Big up Kingston – Pirates & Parrotfish in Port Royal

It’s June 1692, and you’re a resident of Port Royal, a thriving settlement in the harbor of modern-day Kingston. As you gaze at the cerulean-blue harbor, your eyes linger on the silhouettes of several privateer ships. The English crown has given these ships free reign to prey upon enemy Spanish galleons loaded with gold and silver, and they’ve taken to the task with relish. In Port Royal, the privateers’ wealth and debauchery is visible everywhere. Drunken sailors stumble about, pockets bursting with pieces of eight, vessels of overflowing red wine spilling down the cobblestone. Meanwhile, ladies of the night slink from behind darkened doorways, beckoning you towards illicit pleasures.

Yet amid the usual debauchery, something feels amiss. The earth you stand upon suddenly feels unstable, vibrating with increasingly angry amplifications. Earthquake! Torrents of seawater froth with whitecaps. Shrieks of terror emanate from panicked residents. Without warning, a huge chunk of Port Royal begins to slip into the sea, swallowing a mass swarming humanity and buildings like an angry sea monster.

More than 300 years later and the ground beneath Port Royal is again calm. But much like the aftermath of that fateful disaster in 1692, it’s clear that the epicenter of Jamaica’s wealth and influence has shifted elsewhere. The fearsome buccaneers like Henry Morgan are no more. Instead, what’s been left behind is a sleepy fishing village just a few miles from Kingston proper, littered with the remains of crumbling pirate forts and some of the best seafood anywhere in the Caribbean. If you’re ready to investigate the real history of pirates in the Caribbean, click below for more.
Fort Charles + Giddy House
At one time Port Royal was home to several military installations. These forts not only guarded Kingston’s harbor from enemy attacks, they also provided safe haven for pirates preying on Spanish ships in the Caribbean. Following the 1692 earthquake, at least three of Port Royal’s forts simply disappeared into the sea.

Today, Fort Charles is Port Royal’s only remaining military fort and among the best preserved in the Caribbean. First built in 1655, the base has played host to some Britain’s most famous naval leaders, including Horatio Nelson. It’s also coincidentally the name of the fort in Pirates of the Caribbean. Coincidence? Visitors to the site can arrange tours of the grounds including some fearsome cannons and a small but well-organized museum complete with historic Port Royal artifacts. Better visit quick – at the time of our visit, authorities mentioned plans to turn the site into a legit tourist complex complete with peg-legs, parrots and eyepatches. Shiver me timbers?

Also worth an amusing five minutes of your time is the Giddy House (pictured above). Built in the 1880’s as an ammunition storehouse, the Giddy House was the victim of yet another earthquake in 1907, which left the structure intact but slanted at a rather odd angle. The slanted floors make for a fun-house style amusement and leaves many visitors “giddy” with laughter, hence its odd name.

Gloria’s Seafood
Just outside the gates of Fort Charles lies Gloria’s, yet another highly recommended Port Royal destination. After you’ve worked up an appetite learning about pirates, make a stop at this rustic seafood shop complete with al fresco seating and views of Kingston harbor. A plate of curried parrotfish with okra (right), a glass of Ting soda, and the sound of waves crashing along the shore makes for the perfect Jamaican lunch.

As you finish your meal, spend an hour or two exploring the neighborhood’s quiet and rustic charm, including the peeling facades of pastel colored buildings and clumps of tiny wooden fishing boats nestled on the shore. Port Royal today may no longer flow with stolen Spanish treasure, but its unassuming charms remain very much intact, waiting to be discovered.

Gadling was recently invited by the Spanish Court Hotel to visit Kingston, Jamaica’s unexplored capital of music, food and culture. We’ve been bringing you our observations on all this up-and-coming city has to offer. Though the trip was paid, all opinions remain our own. You can read our previous “Big up Kingston” posts HERE.

Big up Kingston – The Spanish Court Hotel

Hotels provoke strong reactions among travelers. Stay at a really terrible, cookie-cutter property, and it’s likely to color an entire trip. Just the opposite is also true – when a traveler finds himself at truly unique hotel, aligned with the rhythms and particularities of a destination, tempered by friendly hospitality, it can vastly improve any travel experience.

With these two extremes in mind, Gadling recently had a chance to visit Kingston, Jamaica’s new Spanish Court Hotel. We found ourselves immediately taken by the latter of these two extremes. In a city of hotels characterized by their bland, unassuming accommodations, the Spanish Court is truly a breath of fresh air, bringing much needed style, sophistication and casual Jamaican hospitality to a city very much on an upward swing. This 107 room “boutique” hotel also represents something of a Caribbean coup: having been built entirely using local Jamaican artisans and materials it is an entity that is distinctly Jamaican in its identity, from the locally influenced food menu to the black and white photos of Jamaica in the hotel’s lobby.

Over two quick nights earlier this month, we jumped around on the Spanish Court’s mattresses and scrutinized the thread count on the towels, sampled the breakfast buffet and took a swim in the pool. On the whole, we liked what we found. Ready to take a closer look? Check below for our gallery and observations.

Public Spaces
Upon arriving at the hotel, guests enter the property’s thoroughly modern main lobby. The most immediate impression is of the space’s modern feel and distinctly Jamaican touches. The dark hardwood floors, black and white photos of Jamaican plant life and open-slat room dividers lend the area a distinctly Caribbean feel.

Complementing this are the room’s more modern touches, including futuristic cloth-covered chandeliers and electric blue furniture. You feel as though you’re sitting in a kind of futuristic living room, comfortable yet defiant in its quirkiness and aura. To up the comfort level, the room is scattered with daily Kingston newspapers and coffee table books to encourage relaxation.

On the other side of the main lobby is a small dining area, which plays host to a small breakfast buffet each morning featuring a relatively basic setup of toast, fruit and cereal. Also within the dining area is a small bar where guests can gather for a nightcap or socialize with friends.

On the second floor is the Spanish Court Hotel’s pool area and Sky Bar. The pool is notable for its style, a freestanding above-ground rectangle that forms a single unbroken solid shape. The water laps right to the form’s edges. From the pool deck, visitors can also “drink in” a bird’s eye view of New Kingston’s nearby office towers while enjoying a cocktail at the pool deck bar.

Guest Rooms
Inside the hotel’s 107 rooms, guests are greeted by a similarly upscale experience to the property’s public spaces. Though a little small, all rooms are appointed with a nice mix of style and amenities to maximize comfort. The room we stayed in was outfitted in a color scheme of beige and dark red. On the wall behind our bed was a series of black and white photos similar to what was found in the main lobby. Next to the double bed was an iHome iPod clock radio, ensuring we were able to cue our favorite Reggae soundtrack throughout weekend – always a nice touch.

The bathroom was comparable to the main room, filled with the usual arrangement of towels and decked out in marble flooring. We particularly liked the “rain shower style” shower head, a simple feature many upscale hotels still frequently overlook.

The room was flanked one one side by a series of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the hotel’s courtyard. Since we happened to be on the ground floor, this resulted in a less-than-desirable level of outside noise (part of it was probably the grand opening ceremony). Thankfully the shades and curtains helped to lessen this Make sure when you get a room you ask for something on the second/third level or off the main courtyard.

Gadling was recently invited by the Spanish Court Hotel to visit Kingston, Jamaica’s unexplored capital of music, food and culture. All this week we’re bringing you our observations on all this up-and-coming city has to offer. Though the trip was paid, all opinions remain our own. You can read our previous “Big up Kingston” posts HERE.

Big up Kingston – Sunday brunch with a view

Sunday brunch is an institution in Jamaica. After church services (around 65% of Jamaicans are Christian) it’s perhaps the second most popular Sunday ritual. Families gather together to enjoy a leisurely meal of Jamaican culinary specialties and enjoy each other’s company. Although Kingston visitors can find a Jamaican Sunday brunch at any number of local spots, perhaps one of the most famous is at the legendary Kingston resort Strawberry Hill.

Nestled 3,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains, just north of Kingston proper, Strawberry Hill makes a perfect day trip to get a taste of Kingston’s culinary culture, musical history and beautiful scenery. Though it originally began its life as coffee plantation, Strawberry Hill was purchased by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell in 1972, who brought the property to its current state. Each Sunday the resort throws its doors open to brunch guests, who can enjoy a taste of Strawberry Hill’s unique Jamaican musical and culinary heritage while simultaneously taking in one of the city’s most spectacular views.

Though Strawberry Hill isn’t within Kingston itself, visitors can easily arrange a day trip through hire of a private taxi or minibus. The ride takes around an hour and makes for an enjoyable adventure from the hustle and humid temperatures of big city Kingston. As your ride winds its way slowly up mountain switchbacks, you are surrounded by a lush tapestry of green jungle vegetation. Your vehicle passes by tiny towns of minuscule one-room storefronts, stocked with ripe mangoes and steaming cold bottles of Red Stripe beer. Meanwhile, the grid of Kingston hides coyly beneath you, shrouded by frequent clumps of mountain clouds.

Soon enough you arrive at a tiny unassuming sign announcing the resort’s entrance. Strawberry Hill doesn’t boast of its presence to visitors – it hides it behind dense layers of vegetation and winding mountain roads, waiting to be discovered like a mountain treasure lost to the ages. Once inside, guests are immediately confronted by the complex and its luxurious simplicity. A series of plain, open-air wooden villas are connected by covered walkways, flanked by small bunches of orange and yellow wildflowers and manicured lawns. A winding stone paths lead to an infinity pool, dropping off to a panoramic view of Kingston far below, the harbor and the surrounding jade-colored mountains fading in the hazy distance.

Don’t let all the natural beauty fool you – inside Strawberry Hill is enough musical memorabilia to stock the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several times over. Lining the walls are candid black & white images of famous musicians like Bob Marley, U2, the Rolling Stones, Sting and Grace Jones along with numerous plaques of platinum records courtesy of owner Chris Blackwell’s Island Label. Many of the artists are one time resort guests, lending the grounds a distinct aura of musical energy and cool.

If this veritable archive of rock history doesn’t get you singing, the Sunday brunch certainly will. For around $50, brunch-ers can partake in all-you-can-eat meal including variety of Jamaican breakfast and lunch staples like jerk-style meats and the famous ackee and saltfish. Though Ackee is a tropical fruit, when cooked, many people describe it as having the consistency of a heap of scrambled eggs. Complementing this oddly wonderful Jamaican dish are heaping piles of fresh seafood, fresh local fruits and sweet cornbread-style fritters like festival. Finish your meal with a sweet helping of the delicious bread pudding.

As you polish off your plate of Jamaican brunch specialties, a bird’s eye view of Kingston below you and a virtual museum of musical history behind you, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit like a Rock and Roll star yourself. Consider yourself a backstage VIP for the day, courtesy of Jamaica’s overlooked capital, Kingston.

Gadling was recently invited by the Spanish Court Hotel to visit Kingston, Jamaica’s unexplored capital of music, food and culture. All this week we’re bringing you our observations on all this up-and-coming city has to offer. Though the trip was paid, all opinions remain our own. You can read our previous “Big up Kingston” posts HERE.

Big up Kingston – Welcome to the real Jamaica

In Jamaican slang they like to use the phrase big up. It’s a term intended to bestow respect, giving a shout-out to its recipient in recognition of specific talent or excellence. In Kingston, Jamaica’s capital and largest city, “big up” is a phrase that rings particularly true. Kingston is very much a city on the brink, a renowned capital of reggae, Caribbean culture and stories of rum and pirates from ages past, all dying to be explored. It’s also a city with a fiercely defined identity – unlike the “tourist Jamaica” of Negril, Montego Bay or Ocho Rios, Kingston is very much a town that exists for Jamaicans: built and defined by its proud local residents.

Kingston is a city striving to define itself in the modern day – picking and choosing among the influences of eras past. Founded in the the late 17th Century, Kingston was birthed by the destruction of the infamous Port Royal, Caribbean capital of English pirates and their legendary violence and hedonism. Over the next 200 years, Kingston would thrive as a central trading port of the colonial Caribbean, ground zero for giant sugar cane plantations and the slave trade

By the 20th Century, Kingston was among the largest cities in the Caribbean, playing a central role in one of the era’s most influential and prolific musical movements: reggae. Yet this flowering of Jamaican culture was not without its flaws: by the the 1970’s economic decline and gang violence contributed to steep decline in tourism. Visitors began to steer clear of the lively capital in favor of safer resort towns on the island’s northern and western coasts.

Kingston in 2009 looks more ready than ever to re-assume its eminent position as a central Jamaican tourist destination. Idyllic beach visit Kingston is not – but with an outgrowth of new accommodations, myriad cultural activities and a wealth of overlooked attractions, Kingston is ripe for exploration and worthy of a second look. Over the next few days, Gadling will be sharing a surprising look at Jamaica’s overlooked capital. Big up Kingston, you’ve earned our respect!

Gadling was recently invited by the Spanish Court Hotel to take a look at Kingston’s newest resort and see all this fascinating city has to offer. Though the trip was paid, all opinions remain our own. You can read all future Big up Kingston posts HERE.