Local art and handicrafts at Jamaica
Local art and handicrafts at Jamaica

by Lee Foster

The Jamaica of my experience proved to be an intriguing but challenging destination to recommend. I looked at old Port Antonio, where tourism began in Jamaica a hundred years ago. After that immersion, I visited the more modern Ocho Rios, where the newer phase of planned all-inclusive resort tourism greets the traveler. In this article, I compare these two faces of Jamaica today.

The Jamaica I encountered was a Caribbean island with dependable warmth to thaw out wind-chilled northerners, with a reportedly glorious sun (even though it rained a little during my November trip), and with some lovely cream sand beaches (such as at my Dragon Bay Hotel in Port Antonio or Renaissance Jamaica Grande Resort in Ocho Rios).

Port Antonio

After flying into Kingston, I was driven across the mountains to Port Antonio. Be sure to have your hotel send a van to do this drive or get a local air shuttle from Kingston to Port Antonio or to Ocho Rios. The winding, potholed roads are challenging, even if you are skilled at driving on the left side of the road. Palatial villas of the rich in the hills above Kingston contrast dramatically with the grinding poverty of the countryside.  If you are bothered by poverty, this island, beyond the perimeters of the all-inclusive resort, will disturb you.

I admired some of the creative and energetic young Jamaicans, such as those who administer Mocking Bird Hill Hotel in Port Antonio, for trying to revitalize the area with an eco-tourism emphasis. This vision features guided trail walks in the green bush, benign and sustainable rafting on the Rio Grande, and even spelunking (try the Nonsuch cave for its caverns and for its view of the harbor from a promontory).

Some of Port Antonio’s tourism infrastructure, championed as a past playground of royalty, movie stars, and millionaires, reminded me of an aging dowager who had fallen on hard times. When my hotel, Dragon Bay, struggled to deliver hot water for a shower, it was time to stress the other virtues of the property, such as its seaside location and villa architecture.

Some positive aspects of the Port Antonio revival were the Art Gallery Carriacou at Mocking Bird Hill, showing various modern Jamaican artists who have transcended the “island art” label, and a Marine Reserve authorized to protect and preserve the waters immediately offshore. The land from the shore to the mountains has also been declared a conservation corridor, with restrictions on development or exploitation. The Portland district, where Port Antonio lies, is the richest in Jamaica in endemic species of plants. The fauna delights include numerous hummingbirds and the world’s second largest butterfly. A local conservation group, PEPA (Portland Environment Protection Association), can integrate the traveler into the local natural and cultural scene with snorkeling, fishing, and forest hike trips, or with excursions to see how coffee, bananas, and coconuts are farmed.

Jamaican blacks, about 97 percent of the population, have always had a difficult time. They arrived here as slaves, stripped of everything except the collective cultural heritage they carried in their heads. Formerly antagonistic African tribes were deliberately mixed to diminish the cohesiveness that could lead to rebellion. When blacks turn on the charm today, as black musician Tony Laing said to me, it may be showing just another survival skill from the plantocracy past of sugarcane enslavement. One of the ironies of our time is that the technology of magnetic tapes and CDs allowed black Reggae singers, from Bob Marley on, to present the song-words of relative illiterates to an international audience for a profit. These resulting royalties from the intellectual property of a sub-literate people still have not thrust blacks through the barrier of acceptance into the top strata of Jamaican society, according to Laing.


The potentially healthy period ahead in Jamaican art, literature, music, and even history-writing will have black Jamaicans interpreting themselves rather than relying on outsiders to characterize them. Jamaica was pegged formerly as the “calypso island” by Harry Belafonte’s songs, even though calypso is the beat of a neighboring island, Trinidad. Purists argue that the song and dance were alien to the true Jamaican culture. However, other observers counter that the only fate crueler than this caricature would have been for Jamaica to be not characterized at all and have no identity and hence no visitor interest.

Port Antonio is an area of unusual natural beauty, with two large harbors and a smattering of small islands. Some observers consider it the loveliest region in Jamaica. It is also the rainiest major resort area, which makes it so lush. The hillsides host banana plantings and wild bush growing luxuriantly in the limestone soil. Port Antonio thrived in the earlier banana culture. The setting reminds a visitor that the word Jamaica is believed to be a corruption of an Arawak Indian word meaning “land of wood and water.”

Local art and handicrafts at Jamaica
Local art and handicrafts at Jamaica

Jamaican Food

One of the satisfying places to go for lunch in Port Antonio  is the Blue Lagoon Restaurant, which sits aside a deep ocean hole whose waters cast off a deep blue light. At the Blue Lagoon Restaurant you can sample the food and drink for which Jamaica is famous. The beer of note is called Red Stripe. Your choice of beverage is either beer or rum. The rum is served in a fruit juice punch. The favorite main dish here is “jerked” meat or fish, meaning the meat, such as chicken, pork, or beef, and the fish, probably snapper, are marinated and then crusted with strong spices, especially allspice or pimento, the seeds from a tree which grows abundantly here. The meat or fish is roasted slowly, possibly with a pimento wood fire for further smoked flavor. The slow roast accounts for the retained juices and the flavors, which dance in the mouth. Your starch might be cassava or plantain, or perhaps rice and “peas” (meaning red beans), at this typical Jamaican meal. As a side dish there might be fresh papaya. Dessert could be a rum cake or a baked banana, rolled in coconut. You can finish off the meal with one of the choicest coffees in the world, Blue Mountain, grown in the mountain region between San Antonio and Kingston.

On other dining occasions sample two other ethnic elements that have mixed into Jamaican cuisine. One is East Indian curries, possibly in Curried Goat. The other is Chinese vegetables, in what is called here Chinese Chow Mein. A favorite breakfast dish is mackerel fish cooked with ackee, a fruit brought from Guyana in Africa.

Local markets often offer an outsider a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a destination, and Port Antonio’s market is no exception. The market features produce, from cassava to papaya, and crafts, from wood sculpture to carved cow horn. With poverty ubiquitous, expected to find in the market some aggressive beggars and vendors surly about being photographed without being paid.

An Art Market Metaphor

The tension in the air was palpable at the Port Antonio market.  When one of our party wanted to buy a wood carving of a dreadlocked Rastafarian head from local artist “Rockbottom” Girvan Rhoofe (his actual name), we were faced with the paradoxical situation of Rockbottom negotiating with us through a locked gate that was keeping him out of the market. Rockbottom had been unable to pay the rent for his market stall. Only after the sale did he have the funds to make the rent payment and get back into the market. One can’t help but feel, metaphorically, that some aspects of Port Antonio and the Jamaica beyond the all-inclusive resorts have hit rockbottom. The tourism direction it will go, hopefully, is up.

Many visitors to Jamaica, who don’t want to be hassled, simply find a good beach resort and never leave it, making their Jamaica experience a sun, sand, and relaxation vacation isolated from the outside culture. That is what I anticipated and experienced in the second phase of my trip at the Renaissance Jamaica Grande Resort in Ocho Rios.

It is educational, however, to venture out from the all-inclusive enclaves to begin to understand the roots of Reggae music, which has captivated audiences all over the world. The roots are in the painful history of Jamaican blacks. Black slaves fared a little better than the local Taino-Arawak Indians, who numbered an estimated 100,000 at the time of Spanish contact. The Arawaks were wiped out in a century due to illness, such as colds and measles, to which they had no immunity. Forced labor and outright execution finished off the Arawaks who escaped disease. One irony of the plantocracy slave period of sugarcane agriculture was that the black slaves were managed by overseers who were often themselves white slaves, namely indentured servants from Ireland, serving absentee English landowners.

Ocho Rios

After Port Antonio, I was driven west along the island’s north coast to Ocho Rios, with two stops. I visited Noel Coward’s home, called Firefly, located on a hill above Port Maria. Then I paused to peruse the art works at a gallery near Ocho Rios called Harmony Hall, where a range of Jamaican art is on display, from primitive paintings capturing the island in bright colors to modern abstract works.

Ocho Rios, an English version of the Spanish for “waterfalls” (rather than Spanish for eight rivers, as one might have mis-guessed), contrasts with Port Antonio. Ocho Rios is modern, while Port Antonio has a turn-of-the-20th-century laid-back tranquility and was actually founded in 1723. Ocho Rios was a sleepy fishing village that became a thriving touristic center. Port Antonio had a long history as a bustling port, exporting bananas. Port Antonio, where tourism began in Jamaica, now struggles valiantly to survive the upstart,  Ocho Rios, which drains away the business. Symptomatically, cruise ships that once stopped at Port Antonio now bypass it in favor of Ocho Rios. Ironically, it was a banana entrepreneur at the turn of the century who started tourism to Port Antonio. He wished to carry tourists down to Jamaica in the empty banana boats returning from New England and New York. To attract the wealthy travelers of the day with this freighter-travel-for-the-elite, a great hotel had to be built. So began Port Antonio tourism. Ocho Rios, by contrast, is a child of the jet age, and was mandated when mass tourism became technologically possible.

The Renaissance Jamaica Grande delivers what Jamaica promises in its all-inclusive resorts. There are several pools and plenty of beach, with all the beach toys. This modern facility works smoothly, so you can indeed indulge in that hot shower. The buffet dinner of my first night featured roast turkey and cranberries, catering to the North American crowd, rather than offering Jamaican jerked meat, but perhaps few visitors noticed or cared.

In contrast to the beach all-inclusive, Ocho Rios also boasts an unusual garden all-inclusive called Enchanted Gardens. The resort, which has fallen in ruins and closure at various times, is indeed enchanting, with 20 acres of gardens, numerous waterfalls, and an aviary, just as starters. Many of the horticultural pleasures of Jamaica can be enjoyed at this tranquil property.

Ocho Rios presents several attractions. Dunn’s River Falls, for example, is a spectacular and unusual waterfall. The water plunges through a series of naturally terraced rocky cascades and eventually emerges near the edge of the ocean. With a guide, visitors climb the quarter-mile of falls from the ocean to the top.

Shopping areas in Ocho Rios invite you to pick up some Blue Mountain Coffee, Jamaican rum, wood carvings, Reggae music CDs, bright-color oil paintings, and T-shirts (“Jamaica Me Crazy”) as souvenirs of this island trip.

After a rainy week during my November trip to Jamaica, I learned to pay closer attention to the wet and dry cycles for my next visit. March and October are said to be the wettest months and Port Antonio is the rainiest destination. Hurricanes can be a threat in August or September. January to March is said to be the sunniest time. When the weather is hot, there is a compensating cool trade wind, known locally as Doctor Breeze, which makes a visitor comfortable.

Jamaica can’t be championed as the least troubled or happiest island in the 2,800-mile arc of islands known as the Caribbean.  But Jamaica is big (third largest island in the Caribbean, 146 miles long and up to 51 miles wide) and its long-term cultural importance is substantial.

For the tourist who wants sun and sand without bother, Jamaica can deliver, if you stay at one of the all-inclusive resorts or in an all-amenity villa.  The all-inclusive is a Jamaican specialty that some would argue is a necessary phase of tourism development here, given the difficulties of life beyond the gates of the properties.

The traveler who also seeks a sense of place, however, will want to explore the towns of the north and east coast, or the capital of Kingston, despite some challenges alluded to in this report. Jamaica beyond the all-inclusive will appeal to a traveler who would like to cheer on a valiantly struggling underdog in the worldwide tourism competition.


Jamaica: If You Go

For further information contact the Jamaica Tourist Boardsite at www.visitjamaica.com.



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