One mile off the coast of Parottee in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica lies the coolest bar in the Caribbean, and possibly the entire world. The unique Pelican Bar resembles a gigantic bird nest made from driftwood, palm fronds and coconut tree trunks and is perched on a sandbar in the middle of the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The bar is named for the large flocks of pelicans which often rest there. Its owner, a local fisherman named Floyd Forbes, had a dream one night about a bar out at sea where he and his fishermen friends could sit and clean their fish or relax and have a beer.
That dream became a reality in 2001. The concept was initially scoffed at by many, but a few believed in him and over time, the bar caught the attention of more than just his friends. The rest is history. Pelican Bar now attracts several hundred tourists a week and visiting the bar and restaurant is cited as one of Jamaica’s top must-do activities.
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There are multiple ways to approach Pelican Bar. The cheapest option is to drive to Parottee, the closest land point about 5-10 minutes from the Black River town centre, and find a boat captain. This costed me JM$1,000 roundtrip and the total sail to and from was about 20 minutes. The equivalent for foreigners is US$10. From Black River, the trip costs US$25 or JM$2,500 and is a slightly longer boatride. I recommend driving the extra distance to Parottee instead and saving some cash. Pelican Bar can be approached from Treasure Beach too but is even longer and naturally more expensive. There are many private tour companies which combine Pelican Bar with other popular south coast stops such as YS Falls, Appleton Estate, Lovers’ Leap and the Black River Safari. This option is the costliest but is perhaps ideal for foreigners, especially solo travellers.
The day I visited Pelican Bar, I actually wound up being lucky. My friend and I were on a daytrip through Jamaica’s south coast and our second stop, originally intended to be the final one, was the Black River Safari. I’ve already visited and written about there last year (you can read about it here) but my friend hadn’t been before. We shared the safari tour with a lovely Jamaican couple who had interest in visiting Pelican Bar, so we opted to travel together. Literally the first man we saw in Parottee held a sign in his hands which read “boat rides to Pelican Bar.” He seemed decent enough and the couple which was driving ahead of me stopped and realized he was offering a good price. A quick judge of character and finding his Facebook page made me feel fine, but I still called my boyfriend, sent him pictures of what we were wearing, snapped our location, pictures of the man and his house etc. (can’t be too careful). Off-the-beaten-path adventures often require a bit of trust but I generally believe the world is a lot safer and people are a lot nicer than the media makes it out to be.
Anyway, this turned out great. Mr. Brown is a licenced captain but he himself wasn’t the captain that day. Rather, he was the scout for Mikey, a Rastaman and captain with whom he works, and Mikey carried us safely to and from. We parked at Mr. Brown’s yard and from his backyard we could literally see the Pelican Bar… err bars?… wayyy out in the distance, sort of like a little bird’s nest bobbing on the sea. It reminded me of when the Never Bird saved Peter Pan from drowning when he was stranded on Marooners’ Rock by giving him her nest to use as a water vessel. I said bars because there are actually two of them! Floyd (or his soon-to-be competition?) has a second bar under construction but it’s not quite ready yet.
Salty refreshing seabreeze caressed our faces and the view of the coastline from our boat was divine. I could sail forever and watch the beautiful pattern the motorboat left on the calm and gentle sea. However, during that 10-minute or so blissful ride, the little nest grew larger and larger until we could make out four anchored boats then individual stilts then people, then there we were. Our captain lashed the boat securely by the entrance so we could alight without getting our feet wet. In fact, you can opt to stay 100% dry on your visit to Pelican Bar but I’d still recommend wearing at least knee-length shorts or shorter.
How amazing is it that a bar is just perched in the middle of the Caribbean Sea one mile away from the nearest coast? The design is fittingly rustic; there’s no paint or extravagant decor yet you can’t peel your eyes off the walls, ceiling and floor. Why? The thousands of carvings of names into the driftwood immortalize previous visitors. And no, this isn’t graphitti. The name-carving is allowed and even encouraged! The bartender doubles as the carver and it was just my luck that he left his chisel at shore on the day I visited. I counted several dozen flags and there’s also lots of other paraphernalia like caps and licence plates donated by past guests who wanted to leave a visible mark of their visit.
What to eat
Freshly-caught fish and lobster are the specialty here which can be steamed, fried or roasted. Accompaniments include the usual Jamaican fare of bammies (cassava cakes), festivals (fried dough), rice and peas and breadfruit. The bar is as well stocked as you can imagine on a shack in the middle of the ocean– Red Stripe, Heineken, Smirnoff, Dragon stout, rum and soft drinks is as good as it gets–no cocktails or anything fancy. But who’s complaining?
Warning: Everything’s very pricey. After all, this is a heavily-visited tourist spot so that’s not unexpected. Thus, I only went to have a beer and enjoy the ambience– there’s no shame in that. There’s a bit of a wait by the way since everything is cooked to order, plus you’re on island time. Feel free to call ahead and place your order so you won’t have a long wait if you decide to dine.
What to bring
- Cash only. Cards are NOT accepted.
- Something to add to Floyd’s collection like a flag or licence plate if you can.
- A towel if you plan to swim.
What to wear
- Something short so you don’t get your feet wet at the shore when boarding, like shorts or a dress.
- A cap or broad-brimmed hat. It gets hot out here, folks.
- Water shoes.
- Wear your swimclothes underneath. There are no changing rooms nor restrooms for that matter. Go figure.
What to do
Play dominoes, eat, drink a cold Red Stripe, relax, enjoy the lovely breeze and view, sunbathe, swim or even snorkel if you bring your own equipment. No worries if you’re not a great swimmer either. The water is only waist-deep.
After people-watching, relaxing and catching up over beers with our feet swinging over the dock, we were ready to go. A quick phone call to the captain brought our boat within 15 minutes (yes, yes, there’s good phone signal!) and we had an uneventful sail back to dry land. Floyd’s Pelican Bar is a trip I 10/10 recommend and I’d certainly go again. The only reasons I rate the trip four stars though out of five ☆☆☆☆ is the absence of restrooms (I can see how that would be difficult to arrange but since he ought to have a food handlers’ permit… err… this one is sticky). Also, it can be difficult knowing which captain to trust if you choose not to rely on expensive pre-booked tours and just show up like we did as curious travellers. I’ll link the contact details of the guy we used since I was pretty impressed by his professionalism and I always admire a hardworking resourceful Jamaican. That’s perhaps also why I’m fascinated by this bar, especially given that it has survived quite a few hurricanes. It had to be almost completely rebuilt after 2004 Hurricane Ivan however. Floyd’s pretty eccentric for dreaming up the idea to build a bar in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, but how fortunate is he to have grown Pelican Bar into a success story. Long live Pelican Bar!
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** 2021 update: I visited Pelican Bar again, this time from Treasure Beach, and my friend and I got to carve our blog names in the wood. 🙂 Yay!