Hello Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Florida, for that matter.
We decided to use some Marriott points and spend 4 nights at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef resort on St Thomas before we head over to Tortola to hop on the boat. This gives us plenty of time to explore all of St Thomas and to make a day trip over to St. John to determine if it’s worth a return trip in the future.
St Thomas is a study in contrasts. Magen’s Bay on the north side of the island was rated as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world by National Geographic, while the southeast side of the island from Charlotte Amalie to Red Hook is dreadfully ugly from the cruise ship-infested port to the backside of the island’s infrastructure.
We had arranged to pick up a car from Avis when we arrived at the airport, and it turned out to be a great decision. The Marriott is its own little oasis, and nothing is within walking distance. This also allowed us to explore the island at our own pace, seeing just the things that interested us the most and fit into our timeframe. The little Ford Focus that Avis provided had only a few miles on it when we laid our hands on it, and was almost ready for the scrap heap by the time we were done – from roads rutted bad enough to shake your dental work loose to hills so steep that the tires would just spin (on pavement!) rather than climb.
Once we settled in, we made a quick detour to the local KMart and Pueblo grocery store for food and supplies. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was $18 each! Multiply that by 4 days = $144, and suddenly our usual method of heating water in the coffee pot to make oatmeal looks like a really great idea.
Thursday morning and no definite plans for the day. Coffee pot oatmeal, coffee at a barista between Frenchman’s Reef and Red Hook,
and a day spent exploring – Magen’s Bay, Drake’s Seat, the north side of the island, stopping frequently for photo opportunities.
When the car couldn’t go any farther, we’d get out and walk to the edges as far as possible. Beautiful panoramic views, waves thundering onto the rocks, certainly not the usual tourist stops. Cap it off with some panoramic views from the "World Famous" Mountain Top and then dinner at Iggies on the beach and call it a night.
Friday morning – big plans to hop on the car ferry and spend the day on St John. I really should create a separate blog post for the day titled "The Stay-Left Roller Coaster Ride", as the roads were all tight, hilly, and as on the rest of the Virgin Islands, you drive on the left side of the road. I had no trouble acclimating to driving on the left, the big problem was remembering which way to look for traffic when walking across a road!
60% of the island is a U.S. National Park, and this certainly helps in retaining the island’s natural beauty by eliminating further development. There is abundant feral wildlife – donkeys, goats, pigs, deer, chickens, and we saw all of them running loose at one point or another during the day.
The ferries from Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas drop you in Cruz Bay on the west end of St John. It’s very much a touristy area filled with the typical kitsch, and it’s disappointing to think that a lot of visitors never make it out of this area and experience the real St John.
90 seconds by car, and Cruz Bay is quickly forgotten, with the shops giving way to miles of wonderfully paved roads, lush greenery, and breathtaking views.
Our first stop was Hawksnest Beach, and it truly set the stage for the rest of the island. Gorgeous white sand, turqouise water, it is just like stepping right into a postcard. We followed route 20 along the north side of the island to see Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, and the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins (although we didn’t pay to go in).
East End road runs out to the east end (crazy eh?) of the island, and it’s a twisty hilly narrow stretch of pavement that is great fun in a rental car. The folks who live way out here consider themselves frontiersmen much like the early Americans heading west, and they truly are isolated from the rest of the world with one small market to service most of their needs. This island doesn’t see nearly as many tourists as St. Thomas, and this side of the island sees even fewer of those who do visit. There is definitely a small town, community, everybody-knows-everybody feel here.
We hiked the brutal 2 miles into the petroglyphs and back with only a single water bottle – better planning next time! The trail passes many sugar mill and stone farmhouse ruins left from Danish settlers who had farmed the land heavily through slave labor until slavery was abolished in 1848. The petroglyphs themselves aren’t much to see, but it’s an interesting bit of history and nice to see if you’re up for the hike.
Our final stop to snorkel at Cinnamon Bay was cut short because of poor visibility due to surf action. Early ferry back to St Thomas and a wonderful Greek pizza at an outdoor restaurant in Red Hook overlooking the marina before turning in early.
Saturday morning – We got up with the alarm so we could beat the cruise crowd to 99 steps. Little did we realize there is no cruise crowd on Saturday! And, after yesterday’s strenuous hike through the woods, 99 steps was a bit anticlimactic.
Since we had such an early start to the day, we had the next stop all to ourselves, too – Paradise Point. It’s where the sky tram takes tourists, and home of the "world famous" Baileys Bush Whacker. At 9 a.m. the tram was just warming up and it was us and the employees. It was like having an amusement park all to ourselves! The views were definitely worth the price of admission (free), and we enjoyed a quick dance on the open platform that has surely seen a number of weddings.
With Jim as driver and me as navigator, we set out for the only part of the island left unexplored – the west side. There were two roads on the map, and one with road signs (Route 318) that were nothing but dirt! We followed the first one with a goal of reaching the water until it got too steep for Jim’s comfort (and well past mine). We turned around and tried the next "road", a long winding dirt path that sometimes felt like it was heading towards the water. There were several abandoned vehicles alongside the road and other collections of trash and debris. Occasionally we’d drive by something that looked like a shanty or homeless person’s lean-to, but why would they live so far out? About the time Jim said, "I just hope this isn’t where the drug dealers hang out", we drove by some rocks that had graffiti. A chill ran through me as I wondered if those were gang markings? But, we continued on until we again got to a point in the road beyond Jim’s comfort and faith in the rented Ford Focus, so we turned around and headed for a paved road. I laugh when I recall me trying to help Jim as he drove in reverse across a very narrow pass looking for a turnaround point. I was nervous he was getting a little too close to the edge, "Now might be a good time for you to look forward", he calmly said.
Whew! What relief to see that road! It’s interesting how this side of the island is so different from the port area and the east or north side. There are some nice homes here, but also homes that look like they would be a lower income neighborhood – only they are at the top of the mountain overlooking turquoise water. Very interesting mix. Not much for stores, shops, markets on this side either – clearly the typical tourist doesn’t make it this far.
With just a couple hours left on the rental car meter, we decided to try a restaurant we drove by a couple days ago. Since our GPS aims for only the most direct routes regardless of neighborhood, we ended up driving through a very questionable neighborhood and definitely one I would not be comfortable driving in at night. An older white woman with long gray dreadlocks stopped us in the road. Apparently they are doing something in the road ahead so we have to turn around. She’s definitely not from here. Maybe Boston? It’s hard to tell with the Caribbean lilt thrown in there. I wonder how long she’s been here? I wonder what her family thinks of her being here. And does she live in this neighborhood?!
Our intended restaurant was closed until dinner, so we headed back down the mountain for lunch at the Shipwreck Tavern.
Fortuitously, there was an Avis office steps from that restaurant so we were able to drop the car without having to return to the airport. Sweet. The rest of the day we had earmarked for lounging on the beach, so Jim played with his snorkel and I played with the Kindle. We had two very cold beers left, so we enjoyed those from the beach watching the sunset, followed by a soak in the hot tub.
Potholes on both islands are incredible – some four inches deep! There are some nice stretches of smooth paved road – and they’re unusual when you run across them. In general, we found local drivers to be courteous especially considering the volumes of tourists who pass through here. We also observed they generally seem to be happy people here, friendly not only with us but as we watched them engage with each other, too. Life is good.
Time to pack up and ready ourselves for tomorrow’s adventure – Tortola!
Clicking this map will take you to a Bing Map collection with photos that are geotagged with GPS information. Not only can you see the photo, you can see exactly where it was taken!