With far fewer attractions than the east of Port Antonio, the western coastline is worth a day of your time if you can spare it.
As you leave Port Antonio heading west along Route A4, you come first to:
St Margaret's Bay -- At this point the Rio Grande empties into the ocean, 8km (5 miles) from Port Antonio. The river rushes under an iron bridge, built in 1890, on its way to the sea.
Hope Bay -- This fishing town, with its unattractive beach of grayish sand, need not occupy much of your time. There are some jerk stands, tropical punch bars, and several crafts shops hawking their wares, but not much else.
The adventurous should instead head south along a secondary road, where it's easy to spot several places to go swimming on the upper reaches of the fast-flowing and aptly named Swift River. South of Hope Bay, a beautiful drive takes you through lush valleys surrounded by mountains and groves of bananas and cocoa.
Watch for an unusual drink served at roadside stands called a "chocolate tea ball." The bartender grates a cocoa ball into a mixture of hot water and milk, then adds a shot of rum -- a kind of local toddy.
There's a hamlet called Swift River where you can cross a tiny bridge over the river and follow it to some intoxicatingly cool, deep pools good for swimming.
At a point just over 3km (approx. 2 miles) from Hope Bay on the A4 highway, you come to:
Somerset Falls -- Here, the waters of the Daniels River pour down a deep gorge through a rainforest, with waterfalls and foaming cascades. You can take a short ride in a rowboat or put-put motorboat to the hidden falls. A stop on the daily Grand Jamaica Tour from Ocho Rios, this is one of Jamaica's most historic sites; the falls were used by the Spanish before the British captured the island. At the falls, you can change into a swimsuit and enjoy the deep rock pools. You can also buy sandwiches, light meals, soft drinks, beer, and liquor at the snack bar. The guided tour includes the gondola ride and a visit to both a cave and a freshwater fish farm. On certain days, the site is likely to be overrun with camera-toting tourists. Expect a manicured, somewhat sanitized landscape punctuated for the tourist trade with caged birds and a scattering of kiosks devoted to the sale of trinkets, souvenirs, and rum-based drinks. For US$7, tours are conducted daily from 9am to 5pm.
En route to Buff Bay you can stop off at a fairly good beach of golden sand at Orange Bay for a quick dip.
The A4 highway then continues into:
Buff Bay -- This little seafront hamlet is where farmers from the Blue Mountains bring their produce to market. If you're not really interested in a walk through this market, continue for another 16km (10 miles) or so along the A4 highway to:
Annotto Bay -- This town's heyday has come and gone. Back in the 19th century it was a center for banana exports. It owed its success to a Scottish doctor, John Pringle (1848-1923), who came here, purchased 18th-century sugar plantations going to ruin, and converted them into banana plantations, which became a quick cash crop.
The banana business went belly-up, as did the sugar factory -- the town's chief employer. Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 almost completely killed Annotto, yet it struggles on. Nothing much remains of the British-built Fort George that guarded the harbor, however.
From Annotto, continue along Route 4 until you come to A3 cutting south. Follow this route along the Wag River Valley until you come to:
Castleton Botanical Gardens -- Midway between Kingston and Annotto Bay, this is one of the most remote botanical gardens in the West Indies. The gardens grow lushly here because of heavy mountain rains on the western periphery of the Blue Mountains.
On 6 luxuriant hectares (15 acres) you'll see mahogany trees, tree ferns, teak, calabash, cannonball trees, coffee, ebony, cocoa, azaleas -- you name it. Nothing is state of the art, however. You are out in the wilderness in "unknown Jamaica" if you visit here.
Begun in 1862 with plants shipped from England's Kew Gardens, these botanical gardens are far more accessible than the once-famous ones at Bath. The gardens are known for introducing many trees to Jamaica, including the Poinciana. The gardens aren't what they used to be, after nature and lack of care have taken their toll. But they still make for a fascinating visit.
The gardens (no phone) are open daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is free but tips are appreciated.
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.