Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Virgin Islands March 11-21, 2009

We wish we could say that our trip to the Virgin Islands was fabulous and that we had a super time. We did see some great sites and had some fun times but it didn't turn out quite as planned. As with any vacation we had certain expectations about this trip. To start with, because we've been in warm, sunny Florida all winter, coming to another warm, sunny place wasn't quite as special as it should have been. And I think we would have enjoyed it more if we hadn't been "cooped up" on a saiboat.

When we booked the TradeWinds timeshare we thought we should go a few days early and visit and snorkel the great sites at St. John's National Park on St. John, USVI. So, we booked a cabin in a campground that friends had stayed at and raved about. If we had known when we booked our flight how much this 3 day excursion was going to cost and how little new things we'd be seeing and doing we would not have done it. And even though we had never spent nights on the water we were looking forward to slowly sailing the catamaran, doing great snorkeling/scuba, windsurfing, kayaking and seeing beautiful scenery. Well, we certainly saw beautiful scenery!! And there was some great snorkeling, just not as much as in Belize. We motored more than we sailed and we rarely went slowly. The windsurfing and kayaking didn't pan out. We had been led to believe by RCI that there was a windsurfer on the boat. Instead we had to pay for one in one location only and we got there too late anyway. Sandy and I took the kayak out but the water was a little rough and there was no back support so it was not much fun. Unexpected pluses were the glass blowing, pirate show and the magician. Read on for info on those. And, of course, it was relaxing to be away from the TV, news, and cooking and fun to get to know other people. I guess we're spoiled after going to Club Meds and having great water activities and also snorkeling in Belize (Glover's Reef) which had phenomenal fish and coral.

Wed, 3/11 - Fri, 3/13. USVI. Our flight to St. Thomas and the ferry to St. John went smoothly. I took advantage of the time we had before the ferry to buy some groceries since they're a bit cheaper in St. Thomas. The island is very mountainous with narrow, winding roads. They drive on the left but the cars they use are American with the steering wheel on the left! We were glad we weren't renting a car. (We ran into people that said it was challenging!) However, it was interesting to ride in a taxi which was like a surrey with rows of seats in the open air sitting up to 12 people. We just had to hang on!

The Maho Bay campground cabin was larger than we anticipated but just as rustic. However, I didn't anticipate a 2 burner camp stove. Not a problem. We managed. Our fridge was a big cooler that we bought a bag of ice for each day. (There was a restaurant but the prices were very expensive!) The best thing about the campground, besides being eco-friendly, was their recycling program for bottles. They have a glass-blowing program. It was so interesting to watch different glass blowers each evening. They also had some sort of offering every evening in the outdoor restaurant. Wednesday night they had contra dancing. Thursday night they showed the new version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." We loved that movie and it was fun to see it outside. There was a beautiful view of Little Maho Bay from the restaurant. The first night we got a couple of little bites but bugs were really not a problem.

Thursday we took a hike to Water Lemon Cay, a favorite snorkeling location. It was cloudy and there was quite a current so we just enjoyed the view and read. (The water was only 78 which was a bit too cold for me.) We learned from someone that to go to the underwater snorkeling trail run by the National Park at Trunk Bay you actually have to pay to go in. We were a bit surprised so opted out of that. On our hike back we stopped at Annaberg Sugar Mill Plantation ruins. It was very interesting and there were a husband and wife volunteer team that talked to us about it. We also quizzed the man about other things on the island.

Since we were going to be going snorkeling a lot on the sailing trip we decided to spend Friday hiking. We took a hike from the north side of St. John, by way of Maria Hope trail, on the Bandit Map but not on the national park map, up to Centerline Road, and down the popular Reef Bay trail. It was quite a hike up but quite doable. The trail had good signage and explanations of things. It was mostly in the shade which was good. We saw lots of plants similar to what we had seen in Belize. The rock wall with plants growing on top was not your typical New England rock wall. We even saw termite nests in trees like in Belize. The petroglyphs done by the Taino Indians were interesting. The last thing to see near the water was an old sugarcane mill. There was some good signage to complement what we had seen at Annaberg. Then we came to the small beach and some rocks to sit on to eat lunch! There's interesting Pipe Organ cactus growing near the water all over the islands. We also saw a mongoose. On the way back we had a nice short shower (typical at this time of year). Even though the 8 mile hike was broken up it was good to get back home and rest a bit. I went off to make plans for which ferry to take to get us over to Tortola for the sailing trip on Saturday.

Sat, 3/14.
After another taxi ride to the Westin, south of Cruz Bay, the town on the western end of St. John, we met up with the Twombly clan at the end of their weeklong vacation here. The grounds and the beach were big and beautiful and it was great to see everyone. We hadn't seen the beautiful Tully children for 1 1/2 years and we got our first look at the cute Jack Ryan! We visited, swam, ate lunch and then took off for the ferry to St. Thomas.

Yes, we had to go west to St. Thomas in order to go east to Tortola. The seas were rough and our 50 minute ride from St. Thomas to Road Town, Tortola took 1 1/2 hours. Thank goodness they slowed down. It also allowed us to watch the semi-funny movie, "Mall Cop." I couldn't believe they had a movie on a ferry but it did pass the time and keep me focused on something! Customs took forever (about an hour) and we ended up being the last ones to arrive at Hodges Creek Marina for dinner on the catamaran.

BVI. There were 6 cabins on the boat (the "Solitaire"), 5 for guests and the other for the captain and host/chef. The rest of the guests were Roger and Sharyn from Tucson, their friend, Doug, Roger's nephew, Steve and his wife, Diane, and their son, Steve and his wife, Jamie. Steve and Diane and Steve and Jamie all live outside LA. Roger and Sharyn were members of TradeWinds so had been on 2 or 3 other trips. Our crew were both from South Africa, Francois, the 23 year old captain and Jen Mullins, the 50 year old chef and mother of 5. Dinner was excellent and so was the company with us getting to know all of them better since they already knew each other. After dinner they taught us a fun card game called King's Corners.

The cabin was set up efficiently but was much smaller than we anticipated. The shower head was the faucet in the sink that pulled up.

Sun, 3/15.
We motored for 1 hour to Cooper Island. (I thought we'd always just use the sails but Francois said it depended on how fast we could go with the sail.) The water was a little rough and I got a headache and had to sit looking out the back at land for the entire trip. (Sandy was fine so he read or did Sudoku while we moved.) Here we snorkeled in incredibly clear water. We saw the usual fish, sergeant major, blue tang, parrot fish, etc. and one new one for us. The ballyhoo is long and thin with a needle type nose.

After a delicious lunch we motored to Cistern Point. (Now Jen made some strong ginger tea with shredded ginger for me to keep my headache from getting worse. I still had to sit and look at land while we were moving.) Here we snorkeled again. The coral was pretty with a number of fish. There was a large group of blue tang and we saw a trumpet fish.

We motored to Virgin Gorda which took about an hour and took the dinghy to Spanish Town. It was very quiet as most of the stores were closed since it was Sunday. There were a couple of outdoor bars, one with live caribbean music that we enjoyed. We walked around the harbor which had lots of sail boats and some cabin cruisers. For us, it was a little too long to be there.

Mon, 3/16. Virgin Gorda. (The stormy weather negatively impacted our water activities today.) Before we even had breakfast we motored to The Baths, huge boulders created by bubbling up magma cooled by water. They were pretty cool looking. The water was still a little rough and it looked a bit stormy. (I still had a headache so had some more ginger tea after breakfast.) Francois took us in the dinghy to the shore to walk the path through the boulders which was fun. At the end we went snorkeling. There were a few fish but not many and the water was murky. It ended up raining when we finished snorkeling.

We motored to Great Dog where we had lunch and a nap. Sandy went scuba diving in The Chimney which he thought was pretty good. He spent about 35 minutes on the ottom and really enjoyed the swim through the crevase. There were many beautifully colored sponges on the walls. Sharyn and I snorkeled. The water here was also a little murky and there weren't that many fish. The sun came out for about 1/2 hour the whole day. It was actually a little cool.

Next stop was Marina Cay (near Tortola) where Michael Beans puts on a Pyrate Show. (On the way to Marina Cay we passed by a home on a hill formerly owned by Danny de Vito.) Francois took us all ashore in the dinghy and told us where to get seats in this outdoor bar. Michael plays here 4-5 nights a week. They have a conch blowing contest and give prizes for wearing pirate clothes. His music was mainly Jimmy Buffet, Harry Belafonte, and the Beatles. He put on a really fun show - even if he wasn't giving out shots of rum to people for different things! (There were a few people celebrating St. Patrick's Day last night with green necklaces and hats.)

Tues, 3/17.
St. Patrick's Day. After breakfast we motored to Mountain Point on Virgin Gorda. It was sunny all day and gorgeous! It was a long trip but I felt fine so I could actually read my book. We snorkeled before lunch. (The water was warmer now!) The coral was okay with one different fish but I couldn't find it in the fish books. After another delicious lunch Jen gave us a sales pitch about the TradeWinds timeshare. It's certainly unique but we weren't interested. We were already feeling the effects on being on a small boat 24/7.

We motored to Leverick Cay in North Sound in north Virgin Gorda. It was one of two nights where we were responsible for eating out. The others were meeting friends in an expensive restaurant. Sandy and I read and played cribbage on board before we ventured out to find a place to eat. We needed some exercise so walked around the hilly town for a while and then went to get some food. We stopped in the grocery store and noticed something that we had noticed on another island. Obviously their clientele are big wine drinkers. Both stores allotted a whole wall, floor to ceiling, to wine! There was really only two other choices for dinner, a sit down place that was super busy or pizza take out for $20. We opted for the pizza which took so long to make that we brought it back to the boat to eat. But it was very good! After dinner we talked with Jen for a long time which was nice. She's an interesting person. She hikes and loves to sail in races.

Wed, 3/18. Finally a sunny, calm day! We motored with our sails to Beef Island to get provisions. There are some interesting art shops here, one with really nice metal and raku pieces. After lunch we sailed to White Bay in Jost Van Dyke. The powdery-sand beach was beautiful with the mountain rising up behind the obviously planted palm trees. Relatives said we had to stop in at the Soggy Dollar, an outdoor bar. The name refers to boaters wading in to shore and then having wet money to buy their drinks. Cute! What we really wanted to do was go see Seddy at the bar "One Love" who entertained us with illusions. This bar was really unique. There were t-shirts hanging on the ceiling with sayings and signed by people. There were old hats, sunglasses, swim suit tops, and license plates on the walls. You get the picture. I signed the bar with a marker "Becky & Sandy 3/09 Amherst, MA." Look for it if you go there. Seddy, a native virgin islander was amazing. We were standing in front of the bar and he did cards, coin and string tricks right in front of us. He was unbelievable! It was so much fun!

I finished reading John Grisham's "Playing for Pizza" a fun, light book and also Janet Evanovich's "Plum Lucky" which was great! Here's Sandy napping on deck.

At White Bay there was this amazing looking sailboat called the Maltese Falcon. Francois said the owner of the boat (Tom Perkins) is selling it for $150M. He also wrote a book about it called, "Mine's Bigger." http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061227943/Mines_Bigger/index.aspx . Oh, what excess!!

That night Francois and young Steve "stole" the dinghy from the other TradeWinds sailboat, Turquoise Dreams. Ah, what trickery ensues after a bit of drinking!

Thurs, 3/19. The other sailboat didn't realize their dinghy was missing until Francois called them. Everyone had a good laugh but as they were leaving they tried to hit us with water balloons. These weren't just thrown, they had a huge slingshot. Well, it was all in fun except Sharyn got hit with one in the arm and created quite a bruise. After that slingshots were off limits.

We motored to Sandy Cay, a small island reportedly to be the Microsoft screensaver (when the other palm tree was still there). It was a really cute uninhabited island. We snorkeled in water that was a bit warmer than earlier in the week but there weren't very many fish because of all the dead coral there. That was a sad sight. I did see an interestingly shaped spotted fish called a trunk fish.

When we were anchoring I saw some people and two young girls on shore. The girls looked like they were enjoying themselves running around and doing cartwheels. When we got to shore I talked to them. The man owned the boat (Zia) and was father of the two young girls. Joe, from Annapolis, and his wife Christy and girls had been sailing all over the world for 4 years!! What great learning experiences! http://www.setsail.com/s_logs/boyle/zia.html

Next stop was Soper's Hole in West End, Tortola. On our way into the harbor we passed by Alan Alda's house on a point. Pretty cool!

It was a cute harbor with shops painted with typical caribbean colors. We looked around the shops but we're not really shoppers so it was a little long to be there.

North of Norman Island was "The Indians" with rocks that look like tepees. That had the best snorkeling so far. The rocks went down about 40 feet and there was lots of sea fan coral. Fish we saw: lots of parrot fish, a school of anchovies near the surface, foureye butterfly, sergeant major, damselfish, and scrawled filefish. Yellow-tail snappers followed us around.

Fri, 3/20.
We motored to "The Caves" at Norman Island. The snorkeling in and around the caves was even better than the Indians. I've never seen so many sergeant majors together. I saw 5 fairy basslets in one place. There were also lots of blue tang going back and forth, some light blue and some dark blue. The coral was great too: lots of yellow and rust colored flower coral, staghorn and other coral.

Sandy did a wreck dive of the famous Rhone, a royal mail ship that sunk in 1867 and broke up into 2 sections. He thought it was pretty cool to swim through one section and see teh skeleton of a ship from the inside. Parts of the movie, "The Deep" were filmed here. The water was pretty rough with a strong current so I opted out of snorkeling.

We moved the boat a bit and Francois took some of us to Salt Cay to look around. When the Rhone sank here in 1867 the residents of Salt Cay rescued several people. The queen of England gave the residents ownership of the island until for as long as they or their decendents lived on the island. A person named Norman Durant lived here until 2003. He died in 2004. He was the last of the decendents and the last to mine the salt here. It was pretty cool to think that this one man walked around the ponds and picked up and broke apart chunks of salt. We found out that he traditionally left the island on Queen Victoria's birthday and symbolically offered her payment of one pound of salt to stay on the island. Apparently there were graves but we didn't see any evidence of them since I read they're unmarked. But it looked like someone else lived here since we saw a chicken running around. I saw some green and brown beach glass so started a collection. Here are some random scenic pictures.

We had a very late lunch (3 PM), napped and motored back to Hodges Creek Marina, Tortola. Yeah! Real showers at the marina. This was our second night to eat on our own. Again the choices weren't many. We walked down the street to Pusser's, overlooking the water, and had delicious dinners. The rest of the people took a taxi to the other side of the island to eat. It would have been nice to join them but just the taxi ride ($24 total) was just too expensive for us.

Sat, 3/21. We said our goodbyes and took a taxi to the ferry that would take us back to Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. We went right to the airport and had a nice lunch there. The airport was packed and it took a long time just to get through security. Our flight was on time and we made it into Miami about 6:30 PM. We looked forward to getting home, even though it was a 2 1/2 hour drive.

One thing we didn't like after we got back was that we felt like we were still on the boat. Our heads didn't feel quite right. Finally by Sunday night our equilibrium returned. OK, we learned that sailing is not for us.