The town of Port Antonio in Jamaica is undergoing a renaissance that, its architects hope, will restore the region to its high-glamour heyday.

Jamaica’s exquisite northeastern coast in Portland, a lush, forest-to-ocean Elysium, has been dubbed the Jamaican Riviera for its natural glamour and cultural legacy. The region is equal parts sequestered haven and historical landmark; not only was it the Hollywood hotbed of the 1960s, it is the birthplace of Jamaican tourism. Over the years, the area’s unspoiled beauty and pristine seascapes have drawn international and local tourism.

Since the early 1900s anyone who’s anyone has visited, from high-profile celebrities and international royalty to creative visionaries and adventurous-minded travellers. By 1913, Portland’s capital, Port Antonio, was hosting 11,000 visitors a year. During the 1960s, Grace Kelly, Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor and the Aga Khan were among the high rollers who sampled the region’s charms.

“Now, thanks to a visionary new team of stakeholders, music-industry veterans, developers and architects, Port Antonio and the surrounding area are poised to undergo an electrifying renaissance.”

 

The native Portlander and international business guru, Michael Lee-Chin, has partnered with British-born music-industry veteran and hotelier Jon Baker to revive Port Antonio. ‘Our goal is to put the region back on the map from a tourism aspect,’ explained Baker. ‘But we also want to generally bring about a Port Antonio renaissance which will ultimately encourage stakeholders to come back into the region and create new businesses so that the economy becomes self-sustaining in its own right.’

As part of their agreement, Lee-Chin has commissioned Baker (owner of the Geejam Hotel with business partner Steve Beaver) and the Geejam Collection to redevelop, manage and oversee all the marketing and booking initiatives for three of the area’s most signature properties: the Trident Castle, the Trident Hotel and the Blue Lagoon, Jamaica’s largest natural spring-fed lagoon. Said Baker, ‘We see tourism as our cornerstone for resurrecting Port Antonio to its former glory days. The Geejam Collection is in charge of making that happen.’

Port Antonio’s 80-kilometre shoreline features beaches, waterfalls, caves and rainforests framed by the chain of the John Crow and Blue Mountains, and from its early days of the Maroon Resistance to the Banana Empire glory years, Port Antonio’s history is a microcosm of Jamaica’s. As the lead visionary, Lee-Chin insists that he wants to see a Jamaica that is prosperous, well-educated, entrepreneurially sound, debt-free and a place where people can be guaranteed a future. ‘Jamaicans historically have not been good stewards of this blessed country, so instead of being part of the bandwagon of complainers, I am thinking about what I can do to be part of the turnaround,’ he said.

In spring 2013, the Geejam Collection hosted the official launch of the newly renovated Trident Hotel. As Baker explained, ‘We have a young, dedicated and very talented team of architects, contractors, chefs and managers who have really devoted all their energies to making this happen. The growth opportunities that will follow are palpable.’ Baker mentioned Vidal Dowding, his main architect, from Atelier-Vidal Ltd, and contractor Ian McNally of Relmac Construction.

‘From the outset, the architectural team literally moved on site so that any adaptations could be made then and there, thus saving on costs and delays,’ commented Baker. Dowding described the on-the-ground process as ‘a uniquely challenging experience, which involved intense creative design sessions with the architectural team and client that immediately manifested itself into built form as we fed the contractor with details almost daily. The greater part of the structure existed when we moved in, and being on site for hours each day allowed us to see things from a new perspective that helped us conceptualise a great set of ideas.’

The Trident Hotel, on the ocean’s edge, has been extensively renovated. The custom-designed Jamaican-Georgian exteriors lead through to contemporary interiors that feature artwork and décor inspired by the Fifties and Sixties. Baker recounted the changes: ‘The Trident had a pseudo Corinthian-Roman-Georgian style to it. We stripped this look out of the derelict property and brought in a cleaner, more contemporary aesthetic.’ The design was constrained by the demands of the location, as Dowding explained.

“The basic elements of tropical architecture are more common sense than high tech. We have learned lessons from the early vernacular buildings of the 18th and 19th century but have adapted these to a sense of current time and place – that is what contemporary means.”

The new-look Trident Hotel now offers 13 villas and one guest room, steam rooms and outdoor soaking pools, a seafront spa and gym, a private beach with a beach bar and children’s area and spectacular views overlooking axial and infinity edge pools. In Mike’s Supper Club the stage is accented by a 1913 Ferrari red grand piano for live jazz, world and acoustic music sets.

Then there is the Trident Castle, one of the most distinctive properties on the Port Antonio shoreline, which was built as a private residence by architect Earl Levy over 10 years from 1979. Dowding described the Castle as having ‘extraordinary eclecticism’, adding ‘one of the great surprises in Port Antonio is traversing the Turtle Cove Bay and seeing this massive neo-renaissance style mansion nestled in a tropical environment. When Jon asked us what to do with it, we said “Just turn on the lights”. It is an architectural statement and landmark all by itself, because of its scale and truly unique style. It is part of Portland’s history.’ 

As one of Jamaica’s largest private estates, the eight-bedroom property features a ballroom and banquet hall, a drawing room and living area, sunrooms and a photography studio. The seven-acre property also houses a Romanesque swimming pool, helicopter pad and private chapel arranged among its expansive lawns and terraces. It has played host to Hollywood A-listers ranging from Kate Moss and Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy and even a Saudi Arabian prince.

The Blue Lagoon is the third jewel in Port Antonio’s crown. Plans for its revival – including a heritage museum, botanical gardens, public beach area, restaurant, pier-side craft kiosks and luxury villas – are already in place. ‘Unlike its counterparts in Montego Bay and Negril, Port Antonio in general, and the Blue Lagoon in particular, will be a restful and somewhat sequestered getaway with strong community roots,’ said Baker.

The already famous property landed on the world map in 1980 in Randal Kleiser’s Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. The site was originally called the Blue Hole, and many claim it was renamed following the success of the film. The Blue Lagoon has attracted countless visitors over the years, including Robin Moore of The French Connection and Caddyshack fame, who also owned some of the property’s villas that are still named after him. Scenes from the Tom Cruise film Cocktail were shot on location here.

If all goes as planned, the revitalisation of the Trident Castle, the Trident Hotel and the Blue Lagoon will transform the region into the new hub of Caribbean tourism, while remaining an authentic portal of Jamaican culture. ‘We have a fantastic opportunity to make things work,’ says Lee-Chin. ‘In 20 years, I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I did something to preserve their heritage and country.’

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