Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas (STT) by plane can, on a good day, put you at the downtown (STT) ferry dock, awaiting one of the ferries for Tortola in about, oh say, maybe 8.5 hours – not counting the drive to the ATL airport or the 15 min taxi ride from the airport to the ferry dock. But, it’s the full moon in May, 2006, the Saturday afternoon sun is bright, a steady breeze blows dust and dirt along the streets of St. Thomas and ruffles the amazingly blue and clear waters surrounding Charlotte Amalie.
We are already, in our minds, on Tortola, sipping a cold something and watching the sun set from the outer edges of the Banakeet restaurant at the Heritage Inn – our home for the next 7 days or so. It will be a short, adventurous, pleasant, and somewhat painful stay. But first, the hour ferry ride over to Tortola, which gives us plenty of time to slowly get into limin’ mode, which is slang for, well, limin’. Think of it. A lime. A drink. Sittin’ in the shade on a breezy beach – limin’.
Clearing customs in any port is no joy but the standard operating procedure at West End, Tortola, treated us gently, and so we made our way out of the breezeway and into the sweltering sun to ask around for Denzyl Clyne, who showed up, as agreed, to take us 2 minutes down the shore road to his car rental shack, where we yakked with other eager vacationers doing the same paperwork drill to secure the must-have 4WD jeep capable of negotiating the steep, winding, treacherous hills and switchbacks of this 59 sq. mile chunk of the British Virgin islands.
Tortola is located some 90 miles east of Puerto Rico, a stone’s throw from the USVI’s St. John and a world away from the stress of work, household upkeep, lawn chores and other bothers. Officially, some 22,000 humans call the island home, about 2/3 of them living in and around the capital and seat of commerce, Road Town, which we steered clear of as we went up, up, up and over and down, down, down one of what would be many “hills”, to cross to the side of the island where the tourists tend to congregate.
Driving along the North Coast Road (a fairly flat section), we enjoyed the water views, the pelicans and frigate birds wheeling, flapping and, in the pelicans’ case, diving. The driver, Lynn, managed to negotiate narrow streets, parked cars, stopped cars, chickens and the odd goat and wandering pedestrian with aplomb, while driving on the left of the skinny road. Luckily, driving on the left is like riding a bicycle, (for those who have done it before, I should say) – although here it’s not recommended one falls off – it can be a very long, very direct way down to sea level.
Soon, it was time to shift back into 4WD and head way up, up and winding and up and switchback (4 of them, keep count) and here we are, home for the next week. Park the jeep and walk toward the edge of that precipice just under the Tamarind tree and, oh my gosh. Look at that view. From over 400 feet up, on this breezy hill, where you can smell the salt sea air, the loamy soil, green growing things and the singular tart odor that always reminds me of the jungles of Mexico and Belize. The islands to the north are clearly etched against a soft, dusty blue sea way below. Boats sailing between us and the nearby island of Jost Van Dyke make tiny white scratches on the surface of that incredibly blue Caribbean Sea. I don’t have enough names for the different hues of blue I’ve seen these waters reflect – it’s been a few years since I’ve been in this section of the Caribbean and I’m almost overwhelmed again by the intensity of the sight and my reaction to it. Or maybe I just need a pina colada. Time to unpack and head for the bar of the Banakeet!
The sunset was awesome, the food and drinks at the Banakeet lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. The room at the Heritage Inn was rather small, cramped really, but we didn’t spend much time in there – well, except for the days it poured rain and threatened to wash the place off the mountain. Speaking of which, Sage Mountain, the highest point on the island at over 1,700 feet rose directly behind the Heritage Inn. The peak was often shrouded in mist and light rain during our stay, except for the one day we managed to hike the trails in the Mt. Sage Nat’l Park. It was dark and cool under the canopy of huge fig trees and other, rampant growth. Birdcalls surrounded us as we trekked through the jungle-like greenery- it was a tiny piece of rain forest on an otherwise rather arid island that boasts mostly cactus, succulents and other moisture-hungry plants.
During our stay we drove to various beaches, discovering chilly waters and interesting snorkeling at Brewer’s Bay, as well as a delicious meal at Nichol’s beachside grill there. At Brewer’s Bay, cattle were resting in the deep shade of the sea grapes well above the high water mark and chickens pecked through the leaf litter. A small village of tarps sagged in the deep gloom of the shade. More like a hobo camp than party destination, the place was abandoned (except for the cows and chickens) and gave me the willies as I curiously poked around.
Another scenic and out of the way beach is Smuggler’s Cove, way down at the west end of the island. Negotiating the very rough and steep track is made worthwhile when you arrive – no real facilities here but you can buy a t-shirt or sarong from the ad-hoc beach vendor or even get a frozen drink, mixed to your specs with the assistance of a car battery.
One night’s dinner at Myett’s in Cane Garden Bay, the main tourist center on the north side of the island, gave us reason to avoid the place and try Coco Plums in Carrot Bay- a much tastier proposition. In spite of the resident and voracious no-see-ums that hang out at Coco Plums, we ate there several times and came away delighted with the quality of the food, service and atmosphere. Funky place, great prices, decent service and the seared pan mushrooms were a much-anticipated appetizer! Just don’t hit that big fig tree when you go to back out into the street…
Early in the week we caught the 8am ferry for a 20-minute ride over to nearby Jost Van Dyke island. Frequent Caribbean travelers know that early morning ferries are mostly peopled with workers, and so we weren’t surprised to discover no taxis waiting at the other end to take us across a steep hill to White Bay, a well-known gorgeous beach area with a string of bars and small boutiques along the white sands. So we grabbed our stuff and hiked into town, which we could see just around the curve of the harbor. Found a taxi driver awake and secured a quick trip over to Ivan’s on White Bay, where we set up camp for the morning under the shade of yet more sea grapes. A handful of sailboats, mostly 40+ foot catamaran’s, rode anchor or mooring balls on the beautiful, crystal clear water, providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
After swimming and limin’ for a coupla hours, we hiked down the beach and around a pointy-and-jagged ironshore headland with the aid of a slippery goat trail. We stumbled, sweaty and hot from our trek, down the soft beach sand to the famous Soggy Dollar bar. Party boats had made their way to anchor just off-shore by then and a crowd of rowdy high school kids were raising a ruckus, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a delicious lunch, a couple of pain killers, a couple of beers, and taking pictures.
Dinah used her Blackberry to call back over to our hostess Rosa at the Heritage Inn to follow up on arrangements for a sail/snorkel day trip for the morrow- all was set!
Wednesday (the morrow), we were up and at ‘em early to drive back down the North Coast Road, through Carrot Bay and around Apple Bay, across the mountain on Zion Hill Rd., shifting out of 4WD again and tooling over to Soper’s Hole in West End, the yachting mecca and upscale shopping area catering to folks with a lot more money than sense. Just kidding- Soper’s Hole is scenic and justifiably famous for something or other. Lotsa slips at the marina, anyway. One of them hosted our skipper Robin’s catamaran Kuralu.
After a bite of breakfast at the little Pisces restaurant, we joined 4 other folks on board Kuralu for a terrific day of sailing, snorkeling and enjoying the company of our skipper, his hunky son Tom, Kaley-the-wonder-dog and fellow passengers. Just enough wind to push us along, so off we tacked to the Indians, some tall rocks sticking up out of the ocean bottom, swarming with more soft corals and fish life than I’ve seen for years, outside of the reef off Ambergris Caye in Belize. Cool water didn’t keep us away from almost an hour communing with the fishies – I was in heaven. Snorkeling the Indians was just like snorkeling a wall, except one could move from one wall to another. Depth to the sand was approx. 40-50 feet and lotsa sun shining down lit everything up beautifully.
This stop proved to be the highlight of this snorkel trip and provided a potent visual that is indelibly etched into my memory. One of those magical moments unfolded, simply out of nowhere, when I swam around one of the rocky outcrops and encountered a huge school of silversides. Thousands of 4-6″ long fish formed a large ball, approximately the size of a car, creating a dazzling, shimmering display in the rays of sunlight spearing the blue water. As I swam toward the ball, it parted just wide enough to let me into the center, and then the gap closed behind me. I found myself in the core of a solid vertical tunnel of fish that stretched from a foot below the ocean’s surface down to the sandy bottom below. I held my breath as long as I could and slowly corkscrewed toward the surface, mesmerized by the fishy envelope around me.
I lost track of time, but likely only enjoyed a few minutes of this amazing swim before the fish shoal moved out into open water, leaving me behind, where I floated, dazed and grinning from ear-to-ear.
Back aboard Kuralu and drying off, we were entertained by Kaley, who would leap off the stern with a big SPLASH and swim like mad to fetch the Frisbee that Tom tossed overboard. Once Kaley had it in her mouth, she’d turn around, swim back to the stern and board the boat using the swim ladder! Truly a wonder-dog!
The cobalt blue of the ocean slipped astern as we headed over to anchor off Norman island for a fantastic lunch aboard Kuralu and some desultory snorkeling in a somewhat brisk current over mostly boring, half dead and fishless reef. That swim didn’t last long, although the two nubile sisters from Miami Beach did spot a turtle. Darn, we missed it.
The sisters got to show off a bit more skin than previously displayed around their miniscule “swim suits” when we headed around the corner to another bay, where the infamous “pirate ship” (think Disney with rust stains), the “Willy-T” lay at permanent anchor in an almost pristine setting of soaring green hills.
The old scow of a boat was anchored in about 40 feet of crystal clear water over a white sand bottom, with a few, long and dark shadows lurking just under the surface in the shade of the boat. I thought the fish were Jacks. I’m sure they and other critters are accustomed to eating anything that falls or is tossed off that boat.
Anyway, the thing is, if one jumps off the upper deck of the ship into the water some 30 feet below, er, naked, one Gets The T-Shirt. Of course the girls went for it.
A few fellas were hangin’ at the bar and happy to provide an appreciative audience. The girls were concerned that the impact of hitting the water might damage the investment they had in their superstructures, but a self-entitled “surgeon” who claimed he had “done a million of them” (I doubt he meant jumps) suggested the girls might hold onto their attributes tightly as they struck the water. Some fellas thought this was bad advice, as it might ruin the view. The women all encouraged the girls to protect their investments. I was given the task of capturing the seminal leap, using their digital camera, which I managed to do, quite to their satisfaction. They decided that was one shot they weren’t going to share with Dad and StepMom…
Post-leap and the donning of “swim suits” in the pellucid waters, we all (Kaley included) piled into the dingy for a quick run back to Kuralu and headed back to port, where the beginning of what was to be a day and 2 nights of torrential rainfall awaited us.
The Big Rains caught us at breakfast at Rhymer’s down in Cane Garden Bay the next morning. Like the 15 or so other patrons, we were stuck there for well over 2 hours, with no letup in sight. Finally, we headed out in the rain to the Suzuki and carefully made our way toward the Heritage Inn, crossing the bridge over a “ghut” (large gully that drains water from the steep hills around) that was filling faster than it could drain into the bay.
Half way up the first of several steep hills, we could go no further – the road in front of us was awash with fast-flowing, muddy water with boulders and rocks tumbling along, easily as deep as the tires on the Suzuki. Turning around, we were stymied when arriving back at the bridge over the ghut – the bridge was under water and there we sat, waiting for the water level to drop. It was about an hour later that the rains let up and we slowly picked our way past rocks, boulders, holes in the road and hillsides washed onto the roadway, to arrive back at our room.
At some point I managed to slip on wet tiles on the stairs to our room and damaged my leg rather severely, which laid me up with ice and Ibuprofen for an evening or two, but didn’t keep me from snorkeling and, luckily, had no direct affect on the articulation of either elbow.
Our last full day we drove down (up?) the island, getting lost along the way and finally found Lambert Bay – a very scenic place with the added attraction of Lambert’s Resort. We hung out on the resort’s beach loungers, which allowed us to put the little sand chairs we’d packed all the way from the ‘states back in the Suzuki (later we donated the sand chairs to the Heritage Inn, which had none for guests to use.) Lunch at the resort’s restaurant and a coupla pina coladas later and soon it was time to head back to our room and head back out for dinner.
On our ferry ride back to STT, I overheard someone say that he preferred to take the slower route to and from Tortola (vs flying in), because it gave one the time to slowly either wind down (upon arrival) or wind up (to get ready to clear Customs and Immigration and deal with the hassles of modern-day air travel). I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I watched Tortola and St. John slip astern and, later, as I got my final glimpse of those incredible blue Caribbean waters just before the plane rose above the clouds.