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I’ve now been to Jamaica three times. The first was a personal trip. I mostly stayed on the resort except for two excursions: one to Dunn’s River Falls and another to Blue Hole. I highly recommend Blue Hole to this day. The second was a trip with Transat in which I lived my best life doing all of the things. But it wasn’t until my third trip to the Caribbean island that I truly fell in love.

I’m an adventurer at heart, so when Transat invited me to tag along while their latest Vacation Expert, Nadia Gilles, went off the beaten track to show the world a different side of Jamaica, I had to say yes. She herself has travelled to the island over 10 times, experiencing so much of what it has to offer. Loving nature and unique experiences as much as myself, I knew this was going to be a trip for the records. And was it ever.

DAY 1:

STUSH IN THE BUSH

It’s only appropriate that the first thing we did after we settled into our hotel was to feast. At once celebratory, and in my opinion, practical, it was essential fuel to properly acclimate to our lush surroundings. And, although promised by Nadia, it was unexpectedly adventurous.

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Found in the mountains of Free Hill, 35 minutes away from Ocho Rios, is Stush in the Bush — an idyllic Ital restaurant and organic farm dreamed up by farm-chef duo Chris and Lisa Binn. Acclaimed for its exotic blending of rustic and gourmet, the experience began with a short detour. As we were greeted by Chris, we hopped into the back of his truck for a short ride to a view that took all of our breaths away. There, we were treated to a storied history lesson of Jamaica; an introduction I realized I hadn’t received until that moment.

It was the perfect beginning to our trip.

After listening and then taking a ton of photos, we climbed back into his truck to finally arrive at Stush in the Bush. We were immediately met by the friendliest pack of dogs and an even friendlier face. Lisa exuded the warmth of a natural host, leading us to a covered area where we were handed refreshing drinks and a view of their expansive farm.

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At that point, all of us had a healthy appetite and we didn’t have to wait too long until the appetizers were revealed. Beautifully displayed, the inventive vegetarian dishes were absolutely delicious. Local and seasonal, they were all thoughtfully served on hand-crafted platters that also supported local businesses. This level of detail didn’t end there.

Once we had our fill of conversation and bites, we moved inside for the main event. With large windows also overlooking the farm and wooden details everywhere, we still felt as though we were outside. The dishes we were presented with could have easily come from a Michelin star restaurant. Creative and “stushy,” it was unlike any vegetarian meal I have had to date.

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One of the things I loved most about this dining experience was there was more “experience” than “dining.” After lunch, we took a stroll around the grounds to learn more about the place as well as how they farmed and lived. We then capped the day with probably the best carrot cake I have ever had. It’s almost hard to imagine something so flawless from beginning to end…but even a tropical downpour of rain couldn’t dampen this experience.

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DAY 2:

FRENCHMAN’S COVE

The next day, we made our way to Frenchman’s Cove. To explain just how beautiful this slice of paradise is, let me just say that we happened to stumble upon a small photo shoot…for Vogue. With a perfectly framed mouth opening into the Caribbean Sea on one side and a picturesque secluded beach on the other, it’s a place you can lounge around for a few hours, tanning, swimming and, of course, taking photos.

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SOLDIER CAMP

A couple hours doing just that works up quite the appetite. For lunch, we headed to Soldier Camp Bar & Grill for a more casual, traditional meal compared to what we had the day before. Tip? Make sure to order one of its seafood dishes, you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and wash it down with a nice, cold Red Stripe, if you drink.

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BLUE LAGOON

I personally love to live in water when I’m in a tropical environment. So when our guide suggested we make a pit stop at the Blue Lagoon, I was very excited. Peaceful and quiet, we all took an irresistible dip in the sapphire water before heading to our next excursion.

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MARLEY COFFEE

We ended our second full day with the son of one of the most renowned Jamaicans ever, Rohan Marley. Although the grounds of Marley Coffee, are still under construction, it was exciting to be privy to Rohan’s vision. According to the website, this vision was passed on by his father, “”Bob Marley dreamt of one day putting his passion of music into farming.” By farming sustainable, Fairtrade coffee, it carries “his legacy as a force for global good […] by his family and manifested in every cup of Marley Coffee.”

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DAY 3:

BLUE MOUNTAINS

Speaking of coffee, many people might recognize “Blue Mountain” as the popular bean born in Jamaica. Yet it is also the place in which the coffee is farmed. A place that can be trekked, for anyone who’s up for the ultimate adventure.

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It’s recommended to hike overnight, so as to catch the sunrise over the mountain peaks — a spectacular sight that I can now attest to. And I’ve climbed my fair of mountains, in Canada and abroad. But that also means a lot of preparation has to into the climb, mental and physical. Although not extremely difficult being well marked and not too steep, it is a strenuous hike that will take roughly five to six hours to cover the 10km (six miles) and 1000m (3000ft) gain in elevation.

Yet nothing worthwhile is easy and that’s a statement I stand by when it comes to hiking up to the Blue Mountain Peak. Dressed comfortably, warmly, prepared for some rain and armed with sturdy shoes and snacks, I highly suggest getting out of comfort zones perpetuated by resort vacations and challenging yourself with something exhilarating and new. And just think about all of the amazing Jamaican food you can treat yourself to before and afterwards.

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DAY 4:

SMURF’S CAFE

As I reminisce about all restaurants we visited on this trip, I find myself thinking, “This was my favorite.” It truly is hard to pick a top one since they were all so memorable in their own right. When it comes to Smurf’s Cafe, not only was the name adorably nostalgic, but the cafe itself was so fun and colorful — it’s exactly what I imagine a Jamaican restaurant to look like.

With its outdoor dining area painted in bright primary hues and decorated with fresh exotic flowers, we were treated to a satisfying Caribbean breakfast complete with plantain and festival.

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TREASURE BEACH

Smurf’s Cafe is located in what is now my favorite Jamaican parish, Treasure Beach. Quaint and colorful, it felt as though we had the entire area to ourselves. It has that hidden gem vibe since so much of the island is already incredibly popular and populated.

The beach itself boasted a long stretch of soft sand and clear blue water. I particularly loved the painted fishing boats in the background, which gave the area a local feel without making anyone feel unwelcomed or bothered.

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JAKE’S HOTEL

After spending a couple hours swimming, strolling and tanning, we made our way to the restaurant at Jake’s Hotel for lunch and smoothies. If you’re looking for a place to relax that isn’t your typical restaurant or resort, this is the place to go. Indicative of the Treasure Beach vibe, it’s an idyllic spot with photo-worthy corners, yummy drinks and a beautiful view of the sea.

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PELICAN BAR

And then to cap off a perfect day trip to Treasure Beach was a boat ride to Pelican Bar, a picturesque hut, made from scrap wood and built on a sandbar. Although that doesn’t sound too appealing, it is one of the unique experiences you don’t want to miss. Serving seafood and beers, you can lounge about chatting, listening to music and playing chess. Or you can take wade around in the water until your boat comes back to take you to land.

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DAY 5:

HARBOUR STREET CRAFT MARKET

We spent our last full day doing what most people do when they go away: souvenir shopping. The Harbour Street Craft Market was a fun place to roam around searching for the best bargains while chatting with locals. Definitely a great way to support the locals, enjoy the culture and stretch your legs.

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PIER 1

Yet you can’t go to Jamaica without dancing…a lot. We ended up taking a private dancehall class to prepare us for our one night out at Pier 1, an open-air Restaurant and Bar that turns into THE spot to be on a Friday night. Although it is a tourist hotspot, you would never know it by how many locals also end up there. With a wide range of music, good drinks and an overall great atmosphere, it was the best way to end our trip.

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ROYAL DECAMERON CORNWALL BEACH RESORT

As for our all-inclusive accommodations, we stayed at the Royal Decameron Cornwall Beach Resort in Montego Bay. It was a cosy resort with everything you could need — especially considering that, as you now see, we spent most of our time outside the resort enjoying all that the island had to offer. I practically lived on the beach, which was definitely my favorite part of the resort. It had an ideal stretch of sand, comfortable chairs and service that kept the refreshments coming.

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It’s hard to imagine that as my third time in Jamaica, the only thing I repeated during my week-long stay was must-stops at Scotchies and Juici. This time around, I truly feel I got a much more in depth look into the Jamaican culture in addition to the natural beauty it has to offer. Special shoutout to Nadia for all of her recommendations. It definitely wouldn’t have been the same trip without her.