Jamaica’s Pirate Coast

Driving Jamaica’s Coast Road

In the late Summer of 1692, news began to reach England of a great disaster on the colonised Island of Jamaica. The Island’s main town, Port Royal had been hit by an earthquake so violent that whole streets had been swallowed by the earth. Two thirds of the inhabitants had been killed and the town largely destroyed.

The opinion of many was that the earthquake was a judgement from God, as Port Royal, at the time was widely seen as being the ‘Wickedest City in Christendom’. The home of pirates , buccaneers and prostitutes, Port Royal was a riotous party town, the equivalent of ports such London, Bristol and Liverpool but transplanted to the Caribbean.

Its the modern-day site of Port Royal that this 380 mile circumnavigation of the Island begins. What remains of the pirate stronghold lies at the tip of a 9-mile breakwater road called the Palisadoes, which partially encircles Kingston harbour, with the  airport halfway down its length.

Today Port Royal is a quiet fishing town, but 350 years ago it comprised of streets of brick and timber houses, Anglican and Catholic churches, 2 much needed prisons and innumerable taverns and whorehouses.  The infamous buccaneer Henry Morgan triumphantly returned to Port Royal in 1668 after looting the Spanish stronghold of Portobello in Panama. One of Port Royal’s oldest buildings is St. Peter’s Church built in 1725 to replace the ones destroyed in the earthquake. Inside is the silver communion service said to have been donated by Captain Morgan.

Nearby Fort Charles appears largely as it did at the time of the 1692 earthquake. Its Maritime Museum is rich in pipes, tools, dishes, and other archaeological artefacts rescued from the sunken part of the city, which is now an archeological site. The original battlements overlook the site of the sunken pirate vessel Ranger. Down a side street is the old jail, which withstood the earthquake and is now a pharmacy.

From Port Royal, the road heads east along the Palisadoes into Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, founded when refugees fled Port Royal after the earthquake. Bob Marley’s former home on Hope Road has been turned into a museum featuring his music. Highlights are Marley’s bedroom with his star-shaped guitar by the bed, the bullet holes that ripped through the rear wall, evidence of an assassination attempt.

From Kingston, head west along highway A1 for about 18 miles to the former capital of Spanish Town, the site of the remains of its 19th-century Courthouse on Constitution Street. On the square’s west side, in a former courthouse that was demolished in the 1760s, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a dandified pirate chief, and his female crew Anne Bonny (also his lover) and Mary Read—were tried.

Following their 1720 capture, the three were convicted of piracy. Calico Jack was hung on Rackham’s Cay, East of Port Royal while the women were sent to the Spanish Town jail, as Read was pregnant at the time. She escaped the hangmans noose but died soon after in prison of fever.

The road then heads North West on the coastal A2 to the resort town of Negril. It was here, at Bloody Bay that Calico Jack and his female cohorts were captured. The bay’s sandy beach stretches for miles backed by a series of luxury all-inclusive resorts.

Beyond Negril, the coastal highway (now called the A1) heads north and then east, on a stunning scenic drive of 63 miles through Montego Bay to Ochos Rios. As you approach Hopewell, you’ll notice Round Hill, a forested promontory that juts into the western end of Montego Bay’s harbour. The five-star Round Hill resort built on the promontor, is one of the top places to stay on the island.  If you’re feeling flush, you may want to stop for a drink and to enjoy the great views along the coast. At the top of Round Hill, the remains of Round Hill Fort, which protected the harbour from pirates during the early 18th century, offers visitors great views of Montego Bay and the city.

At Ocho Rios, the Dunns River Falls drop 600 feet through Terraces and lagoons. The falls can be climbed with a guide and the aid of some rubber sole shoes-they’re very slippery! 20 miles east of Ochos Rios, at Port Maria stands British playwright Noel Coward’s Estate ‘Firefly’—the estate where he spent the last 20 years of his life, and which he had built in 1955.

The area is steeped in the history of the pirates and in Captain Morgan in particular. A lookout point offers views of Port Maria and the surrounding coast and was reputedly the point from which Morgan directed attacks on passing ships. A hole in the earth that lead to a tunnel that supposedly gave Morgan passage to the sea can be found not far from Coward’s hillside gravesite.

From Port Maria, follow the coast road East to Port Antonio, another great scenic drive. Port Antonio provides access to the Blue Mountains. The 194,000 acre Blue Mountain and John Crow Mountain National Park was established in 1992 to preserve some of the remaining forests and to protect the island’s largest watershed.  If you plan to visit the mountains, a 4WD vehicle is probably the best option, as is arranging a guide. It is not really safe to hike on your own-  Trails are easily washed away in heavy rains and you can easily stumble into areas you shouldn’t visit such as hidden ganja fields .

The road continues past Port Antonio and round the Eastern end of the island and heads back west toward Kingston. Past Port Antonio, are some nice beaches such as San San Beach and Winnifred beach and some laid back seaside towns such as Boston Bay which are worthy of a stop-off.

If you did this 380 mile drive no stop you could probably cover it in a long day, but its worth taking a few days and stopping off en-route to really get a feel for the Island and its pirate history.

For general info on Driving in Jamaica and car rental options see my Jamaica Page.

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