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As I stood on a grassy hill behind my room at the Goblin Hill Villas at San San on the northeastern coast of Jamaica, I spied a tranquil bay rimmed by a lovely white-sand beach, and I couldn’t resist getting closer. It’s a 15-minute trek from the hillside resort along a steep winding path and a section of busy road to get to the beach below, but it was worth it. There wasn’t another tourist in sight as I waded out into the clear water.
In the 1940s, this area surrounding Port Antonio was Jamaica’s most popular tourist destination, frequented by the likes of actor Errol Flynn, writer Rudyard Kipling, publisher William Randolph Hearst and actress Bette Davis — but visitors wouldn’t know it to see it now. By the 1970s, tourism had moved to other regions of the island along with the once booming banana trade. Today, Port Antonio and the surrounding Portland parish have a sense of seclusion and a special kind of faded glamor.
Far from the big all-inclusive resorts in Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios, tranquil Port Antonio is experiencing a gentle resurgence. Some of the world’s top musicians come to this part of Jamaica to compose and record music, and Hollywood A-listers dodge the crowds and limelight with quiet getaways in this region. Here are some of the top spots to recommend to clients who are interested in seeking out authentic experiences in the birthplace of Jamaican tourism.
Port AntonioAt the heart of the region is the busy town of Port Antonio, which is centered on a town square with a clock tower, an architectural reminder that Jamaica was a British colony until 1962. Though the clock no longer works, the town square area remains a meeting place in an otherwise bustling city. Around the crumbling Georgian Courthouse is a chaotic market and a number of handsome old buildings. The city is the place to go if you want to experience a local Jamaican rum bar or enjoy a local restaurant meal.
Rafting the Rio Grande RiverA rafting tour down the winding Rio Grande is the most popular outing in this region. It’s said that rafting trips here became popular when Errol Flynn began bringing his Hollywood friends to the river for midnight excursions.
Guests board handcrafted bamboo rafts — similar to those once used to transport bananas down the river — to the busy port, and experienced guides maneuver the rafts along the water past a serene jungle landscape filled with a variety of birds. Swimming in the river is the best part of the experience.
Blue LagoonThe Blue Lagoon is Jamaica’s largest spring-fed lagoon and one of the deepest. It’s incredible depth of nearly 180 feet gives the pool its rich turquoise color. The local site became a popular destination in 1980, when the movie “Blue Lagoon” starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins made its debut.
Geejam BushbarIf your clients are staying in the Port Antonio area, a night out at the Geejam Bushbar is a must — especially if the Jolly Boys are in town. The Jolly Boys are a Jamaican mento, or folk music, group from Port Antonio that was formed in 1945 and is the Geejam house band. Their music was a precursor to modern reggae and is still incredibly popular today. The Jolly Boys’ 2010 album “Great Expectation” resulted in an international tour where they played before huge audiences of thousands of people.
At the Geejam Bushbar, diners enjoy a private concert every night the men are in town.
Moore Town MaroonsThe Jamaican maroons were escaped slaves who established free communities in the mountainous interior of Jamaica during the days of slavery. The Jamaican tradition of jerk cooking has its roots in maroon villages, where wild boar and other meats were cooked slowly underground to avoid creating smoke that enemies might detect.
Not far from Port Antonio, Moore Town is a maroon village and the burial site of one of the residents’ greatest leaders and a national hero of Jamaica, Granny Nanny. Visitors to Moore Town can see the monument to Granny Nanny, meet the colonel of the community and hike to a set of nearby waterfalls. If guests visit during the annual Nanny Day celebration each October, they’ll enjoy music, dancing and other entertainment.
Goblin Hill Villas at San Sanwww.goblinhill.com