How do you make a teenager happy? It's the ultimate conundrum for parents the world over – and as family life changes and kids' interests diverge from their parents, the question of how to find a holiday the whole family is keen to go on can seem almost impossible to answer.
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The days of kids' club fun in all-inclusive resorts are behind you. Quiet, child-free escapes where days are spent reading and evenings enjoying the kinds of things you used to do before you had children (if you can still remember what they were!) are still a few years off. And the possibility of spending your yearly savings on an ungrateful teen who wants to sleep all day and roll their eyes all evening is all too worryingly real. The only option? To find a destination that is beguiling to both adults and teenagers alike – with plenty to do that’s not only exciting, but cool and maybe even a little bit edgy, whilst proving mum and dad with the R&R they definitely deserve.
My preconceptions of Jamaica were coconut-palm-fringed beaches, jerk chicken shacks and bountiful rum. Perfect for parents but potentially lacking in amusements for the petulant teen brigade. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. From James Bond movie locations, to American superstar spotting, our week in Jamaica enthralled our group of teenagers spanning in age from 13 to 19.
Jamming in Bob Marley’s studio, riding horses into the sea and careering through mudslides on dune buggies turned out to be more than enough to put smiles on the faces of four sullen teenagers. Here are 11 things any teenager will enjoy on a family holiday to Jamaica. You might have to plan a few trips to fit them all in!
Our guide carried a sea urchin around and the fish flocked
1) Dive into the tropical depths on a snorkel trip
The reefs around Jamaica are literally just offshore so teens keen to boast to their friends back home that they swam with sharks will be able to do just that. Safety is an unexpectedly serious business on this Caribbean island so snorkelers on our trip had to wear buoyancy aids - a slight disappointment to those hoping for the pre-dip perfect Insta shots! But it was the only disappointment experienced in the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea. Sea urchins, eagle rays, and an array of incredible tropical fish kept our teenagers happy for a good couple of hours. Purchase a waterproof bag for their mobile phone before you leave – because there’s nothing quite as cool as a turtle selfie!
2) Get mucky in a mud buggy
Mum's driving skills leave a little to be desired!
Mud buggy rides through the Yaamon Adventures Experience plantation is definitely one for the whole family. Frankly, the idea of getting covered in mud as we tore around in an open-sided dune buggy (accompanied by a gang of wild teenagers on ATVs) was not something that was high on my list of Caribbean must-dos. But it turned out that the parents had just as much fun as the kids! Warning – you will get filthy, and this mud stains, so bring some clothes you don’t mind binning (or strip down to a black swimming costume for the ride). But what a chance to let your inner speed-demon out. And surely all that mud is good for the skin? A dip in the stunning waterhole to freshen up and an ice-cold rum punch before you return to the hotel were also very mum-friendly moments.
3) Bobsleigh down a rainforest mountain
Ski lifts and bobsleighs are an unexpected discovery under the blue skies of Jamaica – but the experience is thrilling. The huge ascent up Mystic Mountain takes about half an hour and flip flops have to be flipped off before you jump on a cable car.
The waterslide and bobsleigh high on Mystic Mountain
You quickly emerge above the rainforest canopy, dangling your toes over a sea of glistening green treetops, with views out to the ocean. It’s a place to take your time; with DJs, restaurants and a bar there’s plenty to keep parents happy, while kids can tear down the mountain in a bobsleigh styled around Cool Runnings, or splash in the infinity pool complete with waterslide.
4) Mix with Hollywood royalty in the pools at Island Gully Falls
A less touristy destination than the better-known Dunn's River waterfalls, Island Gully is stunningly unspoiled, more low key and perfect for celebs looking to escape the paparazzi. We met our guide, bought our water shoes and set up off the waterfall, climbing carefully (the mums) and without hesitation (the teens) to the top pool and the destination for our first blue pool plunge. As we stood around the pool, working out which of us were going to leap off a cliff, and which would prefer to plop gently into the fresh clear water below, Kendall Jenner came towards us around a rock, followed by Justin Bieber’s wife Hayley Baldwin.
A brush with Hollywood superstars
Dressed like us, in swimmers and a pair of water shoes, they almost went unnoticed – but as you can imagine the swiftly-taken selfies with Instagram megastars in the background became the talking point of the holiday for our teens! The falls and the leaps off rope swings and death drops came a good close second.
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5) Spot stars at Ms T’s Kitchen
If your teens are anything like ours, advancing in age doesn’t necessarily mean an increased willingness to try different foods – thankfully Ms T’s (an institution in Ocho Rios when it comes to Jamaican fare) has options for all taste buds. Grown-ups preferred local delicacies like jerk chicken, oxtail, goat curry, and fried plantain, while kids went for chicken and chips. A side order of international superstar (two in as many days!) in the form of Beanie Man only added to the excitement.
Rubbing shoulders with stars in Ms. T's Kitchen
6) Surfing at Moon Palace
We stayed at Ocho Rios’ Moon Palace resort – a huge and very luxurious all-inclusive destination with a plethora of restaurants, snack bars and meal options open 24-7. And – much to every teen’s incredible delight – free and unlimited room service. By day, the FlowRider double-wave simulator enables kids and adults alike to try their hand at surfing without having to hit blustery beaches and wait for a wave.
The FlowRider in full flow
The pools and beaches provide extra entertainment opportunities – sailing and paddle boarding are free and included in your stay so there’s no excuse for getting bored if mum and dad insist on some hardcore sunbathing days. There are teen zones – with computer games and air hockey tables, plus unlimited ice creams and slushies on tap. Ours found the teen zones a bit of a magnet for younger children and preferred to find their own entertainment which invariably ended up in returning to their rooms to order a late-night pizza (at least here endless appetites are freely catered for) and a bit of Nintendo before bed.
7) Horse riding in the sea
You don’t have to be an expert horse rider to tick off this bucket list experience – in fact it’s fine if you’ve never ridden before. The backdrop to Chukka Horseback is simply stunning and the experience starts with a hack through the old plantation allowing access to some of Jamaica’s beautiful countryside. Before you know it, your horse has carried you to a beautiful white sand bay with turquoise waters – you might recognise it from the Steve McQueen movie Papillon.
A bucket-list moment for teens and grownups
Moments later your trusty steed heads into the water and paddles you back to where you began. You lose your saddle and helmet, gain a rubber float and then all gallop back into the waves bareback on your ponies at quite startling speed! Guides look after the novice or nervous.
8) Jam with Bob Marley’s relatives in Kingston
Whether or not your kids know Bob Marley’s music before you head to Jamaica on holiday, there’s an undeniable cool quotient to his greatest hits. Getting to grips with the places that made the musician the man he was is an adventure sure to be boasted about back at school or college. His early housing project in Trench Town is very real – still a deprived part of town it’s an eye-opening visit in many ways but a fascinating insight into the man who was Marley. The museum in his former home (once he’d already become a success) complete with gunshot holes in the walls from a late-night assassination attempt is certainly the best for understanding his life story and allowing you to see the studio many of his most well-known hits were recorded in.
Getting to grips with Marley's history at Tuff Gong studios
The Tuff Gong studio tour is probably the coolest option – still a working studio, and having recently received visits from Beyonce and Jay Z, teen jaws will drop. Add to that the opportunity to test out Marley’s piano or beat out a rhythm on the drums, and you’re pretty much in territory of musical dreams. One warning though – this is an audience participation tour and while mum might have the time of her life belting out some classics, the teens might not find it quite so funny.
9) Ice creams at Devon House
An opportunity to see life on the other side of Kingston’s tracks – an affluent area with an American vibe – the Devon House I-Scream parlour has been voted one of the top places to eat ice cream in the world. And for good reason. A single scoop is absolutely enormous and the flavours (including the more unusual like guava and Devon stout) worth the journey.
10) A meal at Usain Bolt’s Tracks and Records
Us adults seemed to think it was more fun recreating Usain Bolt’s trademark finger-pointing move outside his original Tracks and Records restaurant - teens can be so self-conscious! But after a morning of Marley we’d learned that Usain’s much-loved celebration move is actual paying homage to the island’s musical hero. Tracks and Records is a fun night out – think TGI Fridays with an athletics and Caribbean slant. Endless sports screens, delicious junk food and rum punch on tap. Something for everyone.
11) Chase James Bond through the Green Grotto caves
A stunning natural underground labyrinth of limestone caves, Green Grotto were used as the backdrop to the 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die and it’s a lot of fun finding yourself on the edge of the pool unmistakably part of Kananga’s underground lair. But while the teenagers enjoyed the M15 angle (especially if you’ve watched the film in the lead up to the holiday) the history of these caves – used as hiding places for Jamaica’s indigenous people, and the Spanish at various times in its fascinating past – is just as interesting.
We travelled to Jamaica from Gatwick to Kingston via British Airways and stayed at the Moon Palace in Ocho Rios. For more information or to book a similar holiday, head to the Jamaican Tourist Board website.