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RANGE Guide To Montego Bay

72 hours in Jamaica for the annual Sumfest reggae festival.

by Adriel Smiley

Greeted by an active Sangster Airport, bags are pulled in all directions. It is Sumfest weekend in Jamaica and the sun is persistent once you get outside, the sky resembling a sanguine painting. 

Shortly after a quick loop around the large “Montego Bay” sign, we arrived at Sandals’ front gate. The Sandals resort in Montego Bay is a couples resort, freshly renovated and very popular for honeymoons and weddings. We were swiftly ushered into the lounge and offered drinks before being formally checked in. Notably, a mainstay of the weekend would be Jamaica’s signature rum punch.

The resort is one long street, which just happens to be alongside a picturesque beach. En route to the room, there are restaurants spilled out across the shore. The one with the loudest music serves jerk chicken and hard dough bread. Beside the restaurant is a pool where the snap rap classics of the mid-2000s take over. 

Many of the buildings take after the style of typical homes in the Caribbean. The interior epitomizes luxury with some added sex appeal. The doorless shower, the bathtub on the balcony, and the peek-a-boo window allow you to see the bathroom from the bedroom. 

One of the country’s most impressive culinary experiences is The Sugar Mill. The Jamaican diaspora has done a phenomenal job at popularizing many of the dishes that are native to the island of Jamaica; oxtail, rice and peas, snapper, ackee, and saltfish — the list goes on and on. 

Dishes like the Oxtail Ravioli and the Breadfruit Gnocchi add a unique flavour to popular North American staples. The Sugar Mill takes those classics and reimagines them in a way that is refreshingly progressive. The mix is imperativefavourites like jerk chicken and fried plantain are non-negotiable for Jamaicans. Finding a new way to use flavours we are familiar with is no easy task, but The Sugar Mill fearlessly takes on that challenge. 

Jamaican dancehall star Shensee performs at Sumfest 2022.

On the Sumfest festival grounds, reggae and dancehall fans were treated to sets by artists like Shenseea, Spice, and TeeJay. Meanwhile the  Pier 1 Car Park became the home of the infamous 2022 Reggae Sumfest Global Sound Clash. In a sound clash, “sound systems” composed of MCs, DJs, and engineers go head to head in a competition with the victor ultimately decided by the audience. Clashing is a staple in Jamaica dating back to the 1950s. The crowd was very vocal, blowing their horns in support of their favourite MCs, including winners Bass Odyssey, while making their distaste of the lesser performers known to the others. 

A scenic drive through Jamaica takes you to Sandy Bay and Chukka Adventures, a nature park about an hour down the road from Montego Bay. The park’s excursions are connected with the resorts, providing tourists with access to horse riding, zip lining, ATV riding and more. The expansive waiting area includes a pool, a bar and a few Instagram-worthy swings. 

Ziplining for the first time felt comfortable with the staff from Chukka. Mixed groups felt like friends and fear was subdued by excitement. Horseback riding was also a first. After brief instructions and a quick tutorial, the colt convoy began. Intermittent rain dampened the ground, but did not dampen the mood. With socks soaked and hairdos done for, spirits remained high. 

The weather created a cloud of cautiousness heading into the night festivities. Most of Sumfest is standing room only and the muddiness made that even less desirable. The turnout remained impressive, highlighted by early morning performances from acts like Masicka and Alkaline. 

Similar to someone walking the stairs at a baseball game, vendors circle the grounds selling everything from gum and cashews to weed and cigarettes. The vendors are relentless and add to the unique ambience of the festival. In addition, you can cop a lawn chair to give your feet a break for $3000 Jamaican (roughly $26 Canadian) depending on your negotiating skills.

The second night brought in an older crowd than night one. Living legends like Beres Hammond and Beenie Man headlined a star-studded lineup, and the goal was to make it all through the night with enough energy to enjoy the morning. The early part of the night was fuelled by the energy of the performers. After a long wait in line for coffee, the sun came up around 5 a.m., giving me a second wind I didn’t know I had. 

Around 7 a.m., our perseverance was rewarded with a tribute to Dave Kelly and Madhouse records. Legendary acts like Bounty Killa, Beenie Man, Spragga Benz & Wayne Wonder shared the stage, performing a medley of songs more than a decade old. Despite being the high point of the night, this tribute was not the finale. With the clock approaching 9 a.m. and the sun rising to its peak, Sizzla took to the stage. The crowd began to dissipate at this time, myself included. 

Aristo Kat Tours, luxury yacht and catamaran private rentals in Montego Bay.

Reggae Sumfest is one of a kind. The focus on artists from Jamaica coupled with the unique experience of performances going all night into the morning is truly memorable. Still, it would not be right to spend 72 hours in Jamaica and not spend some time on a boat. I headed to Aristo Kat Tours, which started in 2019 and has grown gradually into one of the go-to spots for yachts and Catamaran rentals. 

I spent time on the informally named Majestic Cat, blessed with Jamaican style finger food, and of course, rum punch. Getting to enjoy the ambience of the country and see its coast at the same time was the perfect bookend to the trip. The water was tranquil and the view of Montego Bay was unlike any I had seen.