Yesterday we returned from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we spent a wonderful week with Chad's family. Trip report follows, cut for length. Pictures are forthcoming, but the first is up on Chad's blog.
Before this trip, my sole experience of the Caribbean was a cruise two years ago, when we spent a mere handful of hours on-shore. And for various reasons, my preparation for this trip consisted of no more than packing. I landed last Saturday, then, in very nearly a complete state of ignorance.
St. John is hot, steep, green, and rustling with animal life. I found almost all of this emotionally surprising, even though I knew, intellectually, everything but "steep" simply because of St. John's location. Knowledge is no substitute for understanding, however, as I managed to demonstrate on the first day by traveling in jeans and a black T-shirt and being very casual in my application of insect repellent in the evening. The journey from the St. Thomas airport to our hotel taught me that not all buildings are air-conditioned and that the sun is really that hot, and the five or six mosquito bites on my feet and ankles taught me that the bugs required repelling. Highly effective lessons.
(My introduction to the steep nature of St. Thomas and St. John was also emphatic. People drive on the left in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and almost all the roads are very narrow and twisty, in addition to being steep. After a very long taxi ride from the airport to the ferry, I was thoroughly convinced, first, that I never wanted to drive here, and, second, that I had rarely been so motion sick in my life.)
St. John looks greener in contrast to St. Thomas, which is much more developed. The majority of St. John is a national park, and I get the impression that its principal—perhaps its only significant—industry is tourism. It also seemed sparsely populated, and the number of shops in Cruz Bay (one of two towns) with obviously non-tourist targets seemed small. St. Thomas, on the other hand, has more than its share of (remarkably ugly) tourist hotels, but also appears to have residents and businesses other than tourism.
The green and rustling nature of St. John was well demonstrated by Estate Lindholm, our 10-room bed and breakfast (very comfortable, with an excellent location). The rooms were in a handful of small buildings, connected by paths through abundant vegetation, with little lizards constantly scuttling out of the way at your approach, hummingbirds investigating the flowers, less elegant but more persistent birds splashing in a water fountain or eyeing your bagel, and a couple of cats reigning amiably over it all. I had to train myself not to start at the noise or sight of something scuttling quickly away from me: not a mouse, not a house centipede, just another little lizard.
(I did start at the sight of the spider in our bathroom one night, but most people would have, because it was really rather large. Chad heroically killed it unasked and then more heroically put up with the teasing for doing so, since apparently it was harmless. (We were supposed to know this, how?))
Though they weren't in evidence at Estate Lindholm, the island is also now home to feral chickens, goats, and donkeys; iguanas; mongeese; and deer. We saw many chickens in Cruz Bay, and quite a few goats on the way to the other side of the island, in the vicinity of Coral Bay. Of the others, I saw only a glimpse of an iguana. I'll have to be satisfied with the excellently grumpy plushie iguana that was a gift.
This was principally a snorkeling vacation, because Chad's parents are big snorkelers. I'd done a bit of snorkeling on that Caribbean cruise, but was unsure about doing a lot of it. Put me in water and I pretty much sink—I'm even worse than Fezzik, as I don't dog-paddle. I'd done fine on the cruise, but I had a life vest both times, and we didn't go far.
I'm happy to say that thanks to fins, even I could snorkel happily around one of the St. James islands, or from Honeymoon Beach to Caneel Bay and back, without other floatation devices. (I can't estimate the distances, but they look pretty impressive from land.) I wouldn't attempt anything with a strong current, but mild currents and even a pretty strong chop one day were manageable. It helps, of course, that the point of snorkeling is not to swim quickly for long periods of time, but to get where the reef is and then move slowly, because you'll see more that way.
(If you intend to do a lot of snorkeling, it's likely worth buying your own gear. I was on my third rented mask before I got one without a serious leak. Fins or no fins, stopping to tread water every thirty breaths or so, while I dumped out my mask, really reduced my snorkeling time and enjoyment.)
We did a grand tour of St. John's beaches and bays: Honeymoon, Trunk, Salt Pond, Jumbly, Francis (I skipped that trip), and (from a sailboat) Lovango, Hawksnest, and around one of the St. James islands. Everywhere except Trunk I had a great time, and my failure to enjoy Trunk was because of my equipment, not the bay. Trunk has plentiful shade; parking, bathrooms, showers, rental snorkel gear (which was better than the stuff we'd brought with), and a food stand; and a marked underwater trail. It's a good place to start, and it's less crowded around the right side of the island in the bay.
Everywhere we went was good snorkeling. All kinds of colorful and interesting fish, turtles and squid and the occasional eel, a single shark (very exciting; it was small and headed purposefully away from us, which meant "cool, shark!" rather than "shit, shark!"), lots of coral . . .
My favorite things fell into two extremes. First, parrotfish (Google Image Search), because I like the texture of their scales and they can be really colorful (also, there are usually lots of them). Second, flounder, specifically peacock flounder, because the fin sticking up in the middle of their flat bodies is the silliest looking thing, and eyed flounder, because floating above them and watching their eyes swivel independently on the top of their body is just too cool. (I have a special affection for the camoflauged bottom-dwellers, probably just because I feel lucky to have seen them. I saw a blenny one day that was almost as exciting as the trigger fish (it's not very remarkable otherwise, which may be why I can't find a reasonable picture online).)
However, I also really liked the turtle, and two varieties of very colorful juvenile damselfish, and trunkfish (which look too ungainly to belong in the water), and the beautiful colors of triggerfish and queen angelfish (GIS), and the serene schools of sergeant majors, and the territorial dark-colored night majors (one of which made a run at me, indicating that this was its rock, no bipeds welcome), and the shy squirrelfish (GIS) lurking under rocks, and the hopeful sharksuckers attached to the bottom of the sailboat, and the big schools of blue tang that look light blue or deep purple depending on the way they catch the light, and the clean elegant lines of bar jacks (which I think of as "the Jesus fish with the blue stripe"), and the way squid change colors, and and and . . .
Snorkeling is cool.
(I didn't exactly like the four-foot barracuda I spotted one day, but it was impressive.)
I think my favorite snorkel was from Honeymoon to Caneel and back the last day, but that's partly because it was the culmination of my increased confidence and knowledge. Over on the Caneel side of the point, however, there is a very large square concrete structure with a pipe (our host thought it was the intake for the desalination plant), which looks like the world's biggest aquarium toy and has suitably big fish hanging out around it. There are also lots of fish on that reef, and some rocky bits where I saw my only eel, so it has plenty to recommend it. And Honeymoon is just a stunningly beautiful beach.
I do wish I'd had a camera, though, because I saw one particularly cool thing that eluded identification. It was a largish (oh, maybe a foot, though I absolutely suck at estimating size and distance underwater) silver fish, shaped like an oval and with fins that failed to make an impression on me. It had a single horizontal stripe of a slightly lighter silver, within which were dark squiggles. It looked like someone had stenciled it, the way interior decorators do the tops of rooms. No clue what it was; no-one else saw it; and no-one had ever heard of such a thing.
Anyway, I now have an impressive snorkeler's tan (dark back, barely-darker front), the last remnants of sunburn on my middle back (sunscreen, even re-applied religiously, is not up to three snorkeling stops in a day; I should've worn a shirt), a newfound confidence in my ability to snorkel, and a resolution to get my own equipment—including a camera—next time we take a snorkeling trip.
Unless one is phobic, I recommend trying it given the opportunity.
There's a rocky trail from the road down to Honeymoon, which is dismaying on first look and definitely not something to be taking a beach chair on (as I did, not realizing what I was in for). But people in reasonably good health should manage it well enough—I did, eventually, and my physical condition is nothing to write home about. However, if one doesn't want to take the trail, one can park at Caneel Bay's resort and walk a flat truck road.
I didn't go to Francis Bay, but apparently the walk to it wasn't as difficult as the tourist material made it sound.
From Estate Lindholm, Cruz Bay is a short walk. There's no sidewalk on the obligatory narrow twisty road, but I felt pretty safe walking it during the day (there are lots of taxis if one prefers to go back up that way). There's a trail from town that eventually comes out near Estate Lindholm, which intersperses the inclines with flat bits, but it's at least twice as long, which I didn't find a good trade-off when I just wanted to get back to the pool.
Chad hiked another local trail by himself, which I'll let him describe if he wishes. We meant to get over to Cinnamon Bay, where there are a couple of trails through an old plantation, but never did. There's also a guided hike through the National Park, but six hours was a bit much for us to commit to.
All in Cruz Bay unless noted.
Rhumb Lines (homepage): good for people with varying dietary restrictions who are willing to make a meal off several small appetiziers. Peculiarly spicy Pad Thai.
Happy Fish (review): relatively cheap sushi & sashimi, reportedly very good; small selection of other Japanese dishes; yummy Asian pear & ice cream dessert.
Asolare (homepage, apparently down): upscale Euro-Asian. Anything described as containing a "hint" of X flavor had no discernable taste of X flavor, but was otherwise pretty good.
Cafe Roma (menu): excellent & varied Italian food.
The Balcony in Wharfside Village: good for lunch, excellent homemade potato chips; dinner menu apparently not veggie-friendly.
Morgan's Mango (homepage): good Caribbean cuisine, marred by a flaky server.
Outside of Coral Bay: Skinny Legs (homepage), a burger joint that advertises "same day service," which is a hint. I have no idea if the burger was good, because I was so hungry by the time it came that I would have eaten cardboard. Had a small, very tame heron-type bird.
Travel notes aren't as interesting, so I'm dumping them at the end.
There are two ferries to St. John from St. Thomas. One departs from Red Hook and takes about 15-20 minutes. The other departs from Charlotte Amelie ("downtown") and takes about 45 minutes. However, the downtown ferry is a short, flat, easy taxi ride from the airport, and the Red Hook ferry is a long, hilly, difficult taxi ride. I therefore strongly recommend the downtown ferry. (This sentence originally began with "Unless you have serious issues with the water," to which Chad pointed out, "Why are you going to St. John?" So, no caveat.)
(Check if your boat has an air-conditioned compartment. Ours did, which very few people seemed to realize—including me, Chad spotted it for us.)
When departing St. Thomas, rather to my surprise, one must go through both Customs and an immigration check. We had not brought our passports, because the State Dep't website said they weren't needed (as I expected, since it is part of the United States) and we're so close to leaving for Japan that losing them would have been disastrous. However, what the State Dep't fails to warn people is that they may need a way to prove their citizenship—if they are foolish enough to admit that they were born outside the United States, that is. Chad had only a driver's license, just like me, but somewhat to our surprise was not required to go through extra screening. Anyway, the extra screening was painless—the Customs official simply looked up my passport and asked me to rattle off various personal identifying information—but the very concept made me twitch.
Security screening at the St. Thomas airport is very slow. We had to carry our own checked bags to the big X-ray machines, and wait to bring them to the machines until one was free, and then slowly shuffle our way to personal screening. It took us a full 90 minutes to get to our gate from the time we entered the airport, which I believe is the longest it's ever taken me anywhere. The airport is imperfectly air-conditioned, though at one point a TSA official moved a large fan directly next to the personal screening line, for which she received applause.
(Though getting through the airport was long and tedious, the people I dealt with were notably friendly and polite. The Customs official who conducted my extra screening, upon seeing I was an attorney, wrote down for me the relevant statutory section and gave me a comment card. I was impressed.)
We were told that the food available past the security checkpoint was dire, and so brought our own snacks. I didn't see anyone's food, so I can't speak to its quality, but the food area certainly looked busy.
On a happier note, though American no longer gives out pillows (!), it will reassign you to an exit row upon check-in or at the gate, and not even make you pay for the opportunity. (How rapidly our expectations decline.) That made Chad a great deal more comfortable for both flights. If only Northwest would do that for our Japan flights . . .
Thanks again to Chad's parents, who gave us this trip as a gift.