The coast east of Port Antonio wins our beauty contest for one of the most beautiful shorelines in the Caribbean, and most definitely in Jamaica. There's a nostalgic aura to it, too, as if it yearns to return to the glamorous 1950s and 1960s when celebrities haunted its coves and villas much more often than they do today.
If some of the coast looks like a movie set, know that more films have been shot here than anywhere else in the Caribbean -- none of them really very good, however.
The northeastern coastline of Jamaica is sometimes called "Errol Flynn country" because the actor created a plantation along its shore. The A4 highway goes by the Errol Flynn Estates at Fair Prospect and Priestman's River. Flynn's aging, elegant widow, the film star of the 1950s, Patrice Wymore Flynn, still lives here on these 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of pastureland and coconut groves.
The first stopover is at:
The Folly Great House -- Come here only if you don't have a lot to do that day, and expect to see a roofless structure with weeds growing up through the foundations. Perhaps it'll inspire you to write a Gothic novel. This house was built in 1905 by Arthur Mitchell, an American millionaire, for his wife Annie -- the daughter of Charles Tiffany (founder of the famous New York jewelry store). In one of the most outrageous frauds in the history of the Jamaican construction industry, seawater was used in the concrete mixtures of its foundations and in the mortar, and the house began to collapse only 11 years after the couple moved in. Because of the beautiful location, it's easy to see what a fine great house it must have been.
If you drive out to the end of Folly Peninsula, you'll see the Folly Point Lighthouse, which makes a good spot for a picnic overlooking Woods Island or Monkey Island (among its other names), where Mitchell briefly maintained a colony of monkeys.
Turtle Crawle Bay -- At a bend in the sea-fronting road, 3km (1 3/4 miles) east of Port Antonio, you'll blink and then blink again. Your eyes aren't deceiving you. On a headland jutting out into the sea stands the lavishly ornate Trident Castle, all gleaming white and looking like something Walt Disney might have created as part of a tropical version of an Alpine dream. Locals sometimes call it "Folly II" (after the Folly Great House), because the faux castle lay unfinished for many years for lack of money.
Originally this Austrian baroque fantasy with its rococo stonework was the creation, during the 1970s and 1980s, of Baroness Fahmi, at the time Port Antonio's most flamboyant resident. She sold it to the architect, Earl Levy, scion of one of the most prominent Jamaican families. Their long-standing feud has often provided fodder for the press; Levy, who had his own architectural ideas, is now in charge and allowed scenes from Clara's Heart to be shot at the castle. That wasn't its only starring role. Remember The Mighty Quinn, starring Denzel Washington? Mimi Rogers, a "hotel guest" in the film, seduced Denzel here. Regrettably, the castle is not open to the public.
The baroness struck back by erecting the faux-Greek Revival Jamaica Palace in 1989, on the eastern shore of Turtle Crawle Bay. Her palace, standing almost in defiance of Trident Castle, was used as a backdrop for Playmates in Paradise, bringing in those lecherous boys from Playboy magazine in pursuit of "bunnies."
Long Bay -- From Boston Bay Beach, the A4 highway continues its southeasterly descent along the coast until it reaches Long Bay and its mile-long "half moon" of pale sandy beach. The expression "the deep blue sea" could be used to describe the waters offshore. The distance is 8km (5 miles) from Boston Bay, about a 40-minute drive eastward from Port Antonio. Regrettably, there are dangerous, sometimes life-threatening undertows along the length of this beach, coupled with strong, sometimes overpowering surf. But although its waters are dangerous, it's ideal for a picnic, thanks to the presence of strategically positioned stands selling jerk pork, jerk chicken, and bottled beer. Many locals still make their living from the sea, and their fishing boats, evocative of canoes, can be seen along the shore. You can usually persuade one of these fishermen, for a fee to be negotiated, to haul you out into the bay for an impromptu tour.
In recent years, Long Bay has become something of a destination for frugal travelers, especially backpackers. In winter we've sometimes encountered young backpackers experiencing Jamaica on the cheap. Surprisingly, despite constant winds, windsurfing hasn't really caught on along the length of this or along the length of any of the other beaches within the neighborhood. Chalk it up, perhaps, to developments to come in future years.
Manchioneal -- Eleven kilometers (6 3/4 miles) from the coast along the A4 from Long Bay, you come to the sea town of Manchioneal, the most venomously named of any town in Jamaica. The fishing village is named for the poisonous manchineel tree (a different spelling from the town). Most of those dangerous trees have been cut down, but the name remains. This tree is still found throughout the Caribbean, often near beaches. Any innocent who has sought shelter under it in a rainstorm can testify to its poisonous acid -- that is, if they are still around.
The small fishing village drowses in the hot sun against the backdrop of a scallop-shaped bay of sapphire blue waters. The sandy beach here is wide, and many lobster fishermen sail out in their boats from the village. For lunch you can patronize one of the little jerk shacks along the shore. One of the savory delicacies sold here is roast conch, which is spicily seasoned and delectable (as long as you don't mind its slightly rubbery consistency).
Manchioneal has a reputation for being the least friendly town along the northern coast. Under no circumstances should you take someone's picture without asking their permission, which is rarely granted. Locals are very suspicious of foreigners. "Why?" we asked one of the vendors along the shore. "We figure you're up to no good or you wouldn't be here," he enigmatically replied.
The best retreat from Manchioneal is to head inland for 3km (1 3/4 miles) until you come to Reach Falls, one of the most beautiful spots in all of Jamaica. For years the Jamaica Tourist Board featured Reach Falls in its brochures advertising their island. But few people ever came here because it is so remote.
All that changed after the release of the film Cocktail. Tom Cruise and his film girlfriend indulged in some aquatic hanky-panky beneath these waterfalls, and soon the falls were on every local's and visitor's itinerary, attracting tour buses from as far away as Ocho Rios.
There's usually someone on-site trying to extract money from you, often US$4, though it could be less. You're allowed to go into the falls, fed by Driver's River, to cool off. No one objects if you drop your swimsuit here and flaunt your wares, either. The cascades tumble over tiers of limestone into a pool that has the color of a jade ring. Ironically, and much to the confusion of many island visitors, access to the falls is "officially" closed, but locals as well as visitors usually manage to access the site anyway.
If you want to take a hike for .8km (1/2 mile) up the river, with its lush foliage, you'll come to Mandingo Cave. The cave has a whirlpool and can be explored, but be warned: It has quite deep pools, and isn't completely safe.
Rio Grande Valley -- One of the lushest and most dramatic valleys in the Caribbean lies directly south of Port Antonio. The river itself is fed from drainage from the John Crow Mountains, creating luxuriant growth along with waterfalls, a tropical rainforest, and roaring rivers. Among its beauty spots are Nonsuch Caves and the Athenry Gardens.
Most visitors flock here to go rafting on the Rio Grande. For the serious adventurer, this country invites deeper exploration, especially those willing to hike through it and put up with some hardships along the way.
The Rio Grande Valley is also the home of the Windward Maroons, a formerly hostile, warlike people who fought the British and refused to become docile slaves. They believed in freedom or death. The descendants of these once-fierce people still live in the area, practicing bush medicine and following ancient rites little changed from the days when their ancestors lived in Africa.
It is recommended that you always explore this valley in the company of an experienced guide. If you'd like to discuss a number of tour options, you can consult a specialist.
Moore Town -- Eighteen kilometers (11 miles) south of Port Antonio, a long-forgotten world unfolds. This is the largest surviving village of the Windward Maroons, who held off British soldiers for years, refusing enslavement.
Moore Town consists of just one dirt road running along the Wildcane River. It was founded in 1739 when the peace treaty with the British was signed; a Council of Maroons, with 24 members, is the governing body. The council is led by a "colonel." If he's spotted and pointed out by your guide, you should ask him permission to visit the town -- it's usually granted. Of course, you don't have to ask permission, but it's considered polite to do so, in recognition of the community's sovereignty.
At the southern end of town lies Bump Grave, the burial site of Queen Nanny, the fierce leader of the Windward Maroons. The grave is inevitably marked with flying flags and often with fresh flowers from the Blue Mountains.