East Portland: A Picture of Long, Slow Decay With a Few Glimmers of Hope


I am very fond of the eastern parish of Portland. It is always described as “lush and green,” and so it is. It has the lowest crime rate on the island; it is quiet, sleepy almost. It has some lovely beaches (although most of them you have to pay for) and the environment is relatively unspoiled. The depredations of the huge mass market Spanish hotels that completely ruined the North coast and Negril have not (yet) reached that far east. However, one of the reasons why it has remained relatively quiet and unspoiled is there is not much economic activity going on. Unemployment is high and the eastern part of the parish has become almost a permanent backwater, where only the rich enjoy themselves in exclusive villas here and there (mostly on weekends, when they come down from Kingston) and the rest of the population tries to get by as best it can.

One of the lovely villas at Fern Hill Club, just across the road from Frenchman's Cove and some way up the hill. The views are beautiful. I hear all the roofs are now caving in.
One of the lovely villas at Fern Hill Club, just across the road from Frenchman’s Cove and some way up the hill. The views are beautiful. I hear all the roofs are now caving in.

But eastern Portland has been slowly decaying for many years. The famous Blue Lagoon (locally known as Blue Hole) was, last time I was there, a shadow of its former self populated by hustlers. The little restaurant and bar on that deep, mysterious water, where we had many happy times with visiting family, has fallen into ruin. One of my favorite places – the absolutely beautiful Fern Hill Club property, on a green hillside filled with birds, fruit trees and a lovely garden, has also fallen into disrepair – including the villas on the hilltop, where we stayed with my parents. The roofs are falling in.

Winnifred's Beach is one of the few remaining public beaches in this part of Portland, although as you go further towards St. Thomas you will find some more. It's still lovely and reasonably clean, if over-populated with shacks. (My Photo)
Winnifred’s Beach is one of the few remaining public beaches in this part of Portland, although as you go further towards St. Thomas you will find some more. It’s still lovely and reasonably clean, if over-populated with shacks. (My Photo)

As you can tell, we are quite sad for Portland – or at least, the part of Portland that we once loved. Even the “rootsy” restaurants where we used to spend lazy afternoons, eating fish and drinking cold beers in Long Bay are mostly gone – blown away by one of the hurricanes. One or two scruffy-looking bars remain. Besides, much of Long Bay’s beach is gone – it is about half as wide as it was ten years ago. Then a little further up the road is Boston, the “Home of Jerk.” It is noisy, somewhat unsanitary and again, filled with hustlers. It also now has a go-go bar or two (human trafficking, anyone?) It was once great fun eating there on the rickety wooden tables and chairs; the jerk sauce is still awesome. Now it is simply unpleasant and tawdry; not a place that I would stop at for a bite to eat.

The Parish Capital, Port Antonio is overwhelmed with garbage, mainly from vendors and small businesses. It smells. What was once a charming seaside town with some character and a few “gingerbread” buildings has become increasingly dirty and chaotic over the years. And it doesn’t even have a good restaurant – unless you are a KFC fan, I suppose. Which I am not!

This is what Dragon Bay used to look like. Now, even the sign at the end of the lovely, wooded walk down to the property has broken down. So now, it will join the ranks of the Sandals all-inclusives...
This is what Dragon Bay used to look like. Now, even the sign at the end of the lovely, wooded walk down to the property has broken down. But then, it will join the ranks of the Sandals all-inclusives…

Well, there is one piece of good news: The Dragon Bay Resort was one of our favorite spots; it was renovated after Hurricane Gilbert (we used to go there post-Gilbert when it was a ruin, but the little beach still lovely) and was a friendly, thriving little resort, always fully booked. Then years later it was bought by the Sandals Group, who promptly closed it. It will be “redeveloped” as a Sandals resort, with a scheduled opening in 2019, providing those much-needed jobs; Minister Daryl Vaz made this announcement earlier this week. The Minister added that more tourism projects (hopefully sustainable and eco-friendly) will be coming on stream, and that the roads are to be upgraded. I really hope this will happen – this time. Please pardon a touch of cynicism here, as Portlanders have been promised “more development” and “better roads” for literally decades. One will believe it when one sees it.

One more thing: San San – and this is downright depressing, to me. The person who owns the iconic Pellew Island (or “Monkey Island” as it is popularly called, I’ve never figured out why) has decided, once again, that he/she wants to build villas on it. So, there will be a Public Meeting (date to be announced), organized by the Portland Parish Council and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to allow people to air their views on the matter. It baffles me that this place is actually under private ownership and not a national park. It has appeared in numerous Jamaica Tourist Board ads, and is a beautiful little landmark, with a tiny beach (everything in Portland is quite small – and therefore easily spoiled). The island is supposed to represent the pristine, beautiful environment of Jamaica. What’s left of it! And now even this lovely spot is in danger. Note: I corrected this section. An ad appeared in the paper re: a public meeting on January 19. This will  NOT take place, I have discovered – but there will be one. And the island IS slated for development. Stay tuned!

Pristine? I don’t think the owners of San San Beach, which is a stone’s throw from the island, care much about a pristine environment these days. This narrow, silvery beach, which becomes shaded by trees on the hillside behind it in the afternoon, is a place to dream on. When our son was a young boy, we spent many happy hours wading in the warm, crystal clear shallows where fish darted and sea snakes sat curled up on the sandy bottom. It is a wonderful place for swimming and snorkeling. I had the most magical experience there, which I will never forget. I was swimming a little way out when I heard loud snorting and splashing behind me. Two dolphins caught up with me, dived up and down alongside me and then, having satisfied their curiosity, swam on. I could have reached out and touched them, if I had not been so overwhelmed with excitement. It was unforgettable.

I doubt this garbage was brought in by the sea - but whether it was or not, please keep beautiful San San Beach clean! Doesn't it deserve it? (Photo: Facebook)
I doubt this garbage was brought in by the sea – but whether it was or not, please keep beautiful San San Beach clean! Doesn’t it deserve it? (Photo: Facebook)

That was San San then. This is now: A friend went there over the holiday with visitors. They were charged J$700 per head – a bit steep. However, the worst part was that when they stepped on the beach, it was strewn with garbage. The son of the owner, who had been sleeping on a lounger on the beach, made an excuse that the sea brings in the garbage. He also told the visitors that if they didn’t like it, he would give them a refund. They did not like it, and got their refund, heading off to virtually the only public beach in the area, Winifred’s, which still manages to retain some of its calm, laid-back beauty. I suppose the garbage remains on San San Beach.

The Alligator Head Foundation in eastern Portland is certainly a glimmer of light and hope. It has established a Marine Park and Protected Area. (My Photo)
The Alligator Head Foundation in eastern Portland is certainly a glimmer of light and hope. It has established a Marine Park and Protected Area. (My Photo)

Please note: The Alligator Head Foundation has just got this area gazetted as a Marine Park. I wish them luck, but it is certainly one very positive effort that I would fully support. 

I apologize to the residents of Portland; I am not mincing my words, because I feel so deeply about the place that I have known and loved for over thirty years. The only place that we go to now in this area is Frenchman’s Cove. Although it has also seen better days, and some of the villas are in disrepair, the rooms are nice and clean. The beautiful grounds, the beach and river are very well kept and the little restaurant on the beach serves pretty good food at reasonable prices. It’s clean, comfortable and relaxing (and it has great birds!)

Other parts of Jamaica have completely lost their character and beauty, due to over-development and sheer bad planning. I’ve given up on those places long ago. Eastern Portland is in a way the opposite, in a way the same. It is shabby, neglected – but in many ways also, abused. It breaks my heart. 

I often hear Jamaicans say: “Oh, Portland! My favorite parish!” Well, sadly it has slipped way down my personal charts. It has always had pretensions, but has, in the end, disappointed.

Yes, I know. Places change. But please… Could Portland change for the better?

Please.

 


12 thoughts on “East Portland: A Picture of Long, Slow Decay With a Few Glimmers of Hope

  1. Fern Hill complex has a magnificent view of the Caribbean. About two years ago I had the occasion to visit the property, and it is indeed in a state of decay. It would make an ideal location for a Medical Tourism Resort & Spa.
    However, it would need a huge influx of capital to make it habitable again. All the villas and the main reception area need new roof. The tropical breeze from the Caribbean is heavenly. Watching the breakers pounding Alligator Head point is something to behold. I hope some wealthy persons re-discover it soon, likewise Bonnie View in Port Antonio.

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    1. Yes, Fern Hill is in a terribly sad state. It is a beautiful property, with pools, a lovely garden and a little complex of three villas at the top with its own pool too. The view up there is just heavenly. We used to stay there when my parents visited – it was quite idyllic, they just loved it. It would need a great deal to revive it now, but could be done. It would be perfect for a spa type of resort. It needs rescuing urgently!

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  2. From 1990 to 2013 we spent 1 to 4 months every yr. In Port Antonoio. From the beginning We were shocked and saddened that the JA govt’, both local and federal, seem only interested in promoting an area if a large, very up-scale resort is involved. There has always seemed to be a fundamental sense of embarrassment regarding the small, locally-run businesses, whether guest houses or cook shops. Yrs ago I actually read a reference by a local tourism promoter that pretty much wrote off the area until a 5-star hotel was developed. Yet the small, family-run guest houses, the small cookshops and restaurants have not only kept this area viable but have endeared it to thousands of budget-traveling visitors. It is disheartening to read, after more than 27 yrs., that the JA gov’t is still mired in its colonial, only-respect-the-rich past.

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    1. Yes, we are now witnessing a buzz of activity (road repairs etc.) since the announcement of the Sandals additions to Dragon Bay.
      I agree that while it is of course sorely needed, it is regrettable that necessary infrastructure for the existing and smaller properties who also need easy access by road, has has to await a large investor to get it going.

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    2. I don’t really understand that mentality either – shared by successive governments – that unless it’s “big” it’s not worthwhile, as far as tourism was concerned. Portland is a perfect area for small hotels, villas and restaurants – and they have been mostly ignored. It has that kind of feel to it and “all inclusive” (or rather, EXclusive) hotels will not enhance the beauty and the lovely atmosphere of the place. It is a shame, I agree.

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  3. I too was there and the mess was disgraceful. (By the way, the
    San San beach is not leased by the government. But that is a long story…)
    However, what was worse than the garbage littered beach which continued all along its several hundred yards extent, is -attention NEPA – the blocked drains, particularly under the bridge at the eastern head of the beach. This is supposed to be, and has been for all the nearly 50 years that I have known and used the beach, the outlet for a stream which runs under the road in a culvert, allowing passage to rain water which runs down three steep hillsides and collects in a lot reserved for this purpose, on the other side of the road.
    A marine biologist explained to me that this blockage is the reason why there is now largely muddy water all along what was the pristine eastern half of the beach. The water in the stream has no way out except underground and is taking the earth with it into the sea, which will soon be followed by the sand previously supported by the earth. Obviously the manager of the beach has no concept of beach preservation and management. There are also now pipes leading into the sea from the wetlands behind the beach. This may be intended to dry up the land for ‘development ‘ but it also means ‘goodbye beach’. Add to that the bulldozing of trees and the vegetation for 40 feet back from the beach.
    I took photos of the conditions described above. I also have photos for comparison, of a far happier period, showing a site of breathtaking beauty. The muddy water is now extending down two thirds of the beach and will soon cover it all, unless action is taken immediately, by NEPA, to investigate and set this right.
    Why are the regulatory agencies not responding to obvious breaches of the environment? If we do not raise the alarm there will no longer exist this perfectly beautiful part of JAMAICA. Continuous interest and insistence on the part of stakeholders and those who love Port Antonio is vital and the only solution. Port Antonio has so much good in its future as the only area which boasts a tree and bird sanctuary as well as a fish sanctuary, that it should not be allowed to go horribly wrong. I am grateful to the writer of this blog for writing, instead of throwing up her hands in despair.

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    1. Oh yes, I remember that drain. This is terrible. The eastern half of the beach that I describe, with that clear shallow water, was what I remember and loved (back in the 90s). Largely muddy water? How sad. Oh NO. What you have described is terrible and will obviously lead to the degradation and eventual disappearance of the beach. I also loved the trees there, so close to the beach. I guess the roots and plants would help to anchor the sand? Thank you SO much for this very important and detailed response. You are of course right, it will take people who know, love and live in the area to keep making a fuss until things improve. If you are willing to share your photos I will be happy to post them on this platform, with your comments. Photos really tell the story. I have not walked on San San Beach for a long time, so I only remember the beauty of it “before”… one of my favorite places in the whole of Jamaica. Yes, the area does have SO much going for it – it’s not beyond repair and it is so wonderful. We need Guardians and Protectors! THANK YOU for your contribution…

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  4. All sad but true. I was there when the San San incident occurred and had repeatedly asked the caretaker to rake up the moss and debris from the shore to no avail. When landmarks like these are leased the government should ensure that certain standards are maintained, if not end the lease.

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    1. Hi Colette: I did not know that the beach was leased from the Government. I thought they actually owned it. These are just my personal views, and whether they ruffle feathers or not it’s too bad. It’s just that every time I visit Portland (in the past couple of years especially) my heart sinks. It has always been a playground for the rich and famous, but it is all falling apart. I remember the 1980s with such fondness…happy memories of a Portland that will never return. Well – perhaps I’m just getting old. SIGH!

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    2. I, too, was at San San on the day of that incident. The gentleman (and I use that term lightly) was so rude to us. Had he simply apologized and have somebody sweep up the beach we would all have left pleased and invited others to visit.

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      1. These people don’t care. It is really depressing. For me, it seems to embody everything that makes me sad about this part of Portland. It’s this sense of entitlement among people who have made it their playground…but they don’t care for its wonderful environment.

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