18°11 N, 076°27 W (published October 2013)
Is it too much to claim that Port Antonio, Jamaica, is one of the most overlooked highlights of the Caribbean? Our plans to call there were poo-pooed by sailors all along the US East Coast who warned us of lurking dangers and rampant crime. But our weeklong stay proved quite the opposite: Port Antonio is a safe, friendly place that welcomes cruisers with open arms. Entry formalities are easy—and free. Yes, the town is worn down, and not only around the edges. But it’s the genuine, generous people and the scenery that make Port Antonio spectacular.
Everyone took pains to make us feel at home, from customs officials to the staff of Errol Flynn Marina, street vendors and even your average passer-by. After a friendly exchange with one local man, I commented that his accent didn’t sound like he hailed from Jamaica, to which he replied, “I’m talking this way so you can understand me!”
Cruisers can tie up at the easy-going marina or anchor out in the perfectly protected inner bay, then explore with peace of mind. Port Antonio is the gateway to the surrounding Blue Mountains, a rugged expanse carpeted by lush jungle and dotted with red flowers, aptly named “Flame of the Forest.” Rafting down the Rio Grande makes for a memorable day trip that supports local enterprises in an environmentally friendly way. We spent a day with the amiable Captain Debbo, who not only taught us how to pole his thirty-foot bamboo raft, but also indulged us with an hour-long swim in the deliciously cool, fresh water.
By day, the streets of Port Antonio bustle with people. At night, the pace slows down and sounds dominate the scene. Birds peep from their respective trees, the calls mingling like the sound of an orchestra warming up—over a background of reggae music, of course. For us, evenings were a time to relish this setting from the open-air Tip Top restaurant. There, high above the town’s clock square, we could eat and chat with our delightful new friend, chef Owen.
If there’s any danger in Port Antonio, it’s the drivers, who sometimes seem suicidal (or homicidal). But hey, the potholes slow them down most of the time. Countering the few negatives are a bounty of positives: market vendors who leave their stalls to lead you on a quest for elusive ingredients; people who will walk you to a place rather than point the way, sharing a touch of local history or gossip as you go; and last but not least, affordable prices in the marina and around town.
Our quick week in Port Antonio was marked by one highlight after another. Maybe it’s too much to declare that we love Jamaica after a short visit to one corner of the island. But we can definitively report that Port Antonio is a place that should not be missed. Skeptics, take note!