The pleasures of Port Antonio, Jamaica

Jennifer Marshall follows in hollywood star Errol Flynn’s footsteps to Jamaica’s northeast coast

A “floating bar” peddling local favourite, Red Stripe, along the Rio Grande. Photograph by Jennifer MarshallFrenchman’s Cove. Photograph by Jennifer MarshallHeliconias, locally known as a Lobster Claw or Parrot Beak Plant, are common in Port Antonio’s gardens. Photograph by Jennifer MarshallMiss Betsy’s welcome pitstop serving Jamaican fare on the Rio Grande. Photograph by Jennifer MarshallSomerset Falls. Photograph by Jennifer Marshall

Any Jamaican will tell you that the natural beauty of Portland’s lush green landscape is unrivalled. Nestled on the northeast coast of Jamaica, two and a half hours from Kingston and an hour and a half east of Ocho Rios, Portland is an ecological sanctuary sustained by exuberant rainfall and sunshine.

Its rivers and waterfalls snake through the countryside and the sheer abundance of vegetation is awe-inspiring. The face of every mountain is covered in layer upon layer of tree ferns, creepers, wild orchids, and palm trees. A huge variety of fresh produce is farmed in the area – from bananas, pawpaws, and pineapples to cocoa and spices. Nothing is wasted, and the fresh ingredients, whether from the local farmer’s market or a roadside stall, support the local economy, and ensure that the area’s cuisine is second to none in freshness and taste.

The Portland parish, or “Porty”, as it is affectionately called by locals, also boasts an endless itinerary of activities for the nature lover, such as hiking or bird- and butterfly-watching. Wildlife abounds in the dense vegetation surrounding the many accommodation options, from luxurious villa rentals to modest guesthouses.

Renowned as a destination for the traveller rather than the tourist, Port Antonio, the capital of Portland, is a small, unassuming community, despite its bounty of sparkling waterfalls, secret coves, pristine beaches, and panoramic mountain views. It attracts the eco-minded traveller infected with wanderlust. Port Antonio comprises pristine bays scattered along the coastline, a handful of islands dotted off the coast, and traditional Jamaican houses built in and around the base of the mountains. It has retained the charm of a rural town and seems to have escaped the relentless commercialisation that has spread through other parts of Jamaica. Here, you can still feel like one of the fortunate few to experience “old” Jamaica, says our tour guide and local historian, Aston Williams.

The town’s magnificent twin harbours are situated in one of the most beautiful marinas in the Caribbean and separated by 64-acre Navy Island, a relic of the British Navy and once owned by Hollywood star Errol Flynn. Once a sleepy coastal town, Port Antonio became the source of a thriving banana trade in the 1870s. Its first tourists arrived from North America in the 1890s on banana boats, and Port Antonio became an increasingly popular destination for wealthy Americans. Flynn’s yacht Zacca ran aground in 1946. He bought a number of properties in the parish including the Titchfield Hotel and a 3,000-acre cattle and coconut estate, which his widow, Patrice, still manages. Thanks to its secluded location and Hollywood’s filming of what it has considered the archetypal paradise for the silver screen, countless movie stars, musicians, and politicians have frequented Port Antonio ever since, relaxing in the midst of its laid-back culture and seeking respite from the public eye.

Recognising the allure of Port Antonio’s arterial river, the Rio Grande, Flynn pioneered river rafting in the area, using bamboo rafts, originally built to transport bananas, to romance his leading ladies along the river. The same natural beauty that bewitched the notorious Hollywood playboy continues to captivate visitors. Captains push the rafts lazily down the river, wedging bamboo poles into the riverbed and resting now and then to drift with the gentle current.

Details of a rich botanical tapestry emerge from the dense forest and the trees stir with nesting birds – Portland provides a safe haven to the island’s 28 endemic species and hundreds of others. Banana plantations teeter on the brink of hillsides interspersed with the brown scars of mudslides, and resilient shoots break through the soil, anchoring life once again by the bank of the river.

Miss Betsy’s makeshift kitchen of bamboo and woven palm fronds is perched atop a bank of river stones. Her pots simmer with dumplings, chicken, and steamed pak choy, tempting travellers along the two-hour route. Sourcing all ingredients locally, she, along with a multitude of street vendors, farmers, and property owners, uses sustainable crops to ensure the protection of Portland’s local harvests. There is an understanding within the community that the natural beauty of Portland and its yields must be preserved, along with the promotion of local arts and crafts, to promote the area’s distinct ecological charm.

The mountains surrounding Port Antonio offer challenging hikes off the main coastal road and are home to a number of breathtaking waterfalls. The majestic Reach Falls is one of the most dramatic in scale. For those in search of a less strenuous but equally charming excursion, Somerset Falls can be reached easily by boat, with the option to view the falls from a distance or take a boat through to the other side.

Likkle Porti lies further downstream, a modest riverside establishment that pays homage to Jamaica’s home-grown cuisine. A five-pound snapper caught fresh that morning is fried and served whole for lunch with rolled festival (a slightly sweet cornmeal-and-flour mix with the consistency of a doughnut), hot peppers, fried plantain, and bammy, a starchy accompaniment mixed from cassava and cornmeal. Top-notch restaurant fare can be found in many eateries across the parish, from internationally acclaimed chef Norma Shirley’s Norma’s at the Marina to a local institution, Dickey’s Best Kept Secret, which defies description and is rightly considered a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Fifteen minutes east of the town centre, Boston Beach is the birthplace of jerk in Jamaica, and its annual Boston Jerk Festival attracts thousands of jerk enthusiasts from all over the island. The story goes that it was the Maroons who spread the style and spice of jerk, having developed its covered cooking techniques whilst lying low in the Blue Mountains from the British. Jamaican jerk spices, marinades, seasonings, and rubs are now staples of international cuisine, with brands such as Walkerswood and Eatons becoming household names.

There is much secrecy surrounding vendors’ recipes for jerk rub or sauce along the Boston Beach strip, but all agree that scotch bonnet pepper, pimento (or “allspice”), and thyme are integral ingredients. Large slabs of marinated meat are smoked over smouldering pimento wood in a traditional earthen pit covered by a zinc sheet to trap the characteristic flavour. Washed down with freshly squeezed soursop juice, the tender jerk pork and Little David’s signature jerk-chicken sausage are more than enough to “feed the soul”.

Even the most devoted naturalist should take the time to relax as only Jamaicans know how. Sophisticated sun-seekers are partial to Frenchman’s Cove, a picturesque, private beach hidden amidst manicured gardens and offering beach-bar service. A more secluded alternative is the Blue Lagoon, a romantic detour where couples can cavort in 200 feet of clear waters, which vary in colour and temperature from turquoise to blue and warm to cool as you dive into its depths. Locals in the know frequent Winnifred Beach, where the hypnotic beat of reggae drifts along the beach and a perennially relaxed and laid-back atmosphere reigns. A Rasta strolls the length of the beach, presenting coconuts with scenes of dancing and landscapes engraved in their husks. Further along the beach, the children of a fruit vendor make flying somersaults into the water, killing time.

In these secluded nooks, the true Jamaican spirit of respect and love of life is alive and kicking in “Porty”, its natural wonders cherished and preserved by its people and waiting to be discovered by the rest of the world.