History of Port Antonio and Jamaica
Jamaica, part of the Greater Antilles, is the third largest island and the fourth largest country in the Caribbean. The Arawak and Taino were the indigenous people of the island when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494 and claimed it for Spain. He liked the island so much he returned four times. In 1655 the British took control, turning it into a colony. Jamaica achieved independence in 1962 and remains part of the British Commonwealth.
- Population: 2.8 million
- Language: English is the official language. Also common is the English English-African Creole dialect called Jamaican Patois.
- Government: Parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
- Currency: Jamaican dollar
- Climate: tropical, with more temperate climate in higher elevations
- Religion: predominantly Christian
- Food: Jamaica is famous for jerk cooking, which combines a hot spice mixture and slow cooking of pork, chicken or seafood over pimento wood or charcoal. The country is also known for Red Stripe beer, rum of many kinds and Blue Mountain coffee. The national dish is saltfish (codfish)and ackee, a fruit native to West Africa. Also popular: curried goat and rice, bammy (a flat, baked bread made from cassava), rice and “peas” (beans), and patties, a turnover-type pastry typically filled with spiced meat, chicken or seafood.
- Crime: Jamaica suffers from a reputation for high homicide rates, but most of that violence occurs in certain impoverished areas of Kingston and Montego Bay. Tourists should take customary precautions wherever they travel, even though crime against tourists is rare in and around Port Antonio. (San San Estates, where Norse Hill Estate is located, has its own private security team that patrols the estates routinely.)
Jamaica is famous for nurturing popular music. Reggae, ska, mento, dub, rocksteady, dancehall and raga have had worldwide influence.
The late reggae musician Bob Marley, who still attracts an international following, brought attention to the Rastafari movement, which believes Haile Selassie I, former emperor of Ethiopia, was God incarnate, the return of the messiah. Rastafarians or Rastas are known for smoking cannabis for spiritual purposes.
Among books and movies, all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were written at Fleming’s retreat at Golden Eye (located near Oracabessa on the coast between Port Antonio and Ocho Rios). Scenes from Dr. No and Live and Let Die were filmed in Jamaica, and the island has provided settings for many other films, including Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lord of the Flies, The Harder They Come, Cocktail (filmed at Dragon Bay near Norse Hill), Club Paradise and the recent Knight and Day (with scenes at Frenchman’s Cove beach). People claim that Robin Moore wrote The French Connection at his hillside retreat overlooking the Blue Lagoon.
Jamaicans take pride in their arts and crafts, including paintings, sculpture, jewelry, pottery, wood carving, fabrics and straw weaving.
Cricket is the favorite national sport, but Jamaica has gained international attention for the achievements of its athletes in track and field. Usain Bolt, the world record-holder for the 100 meter sprint, is a national hero. Football (soccer), boxing and horse racing are also popular on the island. And who has not admired the spirit of the Jamaican bobsled team in the Winter Olympics?
Environmental and Ecology Interests
According to the Nature Conservancy, one-third of Jamaica is still forested, and the island has the fifth highest concentration of endemic plants in the world, and is home to more endemic birds and reptiles than any other Caribbean island.
As with all Caribbean islands, Jamaica faces numerous environmental challenges, including land and beach erosion, coral reef damage and losses, deforestation, threats to fresh and saltwater fish stocks, waste management, and burning oil as the main source of electricity for the island.
Port Antonio and Portland Parish
You will hear about the glory days when the area was one of the hottest international destinations for the rich and famous. You will hear about the various misfortunes that stunted the area’s progress. And you will hear about many “if only” investments and projects that could set “Porty” back on a path of prosperity.
Some residents and visitors see decay and neglect that demand attention, yet others are pleased that Port Antonio has retained its authenticity, and they abhor the idea of mega-resorts sprawling along the coast as they have near Montego Bay and Negril. They are happy to have Port Antonio off the beaten path, even known as the “other Jamaica”.
Indeed, it is the relative isolation and backwardness of Port Antonio that deters throngs of tourists but attracts celebrities who want private and privileged seclusion.
There’s a convergence of opinion that the most precious treasure here is the variety of natural beauty, from the sea and beaches to the rainforest mountains. With that comes hope that rising interest in international eco-tourism could be an ideal fit for the future here, helping Port Antonio modernize and develop in modest steps that do not spoil it.
The town, originally settled by the Spaniards, is named after Anton and Francisco, the two sons of a Spanish governor. The Spanish introduced the banana to the area from the Canary Islands.
1655: British seize control of Jamaica from Spain. The island becomes a base for Caribbean privateers, pirates and buccaneers, including Captain Henry Morgan. Slaves are brought from Africa to work sugar and coffee plantations.
1738-39: Maroons, runaway slaves who, from their mountain hideouts, had waged guerilla warfare with the British ever since they were freed by the Spanish, gain peace agreements with the British. The truces help lure more settlers to Portland.
1793: Captain William Bligh, of the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty fame, introduces Jamaica to breadfruit brought from Tahiti.
1834: Britain abolishes slavery, but Jamaican slaves remain bound to owners under the Apprenticeship System. The struggles of freed slaves continue well into the later 1800s.
1870: Lorenzo Dow Baker arrives in Jamaica and begins the banana export industry, forming the United Fruit Company in 1885 and making Port Antonio the second-most important town in Jamaica. As Baker began ferrying tourists along with fruit on his steamships, Port Antonio became a holiday travel destination.
1905: Baker’s grand Titchfield Hotel opens atop the peninsula between the two harbors. With 400 rooms and extraordinary amenities, the Titchfield is unsurpassed in Jamaica.
1936: The peak of the banana industry in Jamaica, which could not recover from hurricane damage, disease, the Great Depression and competition from other countries.
1946: Actor Errol Flynn’s schooner Zaca docks in Kingston for repairs, Flynn discovers Port Antonio and then sails there, beginning his lifelong love affair with the area and reviving Porty as a secluded destination for the rich and famous.
1961: Frenchman’s Cove Hotel opens, billed as the world’s first all-inclusive hotel.
1962: Jamaica achieves independence from Great Britain.
1969: The Titchfield Hotel burns to the ground.
1980: Hurricane Allen, one of the strongest in recorded history, causes extensive damage along the northeast coast, including a storm surge as high as 12 meters (39 feet).
1988: Hurricane Gilbert causes the most damage to the island since Hurricane Charlie in 1951.
2002: The multi-million dollar marina complex, renamed Errol Flynn Marina four years later, begins to open in stages on Port Antonio’s west harbor, facing Navy Island. That same year, Hurricane Lili causes extensive damage in Jamaica from flooding and mudslides.
2004: Hurricane Ivan causes enough damage to close Trident Hotel and Castle for extensive repairs, and wrecks the Blue Lagoon waterfront bar and café.
2009: Reconstruction completed on the North Coast Highway, dramatically shortening driving times to the Kingston junction road and along the coast to Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. Billionaire Michael Lee Chin, a native of Port Antonio, completes his acquisition of the Trident Hotel and Castle properties, and re-raises hopes with talk of turning Trident into a luxury resort, redeveloping the Blue Lagoon as a public attraction, rebuilding the Titchfield Hotel and developing a resort on Navy Island. Subsequent economic climate puts such plans on hold.
From J.P. Morgan and William Randolph Hearst to Gwen Stefani and Amy Winehouse, name-dropping has been a fun sport in and around Port Antonio ever since the grand Titchfield Hotel first opened in 1905.
After World War II, three men re-ignited Jamaica’s popularity as a haven for the rich and famous: Ian Fleming, Noel Coward and Errol Flynn.
Noel Coward & Ian Fleming
Coward, the British-born playwright, songwriter and actor, first visited Jamaica in 1944 and, after staying at Fleming’s Goldeneye, decided he needed a retreat of his own on the island. His Blue Harbour began attracting a steady stream of actors, writers and artists, including Fleming and Flynn. He served lunch to Queen Elizabeth there in 1960. Soon tired of the social whirl, he built a hillside retreat from his seaside retreat, naming it Firefly. He died and was buried there in 1973.
Fleming’s Goldeneye, built on land he purchased in 1946, also attracted an international set of wealthy, creative and influential people. His bestselling James Bond novels featured Jamaican scenes in Dr. No, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun. Perhaps the greatest publicity Fleming delivered for the island was the first Bond movie, Dr. No, starring Sean Connery, which took the Fleming-Bond franchise to a higher orbit and introduced millions to Jamaica through the scores of scenes shot on location there.
It was Errol Flynn, however, who really turned the international spotlight toward Port Antonio. The swashbuckling actor was a social swashbuckler in real life, and to
this day the people of Porty love to tell tales about Flynn – many of them taller than the Blue Mountains.
No doubt, the hard-living, high-sporting Flynn enjoyed women, drinking, gambling, sailing, fishing and being a prankster. He was dead serious, however, about his love of Port Antonio and its prospects.
In 1946, after docking in Kingston and waiting for repairs on his 118-foot schooner Zaca, Flynn discovered Port Antonio. He returned in 1950 with his actress wife, Patrice Wymore, and acquired an 1,800-acre cattle ranch and coconut plantation east of town. The Flynns began socializing with Noel Coward and Ian Fleming, among others. They brought back the fun of leisure rafting down the Rio Grande River.
“My problem lies with reconciling my gross habits with my net income.” Errol Flynn (shown with wife Patrice Wymore Flynn)
With Patrice’s encouragement, Flynn purchased Navy Island (the legend he won it gambling is just that, legend) and the Titchfield Hotel. The Flynns had grand plans to develop the island into a top-class resort and restore the hotel to its former glory. At the same time, though, Flynn was burning through his small fortune. In 1959, when he died of a heart attack in Vancouver at age 51, he was there to sell or lease his beloved Zaca, and his dreams of revitalizing Port Antonio remained dreams shared, and not realized, by many.
Flynn’s very presence in Port Antonio in the 1950s helped attract celebrities and international attention. Indeed, one might argue that Flynn helped make possible the advent of Frenchman’s Cove and Trident Castle.
In the mid-1950s, W. Garfield Weston, a multi-millionaire Canadian businessman who had served in the British House of Commons during World War II, purchased Frenchman’s Cove from what was then the sprawling Cold Harbour Estates. His oldest son, Grainger, completed construction of the hotel and cottage complex, overlooking a small, sheltered beach that is one of the most photographed in the Caribbean. Soon it was touted as the world’s first all-inclusive resort, with rates covering all food, drink, transportation, services and tipping.
“Frenchman’s Cove attracted celebrities from art, music, theatre and the film world: poets, writers and business tycoons from all over the world,” recalled hotelier Jean-Pierre Aubry in Hospitality Jamaica (a Gleaner publication). “Princess Anne celebrated her 16th birthday with us, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles. A cottage was especially built for Bertram Russell. No publicity or picture taking by journalists was allowed. Total privacy was guaranteed to houseguests. The resort was solidly booked out for years.”
Weston’s investment, and the subsequent publicity, is credited with boosting the allure and prestige of the San San area. Indeed, Norse Hill and many other San San estates were built during that halcyon period from the late 1950s to early 1970s when “jet set” became a common term and Port Antonio became known as a secluded haven for the jet set. People still talk about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton frolicking on the sparkling clean sands of Frenchman’s Cove.