Port of cool

Two easy-chic hotels and some well-judged backing from local VIPs are seeing the once-glamorous Port Antonio region of Jamaica enjoy a rocking renaissance, says James Henderson

The pool-to-lobby walkway at the Trident Hotel, Port Antonio
The pool-to-lobby walkway at the Trident Hotel, Port Antonio | Image: Photo Courtesy of Katie Martin at aandrphotographic.co.uk

Port Antonio in Jamaica is not a place that registers conspicuously – indeed, if at all – in travel consciousness at the moment. So it is a surprise to discover that this quiet but exceptionally pretty area – the greenest of an overwhelmingly green and beautiful island – has been the Caribbean’s most prestigious destination not once, but twice. And it looks as though the area is on the rise again.

A century ago, Port Antonio was the Caribbean’s first tourist “resort”, in a rather more elegant age of that phenomenon. Rudyard Kipling, JP Morgan and William Randolph Hearst all came, sailing in on the banana boats to escape the winter cold, for two or three months at a time. Unfeasibly, there was a 400-room hotel in the tiny town, complete with orchestras and a ballroom.

Later, it became a favoured Hollywood retreat. Errol Flynn and friends Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers visited, as did Noël Coward, Ian Fleming, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. With this second influx came established money. Baron von Thyssen, the Weston family (then owners of Fortnum & Mason) and the Aga Khan were so struck by the place that they built homes here.

Trident’s swimming-pool terrace
Trident’s swimming-pool terrace | Image: Photo Courtesy of Geejam Collection

But life’s processes are accelerated in Jamaica: fences become hedges before your eyes and a house unloved will be throttled by bush in a decade. More pertinently, a single hurricane can destroy a monoculture, and international issues loom over the region. When the United States sneezes, they say, the Caribbean catches cold. Over the past few decades, Port Antonio and the beautiful beaches tucked into its meandering coastline have been lagooned and bypassed. While the rest of Jamaica has been building madly – all-inclusives, fast roads, new ventures – “Portie” has stuttered. This may well have been its saving. “It’s in a time capsule – unspoilt by development and undoubtedly the most beautiful place on the planet,” says Jon Baker, who has been coming here since the mid-1980s and now lives here much of the time.

Baker and his business partner, Steve Beaver – both in the international music business – are co-founders of the Geejam Collection, which has recently reopened an old colonial classic, the Trident Hotel. Working with a firm of young architects, Atelier Vidal from Kingston, they have completely rebuilt and relaunched it.

The Geejam Collection came out of a previous, very different hotel of the same name, which opened nearby in 2008. The original Geejam, which has just seven rooms, is set on a steep and jungly hillside above San San, a few miles to the east of the town. It is a lovely confection of striking reds and tropical greens, with grey river stones embedded into white hillside paths that lead through rampant undergrowth to peeking views. The rooms are hidden away among the greenery, which makes them exceptionally private if you wish, while the balcony at the Bushbar – the dining room and bar – is the nightly gathering point. It is seemingly suspended in the air, with an amazing view down to the coast and the bay below, and overseen by extremely efficient and charming staff.

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Interestingly, Geejam was built around a recording studio, which is hidden in the forest on the property. Bands do come to record there – Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys among them – and the small hotel hosts its share of off-duty celebrities. And since Baker and Beaver are fans of technology, there is a huge playlist of songs, accessible both in the rooms and at the Bushbar. Life proceeds at an easy lilt here. All in all, Geejam has a very cool vibe, parked in a jungle.

Trident is a rather different prospect. To begin with, its traditional style wasn’t necessarily a natural fit for the Geejam Collection. “With my roots in punk music, and being appalled by colonialism and all it stood for, I thought it would be a real no-no,” says Baker. “But the era of tuxedos is gone, and in a world of boutique hotels we saw that Trident could have a new resonance.” So the tropical neoclassical of the old Trident has been tempered, and self-important Georgian has been tweaked into something lighter, straighter, rectilinear. The original white walls and steeply angled roofs, with their weathered shingles and white ridge caps, have been retained, but the columns and arches have been removed or re-engineered. In your first view, through the foyer, slender palms strike vertical lines against the broad sea horizon.

Trident sits on a section of “ironshore” (a ledge of brutalised coral limestone), where the 15 or so villas are each sectioned off to create inviolable space with a sea view. Within, indoors and outdoors meld into one another (for example, in the bathroom). The limestone ups and runs towards you, in tile form around the pool terrace and then, polished, into the rooms. Air is coaxed through louvred “cooler boxes” at the rear, whipped by fans around the tray ceilings and cast out through open doors. Furniture – all in muted tones and natural woods, against an off-white backdrop – is mid-20th century, a mix of mainly Scandinavian pieces that give an air of minimalist, functional luxury.

The Time Bar at the Trident
The Time Bar at the Trident | Image: Photo Courtesy of Katie Martin at aandrphotographic.co.uk

So much for the setting; the subtler arts of hotel-keeping lie in the creation of atmosphere. Where Geejam is off-beat in so many things, Trident offers international levels of comfort and exclusivity and will appeal to a more discerning clientele. It is something new for Jamaica – it updates the mannered elegance of the traditional hotels on the island into a modern tropical luxury. This said, it still has its impish moments: one of your first sights on arrival will be the statues of sheep “mowing” the lawn.

And, once again, the staff are cool. Robert Taylor, 6ft 6in and rake thin, presides over food and beverage, and in a melodious Jamaican cadence intones: “We start with standard English, and we are formal with the people who want that, but a lotta guests who come here want to experience a bit of Jamaican culture. When it’s right, we let staff ‘flex’ a little, and show their character.”

It’s also there in the music. As Beaver says: “Music runs through the veins of the Geejam Collection.” Both properties have a resident band. Geejam’s Jolly Boys, who play at the Bushbar on Saturday nights, have recently made an international splash. With an average age of about 70, they have revived mento (the rhythm in Jamaica until the 1950s, before its transformation into ska and then reggae), but they cover numbers as varied as The Stranglers’ Golden Brown and Amy Winehouse’s Rehab.

Trident villa’s outdoor bath
Trident villa’s outdoor bath | Image: Photo Courtesy of Katie Martin at aandrphotographic.co.uk

Trident has turned to something more sophisticated and international: jazz, which is evident in the backing music of the unexpectedly urbane bar and Mike’s Supper Club. Here, Mike’s All-Star Jazz Band has a repertoire of classics that would have been familiar old standards to Port Antonio’s guests in the 1950s. However – ever one to kick the formula – Baker has recognised Jamaica’s musical prowess by steeping the tunes in the island’s rhythms as well. It’s a lively evening out.

I’ll vouch happily for life in Villa 10 at Trident, soaking up books in one of the many chairs and loungers – my favourite being the Barlow Tyrie daybed, with its quotation-mark footstool. Around me the waves hissed on the rocks. The stay was broken by trips to the hotel’s beach and the gym for a session of stretch therapy. But after a while you begin to look outside.

Life out and about in Jamaica is a visual and aural, sometimes verbal, onslaught. In the town it’s a walk-on part in the theatre of the street – the backchat, the music, the eccentric style. In fact, you might conclude that the main characteristic the Jamaicans took from three centuries of British colonisation was eccentricity. Where else would a man wear a dust mask on his head as an accoutrement of style? “Oh yes,” I am told. “And on another day he’ll cock it to the side for that added effect.”

The Ska Cabin at the Geejam hotel, Port Antonio
The Ska Cabin at the Geejam hotel, Port Antonio | Image: Photo Courtesy of Geejam Collection

The parish of Portland is rough and mountainous, and fantastically pretty. Undergrowth creeps, canopies explode, all in a million shades of green. In places it is botanical pandemonium. Errol Flynn famously declared that the harbour of Port Antonio was more beautiful than any woman he knew.

On a drive around the area I discover that there are other projects on the go, fronted by the Geejam Collection but backed by Jamaica’s richest man, Michael Lee-Chin, who grew up in Port Antonio. He headed for Canada, where his success has enabled him to return and buy Jamaica’s NCB bank. He has already built a new courthouse in the town and is behind a handful of projects aimed at giving the area a new lease of life.

In Port Antonio we pause at the marina, now fitted out for large yachts. Next we visit Trident Castle, a party-bucket of mock-medieval towers, turrets and battlements set on a point for maximum visibility. Greeted by statues of crocodiles, you pass into an impressive hall with metal lanterns and huge Chinese urns. Further along the coast, the Blue Lagoon is an extraordinarily attractive natural feature. It is a near-circular pool 100m across, walled by greenery, its water a glowing aquamarine and azure, laced with warm and cold currents.

The Ska Cabin at the Geejam hotel
The Ska Cabin at the Geejam hotel | Image: Photo Courtesy of Geejam Collection

“It used to be a Sunday ritual to come down the Blue Lagoon to have lunch and swim,” says Beaver. Travellers come from all over the island to visit. In the more recent past it has had an unpleasant atmosphere, the domain of persistent hustlers. Geejam Collection will be cleaning the place up, rebuilding the waterfront restaurant and the handful of rooms and then creating a garden and spa in the coming months.

Not far off is Frenchman’s Cove, Jamaica’s most famous beach (in countless films, from Lord of the Flies to Cocktail and, most recently, Knight and Day). Incoming waves are pinched by the two miniature headlands that almost enclose the bay, before they splay and break gently onto the curved white sand. But the true beauty of the place is assured by the river that cuts in from the rear, pooling on one side in a shallow, tranquil lagoon.

On the headlands above the bay are the villas of a still (just) working hotel, though it is a far cry from the days when Winston Churchill and the Queen and Prince Philip visited in the 1960s. It is ripe for redevelopment. Elsewhere money is creeping back in already. The old villas on the hills of San San are beginning to see new life.

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Besides its beaches, Portland has some of the most beautiful inland waters. We take a trip to Reach Falls, where we walk and wade several hundred yards up the river, in and out of the sunlight, which is cast in angled shafts through the greenery, lighting up the rockpools.

Next we go river rafting on the Rio Grande – something Errol Flynn is reputed to have started here for pleasure. However, it is precisely the opposite of white-water rafting. The rafts, made of 10m lengths of bamboo, were originally used to transport bananas from inland plantations to the coast. Now, they have a seat for two, with bamboo beer-bottle holders. Poled by a raftsman, you slide between riverbanks that clamber with plant life, exploding in puffs of bamboo and hanging with curtains of tendrils.

For two and a half hours you are captive, among wild beauty, in silence broken only by the occasional squawk of a bird. From time to time the river passes over a gentle rapid – a small roar comes upon you as the water chuckles over the rocks and then the river quietens down once more. You jump into the luminescent-green water of the rockpools and drift on the languid current. It is one of the most relaxing things I have ever known.

And then, after the momentary cacophonous press of Port Antonio, it’s back to Trident’s Villa 10, which restores a similar level of calm.

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