(Noon EST) -- Firsthand accounts, photos and videos of Falmouth, Jamaica, are beginning to trickle in, offering a thumbnail sketch of the Caribbean's newest cruise port.
The town, which is sandwiched between the popular north coast haunts of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, welcomed its first 3,000-plus cruise passengers when Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas docked on Thursday. Freedom of the Seas, the second caller, is in port today.
Via message board posts and e-mails, readers are painting a picture of a massive construction zone comprising the town itself (Falmouth, the capital of Jamaica's Trelawny Parish) and the adjacent "thematic cruise port," a $221 million joint project by Royal Caribbean and the Jamaican Port Authority (JPA). At the same, they're commending the relatively easy access to excursions in Mo-Bay and Ocho Rios, and the warm welcome offered by hopeful residents.
"We were blown away by the reception," said member rstephenrrtx, who was in Falmouth as part of his 20th wedding anniversary cruise. "The band playing on the pier was nice, but was drowned out by the reggae that started up soon after from the 'concert stack' of loud speakers just outside the port fence. That seemed to signal we were in Jamaica even more than anything else."
"It was pretty remarkable to see how the whole town of Falmouth came to see the cruise ship. They were having their own little party/parade to celebrate this," wrote nfglory1."Buildings, rooftops, streets and any open spaces were filled with people awaiting Voyager's arrival," added Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert and regular TV contributor known as the Cruise Guy.
Despite the festive atmosphere -- which included stilt walkers, a marching band and vendors -- Gene and Susan Curry described the port facilities as "nowhere near ready." "The buildings are not only not in use, but some lack roofs at this point; everything was done outside." Jesseandtwo offered an identical comment: "It was nowhere near ready."
"Many of the buildings were not completed and there were no shops there," added nfglory1.
In recent conversations with Cruise Critic, John Terceck, Royal Caribbean's vice president of commercial development, has been frank regarding the status of the project, as well as its numerous delays. "Everything is in a temporary arrangement -- tours, taxis, food and beverage -- because we're working around the part of the site that's still under construction," he said. "It's going to be a beautiful project, but it's a work-in-progress." According to Terceck, the retail shops will gradually open in the coming months.
"They did have some craft vendors, a Blue Mountain coffee kiosk, a tortuga rum cake kiosk and the Margaritaville kiosks," wrote Jesseandtwo. "They also were selling Juici Patties [meat pies] and fruit."
Additionally, Jamaican icons like Red Stripe, Appleton and Scotchies (jerk chicken) were spotted.
Many of the first visitors used Falmouth as a launch pad to visit other destinations along the island's north coast. (Because of Falmouth's geographic location -- Montego Bay is about 45 minutes by car, Ocho Rios about an hour -- it's ideally positioned as a shore-tour staging area. A large lot serves as a holding pen for the tour buses, though taxis are also available.) Some cited security concerns and the lack of activities in the port and town as their reason for venturing out.
rstephenrrtx and his wife opted to visit Ochi's Dunn's River Falls. "We would not have left the port and ventured out into the town if we had not booked an excursion," he said. On his way back to the ship after a tour, rstephenrrtx shot footage of the town, pictured top right.
"There was little to nothing in [the] downtown area that you would want to see," said the Currys. "Security for the port complex was tight. It was surrounded by high fencing with controlled access. No one came in there without permission."
The Currys took Royal Caribbean's shuttle to The Shoppes at Rose Hall, an upscale duty-free village near Mo-Bay (while the shuttle was free, Gene tells us his wife's splurges cost him dearly). Additionally, there are several resorts and a golf course near the outlets.
Jesseandtwo got more than a fleeting glimpse of Falmouth. "We took a $10 tram ride around [the town] escorted by a policeman. [Falmouth] is very depressed. We had many people come up to the tram, shake our hands and take pictures of us."
The Currys said they spoke with fellow passengers who visited Falmouth as part of a town history and beach party tour. "They [said they] spent perhaps ten minutes driving through [Falmouth] and were then dumped at a beach for four hours."
Erbunny, who also headed to Dunn's River Falls for the day, offered an optimistic view. "I love history, and am looking forward to seeing the progress in a year or two ... It is only going to get better and better. Anyone familiar with Colonial Williamsburg knows that it was a blighted slum in the 1920's before the Rockefellers started pouring money into it. History buffs will be interested to know all the restoration is being done in conjunction with the University of Virginia and their students."
Falmouth Heritage Renewal, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving historic Falmouth, certainly has its work cut out. The community, considered a National Heritage site because of its Georgian-era buildings, has been in steady decline since the abolition of slavery.
Currently, the "town is a little more torn up because the prime minister mandated that the main square [an historic attraction] be fixed in time for Oasis of the Seas' visit," said Terceck. Oasis arrives March 22 in what's being billed as the "official grand opening."
"The Court House [built in 1826, burned and rebuilt in 1926] is still a work in progress, but it's almost completed and will be ready for March 22," Olivia Granged, minister of youth, sports and Culture, told JIS News. But shops still won't be open for the March 22 call, and Terceck told us that the "street fair" feel will continue for the near-term. http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/108-youth-sport-culture/26863-culture-minister-says-falmouth-will-be-ready-for-mega-cruise-ship As construction pushes on, the 154,407-ton, 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas is making the second visit to the port today. Navigator of the Seas visits on Thursday. Between Navigator's visit and Oasis of the Seas' arrival, a half-dozen calls will be made, including the first non-Royal Caribbean ship on March 9 (Holland America's Ryndam).
Still, all eyes are on March 22. The port authority says it's ready for the 225,282-ton, 5,400-passenger Oasis, the colossus that Falmouth was specifically designed to accommodate. In a statement, the PAJ declared that a "technical assessment of the state-of-the-art pier, following the arrival of Voyager of the Seas, confirmed that the berthing facilities met and surpassed global standards."
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor
--Photos and video appear courtesy of the Robert S.