Thursday, February 6, 2014

Traveler tips for St. John, USVI and random observations.

Drunk Bay
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, feels like a theme park centered around beach, snorkeling, boating, eating and drinking.  Where we stayed, near Coral Bay, there are few reminders of the working world: just a home base for a Disneyland of rides. 

Take care when picking the location of your "villa."  (That's what rental brokers call "old houses.")  We were fortunate.  Our villa was near the intersection of Centerline Road (#10) and North Shore (#20).  That was important because we could zip up to the North Shore beaches in no time AND be near Salt Pond Bay, Coral Bay, and the East End beaches.  We considered Concordia Eco Camp, which looks pretty good.  However, it is comparatively remote, adding 15 minutes to North Shore beaches, which is about double the time it took us.

Don’t believe the books that you can rely on public transportation.  Not unless you have a lot of time and can handle waiting around and walking to the stops.  When I was stranded at Concordia (more on that later). I asked reception to call a cab.  The nice woman said it usually takes a day to schedule.  But she did point me to the bus stop, a bit up the road.  I walked up in the heat and waited for a good while before   
Maho Bay
Relaxing at Cinnamon Bay
The beaches are as advertised: beautiful white sand, gorgeous clear water of beautiful hues from light tourquoise to deep blue.  Snorkeling opened the world of thousands of fish, a few turtles, rays and other critters.  At several places, the small frys numbered thousands, filling my view glittering movement, one-thousand of silver brush strokes wiggling in every direction.

We sampled the following beaches before deciding that Francis Bay was our favorite:  Salt Pond, Maho Bay, Vie’s Beach, Cinnamon Bay, Drunk Bay (rocky beach, no swimming), and Leinster Bay / Waterlemon Cay.

Francis Bay won our favorite award for a variety or reasons.    
  • The snorkeling was as good as anywhere else. 
  •  The sand and water as good or better.
  •  Francis Bay Beach is longer and deeper.  Compared to Maho Bay, which is very cozy and was terrific when we arrived early.  Later, we felt cramped by people.  People can spread out at Francis Bay. 
  •  Shade.  Francis Bay has more trees suitable for shelter from sun (and rain).
  •  TWO-FER.  Nearly adjacent to the beach is a bird trail around a pond.  In addition to waterfowl, I’m told wading birds visit when water is lower.  I spotted a Mangrove Cuckoo in the trees.  So, if one person gets bored with the picturebook setting and a good book, the other can grab the binoculars and walk.  

TIP:  The boardwalk portion of the trail is a great way to walk a quarter mile down the beach without having to worry about sand and waves.  It lets out right about were we wanted to be, on the North side. 
Exit from Boardwalk

TIP:  Before boating, ingest the Dramamine that you thoughtfully purchased the night before traveling.  We forgot, and we suffered.  When the boat tied up near Salt Pond Bay, I had the captain (who Allyson kinda knew!) drive me to shore, where I walked to Concordia and made my way home.
Allyson & Dave from N. J

DRIVING: with feral goats, donkeys and Jeeps. 

The roads are narrow, windy, up and down.  A couple spots have washed out, leaving one lane.  Hundreds of feral goats roam near Coral Bay.  Sometimes a few wander into the road.  At other times, a whole herd takes over, like the “critical mass” bike rides that clog roads to remind car owners that they must share the roads.   

A few Donkeys, here and there, wander near and into the roads.

Jeeps are everywhere.  It looks like a multi-colored Jeep convention.

Some of the roads off the main roads are VERY rough.  Our road up to the villa was ludicrously bumpy.  Part paved, part not.  Both parts shake occupants side to side like being in the middle of a riot with protesters trying to rock your car over. 

One night, as we nearly reached the top:  PHSST ---- PHSST -----  “Flat tire, drive faster!”  We made it to the relatively flat part by the villa.  Fortunately we were pulling in for the night and did not lose a day of activity.  The spare was flat, too.  (Thank you, Cool Breeze Rentals.)  The rental agency sent one man and two tires the next morning.   

30+ year old Cessna to Puerto Rico

Worth the Effort.   

From Portland, getting to and from St. John took about 20 hours, door to door.  That compares to about 6 or 7 hours to Hawai'i.  It was worth the extra time and effort.  St. John is prettier, and the snorkeling quality and variety was better.  Maui seems like San Diego, complete with Walmart.  St. John offers a different, slow, turtle pace and different people on "island time." 

Last Long Look at Francis Bay

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A "Super Sunday" on St. John

Super Sunday morning coffee on the deck with Smooth-billed Ani, Pearly-eyed Thrasher and Sleepy-head Allyson. 

Several other birds, too, up here amongst the trees, bushes, bamboo and other assorted flora.  One plant, with strong sword-shaped “leaves” pointing in several directions has one blade that stabs horizontally from the hill behind the door. It catches rain.  A Bannanaquit uses it for a birdbath.

Sunday in Coral Bay means brunch at Miss Lucy’s.  Good food and a two-piece jazz band on the gorgeous shore.  But you gotta get past the goats (and sometimes donkeys) to get there.  There are a lot of feral goats here.  Probably hundreds.  One night a herd was so tightly packed filling the road, I expected to see a goat herder someplace.  But no.  The goats were on their own. 

Then, it was off to swim along the mangroves in Princess Bay. (Sorry mom, I did not wait an hour after eating to swim.)  We used no fins because the area is so shallow, and we’d only hit the bottom and stir up sand.  Mask, snorkel and body provided all we needed for a new and memorable experience. 

The mangroves frame the bay.  We just walked in from the road and started floating along. 

The first thing I noticed was how the mangrove walks in super-slow motion.  Closest to the shore, the “trunks” / legs are dug in to the grassy, sandy bottom.  It looks like 4-6 toes supporting one leg -- kinda like those canes old men use that have four feet.  Old barnacles, and even coral crust them up. Then, you notice the ones next out, with toes are not solidly in the sand.  Then there are the ones that do not touch the sand, etc.  Furthest out, you see just a leg stretching out, before the end splits. 

Next, I paid more attention to the thousands of minnows of varying size.  Here, a school of ¼-inch wiggling, tiny shards of mirrored glass.  There, a school of 1.5-inchers with a gold or yellow stripe along the side.  Then, I noticed how the gold and yellow blend in perfectly with the bottom grass, like crab grass, with the flat blades, green and yellow with tan sand dust.  The grass only moves a little with the water current. But, the grass looks like it is moving a lot because the water surface ripples flash the sunlight.  Looking down into the shallow water, it takes a moment to notice that there is a layer of fish above the grass because they blend so well. Underwater, too, the camouflage is good. 

As with other near-shore schools we’ve seen, often a barracuda lurks.  Fish of larger sizes and colors punctuate the minnow schools swimming in, around, through and outside the mangrove-leg labyrinth.  Occasionally, a much larger fish, maybe a foot long, with an exotic shape and/or color comes into view.  A spear gun in hand could have harvested a nice fish dinner for four people.   Thick starfish, maybe 10 inches with spikes on top of their orange or yellow body added some wonder to the swim.

Next, we hopped back into the jeep for a beach.  We returned to Francis Bay with our beach chairs for a couple of hours. 
A couple of squalls came through – 5 minute bursts of rain -- when we’d make sure we tucked under the trees for a bit of cover.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we checked the Annaberg ruins, where slaves, horses, and wind milled sugar.  I took this selfie of us looking over the Leinster Bay Trail toward the British Virgin Islands.