Historic Spanish Town and Port Royal can both be reached easily from Kingston and are well worth a visit.
Spanish Town, some 16km (10 miles) west of Kingston, was the capital of Jamaica from 1662 to 1872 and was founded by the Spanish.
The English cathedral, surprisingly retaining its Spanish name, San Jago de la Vega (tel. 876/986-4405), was built in 1666 and rebuilt in 1712. Because the cathedral was built on the foundation and remains of the old Spanish church, it is half English, half Spanish, and shows two definite styles -- one Romanesque, the other Gothic. It's one of the most interesting historical buildings in Jamaica. The black-and-white marble stones of the aisles are interspersed with ancient tombstones, and the walls are heavy with marble memorials that almost form a chronicle of Jamaica's history, dating back as far as 1662.
After visiting the cathedral, walk 3 blocks north along White Church Street to Constitution Street and the Town Square, surrounded by graceful royal palms. On the west side is Old King's House, residence of Jamaica's British governors until 1872, when the capital was transferred to Kingston. It hosted many celebrated guests -- among them Lord Nelson, Admiral Rodney, Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty fame, and King William IV. Gutted by fire in 1925, its facade has been restored.
Jamaica People's Museum of Craft & Technology, Old King's House, Constitution Square (tel. 876/907-0322), is open Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is J$100 for adults, J$40 for children. The garden contains examples of old farm machinery, an old water-mill wheel, a hand-turned sugar mill, a fire engine, and more. An outbuilding houses a museum of crafts and technology, together with a number of smaller agricultural implements. In the small archaeological museum are old prints, models, and maps of the town's grid layout from the 1700s.
The streets around the old Town Square contain many fine Georgian town houses intermixed with tin-roofed shacks. Nearby is the market, so busy in the morning that you'll find it difficult, almost dangerous, to drive through. It does provide, however, a bustling scene of Jamaican life.
On the north side of the square is the Rodney Memorial, the most dramatic building on the square, commissioned by a grateful assembly to commemorate the 1782 victory of British admiral Baron George Rodney over a French fleet, saving the island from invasion.
The remaining side of the square, the east, contains the most attractive building, the House of Assembly, with a shady brick colonnade running the length of the ground floor, above which is a wooden-pillared balcony. This was the stormy center of the bitter debates of Jamaica's governing body. Now the ground floor is the parish library.
From West Beach Dock, Kingston, a ferry ride of 20 to 30 minutes will take you to Port Royal, subject of a hundred adventure novels that conjure up visions of swashbuckling pirates, led by Henry Morgan, swilling grog in harbor taverns. This was once one of the largest trading centers of the New World, with a reputation for being the "wickedest city on earth." Blackbeard stopped here regularly on his Caribbean trips. But it all came to an end on June 7, 1692, when a third of the town disappeared underwater during a devastating earthquake.
Today Port Royal, derelict and rundown, is a small fishing village. Some 2,000 residents -- and a lot of ghosts -- live here. A seafaring tradition continues, and the town is famous for fresh seafood and quaint architecture. Once there were six forts here with a total of 145 guns; some of the guns remain today, but only Fort Charles still stands.
The Wickedest City on Earth -- As the notorious pirate Henry Morgan made his way through the streets in the late 17th century, the prostitutes hustled customers, the rum flowed, and buccaneers were growing rich and sassy. The town was Port Royal, at the entrance to the world's seventh largest natural harbor. It was filled with drinking parlors, gambling dens, billiard rooms, brothels, and joints offering entertainment such as cock fights, target shoots, and bear baiting. Buccaneers not only got drunk -- they fought duels and pursued "foul vices" after long months at sea. All this earned Port Royal the title of "the Wickedest City on Earth."
All this came to a thundering end on the hot morning of June 7, 1692. Without warning, a severe earthquake sunk most of the town, killing some 2,000 people. The skies turned copper over this once-vibrant pirate city. To this day it is known as the famous "Sunken City" of Port Royal.
Actually, the 1692 earthquake was only one of nine that descended upon Port Royal. The area was also struck by 16 of the worst hurricanes to hit the Caribbean, and three devastating fires ravaged the town. It's a wonder anything is still standing today.
Norman Manley International Airport shares the same thin peninsula with Port Royal, but otherwise, all is quiet in the town today. It's easy to conjure up images not only of Morgan but of another buccaneer, Roche Brasiliano, who liked to roast Spaniards alive. To celebrate, he'd break out a keg of wine on the streets of Port Royal; whether they wanted to or not, he forced passersby to have a drink with him at gunpoint.
What happened to Henry Morgan after piracy was outlawed here in 1681? He was knighted in England and sent back to arrest his old hell-raising mateys.
Seeing the Sights -- As you drive along the Palisades, you arrive first at St. Peter's Church. It's usually closed, but you may persuade the caretaker, who lives opposite, to open it if you want to see the silver plate, said to be spoils captured by Henry Morgan from the cathedral in Panama. In the ill-kept graveyard is the tomb of Lewis Galdy, a Frenchman swallowed up and subsequently regurgitated by the 1692 earthquake.
Fort Charles (tel. 876/967-8438), the only one remaining of Port Royal's six forts, has withstood attack, earthquake, fire, and hurricane. Built in 1656 and later strengthened by Henry Morgan himself for his own purposes, the fort displays scale models of ships from past eras. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is US$1.50.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.