Guadeloupe

Our next sail took us across the channel between the United Kingdom and France, but we didn’t need to go to Europe. We were crossing from Montserrat to Guadeloupe, which, along with Martinique (coming in a later blog post), are fully incorporated parts of France, with all the same rights and status as the mainland, similar to how Hawaii is for the US despite being far away.

The  town of Deshaies in Guadeloupe

The town of Deshaies in Guadeloupe

We arrived in the village of Deshaies in the northwest of Guadeloupe, and it was soon clear that it was very different from most of the islands we had been to recently: there were large fast roadways full of cars, lots of boutique shops and restaurants and just development in general. There were numerous French bakery and pastry shops (we ate many baguettes and croissants), a large modern library, and even recycling, which sadly, most islands lack. Unlike the other islands we’d visited that are administered by a distant nation but still had a Caribbean character, Guadeloupe really did feel more European.

Also, everyone spoke French. It turned out they usually knew English as well though weren’t always willing to admit it. In the French islands, they have farmed out customs check-in for boats to private businesses, which basically just provide a computer terminal for you to fill out electronically. In Deshais, this was in a tourist knick-knack shop. Ted asked the shopkeeper if she spoke English to help clarify some things on the form. Shopkeep: “oh, no no no no no” while waving hands. Minutes later, while hovering over, she interjects in English, “you filled this part out all wrong.”

Sailing down the Guadeloupian coast

Sailing down the Guadeloupian coast

We didn’t stay long before moving down to Basse-Terre, the capitol of Guadeloupe. Here we met a family with a set of entertaining 13-year-old twins engaged in trying to catch a cat wandering around the dock to become a pet for their boat. The method was a felt mouse tied to fishing line, or in this case, “catting” line. This worked pretty well at luring the cat over to attack the mouse, but I think he eventually clawed it off of the line and ran off. The cat was actually a pet from another boat, so we figured they were just playing around.

The boat house in the Saintes

The boat house in the Saintes

Our next destination was a clump of small islands known as The Saintes just south of the Guadeloupe “mainland” (the Saintes are administered as part of Guadeloupe). Quaint red-roofed houses dot the green hills.  The main part of town borders one continuous beach.  Many sidewalk cafes offered delicious yet inexpensive baguette sandwiches and free wifi.  And just a short walk out of town the scenery became positively rural. These tiny islands have a balance of civilization and nature that is quite rare in the Caribbean.

The wide, empty beach on the east coast of Terre de Haut

The wide, empty beach on the east coast of Terre de Haut

Danica and I had an enjoyable time wandering around the various attractions around Terre de Haut, the island we were anchored at. For one, there is a house shaped like a ship bursting out of the cliffside, built by the island’s single resident doctor many decades ago. Why? Who knows, but it looks cool. It is a doctor’s clinic to this day. Next, a short walk took us over to the large beach on the east side of the island. Exposed to the open ocean, massive rollers crashed violently against the rocks and sand, so it wasn’t really a swimming beach. However, we essentially had the dramatic expanse of rugged shoreline all to ourselves, and it was great just to walk around it. The pounding waves throw many things up on shore, which makes for great beachcombing with many seafans and shells, but unfortunately also including a lot of plastic trash that washes in from the ocean.

As our last thing, we made a long uphill trek up to Fort Napoleon, which sets itself apart from the other Caribbean forts by also being a botanical garden. The garden, it turns out, is basically just built right on top of the roof and walls of the fort, and it is quite a unique experience to walk around the parapets among cacti and iguanas.

Overlooking Terre de Haut from Fort Napoleon

Overlooking Terre de Haut from Fort Napoleon

St. Kitts & Montserrat

Sailing past Brimstone Hill

Sailing past Brimstone Hill

As you might expect, when you arrive in a new country you have to clear through customs and immigration.  When you arrive by air, this is automatic, but when you arrive by sea, you must seek out customs and immigration, which can be in surprisingly hard to find locations.  It has become tradition that my dad and I always go to clear customs together. In a boat, it is only mandatory for the captain to go and declare the other passengers, that is why not everyone needs to go in.  It is interesting and often telling of the entire island how their customs procedure is set up.  In St. Kitts, we got to listen to the customs lady singing along to “Make time for Jesus” and see immigration officials aggressively playing candy crush on their smartphones.

As we exited customs, we were met by a friendly yet aggressive tour guide named Veronica wanting to sell us a tour of the island.  It was late in the day, so we said we’d think about it, but really we’d just intended to pass.  But when we arrived on shore with the whole crew, she was waiting for us at the dock, and began dropping her price, eventually telling us to just get in her van and pay at the end only if we liked the tour.  She was fiercely proud of her island home and wanted to show it off to anyone willing to come along. How could we refuse?

So we all piled into her lovely air-conditioned van and off we went.  Veronica was extremely knowledgeable about the history of St. Kitts, and pointed out the house and grave of the first governor, as well as the site of the Carib Indian massacre now known as bloody point.  Legend has it that so many natives were killed that the river ran red with blood for days.

An batik artist giving a demo

An batik artist giving a demo

Our first stop was Romney Manor, originally owned and built by Thomas Jefferson’s great-grandfather, Samuel Jefferson.  It is now the site of a well known batik factory, where we got to watch the waxing and dying process of making batik fabric art.  We had come to this same place twelve years ago, and I had purchased some lovely pillow covers that had since turned to ribbons from overuse, and I was anxious to replace them.  Outside the batik shop, we walked around their lovely manicured gardens and saw monkeys playing about in the branches above us.

But soon we were off to our next destination—Brimstone Hill Fort.  We had also visited this location on our first trip, but this time around, it was a much more pleasant experience.  The first time, we had not taken a taxi, but a local bus and hiked up the considerable hill to the fort in the searing midday sun.  Also, I remembered the distinctive suffocating sulfurous stench for which the fort is named.

 

Enjoying the view from Brimstone Hill Fort

Enjoying the view from Brimstone Hill Fort

Thankfully, this time it was a pleasant temperature for late afternoon, and the smell of brimstone was noticeably absent.  Since it was near closing time we practically had the place to ourselves as we wandered about the huge complex and enjoyed the spectacular views of the sea and villages below. Brimstone Hill is sometimes called the Gibraltar of the Caribbean, and for good reason.  It is a massive fort overtaking a large hill, which is actually a sulfur vent of the larger volcano.

The thin isthmus on southern St. Kitts. The Atlantic is on the left, the Caribbean on the right.

The thin isthmus on southern St. Kitts. The Atlantic is on the left, the Caribbean on the right.

Then we were off to the opposite end of the island—a favorite spot of Veronica’s—where you could see the Caribbean sea and Atlantic ocean separated by a thin strip of land.  We passed through poor shanty towns with brightly colored yet crumbling clapboard or concrete structures.  But what they lacked in financial resources they made up in natural ones.  Just about every house had papaya, mango, and breadfruit trees in their yard. The far side of the island was a whole other world with McMansions and all-inclusive resorts.  It was beautiful but soul-less.  As we returned to the dinghy dock, we thanked Veronica, #1 tour guide in the Caribbean, for her knowledge and hospitality, and before long it was time to be moving on.

In fact, we were incredibly anxious to move on from St. Kitts because of the terrible anchorage.  It never stopped rolling the entire time we were there.  The constant side-to-side motion made everyday actions incredibly difficult, especially eating dinner off of our gimbaled table.  However, it was somewhat pleasant for sleeping.  I’ve come to enjoy the rocking motion of the boat as I drift off to sleep.

On our sail from St. Kitts to Montserrat was pleasantly uneventful.  We had the privilege of sailing past the famous Kingdom of Redonda and seeing its fabled shores.

Montserrat was one of the few islands we didn’t visit back in 2002, as it was actively erupting at the time.  We had watched steaming boulders rolling down the mountains as we sailed past.  Now, things had calmed down enough that we had decided to stop here.

And our visit was immediately off to an exciting start.  Just as soon as Dad and I were heading back to Koukla after clearing customs, a man at the dock pointed to a small sloop and asked if it was our boat, as it was drifting out to sea.

We have two outboard motors, a 25 and a 2.5 hp as backup. Since the little one hadn’t been used in a while, we had put it on for a change to let it run for a bit to keep it in good working condition… it seems like we had picked the wrong day for it.  We raced back to Koukla as fast as we could (very slowly at 2.5 hp), but when we were almost back, our little outboard motor died. Dad started to paddle while I kept pulling the motor’s start cord over and over.  Eventually it restarted, we got back and switched to the 25 horsepower motor in record time (this involves hoisting the heavy thing over the side and onto the dingy using our anchor burton), and Scott, Dad, and I went off after the boat.

We pull the boat in from being adrift at sea, while one of the other guys strikes a jaunty pose

We pull the boat in from being adrift at sea, while one of the other guys strikes a jaunty pose

Another neighboring boat had also gone over to help, so the three of us plus the two of them worked on a plan.  Scott and I, along with one of the guys hauled up the anchor by hand, while Dad and the other guy tried to get the motor started.  It was no use, their engine appeared to be dead. Thankfully, we had our 25 hp outboard motor now in place, so we pushed the boat back in.  Scott was at the helm, dad was driving the inflatable, while I held it in place next to the sloop.

We weren’t sure how to re-anchor the thing, so we tied it off Koukla’s stern, and said our goodbyes and thankyous to the other guys, while we rushed back ashore to notify the authorities in hopes of finding the owner.

We gave the name of the boat to the customs official, just before they were about to leave for the day, and miraculously they managed to get a hold of the owner.  He came over soon after, and expressed his deep gratitude.

Our second day on Montserrat was almost as dramatic as our first.  We took a taxi tour of the island, specifically to see the volcano and its destruction.  First we went to the volcano observatory, and watched a short film on the history of the volcano and its recent eruptions.  On a clear day you could see the peak of the volcano from the observatory.  It was not a clear day.

Into the ruins

Into the ruins

Before we went into the exclusion zone, the area of the island that has been surrendered to the volcano and deemed uninhabitable, we had to check in with the police station and sign in our names and nationalities into a big leatherbound book—should anything happen.

It was a bit unnerving being in the shadow of an active volcano, but even with all the recent eruptions, only 90 people had died over the past several decades, and nearly all due to their own ignorance and negligence, not heeding scientists’ warnings.

The swimming pool has become a frog pond

The swimming pool has become a frog pond

The devastation was spectacular.  The grey ash covered hills stood out in deep contrast to the lush green vegetation.  We walked through a formerly posh resort, now piled thick with ash. The swimming pool, half filled in, was now home to aquatic plants and numerous tadpoles.  We were allowed to roam freely in the post-apocalyptic setting, into hotel rooms, lobbies, backrooms, and so forth, now wrecked and filled with ash and mud.  Melted shower curtains still hung from their rings. In other areas, houses were filled with ash up to their roofs.  We were able to peer into second story windows.

On our way back, we stopped at Runaway Ghaut, a fresh mountain stream with mystical properties. Next to the stream it says, “if you drink from this burn to Montserrat you will return.”   So apparently we will all be back someday.

 

 

Two Dutch Islands: Saba & Statia

Sailing away from the BVIs

Sailing away from the BVIs

After our swing through the BVIs, it was back to St. John to wait for weather. There is a gap between the dense clump of Virgin Islands and the rest of the Caribbean island chain. Since it was also to the east, into the prevailing tradewinds, it was going to be an overnight beat into the wind.

But, after a bit of a wait, some good wind did show up and we were off. For once, the weather predictions actually held in our favor, and we made the whole run in one tack. In a way, it was too good. Instead of requiring an overnight to get to Saba, we made such good time we arrived in the middle of the night. Moorings are provided for boats to use on the west side of the island, as the water is very deep and much of the area around Saba is a protected marine park. However, trying to first spot, and then catch from deck with our boathook, a tiny white mooring ball floating in the pitch black ocean at midnight is not an easy task. We were all exhausted, the wind was whipping over the mountain throwing the bow off course whenever we slowed down to catch the ball, and add in the distraction of fish just going mad all around us as schools as flying fish were flung into a frenzy being chased by larger fish leaping into the air right after them, and you get some idea of the scene (one of the fish actually smashed Danica in the thigh!) But anyway, after much yelling and three failed attempts, we had our mooring and could sleep.

Yes, people decided to settle this island

Yes, people decided to settle this island

And the next morning, we awoke to the startling view of Saba: little more than a sheer cliff thrust up from the sea, the coast flat and absent of any sort of harbor or habitation. If we didn’t know better, you would believe this was just another unpopulated rock. The fact that people did manage to settle here is just amazing, and this is part of the main attraction of a visit to Saba.

The Ladder

The Ladder

We took our dingy around to the south side of the island, where there is a small port with a man-made breakwater. From there, roads wind straight up the mountainside. This is “the road that could not be built,” according to professional engineer’s survey’s, but was built anyway by a native Sabians in the 1930s, led by a man who took a civil engineering correspondence course. The two main villages are both well above sea level, on the slightly flatter areas above the cliffs.  Prior to the road, Sabians used to hand carry everything (including a piano and a visiting cardinal) up a 400-step stone staircase now called The Ladder.

Other than just tour the island, our other main goal was to do some hiking. Scott, Molly, Danica, and I hiked up Mt. Scenery, where at the top a sign announces that it is the highest point in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the peak was covered in cloud and didn’t have much view. But there was a very pleasant walk through what might have been a mahogany orchard near the bottom. We also got a cool glass-making demonstration by a jewelrymaker on Saba.

The villages perched atop Saba

The villages perched atop Saba. All houses on Saba, by law, must have red roofs, white walls, and green trim. This makes it look pretty.

Some cool ruins on Statia, with Koukla in the background

Some cool ruins on Statia, with Koukla in the background

Next up was Statia, the nickname for St. Eustatius, another small Dutch island about a day’s sail east of Saba. The sail over opened with a gust of wind coming over the mountain on Saba just as we finished raising sails, heeling us way over and dumping water through the open portholes. Ug. But, once we got away from the island, it wasn’t too bad and we pulled into Statia before sunset. To my surprise, despite being a small island with little development, there were tons of huge fuel tankers anchored all around. Apparently it is used as a major fuel depot for the Caribbean region.

DSCN4787Ashore, a single road runs through a thin strip of flat land along the coast, lined by near-vertical cliffs. This is ‘Lower Town.’ To reach the top, where the main town of Oranjestad spreads out, we walked a steep cobblestone path called the Old Slave Road, so named because it is was once used to lead slaves up from ships.

Mysterious garden terraces, with goats

Mysterious garden terraces, with goats

Oranjestad spread out on the plateau above. At the top of the Old Slave Road, we overlooked terraces lined with potted plants being grazed by goats. What was the story on this? We don’t know. There was no explanation available, as overall Statia seemed to be not at all designed for tourist visits. We wandered around the streets, passing occasional small restaurants and bars, some corner markets (but no tourist shops), and many residential houses, all of which seemed to have at least one dog, and most with more. Actually, one dog joined our wanderings for the day and barked in our defense at any other dogs we passed. Eventually, with little to do, we returned to the boat.

Descending into the crater. It was really tiring getting back out!

Descending into the crater. It was really tiring getting back out!

It seemed that the only thing to do on the island was to hike up The Quill, the name of the collapsed volcano dome just about a mile outside of town. On the way up, it was a unremarkable forest walk, other than the countless large “solider crabs” everywhere. But when we reached the crater rim, it became something completely unique. Ropes were strung up along trees and boulders to aid in the steep, rocky descent. When we reached the base, we found ourselves in a thick jungle, sealed off from the outside world and ringed on all sides by the crater, like the sort of place you might find a small band of surviving dinosaurs. Many simply gargantuan trees filled the crater. After visiting many of them, we scrambled back up with the help of the ropes and went back to the boat. Next up, St. Kitts!

Danica and I next to a giant tree / strangler vine

Danica and I next to a giant tree / strangler vine

Scott inside of a solid cage of wood

Scott inside of a solid cage of wood

Atop the crater rim

Atop the crater rim

 

 

 

 

British Virgin Islands

Danica looking out from Jost Van Dyke

Danica looking out from Jost Van Dyke

Shortly after Molly’s parents left, we set off for the British Virgin Islands, which are are right next to the USVIs. Other than being British, the biggest difference is that they are generally smaller and less populated. However, there are a lot of them.

Our first stop was Jost Van Dyke, home of the legendary Foxy’s Bar and Restaurant, which is practically the only thing of note on the entire island.  On our first trip twelve years ago, I had particularly enjoyed meeting Foxy himself and listening to his singing and jokes.  Unfortunately, we weren’t as fortunate this time, and didn’t get to see him perform.

Trudging up Jost Van Dyke

Trudging up Jost Van Dyke

Shortly after we arrived on the tiny beach-lined harbor of Jost Van Dyke (pronounced yost), Scott, Molly, Isaac, and I set off up the steep, almost ladder-like hill overlooking the harbor.  Twelve years ago, we did this same hike, and I had remembered it as being hot, sweaty, difficult, yet rewarding.  And it was pretty much the same this time around, only perhaps a little more difficult.  The dirt road often gave way under foot, which often added up to two steps forward, one step back.  But the view of the harbor and neighboring islands was quite spectacular.  During the hike, we were constantly running into groups of goats grazing on the grassy hillside.

Sailing the BVIs

Sailing the BVIs

After we left Jost we hopped over to Great Camano Island for the night.  In our anchorage it seemed as if we’d left the Caribbean and were transported back to Maine, with it steep rocky shores and gravely beach, and peaceful evening silence with just a handful of houses visible up on the hill.  The biggest difference was the wildlife.  Flocks of pelicans flew in formation, hovering over the water.  Every so often, one would plummet into the water after a fish, splashing water far into the air.

The next morning, as we pulled up the anchor, I heard an eerie scream of someone in distress.  I looked around, saw no one in imminent danger, and realized it was the goats on shore, with their near-human-like screams.  On our way out of Great Camano Island we had to go through the narrow Camano passage. We lacked detailed charts for this area, so Scott was sent aloft to look for water color changes indicative of sudden depth changes, while Isaac, Molly, and I were on the bow doing the same.

There were several shoals in the vicinity, but we made it through intact.  That evening, we anchored in Spanish Harbor, the main town on Virgin Gorda, and treated ourselves to wifi and nachos ashore.  It had been a while since we’d had internet access, and we all pulled out laptops, iPads, smartphones, etc. and munched silently and checked emails and whatnot, completely ignoring the scenery.  Another bar patron, clearly on vacation and not suffering from internet withdrawal thought we were a comical sight and took our picture.

 

Exploring The Baths

Exploring The Baths

The next morning it was off to the Baths! Thousands of years of wind and waves had sculpted unique rock formations out of a tumble of enormous boulders from past volcanic activity to form unique landscapes and breathtaking seaside caverns and passages. Climbing and swimming around the boulders was like crawling through an excellent natural jungle gym.  Inside the dimly lit sea caves, tiny white fish would play about our waists and jump if we moved too quickly.

Hanging out on the boulders

Hanging out on the boulders

We crawled in amongst the gian boulders.  They were everywhere.  Along the sandy path, on the shorline, partially submerged, creating labyrinthine pools in the water.  We swam in amongst the giants and scrambled up among them chasing scuttling crabs.

You are not allowed to anchor at the Baths overnight, so after we were done exploring, we set off for Peter Island.  We anchored in a pleasant bay, surrounded by nothing but a few other sailboats. But, it wasn’t quite as peaceful as you’d expect, since the everpresent goats were soon bleating ashore. Shortly after we’d dropped anchor, a floating grocery store came along side us.  We had provisioned recently, so we didn’t need anything, but we couldn’t say no to ice cream bars, a rare treat for us due to our inability to keep frozen treats onboard.

As if the day hadn’t been perfect enough, that evening we were treated to some fantastic bioluminescence.  We could see comet-like streaks of light left by fish darting through the water and we splashed about with an oar, filling the ocean with starts.

The tumbled down houses of Salt Island, on a thin strip of sand between sea (left) and salt pond (right)

The tumbled down houses of Salt Island, on a thin strip of sand between sea (left) and salt pond (right)

Next up was Salt Island.  As the name implies, the island was once used to manufacture salt with the two salt ponds on the island.  The island seems to no longer be used for this purpose, as it reeks of dead fish in the high salinity ponds.  The island is now all but deserted.  The few small, ramshackle houses on shore were slowly breaking down, with doors missing and rooms empty of all but scattered debris.  The highlight of Salt Island was the snorkeling.  We were surrounded by creepy schools of squid or cuttlefish (we aren’t sure which), and Scott and Molly found an octopus atop his garbage heap of empty conch shells. But since there was little else to see on Salt Island, we quickly moved on.

Fish everywhere off of Norman Island

Fish everywhere off of Norman Island

Norman Island is almost synonymous with pirates and buried treasure.  Many locals call it Treasure Island as supposedly real pirate treasure was buried there at one point.  On our first trip, we had set out in our dinghy to snorkel the famous sea caves on Norman Island, but rough weather and outboard motor troubles prevented us.  But the 12 year wait was worth it.  It was easily the best snorkeling of the trip thus far.  We saw blue tang, small-mouthed grunt, sergeant major, rainbow parrotfish, squirrel fish, and fairy basset.  (I looked them up on our fish ID card as soon as we got back) The aptly named rainbow parrot fish was my favorite, with its bright plumage and beak-like mouth.

Entering the Norman Island sea cave

Entering the Norman Island sea cave

The sea caves themselves were a unique experience.  We’d read that it gets quite dark, so we’d come prepared with a waterproof flashlight, but even with that it was extremely creepy.  The narrow cave was quite deep–deeper than we cared to venture.  It is the sort of place you might see at the start of a horror film, where vacationers are slowly picked off by a human-fish hybrid monster.  Something very primal pricks up in dark, enclosed, natural spaces and tells you to get the heck out of there.  So we did.

After our whirlwind tour of the British Virgins, it was back to the USVIs for reprovisioning before continuing our voyage south.

St. John, Part 2

Soon after Issac’s mom left, it was my (Molly’s) parent’s turn to visit from Maine They had quite an eventful trip to get to St. John. A few days before they were supposed to arrive, my mom contacted us urgently to tell us that they had moved their flight a day sooner to avoid a massive snow storm that was going to hit New England. It’s a good thing that they did too.

Even moved ahead a day, their flight was scheduled to leave just as the first edge of the storm was reaching Boston. They got onto the plane and taxied to the runway. The pilot announced that they were third in line to take off. A plane took off. Another took off They taxied up to the start of the runway. And they sat there, and sat there. Eventually the pilot announced that a truck was coming by to deice the engines. They sat some more. Eventually they had to go the deicing station and get the rest of the plane deiced. Then it had to be deiced a second time. Finally, the weather cleared briefly and they managed to take off. The pilot announced as they reached cruising altitude, “boy, did you guys pick a good day to leave Boston!” Their flight ended up arriving well over an hour late, and they had been one of the last flights to leave from Logan airport.

My parents in St. John

My parents in St. John

Horatio and I met my parents at the airport on St. Thomas. After that, we had to take a taxi to a ferry to get to St. John where to boat was. It was too bad my parents hadn’t taken a train somewhere in there, because then they would have used pretty much all the major forms of transportation to get there.

While my parents were around, we saw some of the sights on St. John. We took a trip to the Annaburg Sugar Mill ruins, which was pretty neat. This is one of the places that Issac and Danica visited when Issac’s mom came to visit, and Issac did a pretty good job of describing it in his post, St. John, Part 1.

Me and my dad at the Petroglyphs

Me and my dad at the Petroglyphs

We did a lot of hiking too. There are some nice trails on St. John and lots of things to see on them. One trail that we went on was a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp. There were also numerous trails that went by ruined buildings, many of which weren’t even marked on the map. My dad, Horatio, and I also went on a long hike to the petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are by a freshwater pool fed by a small waterfall. They are carvings in the stone here which were made thousands of years ago by the Taino Indians in the area.

Horatio, Issac, my dad, and me playing in the sand

Horatio, Issac, my dad, and me playing in the sand

When we weren’t hiking, we usually went to the beach. St John has lots of beautiful white sand beaches with lots of nearby coral for snorkeling. One day we built a fairly elaborate drip sand sculpture. The snorkeling was great too. There is a huge number of brightly colored fish in the water, as well as lots of coral. It feels like swimming in an aquarium. My dad, who has had a large beard for at least as long as I’ve been around even thought about shaving his mustache so that the snorkeling mask would fit better. My mom vetoed that idea though, because she thought it would look weird.

It was fun having my parent’s around. We’d been in the Caribbean for over a month at that point, but getting to show it to someone else made everything seem new and that much more exciting. I’m glad that they had a chance to visit.

St. John, Part 1

DSCN4426

Horatio scrapping barnacles off of the propeller cage

St. John was our original goal for our landing point in the Caribbean, and now a month later, we finally reached it. St. John is part of the US Virgin islands, but is nothing like St. Thomas. Surrounded by small coves lined with pristine beaches, half the island designated as a US national park, and reachable only by boat (and not cruise ship sized ones), it was an ideal destination for us. We finally arrived after a short, pleasant jump from Great St. James Island. It was nice to finally be out of the open sea and in protected water amongst the scattered Virgin Islands.

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Our wooden rowing tender, with Koukla in the background

Koukla is a wooden boat, and so of course we must also have a wooden dingy. It is a classic lapstrake wooden tender that has space for double-rowing stations, and also can be used as a small spritsail sloop. It had been a glorified on-deck storage compartment so far, but with a long stay planned on St. John, the time had come to empty it out and go rowing. We felt very classy getting to the beach via a wooden rowboat, and the tender soon became a magnet for tourists taking photos on the beach.

The five members of the Cowan family

The five members of the Cowan family

The beach itself was great. Called Solomons Bay, it has no direct road access. Instead, most people get there from a one mile hiking trail from St. John’s main town of Cruz Bay. Or, as in our case, arrive by boat. We had a great time swimming, talking with some other cruisers, exploring tide pools in the rocks, and snorkeling (we saw lots of fish!)

Other than just trying to get to St. John to enjoy ourselves, we had to get here because we had some family coming to meet us, first my [Isaac’s] mother, and then Molly’s parents. Using the knowledge gained on our jeepny / safari bus excursion across St. Thomas, we were familiar with the ferry options and how to get to the airport. So, shortly after reaching St. John, it was back to St. Thomas to meet my mom. The Charlotte Amalie-to-St. John trip that we had done over the course of two days took just 40 minutes in a high speed ferry.

The view from Sage Mountain

The view from Sage Mountain

One thing my mom wanted to do while visiting the US Virgin Islands was visit the British Virgin Islands, so one day, along with me and Danica we took a ferry over to Tortola for the day. In the US we are used to expecting most places other than the post office or banks to be open during all regular daylight hours. In Tortola, they still close pretty much the whole island down on Sundays. Oops! We wandered around town fruitlessly for a bit, unable to get into the botanical gardens, or pretty much any shops or restaurants. So we took a taxi to the top of Sage Mountain, the highest point in the Virgin Islands (US or British), and had some excellent banana smoothies prepared by an eccentric British man who runs a restaurant up there (thank goodness he was open, because his shop was also the only source of trail maps to the peak). Next, an eccentric taxi driver drove us back down while playing for us in his van a DVD film recording of a BVI concert he’d attended. This, along with the driving winding the serpentine roads that snake around the coast just feet above water level was pretty unique. Overall, the Tortola visit wasn’t what we’d expected, but in spite of this (or because of?), it was quite memorable.

Isaac, Danica, and Jennifer in front of the windmill ruins at Annaberg

Isaac, Danica, and Jennifer in front of the windmill ruins at Annaberg

One day we decided to make a circuit of St. John, visiting the Annaberg sugar plantation ruins, then Coral Bay (St. John’s other town, on the southeast end), and then back to Cruz Bay. Taking a taxi on St. John is not the same as in the US. Taxis are all large safari-style trucks, and the drivers like to wait until they have a group all going to the same place (since fares are per person). A crowd of taxi drivers was waiting around the ferry dock in Cruz Bay, but when we asked for someone to take us to Annaberg, no one wanted to do it, and it nearly started some arguments about who would get stuck with us. Finally, someone did start driving us out of town, only to pull over just a few minutes later and pass us off to a different passing taxi coming from the opposite direction. However, when we finally got to the ruins, it was worth it, because the Anaberg sugar mill was great. We saw the ruins of a windmill, a horse mill, and the sugar processing buildings. A park interpreter showed us how coral had been used as a building material by the Danish, and not only explained the history of the sugar economy on St. John, but also what it is like to live there in the present day. We ate some traditional dum bread prepared on site, and got to smell or eat examples of local plantation food from the gardener (sugar cane, lychee, bay rum leaves, and coconut).

Some vampire tombs hidden in the St. John woods

Some vampire crypts hidden in the St. John woods

Our taxi adventures were not over yet. Coral Bay is a bit beyond Annaberg, but the drivers don’t like to go that way, and one driver advised us that we would wait a month before finding someone to do it. One did pick us up, but then it turned out that he was conducting an island tour, and the group (and now us as well) was getting taken to the Cinnamon Bay beach / campgrounds to have lunch. We skipped out at this point and were taken to Coral Bay, where we had our lunch. Getting back to Cruz Bay, we flagged a passing safari bus, but it turned out it wasn’t a taxi at all, it was a family from Maine. The rental place had run out of cars and given them this. People had been hailing them down all week. But, they kindly decided to give us a ride back to Cruz Bay anyway.

It was great to have my mom come to visit, and she was not happy to be returning to frigid Minnesota, but the time was up. But next up was a visit from more family escaping the snowy north: Molly’s parents, joining us for the next week (and the next post) from Old Town, Maine.

Koukla chlling in St. John

Koukla chlling in St. John

St. Thomas

Approaching St. Thomas

Approaching St. Thomas

Our next destination was Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. Following a short, rough sail (as usual), we dropped anchor in the middle of the large harbor. Charlotte was quite a change from quaint Culebra. The first impression was a huge harbor filled with dozens of boats of all varieties: charter catamarans, cruising boats (some of them disused and rotting away on their mooring), “pirate” ships, enormous mega-yachts, and towering cruise ships. The others said that on the first trip, on the east end of the harbor there had been a run down hotel with disgusting showers. Unfortunately, it had cleaned up too well, being replaced with a marina too high class to allow non-guests in at all, though there was at least a dingy dock available for getting ashore.

Charlotte Amalie is the largest city in the Virgin Islands (US or British), but has more the feel of a cruise ship amusement park than a real city. Walking around we were surprised to find block after block of jewelry stores, watch shops, high end clothes and accessories, a Belgian chocolatier, and other luxury items, all cashing in on Charlotte’s status as a “free port,” meaning no sales tax (in fact, there is no sales tax in all of the USVI). It is like an airport duty-free shop spread out over a square mile. One evening we decided to go out for dinner, and found the downtown area shuttered up and deserted. Sometime around 4 or 5 in the afternoon the cruise passengers return to their ships, and the city shuts down. Despite the many restaurants lining the streets, by 6 pm we had a hard time finding anyplace open to eat.

A museum, we think

A museum, we think

Danish guard post in front of the USVI Governor's House

Danish guard post in front of the USVI Governor’s House

However, there were a few non-shopping attractions in Charlotte Amalie that Danica and I found. The main thing was a St. Thomas historical walking tour, a sequence of oddball, vaguely historical attractions, including an amber waterfall, a one-room “museum” of fake prehistoric plants and a giant rubber t-rex head, two old houses, and Blackbeard’s Castle. Blackbeard’s castle is misleadingly named (on purpose). It is an old stone Danish watch tower where Blackbeard may have been imprisoned briefly. But being up on a hill, it did offer an excellent view of St. Thomas’ hilly landscape framing the boat-filled harbor below. We also swung by the US Virgin Islands governor’s house, and posed in the old Danish guard post out front. Possibly our favorite part of the whirlwind tour was our buffet lunch at Natural Livity Kulcha Shop & Juice Bar.

One fun thing about St. Thomas is the colorful open air jeepney / safari style buses and taxis, sort of like a large pickup truck with bench seats and a metal awning. We took the bus from one end of its route to the other, passing Frenchtown, the airport, the University of the Virgin Islands, before turning and climbing up the steep white-knuckle switch back and turns of St. Thomas’ mountainous roads. Considering that, in addition to the wild curving streets, they drive on the left side of the road here (for reasons that I have not been able to find an explanation for), we were all glad to have somebody else at the wheel. Eventually we reached Red Hook, a town on the east coast of the island, just across from St. John. It had been an interesting exploration of the island, and a good fact finding mission that would be useful later for meeting people at the airport, taking ferries, and getting groceries and supplies.

View of the west edge of Charlotte Amalie harbor, overlooking Hassel and Water islands

View of the west edge of Charlotte Amalie harbor, overlooking Hassel and Water islands

Around the corner from Charlotte Amalie and lying just off St. Thomas is Water Island, the fourth largest US Virgin Island. Apparently it was named Water Island because it was a source of fresh water for ships. It turns out that it is still put to that use to this day, because one of the reasons we went there was to make water, since the water in Charlotte Amalie’s harbor is too dirty and would clog the water maker filter. We also read that there was a nice beach there. To our surprise, the coast of Water Island was even more chock full of boats than St. Thomas. But, we managed to find a good spot in Druif Bay, home of Honeymoon Beach, and we were able to enjoy some swimming and burgers on the beach.

Nearby to Water Island, just across the channel on St. Thomas, is a place to get propane tanks refilled. Getting there was an interesting walk through an area of St. Thomas that definitely is not a cruise ship amusement park. A long semi-industrial expanse of scrap metal dealers, welding shops, construction material depots, and used tire vendors eventually dumped us at the place to get propane, right at the doorstep of a large power plant. We were amazed to see that the tanks were filled based on weight, using purely mechanical old cast iron beam balance scales, and that the operator haphazardly vented large amounts of propane all over the place.

Our next destination was St. John, but on the way we couldn’t resist stopping at Christmas Cove off of Great St. James Island… it was the night of December 24th, after all.

Ominous clouds at Christmas Cove (rain soon followed)

Ominous clouds at Christmas Cove (rain soon followed)