Backcountry Jamaica: No Problem -- Steeped in History and a World Away from the Island's Famed Resorts, Jamaica's Rio Grande Valley Provides a Tantalizing Getaway for a Scandal-Weary Washingtonian

Article excerpt

"The fairest island that eyes have beheld; mountainous and the land seems to touch the sky."

----Christopher Columbus

It was February in Washington. Cherry blossoms slumbered through an icy winter rain. Roads choked across the city as potholes multiplied like frisky rabbits. On Capitol Hill, Congress was soiling itself with a tar baby called Monica, while a hunkered-down White House weathered the season with a strategy of abject apologies and ironfisted threats.

It was time to slip away from the tawdry scandal, propagating like a noxious fog from a B-grade monster flick. It was time for Jamaica. After twenty-six years I was returning to the Caribbean island--not this time to inhale a last gasp of the sixties, but for a research project that would take me high into Jamaica's backcountry and--well, yes--a tonic of palm trees and tropical sun.

I was on a tight schedule. My driver would be waiting in Kingston to shuttle me to Port Antonio on Jamaica's north coast. From there I was to travel to Cornwall Barracks in the little-traveled John Crow range of the Blue Mountains. A great cleft carved out of the mountains, the Rio Grande Valley, climbs into these highlands, whose fastness once sheltered Arawak and African refugees in flight from Spanish slavers. Descendants of these archetypal freedom fighters, the Maroons, still dwell in remote settlements, preserving memories and traditions of a heroic struggle for liberty.

I tried to hurry the calendar forward, repacking my shorts and sunscreen. I had been gorging on grapefruit to fortify my system against a raging flu epidemic. But a fever had begun to muddle my head, and as my departure day arrived, the flu boiled within me. Fortunately, my early morning flight was lightly booked, and I staggered aboard and sprawled across three empty seats.

Two hours later, the barren sprawl of Baltimore-Washington yielded to the indigo waters of the Bahamas. As we continued over central Cuba, the green hills and cane fields below radiated an assurance of warmth, health, and tropical vitality.

By midday we had arrived in Kingston, the largest English-speaking city in the Western hemisphere south of Miami. My driver, Steve, a soft- spoken young Jamaican, was a veteran navigator of the jarring seven- hour round trip between Port Antonio and Kingston. Making the circuit sometimes twice a day, Steve was prepared for the incidental interruptions, such as the informal "tolls" requested by locals who supposedly filled in a pothole or performed other road services in exchange for a gratuity from a passing motorist.

As I drank in the moist, restoring air, I considered my options. The choice was through the city and over the mountains or the less-direct route, around the coast and then north and west to Port Antonio. Traffic congestion seemed too dear a price to pay for the more scenic mountain route, so we launched toward the coast. The road wound around the eastern extremity of the island, through a no-man's-land of distressed villages, reduced by decades of neglect and an absence of capital. Reaching the north coast, the road hugged miles of picture- perfect, albeit nearly deserted, beaches. An occasional fishing boat, dugout canoe, or roadside fruit stand added rustic charm and an inducement to dally, which Steve readily agreed to.

Where the mountains meet the sea

Port Antonio, the capital of Portland Parish, is a colonial-era town that still thrives as a banana port. Despite extraordinary beaches cradled among some of the Caribbean's loftiest mountains, Port Antonio appears relatively undiscovered as a tourist destination. One can poke about in leisure through quaint streets, markets, and local galleries for just the right Jamaica, No Problem T-shirt.

Film star Errol Flynn discovered Port Antonio in 1946 and made his home on offshore Navy Island until his death in 1960. Writer Ian Fleming arrived around the same time on a mission from British Naval Intelligence and remained to live, authoring his famed James Bond novels there. …