Saturday, December 8, 2012

St. John, US Virgin Islands

Anita and I took a break from Jersey and went to St. John in the US Virgin Islands.  It was a lot warmer, there was a lot less traffic, and there were a lot more bugs.  By the end of our stay, Anita was reminiscing about our bug-free Grand Canyon honeymoon.

Some of the photos turned out pretty well.  You can see them all at
The grainy underwater shots were taken with a disposable film camera.  Next time I take underwater photos, I'll try a watertight case for my digital camera.

We stopped in Atlanta to see my bro and his fam over Thanksgiving.  My parents were there too.  The food was fantastic and Anita and I enjoyed seeing everyone.

We caught a flight to St. Thomas Island on Friday morning.  When we arrived, they were handing out small shots of rum at the airport.  Very tasty flavored stuff -- I had a mango shot.  As we would learn during our stay, rum is a byproduct of the sugar cane industry, which played a central role in the US Virgin Islands (and most other Caribbean islands too, I suspect...) history for the past several hundred years until the early 20th century.  Actually the islands were Danish until 1917.

There are two ferries from St. Thomas to St. John, our destination to the east of St. Thomas.  One, the Red Hook ferry, leaves from the east side of St. Thomas.  The other leaves from the main St. Thomas town, Charlotte Amelie.  We caught a taxi -- well, it was a Ford Econoline van, actually -- to the Red Hook ferry.  Our driver was crazy even for a taxi driver, and there are some wild up and downs.  He did play very relaxing music, though, which helped.  It was also a little disconcerting to be driving on the left side of the road.  Some very spoiled rich looking young tourists were egging the guy on to go faster which was pretty annoying.

We made it to St. John in one piece after an enjoyable ferry ride.  The caretaker at the place we rented met us and gave us a ride to the cottage.  We also rented his 2004 Suzuki Grand Vitara, which he picked us up in.  (It was not a swank ride, but got the job done.)  The island has a maximum speed limit of 20 mph, and the roads are somewhat harrowing.  It was good to see how he drove.  He was a very mellow guy who probably spends most of his time drinking margaritas and listening to Jimmy Buffett.  He and his wife were very nice to us.  The cottage was a nice little place, up a very steep rocky road not far from Coral Bay.  A 2wd truck could do it, but 4wd low range was nice.  It was a bit surprising to me that the cottage had no windows, just screens.  It is so warm on the island year-round that windows aren't necessary.  During a hurricane, I have no idea what they do.  They must board up the screens or something..?

We went out for dinner somewhere that night, and had some pretty good seafood.  In the morning, we sat out on the deck for breakfast.  It was the last morning we did that -- it's not that the bugs were that overwhelming at that moment, but the bites began to accumulate (esp. on Anita) and we had to try to minimize our exposure.  One could mostly escape the mosquitos, but sadly the noseeums weren't bothered by screens.  I probably should've advised Anita early on to go heavy on the DEET.  By the end of our stay, I was hosing her down with OFF Deep Woods, but it was too little too late.  Anyway, the view from the deck was pretty and we saw a few of the Bananaquits, which are ubiquitous on the island, and hummingbirds near a plantane tree that grew near the deck.  I never got a good photo of a bananaquit, but you can see the pretty bird here:

In the cottage, btw, we found a little guidebook, Feet Fins and Four-Wheel Drive, that was an excellent supplement to the book I brought along, St. John Off the Beaten Path.  The little book is not available on Amazon, but seems to be self-published --  It has some interesting and colorful stories in it.  For example, the author gives her best explanation of why people drive on the left in left-driver cars (i.e., the steering wheel is on the left just like in the US mainland).  She thinks it's because being on the left side of the car while driving on the left side of the road gave the driver the best vantage to try to avoid driving off of cliffs.

I had a great time, not being much bothered by the few bug bites that I got.  I think Anita had a good time despite her bitten-up condition which she withstood without crying about it more than once per day.  (Apparently my bro's wife was in the same condition on the Island, and attributes the bites to feminine products..?  Another factor is that men usually are a bit better covered up clothing-wise, and also have more hair, esp. leg hair, to fend them off.)

We got our snorkling rentals right away, and first snorkeled at Saltpond Bay which is well protected, and has has very pretty, shallow water.  Anita got the hang of it pretty fast, and we saw some cool fish immediately.  We snorkeled every day, and I think I snorkeled 2-3 times most days.  We also did several nice hikes and visited several ruins.  Here are some highlights:

Brown Bay
Our second morning, we headed out to Brown's Bay.  It was a short 1-mile hike to get there.  Lots of hermit crabs on this and every other path on St. John.  Though the beach sand itself wasn't that thrilling, the environment there (both above water and below) is spectacular.  We got settled down after the short hike in, and just sat watching the birds swoop around for a while.  Pelicans were hunting fish with a vengance.  (See photos.)  Dive, eat, fly, dive, eat, ...  Brown boobies were soaring around and occasionally diving.  The boobie is more graceful than the pelican, and I'm sad I didn't bring my camera to Brown's Bay where I could've gotten some awesome photos.  We saw pelicans many more times doing roughly the same thing, but this was the best boobie show (no pun intended) that I saw.  Also, there were flying fish dancing around in the water right in front of us.  In the bay, you snorkel through a shallow sea grassy environment in which hundreds and maybe thousands of conch (softball or larger sized sea snails, basically) inhabit the ~1 acre bay.  We also saw many starfish and a sting ray there.  The reef a little further out was very nice, but I didn't have my underwater camera yet, and have forgotten the exact details.

Here's my favorite pelican photo.  This guy's wing dips into the water just before he stabs at a fish.  Perhaps dipping the wingtip helps to "sling" him more quickly toward the water.  I also noted that they cock their heads back, and then ram it forward as they strike their target.  I never knew pelicans could be so athletic and aggressive.

Princess Bay
This bay has no beach because mangroves grow right into the water everywhere along the bank.  The web of mangrove roots act as a nursery for fish, many of which don't stay in the bays and reefs, but head out to the deeper sea.  I was stoked about this, and convinced Anita to snorkel out there.  The snorkeling is a little tough because you can't put your feet or you might accidentally put a toe on some pointy sea creature and hurt yourself.  Also, putting a foot down kicked up a large amount of debris that obscured the view.  Also, sneaking around in the mangrove roots was a little dark and spooky.  It wasn't for Anita.  So I snuck around alone for a while.  The roots were pretty, and there were a lot of fish.  It took some work and patience to see cool things though.  I think I was lucky to see a very big ugly fish.  I think it was a grouper growing to near full size before heading out to sea.

 Mangrove roots in Princess Bay.  Low light conditions prevented me from capturing any good fish photos, but this bright red coral shows up well.

Francis Bay
This place had the best beach.  It was very nice sand with trees growing near the edge so you could sit in the shade.  The crowd here was not as ridiculous as at some of the other "nice sand" beaches.  We got some good pelican shows and enjoyed sitting and reading a lot here.

Here I am at Francis Bay.  Idyllic scene. 

Oppenheimer Beach

J. Robert Oppenheimer lived on St. John after he was virtually crucified during the McCarthy era.  After running the Manhattan Project, and then leading the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a bunch of flag-waving rednecks thanked him by putting him on trial and making his life hell for a while.  When I read that Oppie had lived on St. John, I thought it'd be a good time to read a biography about him.  So I got American Prometheus on my Kindle, and read a good chunk of it while on the island.  I'm very much enjoying his story so far, and the physics history in it is fascinating too. Turns out he liked to sail when he was younger, so must've enjoyed being on St. John with access to sailing all around the Caribbean.  Btw, he also loved horseback riding and spent a lot of summers at a little rough cabin at 10,000 ft in northern New Mexico (even before any physics was done at Los Alamos).  His cabin on St. John looks like shit at this point.  I guess he passed it down to his daughter, but she tragically committed suicide (maybe in the 80's), and left it to the St. John  community.  But the "community" has just let it go to rot more or less.  This fits with  the picture I saw of the island as a highly disorganized place.

Waterlemon Cay
A Cay is a small island formed on the surface of a coral reef.  Apparently an alternate spelling is "key" as in the Florida Keys.  This particular cay is within 100 yards of the nearby beach.  Anita and I snorkeled here on our last full day.  Probably the most spectacular snorkeling we did there.  Water could've been clearer, but there were lots of different fish, and a huge variety of coral.  I circumnavigated the cay, and on the way saw a trumpetfish, which I got a bad photo of, but which is a pretty bizarre and cool looking critter.

The ribbon-shaped thing in the photo center is a trumpetfish.

Here's a rainbow parrotfish.  These parrotfish chew up the coral and poop it out as sand.  I read that such fish produce most of the sand that makes the pretty beaches.  If you were very still and listened closely, you could hear the crunching of a parrotfish.

Annaberg Ruins
It was interesting to see these and other ruins, and learn something about the slavery-driven sugar cane operations on St. John and throughout the Caribbean.  One of the slaves that worked at this place ended up owning it after emancipation, and tried to continue operating it as a sugar mill.  He didn't have much luck, but he and his descendants lived here a long time among the ruins.  There is a well-preserved windmill tower and various other buildings, including slave quarters, a "dungeon" where slaves were punished, and various boiler rooms.  Making sugar requires a fairly sophisticated process of grinding (hence the need for the windmill), sifting, and boiling to just the right temperature.  Molasses is a byproduct (when the sugar doesn't come out right), and rum is made by fermenting the sugarcane scraps.

Anita at the Annaberg Ruins.  She's standing at the bread oven.  Behind her is the windmill structure.

Bordeaux Mountain and Reef Bay hikes
We did two long hikes.  It was nice to stretch the legs amidst all of the beaching and snorkeling.  Typical highs were about 80 degrees, so hiking conditions were pretty good, if a little too humid perhaps.  Bordeaux Mountain was a pretty simple up and down.  Either there is no trail to the actual top of the mountain, or nobody's gone to the trouble to make it clear how to find it.  So, the top of the hike is rather disappointing -- you end up on a road the the locals seem to largely treat as a garbage dump area.  The Reef Bay trail was more interesting.  The trail had markers that were probably put up in about 1975.  They are a bit hard to read, but are still better than nothing.  There are several ruins along the Reef Bay trail.  But a unique feature of the hike is the fresh water stream and pools.  Fresh water is very rare on the island, and the natives in 900 AD must've thought so too, because they put some petroglyphs here to mark the spot.

Petroglyphs made ca. 900 AD.  Some kind of monkey looking figures here. 

 This is an old steam engine that must've been used in the sugarcane operation at Reef Bay.

Miss Lucy's
This is a very cool "West Indian food" place right on the water in Coral Bay.  Friendly service, lot of local color -- like rasta dudes hanging out at the bar.  We got breakfast here one day, and dinner one night.  Mostly, we ate basic grocery store stuff at home, but it was fun to go out and spoil ourselves a bit.  The breakfast was delicious.  Anita got some kind of eggs benedict (Florentine benedict, whatever that is), and I got the pina colada pancakes.  These pancakes are awesome -- pinapple chunks and some kind of tasty sauce is cooked as a filling in the pancake.  The dinner was decadent.  I couldn't describe the dishes all that well, but there were scallops, some kind of sweet potato mash, and deep fried conch (kind of strange to be eating these little fried balls that reminded me strongly of the little guys I had just seen out in the water!)... Anita probably remembers much more.

In summary, this trip was an excellent getaway.  It was a lot of fun to see what the Caribbean island lifestyle is like.  We met a lot of nice people, enjoyed the warm weather and bathtub-temperature water, got a lot of R&R and reading done, saw lots of new and interesting wildlife, and soaked up some rays.


Janie said...

Sounds like a fun trip, except thinking about all those bugs makes me itchy!
The pics of the ruins and beach are lovely.

Poopers AKA 2Ply said...

Gorgeous, I've always wanted a nice beach trip, but never gotten around to taking one. The bugs do sound rather undesirable.. Seth forgot to mention them to me when trying to sell me on this as a vacation spot. I suppose plenty of off from the start could do the trick.

Alice @ caribbean tourism said...

This sounds a real great experience to travel to such an great travel destination in one of the Caribbean's most sought after Islands the USVI. caribbean tourism

Mark Andrews said...

home exchange /deal with other members for comfortable vacations worldwide with the assurance of knowing that your guests are like minded property owners.