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Rafting along Jamaica's Rio Grande has all the romance of a gondola ride in Venice, at a fraction of the cost. The serpentine river winds its way through mountainous groves of bamboo, coconut and mango trees, until it reaches the Caribbean Sea, near Port Antonio, on the northeast coast.

Although we first envisioned rubber rafts careening through the waves, we soon discovered that the journey was no whitewater trip.

Raft ride on the Rio Grande
Raft ride on the Rio Grande
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Vincent, our guide and expert boatman, steadied our skinny 30-foot-long bamboo raft, as we walked along its length and snuggled together on the padded two-seater bench at the back. He then used a long pole to push us off the riverbank into the placid blue-green water.

The eight-mile route takes 2.5 hours to cover. Its languorous pace is occasionally interrupted by "rapids" but they are nothing more than water babbling over stones.

There's plenty of time to listen to the birds singing, chat with Vincent, and slip overboard for a leisurely swim. The water is warm and as soft as milk.

For much of its length, the Rio Grande is too shallow for conventional boats. "That's why rafts were used, over 100 years ago, to transport bananas from the interior to the sea," says Vincent. He leans one arm on his steering pole, and uses the other to point out the banana trees, as well as sugar cane, allspice, wild ginger and orchids.

Errol Flynn rafted on the Rio Grande

Little has changed over the last century, except for the cargo. It was actually actor, Errol Flynn, who first persuaded the boatmen to bring him and his friends on torchlit trips along the river at night. (The Port Antonio area was a hideaway for rich and famous people like Flynn, Noël Coward, Bette Davis, and Ginger Rogers.)

Rafting on the Rio Grande certainly makes you feel like a Hollywood star. Musicians strum Island In The Sun, on guitars, as we float by the fern-covered riverbanks. Women sell handmade bracelets, cold bottles of Red Stripe, the local beer, and soft drinks. Children wade out to the raft, holding out fistfuls of African tulip blossoms.

Refreshments are available at the restaurant where the rafts end their journey. Or, you can do as we did, and ask your hotel to pack some wine, cheese and fruit for a floating picnic.


Jamaica Tourist Board: www.visitjamaica.com