(4:30 p.m. EDT) -- Platters piled with "cheeseburger in paradise" samples and little plastic cups of margaritas were at the ready, Bob Marley's "One Love" was thumping from a sound system to end all sound systems, and a port employee wielding a washcloth was tenderly buffing the black legs of a brand-spanking-new bench in the shadow of the world's largest cruise ship.
When Oasis of the Seas
pulled into port in the north-coast Jamaican town of Falmouth this morning, it marked the official opening of the Caribbean's newest port. For Royal Caribbean
and Falmouth, prepping this town of roughly 10,000 to become the country's fifth cruise port has been a process of nearly four years, marred by delayed openings
and an ongoing sense that there's much left to be done. But, there was no denying the sense of accomplishment in the air today.
"To see the transformation just from December is amazing," said Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard Fain, who was on hand for the occasion. "We've been working on this for four years now, and to see it develop from what at first appeared to be a fairly esoteric concept into something that's not only tangible, it's just so obvious -- it just looks like it was always meant to be here."
Which isn't to say, of course, that the $213 million project -- strategically plotted midway between Montego Bay
and Ochos Rios
-- is finished: Fain says it will likely be May of this year before the shops have all moved into the port's buildings, still under construction, and things are fully operating. (Previous reports have pegged the number of retail outlets at about 65, with almost two-dozen excursions available, including a tour of nearby 18th-century Good Hope Estate.) And, the port's entry hall -- the last major building to be finished, due to the fact that the ground it sits on needed more time to settle -- is still little more than a hulking concrete facade.
But, the loose ends and fenced-off patches of dirt and gravel construction sites dotting the area weren't stopping anyone from doing business here today -- and they didn't seem to be marring the festive mood, either.
Christine Wong, a Falmouth native and the proprietress of King Pepper Products, stood behind a table piled high with jerk marinades and barbecue sauces in front of one of the port's not-yet-opened shopping buildings. "The kiosk we're renting here isn't ready yet, so they're not charging me to be here today," she said. "They wanted to make sure there was good ambience for the passengers."
Of the town's new lease on life since the arrival of the port, Wong says: "Falmouth has been overlooked for years. It's exciting."
Nearby, passengers continued to emerge through a bricked archway into the bright sun and warm air filled with the drumming of traditional Jamaican folk music. "Welcome to Jamaica," cheered a guy dressed up as a pirate as he welcomed a couple from Austin, Texas.
"This place is so much better than Montego Bay," said Deb Bruggeman, who was on her 11th Royal Caribbean cruise with her husband, Paul. "Look around -- it's just so clean!" But, for all the sparkling port's tidy appeal, the couple planned to hire a taxi for the day to hit Doctor's Cave Beach near Montego Bay and explore the town of Falmouth on their way back to the ship.
Many of the passengers exiting the ship high-tailed it from the port into the town, both as part of organized trolley and historic walking tours and on their own independent explorations.
"It's nice to be able to walk around here and see the real life," said Lena Gustafsson from Lulea, Sweden, who was on her first cruise. "We're having a fantastic time."
It's a straight shot of two minutes on foot from the port into Falmouth. The transition from the purpose-built area to the historic town itself is marked by the swelling of locals and sudden offers for hair-braiding and trips to waterfalls. (They somehow seemed a softer sell than the touts at other Jamaican ports.)
"This is history in Falmouth," said Marie Murray, a Falmouth native who was keeping her friend company as she sold soft drinks to passersby in the shadow of the town's pretty Georgian courthouse. "We are very proud of Falmouth. Falmouth is going on strong," she continued. "It's our time now. There's a lot of changes and excitement, people are getting on with jobs and everything is nice in Falmouth now."
Inside an Internet cafe, where several locals were taking a breather from the heat with a blast of air-conditioning and an Al Pacino movie, the mood was equally upbeat.
"It's a great lift, and a change, which is very important," said Esther Love of Falmouth. "We needed a change. I think it's going to be a great change, and I am anticipating the best."
And even with Oasis of the Seas scheduled to leave port at 5 p.m. today (it's slated to return April 5, and other Royal Caribbean ships will be making regular visits), it was clear that the party in Falmouth was just getting started. "Didn't you see the sound systems they're setting up all around?" laughed Love. "It's going to be a long night."
Be sure to check out additional coverage of Falmouth here
Share your opinion with 650,000 Cruise Critic members
--by Terry Ward, Cruise Critic Contributor