Returning from a three-year Covid hiatus, the seventh annual Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise set sail from Miami to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, with a star-studded lineup of reggae performers like Stephen Marley, Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest and Bounty Killer. And whether or not you think cruises are your jam, the Jamrock Reggae Cruise delivers on a fantastic voyage to the West Indies with the most spiritual rhythms on the Caribbean Sea.
Hip-hop’s Rock the Bells Festival announced its own cruise to the Bahamas as I prepared to cast sail for Jamaica, proving the increasing popularity of cruises targeted to African-American travelers. The Soul Train Cruise—targeting a slightly older audience, with acts like Stephanie Mills and the Temptations—already set its itinerary to St. Maarten for next year. Black folks love a good cruise. But Jamrock immediately felt like something special.
Boarding the massive Freedom of the Seas (once the world’s biggest cruise ship) from sunny Miami on a Wednesday, everyone was all smiles, full of good vibrations and festive energy. As a first-time newbie, the enormity of the ship felt a little overwhelming. But within a few hours of exploring its 14 decks, you quickly realize that a cruise ship can be anything passengers want it to be: mall, food court, spa, sun deck, pool, bar, gym, casino, movie theater, miniature golf course. And Jamrock in particular comes with its own spirit of camaraderie, as a beautiful Black community of reggae lovers speak to strangers on the elevators, boasting about how many Jamrocks they’ve attended in the past.
All-white night on the open sea featured warm-up acts like Christopher Ellis, son of rocksteady legend Alton Ellis, who performed his father’s classic “I’m Still in Love” before headliner Damian Marley took to the main stage. The youngest son of reggae icon Bob Marley, “Jr. Gong”—dressed in cream, his long locs sweeping the ground—rocked hits like “Welcome to Jamrock” as his hype man waved the Ethiopian flag from side to side. (Marley founded the Jamrock Reggae Cruise in 2014.) Even at one in the morning, many in the crowd made their way to a post-concert screening of Dancehall Queen and munchies from Windjammer Café.
By Friday morning, passengers disembarked in paradisiacal Montego Bay after a night of hypnotic riddims from 77-year-old roots reggae legend Burning Spear. A $7 jitney shuttles sleepy tourists to Doctor’s Cave Beach and beyond, for those who don’t opt for pricey excursions like seaside horseback riding or the locally famous Dunn’s River Falls. Nothing beats laying on a white sand beach at the onset of winter, washing down a delicious ackee wrap or pulled jackfruit burger with a Red Stripe. With legal marijuana dispensaries like Epican Jamaica selling pre-rolls within walking distance, even a light sunshower can’t kill the vibes.
New day, new beach: we arrive in Ocho Rios barely 24 hours later, at a dock a short stroll away from Ocho Rios Bay Beach. Contrary to what I thought before setting sail, no one really stays on the boat—everyone’s anxious to discover Jamaican culture for themselves. After another lazy midday on the family friendly beach, my partner and I walk three minutes into town to Miss T’s Kitchen for what’s advertised as “nice Jamaican country cookin’.” The escovitch fish, jerk shrimp salad and saltfish go down great alongside some scotch bonnet pepper and ginger beer.
Stephen Marley closes out the cruise on Sunday night, the audience singing along to “No Cigarette Smoking (In My Room),” many already dressed in the Jamrock T-shirts and hoodies sold on the promenade deck. (Tragically, Stephen Marley’s eldest son, Joseph Marley, passed away weeks later in Miami due to asthma-related conditions.) Damian joined his younger brother for an all-star finale.
If Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise is any indication, theme cruises seem well worth the hype. Choose your destination—whether Jamaica, Bermuda, the Bahamas or elsewhere—and set sail to live it up.