Isolated but Authentic

Sleepy Port Antonio captures old-time Jamaica

By: David Swanson

PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica On my last visit here with my father in tow, Shireen Aga, co-owner of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, recommended a visit to Dickie’s Sweet Banana Stop. “It’s very authentic,” she promised. “It will give you a sense of the old-time Jamaica.”

Located a mile west of the town, Dickie’s is a roadside fruit shack run by a gentle former-chef-turned-Rastafarian. Sensing we were up for more than snacks to go, Dickie and his wife, Joy, invited us in to their three-table restaurant behind the fruit stand. We dined on a plate of deliciously fresh fruit against their resplendent backdrop of lapping waves and rustling palm fronds. An empty beach beckoned below our table.

Dickie also prepares candlelight dinners by reservation recommended on full moon nights but since there’s no phone, the only way to arrange it is to stop by in person.

Dickie’s Sweet Banana Stop perfectly represents the Jamaica experience before the advent of cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts. The fruit stand is also typical of the peaceful, unpretentious ambience found in the parish of Portland, Jamaica’s northeast coast.

Port Antonio is Portland’s main town, and it offers “old” Jamaica in another sense: This was one of the first places in Jamaica to court tourists, back in the 1950s. Errol Flynn had a home here, and other visitors included Bette Davis and Clara Bow.

But isolation was Port Antonio’s downfall: The town is a 2½-hour drive from the Kingston airport. So, as Ocho Rios and Negril flourished with tourist development in the 1960s and 1970s, Port Antonio went into decline.

The isolation also proved to be the town’s saving grace: Today it has a sleepy, ramshackle aura, but with charming, older wooden architecture and an authenticity that is often difficult to find in the Caribbean. The largest of the hotels, the Jamaica Palace, has just 80 rooms, and since accommodations are located outside town, you can dine at a Port Antonio restaurant and be the only non-Jamaican enjoying a plate of red snapper.

Port Antonio never fell off the map its appeal was shared by insiders. Today’s celebrity visitors include Denzel Washington, Cheryl Tiegs and Tom Cruise (who filmed “Cocktail” here), and other developments are under way to rebuild tourism.

“Our main challenge is that most people haven’t heard of Port Antonio,” said Aga, who lobbied for 2½ years to obtain funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development for promotion of sustainable tourism. In 1999, the Caribbean Hotel Association selected Aga’s hotel (with partner Barbara Walker), Mocking Bird Hill, as Green Hotel of the Year for their successful efforts in recycling programs and energy efficiency, and the hotel was one of the first four in the world to be certified by Green Globe. Port Antonio is already established as Jamaica’s “green” destination, and the goal is to broaden awareness of the town’s commitment to environmentally friendly practices.

Others are committing to Port Antonio’s future. Jamaica’s Port Authorities invested over $14 million for the new Port Antonio Marina, equipped for 250-foot mega yachts and featuring a promenade and chandlery. The Port Authority is also developing Navy Island, Flynn’s former estate, for a luxury hotel. And Washington, D.C.-based Solimar, which focuses on responsible tourism to Costa Rica, will be launching a Web site in September:

Financier and businessman Michael Lee Chin a Port Antonio native who is now Canada’s second wealthiest citizen told Jamaica’s Gleaner that he’s interested in purchasing the Trident Hotel, Portland’s most upscale resort.

“He got his break and now he feels indebted for an education that Jamaica’s prime minister funded,” Aga said. “He’s quite vocal about his commitment to invest in Port Antonio.”


The parish of Portland has a roster of unique attractions:

Bamboo rafts on the Rio Grande River were originally used to transport bananas from field to port. Errol Flynn used them to seduce island girls, and saw their potential as a tourist attraction. The rafts are outfitted with a seat large enough for a snuggling couple, and a boatman poles down the quiet river. The 1½- to 2-hour trip is priced at $62. Aga recommends breaking the journey with a country lunch from Miss Betty, who serves informal meals along the river. Boston Bay is where Jamaica’s famed jerk cooking methods probably originated. Preserved pork, chicken or fish are seasoned with a spicy marinade, then wrapped in pimento leaves before being grilled over a fire of pimento wood. A half-dozen vendors sell jerk cooking daily; the Portland Jerk Festival is held in July.

The Blue Mountains represent the Caribbean’s second-highest mountain range, and provides Port Antonio’s backdrop. The higher slopes are home to Jamaica’s famous coffee, grown on private estates like Twymann. Tours and tastings are conducted at several of these plantations. Long Bay is a pair of mile-long crescents of sand located about 10 miles east of Port Antonio. They make one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, but their isolation means they are surprisingly undiscovered.

The maroons are among Jamaica’s indigenous cultures, mostly closed to outsiders. The community in Charlestown provides tours of their village and small museum, followed by a traditional menu of crayfish soup and fish in coconut sauce.

Firefly was Noel Coward’s white stucco hilltop house, located in Port Maria. The panoramas are spectacular and Coward entertained both British royalty and Hollywood’s, ranging from Queen Elizabeth to Elizabeth Taylor. Now managed by the National Trust, it’s open for tours daily.


Hotel Mocking Bird Hill

The Jamaica Palace Hotel
876-993-7720 or 7721

Fern Hill Club Hotel and Villa Resort
876-993-7531 or 876-993-7375

Note: A new Web site with information on Port Antonio is scheduled to be launched in September: