I'm always on the hunt for authentic experiences and I found it in Jamaica in Port Antonio, a wildly lush land defined by the rugged Blue Mountains in the northeastern sector of the island.
1. Most visitors would probably choose a hotel or inn beside a golden sand beach. Instead, my base was an inn that sat atop a high hill and required driving along narrow winding roads that climbed steeply up the hillside. But it was all worth it. Staying at Jamaica Heights Resort is like bedding down in a botanical garden. The property is littered with red ginger, bougainvillea, wild orchids and hundreds of other botanical delights. It's a low-key, economical establishment where we had panoramic views of the mists coating the tall Blue Mountains. One of the cottages was my favorite: it's got expansive views on all sides so that you look out over Port Antonio right from your bed.
2. We boarded a small boat for nearby Navy Island -- it's officially closed to the public but that didn't stop us -- that was once owned by actor Erroll Flynn who entertained many a celeb guest here. On this little leafy hideaway with the faded ruins of his mansion, we walked through shallow waters from a protected harborside beach where there was some good swimming, to oceanside white sands that were backed with mangrove trees. We had the place to ourselves until a few snorkelers showed up.
3. I'm always up for walking and hiking and found the Swift River Valley provided a perfect venue for scenic treks. Here I found the land thick with cocoa, coffee, grapefruit and guava trees. Walking through the eponymous hamlet beside the trailhead, we spotted freshly-caught crayfish for sale. Further along, locals were fishing for mullet and trout in the adjacent river.
4. Everywhere we ventured in Port Antonio we marveled at the different hued waters. In the case of the Blue Lagoon of Brooke Shields fame, we found jade-colored deep waters. This couldn't be a more perfect place for a placid swim in a amphitheater lush with palms, almond trees and ferns.
5. One of our best lunches was at Winnifred Beach, a swath of sand where shacks sold chicken feet and boiled corn and an old Rastafarian practiced his yoga postures. My fave restaurant was plenty informal. Owned by Cynthia and Painter, this eatery served up large portions of freshly-caught snapper and lobster along with pumpkin and plantains.
6. Another culinary find is Dawn's Bar, a roadside stand in the seaside village of Manchioneal. Their seafood can't be beat -- we ordered the conch soup with crayfish and sweet roasted doctor fish stuffed with okra.
7. You can't leave Port Antonio without walking, hiking and taking a dip at Reach Falls. There are plenty of pools to take a dip. Along the way, we walked barefoot in the shallow river and along the parallel trail half a mile upstream, passing mini-waterfalls and plenty of foliage, including heliconia, and ferns.
8. Another activity that is synonymous with Port Antonio is a river rafting trip down the Rio Grande River. This was no ordinary raft, however. We sat in a 30-foot-long bamboo raft piloted by Captain Bell, a river veteran who once took Errol Flynn's guests rafting. For seven miles, we cruised through a serene landscape with great blue herons, vine-covered trees, shore-side boulders and towering cliffs.