A series of twisting outcrops protecting a natural harbour mark your arrival in the diminutive capital of St Mary, PORT MARIA. As you round the last bend, a stunning view of tiny and forested Cabarita Island is revealed, right in the middle of the bay and well known for its variety of bird species. Once one of Jamaica’s most picturesque towns – nestled around a crescent bay with lots of cut-stone and faded gingerbread fretwork alluding to more auspicious times – it’s now rather a scruffy place with little to keep you. West of the centre and marked by two sizeable royal palms at its gates is the quaint cut-stone St Mary Parish Church, dating back to 1861, with the weathered gravestones of its cemetery extending down to the sea. Nearby, in the middle of the playing field, is a monument to black freedom fighter Tacky, while the covered “ben-dung” fruit market (main day Friday) – so called as you must literally “bend down” to get items spread out over the ground – is a maze of dingy paths winding through piles of yams, bananas and assorted local produce.
A bridge crossing the murky Ochom River brings you into the centre of Port Maria, where the streets of yellow stone and timber are laid out in a rough grid. Bear in mind that the centre effectively shuts down on Wednesday afternoons – not a good time to appreciate the usual hustle and bustle. At the eastern end of town is Pagee Beach, where you can arrange a combined fishing trip and visit to Cabarita Island (approx US$25/person) with local fisherman “Wiggle”. He moors his boat at one end of the greyish sand, which, although strewn with sea grass and debris, extends in a long picturesque sweep backed by palms. If you’re here in early August come along to the annual Fisherman’s Regatta, held on the first Wednesday after Independence Day, which showcases a fishing competition as well as lining up all the local sound systems along the town’s streets.