PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica - I wanted the impossible vacation: a tropical paradise but not a resort, where the beaches were beautiful but not full of bronzed bodies, and the location was authentic, not gussied up like some Caribbean Disneyland.
Of course, I didn't want a country in the midst of upheaval. (I spend too much time in the Middle East.) The spot had to be affordable and easy to reach from Philadelphia - I didn't have the energy for multiple plane connections.
I had just about given up looking for my impossible dream when I remembered a place I visited 20 years ago - an undeveloped part of Jamaica's beautiful northeastern coast, east of the town of Port Antonio. I went on the Internet and truly found a paradise that hadn't changed much since my last visit, where you can stay in a wonderful villa and swim at exquisite, uncrowded beaches.
The Hollywood jet set, led by Errol Flynn, discovered Port Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s. (His widow still owns a cattle farm up the coast.) Super-wealthy Jamaicans and foreigners own villas in the hills and on the waters of a series of secluded coves east of the town.
But you don't need to be a millionaire to stay at Moon San Villa, a white, three-story confection with multiple balconies, about six miles east of here. It looks out over a cove and small beach that lead to the deep turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon, made famous by the 1980 Brooke Shields movie of the same name. Hills covered with tropical foliage rise above the cove; hawks and frigate birds circle overhead.
For $145 to $155 per day, you can rent one of four rooms with private baths. Three have scrumptious water views, and one looks out on exotic foliage; all are decorated in pastel Jamaican colors with paintings by local artists.
The rate includes a full breakfast with rich Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, prepared by Donna Taylor, a wonderful Jamaican woman who also can arrange taxis and recommend restaurants and will cook up a fish or chicken dinner when you order in advance. (You can buy good Chilean wine and Jamaican Red Stripe beer in town and store it in the villa's refrigerator.)
The ever-helpful staff also includes Dave Thatcher, who will help you rent a motorboat to explore nearby coves or snorkel off Monkey Island.
American expat Greg Naldrett has owned the villa since 1996. He is an expert on Jamaica tourism and can advise you on nearby adventures, including a downhill biking trip in the Blue Mountains that passes coffee plantations, or horseback riding to the sea, or a trip to Reach Falls - one of the many gorgeous waterfalls in the area.
You may be wondering why such a great place is less frequented than the huge resort towns in the northwest, such as Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. The reason: It's harder to get to. Port Antonio has only a tiny airport served by private charters, so you need to drive a good ways over bad roads from Kingston or Montego Bay airports.
I advise hiring a taxi instead of renting a car, since Jamaicans drive British-style on the "wrong side" of the road, and the mostly two-lane roads range from halfway decent to truly awful. You won't need a car at Moon San Villa, since you can can easily hail "route taxis" (group taxis used by the locals) that drop you at the beaches or in town for $1 per ride.
The best plan is to fly into Kingston, which requires a relatively painless 21/2-hour drive ($120 for a taxi) to Port Antonio that passes some lovely coastal scenery. Unfortunately, my husband and I were booked to Montego Bay, which meant a grueling 51/2-hour ride ($230). The one saving grace: The trip did offer some glimpses of real Jamaican life in small towns. I still remember the parade of church ladies marching through the town of Annotto Bay with placards calling for abstinence from liquor or drugs; one held a sign urging, "Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day."
We arrived exhausted at Moon San Villa, just in time to watch a spectacular lunar eclipse over the cove while sipping rum on a balcony overlooking the sea. Things only got better from there.
Five minutes by route taxi from the villa, I found my paradise - the beach at Frenchman's Cove. From the main road, you walk through gardens and across a small bridge over a wide, freshwater stream that winds under tropical trees down to a crescent of white sand and into the sea. The sea rushes into the cove between two cliffs, which are covered by foliage, creepers, and trees that overhang parts of the beach. You can swim in the stream and meander to the sea waves.
Although there were some tourists on the beach - mostly Europeans and Jamaicans - it felt relatively deserted. We rented white plastic chaise-lounge chairs and sat under the huge branches and broad leaves of a sweet-smelling almond tree, beside the stream. We could watch the incoming waves in front of us.
Off to one corner of the beach in a small tent, spiced Jamaican jerk chicken and fish were cooked over coals in metal half-drums and delivered to us.
One afternoon, we watched a Jamaican minister marry two Canadians under our almond tree, with coconut fronds marking the aisle and a ceremonial arch of vines and flowers.
We could have been happy doing nothing but hanging out at Frenchman's Cove. But we felt the need to do some exploring. So Donna arranged for us to take a trip down the Rio Grande river, a half-hour taxi ride away ($50 round-trip). We spent three hours on a bamboo raft floating down the wide blue-green expanse flanked by huge coconut palms and almond trees, with a side hike through lush fields of banana and plantain to a waterfall in which we could swim. Our captain, a wiry, humorous Jamaican named Basil Bunting, manipulated small rapids with a long bamboo pole as we sat on cushions atop a raised platform, drinking beer from our cooler. Snowy egrets and blue herons flew beside us. We could have been on another planet.
The number of restaurants near Moon San is limited - there are a couple of upscale places in town - so we ate several meals at the villa. But our favorite dinner was at Woody's Place, an open-air restaurant under a bamboo roof. Woody and his wife, Cherie, cooked a magnificent pureed vegetable soup and a Jamaican staple: curried goat, in a terrific sauce with beans and rice.
Inside, we met a group of volunteer optometrists from South Dakota and Minnesota who had come to examine Jamaicans and fit them with donated eyeglasses. We had heard about the medical teams sent by the Cuban government to Jamaica and all over the Caribbean, so we were delighted to learn that this group of Americans was also helping the island's poor.
You can't ignore the poverty you see in Port Antonio and along the roads. But we never had any problems - the touts trying to sell you things in town are persistent, but not offensive - and it is easy to strike up conversations with Jamaicans. On our last night, some new local friends took us to Evril's open-air restaurant on the outskirts of town, where rich and ordinary Jamaicans mingled at long tables, eating lobster, jerk chicken and crayfish. Old reggae hits played in the background.
Later that night, as we sat on Moon San's balcony, listening to the waves, we wondered how long Port Antonio could maintain its sleepy pace before a new road was completed or the airport expanded. Some developers are already buying up nearby coves. So you better go see paradise now.
Air Jamaica, American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways fly to Kingston from Philadelphia International Airport, with one connection. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $420.
Place to stay
Moon San Villa
$145-$155 for a room with full breakfast. Try to get the master bedroom.
Places to eat
About $25 for dinner for two.
Dicky's Best Kept Secret
An offbeat seaside shack with beautiful interior and good food; $25 per person for five courses.
Moon San Villa
Donna will cook a chicken dinner for $16
Things to do
Raft the Rio Grande
$50 for a round-trip private taxi. $60 for raft and captain; $75 for hike to Scatter Falls.
Explore Reach Falls, caves
$50 for round-trip private taxi; $10 for ticket and guide.
Swim at Frenchman's Cove
Moon San Villa gives you a free pass. Lunch: $7 each.