Many Americans who visit Jamaica choose all-inclusive, lavish gated resorts, typically in Montego Bay, Negril or Ocho Rios. They are shuttled directly from the airport to the beach estates, and during their stays, they rarely stray from the premises. There they are treated to buffets and open bars but are insulated from much interaction with most Jamaicans. Port Antonio, on the other hand, is Jamaica a la carte, a more beautiful and less touristy slice of the island.
The real thing
Port Antonio is just north of the Blue Mountains, where the foothills spill scenically into postcard beaches. The region is one of the rainiest in Jamaica and thus one of the greenest and most vibrant. It's alive with colorful birds and sprinkled with lovely waterfalls and rivers. The town has modest and sometimes slightly rundown hotels and upscale villas, such as Goblin Hill, where we stay for three days.
Hibiscus on the bed
For about $130 a night, we had a one-bedroom villa with a small kitchen and a deck overlooking a cove where a solitary yacht rolled in the gentle waves. The neatly manicured 11-acre Goblin Hill has mango, avocado and coconut palm trees, tennis courts, a swimming pool and an idyllic hammock. Verona, the housekeeper assigned to us, placed fresh hibiscus on our mosquito-netted bed each day and -- if we wanted -- would shop and cook dinner for us. (Her services were included in the rate, but food was not.)
Port Antonio doesn't have a wild night life, as other Jamaican resort towns do, and dining and shopping options are limited. But it is a convenient jumping-off point to explore some of the island's natural beauty, such as Somerset Falls, which we pulled into on our way into town. A sign outside alerted us that the park was closed for renovations. But we were allowed to enter at our own risk -- saving the $5 per person fee. The falls are lovely, flowing through thick rain-forest foliage -- ferns, bamboo stands and philodendron. Cool, aqua-colored pools are ideal for wading.
Yes, that Blue Lagoon
On the other side of town, we parked at one of Jamaica's more beautiful and renowned landmarks: Blue Lagoon, where a teenage Brooke Shields was filmed swimming in the otherwise forgettable 1980 film of the same name. The color of this placid spring-fed cove reportedly changes with the sunlight and the time of day -- turquoise, azure, sapphire. Through the cool, glass-clear water we watched little blue and yellow fish investigating our toes.
Burgers and barstools
We stopped for lunch at Woody's Low Bridge Place, a jerk burger stand painted green and orange on the side of the road. (Jerk is Jamaica's ubiquitous spicy meat barbecue.) We sat on barstools and ordered Ting, a local grapefruit soda. Woody's is the kind of place that just feels right in wet bathing suits. Reading the inspirational sayings painted all over its colorful walls -- "Smile, it increases your face value" or "Killing time is not murder, it is outright suicide" -- kept us busy as we waited for our burgers to arrive.
Dinner on a hill
For dinner one night, we drove up to Mille Fleurs, perched 600 feet above Port Antonio and offering a panoramic view of the mountains and the Caribbean Sea. The restaurant, praised as one of the finest in Jamaica, is at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, a popular bird-watching destination. Before dinner, we watched a bright green long-tailed hummingbird, known as the doctor bird, flitting among the poolside flowers. We dined on delicious dolphin fish and rubbed chicken in sweet, hot papaya relish. Baked-on-the-premises bread was served with cayenne, herb and garlic butters. Three-course dinners average $40.
From LAX, Air Jamaica has nonstop service to Montego Bay. US Airways, American, Northwest and Delta have connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $378. For current entry/exit requirements, visit the U.S. State Department's site at http://travel.state.gov/travel/jamaica.html.
Where to stay
Goblin Hills Villas in Port Antonio has one- and two-bedroom villas on 12 acres of lawns and gardens. One-bedroom rates begin at $125, Dec. 15-April 14 and drop slightly after that; two-bedroom villas begin at $205; (800) 472-1148, www.goblinhill.com. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, P.O. Box 254, Port Antonio; (876) 993-7267, www.hotelmockingbirdhill.com. Doubles from $155.
For more info
For more lodging and sightseeing options, contact the Jamaica Tourist Board, 5201 Blue Lagoon Drive, Suite 670, Miami, FL 33126; (800) 233-4582, www.visitjamaica.com. Upcoming events include the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, Jan. 26-28, showcasing several genres, including country, jazz, R&B and reggae. Visit airjamaicajazzandblues.com for details and ticket information.