Although local waters can be turbulent at times, and it rains a lot, the white-sand beaches in and around Port Antonio put it on the tourist map. Invariably, they are far less crowded than those of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. The best of these white sandy strips follow.
Jamaican Reef Beach -- Set on the northern periphery of town, this short, sanitized, and usually very clean strip of sand lies on the northern coast of the Titchfield Peninsula. Its premises were incorporated into the fenced-in premises of the Port Antonio Marina early in the millennium. As such, it's now the beach most often visited by cruise ship passengers who find themselves in Port Antonio for a day and who aren't interested in negotiating taxi or minibus passage to beaches that are farther afield. No longer a bonafide public beach, and considerably cleaner than it was in years past, its edges are now flanked with such upscale establishments as the dining terrace of Norma's at the Marina. As such, its sands have become for the most part decorative -- the kind of watery stretch that's best admired from a dining table or a barstool. Of course, if you happen to be dining at Norma's, and if, between the salad course and the main course, you want to throw yourself into the water for a fast bout of exercise and/or exhibitionism, no one will object -- including the other diners, if you just agree not to splash them.
Frenchman's Cove -- Back in the 1960s you might have seen Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor recovering from the night-before's hangover, sprawled on the sands of the beach in this cove, 8km (5 miles) east of the center of Port Antonio. During those heady days, celebrities who included the Queen of England flocked to the chic Frenchman's Cove Resort, still occupying its scenic spot on a windswept headland. Actually, this is a rather small and narrow beach whose beauty derives from a sandy bottom, and from clean fresh waters that flow into the sea from a freshwater stream flanked with lush gardens. (Nutrients flowing into the sea from that stream contribute to the rich underwater life in the waters offshore.) It costs US$3 to enter daily from 9am to 5pm. There are showers on the beach to wash away the sand, and at least one beachfront barbecue restaurant serving Red Stripe, rum drinks, jerk chicken, and grilled fish.
San San Beach -- Not as tidily kept as Frenchman's Cove (maintenance along its length has actually deteriorated in the past decade or so), San San is a private beach that's both longer and narrower than its more fashionable neighbor. Its sands are sometimes frequented by wealthy owners of palatial second homes built along a small nearby peninsula known as Alligator Head.
Guests who check into such hotels as the Jamaica Palace, Goblin Hill, and Fern Hill can use this beach for free, and it's open to anyone else willing to shell out US$10 between 10am and 4pm. The little island you see offshore goes by various names that include Woods Island, Pellow Island, and -- because of having once been bought by the Aga Khan for his wife, Princess Nina -- "Princess Island." Many visitors swim to the islet from San San Beach; if you try it, beware of the potentially painful colonies of spiny sea urchins as you step ashore. The island also has a good reef for snorkeling.
Winnifred Beach -- This is not the name of your spinster aunt, but a strip of sand described by a local hotel executive as "the best example in the country of a Jamaican public beach." Clean and well maintained, and dotted with vendors selling jerk food, it lies just to the east of Dragon Bay Beach, en route to Boston Bay Beach , within about a 25-minute drive from the center of Port Antonio. The half-moon-shaped strip of sand attracts more islanders than foreign visitors, and as such, provides a sometimes-charming spectacle of contemporary Jamaican life. Yes, there's a colony of vendors selling souvenirs and crafts items, but they're generally acknowledged for being less aggressive and a lot more laid-back than the occasionally obnoxious vendors you're likely to encounter in, say, Ocho Rios. Offshore is a dramatic reef of living coral teeming with marine life, attracting snorkelers to this beach, which has toilet facilities (none of which are particularly clean or well maintained) and changing rooms. During the day a boatman or two will, if you negotiate the price in advance, take you out on a bamboo raft or one of their small craft to a secluded little beach just around the headland; escape with a loved one if you find Winnifred too crowded. No admission fee is charged for access to this famed and much-respected public beach. Technically, the address of this beach is "Fairy Hill," but even if the locals don't recognize that nomenclature, virtually everyone in and around Port Antonio will know how to direct you there.
Boston Bay Beach -- Another public beach, Boston Bay is more famous for its jerk-pork stands than it is for its sands. Lying 18km (11 miles) east of Port Antonio, and .8km (1/2 mile) to the east of Winnifred Beach, it is a strand of golden sands opening onto turquoise waters that aren't always tranquil. Hidden away on a secluded cove, this beach was once owned by the writer Robin Moore. You'll find lots of picnic tables where you can enjoy your recently purchased lunch of jerk pork, chicken, or whatever. Ironically, despite the fact that proponents of windsurfing sometimes cite Boston Bay Beach as potentially the best beach in Jamaica for the pursuit of this sport, it never really caught on here, and is practiced far less frequently than you'd have expected, given the favorable conditions.
The Blue Lagoon
Remember 14-year-old Brooke Shields, way back before she became a star on TV and Broadway? She made the film The Blue Lagoon playing a teen castaway who swam naked with now-forgotten Christopher Atkins. Although the film was mostly shot on an isolated atoll in the South Pacific, the famous swimming scene was shot here. The film has been associated ever since with this idyllic spot in Jamaica. Films whose footage partially derives from the surrounding landscape include selected scenes from Cocktail (featuring early Tom Cruise) and Club Paradise.
Lying about 2km (1 1/4 miles) east of San San Beach, the Blue Lagoon is not on a beach. But when you see these beautiful waters, you'll forget all about sands and take the plunge. The lagoon isn't always cerulean blue: Throughout the day, reflections can turn it jade or sapphire. Once we noticed a rainy sky turning it a shade of mauve. The water is 56m (185 ft.) deep at its deepest point, although the Arawak Indians believed it was bottomless. It was once the lair of the pirate Tom Mallard, when it was called Mallard's Hole -- before the name was changed to something more romantic, that is.
Tales spin about the Blue Lagoon. One concerns Errol Flynn, who is said to have dived to the bottom of the lagoon aided only by snorkeling gear. Some say he did it once; others maintain he performed this feat every day. That's dubious, but it is true that Robin Moore, author of The French Connection, once owned most of the land opening onto the lagoon.
Islanders also maintain that if you swim in the lagoon with your mouth open, drinking in the water, it will "turn a man into a bull." Hundreds of people make this claim about the aphrodisiac powers of these waters. "In America," a caretaker told us, "men take Viagra. Here all we need is one cup from the Blue Lagoon, and we're fit as a fiddle all night."
On-site is a small restaurant with changing rooms, along with a little mineral spring bath. Many visitors flock here for a Saturday night bash, when live reggae is played.
During the day someone at one of the little makeshift kiosks is on-hand to rent you a paddleboat or snorkeling equipment. The Blue Lagoon teems with marine life, including schools of rainbow-hued fish, and even on occasion a squid gliding by and, less welcome, a barracuda giving you the fish eye.
This beauty spot, one of the finest on the island, is open daily from 9am to 10pm, charging an admission of US$5. Call tel. 876/993-7791 for more information.
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.