If you are going on a cruise and making a stop in Ocho Rios, as so many cruise ships do, its helpful to come prepared. You can find a lot of information about Ocho Rios on the net, however much of it will be geared to those individuals vacationing on the island. For the best input, search out cruise related websites and people who have been to Ocho Rios while on a cruise. Your cruise line can give you a list of shore excursions and most travel agents will be happy to provide you with their first hand recommendations.
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I have been to Ocho Rios many times. On my first visit to Jamaica, Carnival's ship staff worked very hard at convincing me that I would not be safe in Ocho Rios, unless I booked a shore excursion. Their caution was well intentioned, and I agree that for many, it's the best way to go. However, Jamaica is a beautiful island and can be enjoyed independently. But doing so should not be to save money. Shore excursions available on the ship, for the most part are not much more than what you would pay locally, especially for tours of Dunn's River Falls or party boats. I have done it both ways, yet I found the shore excursions booked on the ship to be worth the convenience. Our best tour of Ocho Rios, however, was the one we arranged ourselves with another couple. We hired a cab at the port, and drove around Ocho Rios, hiked up the falls, and explored the mountains and surrounding areas for a good part of the day. We hooked up with an excellent guide, and had a great time, all for about $100 (which split four ways was a bargain). We tend to be the more adventurous sort, however, the cruise line and others will tell you it's not a good idea. I beg to differ, but only you can decide what's best for you, after researching Ocho Rios for yourself.
The following is a sampling of shore excursions and/or tours as well as some "do it yourself" activities.
1. Snorkeling & Diving
I have yet to find an area near Ocho Rios comparable to Grand Cayman or Cozumel (probably your other stops). The diving here is minimal at best, but can be arranged if you arrive early enough. We dove here one year, curious to see what Jamaica had to offer, but it wasn't too good. As you walk off the ship, stay left, walking along the water front. There are a few kiosks that offer scuba diving and snorkeling. I don't remember the prices, but they seemed reasonable at the time. The boats go around the point and drop you off on the other side of the big hotel you can see from the ship. There is a shallow reef (around 35 feet) a few hundred yards from shore. The visibility was pretty good, unfortunately, we didn't see a lot of fish - the dive master said they have all been eaten. The snorkelers who joined us remarked how much they enjoyed watching us - they didn't see many fish either!
2. Dunn's River Falls
This by far is the most popular tour on the island. Unfortunately, if you are not in shape to do some mild to moderate hiking up slippery rocks, this tour is not for you. I had a blast, and have a few great pictures to prove it. But some on this tour have a hard time. One can hike up along the side lines, but it's not the same experience. I recommend a pair of tevas or other water sandals, not just water socks. To hold your money and valuables, invest in a good waterproof container you can wear around your neck. You really don't save a lot of money by doing this one yourself; hiring a cab and paying the entrance fee. If you do this on your own, combine it with a tour of Ocho Rios. The cabbie will be happy to wait for you.
3. Party Boat
There are several "rum runner" boat tours that can be arranged on the ship, and I have always enjoyed these. However, people are known to consume mass quantities of alcohol and often get crazy. It's nearly impossible to book these tours on your own once off the ship, so if you are interested, book them early at the shore excursion desk.
4. Island/City Tours
These are great if you don't want to walk around all day. A bus or van will pick you up and take you all over Ocho Rios, make several annoying stops to go shopping, and head up to the mountains for some spectacular vistas. These tours are short compared to most, only 2 or 3 hours long.
There is a beach walking distance from the ship that charges a nominal fee to get in. We usually walk all the way down to the big hotel at the point and hang out there. We walk into the hotel's lobby and onto the beach. No one has ever said anything to us, even when we used their pool. Several crew members were here, as were a few passengers from our ship. The public beach is not maintained well, but the gate keeps the street vendors away. The ocean is calm enough here to let young kids play in the water supervised.
There are several flea markets about a 7 minute walk from the ship, where you can shop for wooden carvings and other souvenirs. Tee shirts that vary in quality and rum are also popular items available at these shops. The prices on alcohol were about the same in town, as they were at the liquor store at the port. The flavored rums (coconut is my favorite) are excellent. You might also want to pick up a six pack of Red Stripe Beer, which they should allow you to take on the ship (it's the hard stuff they store for you). I wasn't too impressed with their jewelry prices when we were there, but a friend who recently returned got a great deal on a watch and earrings. Be sure you know something about what you are looking to purchase, when it come to jewelry. I've heard of people getting ripped off "big time" here!
It goes without saying that you need to be careful where ever you travel these days. Several people on our ship were arrested in Ocho Rios for smoking pot and hauled off before we set sail. I saw this happen in Cozumel once also. Ship staff tells me this happens on nearly every sailing! We always travel with a money belt, and leave our credit cards in the safe when we go ashore. Jamaica is very poor and their government hasn't always been in good shape, but the people realize they need tourism to survive, so you'll see a heavy police presence and locals who are both polite and helpful. Use common sense, and you'll have a great time. Have fun planning your trip!
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