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