Mon | Feb 24, 2020

Portland’s renaissance – big names invest in Jamaica’s jewel

Published:Wednesday | January 8, 2020 | 12:18 AMJanet Silvera - Hospitality Jamaica Coordinator
Villas on the Blue Lagoon.
Villas on the Blue Lagoon.

Portland, the cradle of Jamaica’s tourism, and a renowned playground for Hollywood stars, is finally getting its long-awaited renaissance.

According to Jon Baker of Geejam, Portland, particularly its capital, Port Antonio, is in the final part of its gestation period, set to be capped by the impending construction of the highway from Harbour View in Kingston to the birthplace of jerk, which will reduce travel time from the Norman Manley International Airport to the resort town by more than one-half.

“I can actually say now, it does seem that the moon and the stars are aligned for real happenings, notwithstanding the road, which is coming from Harbour View all the way around to Port Antonio. I’ve seen the plans for that, and I know that is the game-changer,” Baker told Hospitality Jamaica.

He said that for the past two decades, Portlanders have been waiting with bated breath for things to materialise, seemingly in vain, but now, the home of the world-famous Blue Lagoon and Blue Mountain Coffee is set to return to its former glory and ­prestige, with megastars such as Diplo of Major Lazer and others already making real estate ­investments there.

“You’ve got several people who have taken over old villas and old pieces of land and are building their own dream in their own way. And this is not dissimilar to what happpened in the ’50s when Baron Buntess and Aga Khan and the Weston family fell in love with the same place,” Baker said.

And Jamaicans have taken advantage of the real estate offerings, among them Ronnie Elmhirst, owner of East Winds Cove. Wilks, another guest house, and the Tropical Lagoon have also been acquired by Jamaicans.

“I am seeing not just foreigners buying and renovating villas in the San-San area, but a lot of Jamaicans are,” Baker said.

“So I think the renaissance is definitely on, and the road is going to make a huge difference. With the calculations done by the road people, and the plans I saw, it will be one hour and 20 minutes from Harbour View to Port Antonio. That’s a game-changer,” he stressed.

Historical records attribute the start of tourism in Port Antonio, and, by extension, Jamaica, to businessman Lorenzo Dow Baker (no known relation to Jon Baker), who came to Jamaica in 1870 and who was also credited with single-handedly jump-starting banana production for export on the island.

Baker, it was said, after a time, began to use his steamships to transport tourists in addition to bananas. The guest houses that were built for his workers and officers were also used to house the visitors at the time. He later built the 400-room Titchfield Hotel in the early 1900s, heralding the start of Jamaica’s biggest income-earning industry.

Portland as a destination is a popular haunt of the rich and famous. Port Antonio itself is the favourite destination of many Hollywood stars, including Errol Flynn and Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth Taylor, and more recently, Jay Z and Beyoncé and Tom Cruise and others. It has the setting for ­numerous Hollywood films, the last being the upcoming James Bond which was shot there last year.

Baker said Portland has what he described as a ‘phenomenal repeat business’ despite the roadway from Kingston having a stranglehold on the tourists. He said guests oftentimes describe their stay as incredible life-changing experience, enhanced by the fact that unlike other resort areas, Portlanders are not pushy and they can roam the towns and the countryside unhindered, just like ordinary Jamaicans do.

“It’s just a different mindset, a different energy than what you get where mass tourism has there for so many years. People don’t feel like tourists when they are here; they feel like part of the community. That’s special to Portland and that one thing that reoccurs in people’s account of their experience in Portland and I think it is something money can’t buy; it’s just a natural phenomenon,” he said.

I think we are coming to a conclusion of a very intense couple of years and I think it’s time for everyone to see what we are doing an celebrate and it’s not just us, here are numerous small pockets of people that are doing things in Port Antonio and that are both Jamaican and foreign. It feels right. I am very optimistic, not just for Portland but for Jamaica,” he said.