Jamaica has become an extremely cheap and accessible destination for tourists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives and for those who want to trade skyscrapers for picturesque postcard sunsets. Whether docking in Ocho Rios or enjoying endless rum punch at an all-inclusive, they all come for the beautiful beaches, delicious cuisine and cool island vibes. For such a small island, Jamaica’s massive cultural influence has spread all over the world thanks to the likes of the legendary Bob Marley and track and field superstars like Usain Bolt. As the fourth most visited Caribbean island with almost 2 million visitors annually there’s no denying that Jamaica has something people want. For those of us seeking a different type of escape, one that doesn’t include cheesy tourists traps and overpriced jerk chicken but instead offers a no hassle or hustle, adventurous, naturally lush and laid back lifestyle. No I’m not talking about Negril or Montego Bay, this paradise I speak of is the parish of Portland. Port Antonio, the capital located just two hours away from Kingston and is fairly easy to get to by local transportation.
How to get there
The closest airport to Portland is Kingston Norman Manley International. The local way to get there will take about three hours but will only cost you around $8 USD. From the airport you’ll take the #98 bus downtown and then transfer to any bus going to Halfway Tree. The bus will let you off at the Halfway Tree transportation center where you’ll take a local bus to Port Antonio which will drop you off in the center of town. From there take a route taxi to your destination. (Note-It’s best to travel during the day as public transportation is limited at night.)
Where to stay
Portland has a lot of private bed and breakfasts that you won’t find on the internet but the good news is there has been an increase of affordable accommodations being listed on sites likes AirBnB and Booking.com. There are also a number of couchsurfers in Portland. Most of the natural attractions in Portland are to the east of Port Antonio and this is also where you’ll find most of the listings from booking sites. Before moving into my apartment in Rural Hill I stayed at Villa Rasta in Long Bay and had a great introduction to real Jamaican living, culture and food. You can find accommodations ranging from 5-star luxury like the Trident and Geejam hotels to more homey guesthouses.
What to do
The world famous Blue Lagoon is hands down my favorite place in Jamaica. Just 15-minutes east of Port Antonio, it’s mysterious and magical turquoise water (which is mixed with fresh and salt water) gives visitors a unique swimming experience as the water changes from warm to cold in a mere second. One can tour the lagoon and nearby Monkey Island by boat, kayak, or my personal favorite by bamboo raft.
The Blue Lagoon is owned by Portland native and billionaire Michael Lee Chin and is free to the public. Make sure to visit the fountain of youth pond in the back of the lagoon that is said to have healing properties in the water that keeps you forever young.
Dunn’s River Falls who? Currently the #1 attraction in Portland rated by Trip Advisor, Reach Falls (sometimes spelled Reich Falls) is located in Manchioneal is a must see. With waters cascading over smooth limestone rocks and surreal natural scenery you’ll want to stay and play in the overflowing pools all day. If you’re looking to discover even more, you can hire a guide to take you about a half mile upstream to Mandingo Cave, which also has a natural waterfall inside.
There are two different prices for entry, the local rate and the tourist rate. Here’s a tip for getting the local rate, make friends with a local and carry them along with you and keep your mouth shut, unless your Jamaican Patois is up to par.
Looking for a place to have a total beach bum day? Look no further as Winnifred Beach in Fairy Hill is ideal for picnics, checking out the local fare and listening to the latest reggae tunes. There are several food shops that serve up fresh fish, lobster, jerk, festival and more. For years locals have been fighting to keep this beach free of charge and their efforts have thankfully been working. Boat rides to nearby Monkey Island are offered daily as well as horseback riding on most weekends.
Just down the road from Winnifred Beach is Frenchman’s Cove, a 45-acre private estate that includes a resort, white sandy beach and lush tropical gardens. Frenchman’s Cove was one of Jamaica and the world’s first all-inclusive resorts and has been popular with famous guests, such as Queen Elizabeth II since the 1960s. There is a restaurant right on the beach that serves some of the most delicious orange cake you’ll have around.
Learn to Jerk in Long Bay
Boston Bay Jerk Center is famous throughout Portland and Jamaica but honestly it’s overrated and overpriced. Even after living in Jamaica for months the best jerk chicken I’ve ever had is still Tony’s in Crown Heights, Brooklyn but I digress. Most of the jerk I’ve had in Jamaica is really dry and just a big disappointment with the exception of Bigga’s at Villa Rasta. Not only do I go there to eat jerk chicken but Bigga, the owner and chef at Villa Rasta also taught me how to jerk chicken. With his special blends of herbs and spices locally made you can learn his secret techniques for serving up juicy and delicious jerk by taking an authentic Jamaican cooking class.
Di Atlantic Entertainment Center
You can’t leave Jamaica without going to a proper dancehall and learning a few moves to show your friends back home. Atlantic as it’s referred to by locals is in Manchioneal and I’m warning you now, is not glamorous at all. When the party starts to really pick up around 1am or so, the real show begins. Often promoters will have guest dancehall queens and dancers come from Kingston to show attendees a good time. Don’t be surprised if you see grandma in there, everyone loves Atlantic.
You’ll fall in love with Portland and it’ll soon become your favorite destination to always come back to.