When I travel to places for the first time, more than anything, I hope for experiences that will remain lucid and vibrant in my mind long after I unwedge my suitcase from the overhead bin on the return flight and I’ve typed up 1,000-plus words summarizing my stay. More than that, I crave trips that compel me to fill those pages with a description convincing enough for you to go and immerse yourself in exactly what I’m writing about, and — hopefully — absorb an equal amount of enjoyment from it as I did.
Unfortunately, I don’t always get what I want. Part of the “glamor” of being a writer privileged enough to go on epic voyages around the world is that, for almost the entire trip, almost every trip, you’re following a pre-set itinerary and operating on someone else’s (or, in most cases, many other people’s) time all day. (Not that it isn’t a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it’ll enable me to lay my eyeballs on as many places as possible before I succumbing to over-exhilaration.)
On a recent trip to Jamaica, despite having to wake up at inhumane hours and having to be punctual for a multitude of activities and meals, I found myself tapping into obscure, cheek-numbing feelings of wonder I hadn’t felt since childhood. Forget the Jamaica you’re accustomed to hearing about, its beaches strewn with overrated, oft-overblown, all-inclusive resorts filled with belly-busting, rum-guzzling idiots; the Jamaica that enraptured me was a world apart, imbued instead with a mix of rural Caribbean charm and a touch of opulence brought on by the presence of 5-star hotels and boutique hideaways that only in-the-know A-listers seem to know about — at least for now.
If you, like myself, had previously written off Jamaica as a tourist destination, …
If you, like myself, had previously written off Jamaica as a tourist destination because it’s a “resort factory” offering minimal differences from other Caribbean islands, save for jerk-spiced proteins and whatever element of culture you find at places like Sandals (read: a bottle of Appleton rum), you need to take a trip to Port Antonio and its surrounding areas in Portland Parish to get ya mind right. This is the Jamaican countryside, where Kingstonians go to take refuge from the relative hustle and bustle of as-city-as-you-can-get-in-the-Caribbean.
Forget about having to lay your eyes on the exposed, bulging guts of oblivious Scandinavian vacationers who lack the self-awareness to wear shirts in their correct size whenever you manage to venture beyond the unlimited booze in your hotel room; in Port Antonio, you’ll be spared the typical off-putting sights that are inescapable in the trendier, all-inclusive areas of the island (like Ochi, aka Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay), and you’ll get a feel for the Jamaica that the locals love. We’re talking real Jamaican culture, not some non-stop, debaucherous beach-party that’s simply in Jamaica and run by Jamaicans.
Part of what makes Port Antonio so ethereal is that no one seems to know about it, at least not anymore. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, this was a Hollywood hot-spot that beckoned to celebrities and global elites, especially after Errol Flynn, then a major movie star, started calling the area home (Flynn’s widow, Patrice Wymore, who passed away less than a week before I typed this sentence at age 87, was an area fixture for more than half a century after his passing in 1959). Starlets like Marilyn Monroe would flock here to commingle with famous musicians and politicians, in part for the sheer beauty emanating from the unspoiled surroundings, and, perhaps even more so, because of the rare private time it enabled them to enjoy. Only the palm trees and parrots know for sure what went down in this balmy, remote corner of the island way back then.
Today’s Port Antonio draws up a decidedly different description of this city that bananas built. If you polled a hundred random tourists who recently traveled to reggae’s homeland on whether their trip included time in “Portie” (as the city is affectionately referred to by those familiar with its serene streets and crystal-clear shores), my guess is that you’d find only a handful who had any inkling of where you were even talking about. And that’s depressing.
We already know that most tourists visit Jamaica for the all-inclusive resorts, which, unfortunately, don’t offer much in the line of culture or experiential components other than classic cliches: gangs of bros trying to hit on blasted hoochies barfing on the beach after two too many rum punches; the party boat blasting Ke$ha (excuse me, it’s Kesha sans $ now) and Pitbull songs on repeat while sweat-glistening bodies grind together amid the scent of tequila mixed with B.O. (delish!); and bachelor/bachelorette parties that get so rowdy that there’s a decent chance there won’t be any wedding anymore if any photos go public. If that floats your boat, then be my guest — you’ve got your pick of places that pride themselves on delivering that kind of action. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something with a lot more flavor and soul, Portie is the place to go.
I had the luxury of staying at The Trident, one of the finest establishments I’ve ever been fortunate to grace with my snoring. One of three hotel properties belonging to the Geejam Collection, a hospitality group run by former Island Records execs and local billionaires that also includes restaurants and bars in NYC, The Trident is a place for ballers who want to escape the rush of their hectic lives and remove themselves from the grid. It’s super-hip without going overboard, with a layout that shuns blatant extravagance for quiet, minimalist elegance with utmost attention to detail. And, with just 13 rooms — excuse me, villas — on the plush, seafront property, you won’t have to worry about a bunch of buffoons getting up in your business.
On top of The Trident’s exclusivity, it has every amenity you’ll need — and then some.
- Spa, gym, and private beach? Check.
- Swanky supper club with live blues band and prodigious American sushi chef working side-by-side with a local culinary master? Check plus plus.
- Library with rare reads, fancy antique billiards table, and a low-key, high-end bar brewing up Jamaican coffee and fresh-squeezed juices every morning and refreshing, tropical cocktails throughout the day until the sun melts into the sea? You know where this is going.
And we haven’t even discussed the villas.
The basic set-up, a Studio Villa, comes with 600 square-feet of interior space highlighted by a king bed, a 46-inch LED smart TV, a wet bar and mini bar, and a walk-in closet large enough to sleep your cousin in if traveling with extended family. The outdoor area is a sizeable 1000 square-feet, and is hooked up with a private terrace with views of the Caribbean Sea. During high season, which runs from mid-December through April 19, you can book one of these rooms, double-occupancy, for just over $550 a night (it drops to $450 per night the rest of the year).
Lucky me, I got room #3, a Deluxe Villa with 850 square-feet of interior space and a whopping 1500 square-foot outdoor area with a portico and a heated plunge pool that lights up in red, purple and blue at night. On top of the same bling you get in the Studio Villa, you also have a plush living room with an additional TV, a bathroom as spacious as a Manhattan apartment, and plenty of space to use as an office juuuuuust in case any colleagues back home find you. The shower was about 50 square feet on its own — perfect if you’re a famous rapper looking to bring your whole harem on vacay. It even has a second door leading to a private outdoor bathtub, which is pretty much as top-notch as you can get where I come from. Just make sure to check for spiders before jumping in.
Out in the common area, an infinity pool spills out into the sea, and cushioned lounge chairs with shady cabanas attached summon you to sit upon them. In the other direction, a pathway with lit up, rectangular pools in its center leads to the main lobby, with the bar and library off to the right, and Mike’s supper club to the left. A portico with curvy wicker chairs with red pillows sits off to the side of the walkway, and a manicured lawn with the most lifelike sculptures of sheep adds quirkiness and an air of mystery to the equation. (Why sheep?? Whyyyyyy???)
I’m a city guy, so dealing with the Trident’s solitude was admittedly strange at first. Because I’m not used to (a) being alone and (b) being apart from constant sirens, hollering vagrants, and the rhythmic clanking that come from living in a pulsating metropolis above a subway line, I felt a tad restless upon my arrival. This was mostly because my girlfriend was on a business trip of her own, fairly close by in South Florida, but way too far from me for my liking. Fortunately, I wasn’t completely isolated from humanity, as there were several other journalists on the trip, each dealing with the intensity of the area’s beauty in their own way. They helped me feel somewhat less-shitty about not being able to share the experience with my favorite person. (Key takeaway: bring loved ones with you to The Trident.)
After a blissful night’s sleep in our enormous beds, we met at The Veranda, another on-property restaurant that’s right on the opposite side of the main path from the portico if you’re facing the lobby. A hearty breakfast of boiled banana, Jamaican-style dumplings (which are basically nutritionless balls of boiled or fried dough; filler) and ackee and saltfish, Jamaica’s national dish (the edible part of ackee resembles scrambled eggs in appearance and texture when cooked, but the fruit has inedible parts and can be poisonous if improperly prepared. Don’t worry, though; being fed toxic ackee is a seldom occurrence), fueled our conversation as we mused how we might put this trip into words for our readers. After all: spending a mere two nights at The Trident is bittersweet, a tease, like scoring the proverbial nectar, only to have it confiscated after you begin to get hooked on its saccharine flavor. A place you might need to be dragged out of against your will when it’s time to return to reality.
The prevailing theme of our sentiments was that it would be impossible to convey just how idyllic the state of our surroundings was. “Readers will think we’re exaggerating,” remarked one. Another opined: “This place is like the pinnacle of tropical getaways. If I could afford this in ‘real life,’ this is where I’d disappear to.” And that was before we headed out of the resort for an adventure that would further cement Portie as one of the most gorgeous places any of us had ever traveled.
Contributing writer, Erik Mathes is a chef, wordsmith, and Chief Feaster @ Feasts of Fury, where he inspires readers and educates them on how to approach cooking and eating in a bold, new and fearless way. His work has been featured on such sites as Buzzfeed, Daily Meal and Yahoo! Travel.