Rapids Transit; Virginia: Most of the country knows the James only as a river of history. But in Richmond, those who like wet, wild rides know better.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time I went whitewater rafting, my emotions were as turbulent as the water beneath me. Goaded into making my maiden voyage down Richmond's James River by my whitewater enthusiast boyfriend, I battled fear and exhilaration as we approached the first big rapid. But by the end of the trip, I was eagerly surfing the last rapid, exulting in the thrill of keeping my feet firmly planted inside a contorting, wet rubber raft while I paddled furiously into the roiling whitewater. I was hooked -- and exceedingly glad this grand adventure was so nearby.

The James, according to regional river rats, is the only river in the nation offering Class IV urban whitewater. Referred to more often as "the historic James River," it tends to be better known outside Virginia for its contributions to early American lore than for its diverse recreational opportunities today.

Yet, from whitewater rafting to a riverboat dinner cruise and a new Canal Walk, visitors could enjoy a highly entertaining weekend completely centered on the James.

The restored historic buildings and glistening glass of modern office towers present an unusual scenic backdrop for river fun. Richmond was founded where the falls of the James impeded upstream navigation, and historical markers abound everywhere.

Riding the James

My most recent visit started with the Richmond Raft Co.'s bus trip from the south end of the rapids past the Edgar Allan Poe museum, old tobacco warehouses and trendy restaurants now in the 19th-century Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, to the James River Park put-in north of the falls line. The company runs nine guided raft trips on weekends and two or three guided trips daily on weekdays, all of which start with whitewater instruction. The longer trips include lunch served on the rocks near the notable Hollywood rapid, so named for the prestigious, historic and much-photographed Hollywood cemetery on the opposite bank.

The two biggest rapids on the James are Hollywood and Pipeline. Hollywood is a Class IV rapid because it's more difficult to recover there if something happens.

The hydraulics are challenging and require precise maneuvering, especially if the river is low. Pipeline is so named because of a Virginia Power pipeline that crosses the river here, and it is the last one on the trip. Most guests take the opportunity to surf the rapid here -- turning the raft to face into the whitewater and attempting to ride it out as long as possible. About one in 20 people go in for an involuntary swim while surfing Pipeline, according to Buzz Kraft of Richmond Raft Co.

After paddling calmer sections of the James, indulging in water fights between rafts and propelling through the rapidwe enjoyed the relaxing tow back by the company's johnboat through tidal water for the last mile of the trip.

Guests disembark right next to the Annabel Lee riverboat, a paddlewheel replica that features lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch cruises. The riverboat's normal cruise route goes downriver about 10 more miles on the James, while its plantation lunch and supper cruises venture nearly 25 miles to tour the antebellum plantation houses of Westover, Berkeley and Evelynton between Richmond and Williamsburg. With three decks, two full bars and two dance floors in air-conditioned comfort, it's a delightful way to end a raucous day on the river. (Or to provide alternative river fun for traveling companions who don't appreciate the adrenaline surge of whitewater.)

Rafting isn't the only way to thrill-ride the James. Richmond Raft's sister company, Adventure Challenge, provides whitewater kayaking trips and lessons with decked kayaks or open-top kayaks, as well as tubing on the upper section of the James. An important note on sweltering summer days -- these are not the hot, black truck tubes, but colorful vinyl tubes with convenient handles.

If you want to dedicate an entire weekend to whitewater kayaking, Adventure Challenge offers a two-day beginner course. With a class size limited to eight students, personal instruction is guaranteed and all equipment is included.

A walk along the river

Richmond's newest river attraction is the Canal Walk, a recently refurbished two-mile segment of a system that once ran up the James for 197 miles. Our guide on the Richmond Raft Co.'s bus pointed out the large image of the whitewater kayaker hung at the beginning of the Canal Walk, so I made sure to leave time to explore its entire length.

In keeping with its almost obsessive reputation for preserving history, Richmond's latest tourist attraction nearly thrusts markers, medallions and small exhibits at visitors every few feet. Those who are interested stop and read. Others keep moving. Bicycles, baby strollers and pedestrians share the walking paths, while large tour boats with "verry Vuhginnia" names such as Dolley Madison and Martha Washington ferry tourists on narrated canal tours led by guides in historic costumes. Occasionally, a jaunty electric boat with a green-striped awning would float past carrying well-stocked happy-hour participants who had chartered their own private fun on the canal.

The city hopes one day to see restaurants and shops lining the canal's banks, but for now it's just fun to stroll from downtown to the bike paths and picnic spots on Brown's Island and Belle Isle at the north end of Canal Walk.

By foot or by boat, Richmond is an intriguing backdrop for river recreation for all skill levels and preferences -- and you'll even pick up a historical fact or two along the way without even trying.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there: Richmond is about a three-hour drive south on Interstate 95 from Baltimore.

On the river

Whitewater rafting trips can be scheduled through the Richmond Raft Co. (800-540-RAFT, $35 to $50) from April through October.

Tubing, whitewater kayaking and other activities are offered through Adventure Challenge (804-276-7600, $20 to $125) May through October. Riverboat cruises are year-round on the Annabel Lee (800-752-7093, $22 to $49).

Kanawha Cruises provides 30-minute, narrated historic tours of the new Canal Walk on the James or one-hour electric boat rentals (804-649-2800, $4 to $35).

Must sees

Drive through the historic Fan District in Richmond, which is said to be the largest Victorian neighborhood intact in the nation. It stretches from Belvidere on the east to the Boulevard on the west, bounded by Monument Avenue (a beautiful street to drive) on the north and Cary Street on the south. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is on the Boulevard on the edge of the Fan District.

Closer to the Richmond Raft Co.'s headquarters is the eclectic Edgar Allan Poe museum on Main Street -- for those who have an offbeat sense of tourism.

Stroll through the old tobacco warehouse area that hugs the river's edge, a neighborhood known as Shockoe Bottom. Or hit the shops in Shockoe Slip, which runs along Cary and Main Streets downtown.

Lodging: Downtown Richmond holds a mix of historic and modern hotels. Visitors can stay at the national historic landmark hotel, the Jefferson (800-424-8014, $195 to $1,600) or the restored Linden Row Inn (800-348-7424, $89 to $179). Or try the Omni Richmond Hotel (800-344-7000, average rate $159) or the Crowne Plaza Hotel (804-788-0900, $149 average).

Dining: Richmond's revitalized downtown has two good neighborhoods for dining out -- Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom.

The Frog and the Redneck has former Washingtonian Jimmy Sneed as its celebrity chef and its eclectic menu has garnered national reviews (1423 E. Cary St., 804-648-3764).

Seafood lovers head to The Hard Shell (1411 E. Cary St., 804-644-5341). For upscale Cuban, go to Havana '59 (16 N. 17th St., 804-649-2822).

None Such Place (Franklin & 18th St., 804-644-9418) is nouvelle cuisine served in Richmond's oldest commercial building.

For casual fun, chow down at the River City Diner and enjoy milkshakes served the old-fashioned way (1712 E. Main St., 804-644-9418).

Across the James, Legend's restaurant serves up a river view and city backdrop with its microbrewed beers on a large deck (321 W. Seventh St., 804-232-8871).

Tips

Bring waterproof sunscreen and camera to make sure you get the most out of your river fun.

Shorts, T-shirts and bathing suits are fine to wear when paddling, but you'll definitely need river shoes for safety.

It's best to wear shorts (even over your swimsuit) when on the raft, so the rubber sides don't chafe you.

You can dress very casually for most of the activities on the James, but you might want to bring a nicer outfit for dinner on the Annabel Lee (though ties and heels aren't necessary).

Information: More river adventure information is available from Richmond Raft Co.'s web site, www.richmondraft.com, or Adventure Challenge's web site, www.adventurechallenge.com. State tourism information is online at www.virginia.org.

AN IDEAL DAY

6:30 a.m.: Hit the road for Richmond, with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a breakfast sandwich in the other. Smile uncontrollably as you drive, anticipating the adventure ahead.

9:30 a.m.: With good fortune and light traffic, arrive at Richmond Raft Co.'s headquarters in the historic section of downtown Richmond. Meet your tour guide, attend the safety lecture and pick out your personal floating device, formerly known as a life jacket.

10 a.m.: Head to the put-in on the James River, where you'll receive on-the-water paddling tips before you head down river.

12:30 p.m.: Take out for lunch on a rock near Hollywood Rapid. Dry off, chow down and take lots of pictures with that waterproof camera you packed in your waist pack.

1:30 p.m.: You'll start hitting the more technical rapids of the James, including Hollywood, Second Break and Pipeline.

3 p.m.: Having survived the whitewater thrills, it's now time to hook up with the Richmond Raft Co.'s johnboat to enjoy a lazy ride back, sipping some lemonade in the late afternoon sunshine.

4 p.m.: Head to the Jefferson Hotel to check in, change and enjoy the ambience of this historic hotel.

5 p.m.: Casually attired, head back to the James to stroll the Kanawha Canal.

5:30 p.m.: Take the 30-minute historically narrated canal tour offered by Kanawha Cruises and led by a guide in historic costume.

6:30 p.m.: Make a quick detour to Havana '59 restaurant in neighboring Shockoe Bottom area for a festive frozen drink outside, surrounded by the faux Cuban ambience.

7:30 p.m.: Go to the Annabel Lee dock to hop on board for the three-hour dinner cruise; enjoy cocktails on the deck.

10:30 p.m.: Having satisfied every bit of your river bug, drive back to the hotel and prepare for sweet dreams.

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