Portland, north of the Blue Mountains, is generally considered the most beautiful of Jamaica’s parishes – a rain-drenched land of luscious foliage, sparkling rivers and pounding waterfalls. Eastern Jamaica’s largest town, Port Antonio, is an attractive destination in itself, but most visitors prefer to base themselves along the exquisite coastline heading east, containing fabulous beaches, the Blue Lagoon and a number of exquisite hotels. The surf-pounded stretches of sandy beach at Long Bay and Boston Bay are well-established destinations for budget travellers, who come for the waves and chilled-out atmosphere – while roadside vendors at Boston Bay also do a roaring trade in authentic jerk pork and chicken. The gorgeous waterfalls at Somerset Falls and Reach Falls are within striking distance wherever you stay, while heading into the John Crow Mountains in the interior you can be poled down the Rio Grande on a bamboo raft or hike through the rainforest along the centuries-old trails of the Windward Maroons.
Portland’s history is distinctly one of boom and bust. The parish was officially formed in 1723, one of the last to be settled, despite Port Antonio being blessed with two natural harbours. Reports of the difficult terrain and the constant threat of Maroon warfare had deterred would-be settlers, though eventually the Crown was obliged to offer major incentives, including land grants, tax exemptions and free food supplies. The early economy was dependent on sugar until a surprise replacement crop – bananas – proved perfect for Portland’s fertile soil towards the end of the nineteenth century. Port Antonio boomed, ushering in a golden era of prosperity with businessmen pouring in, and in 1905 the town’s first hotel was built on the Titchfield peninsula. Cabin space on banana boats was sold to curious tourists, who rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous – publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, banker J.P. Morgan, actress Bette Davis – swanning in on their private yachts.
The boom proved to be short-lived, though the high-end tourism it had helped to engender remained. With the enthusiastic patronage of movie stars like Errol Flynn, Port Antonio’s place in the glitterati’s global playground was assured, and Jamaica’s first luxury hotel was built at Frenchman’s Cove – to this day a testament to faded glamour. The movie business injected much-needed capital, too, in the 1980s and 1990s – films shot here include Cocktail, The Mighty Quinn, Club Paradise and Lord of the Flies. Celebrities still sequester themselves in Portland, but the area can’t compete with Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios for mass tourism. Although Portland is a long way from the prosperity of its heyday, its natural water features and beauty spots are open to anyone who cares to find them – a lower-key Jamaica that’s a welcome change for many visitors travelling the island.