Discover Port Antonio
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Port Antonio
Excerpted from the book, Tour Jamaica, by Margaret Morris

"The most exquisite port on earth" was the way American poetess Ella Wheeler Wilcox described PORT ANTONIO. The town's twin harbours, jewel blue sea and verdant hillsides still ensnare the visitor. The story of this old port is the story of men who came, saw, and were conquered by its beauty. All of them, from Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker to movie star Errol Flynn and billionaire Garfield Weston sought to develop the town. All of them failed. Port Antonio, like Montego Bay, claims to be the cradle of the tourist trade, but unlike other resorts in the island, its tourism potential remains undeveloped and undamaged. And therein lies Port Antonio's charm, and the lure of the parish of Portland.

Banana King Baker's Titchfield was the first hotel built to cater to overseas guests and is described in an old guide book as a novel style of hotel, admirably suited to a hot climate (with) a group of cottages on top of the hill which are the sleeping rooms (and) entirely distinct from these . . . a capacious dining room with convenient kitchen. This design, which disregards Portland's frequent rain showers, is echoed in all Port Antonio's luxury hotels and in some of the elaborate villas such as Tiamo built for the late Princess Sadruddin Khan.

The town was originally settled by the Spaniards and gets its name from an early Spanish governor who named the twin harbours Puerto de Anton and Puerto de Francisco after his two sons. Today they are merely East and West harbours. After the British conquest in 1655 the government tried to develop the area by making land grants to English families. They laid out the town, built a fort on the peninsular and a navy station on Navy Island. The British army and navy protected the settlers against the French, the Spanish and the pirates but proved ineffectual against marauding bands of the Windward Maroons. Years of guerilla warfare between the British and these runaway slaves were ended in 1734 by a treaty that settled the Windward Maroons on their own lands.

The banana, introduced by the Spaniards from the Canary Islands, flourished in the hot, damp climate and rich alluvial soil of Portland and was grown alongside cane. In 1871, a Yankee skipper named Lorenzo Dow Baker sailed into Port Antonio and took on board a cargo of coconuts and 1,450 stems of bananas. The profit that he cleared in Boston was so big that he returned, bought land, planted bananas, and organized a shipping line to transport the fruit. His banana plantations soon ranged from Boston in the east through Boundbrook to Buff Bay in the west and his Boston Fruit Co. subsequently merged with other interests to create the United Fruit Co. which dominated the banana industry in Jamaica and Central America for years to come. This was Port Antonio's Golden Age. It was said that on Banana Day (which was any day a ship was loading) carousing planters would light their cigars with 5 dollar bills. This unheard of prosperity ended soon enough with the onset of the Panama disease which almost wiped out the banana industry. The delicious Gros Michel variety succumbed and was replaced by new disease-resistant hybrids like the Lacatan, but the banana business has never recaptured its former prosperity. Nor has Port Antonio.

The next swashbuckler to fall in love with the place was movie star Errol Flynn who sailed into the harbour one day on his yacht the Zacca. Flynn acquired a lot of real estate. Navy Island, the Titchfield Hotel, and several cattle and coconut estates including Boston (once owned by Captain Dow Baker). Flynn's plans to develop tourism to build a hotel at Folly and a ranch resort at Comfort Castle never materialized. While still in the throes of these plans he died suddenly. He had expressed a wish to be buried in Jamaica, but his widow decided otherwise.

During the 1960s Port Antonio became the mecca of the jet- set. Billionaire Garfield Weston (whose empire included Fortnum and Mason in London) built a sumptuous hotel, rumoured to be the most expensive in the world at FRENCHMAN'S COVE. It comprised a number of luxurious houses shrouded by discreet shrubbery and scattered over the headlands on both sides of the river, beach, and bay. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and rince Sadruddin Khan headed the celebrity clientele. Today, the hotel, owned by his Grainger Weston son, is losed and the villas are slowly falling apart but the beach is open to the public for a fee. Its sheltered bay, golden sand, warm ocean, crystal stream and luxuriant vegetation make it well worth a visit.

Places to stay are diverse and in most cases unique. Concurrent with the heyday of Frenchman's Cove, numerous wealthy foreigners bought land at Cold Harbour and SAN SAN and built themselves opulent homes. Shortly after, millionaire Michael Rosenberg (heir to the Thom McAnn shoe fortune) built the hotel of his dreams, DRAGON BAY at Fairy Hill. In 1981 this property was acquired by entrepreneur Dr. Steve Laufer, then sold to Arab interests. Currently, it is a member of the international chain Abela Hotels, and has just undergone extensive refurbishing. Bordered by tropical rainforest and set in lush gardens the central building and villas overlook a private cove with whitesand beach and streams. Watersports include a scuba school offering resort courses. Swimming pool, restaurant and bar are all at beach level. This highly photogenic setting provided locations for feature films like Cocktail, Club Paradise and Treasure Island. The environmentally inclined owners hope to preserve the almost pristine condition of the property, guests and dinner guests have access to the rain-forest, the cave and the tiny luminous lagoon east of the beach.

At SAN SAN, a group of Jamaican businessmen created GOBLIN HILL, a condominium apartment hotel overlooking San San beach and Princess Island. The hotel, leased at one time to Norwegian Caribbean Lines for an experiment in alternative tourism has had a chequered career but is now once more under the competent management of architect Marvin Goodman and his wife Rosalie. An unusual and delightful property comprising 28 self-catering apartments complete with household help, Goblin Hill is set in 12 acres of verdant garden, has a swimming pool and tennis courts. Very popular with Kingston businessmen and the diplomatic community it has a relaxed, house-party atmosphere.

SAN SAN BEACH is now run as a private beach and will be the focus of a Golf and Country Club now under construction by the San San Development Co. Guests at Goblin Hill and other hotels have access to this sheltered white sand beach. A beach hotel is on the drawing board. As we went to press the golf course was under construction and the driving range was already operational. Well known watersports entrepreneur Ernie Smatt is one of the developers. FERN HILL CLUB, comprising great house and villas on the summit of San San hill is small and swinging. Accommodation includes private hot tubs overlooking the ocean. It offers an all- inclusive package, but transients are welcome to the bar and restaurant. Owner Vincent Holgate is President of the Port Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Luxurious TRIDENT HOTEL on the seafront is owned and operated with aristocratic flair by architect Earl Levy, his wife Beverly and daughter Suzanne. The hotel was inundated by the sea during hurricane Allen in 1980 and almost completely destroyed. It was rebuilt and is once again catering to a devoted international clientele, many of whom come via a VIP helicopter service from Kingston. Adjacent to the hotel, the rococo TRIDENT CASTLE was commissioned by a former partner of Levy, a German Baroness whose habit of negotiating large chunks of real estate made her an overnight legend in the town. The castle was a building for years during the 1980s and sparked an acrimonious legal battle, since resolved. Now a luxurious adjunct of the hotel with six bedrooms, a music room, dining hall and appropriately elaborate decor it is used as a weekend retreat by the owners but can be rented - at predictably royal prices - for family reunions, weddings and receptions.

Across the water of a sheltered bay formerly known as Puerto Escondido, the Baroness (now married to a Florida banker and known as Mrs Sigi Fahmi) has finessed the Levy's by building THE JAMAICA PALACE hotel, a neo-Palladian confection of white columns and marble floors with a swimming pool in the shape of the island of Jamaica. Other palatial accents include two luxurious boutiques (one operated by Errol Flynn's widow Patrice Wymore), huge rooms, high ceilings, elliptical peacock beds and two white Cockatoos whose shrieks just might be a commentary on the proletarian behaviour of some of the guests.

Far above both the Castle and the Palace is MOCKINGBIRD HILL with a 360 degree view that includes Blue Mountain Peak, and in rainy weather, the birth of ephemeral waterfalls springing from the encircling mountains. This is a small elegant hotel, with bright 'green' owners: artist-in-residence Barbara Walker, and hotel manager Shireen Aga are committed to environment friendly eco-tourism and their philosophy is immediately apparent in the minimalist decor, balconies overlooking natural rainforest, a ridiculously friendly Doberman, and the innovative gourmet fare in the Mille Fleur terrace restaurant. To find it, head east, just past The Palace, turn L up the hill, passing L a mini Palace that is the home of the Fahmis, keep L, then straight and drive up as far as the road goes. Ad hoc bonuses at Mockingbird Hill include lessons in Jamaican Cooking by 'Princess Easy' and other intracultural events. Shireen can also help you arrange trips into the furthest reaches of the Blue Mountain/John Crow Mountains National Park. On sale here are recycled paper and notelets made from banana fibre by a women's group in Fairy Hill.

In town, BONNIE VIEW HOTEL overlooks the waterfront and twin harbours and may have the most spectacular view in the town with its 'backyard' swimming pool that gives the impression of being level with the layered ranges of the mountains. On clear days you can see Blue Mountain Peak from the bar terrace, and there is always the vista of the ocean, Navy Island and the teeming town below. Manager here is Sam Roberts, Chairman of the local chapter of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association. Bonus attractions include a tour of the 25 acre plantation and guided hiking trails and horseback rides.

NAVY ISLAND MARINA RESORT In the eighteenth century this 64 acre island was a base for the British Royal Navy. More recently it was bought by movie star Errol Flynn (author of an autobiography called My wicked wicked ways). The island (except for a tiny portion of public beach) was recently acquired by Jamaican billionaire Donald Panton. The resort, comprising 3 beaches (one clothes optional), marina, villas and clubhouse has been refurbished. An added embellishment is an open-air Seafarers chapel especially for weddings. The decor and staff uniforms in the restaurant and Bounty Bar are nautical, the food is reputedly good and the Errol Flynn connection is still featured. Reports that the island was slated to be Jamaica's first casino have so far proved false, or premature. Transportation is by ferry from the Navy Island base on West St. in town.

The houses on Titchfield peninsular, some quaint, some elegant, many built of wood and decorated with gingerbread fretwork and most of them in sad disrepair are relics of the town's heyday.

DE MONTEVIN LODGE on Titchfield Street is an ornate Victorian mansion built by a former Custos of Portland, Hon. David Gideon who helped to establish the United Fruit Co. in Jamaica. It is a clean and comfortable guest house with a homey atmosphere and has one of the best restaurants on the island. The tradition of culinary excellence began with a former owner, the late Mr. J. Mullings who stole the head cook from Frenchman's Cove by marrying her. Mrs. Fay Johnstone, the lady who now supervises the restaurant was trained by the late Mrs. Mullings.

TRIFFS INN in the town centre has clean, comfortable accommodation at reasonable prices.

SHADOWS, a new Night Club/Restaurant/Motel on West St. is reputed to serve good food, entertainment and action.


The town has several fine old buildings dating from the days of the banana boom. A group headed by architect Earl Levy has sought to preserve and refurbish some of these, notably the GEORGIAN COURT HOUSE and the MUSGRAVE MARKET. The imposing brick Anglican CHRIST CHURCH, dates from 1840 and contains a brass lectern donated by Captain Baker of the Boston Fruit Co.

The VICTORIAN RAILWAY STATION built in 1896 was recently leased by Mr. Vincent Holgate, owner of Fern Hill Club and awaits restoration.

Nearby BOUNDBROOK wharf was the United Fruit Company's main pie. All of the bananas grown on the island are still trucked to Port Antonio and exported from here but there are plans to ship from Montego Bay and Bowden in the near future.

The waterfront has two MARINAS. One belonging to the Jamaica Defence Force is adjacent to Boundbrook. The West St. marina is operated by the HENRY MORGAN ANGLERS ASSOCIATION and is the site of the annual PORT ANTONIO MARLIN TOURNAMENT, held in October. Thanks to the influence of PEPA (see below) undersize Marlins are returned to the water, and an angler can gain points by returning larger fish.

FORT GEORGE, on the headland which divides East and West harbours dates from the eighteenth century with emplacements for 22 cannons, a few of which still remain. The rest of the fort is now occupied by TITCHFIELD HIGH SCHOOL established in 1875 from a trust set up by Lord Titchfield.

Cows browse and urchins play among the ruins of the once famous Titchfield Hotel, burnt down many years ago.

Facing West Harbour is KEN WRIGHT CRUISE SHIP PIER named after a local politician, a founding member and stalwart of the PNP. Visiting cruise ships dock at the Boundbrook wharf pending its refurbishment.

THE CARIBBEAN QUEEN leaves from Ken Wright pier on its weekly tour to Santiago, Cuba. The crossing takes about 6 hours while you relax in reclining chairs or party the night away. The day is spent touring the old city and the next night at the Santiago de Cuba hotel, plus a visit to the Tropicana nightclub. All inclusive fare. The historic city of Santiago, Cuba has been twinned with Port Antontio.

FOLLY: The headland beyond East harbour was part of Folly Estate. The lighthouse here was established in 1888. The crumbling pseudo-Grecian palace on the high ground is known appropriately as Folly. It was built early in this century by a retired mining engineer named Mitchell who hailed from New York and married a member of the Tiffany family. The Mitchells lived in grand style with a large retinue of servants and many pets including peacocks and monkeys, the latter being allowed to roam free on the island offshore now known as Monkey Island. They owned the first automobile in Portland and even had a lighting plant. Mitchell died here and was buried in an elegant mausoleum at Folly, but his remains were later removed to New York by his widow. The mansion was left untenanted and subsequently began to crumble due to the fact that salt water had been used to mix the mortar. The columns have stood the test of time because they were molded in New York from Jamaican limestone and then glazed. Folly belongs to the government and is sadly neglected, frequently defaced with obscene graffiti and is the haunt of idlers and bag snatchers. Don't go here alone. The site is occasionally rented for music shows and was the location for a music video starring Eddie Murphy and Grammy winner Shabba Ranks, Jamaica's reigning Dancehall Deejay.

On a hill beyond Folly, is an overseer's house. It was built and occupied by Mitchell while the mansion was under construction and has outlasted the costly mansion. It is a modest, wooden home, sand-dashed and painted in the style of the early 1900s. It is now owned by Mr Ronald Williams, a hospitable authority on the parish of Portland. Mrs Williams is a clairvoyant and fortune teller.

BLUE HOLE is one of the island's most scenic attractions was recently the source of a running battle between government agencies and the persons owning the foreshore. The source of the controversy was the fact that Blue Hole is a famous beauty spot and rightly considered part of the island's natural heritage, so the public's right of access had to be guaranteed. Mrs Valerie Marzouca at last received permission to fence her property and charge an entrance fee to the landscaped garden that borders the lagoon which is encircled by forested hills and fed by freshwater springs. It is approximately 180 feet deep. One of the mineral springs feeding it is claimed to have rejuvenating powers similar to those of mannish water (a local soup said to increase male virility). The lagoonside garden has picnic areas, On the left of the access road is a new, upmarket restaurant.


are high in the hills overlooking Port Antonio and located on a 180 acre coconut plantation. (Turn R at Fairy Hill and travel approximately 5 rough but scenic miles to Athenry). At the entrance to the cave, you summon the guide by gong and then descend into the underworld which is lighted and traversed with concrete walkways and stairs. Fossils here demonstrate that the island was formed beneath the sea and thrust upwards by volcanic activity. The cave's nine chambers are adorned with stalactites and stalagmites (columns formed by the slow dripping of water rich in dissolved limestone). Above ground, the informal gardens are well worth a visit and there is a fine view.

RAFTING ON THE RIO GRANDE: Was initiated as a tourist attraction by Errol Flynn. Farmers in the Rio Grande valley used to carry their produce downstream on bamboo rafts. Flynn and his friends found this mode of transport entertaining and relaxing. It is said in the valley that Errol used to make the trip twice a day - and always with a different lady and landmarks along the river are still sometimes referred to as Flynn's Rest, Flynn's Hideaway etc. Rafting is now organized and operated by Rio Grande Attractions Ltd. and there are some 200 registered Raft Captains on the roster.

There are two embarkation points close together at GRANTS LEVEL and BERRIDALE. Licensed and insured drivers are available to take your car to the terminus downriver. From either, you glide miles downstream past spellbinding scenery - unfortunately sometimes marred by the blue plastic flotsam from upstream banana plantations. The ride takes from one to three hours (depending on the flow of the river and the energy level of your Captain). You can purchase drinks en route and stop to swim or picnic. The rafts are made from the bamboo growing on the riverside. Each accommodates two adults and a child under 10. The raftsmen, most of whom are farmers in their spare time are all experienced rivermen. Apprentices make, repair, and tow the rafts back upstream.

REACH FALLS: on the DRIVERS RIVER about 25 miles east of town are very popular and highly recommended. See Tour 18

SOMERSET FALLS and rainforest are also well worth a visit. See Tour 19

PEPA, The Portland Environmental Protection Association has united farmers, teachers, students and some businessmen in efforts to protect what is left of Portland's pristine environment and to rehabilitate its natural resources. PEPA's livewire creator and chairman is Marguerite Gauron, a journalist and resident of San San. Their latest project - creation of a Conservation Corridor from the mountain tops to the offshore reefs has been initiated with the help of The Nature Conservancy and a MacArthur Grant. The terrestrial park runs from the John Crow Mountains through the hills of Nonsuch and down to the wetlands of Turtle Crawle. The marine park stretches from Boston Bay to the west of the harbour.

PEPA assists community groups like those of NONSUCH and the RIO GRANDE valley to develop environment-friendly eco-tourism. For example, at Nonsuch, community leaders Dean Hendriks and Laidlaw Bishop can organize hiking tours including expeditions to a recently discovered waterfall that is still unnamed. Current projects promoted and co-ordinated by PEPA include TEAM courses (Teachers Environmental Awareness Movement) at the Passley Gardens Teachers College, Mangrove reforestation in Turtle Crawle, and oyster culture in the East Harbour.

SHOPPING: Port Antonio is one resort that is mercifully short on craft vendors. Souvenirs, postcards, craft, film etc. are obtainable in some hotels or in the town.

JOLLY JOSEPH, at Clear Spring between the castle and the palace, an art and craft bus, advertises items for the Rich and Famous and the Infamous including T-Shirts with prints by local Intuitive artists. Beside it there is a small hut displaying works of local artist R Stewart and a few others. Further east at Zion Hill Cafe, Andy J's Gallery Children's Art Foundation/ Painted T Shirts and unique items is worth investigating. A short distance further on, a roadside stall offers custom made wicker craft.

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