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Nearly four years in the making, Jamaica's fourth and newest cruise port is located in the north coast town of Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny parish. Well positioned between the popular ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, Falmouth's two-berth port is a triangular peninsula that can accommodate the largest cruise ships in the world within a very short walk of the city's historic Georgian sights.
The port held its grand opening in March 2011 with the arrival of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, and Jamaicans came from across the island to fete the day. Why all the excitement? Many Jamaicans felt that Falmouth -- home to one of the Caribbean's largest colonial historic districts, with its collection of intact Georgian homes -- had long been ignored. And seeing one of the world's largest cruise ships pull into port there definitely gave the feeling that Falmouth would finally have its day in the sun.
The arrival of the Falmouth cruise port has led to a local renaissance of sorts in the greater town, with some of the old Georgian homes in the erstwhile economic shipping powerhouse being restored to their former glory. Locals are hopeful that economic opportunities will follow closely behind the renovations, and business ideas are blooming.
During its heyday, Falmouth was one of the busiest ports in Jamaica and the send-off point for sugar, molasses, rum and coffee bound for England. In return, the English tall ships arrived in Falmouth with African slaves and other staples of 18th-century colonial life. Falmouth's economic status began to decline in the 1800's after the end of slavery, and the town reverted to a sleepy seaside village far off most tourists' maps.
One of the best things about making a port call there is the feeling that you've arrived in an authentic Jamaican town with a palpable history. The town, while still gritty and dusty in most places off the newly cobbled main drags, feels real. School kids in uniforms stroll three-wide, holding hands, and mothers pause, babies on hips, to chat with neighbors.
Cruise passengers exit their ships and stroll through an attractive, purpose-made port (a collaboration between Royal Caribbean and the Port Authority of Jamaica), with architecture inspired by Falmouth's Georgian roots. Within a few minutes, they find themselves crossing a narrow street into the town of Falmouth. When ships are in (up to two at a time), vendors sell typical Jamaican wares -- wood carvings, coconut purses and those ubiquitous rasta dred beanies -- on the town's main streets. (Once the craft pavilion at the port is finished, the vendors will move from the streets to indoor areas.)
Many passengers depart immediately for excursions with the cruise lines, and the arrival of Falmouth's port has led to a slew of new offerings by Chukka (the tour operator that runs many cruise ship tours) on the vast grounds of Good Hope Great House, one of Jamaica's most stately plantation homes. But you could easily spend a few hours admiring the town's architecture, popping into a jerk joint for a very authentic snack for a few dollars or taking in the town scene from above with a perch at Cafe Nazz. If the beach is calling, there are a few within a 10-minute taxi ride, and Montego Bay's party beaches are only 30 minutes away.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
Jamaica's ubiquitous rum punch is always a good bet for a tropical tipple. For something different and equally refreshing, however, order a Miami Vice -- a layered treat that starts with a thick sludge of strawberry daiquiri poured into the bottom of the glass, pina colada banded through the middle and a topper of Blue Curacao.
One of the first Jamaican vendors to open shop at the new Falmouth port was King Pepper Products, Inc. The Falmouth-based company makes one of Jamaica's very best jerk seasonings, sold for about $5 a pop in 11-oz. jars labeled "Eaton's Jamaican Boston Bay Style Jerk Seasoning." If you can handle the heat, grab the hot version, the local favorite. The mix includes Jamaican ingredients like pimento and cane vinegar, as well as "secret" herbs and spices that grow near the country's jerk capital of Portland Parish. Just be sure to pack the glass jar in your checked bag so it won't get snagged by the TSA on your homebound flight.
English is widely spoken and understood in Jamaica. But, when the locals talk amongst themselves, it's with a colorful patois, based on English but with a thick accent and different vocabulary that makes it hard for new arrivals to understand. To make it clear to salespeople and would-be chauffeurs and tour guides that you don't need their wares or services, you can always invoke a friendly me no wanti -- patois for "I don't want it" -- to make your point.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the Jamaican dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit oanda.com.
You can get cash (U.S. or Jamaican dollars) via ATM in Falmouth at two Scotiabank locations -- one on Lower Harbour Street and one at Trelawny Wharf, both a quick stroll from the ship. You'll be able to pay with U.S. dollars at nearly every restaurant and shop in town, but be prepared to get change in Jamaican dollars if U.S. currency is not available.
Where You're Docked
The Historic Falmouth Port's pier is located within Oyster Bay on Jamaica's north coast. The largest ships in the world can be accommodated there, with no need for tenders. Passengers walk directly off the ship into the purpose-built port complex. From there, it's only about a three-minute walk into the historic town of Falmouth itself.
The sprawling 32-acre port complex houses standard Caribbean port retail shops like Diamonds International and Dufry, as well as Jamaican craft vendors, restaurants and a transportation hub. Several open-air wooden kiosks with vendors selling snacks and souvenirs are also set up on the port's neatly bricked open spaces.
Passengers can expect to find duty-free shopping, boutique vendors, a craft market, restaurants, and office and residential space within the port complex. Even if you don't plan to head out on an excursion or walk through Falmouth town itself, it's still worth leaving the ship to stroll the shaded sidewalks of the complex, browse the craft vendors and admire the replicated Georgian architecture.
It's a three-minute walk from the port into the town of Falmouth, where you'll likely be greeted by taxi drivers offering day-trips to popular tourist sites like Dunn's River Falls and the beaches near Montego Bay.
The nearest place to rent a car is in the town of Montego Bay or at the Montego Bay airport. It's not worth the hassle, and your best bet for taking independent day-trips is to hire a taxi to drive you wherever you are headed.
JUTA (Jamaican Union of Travellers Association) taxis come inside the port and offer standardized rates to all the nearby attractions, as well as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. A taxi to Montego Bay takes about 30 minutes, and Ocho Rios is about an hour away.
Watch Out For
Wherever there are hordes of tourists, there are people looking to capitalize on their presence. It's a fact of the traveler's life, but it's nothing to be paranoid about. Be careful to mind your belongings at all times (leave valuables in your safe on the ship), and everything should be fine.
Dunn's River Falls: It takes about an hour by taxi to get from Falmouth to these most famous of Jamaica's falls near Ocho Rios, where you can climb 600 feet up from the base of the falls or retreat to the beach where the rushing water exits into the ocean.
Mystic Mountain: Also in Ocho Rios, Mystic Mountain is a rainforest adventure park that's great for kids and adults and is home to some very unique outdoor activities. The adventure begins with a ride on the Sky Explorer, a chairlift that soars 700 feet over the lush landscape below. Once at the top, travelers can opt to try the park's signature Bobsled Jamaica ride, the Zip-Line Canopy tour or a twisty slide that ends up in the mountaintop swimming pool. Have lunch, and take in the view from Lookout Tower before making your way back down the mountain on the chairlift.
Montego Bay's Hip Strip: Hire a taxi for the 30-minute ride to Montego Bay, and enjoy a stroll along the Hip Strip (also known as Gloucester Avenue), past bars and shops in MoBay's most bustling tourist district, which fronts the beach. You can also do some duty-free shopping at City Centre, a shopping area that stretches along one block downtown; there, you'll find gold, timepieces, perfumes, crystal, leather goods, souvenirs and boutique clothing.
Good Hope Great House: This immaculately preserved home on a former sugar plantation was the abode of planter John Tharp, who once owned much of Falmouth's prime waterfront. Just 15 minutes from the port, in the lush interior, the Good Hope Great House dates to the 1700's and sits on 2,000 rolling acres. In addition to estate tours and gourmet lunch offerings within the historic home, the property hosts a slew of activities that range from horse and buggy tours, dune buggy safaris and river-tubing along the Martha Brae River (it cuts through the property) to zip-line tours through the jungle canopy and ATV rides. You can book shore excursions (all organized by Chukka Caribbean Adventures) on your ship, or plan a see-it-yourself walking tour by booking at a kiosk in the port (shuttle transfers are included). Alternatively, you can book a taxi on your own (more expensive than the shuttle) to arrive at the estate and then decide which activities you'd like to experience. Lunches and high tea, however, must be booked in advance and through your ship's shore excursion department.
Been There, Done That
Anglican Parish Church: Built in 1795 with columns of thick mahogany and beautiful brick and stonework, this is the oldest public building in Falmouth. Visitors are welcome inside, and services are held on Sundays. There are plans in the works to hold Baroque concerts here in the future.
Water Square: People in Falmouth love to say that the city had piped water (read: running water) even before New York City, and it's true. Water Square, an open park space in the center of town, is where it all happened. Built in 1799, the reservoir that once occupied the site contained water from the Martha Brae River that was piped to nearby homes and businesses. The original structure was demolished in 1954, but the remaining fountain and surrounding park are nice places to sit for a spell with the townspeople.
Falmouth Court House: One of the first buildings you're likely to see as you walk into town, Falmouth's courthouse dates to 1815 and has been recently renovated, putting a spotlight on well-preserved Georgian features like fanlights, shingled walls and jalousies. While you can't tour inside the building, it's well worth walking past to admire from the outside.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River: Two passengers can board a 30-foot-long bamboo raft for this three-mile float down one of Jamaica's prettiest rivers. The relaxing journey takes about 90 minutes, and your raft captain will even let you try your hand at steering with the long bamboo pole if you're so inclined. Hire a taxi to take you to the put-in spot, and there will be plenty of captains looking to lead you along the river.
Great Houses of Montego Bay: Tour the great houses near Montego Bay, including the magnificently restored 1760 Rose Hall Great House (http://www.rosehall.com/home.html), Jamaica's most famed great house, which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, also known as "The White Witch." Also in Montego Bay, the Greenwood Great House is more than 200 years old and was formerly owned by the family of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, the famous English poet. Other great houses in the area include Bellefield Great House and Hampden Great House, home to a rum distillery and factory tour.
There are a few beautiful beaches within a short taxi ride of the Falmouth port, but they have not yet been developed for mass tourism. For beaches with full amenities (rest rooms, showers, rentals and food service), you're better off hiring a taxi for the 30-minute drive to Montego Bay.
Best Party Beach: The roughly 300-yard stretch of sand at Doctor's Cave Beach can get crowded, but it's the best place to party and relax on the sand in MoBay. The beach is right on the Hip Strip, but you'll have to pay an entry fee for access. There are showers, food, chairs, umbrellas and snorkel equipment for rent. Trampolines out in the water beckon kids of all ages for a bounce, and Margaritaville is a short stroll away. Locals claim the waters there have healing powers (all the better reason to spend your day splashing). It's a 30-minute taxi ride from Falmouth.
Best Secluded Beach: Cornwall Beach, on a crescent bay not far from the Hip Strip in Montego Bay, has lots of space to wander off. You'll find a quiet stretch of sand to spread out your beach towel. You can rent lounge chairs there, too. The scene is more chill than at Doctor's Cave Beach, which is right next door but separated by a wall.
Best Active Beach: About 10 minutes by taxi, east of the Falmouth port, the private beach at Bounty Bay (day-use rates available) is a popular kite-surfing spot. Burwood Beach, only 10 minutes east of Falmouth by taxi, is very scenic and is said to be in the process of being developed for cruise passengers. There are no true facilities as of yet (look for that to change in the future), and it remains a natural-state beach with clear waters and a few food vendors selling snacks.
If you're looking to sample authentic Jamaican food, Falmouth makes up for what it lacks in quantity of restaurants with a few solid, authentic options. The jerked style of cooking is a Jamaican staple that you can try in Falmouth, wherein meats are marinated with dry or wet rubs made of a concoction of spices that might include pimento (all spice), sugar and scotch bonnet peppers. The meats are then cooked over wood coals. And, while there's no central dining district, and the few chains there are of the Jamaican patty variety (patties are flaky, empanada-like pastries, filled with sauced meats), you'll find several snack stalls and restaurants within a five-minute walk from the port. After the decline of Falmouth's sugar industry, yam production became very important, and you'll find the tuber on many local menus. (They're tastiest roasted.)
Local Eats: Club Nazz comprises several stories of dining areas, including a breezy rooftop terrace, offering good views of the ship and town. Tuck into authentic Jamaican eats like curry goat, callaloo (a leafy, green vegetable), and ackee with saltfish (a single dish that features Jamaica's national fruit, ackee, simmered with dried cod). The bar does mean cocktails, too. (23 Market St. Open for lunch from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Close to Main Attractions: Less than a minute's walk from Water Square in downtown Falmouth, Supreme Restaurant has its own jerk center and proffers piled-high platters of jerk chicken, pork and conch with sides like green and red plantains and roasted yams. The thatched tiki roofs inside bring the tropical feel in, and the pool tables are always busy with locals. (Corner of King St. and Duke St. Open for lunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Gourmet: Your best bet for haute(-ish) dining in the vicinity of Falmouth is at Good Hope Great House. Five-course meals include wine and might feature escovitched snapper (marinated in vinegar and spices, then lightly fried) and key lime pie dunked in chocolate for dessert. You'll dine in the estate's beautiful hummingbird garden or under the grand house's eves. However, the only way for cruise visitors to arrange to dine there is by booking the "Gourmet Lunch" excursion through Chukka Tours or a cruise line. A "High Tea" excursion -- featuring scones, pastries, savories and English teas -- is also available.
Staying in Touch
There is currently no cyber cafe within the port complex or in Falmouth town, but that will likely change.
Best for First Timers: The "Best of Jamaica" shore excursion is an all-day outing that includes down time on pretty Shaw Beach in Ocho Rios, followed by a buffet lunch and a scenic cruise along the coastline to Dunn's River Falls, where you can climb the cascades or take in the scene from one of several viewing platforms.
Best for Active Travelers: Cross the jungle canopy by five different zip-lines, and kayak along the Martha Brae River with this fun, two-in-one shore excursion. The three-hour "Chukka Zipline Canopy and River Kayaking Combo," set on the spectacular 2,000-acre grounds of the Good Hope Great House, will get your adrenaline rushing.
Best for Families: Gather the whole gang for a lazy float along the clear waters of the Martha Brae River with the 2.5-hour "Chukka River Tubing Safari" excursion. Guides share area lore, including the legend of an ancient Indian witch, who knew where gold was stashed along the river and managed to hoodwink the greedy Spaniards. But, what this foray is really about is cooling off, taking in the pretty tropical foliage and enjoying the beautiful grounds of the Good Hope Great House estate in a relaxing setting.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The "Falmouth Heritage Walking Tour" is a good way to see Falmouth on foot. The roughly two-hour guided tour takes you through town to architectural highlights, such as the Falmouth Court House, the Baptist Manse and the Anglican Parish Church. You'll learn lots of local history, including Falmouth's pioneering role in the move to abolish slavery and the history of the town's Jewish residents. Headsets are included so you can better hear your guide.
For More Information
On the Web: Jamaica Tourism
Tourist Information: Jamaica Tourist Board, 800-JAMAICA (800-526-2422). A JTB office is set up at the port's main terminal building.
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Jamaica
Independent Traveler Message Boards: Jamaica
--by Terry Ward, Cruise Critic Contributor