By Sarah Banks Hartshorne
A few days into my vacation with my husband Ian in Port Antonio, Jamaica, I found myself thinking, “What a lovely time I’m having. Dying in this van would really put a damper on that.”
Our hotel was built in 1984 on top of a mountain and is a haven surrounded by bamboo forests, unrivaled vistas and a pool that seems to fade into the distant ocean.
Of course, being built on the top of a mountain means that the ride up their driveway is daunting to anyone not used to Jamaican roads. But our driver, Chubby, is, of course, used to Jamaican roads and tears up the hill without a second thought. I keep my second thoughts to myself.
The Best of Everything
My second thoughts evaporate once I look around. Port Antonio is the ideal town on an ideal island. It has the best of everything Jamaica has to offer: great restaurants with local cuisine, dozens of natural attractions nearby (think waterfalls, hidden coves, private islands, wandering rivers), friendly people and tons of fantastic hotels.
At the same time, its somewhat concealed location keeps it away from hordes of tourists. There are no lines, no Señor Frog’s – only honest-to-goodness tropical fun.
There is also a rich history and culture which all the locals are extremely proud of. Anyone will tell you about the rich German baroness who built a castle and a shopping center before being whisked away to jail for mysterious reasons. And Errol Flynn’s legendary romps mean that everyone is his distant cousin.
There’s so much to see and do in Port Antonio that the local tourist board recommends at least two weeks in the area — whereas for the more commercial areas they recommend one.
A Tragic Loss
Tragically, Jamaica Heights Resort suffered a great loss shortly before our arrival which makes their future uncertain – its founder and much-loved local celebrity Helmut Steiner passed away. His wife Charmaine and the staff were courteous and helpful during our stay despite their personal tragedy, for which we are extremely grateful. Our hearts go out to them during this difficult time.
If the hotel stays open I cannot recommend it strongly enough. The rooms are spare but elegant, the pool is lovely, and breakfast is available for a small fee every morning.
The chef is named Molly and she prepared us delicious and traditional Jamaican food – ackee and codfish (known locally as soulfish), kale and plantains, fried bread sticks called festival, delicious tropical fruits, with coffee and fresh orange juice.
There are places in town to get these kinds of local delicacies, but waking up and rolling down to breakfast in no shoes was a luxury well worth the price: $100 (per person) for eight full breakfasts.
[Editor’s note: Unfortunately, the Jamaica Heights Resort has been closed indefinitely.]
Should the hotel stop running, there are many other choices in town. We only drove by Jamaica Palace, but their view is splendid, and the building is beautiful and has a great old-world feeling to it. We also heard very good things about their restaurant.
For a more private vacation, Goblin Hill Villas are relatively inexpensive private villas that come equipped with a personal housekeeper who prepares guests specially catered meals. For more options, check out unique Jamaica hotels and interesting tours of the island.
Don’t Miss the Jerk Chicken
When dining away from the hotel, Port Antonio has generous options for lunch and dinner – ask any cab driver for a recommendation and he’ll take you somewhere. If you want something specific, like jerk chicken or seafood, be sure to mention it.
Leaving Jamaica without eating plenty of jerk chicken or pork is considered a national tragedy and it’s a great lunch. There are stations scattered around the downtown area that waft the most enticing aroma for miles.
The chef will grab you a hunk of chicken off the grill, chop it up with a machete and wrap it up in tin foil for you to take with you. It’s cheap, easy and convenient – we often took ours to a picnic table in Errol Flynn’s marina and looked out over the harbor as we ate. It brought whole new meaning to the phrase al fresco.
For dinner, Dickie’s is known as the best-kept secret in Port Antonio, although almost anyone you ask will recommend it. Reservations are required since Dickie is operating out of his own home and kitchen.
That said, the building, which appears from the driveway to be a simple one-story home, is actually three stories, scaling the cliff down to the ocean. This means we looked out onto the gorgeous double harbors of Port Antonio as we ate and listened to the waves lap the beach below us.
The seafood is, for the most part, indigenous to the region. Avoid the shellfish though — it’s not local like the fish, which is served whole with a spicy and tasty relish on top.
The meals are elaborate affairs with multiple courses, but the casual setting and friendly wait staff make it a relaxing and very Jamaican experience.
The town of Port Antonio has a population of about 10,000 people and is ideally located – nearby are Frenchman’s Cove, Monkey Island, Blue Lagoon (as shown in the 1980 film with Brooke Shields), Reach Falls and many other natural wonders.
It is a photographer’s dream. In fact, it is the most photographed region of Jamaica – featured in most travel brochures. But despite all that, there are relatively few tourists, since the cruise ships no longer dock there. The two natural ports are much smaller than those in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
This makes it a little harder to get to, but it is well worth the drive from Kingston or Montego Bay to get to the untouched beauty of the rivers and beaches in this seaside town.
When making a hotel reservation, make sure to ask them to send a driver to pick you up. We found it much easier to break up our travel time and spend a night in Montego Bay and get picked up the next morning since driving in Jamaica can be an adventure, to say the least.
A Terrible Idea
Renting a car in Jamaica is a terrible idea, even if you have experience driving on the left side of the road. The British couple in the room nearest ours got in a fender-bender their first day. If like me, even crossing the street is a challenge when the lanes are reversed, it’s an especially bad idea.
The roads are full of potholes the size of craters which turn into lakes when it rains. There are hairpin turns every few miles, very few road signs and almost no traffic lights. Almost every road is also under construction at some point, so lanes close with very little warning and traffic filters through without reducing speed.
But Jamaicans handle these extreme conditions graciously and effortlessly. None of our cab drivers had any trouble making it up the rocky, bumpy, steep and tiny road that led to our hotel, although my knuckles were white every time and Ian got out of every cab with nail marks in his arm.
Nor does anyone mind when another driver is forced into the wrong lane because of a pothole or construction equipment. They handle it all with a merry honk – which is never sounded out of annoyance, but always a warning or greeting instead.
Set the Price
It was never a problem getting a ride in or out of town — but be sure to set a price at the beginning of the journey. Although the drivers prefer American money, it is often cheaper to pay in Jamaican since they’re less likely to ask for as high a price. Either way, be sure to have plenty of both currencies on hand throughout your trip.
The price we ended up settling on for a ride to or from town was $400 Jamaican or $10 American for two people. For larger groups, there are vans available, but the price will be higher.
Downtown Port Antonio has a market on weekdays where vendors sell souvenirs, spices, a plethora of fruit and vegetables, and everyday household items. Haggling with the vendors is not only accepted, but it’s also expected, so be prepared to ignore their first offer and their grimacing as the price goes down. If they won’t go as low as you’d like, someone else certainly will.
Across from the market is a cramped music store that has a selection that belies its size. There is a lot of good local reggae for sale, and the owner burns CDs from the store copies, so they’re cheap. Also, Blue Mountain coffee is available everywhere, including the airports, but it’s cheapest to buy it at the market.
Ask a Woman
When asking for directions in Port Antonio (and all of Jamaica, for that matter) be sure to ask a woman. It may sound sexist, but any man you ask will almost certainly try to become your tour guide for the day and will expect compensation at the end of the tour.
This can be fun and helpful, but be careful and use common sense — there are a lot of scam artists. Don’t go anywhere with anyone you don’t feel comfortable with, and get used to saying no repeatedly.
For traveling out of town, Jamaican Union of Travellers’ Association is invaluable. They have branches in every Jamaican city and offer tours all over the island, and their drivers’ knowledge of the island is unrivaled.
A convivial man named Sherman is in charge of the Port Antonio Branch, and he trucked Ian and me all over Port Antonio. He organized our trips to the Blue Lagoon, the Rio Grande, Monkey Island, Frenchman’s Cove, Boston Bay, and Reach Falls. Whenever he personally couldn’t drive us, he arranged for someone else to.
Our first excursion was to Reach Falls, which turned out to be the best move, since it’s the farthest out of any of the local attractions, and we were able to see much of the area on the way.
The organization that works to protect Reach Falls and keep them as pure and unpolluted as they are today provides every visitor with a lifeguard/tour guide to show them around. These guides know every rock, crevice, and bird’s nest in the river and were extremely helpful to Ian and me, since I am a klutz, and would surely have sprained an ankle somewhere along the way without our guide’s help.
After the tour of the river (which has the clearest and bluest water I’ve ever seen) visitors are allowed to swim under the falls and in the beautiful swimming hole in front of them.
The Rio Grande
For more fresh water swimming, there’s the Rio Grande, which runs through Port Antonio to the ocean. There are several companies that provide rafting trips down the river to the delta, but the one associated with JUTA is the best deal. They offer an eight-mile trip down the river on a handmade bamboo raft with as many stops to swim as you’d like.
The Rio Grande is gorgeous and there are no motor boats or jet skis, so the water is clear and clean.
There are also “floating bars” which are rafts equipped with Red Stripe beer and soda. On most days lunch is available partway through the trip, but the rainy season makes it difficult to find a place on the beach to cook, so be sure to ask ahead of time for a meal.
Hitting the Beach
It would be wrong to go to Jamaica without hitting the beach, so for oceanside swimming, there are three main options: Frenchman’s Cove, Winifred Beach, and San San. Winifred is the public beach and is often more crowded than the other two, which charge admission and are privately run.
The entrance charge for the private beaches is minimal – about $3 American per person. All are beautiful, of course, but Frenchman’s Cove is an isolated inlet with a bar and restaurant on the beach and chairs available for rent. It’s also got a freshwater spring feeding into it, and the soft, white beach is flanked by stunning cliffs. It’s generally acknowledged to be the most beautiful beach on the island.
A boat ride away from Frenchman’s Cove is the Blue Lagoon and Monkey Island. Monkey Island is only fun for about half an hour — the water is too shallow and full of sea urchins to swim, and the beach doesn’t get any sun. But it’s worth a look from the boat, certainly.
It is possible to snorkel out of Monkey Island, but from what Ian and I heard from other visitors, the snorkeling isn’t that exciting, and it’s more fun just to paddle around in the ocean or, if possible, go scuba diving.
The boat rides start out of the Blue Lagoon, and we did a loop and ended up back there because we didn’t get to swim there beforehand. It’s possible to have the boatmen drop you off at Frenchman’s Cove, too, where Sherman is more than happy to pick you up when you’re ready.
More Beautiful in Person
The Blue Lagoon is more than 500 feet deep and has a mineral spring feeding into it. It was hit by a hurricane recently, so the restaurant is gone and some of the paths and sandy areas are damaged, but the natural beauty remains untouched. The top four inches are quite cold from the spring, but under that is warm salt water.
If you’ve seen the movie, let me tell you that it doesn’t do the area justice — it’s bluer, deeper and more beautiful in person.
Boston Bay is also great fun, and less than an hour away. It’s the birthplace of jerk chicken, a Jamaican staple, based on an ancient Taino method of smoking meat.
The plant that provides the flavor, Jamaican pimento, was originally grown and discovered there, so naturally, they have the best jerk chicken in the world.
There’s also a lovely beach, and several shops, although the main attraction is definitely the chicken. It’s definitely worth a stop, and it’s on the way to Reach Falls and the Rio Grande. We stopped on the way back from Reach Falls, and it was a fantastic end to a day of exploring and swimming.
The Rainy Season
A note on the rainy season in Jamaica: when people heard we were visiting a Caribbean island at the beginning of their rainy season they understandably thought we were bonkers. But for the first few weeks of summer, it rains furiously for only a few minutes in the morning and is quickly followed by clear and sunny skies for the rest of the day.
We had one rainy day during our whole trip, which was fine for walking around downtown since they have awnings over all the sidewalks.
The upside of going during the rainy season is that there are very few other tourists, the beaches are almost empty, and the hotels are wide open for last-minute reservations (not that I would ever do anything last minute).
The hotels are also cheaper, by the way, and the quality and service don’t suffer for it. Be sure to go at the beginning of the rainy part of the year though: in the middle of the summer, it can rain all day every day.
Everything is also at its greenest, so the view of the Blue Mountains is especially beautiful, and the flowers are all in bloom. I’ll take a few rainy moments if it means gorgeous flowers and private beaches.
All in all, this was not your typical all-day-at-the-beach Caribbean vacation, just as Jamaica is not your typical island, and Port Antonio is not your typical seaside town.
Jamaican Union of Travellers’ Association
Sarah Banks Hartshorne has always been an enthusiastic traveler — she and her dad have been “travel buddies” ever since she was three. She is currently working as a model in New York City, although she lives in Norwalk, Connecticut, and hopes to travel extensively in the near future. She was a contestant on America’s Next Top Model Cycle 9 and can be seen in the constant reruns on MTV and VH1. Her writing has appeared in the Core Journal of Boston University, Insanity’s Horse of Drew University and the Charlemont Review.