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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
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.
PLACES OF INTEREST
The VICTORIAN RAILWAY STATION built in 1896
was recently leased by Mr. Vincent Holgate, owner of Fern Hill Club and
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
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
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.
ATTRACTIONS AND TOURS
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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