Welcome to Frenchman’s Cove!
Frenchman’s Cove was once a part of the Cold Harbour Estate. The 48 acre property was later purchased by Garfield Weston, who became enamoured with its idyllic charm and unspoiled beauty. Frenchman’s Cove is named after an old folklore tale that documented an explosive battle with canon fire and swashbucklers between the British and the French near the Cove. It is said the British defeated the French and wounded soldiers sought refuge in the cove, hence its historical name, Frenchman’s Cove.
After acquiring this vast and unspoiled sea front property, Mr. Weston was persuaded by the former Custos of Portland to build a hotel. He agreed, but employees employed by him throughout Europe, Canada, Australia, the Middle East and the former British Honduras would only use the hotel. During the final stages of construction Mr. Weston’s eldest son, Grainger was sent to represent him in Jamaica and was persuaded to make Frenchman’s Cove into a hotel rather than an executive resort.
Construction began in 1958 and the first official season was in 1962. It was the first all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean and quite possibly the world. Frenchman’s Cove has played host to many distinguished guests including Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth Taylor and her then husband, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, The Beatles, Ian Fleming and Errol Flynn.
The History of Port Antonio
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan headed the celebrity clientele. Ian Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel here and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were among the Hollywood stars to revel in its sheltered bay, golden sand, warm ocean, freshwater stream and luxuriant vegetation. ‘Lord of the Flies’ was filmed here. American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox described Port Antonio as ‘the most exquisite port on earth’. The town’s twin harbours, jewel coloured sea and verdant hillsides still ensnare the visitor. The story of this old port is the story of the men who came, saw, and were conquered by its beauty. All of them, from Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker to movie star Errol Flynn and billionaire Garfield Weston sought to develop the town. All of them failed. Port Antonio, like Montego Bay claim to be the cradle of the tourist trade. Unlike other locations on the island, its tourism potential remains undeveloped and herein lies the charm of Port Antonio and the lure of the parish of Portland.
The town was originally settled by the Spaniards and gets its name from an early Spanish governor who names the twin harbours Puerto de Anton and Puerto de Francisco after his two sons. After the British conquest in 1655 the government tried to develop the area by giving land grants to English families. They laid out the down, built a fort on the peninsula and a naval station. The British Army and Navy protected the settlers against the French, Spanish and pirates who constantly attempted conquest…but it proved fruitless against the marauding bands of Windward Maroons. Years of guerrilla warfare between the British and these runaway slaves ended in 1734 by a treaty that settled the Maroons on their own lands.
The banana, introduced by the Spaniards from the Canary Islands flourished in the hot, damp climate and rich alluvial soil of Portland and was grown alongside of sugar canes. In 1871, a Yankee skipper named Lorenzo Dow Baker sailed into Port Antonio and tool on board a cargo of coconuts and 1450 stems of bananas. The profit that he cleared in Boston was so large that he returned, bought land and planted bananas. Baker organised a shipping line to transport the fruit. Soon, his plantations ranged from Boston in the east through Boundbrook to Buff Bay in the west and his Boston Fruit Company subsequently merged with other interest to create the United Fruit Company. It dominated the banana industry in Jamaica and Central America for years to come. Known as Port Antonio’s ‘Golden Age’ it was said that on Banana Day (any day a ship was loading the succulent fruit) carousing planters would light their cigars with five dollar bills. Unfortunately, this unheard of prosperity ended soon with the onset of the Panama disease, which almost wiped out the banana industry. The Gros Michel variety succumbed and was replaced by a new disease resistant hybrid. The banana industry never recaptured its former prosperity, nor has Port Antonio.
The next swashbuckler to fall in love with Port Antonio was the movie star Errol Flynn who sailed into the harbour one day on his yacht, the Zacca. Flynn acquired a lot of real estate. Navy Island, Titchfield Hotel and several cattle and coconut estates including one owned by Captain Baker. Flynn’s plans to develop tourism, build a hotel at Folly and a ranch resort at Comfort Castle never materialised. While still in the throes of these plans he died suddenly. Although he expressed wish to be buried in Jamaica, his widow decided otherwise. Titchfield hotel was destroyed in the late 1960’s and today only the ruins of this great landmark remain.
During the 1960’s, Port Antonio became the mecca of the jet set. Billionaire Garfield Weston (whose empire included Fortnum and Mason and Selfridges in London) built a sumptuous hotel, rumoured to be the most expensive on the world. It was comprised of 18 luxury villas shrouded by discreet shrubbery and scattered over the headlands on both sides of the river, beach and bay.
It was badly damaged by Hurricane Allen in 1980 but restored by Grainger Weston. No longer a resort for only the ‘very, very rich’ as once described by Vanity Fair, it now hosts weddings, yoga retreats and families from all over the globe. The Cove itself is known as the most beautiful beach on the island and open to the general public and guests.
Buildings of Interest
Concurrent with the heyday of Frenchman’s Cove, numerous wealthy foreigners bought land at Cold Harbour and San San building themselves opulent homes. Shortly after, millionaire Michael Rosenburg (heir to the Thom McAnn shoe fortune) built the hotel of his dreams, Dragon Bay at Fairy Hill. Bordered by tropical rainforest and set in lush gardens the central building and villas overlook a private cove with a white sand beach and streams. This highly photogenic setting provided locations for feature films like Cocktail, Club Paradise and Treasure Island.
Port Antonio has several old buildings on note dating back to the banana boom, notably the Georgian Court House and the Musgrave Market. The imposing Anglican Christ Church dates from 1840 and contains a brass lectern donated by Captain Baker of the Boston Fruit Company.
The Victorian Railway Station built in 1896 was recently leased by Mr. Vincent Holgate, owner of Fern Hill Club and awaits restoration. Fort George on the headland which divides the East and West harbours dates from the 18th century with emplacements for 22 cannons, a few of which still remains. You can see our own cannon directly in front of the main house!
The headland beyond the East
Harbour was part of Folly Estate. The lighthouse was established in 1888. The crumbling pseudo Grecian palace on the high ground is known appropriately as Folly. A retired mining engineer named Mitchell who hailed from New York and married a member of the Tiffany family built it in the early 20th Century. The Mitchells lived in grand style with a large retinue of servants and many pets including peacocks and monkeys, the latter being allowed to roam free on the island offshore now known as Monkey Island. They owned the first automobile in Portland and even had a lighting plant. Mitchell died here and was buried in an elegant mausoleum at Folly, but his widow later moved his remains to New York. The mansion was left unattended and subsequently began to crumble due to the fact that the salt water has been used to mix the mortar (!) The columns have stood the test of time because they were moulded in New York from Jamaican limestone and then glazed. Folly now belongs to the government and is sadly neglected, frequently defaced with graffiti and is the haunt of idlers and bag snatchers. Do not go there alone!
On the hill beyond Folly is an overseer’s house. It was built and occupied by Mitchell while the mansion was under construction and has outlasted the costly mansion. It is a modest wooden house, sand dashed and painted in the style of the early 1900’s.
Attractions and Tours
This nearly 200 foot deep lagoon is seven miles east of Port Antonio. You will drive past unique vacation homes built in the Venetian style directly into the sea. When you first arrive, you may notice that the lagoon looks familiar to you. If you’ve seen the Brooke Shields’ movie, The Blue Lagoon, then you’ll know why. Interestingly enough, the lagoon was once called ‘The Blue Hole’ but with the popularity of the movie, the lagoon’s name was permanently changed to ‘The Blue Lagoon’. There is no charge for using the road but a boat tour of the Lagoon will cost you $3000 Jamaican dollars. The deep blue turquoise water, the natural springs, which feed most of the Lagoon, and the luxuriant, almost primordial vegetation around the Lagoon, make it a unique location. Renting a kayak or snorkelling are both environmentally friendly ways of sightseeing inside the lagoon. Always agree on rates ahead of time. The lagoon is also part of a legend that claims a dragon resides there. Rest assured, no giant winged beast will harass you as you enjoy your time here, so dive right in!
* Blue Lagoon is supposed to be a public area. But there are scammers trying to convince you to pay them an “admission fee” for staying there. If you decide to visit, try not to talk to anybody and certainly do NOT give them any money
Reach Falls Jamaica is one of the most amazing natural waterfalls that the island has to offer. It is peacefully situated 25 miles east of town amongst exotic virgin rain forest. This is truly beautiful setting. The water is cool, refreshing, and crystal clear. Vines hang and natural bamboo stand throughout the falls. You will see species of plants here that you will not see anywhere else in the world. The scenic hike and swim up the river is sheer beauty. If you go beneath the waterfalls you will see hidden holes that are naturally carved out by the water. You’ll even find a secret cave behind one of the falls that you can step in, and then climb out just above the cascade. Reach Falls is somewhat remote so not many tourists know about it. Do not be surprised if you have the place all to yourself when you go.
This is a former 180-acre coconut plantation and agriculture research centre that today is a lush botanical garden, boasting many exotic plants and native species. At the entrance to the cave, you summon the guide by a gong and then descend into the underworld that is lighted and traversed with concrete walkways and stairs. The highlight, however, is the Nonsuch cave system of nine separate chambers of stalagmites and stalactites. Bats occupy these caves hanging from the 13 m. high ceiling in the Gothic-Scale Cathedral chamber. It is said that some stalagmite formations resemble the forms of a pope, a bishop, a man in ropes on a camel, and a nude female emerging from a shell. Fossils of fish and other sea creatures are seen in the limestone formation proving that Jamaica was once beneath the sea.
Errol Flynn initiated this practice as a tourist attraction after seeing this picturesque means of transporting bananas from the interior valleys to the coast for export on banana boats. “The Banana Boat Song’, with its refrain of ‘Day-o’, popularised by Harry Belafonte over fifty years ago, was adapted from the traditional Jamaican work song of the crews loading banana boats in the cool of the night, before daybreak. Flynn and his friends found this mode of transportation entertaining and relaxing. It is said in the valley that Errol used to make the trip twice a day, always with a different lady and landmarks along the river are still sometimes referred to Flynn’s Rest, Flynn’s Hideaway, etc. Rafting is well organised and operated by Grande Attractions. You will glide (not whitewater raft) miles downstream past spellbinding scenery. The ride takes from one to three hours depending on the flow of the river and the energy of your Captain. You can purchase drinks en route and stop to swim or picnic. The rafts are made from the bamboo growing on the riverside and each accommodates two adults. The raftsmen, most of whom are farmers in their spare time are all experienced rivermen. Apprentices make, repair and tow the rafts back upstream.
Between Hope Bay and Port Antonio, Somerset Falls sits behind a hedge of bright red ginger lilies and green bottlebrush plants. Once an old sugar plantation that extended from the mountains to the sea, today Somerset is a 97-acre property with a breathtaking garden, complete with ponds and waterfalls. Overflowing with crotons, bamboos, ferns, cocoa plants, indigo and moss-covered trees (to name only a few), the garden grows on the banks of the Daniel River. A concrete path leads up the gurgling river to the back of the property. Along the way, small waterfalls trickle down the bushy hillsides and shady benches, where visitors enjoy a moment of tranquillity. The path ends at a deep river pond that entices you to take a plunge into its invigorating clear, turquoise water. There, a guide is waiting to take you on a rowboat ride through a narrow tributary, encircled by limestone caverns to the spectacular main attraction – the “Hidden Falls.” Here, you can cool off in the 20-foot-deep pool or snap away at the falls.
Some advice for photographers: to best capture this cascading shower and luminous pool, turn off your flash. You won’t be disappointed! And when the ride is over, enjoy a meal of fine seafood or spicy jerk pork at the Garden Restaurant or a cocktail at the Rhythm and Booze bar, which on Sundays livens up with classic Reggae, dominoes and dancing.