Caribbean Holiday

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
       3:30 am came very early, and we were up preparing for our journey to the airport. Left the house about 4:15, and by 5:00 we were standing in line at the security check in. We made it through that ordeal, losing only a can of hairspray that Shirley had forgotten in the bag (too big). We settled into the airplane shortly before 6:00 and in a few minutes we were on our way to the U.S. Virgin Islands, our first trip to this part of the world.  Flying first to Miami, Florida, we slept fitfully, since we had a crying kid just behind us. The flight went smoothly, however, until we landed. We hit the runway with a bone-jarring thud that would seem to have blown all the tires, but somehow, thankfully, they held, and we taxied up to the terminal. But it was a really hard landing.   Since we didn’t leave Miami until around noon, we had a bit of early lunch. Bobby, Shanna, and the grandkids (traveling with us) and we waited patiently until our boarding time. Time does not travel quickly in an airport when waiting for a flight.. But finally, we loaded aboard for our final leg to the islands, and off we were shortly after noon. The flight was smooth, and there wasn’t much to see as we were high above the clouds. As we began our descent, the water came in to view, and then the small islands began to appear. It looked like we were going to land in the water when right at the last second the runway appeared and we experienced another hard landing. How the aircraft tires stand up under that kind of instant shock is amazing.
    Upon disembarking, we actually had to walk down aircraft steps to the ground to walk to the terminal which was open and not air conditioned. It reminded me of Maui’s Kahului Airport, except it was not as nice. We called the car rental place which sent us a driver and van to pick us up. The Dodge Caravan arrived, and Shirley and I, plus four more people and all our luggage piled into the van. It was dragging the ground.  We drove out of the airport (on the left hand side of the road) and headed to the rental office, which was down narrow streets, up hills, and through narrow alleys to a small office hanging on the side of a hill with a few Jeeps and Suzuki Aerios parked around. Our car is a compact Suzuki, pretty banged up and missing a hubcap. Our next challenge is to find Bobby and Shanna, who picked up a Ford Taurus at the airport.
     By this time, St. Thomas is not appealing to me at all. The population is mostly black, and the place looks like Houston’s Fifth Ward…crowded, well used, not clean, narrow streets, and way too many threatening-looking people with hoodies in 90 degree weather to suit me. Bobby and Shanna have been here before, so they took the lead with us following. The plan is to go to a store they are familiar with to stock up with some supplies, then head to the east end of the island, where we have to go aboard a ferry to get to St. John. We get to this place that looks like a miniature Sam’s, where everything’s displayed on pallets. The prices for things are astronomical….near twice mainland prices, but fortunately we came pretty well provisioned.  While we were there, I went back to the car, because I haven’t been feeling too well. While I was sitting there (parked close to the front door of the store), a young guy drove up, unloaded a table and a big box of CDs and a player, parked his car, came back and began playing this loud calypso music. I guess he was there to sell CDs. Even though the people speak English here, it is very hard to understand, and this music was with a heavy beat and loud singing. I suddenly caught a few of the words and they were “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy…etc .” I listened more closely and realized he was actually playing songs that we sing, but, boy, it was a different way than how we sing them. He didn’t look very Pentecostal, but, well, maybe this is the Caribbean.
    We finally got on the road, and about 5:00pm we arrived at the loading dock for the ferry, where we found out that there was one ferry out of three running, and we had hours to wait….turned out to be four hours. So waited we did, fitfully, discussing all kinds of ways we would fix this situation if we ran this place. Even when the ferry arrived, it took too long to load because the ferry only loads from one end. So their strategy is to have the arrivers back their vehicles into their spots so that they can drive straight out when they reach their destinations. Took forever to load, especially with the big trucks.  In the meantime, we had to call our landlord to tell her we had been delayed. She didn’t appear very happy about that. She gave us directions to the house and said she would not be there because she lived on the other side of the island. We occupied our time looking at the really clear water of the bay, and the grandkids played in the sand.  Finally, we boarded the ferry about 9:15 and made a dark journey across the waters to St. John, unloading about 10:00. Following her directions through the dark, narrow (I mean narrow) streets, we actually drove straight to the house with nary a wrong turn. It’s an amazing feat for a woman to give directions that can actually be followed.
    The house is a two unit affair perched high up the side of a hill with a million-dollar view of Great Cruz Bay, the ocean, and outlying islands. We have the lower level, a single bedroom affair that is comfortable in the seafaring style you would expect in this area with large shuttered windows to catch the sea breezes and A/C as an afterthought, though it did work well. A deck overlooks the scenery and is very nice.  Fresh water, we found out, is not available on St John, as least through a public utility. All water comes from rainwater captured in cisterns. It is used for every purpose except drinking. Drinking water has to be purchased. The sign about the toilet said it all:
“In this land of sea and sun
We don’t flush for number one!”
In Bobby and Shanna’s room, the sign said,
“Yellow is mellow…brown goes down!”
    So we caught the hint to conserve water as much as we can. Not to mention electricity: Electricity costs 50 cents per kilowatt/hour. To think I complained to Reliant last week about our rate of 16.6 cents and was able to get it lowered to 12.2 cents.   Anyway, we were able to get the car unloaded and sort of settled in by 11:00 pm or so. We both took showers and collapsed in bed. End of day one.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

     We awoke this morning (not early) to a beautiful Caribbean morning and a breath-taking view from our deck of Great Cruz Bay. Sprinkled with gorgeous yachts and sailboats sitting in clear azure blue water, it’s the location of the Westin Inn and Resort, the high dollar place to be on St. John. Chocolate Hole, the peninsula across the bay, is dotted with bungalows and classic homes up its steep sides. Some of these roads are unbelievably steep. Our landlord suggested we rent a four wheel drive, and I couldn’t figure out why. I now realize it was not for mud, but simply for more traction. Our front wheel drive Suzuki will sometimes break traction if I give it too much gas while trying to get up some of these hills, especially the slope from our place to Bobby and Shanna’s.
     That was another weird thing. Neither of our families knew where the other was staying on the island, other than somewhere on the east end. All the addresses on line are just P.O. boxes, and you have to call your landlord once you get on the island for directions. The reason is that many of the roads have no names, and they’re really not roads. We would call them driveways. Anyway, we were unloading last night, and suddenly our kids drove by, and it turns out that we’re about 150 feet apart. They’re just a little further up the steep hill. So that was a pleasant surprise.  We, thankfully, both have phones in our places, too, because a cell phone call around here runs $2.00 per minute for us. Apparently land line phone service is the only thing that is reasonably priced in this area. So we had a leisurely breakfast of exquisite Caribbean cuisine (Wheat Chex and Pop Tarts and coffee) on the veranda whilst admiring the panorama before us. The sea breezes felt a little warm, but refreshing. We have AC, of course, but in the spirit of the location, we flung open our shuttered windows and will try to be like the natives during the day. At night, I draw the line…I have to be cool. The breezes made the rooms comfortable during the day.
    Bobby called about 11:00 and suggested we head to the beach (where else?) so we loaded up our cars and headed to Hawksnest Bay on the northside of the island. Looking on the map, it appears WAY up on the map from us. Turns out it’s about five miles away. We begin to realize that St. John Island is only nine miles long and three miles wide.  Driving along Southside Road, through Cruz Bay (the village, not the bay) and on to Northside Road, one sees the sights and sounds of the Caribbean. Tropical foliage, coconuts a-hanging, always a sea view, calypso music when passing any refreshment establishment, natives speaking an unintelligible form of English, and people driving on the wrong side of the road. Yes, they drive on the left side of the road, but their cars have their steering wheels like ours. It feels strange to have to hug the road on the left, especially when you are going around a bend to the left that you can’t see around and you meet someone coming and they sail by you on the right. Fortunately I have an alarm in my car that lets me know if I am drifting to the right….Shirley.
     Hawksnest Bay, one of the coves on the north side of the island, is a postcard perfect representation of the Caribbean…beautiful sand, calm, clear water, gentle breeze, bright sun. We unload, set up camp on the beach, and hit the water. The water is warmer than Hawaiian water, and you can just walk in and relax. The snorkel gear gets broken out, and we discover the beauties of underwater coral and fish. I had a new set of better quality snorkeling gear I had bought before we left, and the breathing tube leaked like a sieve. Fortunately, I had my old stuff as backup, so I used my old tube with the new goggles and flippers.
For the next nearly six hours, we snorkeled, swam, snacked, napped, and relaxed. It was plumb enjoyable. By then, we were exhausted and ready to head back to the homestead, stopping first at the local grocery store to pick up some supplies….like milk at $8.00 a gallon! We also bought drinking water.  We all assembled at Bobby and Shanna’s, where Bobby grilled some burgers and we ate like it was our last meal…we were all starving. Afterward, we were all in an exhausted stupor, so Shirley and I traversed down the hill to our place. Tired, but happy, we were soon asleep. Just another day in Paradise.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Up for another beautiful morning. The gorgeous deck view was still there and the sea breezes freshened the room (after we shut down the AC.) We relaxed for a while, waiting for the folks up the street to wake up. Shirley played her video games and I spent a little time on the computer writing this journal.  Today, the consensus was that we head to Trunk Bay on the north side inside the Virgin Islands National Park. That’s not noteworthy, since two thirds of the island lie within the park. Trunk Bay was supposed to be the premier snorkeling site on the island.  We got there about noon, taking our time stopping at a couple of overlooks to get a panorama of the beach. The beach is formed as most are in the islands. A strip of glistening sand bordered at both ends by an outcropping of rock jutting out into the bay a distance of from 50 to 200 yards. Each beach therefore is roughly in the shape of a somewhat flat “U”, with the bottom of the “U” being sand and the two stems being rock outcroppings. Across the water we can see the British Virgin Islands. The water is majestically clear and relatively calm. We hit the beach with our snorkeling gear and view, again, beautiful coral and fish. Trunk Bay has an underwater guided tour that identifies the fish and coral types, which was sort of neat. Snorkeling is work, and my legs are starting to talk back to me already, but I have been so inactive since my glorious retirement that the exertion actually feels good. Nothing like snorkeling for an hour then having a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It tastes like t-bone steak. And a cold, icy Coke is heavenly.
     The day rapidly slides by, and by 5:30 we are again starting to run out of gas. By the time we pack up, drive to the villas, unload, shower and gather for supper it is after 7:30. Tonight we have Mexican food, and Shirley and Shanna outdo themselves making a supper better that what you could buy in a top Mexican restaurant.  Between eating, visiting, and gaming is it quickly time to head to our home villa for the evening. It is dark and we elderly folk have to walk carefully. There’s not a level spot anywhere, and our steps are steep, rough-cut stone. Shirley and I don’t take a step anywhere without hanging on to each other. All these slopes and angles are hard on a bunch of flatlanders.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

    Another good night’s sleep. The villa either has a good bed or we are always exhausted, not sure which. This morning we decide, before the day’s activities begin, that Shirley and I will go check out our next villa into which we move tomorrow. We drove down hill to the village of Cruz Bay, a conglomeration of calypso dudes and dudettes with beaded hair and colorful clothing, new age hippie types, grizzled old retirees (like us), and smarmy, suspicious looking sorts standing on the corners.  We located Hillcrest Villas which, strangely enough, was located at the crest of a very steep hill. EVERY road has a steep hill around here. The “road” we will be located on is about as wide as a driveway…supposedly two lane (there is a yellow stripe), but since islanders are somewhat relaxed when it comes to parking, you have to wait till a car passes before you can proceed.   Well, we located the villa, chatted with the landlord, and headed back to our current home. Today we went to Honeymoon Beach on Caneel Bay, most of which is owned by the Caneel Bay Luxury Resort and therefore off limits for commoners like us. There is a sliver of beach which has been reserved for the poor folk, and that’s where we went. It was only 1,219 steps to the beach. I counted them on the way back. Way too many for us people with a lot of experience. Fortunately, one of the drivers of a golf-cart-looking pickup belonging to the resort was driving by, had mercy on Shirley who was limping along heroically, and took her to the beach.
     Now here was a beach that rivaled those in Hawaii. VERY clear water with an abundance of fish life and coral. I guess because it was a little difficult to get to it was lightly populated with just the charter boats anchored offshore to give their pay-to-snorkel passengers a chance to do their thing.   Shirley got into the snorkeling act also. She’s always been a little skittish about putting her head below the surface of water, but she and I swam out and snorkeled in waters up to twenty feet deep and she did fine. Even after we returned to the shore, she kept her snorkeling gear and stayed in the shallow water observing the fish life. We had a fair sized stingray that would sail along the beach about every 30 minutes, and she was able to follow it. I was proud of her. She’s pretty red from the three days swimming, but so far, no pain or blistering.  Same routine as yesterday…snorkel, eat, rest, nap, snorkel, eat…etc. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. We took our time on the pilgrimage back to the car. Tonight it was turkey and rice as our entrees. Another day in Paradise. Tomorrow we pack up for our next adventure.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
     It was a sad day today....we never went into the water. Everyone decided to do a bit of touring around the island. We had to vacate our villa by 10:00 am, so we packed up our belongings and went up the street to B and S's. About 11:30 we took off in our caravan (both cars, since we can't all fit in one), and traveled further along the north road, past the beaches we have frequented these last three days. You just have to see this "highway" to believe it. There are no shoulders, and the vegetation is jungle thick right up to the road's edge. At times, I bet the road is not sixteen feet wide for both lanes. And steep up and down stretches with switchbacks you can't believe. (You'll have to see the video.) The winning section of the road though was when the highway DIVIDED, and we drove down a lane not much wider that our car through vegetation that blocked the sky. It was like traveling through a tunnel. And all this is the MAIN east-west road.  But when we saw the water, it was gorgeous. Every beach was photo perfect white sand and glistening water. We stopped at a couple of abandoned sugar mill locations and saw the crumbling remains of a slavery culture. In the 1700s and 1800s slaves were used to gather sugar cane for making rum and sweetener. Hard, cruel, conditions. St. John was used as a place to “break in” fresh African slaves. Rather sobering, actually.
     We tried to find a place to stop and have a picnic, but Sunday is the day all the locals go to the beaches, and they were packed. We finally went back to B&S's and had lunch. By this time it was 3:00 and time for us to check into our new digs, so we headed to Hillcrest Villas. Hillcrest is not too far from downtown (!), and still has a scenic view, just not as high up the hill. In fact, it’s sort of like a Super Eight with a kitchenette. A Super Eight with a kitchenette and a gorgeous view out the window…for $1100.00 per week ($1700.00 during peak season.) However, it did come with a liquor bar. We told her yesterday that the alcoholic beverages were not necessary, so she said, “OK, I’ll just leave the rum in there!” Apparently around here, rum is their ice tea, which probably explains a lot. Not quite as deluxe as the old place; we don't have a private veranda. But it's OK. BUT...we have no house phone, so it’s cell or nothing.   We rested a bit after checking in, and then right back to B&S's for supper. Grilled steaks and baked potatoes. We're not starving. Tomorrow...BIG DAY...we've chartered a sailboat for a full day of sailing and snorkeling. And it will be just us and the crew. It's gonna be soooo exciting!

Monday, July 13, 2009
     Because everything around here is incredibly small and crowded, Bobby took his family to the dock, then came back and got us. We went back to the dock and there was no parking anywhere....except one little handicap parking spot right by the gate. The smartest thing I've done on this trip is bring Shirley's handicap parking tag along. It has saved us in more than one tight parking place. We slipped in and headed to our day's sail.   Our captain's name is Hahn with his lone assistant, Fuego. They are what you would expect, lean, brown, independent. We were riding on a 26 foot catamaran. We motor out of the harbor about 10:30 (he has a 15 hp auxiliary engine), but within 5 minutes, the sails are up and we are skimming through the water at an amazing clip. We sailed the north side of the island, arriving at Leinster Bay in about 90 minutes. In Leinster Bay is Waterlemon Cay (island). We drop anchor there and all we snorkelers proceed to jump ship. We snorkeled completely around the island, observing an underwater wonderland that was amazing. Hundreds of starfish, colorful reef fish, and every kind of coral imaginable. I bought an underwater camera yesterday, so hopefully I can capture some of the beauty. Only problem came when we rounded the far side of the island and headed back to the boat, the outgoing current was strong enough that it was a real chore to get back to the boat. We were all bushed by the time we boarded. But that was when the excitement really started. I came out of the water first, then the rest with Bobby being last. Just as he was almost to the boat he suddenly looked up out of the water and yelled, "There's a big fish, maybe a shark!" I'm not kidding, ten seconds later he was in the boat! Everyone rushed to the side where he pointed, and, sure enough, what looks like about a four foot shark is swimming away from the boat. Captain Hahn says, "Well, I don't know, it could have been a remora. It's the fish that swims along side larger fish. They can get that big." I don't know about that...I saw it myself as it was leaving, and it had the big top fin and the two large side fins sticking out and the big tail fin. Anyway, it was exciting.
    We had lunch prepared by our captain (sandwiches), and then set sail for our next stop, Cinnamon Bay, a beautiful place of high volcanic bluffs descending into the water. We snorkeled along the underwater cliffs observing, again, the beauty. I saw my largest fish there; they were jackfish, about four feet long and scaly. They are a sport fish to be caught. We pulled out of there about 3:30 and about 4:45 we slid up to the sandy beach of our home port after admiring the many beautiful coves, beaches and islands that make St. John special along the way. It was a lovely time.  We went to our respective homes, showered, and then back to B&S's for spaghetti.
     Sigh....what a day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

     Well, Shirley's redness has turned brown, so she's doing OK. Bobby did some checking on the internet today, and he's pretty well convinced his "shark" was just a big remora. But it was big enough to make you do a double take anyway. Today we went back to Trunk Bay, a good snorkeling spot. The water was crystal clear, turning to green in the near distance and a dark blue in the deeper water. Lots of little sea creatures and beautiful coral, mixed in with a lot of dead coral. This is a popular spot, and people are not usually kind to coral. Just can’t keep their hands and flippers of it. It was kind of a windy day; when you were coming out of the water, the wind had a little edge to it. Hard to imagine being chilly at 87 degrees, but a breeze can do that. To be honest, Shirley and I have been having so much fun, we're about out of gas. About 1:30 I suggested we head back to the villa and take a shower and nap. Did so. When we were driving to B&S's about 5:15 I took a video of the twisty road…no one would believe it otherwise. Upon our arriving, they told about sighting an octopus and an eel after we left. Just my luck. Oh, well. The nap felt good. Hot dogs and chili tonight, and everyone played some kind of card game. We left about 8:00 to come back and start packing. We’re looking forward to our fully-adjustable, super comfortable home bed...we may be in it for a couple of days once we get back. Just as a side note, while watching TV, I saw where the average selling price of a home on St. John is $1.2 million.
     Our return saga begins tomorrow. I'm sure we'll be calling Kim once we get back to civilization.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
     Well, the trip went smoothly. We left a little early, just in case, and naturally we drove to the dock and within ten minutes we were on board the ferry to St. Thomas. We were the next to last one to board, however, and the only reason we got on was our car was small enough to fit. A Toyota Highlander and a pickup were bumped because they were too long.    There appeared to be two ferries running, so hopefully when Bobby and Shanna are ready to board, they won’t have to wait too long. We drove to Charlotte Amalie, and after wandering around a bit, I'll have to revise my somewhat negative view of St. Thomas. The roads are pretty decent, especially closer to Charlotte Amalie, and of course the beach scenery is beautiful. We parked next to the vendor's tents Bobby told us about and wandered around all the folks hawking their wares. We bought the usual t-shirts and coffee cups.
     We had lunch at a restaurant along the road there...The Green House. Pretty good food for a fairly reasonable price. We took our car to the rental place about 12:15 and after paperwork was done, they took us to the airport. Shanna had mentioned using the porters there if we were in a hurry. We weren't, but I used one anyway, and it was worth the $10.00 tip. He guided us through check in, through the customs declaration and inspection (where they asked us if we were carrying any diseases!), and was very helpful all the way up to the security check. With Shirley's knee brace, she naturally was tapped for additional metal detecting, but everything went OK.
     The plane took off about 4:00 and we had a good run and smooth landing in Miami. I finished reading Angels and Demons. That was an entertaining book. It was almost believable until he jumped out of the helicopter and "parachuted" with only the windshield cover as a parachute. But it was a good yarn. We had almost a three hour layover, so we had supper (sandwiches) in the airport. About 9:30 we headed for Houston and landed right at 11:00. My favorite daughter was there, and we arrived home about midnight, tired, but happy from a good trip. I have about 140 photos plus about 8 minutes of video, so the trip has been documented.

     After being in relatively close quarters for a week, our house felt huge. It was good to take a good shower without too much concern for water conservation, and the bed felt like heaven itself. So much for a week in paradise. I am so thankful for my family. Lots of families can’t live together in close proximity and get along. We made it for a week with nary a strain.
     Overall, it was the consensus of both Shirley and I that the Virgin Islands were beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there which was enhanced even more with Bobby and his family along. However, the Virgin Islands are not quite up to the standards of the Hawai’ian Islands. The USVI waters are a little warmer and perhaps just as clear, but the coral and fish life are more vibrant on Maui. In the USVI, there are spectacular beaches and beautiful mountain/ocean scenery, but the local culture is not one with which I am comfortable. The natives eye you with a certain predatory air. Beyond the beaches, facilities are somewhat limited, such as there are few family dining areas and few other activities available. A person goes to the USVI to sit on the beach, which is an honorable goal, but in Hawai’i the choices are much more expansive. Having said all that, it was still a wonderful, enjoyable, relaxing vacation.