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Footloose in Jamaica

Exotic Port Antonio Still the Essence of Jamaica

May 15, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica — It started right here with dock workers singing, "Hey, mister tallyman, tally me bananas, daylight comin' and I wanna go home," as banana boats sailed off to London, Boston and other ports.

Then somebody got the bright idea that it wasn't economical to have all those boats bob home empty. Why not bring back a few tourists in the hold and see if the dollars, pounds and other currencies would follow?

They did. And before long Jamaica became the preferred sun-soaked paradise of the Caribbean, a place to head when leaden skies and bone-chilling winds made denizens of such climes think of Harry Belafonte's songs of the lush and balmy life.

An Old Style

Then, as island resorts sprang into bloom like tropical flowers, a most unlikely thing happened.

Port Antonio, where it began, saw fit to hang onto its old ways, remaining the island's most beautiful port in a landfall of fern trees, breadfruit, palms, orchids and other exotica.

Port Antonio wasn't exactly dead in the water during the last several decades. It spruced up a bit with luxury hotels that blend into the tropical setting, cottage colonies and villas, plus most of the comforts and amenities you'll find at resort centers farther west along the northern coast.

But mainly, the town has remained the essence of Jamaica, where "higglers" in the market beat any hotel's programmed entertainment, and the best and spiciest jerk pork on the island is sold from roadside pits just outside town.

Here to there: Air Jamaica flies nonstop to Kingston or Montego Bay. From there it's a short hop with the same line to Port Antonio. Eastern and Continental will also get you to Kingston with changes.

How long/how much? Three or four days will do it, but if you give it a week you'll be totally relaxed. You'll find a moderate-to-expensive range in lodging prices, some really cheap. Dining is always reasonable.

Rain in May, October

A few fast facts: Our dollar recently bought 5.5 of Jamaica's, making theirs worth 18 cents. May and October may bring a bit of rain but the rest of the year is gorgeous. And there's a departure tax of $40 Jamaican.

Getting settled in: Bonnie View (on hill above town; $58 double in winter, $51 May through December) has the best view in Port Antonio, making you realize why locals say that after God created this town, he retired.

Run by an extremely affable Jamaican, the modest but cheerful rooms are furnished simply, each with a balcony to take the place of air conditioning; baths with showers only. The Blue Mountains frame a pleasant pool and outdoor bar. The very good restaurant serves both Jamaican and continental fare on that terrace overlooking the world.

DeMontevin Lodge (21 Ft. George St.; $46 double, $36 sharing bath) is a Georgian house with a distinct grandmotherly feel, the downstairs parlor a medley of unmatched furnishings, some covered with plastic, but fine old tiles and an attractive wooden staircase. Bedrooms are old-fashioned and simple, some with good views of town. The place is famous for great Jamaican food, prepared by Errol Flynn's former cook.

Fern Hill Club (on hill above town; $75-$95 double) is a delightful place on 40 acres of rolling tropical land. Most people love it so much that they stay for a week, taking advantage of excellent package deals that include meals, wine and drinks, live entertainment, tennis, windsurfing and a multitude of other perks at reasonable rates. Open dining room of white- wicker furniture covered with sky-blue fabric, a lovely pool and private beach. It's a Canadian-owned place of great friendliness.

Jerk Pork

Regional food and drink: Jerk pork is to Jamaica what hot dogs are back home, and it goes like this: Marinate the pork overnight in a mix of allspice, onions, garlic, lots of pepper and nutmeg. Place in a charcoal pit on a grid made of allspice wood, cover with allspice leaves and cook 8 to 11 hours.

It's always eaten with breadfruit or hard-dough bread, and usually served on a suitably greasy piece of butcher's paper or newsprint. Let's just say that with jerk pork, you've got a hunk of heaven in your hand.

Akee, a bland tropical fruit native to Africa, loses it blandness when it's boiled and blended with onions, pepper and salt cod. This is a favorite Sunday breakfast that may take two weeks to get used to. We much prefer the curried goat with rice, or the marvelous peppered shrimp. Good seafood is always available.

Most Jamaicans seem to prefer their glorious rums with Ting, a bottled soft drink of grapefruit. Jamaica's marvelous Appleton rum deserves much better.

Moderate-cost dining: Blue Lagoon (on Blue Lagoon) sits beside one of the beauty spots of the area, a casual and informal place with wooden tables and chairs and a funky old bamboo bar.

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