"Do you recognize these, Tony?" asks Jon Baker. Sitting across the long stately banquet table under a glinting crystal chandelier, CNN's Anthony Bourdain looks down at a freshly prepared dish of local crab — not unlike the live one that he snatched bare-handed off the ground while crabbing with local hunters a little while earlier.
On this week's episode of Parts Unknown, airing at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday, Nov. 16, Bourdain travels to Jamaica. (Food Republic parent company Zero Point Zero produces the show.) His first stop: Port Antonio, a once-glorious resort town on the island's northeast coast that has languished for decades amid tourist migration to mega-resorts on the opposite side of the country. In recent years, a handful of entrepreneurs have been trying to bring it back. One of them is Jon Baker, a British-born music producer, former New Yorker (he used to work the door at Negril and The Roxy) and partner in two existing hotel properties: the Geejam, a modish lodge with its own recording studio that has attracted a bevy of big-name musicians, and the Trident, which offers more posh accomodations, including an adjacent 40,000-square-foot castle that serves as the luxurious setting for Bourdain's hand-caught crab dinner.
As a hotelier, Baker tries to do things a little different from the all-inclusive type of Caribbean resort compounds you're probably used to. At Geejam, for instance, you check in at the bar. And you won't hear an endless repetition of Bob Marley's greatest hits in the background. In fact, you probably won't hear Bob Marley at all.
We reached out to Baker to find out more about this largely forgotten corner of the isle.
What makes Port Antonio so special, so different from the rest of Jamaica?
BAKER: Caribbean tourism, as you know it, actually started here in the early 1900s. J.P. Morgan had a crib down here. You had the banana boats coming in. It’s had a number of renaissances. In the '50s, a whole bunch of jetsetters used to come down to Jamaica. A lot of the film stars, the Aga Kahn and all these wealthy Europeans fell in love with Port Antonio and started building villas here. Errol Flynn and Patrice Flynn had a cattle farm. That was the second renaissance. Then, when all of the trouble started in Jamaica in the 1970s, it just stopped. It’s like a time capsule. Nobody’s really been coming here. A lot of the villas have gone derelict and run down. And it’s just absolutely pristine. We’re shrouded by the Blue Mountains. So, this is the opposite to the developed Jamaica or all-inclusives.
How did you end up here?
My first wife was part-Jamaican. We toured the island, meeting her relatives. It got to the last week and I’d been there a month. I said to her, "Is there anywhere on this island you don’t have relatives?" She paused and said "Yes, Port Antonio." And I said, "We’re going there." [Laughs] Within the first day of just engaging with the locals, and just seeing the beauty, I said, "One day, I hope I’ll be able to afford a holiday home down here." That was in '86. Fast-forward to '91. After the first big hit record I had, which was PM Dawn, I found a derelict villa with a nice piece of land and I bought it. I spent most of the '90s renovating. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that I went into partnership with Steve Beaver and my mentor [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell turned around and said, 'Well, you've got the recording studio, you've got a nice property, why don't you join the Island Outpost Group and turn it into a small hotel?' Back then, anything Chris said, I'd do. [Laughs] We opened in Christmas 2007.
Coming from the recording industry, how do you approach the hospitality business?
We were very lucky in the '90s. We had expense accounts. So, I traveled all over the planet, staying in loads of hotels. There were certain things I liked, and certain things I didn't like. I didn’t like being ripped off for internet, I didn’t like being ripped off for the phones, and I couldn’t stand robotic politeness. I partied hard in my day, being in that industry, and I know how to host a party. But I never had any training in hospitality and neither had Steve. So, we just approached it from a very punk way. We use our common sense and we’re passionate. There was no real tourism here at the time, so most of our staff had never been involved. It was a bit like the blind leading the blind but we got it right somewhere. Our hotels are No. 1 and No. 2 on TripAdvisor. When we started, we had 20 staff and now we’re at 200 in the region. That’s important. That gives us motivation to succeed. Because it’s really making a difference in the region.
Can you namecheck some of the recording artists who’ve stayed and made music at Geejam?
Alicia Keyes loves it down here. Drake’s been several times. This year, we had Katy Perry down here. When Amy – God rest her soul – Amy Winehouse recorded with us, she didn't book up the whole propery such as some of the bigger acts do. She just booked two rooms. She was in the Bushbar everynight, chatting with the guests.
We attract the creatives. Think of Montauk 20 years ago. I’m beginning to see the same thing here. A lot of run-down villas in the area are now being bought by musicians, mostly people who have portaled through the Geejam Collection, our properties, and fallen in love with the place and they’re renovating. So I hope the community will grow and different stakeholders will come into the area and buy. For instance: Andrew Chapman, whom you might know, he’s partners with Marcus Samuelsson at the Red Rooster [ed. note: and was a co-founder of Food Republic]. Andrew has just bought the Aga Kahn’s derelict property, which is 11 acres. It looks like something out of an overgrown jungle at the moment. But he starts renovating this month. Santigold, a fantastic Brooklyn recording artist, she’s got a place down here. So, you know, it’s beginning to happen.
In Parts Unknown, you have dinner with Anthony Bourdain in the swanky Trident Castle. Tell me about that experience.
This castle was built in 1979. It’s built just like a real castle, the walls are three feet thick. It’s a bit of an aberration in terms of its design. It’s got French chateau, it’s got medieval England, it’s got many different influences. You walk in there and you get an incredible energy. The room we ate in was the banquet room, which has the longest table on the whole island. Our guests, whether they’re staying at the Trident or they’re staying at Geejam, can request a private dinner in the Great Hall or in the dining room. We then get one of our local chefs, we get some fresh fish day from the day, some lobster, whatever, and then we prepare it. As a bit of tongue and cheek, we do the whole white glove thing, to sort of play the part of the castle. And they love it. It’s a great experience.
When I think of Jamaica, I think of rum and Red Stripe beer. Is there anything new and interesting in Jamaica these days on the beverage front?
You're seeing much more sophisticated experiments utilizing the core drink down here, which is rum, and utilizing the gingers and herbs and spices that are indigenous to this area. What a lot of people don't realize is, there's a lot of fruits that are indigenous here that you just won't see at Whole Foods in New York, or Dean + Deluca, for that matter: june plum, sour-sop, sweet-sop, naseberry. So, we make a point of introducing those to our guests and making drinks out of them.
So, let's say I want to come to Port Antonio. How do I get there?
You fly into Kingston. If you're in daylight, we can get you a seaplane to take over the mountain, or a chopper. It depends on your budget. But, most people get picked up, then have a picturesque two-and-a-half-hour drive into the region.
Where should I eat and what else should I do while I'm in town?
In terms of the culinary experience, one of the drawbacks, and one of the reasons I think a lot people don’t come down here, which we are actively trying to remedy, is that you go to St. Barth’s, or you go to a lot of these other places, you know, they have a French base, they’ve got loads of restaurants. ‘Oh, I will book a different restaurant for the six days I’m there.’ Well, it’s not quite like that down here. We kind of have to generate it ourselves. So, at the Trident, we developed, through having Japanese chefs come to train our chefs, a Japanese-Jamaican fusion, plus a modern Jamaican cuisine.
But, if I'm only eating at the hotel, how is that any different from the standard all-inclusive resort?
The difference with staying at the Trident hotel or Geejam than anywhere else in Jamaica and probably the Carribean is, we are constantly taking you on excursions, pushing you out the front door. We do not want you confined on our property because we want to milk you for whatever we can get. No! You can go down to Winnifred Beach – the coolest beach in the area – and they will cook you up fish, or they’ll cook you up a stew. You will go rafting, which you go right into the Rio Grande, up to the Blue Mountains. It’s no touristic Ocho Rios stuff here. It’s real, you know? You can jump off the raft, they’ll take you into the bush, and you’ll see amazing waterfalls. And remember, there is no one around. [Laughs] And, then, you will meet Belinda, who wasn't covered in the show. She will cook up on stone and pots on the side of the river, like, what we'd call a Jamaican bouillabaisse, which is all the crustaceans from the river — the crayfish, the bussu, which would be snails — and it's this most incredibly wholesome fish soup. There's so much on the culinary tip here. It's just getting people down here to enjoy it.
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