For Jamaica's true charm, go beyond the resorts

Destination: Caribbean

November 20, 2005|By JOHN BIEMER | JOHN BIEMER,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Within a mile of Montego Bay's International Airport, we've already passed a goat grazing on a soccer field and fishermen hawking freshly caught lobsters and stringers of fish by the side of the road.

On the four-hour drive to Port Antonio, a sleepy resort town on the eastern end of Jamaica, you can tell in an instant this is a world away.

Along a twisty, narrow, inconsistently signed road scattershot with potholes, we'll pass ramshackle fishing villages by sparkling blue Caribbean waters, chaotic towns with pedestrians and bikers darting into traffic, banana groves, cricket fields, lushly forested hills, schoolchildren in tidy uniforms, dreadlocked rascals carrying machetes, aging Anglican churches and roadside shacks selling fruits we've never heard of.

We'll contend with speedy Jamaican drivers riding the bumper of our rental car, honking incessantly and making sport of passing with just inches to spare. All the while, we'll constantly remind ourselves to stay left, left, LEFT! as we navigate our way across the northern coastline of this former British colony.

This isn't driving through cornfields. And the journey is representative of our vacation to Port Antonio overall -- rewarding, stimulating, sometimes challenging and never dull.

Many tourists who visit Jamaica opt for "all-inclusives," lavish gated resorts -- typically in Montego Bay, Negril or Ocho Rios -- that shuttle tourists directly from the airport to their beach estates. During their stay, they rarely stray from the premises, with their buffets, open bars and a full slate of activities, while being insulated from significant interaction with most of the natives.

Port Antonio, on the other hand, is Jamaica a la carte. The choices, and thus the experience, are largely up to you.

Renting a car and driving yourself is the most feasible option to get there (according to our hotel, a taxi to the Mo' Bay airport runs $200, to closer Kingston $120; there are no buses or trains geared for tourists). But your effort is rewarded with a more beautiful and less touristy slice of the island, a region Christopher Columbus once declared "the fairest land mine eyes have ever seen."

Once a major banana port, Port Antonio is situated just north of the Blue Mountains, where the foothills spill scenically into picture-perfect beaches. The region is one of the rainiest in Jamaica, and thus one of the greenest and most vibrant. It's alive with colorful birds, and sprinkled with lovely waterfalls and rivers.

Using the tagline "The Other Side of Jamaica," the country recently embarked on a campaign to revitalize Port Antonio, whose heyday as a chic resort town was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Errol Flynn, who once owned an island just offshore, remains something of a local legend -- and the area received a bounce in the late 1980s when Tom Cruise's Cocktail film was partly set there.

Today, most Port Antonio tourists are Europeans, traveling either more frugally or more independently than the Americans drawn to the all-inclusives. There are modest -- and sometimes a little run-down -- hotels and more upscale villas, like Goblin Hill, where we stayed.

For about $130 a night, my wife and I got a one-bedroom villa with a small kitchen and a deck overlooking a gorgeous cove where a solitary yacht rolled in the gentle waves. The neatly manicured 11-acre Goblin Hill spread had mango, avocado and coconut palm trees, tennis courts, a swimming pool and an idyllic hammock. Verona, the housekeeper assigned to us, placed fresh hibiscus flowers on our mosquito-netted bed each day, and was willing to shop for and cook dinner for us each night.

The amazing outdoor bar, wrapped around a gigantic 200-year-old ficus tree, was closed during our three-night stay (we were told the bartender was out of town).

Compared with other Jamaican resort towns, Port Antonio doesn't offer wild night life, and the dining and shopping options are limited. But it makes for a convenient jumping-off point to explore some of the island's unique natural beauty, such as Somerset Falls, which we pull into on our way into town.

A sign outside alerts us that the park is closed for renovations, but the falls are still falling, so we are allowed to enter at our own risk -- saving the $5-per-person fee. The grounds and the short path to the waterfall are in a state of shabby disrepair. Still, the falls are lovely, flowing through thick rain-forest foliage -- ferns, bamboo stands and philodendron. Cool, aqua-colored pools at the base are perfect for wading.

On the other side of town, we park at one of Jamaica's more beautiful and famous landmarks -- the Blue Lagoon. Yes, the same Blue Lagoon where teenaged Brooke Shields was filmed swimming au naturel for the otherwise forgettable 1980 shipwreck film.

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