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.
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.
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.
Over-aggressive vendors. If you're not interested, resist attempts to engage. Females strolling alone might be victim to cat-calling.
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.
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.
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)
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.