(3:45 p.m. EST) -- After several years of planning and construction, numerous delays and hundreds of millions of dollars, the Caribbean's newest port has welcomed its first cruise ship. The initial response, so the saying goes, is that "everyting is irie."
On Thursday, Royal Caribbean's a Voyager of the Seas docked in the new port facilities at Falmouth, Jamaica, an historic port town on the island's north coast between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Locals came out in droves to welcome the 3,114-passenger ship, which the Jamaica Observer described as the first to visit in some 50 years.
"Buildings, rooftops, streets and any open spaces were filled with people awaiting Voyager's arrival," said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert and regular TV contributor known as the Cruise Guy, who was on the scene. For some residents, the culmination of years of progress and setback stirred emotions. Joy Laesch, who heads the Trelawny Art and Craft Association, told the Jamaica Observer that she shed "tears of joy." "My hands were filled with [tears] so I just used it to wash my face. It was tears of joy because we were waiting and have been preparing ourselves for this moment, and now it's happening," said Laesch.
While the new port, a $221 million joint effort between Royal Caribbean and the Port Authority of Jamaica, is ready to accommodate cruise ships, it's still a work-in-progress. "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," said John Terceck, Royal Caribbean's vice president of commercial development. (Construction was restricted to certain areas during the visit.)
"They created nice distractions to avoid noticing the construction site around them," said Chiron. Those distractions included performers on stilts, a marching band, live reggae music and a number of arts-and-crafts vendors. "All the Jamaican icons were there -- Red Stripe [beer], Appleton [rum], Scotchies [jerk chicken]," noted Terceck.
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. Terceck told Cruise Critic that over a thousand passengers set off on traditional north coast Jamaica excursions to Dunn's River Falls, Dolphin Cove, Mountain Valley and various beaches. Roughly 500 took the free shuttle to Rose Hall, a Mo-Bay resort area with a spa, golf course and upscale duty-free shops.
But there were also as significant number content to experience new nearby attractions or explore Falmouth. More than 500 visited the Good Hope Estate, an 18th-century plantation that's been developed along with the port; another 500 explored nearby Falmouth proper -- either by foot, horse and buggy or tram -- or enjoyed the government-sponsored street party.
Even as the ship was set to depart, the excitement continued. "The crowds of Jamaicans never dissipated and were cheering Voyager's departure," said Chiron. "What was truly emotional for many was every open space on every deck of Voyager was lined with passengers and crew cheering and thanking the people of Falmouth for a most memorable day."
Terceck partly attributed the success to the expectations the line set. "We're saying, you know, it's going to be a beautiful project, but it's still under construction." Chiron echoed those sentiments, adding that passengers were told what to expect via in-cabin notices and public announcements. Additionally, the cruise director explained the ongoing nature of the project before evening shows.
Naturally, there's some for improvement. "People maybe waited 20 minutes longer than they should have to get out on their tours," Terceck told us. "So we have to work on the timing of the buses a little." Officers from the next two ships on the docket, Freedom of the Seas (February 23) and Voyager of the Seas (February 24), were in on the post-visit review call, notepads in hand.
What's the future look like? Backhoes and earth movers are still very much part of the evolution from construction site to modern, two-pier cruise port with an 18th-century feel. Outside the pier area, restoring the town itself (a parking lot separates town and commercial port) will be a major long-term project. (The poor 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 during the port's official grand opening.
As construction continues, the street-fair-type offering will be the norm for the coming months. "It's a day-by-day thing. Every day we'll have more landscaping, more paving," he said. "The visible construction elements should be pretty much done for Oasis' March 22 visit, but no shops will be open at that point, however." Terceck tells us the first Falmouth retail shops will open in April or May, at which point the free shuttle to Rose Hall will be discontinued.
Were you on the first call to Falmouth? Visiting soon? We'd love to see your pictures and hear your stories.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor
--Photos appear courtesy of the Cruise Guy.
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