Diving in St John, US Virgin Islands (June 2003)

Maureen and I visit St John, US Virgin Islands. Neither of us have visited these islands before, and we are eager to do so.

With blissful expectations, we board the American Airlines plane in Orlando. Our flight is to stop in Puerto Rico. It is uneventful with two notable exceptions. First, since it is apparently the case that it is “all about” honeymooners, the airline bumps us to First Class seating. We “reluctantly” comply.

While “suffering” in our roomy, leather seats, we are forced to consume turkey sandwiches and a glass of cabernet. Silently, I vow to crush the airline later with a lawsuit alleging pain and suffering.

But soon after getting off the cell phone with my attorney, the plane comes upon a pocket of turbulence. “The captain has put on the seatbelt sign. Please be sure your seatbelt is buckled.”

No problem.

I’ve been through a million of these things.

Suddenly, however, the plane is abruptly plummeting. Wine and water in each of the sets of glasses in the rows in front of us, as well as our own, is shooting, cannon-like, straight into the air—splattering the cabernet all over the cabin ceiling, our seats, and our shirts.

Surreal.

It was as if we were in a science fiction movie.

Frighteningly, Maureen notices that the plane is continuing on a steep descent. My stomach is now in my throat. Our captain comes on over the intercom to apologize about the “bumpiness,” and assures us that the plane is okay. Somehow, though, the sight of our flight attendants cowering in fear in their lounge area does not reassure me. I wipe the wine off my forearms, and try to comfort Maureen as she holds on to me. As we quiver in fear and clutch each other tight, I am reminded about the “…through thick and through thin…” portion of our wedding vows a few days ago back in Gainesville.

Arrival in St Thomas, USVI, is, fortunately for our nerves, less eventful. At the St Thomas ferry dock, while waiting for the boat to St John, we notice that in the USVI, cars drive on the left side.

Not only that.

Despite the quite narrow streets, the car traffic is hostile due to high-speed driving behavior.

Our first night in St John, after settling in at our Garden by the Sea Bed and Breakfast room, is spent walking in Cruz Bay, the major town on the island. The streets in Cruz Bay on this particular night turn out to be vibrant with nightlife pulsing all around us.

Our “honeymooner good fortune” continues, as we choose the Lime Inn Restaurant, and discover that this establishment serves luscious island food. So good, in fact, that I initially propose that we dine here each night of our week here. I select a “linguine and seafood” special, and it is simply OUTSTANDING. Unquestionably the best pasta seafood dish I’ve ever sampled, and reasonably priced—despite the overall high cost of living we are to discover on St John. Our meals were complimented by a very pleasantly casual, “island rustic” atmosphere. I sampled a local beer—Carib Lager. Quite light and refreshing. Appropriate for the warm Caribbean climate we find ourselves in.

We are awoken by a very brief, hard rain, and crowing roosters (as it turns out, we learn that each day, there are a number of short-duration cloudbursts of rain that keep the air fresh and frequently grace the sky with a gorgeous rainbow).

Throughout our stay, we also enjoy refreshing tropical breezes, and relatively cool nights—in noticeable contrast to our Florida climate, where summer nights provide little, if any, relief from the heat of the day.

We drive the twisting, turning, often steeply hilly roads on the middle portion of this 27-square mile island (Rt 10 and Rt 20 are the major east-west roads on the island), and are reminded of the hairpin turns we drove on the Hana Highway in the Hawaiian Islands a few summers ago. The drive is rather harrowing and disconcerting—in part due to the narrow roads, and the need to counter-intuitively drive on the left side (the first time in my life that I have had to do so). In addition, the roads here are often menaced by VERY large tractor trailers, cement trucks, and construction vehicles driving at high speeds. I am astonished that such vehicles are able and allowed to drive the island roads.

Our destination today is the famous Reef Bay Trail, which runs north-south through the St John National Park.

But first, I give in to the temptation from an island guide that we take in Bordeaux Mountain—the highest point on the island—purportedly with outstanding, panoramic views.

We soon learn, however, that the road to the mountain (Bordeaux Mountain Road) is little more than a deeply rutted, rocky, treacherous, narrow, unpaved jeep trail. Our rented Jeep Wrangler has four-wheel drive, but we don’t know how to engage it. Despite this, Maureen (at my reckless urging…) tentatively negotiates the steep, slick uphills and downhills. We DO know, fortunately, how to use low gear for our harrowing descents and ascents. I begin to wonder if the agency that rented us the Jeep earlier in the day has a clause in the contract stating that driving this road with one of their rental cars is not allowed…

Somehow, we survive. We live to tell about it. Of course, we never found the mountain peak, so the mountain view was not part of what we lived to tell about.

The Reef Bay Trail turns out to be worthy of our time. It is a superlative sample of the forests of the island, as the trail winds through a tunnel of very interesting tropical vegetation through the park. The air is extremely humid, but is somehow quite pleasant (perhaps due to the relative lack of insects we experienced while on the island). The trail is very rocky in certain sections.

Along the way, we stopped to see petroglyphs while having lunch. Soon, we were joined by what I first thought were a USVI version of squirrels. They turned out to be mongoose. They are more thin and elongated than squirrels, and have a light brown fur. They were originally brought to the islands long ago in an effort to control the rat population. Unfortunately, the rats are nocturnal. And the mongoose are not. More unfortunate is that the mongoose have wiped out the (poisonous) snake population, harmed the bird population, and have had similarly unpleasant impacts on other valuable wildlife. They have become a widespread pest, but I was told by a National Park ranger that success is being realized with a mongoose trapping program.

I suggested placing a bounty on their cute little heads…

We discover a noticeably large population of soldier crabs—some as big as baseballs—hiding in their shells and sitting along the trail. So many, in fact, that we must walk very carefully to avoid crushing the little guys. Guys who have, undoubtedly, “never hurt anyone.”

Waiting for us as we reach the end of the Reef Bay Trail is the Reef Bay Beach. Before us is a lovely, sandy, deserted refuge. Turquoise, crystal clear water that we find to be bathwater warm. We frolic, leisurely and alone. While here, we decide to read our vows to each other again, and agree to do so for each anniversary.

Later, after our somewhat strenuous hike, I sample an imported Dragon Stout beer made in Jamaica. A quite good beer.

I am comforted by the fact that despite the law against being shirtless in public, the laws of the island allow one to drink alcohol while driving.

Next stop is the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins (the islands feature a large number of sugar mill ruins, as a major portion of the economy in past centuries was rum production using sugar cane grown on the island.

After touring these interesting ruins, we walked to Waterlemon Bay, where we snorkeled for a few hours. We spotted sting ray, sea turtle, and squid, as well as sea urchin and parrot fish (I was not impressed by the quality of the snorkeling here, although the water clarity was relatively good). During our week of snorkeling and diving the islands, I discover a larger concentration of the jet-black sea urchins amongst the coral reefs than any other place I have been to.

We also sample the Trunk Bay “Underwater Snorkel Trail,” an obligatory stop for tourists on the island. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. To spice up the rather mundane nature of the snorkeling here, I decided to make things interesting by snorkeling the entire trail in the nude. Given the fact that the Islands have the rather Victorian law that men must not be shirtless in public, my little snorkel escapade must have been some sort of capital offense in this jurisdiction.

Finally, we visit Cinnamon Bay and Beach on this particular day. Very pretty.

For dinner tonight, we dine at Zozo’s. An expensive Italian ristorante, and quite excellent food. The food is tasty and the views of the sea from our table are very nice.

We arise early the next morning, for our destination is the prized RMS Rhone wreck dive in the British Virgin Islands. (Recently, it was voted as the top wreck dive in the Caribbean by readers of Skin Diver magazine.) Our dive boat with the Low Key Scuba Shop departs at 7:00 am. Each of us 25 divers must submit a passport to clear the immigration office as our boat passes the BVI entry point.

The Rhone was a Royal Mail Steam ship. It was commissioned for the Royal Mail Packet Company in February1865 to carry mail and passengers from England to the Caribbean. The ship was launched from the Millwall Ironworks in England. More than 300 passenger cabins were included within her 310 foot length (253 First-Class, 30 Second-Class, 30 Third-Class). It had two main masts.With this size, a 500-hp engine and a weight of almost 3,000 tons, the ship was huge in its day. It was also a fast ship at the time, with a top speed of 14 knots.

The ship was on its tenth voyage (its fourth to the West Indies), when it made its first visit to the British Virgin Islands at Peter Island. She was captained by Capt. F. Wooley, who diverted her from St Thomas due to a yellow fever outbreak there

It was to be a fateful decision.

The weather on the morning of October 29, 1867 seemed pleasant enough. By 10:00 a.m., however, the sky darkened noticeably and winds started picking up. Wooley checked the barometer and discovered that it had fallen quite a bit since he first checked that morning. He ordered the steam boilers to be fired up in case quick maneuvering was needed. Both he and the captain of the Conway (a ship also in the harbor at the time) agreed that it was too late in the season for a hurricane to appear. Passengers from the Conway were transferred to the Rhone since it was felt that the larger ship would be safer in rough weather.

Both ships quickly found themselves battling a fierce hurricane. Large swells drove the Rhone against rocks and punched a hole into its hull. Seawater poured into the hull and caused the steam boiler to explode, which snapped the massive ship in two. In less than a minute, the ship’s stern section keeled over and sank. The bow swung to the north and plunged 90 feet to the bottom of the harbor.

The doomed ship took 123 passengers and crew to their deaths. Only 23 survived, 22 of which were ship crew. Capt. Wooley was among the dead.

The Conway survived by beaching itself on a shoal.

In contemporary times, Hollywood went looking for a cinematically impressive wreck, and selected the Rhone in 1976 to film The Deep. It was this wreck, therefore, that served as the backdrop for the famous scenes in that movie starring Jacqueline Bisset and Robert Shaw.

The dive we do at the wreck, while not quite as exciting as Hollywood and hurricanes, was supremely exhilarating.

We descend to 80 feet to start the dive, and the superb visibility illuminates before us the enormous wooden frame and hull of the ship lying on its side. The ship had sank in this location while anchored during a hurricane on the morning of October 27, 1867. We follow our dive master around the outside of the boat, inspecting the “crow’s nest” and other surfaces for coral and tropical fish who now colonize the wreck.

Apprehensively, I now follow the group into the hull of the ship. I am nervous because I have never penetrated a wreck before. Inside the hull, we find ourselves dwarfed in an enormous, cavernous space that formerly held living quarters of the ship.

It is a bit humbling.

And stunning.

The Rhone broke in two when it sank, meaning that our second dive would be to investigate the tail end of the ship. This dive is also quite impressive, as we are able to swim through the enormous propeller opening at the rear of the ship.

On this particular day, we learn something fundamental about the island of St John. Many of the people here are extremely friendly, helpful, and generous. Two examples should suffice.

First, we are advised that hitchhiking is the way to travel on the island (a welcome bit of news, given how expensive the taxis and rental cars are). It turned out to be true. Just stand by the side of the road and point in the direction you would like to travel. We do this on about 6 different occasions, and the longest we had to wait for a ride was about 60 seconds. Each time, we were picked up by a very polite, gregarious person eager to talk with us about the island. Hitchhiking cannot be easier, safer, or more convenient than it is on this island. We not only save on taxi/rental car fees, but we also meet a new friend who fills us in on the ins and outs of life on the island.

Second, I walk into a grocery store to buy lunch for our picnic on this day. At the register, I am horrified to discover that I have neglected to bring money to the store. I ask the cashier if the food can be put aside while I rush out to get money to buy it. He tells me not to worry about it. “Just take the groceries and come back later in the day to pay.” A few hours later, when I return to pay, another cashier has replaced the individual I originally dealt with. He is stunned when I give him the money to pay for my bill earlier in the day. He chuckles at my naiveté (apparently, he is a newcomer who has not yet grown comfortable with the generous nature of the island culture).

We begin our next morning by touring Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas—the major town on that island. Like Cruz Bay, we find narrow streets abuzz with aggressive driving. We ascend the famous “99 Steps” (actually 103).

We are subjected to a 2-hour sales pitch that unsuccessfully attempts to sell us on buying a St John timeshare (in exchange, we are awarded a free week of lodging at a destination of our choosing, a bottle of rum, and 50 percent off on an all-day sailboat cruise in the Virgin Islands).

Lunch is at Lillian’s Caribbean Café in St Thomas. I sample the unusual “coconut dumplings” here.

We take the ferry boat back to St John. We decide to ride outside in the front bow area of the ferry.

Wow.

The ride up front is highly recommended for those who enjoy a wild, gut-wrenching roller coaster thrill ride. Even between islands, where the sea lies relatively flat, the large swells that the ferry passes over lifts the bow high into the air, and we get an unexpectedly frightening, front-row view of the ship bow plummeting down on the other side of the swell. Like our little “turbulence” incident earlier in the week on the plane, we clutch each others hand desperately during our fearsome descent toward the sea. “How often do these ferry boats capsize,” we ask ourselves? “This is better than ‘The Rocket’ at the amusement park!” For an exciting thrill, be sure to ride the bow of the ferry.

That night, we do a night dive at the acclaimed Grass Cay Reef. Very relaxing. Superlative reef formations.

Seafood dinner this night is at Woody’s in Cruz Bay. Again, I sample a micro-beer, this time from the Virgin Islands. Blackbeard Ale. A good beer. And good seafood. The venue is noisy, with a character that suggests that the place is a long-standing institution in Cruz Bay for partying college kids.

The night is topped off by our enjoying a glass of Chianti on the outdoor balcony of our B&B room.

Our first dive the following morning is outstanding and extremely memorable. We dive Carval Rock Reef. For the entire 45-minute dive, we are enveloped by a thick cloud of silverside fish. Accompanying these small, synchronized fish are several groups of very large tarpon (groups of 4-7 of them—photo at right), who don’t seem shy at all about approaching us. Also featured during this dive was the opportunity to swim through 30-foot tall canyon walls forming narrow passageways. I did a few 360-degree rotations to observe the silversides and tarpon all around us here, which continued to follow us through the canyon. Visibility was about 70 feet.

Our second dive is at Congo Cay Reef. It was billed as one of the better dives in the islands.

Disappointing.

The geology is average, as are the coral formations we see. Very few fish. Viz was only about 50 feet.

After our morning dives, Maureen takes me on a pleasant, one-hour hobie cat sail in Cinnamon Bay. During our frolic in the bay, she brushes up on her sailing skills. She relearns how to “come about” with the sails to have the boat take us in a new direction.

Blissful.

Taxis are an enormous part of the economy on the islands here. They carry a startling amount of economic and political clout, which is unsurprising, given the fact that it is nearly impossible for residents and tourists to travel anywhere without them (again, we strongly recommend bypassing them by hitchhiking while in the USVI). We are told by one of our hitchhiking buddies that taxi drivers on the islands make 80K to 100K per year. Day and night, the taxis were a continuous stream of vehicles on the island roads—almost train-like in their omnipresence.

They appear to us to be the Caribbean equivalent to the mafia.

One wonders if the clout of the “taxi mob” here suppresses any thought by the local population to begin regular transit service here.

Similarly, every square inch of available roadside land on the islands is scarfed up by the space-hogging rental cars, resident cars, and taxis (most of the cars on the islands are Jeep Wranglers or Jeep Cherokees). The autos are packed in like sardines.

Why is it impossible to travel without a car on the islands? For starters, the hills are cruel and punishing in their steepness. Distances are long from place to place due to the lower densities found here. Sidewalks are almost never found along roads or streets, and there are not even shoulders found along the sides of the roads. Finally, cars tend to be driven at high speeds.

Life as a pedestrian appears to be suicidal and demanding. We saw only one or two bicyclists while on the islands. Again, no surprise, given conditions.

One aspect of this car-dependent condition is that life must be quite difficult for those who are not wealthy on these islands. We learn that real estate is more costly on St John than anywhere in the U.S. While that alone makes life unaffordable for those who are not rich, the transportation situation makes travel astonishingly expensive as well. All of the residents are compelled to spend an enormous portion of their income on taxis or owning one or more cars. And gas on the islands ain’t cheap either…

Our final day on the islands finds us taking advantage of our all-day sailboat cruise deal. We sail on the “New Horizons” sailboat. Our captain is “Mike,” and he turns out to be a real comedian and a very friendly, pleasant guy. “Abigail” is the first mate of the boat, and she keeps us satiated with muffin cakes for breakfast, a full buffet for lunch, and always filling our cups with fruit- and mixed-drinks. During the sail, I happily down about 5 rum drinks (to celebrate our venue), including a watermelon pina colada and a “Painkiller” drink.

The sail lets us snorkel Christmas Bay reef off St Thomas and Honeymoon Bay off St John. We see elkhorn coral, brain coral, lots of parrotfish, trumpetfish, grouper, squirrelfish, blenny, flounder, and boxfish.

It turns into a sun-baked cruise, and I unintentionally acquire a nasty sunburn on my back.

But the sail is a pampering, delightful experience nevertheless.

We return for yet another dinner at the Lime Inn. This time, I sample their seafood lasagna.

Simply superb.

As we are leaving, I tell the manager that because my two meals were so spectacular that I intend to return to the island for no other reason than to return to the Lime Inn.

We board the plane for our return to the real world. Again, we are OUTRAGED by the fact that we are bumped to First Class seating. While dining on poached salmon and wine, I redouble my promise to crush the airline in court. My napkin, after all, had a wrinkle in it…

[Note to American Airlines legal staff: The above references to American Airlines are JOKES. American is a fine airline that I would recommend to anyone due to their quality service.]

 

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Categories: 2001-2010, Caribbean, Diving, Hiking | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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