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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?