To the locals, beautiful Port Antonio will always be known as “˜Porty’, a place with small-town charm, friendly folk, arts and crafts and the best jerk chicken in the world. Yet this unpretentious coastal town in Jamaica is no stranger to Hollywood glamour, royalty and TV stars, from Ginger Rogers, Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to Raquel Welch, Tom Cruise and Sharon Stone.
During the 1940s and “˜50s, sleepy Port Antonio earned a worldwide reputation as a paradise for the silver screen. Royals flocked here to stroll barefoot across its empty sands; movie star Errol Flynn cruised in on his yacht, “Zacca”; while famous musicians and politicians were seduced by its simple seclusion and the prospect of some privacy. Hollywood selected Port Antonio for its stunning good looks as the location for films such as “Club Paradise” and “Cocktail”. Today, despite its brush with fame, this sleepy seaside town remains quaint and packed with small-town charm. No airs, no graces – and no need to dress for dinner.
Port Antonio’s twin harbours were constructed during the banana trade’s boom-period and serve as a reminder of the important mercantile role that it played in 19th century Jamaica. Today, the town’s commercial focus is an abundance of colourful arts, crafts and jewellery stores: a magnet that draws visitors in from across Jamaica and beyond. Browse stalls piled high with beads and pottery painted in bold tropical hues together with all manner of good luck talismans and amulets made from shells, nuts and stones. Gorgeous old buildings hint at Port Antonio’s glamorous heyday, a time when cocktail parties spilled out into palm-shaded courtyards to the sound of calypso rhythms. Port Antonio is still photographed for Jamaican travel brochures today; the perfect advert for the island with its idyllic beaches and lush countryside surrounded by soaring bamboo forests and flower-topped hills.
From Port Antonio the main attractions of Frenchman’s Cove, Monkey Island, Blue Lagoon (as shown in the 1980 film with Brooke Shields) and Reach Falls can easily be reached – all of them truly resplendent. With its 200ft-deep turquoise waters, the Blue Lagoon is undoubtedly the most famous, but the cascades of Reach Falls and the calm elegance of Frenchman’s Cove are equally as spellbinding.
Even if you’ve seen the Blue Lagoon in the movie, nothing prepares you for its gasp-inducing beauty in real life. At more than 500 feet deep, with a mineral spring feeding into it, this place of untold natural beauty remains untouched. Due to the depth, the water is an intense shade of blue – there is nothing else quite like it on the island.
For snorkelling fun and splashing about, head to the waters around Monkey Island, where you can hire water sports gear to explore the fish-filled shallows. The clear-blue waters at Reach Falls are pure and unpolluted and guides know the best swimming spots amongst the rock, crevice, and bird’s nests along the river. You’ll find more fresh-water swimming at the Rio Grande, the river that runs through Port Antonio to the Sea. Keen to raft it? Then book the eight-mile trip on a handmade bamboo raft with as many stops for swimming as you’d like.
Of a trio of beach options, Frenchman’s Cove (a private beach) wins hands down. With a bar and a restaurant, this isolated inlet is fed by a freshwater spring and offers powder-soft, white sand flanked by towering cliffs – a special, ethereal place that has been described as “truly heaven on earth”.
Aside from the waterfalls, hidden coves, private islands and wandering rivers, Port Antonio is also renowned for its friendly, honest-to-goodness local folk. Everyone has a smile, a story and a joke to share – and due to Errol Flynn’s legendary romps, almost everyone claims to be his distant cousin! Take a walk through the town’s narrow streets to discover gingerbread houses, Anglican chapels and other colonial-era relics. Fort George, built in 1729, points its handsome cannons out to sea to protect the harbours.
Downtown, a weekday market does a roaring trade in spices, tropical fruit and vegetables, amongst street vendors sizzling seasoned jerk chicken on flame-hot griddles. This part of Jamaica is blessed with really good jerk sauce recipes, as Boston Bay (less than an hour away from the centre of Port Antonio) is the birthplace of this highly seasoned Jamaican staple. Based on an ancient indigenous Taino method of smoking meat, using a rub of flavour-rich pimento (all-spice), jerk was first tried and tested here. Certainly, the area’s secret mix of scotch bonnet peppers, cloves, garlic, cinnamon, salt, and spices is a riff on every BBQ stand – the locals claim this is the home of “˜the best jerk chicken on the planet’. Spice rubs are sold in big tubs at the market and you’ll also find good local reggae CDs for sale, rich Blue Mountain coffee and Red Stripe beer – all in all, an authentic taste of Jamaica.
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Jamaica from London, making it easy to explore Port Antonio.
Have you been to Port Antonio? Tell us about your time there in the comments section below.