CLASS TIME: 3-8 Hours
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy
This is it? I stare at the gravelly path splitting off a main road into thick vegetation, next to which our van has unexpectedly parked. This is one of the world’s best places to bird-watch? It looks like someplace you’d pull over if you needed (but couldn’t find) a bathroom. But I ditch my skepticism in the van and follow Ryan the park ranger into Ecclesdown Forest, about 25 miles from Port Antonio, Jamaica, with just my camera and notepad. Soon, with Ryan’s guidance, I see the greenery around us begin to yield tiny, vividly hued creatures everywhere – red-headed Jamaican woodpeckers, inky-black Jamaican becards, an adorably rotund, mint-green Jamaican tody, each of which Ryan has encyclopedic knowledge of – and, more importantly, none of which can be found anywhere else in the world.
The bird-watching experience along six miles of Ecclesdown Road requires patience (think: walking slowly, peering in trees, carefully examining the species you do see) and lasts anywhere from a few hours to all day. If you’re not up for a solo birding adventure, arrange for a guide (average cost: $125 per day) through nearby Hotel Mocking Bird Hill. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, 876-993-7267, hotelmockingbirdhill.com
Fall asleep to the chirping of tree frogs and wake to the songs of birds at secluded Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, outside Port Antonio in northeastern Jamaica. Innkeepers Shireen Aga and Barbara Walker have earned countless awards for eco-friendly practices in the inn’s 15-year history, without skimping on the luxury: 10 guest rooms, most with king-size beds (from $135 per night), Walker’s original artwork, gorgeous bamboo furniture, incredible views (which you can enjoy from the in-room hammock). There’s also a garden where you can further hone your birding skills. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, 876-993-7267, hotelmockingbirdhill.com
There are, of course, the Caribbean beaches, but don’t miss a waterfall-and-caves tour ($10), with a swim in sparklingly clear natural pools at Reach Falls. Another day, head to Berrydale for a leisurely ride down the Rio Grande on a bamboo raft for two ($73). About halfway along the eight-mile stretch of water, be sure to stop at Belinda’s Riverside Canteen for traditional Jamaican fare – curried goat, river mussel soup, oxtail, rice and peas – right on the riverbank. Reach Falls, 876-993-6606, reachfalls.com; Rio Grande rafting, 876-913-5434
Make time to sample authentic jerk chicken and pork at one of the roadside stands in Boston Bay. By night, head to seafood-centric Norma’s at the Marina for such upscale dishes as pan-seared butterfish and grilled shrimp with mango salsa, or to Woody’s for casual fare – burgers, fish in spicy coconut sauce, fried plantains, pumpkin rice, impossibly fresh house-made ginger beer – and laid-back atmosphere. Norma’s at the Marina, 876-993-9510, normasatthemarina.com; Woody’s, 876-993-7888.
From PHL, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour flight on Air Jamaica to Montego Bay, then a 40-minute connecting flight to Kingston (airjamaica.com). From there, the drive to Port Antonio (portantoniojamaica.com) takes about two to three hours by car; with advance notice, Mocking Bird Hill can arrange for a pickup, or you can rent a car right at the airport-keep in mind that Jamaicans drive on the left, and the winding, narrow roads aren’t well-lit at night.
For daytime activities, remember sunscreen, binoculars for bird-watching, bug spray, and comfortable walking shoes. Dinner attire is sundresses for ladies; guys can leave the jacket and tie at home. Don’t forget your passport.
Back in Philly: More than 125 species of birds can be spotted throughout the year in Wissahickon Valley Park, which offers several free bird walks each month (215-247-0417, fow.org). In mid-May, Cape May plays host to the World Series of Birding – seriously – during spring migration (609-884-2736, birdcapemay.org/wsob.shtml).