No Broken Glass, No Big Dents

We are a loyal tribe, us Out Island fanatics.  Once we fall for those 698 Bahamian islands, cays, and rocks outside of New Providence (Nassau) and Grand Bahama (Freeport), we return again and again.  We recognize our fellow addicts, and speak to each other with a common vocabulary,  carefully recruiting potential travel companions to bring into the fold.  The thing with the Out Islands is that they require a particular type of traveler who will get it.

There are certain – I won’t say hardships, but rather, challenges to Out Island travel.  While some might say we love the Out Islands in spite of the obstacles, I would hazard to say that we love them because of them.  Because the challenges are part of what make the Out Islands so beguilingly quirky, so ripe for discovery, and so deliciously secret.

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One might think that after nearly 4 months living aboard Calypso in the Bahamas two years ago, that we’d had enough, that perhaps we’d been cured of our addiction.  Instead, I dream of picking sand dollars off flats at low tide.  I perfect my conch chowder recipe.  I imagine muscling my kayak against the current through mangrove creeks.  I am transported by the framed photos in my office (which include a swimming pig and a magenta sunset).  Two years is a long time to have been away from the Out Islands, so I finally pulled together a return visit to one of my Happy Places: Fernandez Bay Village on Cat Island in June.  And we brought along Skip and Harriet, whom we introduced to the Abacos back in 2005  (Abacos 2005), who became smitten with the Out Islands and made up for lost time by sailing to the Bahamas for 3 seasons (Moondance’s Blog).

Out Island challenges typically start before you get there, because getting there from anywhere but Florida can take a good 12 hours of travel time.  It’s not that the distance is that great; it’s just that the bridging of that distance takes some creativity, patience, flexibility and – most importantly – a sense of humor.  Because things tend to go wrong, it’s essential to build some wiggle room into the schedule.  That way, when your pilot announces that you’re circling over NAS instead of landing there because both the radar and radio communications at the airport are down, you’re not sweating too much because you’ve built in a 3-hour+ layover during which to clear immigration and customs, walk over to the domestic terminal, check in with your tiny commuter airline, and get through the understaffed security portal.  It helps to be flying with carry-on luggage only, so you don’t have to wait for bags to be decanted, collected and checked in again; plus, that’s a good guide for how little stuff you really need.

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A tiny airport like New Bight International Airport doesn’t leave much room for error.

While we had our requisite misadventure, Skip and Harriet, flying from Ft. Lauderdale, had their own.  Their flight had been delayed due to heavy storms in southeast Florida, and they cut the transfer to Sky Bahamas much closer than we did.  Nothing some Sands beer (brewed in Freeport, and Bahamian-owned) or rum can’t fix.  Lucky for us, Sky Bahamas was flying with its full fleet, and close to schedule; unfortunately, even though they fixed their planes for flying, they did not fix them for comfort.  No air-conditioning during a 40-minute flight in June was not pleasant, but it was a mere blip.

Once the plane deposited us on the tarmac, we collected our bags and were greeted by a taxi driver sent by FBV, who had us at the front desk in minutes.  “Check-in” took about 2 minutes – confirming that we were staying in Point House (no need for keys) and informing us that appetizers would be served at 7.  Another minute, and we were at the house most distant from FBV’s clubhouse, losing most of our travel clothes and checking out the beach while breaking into the bottle of pineapple rum purchased at the airport in Nassau.  So, after 12 hours of travel, it took about 10 minutes to get into the island groove.  If the rum hadn’t done it, the walk down the gorgeous beach to the tiki bar would have.

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Even on a cloudy day, Fernandez Bay Village is a lovely sight.

It helps that this was our 5th visit (6th, if you count the time we spent anchored in the bay during our sabbatical) to Fernandez Bay.  The place is as familiar as a second home to us, and as welcoming.  We know the ins and outs of FBV, its rhythms and its little quirks.  Although we’re now seeing the next generation taking over the management of the resort, the transition has been seamless as far as we can see.

Like the other Out Island resorts we’ve stayed at or visited, FBV is anchored by a central clubhouse.  FBV’s is a soaring coral stone structure with a thatched roof, next to which is the tiki bar – which we all know is truly the heart of all of the action.  All meals are served here, and all the guests congregate here before dinner to concoct their own drinks on the honor system, or bring their own, and await the sunset.  As with every other visit we’ve had here, we’ve found the other guests to be great company – whether part of the large family group visiting by private jet and yacht, the honeymooners, or the couple who’d mutinied and abandoned ship (and turned out to be from the same town as Skip and Harriet).  Almost all of them were already, or will likely become, part of our tribe of Out Island fanatics.

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This is our first summer visit, so we’re not used to the position of the sunset; in the winter, over open water, we usually watch for a green flash.

Because we were traveling with friends this time around, instead of staying in one of the cottages at FBV, we chose the 2-bedroom villa Point House.  Every morning when I woke, I had the familiar view of the sea from my window, the coral stone walls, and the lazily spinning fan overhead.

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The view we’d wake up to.

But instead of being steps away from the clubhouse, we had the not-so-arduous 5-minute walk down the beach before getting that first blast of caffeine.

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Our quiet end of the beach.

And, being in a house, we had a white-paneled living area with comfortable seating and a compact kitchen.  Most importantly (to me, anyway) was what the villa and cottages lack: walls in the garden baths (allowing the pleasure of semi-outdoor bathing), televisions and telephones.

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Having our own kitchen meant that we could make our own Dark and Stormy cocktails; except no one ever heard of Gosling’s black rum (even though the store was well-stocked with ginger beer), so we had to settle for Ron Ricardo Bahamian dark rum.  Close enough!

The most outstanding feature of Fernandez Bay Village, however, is Fernandez Bay itself.  A perfect white sand crescent lined with casuarinas, palms and palmettos.  When the sun strikes that water, it’s the most mesmerizing, crystalline, blinding, unlikely blue – a color so intense and striking that I’ll call it “Improbablue,” because unless you see it for yourself, you don’t quite believe it’s real.  Since this was our first summer visit, it was also our first experience of how warm the water can be – how easy it can be to simply slip in and never leave its caress.

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Fernandez Bay, colored in Improbablue.  The color is especially stunning when contrasted with dark storm clouds.

Despite all of this to commend FBV, the critters simply thumb their noses and do whatever the heck they want.  The curly-tailed geckos have the run of the place.  The frog likes his perch on our toilet seat (below the lid) – hence the need to turn on the lights and check before having a seat.  The snake was comfortable in the electrical works, causing the power outage that followed the outages that came with the overnight thunderstorms.  And the noseeums – emboldened by a few wet and windless days — made a buffet of us at dawn and dusk, despite lavish applications of DEET.  Every time I scratch the dozens of bites decorating my skin, I think of vacation.

Other critters on the island were far less vexing.  Just south of Fernandez Bay is a network of mangrove creeks which we explore by kayak.  The clear waters reveal schools of juvenile fish, sea turtles, and baby sharks.  They also reveal that the power of positive thinking cannot defeat low tide – one of our outings in the creek was too close to the witching hour, and we got stuck on the tiny hillocks of squidgy sand while trying to traverse to the outlet of the creek (and its secret beaches), and we were forced to turn back.  Our consolation that time was that the outgoing current and wind gently pushed us out of the creek, in contrast to the upstream fight we had to get stuck.

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Rick and Harriet paddle ahead of me in the creek, as thunder rumbles.

FBV is just a small sliver of what Cat Island, which is about 50 miles long, has to offer.  You’ve got to hit the road to explore.  Renting a car is about as major a formality as checking in was – after offering up my credit card and driver’s license, I was given the keys to an elderly Honda CRV, reminded to drive on the left side, and told “no broken glass, no big dents.”  Gilbert’s car rentals knows exactly what Out Island fanatics will do to their cars.  Given the condition of the roads on Cat Island, and knowing where renters are going to take the vehicles, they know that all they can realistically expect is to get their cars back with no major damage.  (I put that to the test right away.  I’ve driven on the left before, but never in a right-hand-drive car.  I had quite an adventure backing the car out of a sandy track I’d mistakenly driven into.  But at least the windshield was clean, as I repeatedly turned on the wipers instead of the turn signal.)

Just like on most every other Out Island, there is one main paved road, with the same name: the Queen’s Highway.  On Cat Island, it hugs the western shore, washed out and crumbling in some places, but in reasonable enough condition to get you from the top of the island to the bottom in about 2 hours.  It’s going off the main road that is the challenge.  The “roads” are a combination of sandy tracks, gouged out limestone, and the occasional rocky stretch.  Vegetation encroaches from the sides, so the shriek-y scratch of sea grapes scraping the paint off your car is part of the soundtrack of any road trip.  Plenty of vegetation – even 18-inch palmettos – grows between the tracks, so the bottom of your car gets scraped clean.  It takes a good bit of bumping, grinding and axle twisting to get to any of the other beaches on the island.

Hard to believe, but spectacular as Fernandez Bay is, we did find ourselves visiting other stretches of shoreline.  FBV had as many as – gasp! – 2 dozen guests that we had to share our mile of beach with.  To get away from all of those people, we had to wander.

There is the pink sand, lively surf, interesting (and sad) collection of flotsam, and “cliffs” (on an island featuring the Bahamas’ highest point, Mt. Alvernia at a mere 206 feet) of Fine Bay about 4 miles away.

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The surf splashes up onto the pink sands of Fine Bay.

Also on the ocean side, the beach we call Conch Cove, with tiny sandy islets offshore breaking the surf.  (This one had better be gorgeous, because it takes about 40 minutes of off-road maneuvering, including passing through a dump and a stinky salt pond, to get there.)

 

More pink sand, and more solitude, at Conch Cove.

             In contrast is the placid Exuma Sound side beach of Old Bight, bordered by an ancient cemetery and plantation ruins.

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Old Bight’s clear and calm waters.

And the wild and undeveloped shore of Port Royal, where a half dozen people had the audacity to join us on 2 miles of sand.

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A dozen years after we first found our way to this spectacular beach at Port Royal, and it seems not to have changed at all.

As part of our road trips, we planned lunch stops.  An old favorite is Yardie’s, deservedly known for the best conch salad on the island, as well as down-home Bahamian specialties like steamed fish, accompanied by frosty Sands.

There is nothing more refreshing, and more typically Bahamian, than a cool conch salad and a frosty beer at a roadside stand.  You can also fill your gas tank here.

A newer addition to the Cat Island scene is the restaurant at Shanna’s Cove, perched on the bluff that tumbles down to the Port Royal beach.  Of all things, Shanna’s is known for good pizza, which hits the spot after eating fish and conch for every meal.

When we tire of conch and our view at Fernandez Bay, there’s always pizza and a caprese salad, with a view of Port Royal, from Shanna’s Cove.

Cat Island’s iconic attraction is the Hermitage, a site I never tire of visiting.  Perched atop Mt. Alvernia and offering views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Exuma Sound, it’s one of those places that inspires me to be mindful and count my blessings.

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Not least of which is my ability to visit the magical Out Islands of the Bahamas and share them with my friends.

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Paradise: Lost and Found

After a day of lazing around The Retreat and driving in to the second-largest “metropolis” on St. John, Coral Bay, for lunch, it was time to tackle some paddling.

 Over the years, I’ve progressed from being a very timid kayaker (who’d only go out in a tandem kayak with Rick) to the owner of my own inflatable kayak that I comfortably took out in most conditions – even ones that I shouldn’t have gone out in (I’m no match for 5+ knots of outgoing tide, as I learned at Big Major’s Cay in the Exumas).  So, when Rick and I hauled our craft down to a bay variously known as Limetree Bay or south Haulover Bay, I was perhaps a bit overconfident.  As I pushed off the cobble beach, the current took me away from shore faster than expected.  When I quickly tried to turn around to wait up for Rick, a wave caught me broadside and I flipped over.  I laughed it off as I righted the kayak, but then realized that my waterproof camera had fallen out with me.

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 The water where I’d flipped was deeper than I could stand in, so just splashing around to look for the camera was not really an option.  Rick was undaunted, drove back to the villa and came back with snorkel gear.  Once in the water, he found the camera right away.  Tragedy averted!  Going forward, I would clip the camera in when kayaking.

 As mentioned before, St. John is mostly national park.  And the national park protects some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean, most located in sequence on the island’s north shore.  We made it to three of the north shore beaches: Cinnamon Bay, Trunk Bay (home of a well-known snorkeling trail), and Francis Bay.

Cinnamon Bay was the first of the north shore beaches we visited.

Next stop: Trunk Bay.  Each beach as pretty as the ones before and after.

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Francis Bay, which we reached by hiking.

The jurisdiction of the national park system keeps the area from being commercially developed.  Indeed, Francis Bay provided some of the most vibrant aquatic life I’ve ever seen off a beach (even compared to the protected Exuma Land and Sea Park).  I didn’t need to snorkel there to watch giant hawksbill turtle surfacing for breaths, a shark gliding by, or stingrays ghosting by in the shallows – the water is so clear you can see it all while wading.

These stingrays were not at all skittish.

Moreover, the sands are pristine, the vegetation at the sand’s edge is lush, and the water is just delicious for swimming.  BUT, there are some BIG caveats to these observations.

While there is much to be said for the benefits of the National Park Service’s stewardship of these stunning natural resources, there appears to be a sameness to its efforts that remains deaf and blind to the surroundings.  So while the signage and amenities used by the NPS might work at Yellowstone or even Cumberland Island, the log cabin-y feel doesn’t quite fit the Caribbean.

NPS amenities don’t really fit the site.

But that’s hardly the biggest issue (for me).  On a daily basis, some unholy clock would strike the hour (approximately 10:47 a.m.).  The hordes would start arriving by jitney buses – from larger hotels on the island, from cruise ships berthed in St. Thomas, from all-inclusive resorts.  The arrivistes seem to be driven by the same impulse that drives certain sailors to conclude that if we are anchored in a particular spot, it must be a good one, and therefore, they anchor right on top of us.  And soon, we’d be surrounded by people with no concept of privacy or space.  We’d try to employ the skills we learned traveling in Europe, of being able to turn on our blinders and ignore people just inches away from us, but it proved impossible.  Soon, the tour guides (with no vocal volume modulation) started hectoring their charges, exhorting them to put on their compulsory neon yellow floaty vests and to not step on the coral as they snorkeled.  It looked like the beach scenes from Jaws, but without a great white shark to disperse the masses.   By 11:30, we’d flee, in search of a less-crowded destination.

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It’s a wonder the snorkelers don’t leave the water bruised and black-eyed, likely as they are to kick each other in the face with fins in close proximity.

After our first such north shore beach experience, we made our way to congested Cruz Bay, in search of lunch.  We parked in L&L’s lot, and asked one of the attendants the wrong question: “Where should we go to lunch?”  Not knowing us, he gave the pat answers he probably gives to most visitors.  Instead, we should have asked, “Where would YOU go to lunch?”  In any case, as we walked towards one of the recommended restaurants, I was stopped in my tracks by the signboard for De Coal Pot.  There was goat on the menu.  That was it!  Not a generic island restaurant geared towards visitors (most of which, in fairness, do offer a knockout fish sandwich), but a truly local, Caribbean experience.  We got our down-island fix for lunch (oxtail stew, roti with bone-in chicken curry filling), and noted, tellingly, how some guests walked in and walked right out.

Here was our answer to the crowded beach dilemma: it might take effort, but we’d have to avoid the “popular” spots. We’d hit the best beaches early in the day, before the worst of the crowds arrived.  And beyond that, we might have to sacrifice aesthetics or facilities, or we might shake the fillings out of our teeth on rough roads, but we’d get what we were looking for.

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If we got to the beach early enough, there was even room to park without having to skulk around the lot, looking for an empty spot.

When it came to shopping (which must be done), for example, I limited my purchases to spices from Sunny Caribbee on Tortola, and a pendant of larimar (the only gem found in the Caribbean).

Our initial foray to a mostly off-the-beaten track beach was to Little Lameshur Bay, on the south side of St. John (sorry L&L … I didn’t notice on the back of your rental contract that we weren’t allowed to take the Jeep there, given the unpaved road ….)  While this beach wasn’t empty, the facilities provided here by the NPS were rudimentary (an outhouse with hornets building a nest inside, and a basic sign), and the beachgoers gave each other a respectful distance.  The beach wasn’t as pretty as the north shore beaches, with a rocky entrance into the water and a somewhat pebbly and weedy beach, but that was one of the compromises we’d have to make to get some solitude.

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The beach at Little Lameshur Bay wasn’t as pristine as the ones on the north shore, but it was less crowded and the water was just as beautiful.

It became clear that our housemates had the same ideas we did, even as we went our separate ways.  As Rick and I were enjoying jerk chicken at Sweet Plantain in Coral Bay (which, BTW, offers curried goat for dinner), who should arrive but Jeff and Ginger, with the same plan to eat West Indian food.  Rick and I decided not to tell them what our next destination was, just to see if we’d end up at the same place.

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Jeff and Ginger at Sweet Plantain.

The next destination that day was, in fact, one of the more perfect (to us) spots on St. John.  We called it Vie’s Beach – a small cove across the street from the occasionally-open Vie’s Snack Shop.  Besides dishing out simple lunches from her shack, Vie also collected a $2.50/person admission charge to the beach (which we’d previously vetted by kayaking over).  The beach – again, not as pretty as the north shore gems, but  mellower – featured a nearly irresistible feature about 50 yards off the sand: a floating bar.  An heir to the tradition of The Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke, you had to swim to Angel’s Rest.  Owner Peter moves the bar to whatever location suits him on any given day, and dispenses deceptively strong rum punches.  After arriving, and chatting with Peter, I found myself deep in conversation with a fellow visitor named Judy, who was given away by her ballcap from Compass Cay Marina in the Exumas: yes, a former cruiser, just like me and Rick. And then, who should arrive but Jeff and Ginger.  Great minds think alike!

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From Vie’s beach (above), we swam to Angel’s Rest.  That’s my idea of a beach bar!

Our final St. John beach experience was at neighboring Hansen Bay.  Unlike Vie’s, the proprietresses invited but did not require donations to park here.  As well, they’d set up a gratis bar, stock with such goodies as rum, Laphroaig, beer and honest-to-goodness Diet Coke (Coke Zero just Does. Not. Cut. It.)  Again, donations welcome but not required.  From Hansen Bay, we could also swim over to Angel’s Rest, but now familiar with the dangers of the rum punch, Rick and I kept each other from giving in to the magnetic pull of the floating bar.  We were planning a rare evening foray out for dinner, and being compromised by Demon Rum would not do!

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Hansen Bay.

Thus, we’d managed, by choice of a remote and unique villa and no small effort, to get a truly Caribbean experience on this American island. But for all of the money paid and distance traveled, it shouldn’t have been so hard.

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This huge cruise ship passing in the Drake Channel, visible from The Retreat, reminded us of the kind of experience we did NOT want.

Departure day proved – for us anyway – that the USVI have all of the charm of the U.S., and all of the efficiency of the Caribbean (to riff of the old saw about Washington DC, wherein it’s claimed the Washington has all of the charm of the North, and all of the efficiency of the South).  Fully armed with knowledge of the fact, we were nevertheless stunned that the main road on St. John (Rt. 10, the Centerline Road, and the only route from our villa to the ferry dock) was closed until 10 that morning, for a road race.  Notwithstanding the fact that most rental villas turn around on Saturdays, that rental cars must be returned by 10, and that travelers are expected to be at the airport 3 hours before their flights.

Our Jeep was the first the get past the barricade in Coral Bay that morning, but needless to say we returned our Jeep late (but had informed the agency that it would be late).  We hustled to the airport in St. Thomas, only to find crowds and chaos, in an airport ill-equipped to handle the air traffic it nevertheless courts.  No TSA Pre-check here – though they did allow us to not take off our shoes.  A single restaurant, without enough seating but exorbitant prices, even though most flight times require your presence there at lunch time.  Not enough seating at the gates.  A single restroom.  And some really rude travelers.  You can’t sit, eat or pee at STT without running a gauntlet, but you can buy Stoli or a status watch.

We had a really great experience in St. John.  Our house was perfect, as was the weather.  We had terrific company as well.

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And we found what we were looking for in a Caribbean holiday, albeit working hard to get it.  It might be worth revisiting St. John via sailboat, but the next destinations on my wish list don’t include St. John.

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Looking at all of the boats in Coral Bay makes me wonder if we’ll visit again by sailboat….

House Hunting

This time around, I went about it backwards. Rather than picking any particular destination – I wasn’t even committed to a particular body of water — I idly searched for vacation villa rentals on the internet. When I landed on The Retreat, I knew it was the place I wanted to stay. What caught my attention? There was a main living space with 3 glass garage doors on the water side, and a 4th facing the private pool; each of the 2 bedroom pavilions also had a glass garage door. With the push of a button, the doors were retracted and all that is between the inhabitants and the elements is screens. This was a concept that attracted me.

After falling in love with this villa, I found that it was located on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. OK. Never been there; never really thought about it. Why not? Two-thirds of the island is National Park, and you can’t fly there directly. And the villa was located on the secluded east end of the island, perched over lightly-visited Haulover Bay. Sounds like just our speed.

We did some advance pre-planning: I arranged provisioning with our on-island manager Dena; we and fellow Sabre sailors Jeff and Ginger each rented our own Jeeps; and we had paddleboards and kayaks delivered . Finally, we set off, the last weekend of February. Rick and I flew to St. Thomas via Philadelphia (what a terrible airport!), while J&G flew via Dulles. The wind was howling on arrival, resulting in an aborted landing for J&G (second time’s a charm), while our jet merely skipped from side to side down the runway. White knuckles all around!

The flights were merely the beginning of our journey. First, the long cab ride from the St. Thomas airport to the ferry terminal in Red Hook – against all odds, Rick and I made the 4 p.m. ferry despite leaving PHL 45 minutes late. Then the 2 block luggage drag from the Cruz Bay ferry dock to L&L Jeep Rentals (they are excellent, BTW, and their customers can park in their lot, which is no small benefit given the tight parking in town). Then the drive to the villa, following Dena.

Just to put things in perspective, the distance from Cruz Bay to our villa is less than 12 miles. But the trip takes about 45 minutes. The speed limit varies from 10-20 MPH, and that’s not just because you drive on the left. St. John is a very hilly island, and the roads are narrow, incredibly steep, and full of blind hairpins and switchbacks.

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And, this being the Caribbean, you’re like to encounter roosters and goats crossing the road, not to mention two new ones for me: donkeys and deer. Our drive to The Retreat confirmed my initial plan to eat lunches out and dinners in so as to avoid driving past dark.

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I’d never seen a deer on a Caribbean island before.  This time around, I saw several, like the one hidden in the brush behind Francis Bay here.  And yes, they did jump into the roadway as well.

Once we got there, we found The Retreat to be the perfect vacation rental for us. Cantilevered on the steep cliffside overlooking Haulover Bay and the Drake Channel over to Tortola, the villa is truly an escape from everything (including Verizon cell towers – our phones picked up signals from Lime in Tortola).

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Looking out from our living room (open walls) across the Drake Channel to Tortola.

The site is hidden from prying eyes and ravenous goats by a wall, foliage, and gate. Parking is at the top of the site, where we also found our watercraft and a hot tub deck we never used. The next level down features a shady lap pool with iridescent tiles, connected to the main building by pergola.

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One either side were the bedroom pavilions, each with a private balcony and outdoor shower (yea!).

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Our bedroom above, and the view from our shower.

Dena gave us a brief tour, showed us how to operate the doors, and left us to our own devices. And the vodka. That first night was like most of the others – vodka and/or rum cocktails, wine, cooperatively made dinners (with pricey but surprisingly decent groceries), and me and Jeff taking turns serving as DJ.

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Some of our gourmet dining efforts — grilled mahi mahi with salad, and fish tacos (made with fresh red snapper).  Locally caught seafood was fairly easy to find.

The world’s slowest (and most expensive) taxi driver took us to and from dinner for a full moon pig roast at Miss Lucy’s midweek, under the full moon that brightened our nights all week.

Moonlit nights were delicious. We had perfect weather all week (with a brief daily shower that spawned rainbows, and some rain at night), and the weather, open walls and comfortable bedding induced good nights of sleep. At home, I’ve been sleeping with a white noise app (set on “peepers”); here, I had the real thing: tree frogs, soft surf, and wind whispering through the lush vegetation. Every now and then, a strong waft of jasmine added to the dreaminess.

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The remote location of the villa was mostly a blessing for me. But it came with challenges. Though I had the best of intentions to kayak daily, there was NO WAY that kayak was going to make it down from the house to the bay. Unburdened, it was a steep hike down to the water’s edge, first by a wooden staircase, and then by a well-groomed track that had rope handholds. Water shoes were a must, because the shore at our landing was rocky and slick.

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The steep stairs down to Haulover Bay (above).  Meanwhile, Rick builds one of his trademark cairns at water’s edge.

Rick reported that the snorkeling in our largely undisturbed bay was excellent; far better than at the famous Trunk Bay snorkel trail. However, there would be no paddling in our bay for me.

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As well, the famous north shore beaches on St. John were a 30-minute drive for us. So regardless of how tempting it might have been to loll around in bed all day and watching the passing boat traffic from bed, we pushed ourselves out of bed to optimize beach time. Still, this was a leisurely schedule for me. I’m usually at my desk by 6:45 in the morning; here, we “forced” ourselves out the door by 9.

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More to come….

Gotta Split; I’ve Got Tickets to Wimbledon!

Wimbledon.  That holiest of holies.  I was enthralled by it before I ever even picked up a racquet.  And once I became a tennis player, it became even more attractive.  It is what the Louvre is to art lovers; the America’s Cup to sailors.  Loaded with history and tradition and pomp and pageantry, it has remained a constant in an ever-changing game.

Attending all four of tennis’ major tournaments (U.S. Open, Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon) wasn’t a particular goal of mine until I decided that I wanted to go to Wimbledon for my 40th birthday, after having been to the U.S. Open several times (New York being an easy trip for us).  As it turned out, getting to the Australian Open in 2005 turned out to be more do-able than Wimbledon, mostly because of the expense.  Wimbledon would have to be put off for a while, if only to wrap our brain around the cost of obtaining guaranteed tickets (as opposed to flying across the Atlantic, queueing up and maybe getting in).  But with two down, and Wimbledon on the horizon, we decided to tag a trip to Paris and Roland Garros on to our barge trip last spring.  If all went according to plan, I would complete my spectator Grand Slam before my 50th birthday.

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At the US Open, the Australian Open, and Roland Garros.

Wimbledon was the raison d’etre of our trip to Europe this summer.  And once we’d committed to going to Europe, adding another dream trip of mine – sailing in Croatia – was an easy decision.  Having finished our sail and saying goodbye to Pat and Emily, who would luxuriate for a few more days at a beach resort, we spent a day in the historic city of Split before flying back to London for the main event.

Much of Split is an everyday business/industrial/port city.  But the old core of the city, where we stayed in the boutique Marmont Hotel, is extraordinary.

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Once we finally figured out how to get there, the Hotel Marmont was easy to find by looking for the red wall.

Perched along the Adriatic Sea, Split’s city center is a palace and military garrison built by Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century.

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Living spaces, hotels, shops (including the curiously omnipresent opticians’ shops), restaurants, churches, and bars are woven in and among the ruins of the palace.  It makes for a stunningly lovely scene, an oddly harmonious juxtaposition of past and present along the water.

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Like the rest of Croatia’s ancient towns that we visited, the narrow alleys and passages are NOT car friendly.

After flying back to London from Split via Zagreb, we said our farewells to Skip and Harriet.

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Hey guys!  What’s our next adventure?

And we settled into our hotel in Mayfair.

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Our hotel, the Athenaeum, had one of those cool “living walls.”

We used our convenient perch on Piccadilly Street to undertake more exploration of London on foot.

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Finally, on our last full day in London, we headed to Wimbledon, to enjoy the first day, via tube.  We were not alone, as there were crowds of people making their way to the grounds.  Luckily, we had upped our style game a bit – I was wearing a skirt and jacket – because people dress up for Wimbledon.  We saw many young women fully decked out in dresses or skirts with jackets, heels and – yes, most surprisingly because it was warm and sunny – panty hose (the Kate Middleton Effect?); many men wore blazers and ties.  This is the reverence this event seems to require.

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We made it!

One of Wimbledon’s traditions is that the prior year’s champion always plays on Centre Court on the first day.  Thus, by purchasing Day 1 tickets, we were guaranteed to see Novak Djokovic play.  And, he played masterfully, presaging the play that would win him the title this year.

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As a bonus, we also got to see former champion Maria Sharapova play.

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Aside from seeing some of the biggest names in the game on court, we gawked at the royal box (didn’t recognize anyone) and the players’ box (yes, that was Boris Becker), and marveled at the beauty and perfection of the lawn and the grounds.  As we wandered the grounds, we bumped into a few players leaving or going to their courts (Jelena Jankovic, Urszula Radwanska), as well as legends of the game (Mats Wilander).

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We had Pimm’s Cups, as one does.  The flowers on the grounds all hew to the Wimbledon color scheme of purple and green (as does the afghan I took to college, but that’s another story).

Now that I’ve completed my personal Grand Slam, I need to start plotting what’s next….

Pretty. Oh So Pretty: Croatia and England 2015

One of the reasons I love to travel is that it’s a feast for the senses, especially sight.  It’s not that I live somewhere ugly.  To the contrary.  Maryland is lovely – especially in the spring – and the Chesapeake Bay offers a beauty that is at turns calming and exhilarating.  But travel gives a change of scenery, and provides different kinds of pretty to gawk at.

And once we arrived in London on a Wednesday morning, it didn’t take us long to revive ourselves after quick naps to help ease the jet lag.  We were sharing a 2-bedroom apartment on Baker Street in the Marleybone section of London with Skip and Harriet, and were just a few blocks from Regent’s Park.  After a pub lunch, we lost ourselves in the park, among the acres and acres of flowers that comprised the Queen’s rose garden.

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There is indeed a benefit to those drizzly days in England, though we were lucky with weather during our stay.

During our stay in London, Rick and I and Skip and Harriet took a guided gastronomical walking tour.  We started at Fortnum and Mason, a department store holding royal warrants and known for its decadent food hall.  The lower floors, with their glass cases, formally dressed staff, and chandeliers looked like a jewelry store, but on offer were gemlike sweets and preserved fruit.

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After our walking tour, we came back to Fortnum & Mason to buy dinner supplies.  If dollars equaled pounds, it wouldn’t have been too expensive.

We walked all over London, sampling microbrews (our guide had a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on beer!), drinking chocolate, and cheese.

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We immersed ourselves in the delectable smells of Chinatown and the funky offerings of Soho (one purveyor of services offered a “Back, Crack and Sack” wax on a huge sign in its window.  Ouch!)  We made it to Pall Mall and St. James Square, Jermyn Street and Covent Garden.  Once on our own, we walked along the Thames near Big Ben, Whitehall, Westminster and St. James Park.  The city showed off its splendor in the perfect weather.

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Croatia would not be outdone.  Never having spent any time in the Mediterranean before, I didn’t know what to expect.  But like every other place I’ve ever been, it has comparables.  At times, the bold craggy shores, deep icy waters, and pine trees made me think of the Maine coast.  At others, the red roofs and palm trees made me think of St. Barth.  Almost always, my point of reference is North America, because that’s where I come from.

The first village we wandered around was the petite port of Maslinica on the island of Šolta, surrounding a tiny fjord-like bay, and holding anything we might need until our next port.  White stone buildings with red-tile roofs, a café or two, a small hotel, marina, and a Studenac market (not much bigger than the stores in the Bahamas Out Islands, but much better stocked).

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Tiny Maslinica is home to fewer than 300 people.

No less pretty was the village of Bobovišća on the island of Brač.  If anything, it is smaller than Maslinica.

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By our second day of sailing, we were catching on to the fact that Croatia is NOT a beach destination – at least not as we know beaches.  Here, any slab of rock or shingle, or even poured cement, that is relatively flat and provides access to the water counts.  Some have showers installed.  Many have ladders, because the entry into the water is generally not gradual.

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These pass for beaches….

Where there is gradual access to the water, and/or the rocks are more pebbly (though far coarser than what we think of as sand) you have a bona fide tourist attraction.  And it is likely to be crowded with people, chair-to-chair.

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A crowded beach in the Pakleni islands.

Spoiled by the Caribbean, I didn’t expect much, so I wasn’t too disappointed.  As it turned out, on the 3 occasions when we stopped for lunch and swimming, the waters were too cold for much more than quick dips.  After all, we were somewhat north of 43 degrees – the equivalent of New Hampshire or Maine (or Oregon) – not exactly ideally balmy waters in June.

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Our first chilling swim was off this pristine shore.

After all of these tiny villages, it was time for the “big cities” on the island of Hvar.  Hvar town (pop. 3,672), across the channel from Palmižana, is easily one of the most popular destinations in the Dalmatian islands, judging by the number of nightclubs, restaurants and – for some reason – opticians’ shops (everyone needs designer prescription shades?).

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The waterfront promenade in Hvar has everything a visitor could want.

But more beguiling, by far, is Stari Grad (pop. 2,817) on the opposite side of the island.  The name “Stari Grad” means Old Town, and they weren’t kidding when they named it.  Its origins go back to at least 3500 BC.  Most of the buildings are constructed from an creamy white stone indigenous to the area, much of it worn so smooth over centuries of use that the streets and squares are dangerous to traverse when wet.  (Parts of the White House were built using Croatian stone, from the island of Brač.)

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Beautiful Stari Grad.

As if that wasn’t enough, from Stari Grad Roko took us to another local restaurant.  An open-air affair up in the mountains of Hvar, Konoba Vrisnik offers a classic Croatian dish – PEKA – to those who know to pre-order it.  It takes 2 hours to prepare in a metal pan on an open hearth, covered by a metal bell under hot ashes.  The slow-cooked lamb and octopus we’d ordered were perfection.

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Octopus peka.

Our last night before heading back to the Sunsail marina was in the village of Stomorska.  The pretty village has a full-time population of about 250 souls, but most of the houses here are vacation homes.

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Day and night in Stomorska.

The visitors – mostly European – give the cafés, bars and restaurants a lively vibe.  And though they stay up well past dark, the atmosphere is festive and convivial, not clubby.  We were delighted with the pizza we had for dinner (Croatia is known for it, being as close to Italy as it is, and making its own wonderful cheeses and other toppings).  One of the best (relatively speaking) beaches in the region is on the edge of town.

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The only reason this pebbly beach wasn’t mobbed was because it was early in the morning.

Having completed our limited circuit of these islands, we didn’t find a single spot that wasn’t gorgeous.

More to come.

It’s All Relative: Croatia and England 2015

It’s All Relative – England/Croatia 2015

Mine and Rick’s first foreign trip together was our honeymoon in St. Maarten.  One night, we ventured over to an old-school restaurant, claiming a romantic table on a balcony overlooking Marigot harbor on the French side of the island.  At the end of our dinner, we were presented with a check of 665.  Both of us gulped hard, and worried that our credit limits might not accommodate that total.  Thankfully, it dawned on us that the tab was in Francs, and we could divide by 6 to approximate our total in dollars.  Whew!

A few weeks ago, a similar calculus was at work.  It was the first night of a sailing charter in the Adriatic Sea among the many islands off the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia with our friends Skip and Harriet, and Pat and Emily.  We moored along a rocky shore off the island of Šolta, bobbing in crystalline deep green waters in Šešula bay

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Crystal clear green waters and craggy shores along Šešula bay and the restaurant where we enjoyed dinner.

The price for the mooring was having dinner at the adjacent restaurant, Konoba Šešula.  Our local captain, Roko, told us the restaurant was “OK.”  Well, it was more than OK to me.  Any place that lets me choose my fish from among the days catch is much better than OK.  We dined Mediterranean-style on the scary-looking but deliciously grilled scorpion fish and local produce and bread, and quaffed many a bottle of Croatian wine.

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Yes, we did name this fish — over 2 kg. deserves his own identity.

The toll at the end of the evening was 1800.  Kuna that is.  (Croatia is in the European Union, but has not adopted the Euro currency.)  With an exchange rate similar to that of Franc to the Dollar on our honeymoon, we divided by 6 and discovered we’d feasted for a very modest $300 for 7 of us.

And so it was for the rest of our week among the islands of Šolta, Brač, Hvar and its satellites the Pakleni Islands (islets, more like).  Roko took us somewhere wonderful and we paid a reasonable price for it (after dividing by 6).  In the town of Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar, we got 3 liters of decent white wine, poured from a barrel into empty water bottles, for a mere 60 Kuna (less than $10).

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It may not be pretty or classy, but it was good wine.

Initially, we weren’t too thrilled with the idea of having a skipper.  We’ve got a lot of nautical miles under our keels and a lot of experience chartering boats, even ones bigger than the 44 foot catamaran we’d chosen from Sunsail’s fleet.  But sailing in the Adriatic requires a license which none of us has, and we weren’t inclined to scramble to get and pay for one.  Ultimately, having a captain was good value.  He managed the tricky business of mooring [See Moondance’s Blog ].  He did the Croatian speaking for us (despite our game attempts to learn a few words, and despite the Croatians’ excellent English, it was a great help to have a native speaker among our crew).  And he took us to places we wouldn’t otherwise have found.

Case in point was our second night.  Roko had arranged for us to have dinner in a beautiful setting near the village of Dračevica on the island of Brač.  After a taxi ride inland and way uphill, we were ushered through to a terraced villa overlooking cultivated fields.  At a wooden table under a spreading tree, we – and no other guests – shared a locally-sourced meal of grappa, local vegetables and ham, spit-roasted lamb, and dessert cheeses.  And lots of local wine.  It felt like a scene from a movie, or from a travel program.

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A beautiful setting with delicious local food.

A priceless experience, at a reasonable price.

If Croatia had us dividing by 6, the days we spent in London before and after our Croatia sail had us doing the opposite.  As sailors, we cope with the inflated price of all things “marine” by calculating them in “Boat Units” – the value of a Unit varying with the size and complexity of your boat.  It’s less painful to say that a new mainsail will set you back 10 Units than the actual price.  Given that London is a notoriously expensive city, I simply let my brain assume that a British pound was the equivalent of a US Dollar.

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Unlike our experiences in Croatia, where the modest price of top-notch experiences allowed us the best of everything, most of the pleasures we experienced in London were more moderate.  Pub lunches and bistro dinners away from the glittering thoroughfares of swanky London.  Walking around until our feet ached, and taking public transportation, instead of taxis.  By no means did it lessen our experience; it merely lessened the load on our credit cards!

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Rick and Harriet enjoying a pint in a pub.

All of that walking in London confirmed to us, once again, how much more compact and congested Europe is than the US.  When we have chartered in the Caribbean, one of the running jokes is that you can easily tell North Americans from Europeans by how close they anchor.  They clearly have a different sense of space than Americans, accustomed as they are to close quarters in the homes and on their roads.  This became more than abundantly clear during our Croatian sail.

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Narrow streets like these in Hvar Town and Stari Grad remind us how accustomed Europeans are to tight quarters.

Our first night at Šešula was merely a pre-cursor, with a dozen or so boats moored stern-to the shore, separated only by fenders.  Roko had told us that the first night is usually quite crowded, since most charters in the region start on Saturday and can only get so far from the base, there are a handful of destinations where everyone gathers.

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Perhaps our catamaran Jams was aptly named; it got jammed into a lot of tight spots, like this one in Šešula.

This did not prepare us for the next night, which was even more of an awakening.  We’d headed to the Palmižana marina across a channel from one of the prime destinations in the Dalmatian Islands – the town of Hvar.

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Scenic Hvar Town.

Consisting of basically 3 docks, Palmižana’s marina accommodates 180 (!) boats.  The boats are tied stern-to the dock, and wedged in using K-Y and a shoehorn (OK, exaggerating; but only a little).

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Roko watches carefully, but without alarm, as boats anchor close to ours at a popular swimming spot.

Once the dock was full, we were no more than a fender’s width away from our neighbors.  When cruising in the Bahamas, we’d probably have made plans for happy hour together.  In the US or the Caribbean, we’d at least introduce ourselves and find out a little bit about each other.  In Croatia, the practice seems to be to put blinders on and benignly ignore neighbors.  And yes, close the shades in the head and cabins so as to avoid unintended exposure (not that Europeans seem to mind, judging from the prevalence of tight Speedo swim trunks and bikinis, regardless of the wearer’s physique).

Just to add more to the festivities, we were sharing the marina with a flotilla of about 50 boats carrying 20-somethings of all nationalities engaging an annual event called Yacht Week.  It’s a series of week-long trips throwing together both friends and strangers aboard yachts for a week of port-to-port partying (if one of the destinations’ names being “Carpe Diem Beach” is any indication, it sounds dangerously fun).  So Palmižana was full of shrieking, braying, hooting, laughing, howling, and throwing each other in the water.  What I want to know is: where was this when I was a 20-something?  And how could I have gotten my parents to pay for it?

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Fun at Yacht Week.  How come I never got to do this?

Even after the Yacht Week flotilla moved to bays where we wouldn’t be, the bays were full of boats.  Luckily, Captain Roko knew where to go, whom to call, and how to get us situated at a quay or mooring that would keep us from the fate that befell other charterers, puttering around looking for somewhere safe to tie up, or tied to a tree or rock onshore and suffering a miserable night rolling at anchor and wondering if it would hold.

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Amazingly, the high season had yet to begin, so heavier crowds could be expected in a few weeks.  For me and Rick, who typically seek solitude, this was very different kind of trip.  We learned very quickly that even though not many North Americans knew much about sailing in Croatia, it has most definitely been discovered.

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The season has yet to begin, but Split is busy and vibrant.

More to come.

The Gory Details: SXM and NEV

This post will appeal only to those who like to know the minutiae of an island trip, but here it is:

Travel:

To SXM: American Airlines from BWI to MIA, and MIA to SXM — flights on time and without mishap (other than being at an ungodly early hour).

To NEV: Winair from SXM to NEV — flight delayed about 1 hour, at least partly attributable to heavy rain, but even being late, we were in NEV at 8:30 in the morning.  On the plus side, arriving at a tiny airport as 2 of a handful of arriving passengers is very convenient.  But the customs agent was more thorough than usual.  Once through, we were shuttled to Nisbet Plantation.

To BWI:  Taxi from Nisbet Plantation to Oualie Beach.  Private water taxi (with fully stocked cooler, if you need a Carib to get you through the 10-minute ride) from Oualie Beach to Cockleshell Beach (aka Reggae Beach) on St. Kitts.  Taxi from Cockleshell Beach to SKB.  American Airlines from SKB to MIA, and MIA to BWI.  Notwithstanding the many steps in this part of the journey, it was remarkably smooth.  Except for the fact that you have to walk from the terminal across the tarmac up the stairs to reach the plane.  Not a problem unless you get a torrential downpour and the thoughtless jerk in the first row of first class parks himself in the aisle to stow all of his stuff while everyone else waits in the rain…

Lodgings:

On St. Martin, Le Petit Hotel in Grand Case.

On Nevis, Nisbet Plantation.

Rental Cars:

SXM: I’d originally booked with Kenny’s (Lesley Bruce), but his wife was temporarily in charge due to his illness and had overbooked.  So they sent us to Payless, which honored the rate.  Payless was fine, but a little less convenient because you have to ride to their off-airport location to pick up the car.

NEV: We used Parry’s, arranged for us by Nisbet Plantation.

Eating Out:

SXM:

Francis Bar in Marigot

Bistrot Caraibes, Ocean 82 and L’Escapade in Grand Case

Sky’s the Limit and Au Coin des Amies lolos in Grand Case

NEV:

Nisbet Plantation for all breakfasts and dinners (different dinner menu every night)

Golden Rock Plantation, Sunshine’s, Yachtsmens Grill and Bananas for lunches

Customs and Immigration at MIA:

There is a new procedure for clearing in to the US at MIA.  After walking about 12 miles through MIA (or you can take the SkyTrain), you go to self-service kiosks and scan your passport.  The kiosk will spit out a receipt, and if anyone’s in your party has a photo with an X through it, you have to go to secondary screening.  (Someone very very bad must share Rick’s name, because he got the X, and got the same stink-eyed scrutiny we always get when entering the US.)  Then the usual bag claiming rigamarole — which, I believe, Florida law requires: load 4-7 bags from the arriving flight on the carousel to get the passengers all excited that the bags are coming, then wait at least 27 minutes before loading the rest on.  Then customs, bag re-check, security (again), and on to departure gates.

Finally, Because You Really Can’t Get Enough Of It:

Julie’s ant-bitten foot.

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