Nestled between brilliant sapphire waters and the lush, green mountains of Jamaica’s northeastern coast, Port Antonio is an under-the-radar gem dotted with sleepy fishing villages, swimming inlets, hidden waterfalls and tranquil beaches waiting to be explored. Join writer Francesca Spizzirri as she plunges into this pocket of paradise.
Far removed from the resort towns of Negril, Ochos Rios and "Mo Bay", where mega beachfront properties dominate the scene, Port Antonio is home to some of Jamaica's most astounding natural sights.
This is the real Jamaica: raw, secluded and unspoiled. Getting here is not for the faint of heart; Port Antonio is located 90 kilometres from Kingston Airport, but as your senses give way to tranquility, you will quickly discover that its seclusion is part of its charm.
Getting off Jamaica's beaten path
Driving on the left-hand side of an often bumpy road, we wind our way through steep, tropical rainforest dense with massive bamboo, almond and coconut trees. Their trunks reach skyward while long cascading vines sweep the ground. Our jovial driver, Willy of Paradise Travels in Jamaica, navigates past jaw-dropping slopes that descend into winding river valleys. Occasionally he points out a magnificent waterfall beneath a canopy of trees. The view is mesmerizing.
Further along the coast, we drive through town after town lined with low-slung shacks painted in an array of colourful hues. Their front rooms house fruit stands, clothing shops, beauty parlours and local bars. The store names are cheery slogans, beautifully hand-painted in a variety of typographies. These lively streets are filled with people going about their daily routines. Rasta men sit idly chatting, women in hair rollers sway past us with the day’s purchases in hand, and children wear finely-pressed school uniforms. They joyously wave hello before bashfully turning away and bursting into a chorus of giggles when I wave back. We even share the road with a stray goat or two.
Driving through this pocket of Jamaica, I get the sense that little has changed in a very long time. The setting is nostalgic; the charm of its yester-years hypnotically alluring.
Old Hollywood glamour
Hailed as the island’s first tourist destination, Port Antonio was the playground for the Hollywood jetset of the 1950s.
It was legendary party-boy and screen idol Errol Flynn who discovered it by happenstance, when a storm forced him to dock his yacht. It was love at first sight. He described it as, "More beautiful than any woman I have ever known." Given Errol's skirt-chasing ways, this was quite the compliment.
Port Antonio's star power was not limited to Flynn. Stars like Grace Kelly, Dean Martin, Sophia Loren, Ian Fleming, and Elizabeth Taylor - who would fly by private helicopter to Frenchman’s Cove to party on the beach with Richard Burton - all frequented this coast.
The Hollywood stars may be long gone - and with them their Old Hollywood glamour - but "The Peaceful Parish" continues to seduce the jetset with its staggering beauty.
Natural attractions like the Blue Lagoon, Somerset Falls and Frenchman's Cove Beach (listed as one of the world’s best beaches) continue to draw globetrotters with discerning taste. And at the legendary Geejam (an intimate seven-villa boutique hideaway for artist types), a new kind of celebrity arrives by private plane. Musical icons the likes of Katy Perry, Drake, Rihanna, Jon Legend and Beyoncé have all recorded tracks at the property’s on-site recording studio.
sweet dreams at Hotel Mockingbird Hill
After listening to tales of Port Antonio’s storied past, we make our way up a narrow dirt road to Hotel Mockingbird Hill, a rainforest-shrouded 10-room eco-resort perched on a hill overlooking the sea.
From the moment I step onto the property, I know this is a place I can savour peace and serenity. We are kindly greeted with a cold towel and fresh cocktail before being ushered off to our rooms.
The first thing I noticed is the magical view from my terrace that extends over a thick blanket of rainforest.
Rooms at the property are not outfitted with televisions or phones, and in my case, no Wi-Fi. Rather than fuss over whether I can catch a movie or post to Instagram, I decide to digital detox. It’s an opportunity to connect to something greater. The ocean view is all the visual stimulation I need, so instead, I sit on my wooden deck and soak in every ounce of the moment, knowing that back home winter had arrived.
My room also lacks air conditioning (none of the property has it) which is understandable considering this is an eco-resort. Besides, my room is surrounded by open shutters that let in misty ocean breezes.
Mille Fleurs Restaurant
That evening we eat alfresco at the hotel's Mille Fleurs Restaurant, renowned for its farm-to-table Caribbean fusion cuisine. I dine on tomato tartlets with basil mayonnaise, and crayfish poached in sherry butter in wilted wild hook with garlic bammy. For dessert, I devour a plate of spiced pineapples with homemade ice cream. Heavenly.
At this point, dusk has cloaked Jamaica. The air is thick with the fragrance of night jasmine. The sky lights up with stars and fireflies dance in the dark. The last time I witnessed such magic I was a little girl visiting my grandmother in southern Italy.
As I lay in bed beneath a white mesh canopy, my thoughts run back to childhood memories. But soon enough, a melody of frogs and crickets lull me into a deep sleep.
When morning arrives, the sun peeks through shuttered windows, as if to greet me. I throw them open and brew myself a fresh pot of Blue Mountain Coffee. With it, I drink in the glorious view, all the while wondering how I've managed to get so lucky.
Breakfast is a delicious feast of homemade Jamaican foods: ackee and salt fish, fried dumplings and a bounty of fresh fruit, which I savour until Willy arrives to take us on our first official excursion.
Into the wild
We set out on our rafting adventure along the banks of the Rio Grande, a river that carves its way through the lush mountains like a blue ribbon flowing in the wind.
I arrive with no expectations. In my experience, island excursions can quickly turn into gimmicky tourist traps. Thankfully, this isn't one of them. Though I must admit, floating downstream with no tourists in sight adds to its blissful charm.
My “captain” informs me that this river once transported bananas until Errol Flynn turned rafting it into a popular pastime in the 1950s. Flynn was renowned for spending the day lazily gliding downstream with a small flotilla of bamboo rafts in tow. He'd entertain friends (usually the female variety), with one raft carrying him and his companions, and the others transporting food, a bar and musicians.
When passing through Lover's Lane, named by Flynn, we are informed that passengers are supposed to kiss and make a wish. I don’t kiss but I do make a wish - one that I really hope comes true!
Lunch is a delicious array of jerk that we enjoy beneath a cluster of corrugated tin roofs on a secluded dirt road.
Portie - Boston Bay, to be precise - is the birthplace of jerk cuisine, and here you will enjoy some of the island’s finest. Meats are seasoned and slow-cooked on open pits, fueled by pimento wood, and covered with corrugated zinc until they are smoked to perfection.
After filling up on jerk we continue on to Frenchman’s Cove, where I sip an ice-cold Red Stripe from a swing that hangs from a tree. My feet dangle above a powder white sand beach, as I watch the waves lap upon the shore. The sound of reggae in the distance gives way to that feeling that everything is irie, mon. This is the quintessence of island-living. And when I later plunge into the deep jade and sapphire waters, I realize this experience is as authentic as it gets. The view is so incredibly picture-perfect that I want to write #nofilter on every Instagram picture that I snap.
Photo by Jakob Owens
How do you end such a magical day? With a special dinner at the legendary Trident Castle, a whimsical eight-bedroom estate that rises above the Caribbean Sea. Sitting on 7-acres, the property is complete with its own chapel. Originally built for Baroness Elizabeth Siglindy Stephan von Thyssen, the estate can now be rented for private vacations and functions.
Why so blue?
The next day we head to the Blue Lagoon. It beguiles with its clear green and turquoise waters, thanks to its 198-foot-deep body of fresh and salt water. Local vendors line the pathway and are quick to inform me that the Blue Lagoon served as one of the film locations for the 80s hit by the same name.
Port Antonio is located at the foot of the UNESCO designated Blue Mountains (the rolling mist really does give them a blue hue). At 7,402 feet, they are the island’s highest elevation, famed for producing some of the world’s best coffee beans.
We drive up the winding hills while singing along to Bob Marley until we arrive at the Old Tavern Coffee Estate. It’s run by an Englishman with the bluest eyes I have ever seen. His lovely wife offers us a fresh cup of coffee to savour along with a fresh-baked slice of homemade banana bread. The property is also their home, its walls filled with family photographs that span generations. The sitting room has wall-to-wall windows that look out onto a blanket of white clouds sliced only by soaring peaks. Occasionally they roll away to reveal the most majestic view.
But sipping coffee at a local plantation isn't the only way visitors might pass an afternoon in these parts. Outdoor lovers can hike over the Blue Mountains or embark on a biking expedition, cooling off at spring-fed rivers and hidden waterfalls along the way. Of course, one favourite way is to simply drive through the mountains like we did, stopping at the odd local hut to sip a cold beverage and take in the sights.
We make our way to Solider Camp before sunset to take in the postcard-perfect views. Kingston's twinkling lights in the distance make for a magical setting and provide a memorable way to end an unforgettable stay.
Have you gotten off the
beaten path in Port Antonio?
Let us know - comment below!
More Jamaica on Canadian Traveller: