Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Say It's All Just Wind in Sails

The beach at the Best Western Emerald Beach Resort. Very nice.
So let me get the informational stuff out of the way right up front, because I know that the real reason my six semi-regular readers come here is for useful travel tips. The U.S. Virgin Islands are great. The beaches are beautiful, the water is clear, the people are very aware that they have no industry other than tourism pleasant. But vacationing there is expensive, at least by my standards. Getting there and staying there can be done reasonably, but it's difficult to keep your daily expenses low. Most notably, transportation involves either taxis or renting a car, both of which are very pricey. And the food tends to be both overpriced and uninspired. On the plus side, most of the beaches are free, and we found it hard to work more than two meals a day into our schedule anyway. Also, if you look around a bit, you can find pretty good happy hours for the bulk of your drinking.

Anyway, we arrived Thursday afternoon and lost no time getting to the beach. Even though the hotel (Best Western Emerald beach) was only a short walk from the airport, it felt secluded (the air traffic there isn't all that intense, and it's mostly limited to the afternoon, so planes taking off were objects of curiosity rather than annoyance). For the most part, if you looked out into Lindbergh bay, you only saw a few sailboats, but on Thursday afternoon, I did see a cruise ship.

No, really. This is a picture of the big cruise ship in the background. The attractive young man who took a quick dip in the ocean and then plopped down in a beach chair a few feet away from me and then proceeded to fall asleep only made it into the pictures because he happened to be in the foreground. Also, I was worried that he'd get a sunburn, so I kind of had to watch him. Concerned citizen and all that, you know.
I'm not, I have to admit, a big fan of sand, but I love the water. And once I'm in it, I really don't ever want to come out. A lot of the adults I saw on the beaches hardly got wet. At best, they'd wade knee deep into the water, without removing their ball caps or extinguishing their cigarettes, then retreat to their beach chairs, put on some sunblock, and lie in the very, very hot sun. I don't really get that. The water has a very atavistic pull on me. I guess lying in the sun is all right, but I'd rather just stay submerged. I should have been a sea creature. If I weren't so worried about my head and shoulders getting sunburned, maybe I could stay in the water long enough to devolve to my primordial roots. The notion of devolution amuses me, but mostly for musical reasons:
God made man
But he used the monkey to do it
Apes in the plan
We are all here to prove it
I can walk like an ape
Talk like an ape
I can do what a monkey can do
God made man
But a monkey supplied the glue

I think "Jocko Homo" came out before I was in high school, but I didn't really hear much Devo until I was in college. I love hearing Devo singing the bridge of that song almost as much as I love hearing Patsy Cline singing "Crazy" or Janis Joplin singing "Ball and Chain." Of course, when I was floating in the water, I didn't think of that. My thoughts were never any more profound than, "You know, clouds are a lot like islands."

Anyway. Around the hotel, as throughout the Virgin Islands, there were a lot of wild chickens.

There was even a mother hen with nine chicks.

Also, many, many lizards.

I am unreasonably fascinated by lizards. They're cool.

I wonder whether the chickens eat the lizards. You have to think that the lizards eat the chicken eggs if they can get them. It's the circle of life.

Pretty much all we did on Thursday was swim, lounge, and have dinner. There should really be a law against charging more than $20 for an entree if you're not going to offer freshly ground pepper with it, but apparently there isn't. On the other hand, I should be smart enough not to order salmon in the tropics, but apparently I'm not. Live and learn.

On Friday morning, b&c wanted to go into Charlotte Amelie. I don't think I had ever before been to a town that exists primarily as a stop for cruise passengers, but now I have. B&c said it looked a lot like some other town that exists primarily as a stop for cruise passengers, but I wasn't paying enough attention to remember which one. I think that if you go to St. Thomas, you can pretty much skip Charlotte Amelie, and you won't be any the worse. Unless you have a lot of money that you aren't using for anything and you feel like buying jewelry, in which case it's the place for you.

Seriously, we were about a block off the water, and I looked around, and I think I saw every establishment mentioned in the bridge of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it. There weren't any cruise ships at the dock that day, though, so the town was relatively empty. A few jewelers and art dealers tried to get us to look at their stuff, but you could tell their hearts weren't really in it. I reckon they were conserving their energy for the boat people. I did buy a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun off my neck, though. It had "St. Thomas U.S. Virgin Islands" embroidered on the front. It made me look ridiculous. I was going to say "painfully ridiculous," but I really just don't care enough about my appearance to be pained by its ridiculousness. You would be pained if you had to wear it, though, I bet. I got it at the street market there, so it only cost about half as much as it would have cost at a souvenir shop.

We only stayed an hour or two in Charlotte Amelie, including the time we spent eating a late breakfast. Then we headed back to the hotel for a nap and some afternoon sun. I tan relatively easy, but I'm never in the sun, so I'd hoped to get some color while on this trip. To that end, I didn't apply any sunscreen and stayed in the shade of one of the beach umbrellas for a couple of hours. I got sunburned. Red wasn't really the color I'd been hoping for, but at least I had peeling to look forward to. I took cool showers and Advil.

The next day, we decided to visit St. John. We took a taxi to the dock at Charlotte Amelie and caught the ferry.

It's a very pretty trip. It's probably even prettier from the upper deck, but we were avoiding direct sunlight. I love riding on boats. I like it even better when the ride is bumpy, but this ride was very smooth.

When we got to St. John, we went to have breakfast. I had some pretty good huevos rancheros. I did not feed the chickens.

Then we took a taxi out to Cinnamon Bay. We'd been warned by b&c's sister (whose girlfriend is a native of St. Thomas) not to go to the nearest beach, which would likely be the most crowded. Also, the guide book had said there was a good hiking trail at Cinnamon Bay, and I figured that if we hiked for a while in the shade, we could go to the beach later in the day, when the sun is less potent.

The taxi was basically an open air short bus, and there were about eight of us on it. The driver stopped to give us a view of Trunk Bay, which is, apparently, more famous than Cinnamon Bay.

When we got to Cinnamon Bay, we stowed most of our stuff in a locker and then set out for the trail. There were two trails, and I selected the longer one which said it was wooded. It was definitely a shady trail. Later that evening, I looked up the trail specifications and found that it was 1.1 miles long and had a rise of 700 feet, which, if you do the math, works out to a gradient of, well, really steep. Especially since large parts of the path are gently uphill. The first tenth of a mile or so has a rise of about 200 feet. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though I couldn't help thinking that coming back down was going to be a lot trickier than going up. And wishing that I'd worn light hiking boots instead of running shoes. Live and learn.

The trail was somewhat strenuous, but it had much interesting flora.

And lizards!

When we were about halfway up, I began to think that we might never reach a spot where the trees parted enough to give us an overlook of the ocean below, and that doing all that climbing without getting a good view might be something of a disappointment, but then we got to the overlook. Gorgeous.

We hiked all the way to the end of the trail, where we found ... the highway that runs along the spine of St. John. It was a bit anticlimactic, but at least we had 1.1 miles of downhill to look forward to. We stopped again at the overlook.

The steep descent was as difficult as I'd anticipated, especially in inadequate footwear, but we did see a number of lizards and a particular stunning, yet camera-shy, hummingbird. There was also a tree that reminded me of an arm with a flexed bicep.

The very end of the descent was especially tricky, but we got to the bottom and rewarded ourselves with a frozen mango drink, with rum. You have to love a national park that offers rum.

Cinnamon Bay was my favorite among the beaches that we visited in the Virgin Islands. I took more pictures than were strictly necessary.

I liked that the water got deep more quickly than at the other beaches (where I sometimes had to swim out quite a way to get to a place where my feet weren't touching the bottom), but it was just very pretty and not very crowded.

When it was time to leave, we went and found another taxi/bus. It was already loaded with a group of six drunken women from Northern Virginia who noisily insisted that there was plenty of room for us. I ended up next to their ringleader, who offered me a mini of rum to go in my vitamin water. They were all forty-somethings and on vacation from their husbands and kids, whom they seemed not to miss. When they told me where they were from, I made a joke about them being the real housewives of Stafford County. They didn't appreciate that, especially, but they were too drunk to hold a grudge. We separated when we got back to town, but we somehow ended up at the same restaurant, ordering the same drinks. They were too drunk to divide their bill by six, so I did the math for them, earning their eternal gratitude.

We said goodbye to them, again, and headed for the ferry back to Redhook. It was well past dark, so we sat on the upper deck, and when the boat cleared the harbor, it turned off the very bright floodlight, and, oh, the stars. We took another long cab ride back to the hotel and crashed.

The next day was Sunday. We rested.

At some point in the afternoon, I remembered that every time we go somewhere that's near the ocean, I intend to collect water and let it evaporate into salt, but then I always forget. Sea salt seems like the ideal souvenir to me, and I suspect that it would be very easy to collect with a little time and perhaps a black frisbee. The bricks on our balcony were hot, so I took one of the ziplock bags I'd brought to contain any mess if my toiletries happened to leak, and I collected about half a gallon of salt water and put it out in the sun.

I think my contraption would have worked fine if I'd gathered the water on the first day we were there, but two days wasn't enough time for it to evaporate, and I ended up leaving it behind. Alas.

Sunday night, deciding that we'd had enough of the restaurant at our hotel, we wandered down the beach a hundred yards or so to the neighboring hotel where they were having their weekly Sunday barbecue. We got steak and ribs, plus some very good side dishes. Plus Margaritas. The bar filled up relatively quickly with a group of drunk-but-still-drinking twenty-something mainlanders who had come for what turned out to be karaoke night. The barwench told me later that they were almost the entire crew of a small cruise ship that operated from St. Thomas. I was not previously aware of the fact, but it turns out that there are few things that I enjoy more than watching drunken people sing karaoke badly. And the worse they were, the more I loved it. I have sung karaoke no more than a handful of times in my life, but I figured that I should give it a go, so I got one of the books and decided to sing "Crazy," forgetting, as I have done before, that the Patsy Cline version is pitched a step or two too low for me. Not that it matters. Apparently, if you sing on pitch, you're already doing better than about eighty-five percent of karaoke singers, or ninety percent of drunken karaoke singers. (Not that I wasn't drunk as well, mind.) Also, apparently, drunken twenty-somethings love Patsy Cline songs, so the audience was very receptive. We stayed for another hour or so, during which time I heard several songs that I have never heard before but which, apparently, are well known to drunken twenty-something, karaoke-loving expats. That was a fun night.

The next day was Monday, and it was our last full day in the Virgin Islands. We had been told -- by people as well as guidebooks -- that no trip to St. Thomas is complete without a trip to Magens Bay, so we took a cab across the island. St. Thomas, like, I suppose, all the Virgin Islands, is very steep, so a cab across the island is something like a slow roller coaster ride. It was a lot of fun, and we had a lot of good views on the way.

Magens Bay beach is very pretty, and it's very long, but otherwise it didn't seem better than any of the other beaches we'd been to. We'd gone late in the day, so there weren't very many people there, and I get the impression that a lot of people go for the people watching rather than the water, but chacun à son goût, I reckon. It was still a pretty beach. And the water, as everywhere, was pleasant to be in.

I think probably the best parts of the trip to Magens Bay were the cab rides there and back. Both drivers were extremely well versed in local history and geography, so we had what amounted to a guided tour. The driver on the way back took a different (scarier, more fun) route and stopped at the overlook to point out the various British Virgin Islands in the distance as well as the St. Thomas home of Michael Jordan and where Bill Clinton stays when he's on the island.

After a very steep ride across the island, we made it back in time for happy hour at the hotel bar next door. No karaoke, but cheap margaritas, followed by dinner. Excellent fried chicken, forgettable side dishes.

Our flight home on Tuesday left just before 3 pm, but we had to check out by noon, so we planned to have a morning swim, pack, check out, and take a leisurely lunch in the hotel restaurant (they do a decent burger). As good a time as we had there, I wasn't particularly sad about leaving. My mood had improved so dramatically from the awfulness that is tax season that I couldn't help feeling hopeful. Still, I hesitated before walking into the water that morning. I was thinking to myself that it was the last time that I'd have to get used to the water the first time in a day, and I wanted to savor the experience.

It was special. I swam and floated for a while, and I found a rather large spiny starfish, which I held for a while before returning to the water. Then we packed, had lunch, and walked to the airport.

Now we're home, and I'll confess that it's a bit more difficult than I'd anticipated returning from paradise and late breakfasts to rising at 6:15 to make sure YFU gets to school on time. I understand why people who go to the Virgin Islands for vacation sometimes never leave. I don't think I'd want to live there (maybe, though, on a secluded island somewhere nearby), but I think we'll probably be going there again, most likely after next tax season.


  1. I'm delighted to see that it hasn't changed a bit in 20 years. And we almost did not come home the last time we were there. Found a house in the Crown and Hawk section. High on a hill. They accepted the offer. We backed out. Came to our senses. We sometimes imagine what our lives would have been like.

  2. Visiteur épisodiqueApril 24, 2009 at 10:02 PM

    I am always surprised how you, fellow Americans, relax... 5 days only and you want to visit everything, being there... done that... For so short a time, Europeans who like the beach (as I and my boyfriend do) would hardly leave it if we were so tired as you were. Ok, maybe the hiking but all these tourists craps... Anyway, the bays are really beautiful. Hopefully, "tes batteries sont rechargées maintenant"...

  3. Delightful. As one of the six looking for travel tips, I was well rewarded for my loyalty. What is it with chickens in the tropics? In Key West, they are even protected like "endangered species." Thank you for the idyllic glimpse at the Virgin Islands. You did not include too many pictures. They were the perfect enhancement to your great prose. Looking forward, as always, to both blogs. Best regards, Bart

  4. Now I want to visit. Great travelogue.