No Pain, Blessed Gains in the Virgin Isles

Eileen and rooster

Aquamarine – the color of the Caribbean.   The waters were beckoning – bright, clear and warm.  Delicious – to swim in, snorkel upon, paddle through and gaze on.

We couldn’t resist.  And, with Eileen’s 50th birthday just a month earlier, we had reason to celebrate.  Off we went for ten days in the Virgin Islands, where:

  • temperatures in winter are consistently between 70 and 80 degrees;
  • the water is always blue, never too warm, nor too cold;
  • life underwater is more diverse, and dare I say more exciting?, than above the surface;
  • roosters roam the beaches, tentatively and cordially visiting with sunbathers;
  • at any particular moment everyone you talk to has been on a boat within the past 48 hours;
  • people – whether they are locals or imports from the U.S., the Dominican Republic or St. Vincent – are easy-going and friendly;
  • you drive on the left side of the road in U.S. territory and where the official currency is the dollar when on British lands;
  • everyone is on island time – so, if you’re running late for the 6:00 pm ferry boat, you can call the boat and get it to wait for you;
  • you can camp for free on a white sandy beach or you can pay over $1000/night to stay in a cabana on a similar white sandy beach;
  • all beaches are open to the public, so you can walk through those fancy-dancy resorts – and even scarf down a rum drink – without trespassing; and
  • you can, indeed, successfully apply the sunscreen and return home without a single burned spot.

We started our adventure with two nights on St. John (USVI) at Maho Bay Camps, one of the first eco-resorts in the world.  Opened in 1976, it consists of 114 tent-cabins on a hillside overlooking the beach and linked together by a intricate series of wooden boardwalks and staircases.  Nothing fancy, but comfortable enough, and environmentally-sensitive:  shared water-saving bathrooms, recycling, environmental education, healthy food, etc.  It’s very popular – one of those places that people return to year upon year (it was our second visit).  However, the property was leased for 35 years and the lease is now up.  The landowner doesn’t want to extend it because more money can be made from a luxury development.  Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land is trying to acquire the property and protect it, but time is growing short.  Go soon, if you’ve ever been considering it!

Eileen is a water hound.  She can’t get enough snorkeling and loves a good paddle.  Hence, her suggestion to go on a 5-day kayak and snorkeling tour of the British Virgin Islands.  Here’s the skinny on that part of our trip:

  • seven guests (3 Canadians, 4 from the U.S.) and two guides (20-somethings from North Carolina and Bar Harbor, ME (!);
  • two nights of camping on a totally deserted beach on Peter Island, privately-owned with a fancy resort on the other side (which we never saw), and two nights camping at Ivan’s Stress-Free (it really is!!) Bar and Campground on Jost Van Dyke;
  • kayaking (in double kayaks) island to island, battling headwinds and waves, necessitating several tows by our guide in his single kayak;
  • snorkeling on fine sand beaches – viewing brightly colored fish, a hawksbill turtle and – my highlight – an octopus (amazing creatures, changing color texture and shape within a fraction of a second!)
  • getting hooked on Painkillers, invented at the (local) Soggy Dollar Bar:  rum, coconut milk, pineapple juice, orange juice and – the key to its deliciousness – nutmeg;
  • getting buffeted about in Bubbly Pool, a funnel shaped rock formation that creates a natural jacuzzi every time a wave comes in; and
  • enjoying very fresh spiny lobster casually lassoed by our guide, West Indian rotis, and an amazing barbeque of local dishes at Ivan’s Stress-Free bar.

Afterwards, we spent three days on our own on Virgin Gorda, the British Virgin Island that caters to the rich and famous, and the wannabees, most of whom were island-hopping from their chartered sailboats.  We stayed in a multi-pastel-colored hotel at $125/night, but learned that we could have rented a little house at Richard Branson’s private island resort for a mere $30,000 per week.  Aside from plenty of snorkeling (Eileen just couldn’t get enough), we ogled three other high-end resorts, climbed to the highest point on the island – 1370 feet – and visited the famous Baths, large granite boulders that appear to have been dropped from a

Eileen at the Baths

dump truck on the south side of the island.  Between and around them are grottoes, fun to crawl through and snorkel around.  There are also the remains of a copper mine, worked by Cornish miners in the mid-1800s, where you still find green rocks, pieces of quartz, molybdenite and malachite, as well as a prominent rocky headland reminiscent of the Maine coast.

On our way home, we had four hours on St. Thomas (USVI), in the shopping district of Charlotte Amalie, where tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers arrive daily and weekly.  I wasn’t looking forward to killing time in the tourist-crammed jewelry shops, but as luck – and Eileen’s trust in Yelp’s ill-informed directions to the only camera shop in town – would have it, we came upon the St. Thomas synagogue.  It’s the second oldest synagogue in continuous use in the western hemisphere (Curacao is first) and is one of only four with a sand floor.  Founded (in 1796) by refugees from the Inquisition, it’s Sephardic in style.  We met the cantor, a very animated and enthusiastic woman from Wisconsin who acts as docent, and she told us about the congregation’s history and current day use, and showed us the 7 torah scrolls, chanting operatically from the Moroccan one.  Upon noticing Eileen’s tiny scar on her throat, she announced that she, too, is a cancer survivor, and gave us a special gift, the book that she and her husband wrote about her illness and recovery.  And, when I showed her photos (on my IPhone) of our recent wedding, she got very excited.  She insisted on bringing us up to the bimah (the podium) blessing us (singing loudly in Hebrew and English) in front of the open ark.  Quite an experience!  I think we’ve been married four times now – we’re “super duper married,” to paraphrase our rabbi….

Receiving blessings in St. Thomas

All goes to show that when you travel, you never know what and whom you’re going to come across – an octopus, a spiny lobster on a string, a Painkiller, a slightly-hyper but lovable cantor, or your own bemasked wife with a long yellow tube sticking out of her mouth.  All are good (with one my favorite) and all thrive when surrounded by the azure seas of the Caribbean.

About abitravel

I'm a lucky person since I've combined my two major passions, conservation and travel, into a profession of sorts. When I'm not organizing or leading an ecotour to Latin America or beyond, I engage in freelance writing and enjoy outdoor activities with my wife. That's the nutshell version!
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3 Responses to No Pain, Blessed Gains in the Virgin Isles

  1. A M says:

    You and Eileen were towed?! You two who are more often in a kayak than a car?! I suppose mere mortals would’ve been swept away.

  2. salliem says:

    My same reaction! That was obviously some rough weather. Wonderful writing about your adventures in the V.I. I’m going to look up a Painkiller recipe!

  3. abitravel says:

    Am and Sallie – thanks for your faith in our paddling skills. I guess we’ve got to work our abs harder. That’s all I can say. As Eileen says ad nauseum, when paddling you’ve got to “Use your core. Use your core!!” As for Painkiller’s, do try ’em. And, make sure you have fresh nutmeg.

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