Nearly four years in the making, the Historic Falmouth Cruise Port (the official -- and somewhat ironic -- name for a place created in 2011) is located in Jamaica's north coast town of Falmouth, the capital of Trelawny parish. Well positioned between the popular ports of Ocho Rios (60 miles west) and Montego Bay (18 miles east), 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.
In the 19th century when Jamaica was under British rule, Falmouth was bustling and prosperous, shipping sugar, rum and coffee to England and serving as an arrival port for African slaves. Its fortunes declined after slavery was abolished and only began to revive when the $220-million, purpose-built cruise port came.
A short walk to Falmouth's streets, the port is well guarded and closed to locals, save for Jamaicans who work at the dozens of shops and handful of restaurants. With a faux-Georgian terminal building leading to a large square bordered by red-roofed, Caribbean-style buildings housing various businesses, the port may strike you either as attractive or as artificial and Disney-esque, depending on your point of view. Those homesick for American fast food will find a Dairy Queen and Quiznos. There's plenty of shopping, from upscale jewelry stores to a crafts market. A dozen large posters relate Falmouth's history, including the fact that Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt hails from the area.
The town of Falmouth is being developed to better appeal to tourists, but there's much work to do. Those who do walk the dusty streets to have a look at architectural gems such as Falmouth Court House and St. Peter's Anglican Church will likely run a gantlet of hair braiders and vendors of everything from local carvings to knitted caps with fake Rasta dreadlocks attached. Being hassled by vendors is a common complaint, although refusing to engage and walking past with eyes forward and a polite but firm "No, thank you" worked for us.
Many cruisers never go beyond the gates of the port, where a crowded outpost of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville has a pool, swim-up bar, and mini version of Dunn's River Falls, not to mention a hot tub shaped like the bowl of a margarita glass. A good number leave for the day in a bus or cab to go on one of the numerous excursions offered by cruise lines; there are also local guides and drivers that you can engage on the spot.
Lovers of local flavor will enjoy interacting with restaurant staffers and merchants, watching chattering schoolchildren in uniforms hurrying home, or sampling barbecue-like jerk chicken or a Jamaican patty -- a pastry filled with meat, chicken or vegetables.
The sprawling complex houses around five dozen shops and eateries, including standard Caribbean port retail shops such as Diamonds International, as well as Jamaican craft vendors. 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 and specialty boutiques, including a store dedicated to late reggae great Bob Marley. Even if you don't plan to head out on an excursion or walk through Falmouth, it's still worth leaving the ship to stroll the complex, browse craft vendors and perhaps try a Jamaican patty at a kiosk. Partiers love to splash in the pool and sit on stools at the swim-up bar at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, which has free Wi-Fi (which sometimes doesn't work when a crowd is trying to use it). You also can buy a $20 Wi-Fi card at the port, with a code for one device. There's an information stand in the cruise terminal. We used it to find staffers' favorite restaurants and dishes in Falmouth.
Falmouth Court House: One of the first buildings you're likely to see as you walk into town, Falmouth's courthouse dates to 1815, was destroyed by a fire in the 1920s, and has been rebuilt and renovated, putting a spotlight on well-preserved Georgian features like fanlights, shingled walls and jalousies. While tours aren't offered, architecture buffs will find it well worth walking past to admire from the outside.
St. Peter's Anglican 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. The cemetery has graves dating back more than two centuries.
Rafting on the Martha Brae River: Near Falmouth, passengers can board a 30-foot-long bamboo raft for a three-mile float down one of Jamaica's prettiest rivers. The relaxing journey takes about 90 minutes, and your raft captain will let you try your hand at steering with the long bamboo pole if you're so inclined. Book a tour or hire a taxi to take you to the put-in spot, where there will be plenty of "captains" looking to chart your course.
Good Hope Great House and Estate Park: This well-preserved manse on a former sugar plantation was the home of planter John Tharp, who once owned much of Falmouth's waterfront. About 15 minutes from the port, in the lush interior, the Good Hope Great House dates to the 18th century and sits on 2,000 acres. In addition to estate tours and attractive lunch offerings, the property hosts activities that range from horse-and-buggy tours to dune buggy safaris and river-tubing along the Martha Brae River, which cuts through the property. There also are zip-line tours through the jungle canopy and ATV rides. You can book shore excursions on your ship, or plan a see-it-yourself tour by booking at a kiosk in the port. Alternatively, you can book a taxi on your own and then decide which activities you'd like to experience. Lunches and high tea, however, must be booked in advance through your ship's shore excursion department.
Dunn's River Falls: It takes about an hour by taxi or tour bus/van 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 or retreat to the beach where the rushing water exits into the ocean. Note: It can be slippery, so is not for the faint of heart.
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. You've got to try the Bobsled Jamaica ride, the Canopy Zip Line 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 a 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 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. Beach lovers headed to Montego will want to visit Doctor's Cave Beach Club near the Hip Strip.
Great Houses of Montego Bay: Tour the great houses near Montego Bay, including the magnificently restored 1760 Rose Hall Great House, Jamaica's most famed former plantation house. It's said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, also known as "The White Witch."
Bob Marley Birthplace: A 5.5-hour bus tour will take you along Jamaica's coast and then inland to Nine Mile, where the reggae legend was born and is buried in a mausoleum. Stop for a lunch of jerk pork and chicken plus the traditional Jamaican side dish of rice and peas.
On foot: Falmouth is a few minutes away, with a scrum of vendors gathering by the guarded port gates. You can easily stroll the town in an hour or so. Skip the Prince Albert Market; vendors were virtually nonexistent when we were there.
By trolley: You can see Falmouth's main sights on a guided trolley tour that leaves from the port.
By taxi: Taxis at the port's transport hub offer standardized rates to nearby beaches and 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. Or you can step outside the gates and bargain for a lower rate with other drivers. Many will customize a trip for you.
By rental car: The nearest place to rent a car is in Montego Bay or at the Montego Bay airport. It's not worth the time or hassle. Your best bet for independent day trips is to hire a taxi driver (establishing the rate first) to take you where you want.
There are a few beautiful beaches (such as Red Stripe) within a short taxi ride of the Falmouth port, but the facilities are fairly simple. (Taxi fares may be in the $20 round-trip range.) Ask the port information desk for suggestions to meet your needs, or sign up onboard for a day on the sand, with lunch, at a nearby resort.
Best Secluded Beach: Burwood Beach, a few miles from Falmouth, has quiet stretches to spread your beach towel. It lacks public restrooms, but is within walking distance to hotel facilities.
Best Party Beach: The roughly 650-feet stretch of sand at Doctor's Cave Beach Club in Montego Bay can get crowded, but it's the best place to tip a few Red Stripes and relax on the sand in MoBay. The beach is on the "Hip Strip," and you'll pay an entry fee unless you've booked a tour that includes a stop here. 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 locals claim the waters here have healing powers. The Montego Bay Margaritaville is a short stroll away. If you go it alone, it's a 30-minute taxi ride from Falmouth.
Best Active Beach: About 10 minutes by taxi, east of the Falmouth port, the private beach at Bounty Bay is a popular kite-surfing spot; a small admission fee is charged if you spend the day there.
Best for a day visit: If you have at least eight hours onshore and wish to see a spectacular beach, Negril's the spot. This world-famous, 7-mile-long stretch of white sand is about two hours from the port by bus or taxi and features beach bars and cliff divers. Book an excursion or hire a driver.
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. Don't miss the chance to sample the jerk style of cooking, a Jamaican staple. Meats or fish are marinated with dry or wet rubs made of a concoction of spices that might include allspice, sugar and scotch bonnet peppers, then cooked over wood coals. The Jamaican national dish — saltfish and ackee — is lesser known by non-locals, but is delicious. Salted cod is boiled and softened, then sauteed with ackee fruit, garlic, onions and spices.
While Falmouth has no central dining district, you'll find several snack stalls and restaurants within a 10-minute walk from the port. Stalls typically sell patties -- empanada-like pastries filled with sauced meats or vegetables. Quench your thirst with the Jamaican grapefruit-flavored soft drink, the zingily-named Ting.
Club Nazz: The best of downtown Falmouth is located in a historic tavern with wooden bar, comfy booth and a breezy rooftop terrace, offering views of the ships and town. Tuck into authentic Jamaican eats alongside locals. You won't go wrong with its saltfish ackee, curried goat, unleavened "bammy" bread (made from cassava fruit) and popular oxtail soup. The bar does strong cocktails, too. (23 Market Street; 876-617-5175; open daily from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Pepper's Jerk Center: No frills but festive, Peppers serves flavorful jerk, washed down with Red Stripe. Try the pork or lobster jerk. (20 Duke Street; 876-385-7512; Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday, closed Sunday)
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville: Yes, it's a chain, and yes, the food is not the star attraction. But this outpost yards from your cruise ship boasts a pool with swim-up bar, a mini version of Jamaica's Dunn's River Falls, and a green hot tub in the shape of the bowl of a margarita glass. Music blasts. Servers organize merriment. For many cruisers, it's a tropical excursion without the hassle, and cheaper, too. The Wi-Fi is free, if you can get on the network when it's crowded. And the "Volcano Nachos" plates are humongous. (Historic Falmouth Cruise Port; 876-631-1031; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. when ships are in port)
Good Hope Great House: Meals at this former plantation house about eight miles from Falmouth might feature escovitched kingfish (marinated in vinegar and spices, then lightly fried), roast breadfruit, boiled yams and key lime pie for dessert. Non-Jamaican choices include salads and quesadillas. Your best bet is to book through CHUKKA Carribbean or your cruise line. (Trelawny, Jamaica; 877-424-8552; open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner)
Historic Falmouth Cruise Port is a 32-acre gated facility serving cruisers only. It's open only till 5 p.m. on days when ships are calling. Billed as the first themed port, it's a partnership between the Port Authority of Jamaica and Royal Caribbean, and located just steps away from Falmouth.
Over-aggressive vendors. If you're not interested, resist attempts to engage. Females strolling alone are likely to hear impassioned come-ons that will make them feel as desirable as a movie star.
The Jamaican dollar is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are accepted virtually everywhere, though you may get change back in Jamaican currency at small establishments. Check that change carefully, as we and others have been shorted. Port shops and larger stores or restaurants in town may take credit cards, but it's always good to have cash and ask before trying to use a credit card. The port has two ATMs. To check current exchange rates, visit oanda.com or xe.com.
English is the official language, but Jamaicans often talk among themselves a lilting, fast-paced patois that's near impossible for non-residents to understand. Use "Yeah, mon" or "No, thanks, mon" to express friendly agreement or decline an offer.
Stop at the Appleton Estate kiosk in the port for a souvenir bottle of fine rum. Take home a Bob Marley or "One Love Jamaica" T-shirt. More original are hand-sewn Jamaican-style dresses that fit American Girl dolls; look for them in the port crafts market.
Club Nazz, housed in a historic tavern at 23 Market Street just a 10-minute stroll from the port, makes one of the finest rum punches we've ever tasted. It combines Jamaican Appleton Estate rum with grenadine, bitters and pineapple juice. Prefer to tipple at the port? Try Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville drink special of the day or a frosty Jamaican Red Stripe beer.