Once the major banana port where many of the island’s first tourists arrived, on banana boats, Port Antonio,dates back to the 16th century. Its prosperity has for many years been in gentle decline and it is now run down, but it has an atmosphere unlike any other town in Jamaica with some superb old public buildings. It is an excellent base from which to explore inland or along the coast. The rainfall in this part of the island is very high and in consequence the vegetation very lush. Boston Bay, Fairy Hill Beach, San San Beach, the Blue Lagoon (also known as the Blue Hole) and Frenchman’s Cove Beach are notable beauty spots to the east of the town.
Boston Bay is renowned for its local jerk food pits; several unnamed places by the roadside serving hot spicy chicken, pork or fish, chopped up and wrapped in paper, cooked on planks over a pit of hot coals, very good and tasty.
Also worth visiting is Nonsuch Cave, a few miles to the southeast, where there are fossils and evidence of Arawak occupation, Somerset Falls and Folly, an elaborate, turn of the century mansion built in the style of Roman and Greek architecture, now in ruins (partly because the millionaire American’s wife took an instant dislike to it). The Folly is about half an hour’s walk around the bay from the town. Take a right fork off the path before going into a clump of trees on the peninsula (leading towards lighthouse inside military camp). It is a ghostly, crumbling old mansion in an open field with lovely views shared with grazing cows. 0900-1600 daily, US$5. Stalactites, gift shop and lunch area. Getting there: there is no public transport to Nonsuch Cave, return taxi fare US$10 including waiting time. For Somerset Falls, 0900-1700 daily, US$3. Take a bus to Buff Bay (any westbound Kingston bus) and walk 5 mins from there.
In the harbour it is possible to visit the 68-acre Navy Island, at one time owned by Errol Flynn, which has beaches (one nudist) and a moderately expensive restaurant. Return boat fare US$3, ferry operates 0700-2200 daily. Accommodation at the AL Navy Island Marina Resort, reservations, T9932667, F9932041. Rooms (14) or individual villas, restaurant, pool and bar open to non-guests, open view of bay. ‘Errol Flynn Gallery’ has display of movie stills and screenings of his golden oldies. The beaches on the island all belong to the resort but are open to non-guests. Snorkelling available (at the nudist beach), US$2 for half-day hire, but there are strong currents and not many fish. Many other sports and other activities on offer, including a complete wedding ceremony in the resort chapel.
Flynn also saw the potential as a tourist attraction for the bamboo rafts which used to bring bananas down the Rio Grande. Expert raftsmen now take tourists on these rafts down the river. One boatman is Keith Allen, with a registered licence, who can be contacted in Port Antonio at the Huntress Marina, but if you just turn up at Berrydale there are always rafters ready and willing to take you. Each raft (US$45 per raft from the ticket office, but if you arrive before it opens at 0830 or if you arrive by local bus, you can sometimes negotiate a fare of as little as US$25 with a rafter) takes two passengers and the trip takes 1½-2 hours (depending on the river flow) through magnificent scenery and with an opportunity to stop en route. Before you start make it clear who is buying the drinks. A driver will take your car down from the point of embarkation to the point of arrival. This is known as Rafter’s Rest and is on the main coastal road. Recommended as a place to have a moderately priced lunch or drink in pleasant surroundings even if you are not proposing to raft. The return taxi fare is US$10, there are also buses, US$0.25, to Berrydale, the setting-off point, though infrequent. Returning from St Margaret’s, downstream, is easier as there are plenty of buses passing between Annotto Bay and Port Antonio.
The Rio Grande valley is also well worth exploring, including a trip to the Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) at Moore Town, but the roads are rough and public transport minimal. Ask for Colonel Harris there who is the leader of the Maroons and is recommended for guided tours. There is no telephone contact nor accommodation, return taxi fare US$15. To the west of the Rio Grande lie the north slopes of the Blue Mountains, many parts of which are still virtually unexplored. Nanny Town, the home of the Maroons, was destroyed by the British in 1734 and then ‘lost’ until the 1960s. There is recent archaeological evidence at Nanny Town to suggest that the Maroons originally took to the mountains and lived with (and possibly later absorbed) Arawak peoples. There have been some dramatic discoveries of Arawak wooden carvings which are now on display at the National Gallery.
Between Port Antonio and the Buff Bay area there are several roads into the interior from such places as Hope Bay and Orange Bay. It is worth a detour if you have a car being well off the beaten track. Just to the east of Buff Bay is Crystal Springs with beautifully laid out gardens, a variety of fish in the clear waters of the streams, an aviary, a bird sanctuary and masses of orchids. There is a moderately priced restaurant, three cottages to rent (L) and camping sites, T9961400. Take any bus between Port Antonio and Kingston (US$0.40, about 45 minutes from Port Antonio), signposted at a turn-off between Orange Bay and Buff Bay (marked Spring Garden on Discover Jamaica road map). About 1½ miles along a flat paved road there is a small swimming pool surrounded by palms and flowering tropical plants. An idyllic spot, not busy during the week. Well worth a visit and a good base for exploring the foothills of the Blue Mountains. 0900-1700 daily, US$3. From Crystal Springs the road goes on to Chepstowand thence to Clatverty Cotage and Thompson Gap; spectacular scenery, waterfalls in the valleys and very remote. It is possible to walk from Thompson Gap over the Blue Mountains via Morces Gap and down to Clydesdale, but this is a full day’s trip and only to be undertaken with an experienced local guide and there is a problem of getting transport to meet you at Clydesdale. It is also possible to take a bus for part of the way up the Buff Bay valley and then walk on either to Clydesdale or over the Hardwar Gap to Newcastle. Both very long trips and only for the really fit.