From Ocho Rios, drive east along Highway A4/A3, which takes you through some sleepy fishing villages, including Port Maria, until you reach Port Antonio. Situated on the coast just north of the Blue Mountains, the town is surrounded by some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery in Jamaica. Many visitors prefer to visit the mountains and highlands from a base here, rather than starting in Kingston, to avoid the capital's urban sprawl.
This is the parish of Portland. It's the rainiest, greenest parish in Jamaica, known for its many rivers and waterfalls. Once the cradle of Jamaican tourism, the region has since been eclipsed by Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril. It remains a preferred hideaway, however, for a chic and elegant crowd that comes for a handful of posh hotels.
Port Antonio itself is a verdant and sleepy seaport 97km (60 miles) northeast of Kingston. You may have seen it in the 1988 Hollywood film Cocktail (still talked about here as if it were shot yesterday). Here you can still catch a glimpse of the Jamaica of old. This small, bustling town is like many in Jamaica: clean though ramshackle, its sidewalks surrounding a market filled with vendors, tin-roofed shacks compete with old Georgian and modern brick and concrete buildings. Locals busily shop, talk, and laugh, while others sit and play dominoes (loudly banging the pieces on the table, which is very much part of the game).
Go to the colorful markets to browse for local craftworks, spices, and fruits -- or just to listen to conversations, negotiations, and the news of the day.
Navy Island and the long-gone Titchfield Hotel were owned for a short time by film star Errol Flynn, who was much loved and admired by Jamaicans and totally integrated into his community. Locals still talk of Flynn in Port Antonio, especially the men, who speak of his legendary womanizing and drinking in almost reverent tones.
We find Port Antonio an elite retreat, a virtual Shangri-La when compared to busier Ocho Rios or Montego Bay. It also has some of the finest beaches in Jamaica, and has long been a center for some of the Caribbean's best deep-sea fishing. Some of the most expensive yachts sailing the Caribbean can be seen here with the opening of the first-class Port Antonio Marina. It's a good place to go to get away from it all.
Unlike Montego Bay, Negril, and Ocho Rios, less visited and much more remote Port Antonio is an elite retreat -- long a favorite of visiting celebrities such as Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Harrison Ford, and Denzel Washington.
Although much of Jamaica is overbuilt, Port Antonio lies in a relatively undeveloped area. As one local vendor put it, "Ocho Rios attracts the tourist; we attract the traveler."
The area's white-sand beaches are among the island's finest and least crowded. Only a few resorts here can be described as upmarket; most of this region is a haven for the frugal traveler seeking modest digs. Port Antonio lacks the all-inclusive megaresorts of Ocho Rios or Mo Bay; if that's what you need, head elsewhere. The same goes for shopping, nightlife, and deluxe dining: If they're absolutely essential to your vacation, hit the road. And if you like to run naked on the beach, your hair in braids, Negril is more your speed. Port Antonio, quite frankly, is perhaps the most staid of the major Jamaican resort towns. It's also generally acknowledged as the home base of the least aggressive, most low-key, and most restrained, street vendors.
Most mainstream beach-going, sun-loving Americans tend to gravitate to Mo Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril (in that order). In Port Antonio, by contrast, you're much more likely to encounter eco-sensitive and "adventurous" European visitors, especially from Germany and Holland, and a handful of Americans interested in botany, bird- watching, environmental issues, nature hikes, and eco-exploring.
You can link up with other resorts or attractions on day trips while staying here. Port Antonio is within easy driving distance of Ocho Rios; the Blue Mountains and John Crow Mountains are at the town's southern edge.
Hoteliers in Port Antonio know the area may never be as chic as it was in the 1950s or the early 1960s. Still, they are preparing for stiff competition in the 21st century with a push to attract a new type of traveler, the upmarket, eco-sensitive traveler who wants to explore the natural beauty of the island -- especially that mountain scenery to the south of Port Antonio. If you love nature, there may be no better place in Jamaica to base yourself.
And if a movie star still sneaks into town on occasion to chill out, well, that's okay with the locals, too.