West Building with exhibits about Jamaica’s art history and featuring many of the island’s most talented artists. There is a fantastic bronze statue of Bob Marley on the ground floor, and upstairs there are works by Intuitive artists John Dunkley, David Miller and Sidney McLaren, sculptures Edna Manley and modern pieces by Tina Matkovic, Colin Garland and Mallico Reynolds, known as Kapo, and regarded as one of Jamaica’s modern artistic geniuses. The annual exhibition, featuring the island’s best artists, is held from December to January.
Off Ocean Boulevard between Church St. and Duke Street is the Jamaica Conference Center with its ultra-modern convention hall. It is open on Thursday only between 11am and 2 pm – Tel: 922-9160. It has on-site restaurants, gardens, offices and in-bond and souvenir shops that are open daily.
On the other side of Duke Street are the headquarters of the Bank of Jamaica . The Coin and Notes Museum is in the Bank of Jamaica building and exhibits the history of Jamaican tokens, coins, and paper money. It is open 8:30 am to 2 pm, Monday to Friday: 922-0750.
Head inland up Duke Street, turn right into Tower Street and continue just past the junction with East Street. On your right is the Institute of Jamaica: 922-0620. The Institute is noted for its collection of historic documents about the Caribbean, and the National Library next door has the largest collection of books, articles and prints in the West Indies. The Institute also houses the Natural History Museum, formerly the Science Museum. It is the oldest museum in Jamaica and exhibits the preserved animals and plants found on the island. The Herbarium (where dried plants are stored) contains over 125,000 specimens and is the best in the Caribbean. It is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm, Monday to Thursday.
Keep right to Georges Lane, turn right into Duke Lane which has many fine old building, including the St. Andrew Scots Kirk Church Tel: 9221818.
Kings House, the gleaming white Governor General’s official residence is set in 200 landscaped acres (80 hectares) at Vale Royal on Montrose Road which lies between Hope Road and Old Hope Road, and the gardens are open to the public daily. The Prime Minister’s office is in Jamaica House, built in the 1960s and originally the official residence. Continue over the junction with Charles Street to visit Kingston Synagogue on the right. The United Congregation of Israelites is the island’s only synagogue.
William Grant Park – Retrace your steps to Charles Stret, turn right and then left into Love Street and head for William Grant Park. Just before the Park which is in the heart of downtown Kingston is the 1,000-seat Ward Theatre. There has been theater, both indoor and open air, of one kind or another on this site for more than 200 years. The present theater, rebuilt after the 1907 earthquake, is now most famous for its unique Jamaican pantomime season which opens each year on 26 December, although there are musical and theatrical events throughout the year: 922-0453.
The park is more often referred to as the parade, so called because it is used to house military barracks before these were moved to Up Park Camp in the middle of the eighteenth century. Today, the Parade and adjacent streets, especially to the east bustle with activity during the day. There is the Coronation produce market with its hagglers (street vendors), and it is not unusual to see street musicians or religious temperance groups. The Parade also boasts a bandstand, fountains and open-air theater. It is also the terminal for many of the town’s buses.
Cross over the park at Kingston Parish Church on South Parade. The church was rebuilt in 1909, two years after being destroyed in the earthquake. Buses for the airport leave from across the junction of North Parade and West Queen Street. If you continue westwards along South Parade and then Beckford Street, you reach its junction with Pechon Street where many of the buses leave for areas outside Kingston, and the railway station is off Barry Street that runs off Pechon Street.
Shopping Area – From the parish church head south on King Street, the main shopping street, with as many stalls and vendors on the street as there are in the shoops. The Post office is just beyond the junction with Barry Street. Continue south, andthen turn right into Harbour Street, and left into Pechon Street to visit the Victoria Crafts Market on the waterfront that caters for the tourist hunting souvenirs. It offers woodcarving, woven goods, linen and silk batiks and other island crafts.
Other Things To See And Do In And Around Kingston
The African Museum is in the gleaming white Devon House complex on the corner of Hope Road and Waterloo Road. It was established in 1971. It contains artifacts relating to Jamaica’s African Heritage.
Devon House, a national monument, is an elegant white three story Georgian-style Great House built in 1881 by George Stiebel, the Caribbean’s first black millionaire. It has been beautifully restored by the National Trust. It contains one of the world’s finest collections of antique mahogany furniture. A large shaded verandah runs round the ground floor, and there are balconies on the first floor with great views over the gardens and surrounding countryside. In the landscaped grounds with towering palms and lush vegetation, are a Port Royal-style grog shop, Norma’s on the Terrace restaurant specializing in Jamaican cuisine, craft shop, souvenir shop, and a ice cream shop where you can try deliciaous tropical fruit tasting ices. It is open from 10 am to pm, Tuesday to Saturday: 929-7029.
The Bob Marley Museum is further along at 56 Hope Road on the corner with Marley Road. It opened in 1986 and was formerly Bob Marley’s residence and the site of the Tuff Gong recording studio. It contains an increcdible mural ‘The Journey of Bob Marley Superstar’, painted by Everald Brown, and has a collection of Marley memorabilia depicting the life and career of the late reggae superstar. No photography is allowed. It is open 9:30 am to 5 pm, Monday, tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and 12:30 pm to 6 pm o Wednesday, Sturday and public holidays – 927-9152.
Caymanas Park offers horse racing every Wednesday, Saturday, and on public holidays. 12:30 pm to 6:00 pm. The course is in Waterford to the west of Kingston and is best reached by taking the Causeway from Marcus Garvey Drive in the city center.
The Folk Musical Instrument Exhibition opened as a teaching aid to Jamaica School of Music in 1981 , and contains unusual musical instruments collected between 1966 and 1981. The Geology museum exhibits rocks and mineral s of Jamaica and collections from other countries, many of them rare.
The Hope Botanical Gardens are on Old Hope Road past Jamaica College and next to the College of Arts, Science and Technology. Founded in 1881, it is the largest botanical gardens in the West Indies, covering 200 acres (80 hectares). The huge lawns are surrounded by towering royal palms. It is open daily from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm – 927-1257.
The Jamaica Defense Force Museum (Military Museum) is in Up Park camp, off South Camp Road. There are fascinating plans of the many forts built around Kingston in the eighteenth century, as well as information, weapons, medals and uniforms of the West Indies Regiment and the Jamaica Infantry Militia tht existed from 1662 to 1906. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, and visits are by appointment.
Liguanea is north of New Kingston and site of the Sovereign Centre, the capital’s newest shopping complex, with cinemas, banks and a food hall.
Lime Cay is a glorious sunspot off Kingston’s shore. South of The Palisadoes the uninhabited island can be reached by boat and it is great for swimming and snorkeling. It is open all day, daily.
The National Arena and National Stadium are side by side off State Road that runs off Mountain View Avenue on the eastern side of town. The arena is used for a wide range of activities from trade exhibitions to the Caribbean’s largest flower show, the National Festival Song Competititon andthe Festival King and Queen Costume – 929-4970. Close by the arena is another fine bronze of Bob Marley.
Port Henderson lies to the south west of the capial connected to it by a causeway that runs from Kingston waterfront across Hunts Bay to Portmore. When Spanish Town was the island capital, Port Henderson was the main harbor and protected by two forts – Fort Clarence and fort Augusta, and it became a fashionable nineteenth century spa resort. The town was badly damaed by the 1951 hurricane and is now a small coastal community opposite Port Royal.
It is worth visiting as a number of its older buildings have been restored or their ruins uncovered by the National Trust. These include the ruins of Green Castle Great House and Bullock’s Lodge and the Longhouse, which was an inn until the end of the ninetenth century. Fort Clarence stood at the end of an arid promontory to the south of Port Hendersonand guards the harbor approaches. Today you can enjoy a swim off Fort Clarence Beach or Hellshire Beach to the South. The Arawaks were early settlers in this area and there are petroglyphs in Two Sisters Cave at Hellshire Beach.
It is a small white sand beach with nearby steps that lead down to the 200,000 year-old cave below sea level. The area also has interesting vegetation and wildlife adapted to the very dry conditions, including some iguana.
The Rockfort Mineral Baths are in a natural mineral spa on the coast on Windward Road that runs east out of Kinston 938-5055.
Sabina Park on South Camp Road is where you go if you want to experience a West Indies cricket match.
The University of the West Indies is off Old Hope Road on the eastern outskirts of town. Turn off on to Mona Road, past the Mona Reservoir to reach the university campus, originally part of the Mona Sugar Estate. You can stroll around the campus where there are old aqueducts, machinery and other reminders of its agricultural past alongside modern murals. The chapel close to the entrance used to be a sugar warehouse on the Gales Valley Estate in Trelawny. It was taken down brick by brick and rebuilt on its present site. Under the roof you can make out the name of the original owner and the date when it was first built. The university is open from 9am to 5 pm, Monday to Saturday.
The Zoology Museum, operated by the University of the West Indies houses exhibits similar to those at the Natural History Museum, but contains many more animals. The marine and entomology collections are considered the best in the West Indies.
The University’s Creative Arts Centre has a varied program of student productions. The University Carvial is held during February.