I was floating somewhere between Tortola and Jost Van Dyke, where the Atlantic and the Caribbean intermingle in a dreamy blue collage. The late afternoon sun, low in the sky, shone through a gauzy layer of clouds—as if a pale fog were everywhere and nowhere around us.
Soft trade winds blew as the boat gently rocked. I was finally beginning to relax.
Then a nagging thought crossed my mind. “When does the last ferry leave for St. John?” I asked. Wendy, my long-time friend, who was sharing this dreamy boat ride with me, shrugged and looked at the captain of the boat.
“I don’t think we’ll make it,” Tim said. “You’ll just have to stay until tomorrow.” With an impish grin, he chuckled and said, “Consider yourself kidnapped.”
I thought about where we’d stay and how I’d brush my teeth. I remembered the massage I had scheduled the next morning in St. John and wondered if I’d get back in time.
But I didn’t wonder long. Life was a massage at that moment there on the water with friends, old and new, and the stunning blue Caribbean waters beckoning.
Splash! I jumped in and reveled in the watery tonic.
STRAND OF PEARLS
This was my first visit to the Virgin Islands, but it certainly won’t be my last. It went by too fast. You’d think eight days in paradise would be enough, and for most people, it would. But for me, it’s another story. I have a very bad habit of over-planning vacations. I’ve forgotten how to relax and just go with the flow. As a result, I end up feeling frazzled half the time I’m visiting a new place. It’s almost like I have a three-star general inside commanding me to Go, See, Do! I need to teach my inner-general a new word: Chill!
The main purpose of my visit last spring was to attend a wedding. Amy, the daughter of another long-time friend, Gini, had found the man of her dreams in St. Thomas, where she worked as a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. But I also hoped to explore the Virgin Islands while I was there and connect with the people and the place. I was prepared to be awed by the natural beauty and tropical climate of these Caribbean islands—and I was. The challenge became fitting everything in around the wedding festivities.
That’s not to belittle Amy and Malcolm’s fabulous wedding. It was probably the most stunning wedding I’ve ever attended. In a simple white church in Cruz Bay, two beautiful people joined their hearts and souls together. Afterwards we partied for hours at the reception in a nearby restaurant. Then under a dusky pink sunset sky, the couple strolled to the dock, waved goodbye, and sailed off to their future on a gorgeous chartered sailboat, an unforgettable moment.
In fact, my visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands was a string of unforgettable moments, like a strand of pearls linked one to another. Friends in Virginia had warned me that I might be seduced by the islands—and I was. What’s not to like?
OK, one little thing. The taxi drivers. Just a few of them, not all. If you’re lucky—or arrange in advance—you’ll find someone like Kenneth Louis, who chauffeured us around St. John, or Campbell Rey, who gave us a tour of St. Thomas. Of course, you could always opt to rent a car, but be forewarned: the roads are narrow and, more importantly, you’ll have to adjust to driving on the left. My friend Gini tried it—once—and said, “Never again!”
Fortunately, the condo Wendy and I stayed in, Gallows Point, was five minutes’ walk from Cruz Bay, which is the epicenter of St. John. Bars, shopping, restaurants, cool cozy vibe—it’s all there. And everywhere you look, a blissful panoramic view of sapphire sea, boats, blue sky, and colorful Caribbean architecture to lull you into an escapist mentality, brought on in part by the proliferation of rum drinks. Yes, the seductive effects of rum make everything mellow in the Virgin Islands. Rum is part of the equation, for sure.
One day Wendy, Gini, and I decided to venture to Coral Bay on the other side of the island. Buses take you there for a song, so we decided to skip the pricey taxis and travel with the locals. Sounded like a good idea—until we waited and waited and waited for the bus. In the Caribbean the concept of time is different somehow. I tried to get into island time, but as we sat and waited for the bus, my friends and I began to grow somewhat impatient. The hot sun beat down, and 15, 20, 30 minutes went by.
“Maybe we should just get a taxi,” Wendy said.
We inquired about the cost of a taxi. “$20 each way,” the taxi driver said. What? The bus costs only a buck! But Wendy said she would pay, and we reluctantly agreed. We climbed into the taxi, and lo and behold, the bus pulled up. I jumped off the taxi and ran to the bus. Gini and Wendy followed, leaving an upset taxi driver.
Ahhh, the bus ride. It was a twisty turning ride over a mountain range that left us feeling a little sick to our stomachs. But it only cost a buck! We emerged on the other side of the island near a bar called Skinny Legs, which I’d read about, a must-see on St. John. It was indeed a cool place. An open-air restaurant with picnic tables and souvenir shops overlooking Coral Bay harbor, where sailboats bobbed in a blue harbor. It felt like the end of the world.
And people who find their way to Coral Bay sometimes never leave. We heard from Amy it’s a place where people go who don’t ever want to be found. Hmmm. I could see why. I met Leigh from England, who together with her husband sailed into Coral Bay six years ago and never left. It’s a place where you are free to be who you are—no questions asked.
We met a fellow named Adam, a scruffy guy in his thirties, who had seen better days. But this is paradise and everyone goes with the flow. Adam was actually one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He took it upon himself to give us a tour of the area and rowed us across the harbor to a locals’ joint, where the rum prices were the lowest on the island. Wendy, Gini, and I spent a few rum-soaked hours meeting locals and experiencing island authenticity. Rastafarians mingled with tourists and scruffy sailors in a casual atmosphere that will long remain in my memory.
At Gallows Point my girlfriends and I spent time hanging out by the gorgeous pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea, watching the ferry parade back and forth to St. Thomas. Our condo had a complete kitchen so some nights we brought groceries at the corner store and cooked dinner at home. Other nights we ventured out to beachside open-air restaurants like High Tide in Cruz Bay. As reggae music thrummed from the speakers, we munched crunchy calamari and garlicky Caesar salad and watched the glowing sky fade into the sea.
One day Wendy, Gini’s daughter Chelsea, and I headed to St. Thomas for a tour. At Blackbeard’s Castle in Charlotte Amalie, we learned the legends of this famous pirate. From atop Paradise Point we rose up to meet the sky on a Ferris wheel, feeling like kids spinning around and around. Later we lunched at Gladys’, a cozy restaurant in the shopping district, where I tried jerk-grilled mahi-mahi, kallaloo soup, and conch fritters big as plums, crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside.
Then Campbell took us up to Beacon Hill, where we met Herbie. We drank banana daiquiris in his cozy bar, and then outside on the terrace, we swooned at the tranquil view. I spotted cool hideaway villas and fantasized about living in paradise, where white billowing curtains blew in the breeze and mahogany furniture invited you to chill.
I was beginning to realize that this trip was a lesson for me to learn to relax and go with the flow. As I viewed this other-worldly paradise, I thought about my life back home and wondered what I was supposed to learn from this place. What could I take home that would help me become more authentically me? I admit, life grabs hold of me and twirls me around to the point of dizziness. The Virgin Island were trying to send a message: relax and chill. Life’s short. Enjoy it.
THE WATER’S EDGE
Back on St. John, my girlfriends and I ventured to Caneel Bay, a posh resort, for a different experience. It’s a pampering place where you can stay in luxurious accommodations, play golf and tennis, or just lie on the beach and let the sea air lull you into a meditative trance. One afternoon we went snorkeling with an outfitter called Eco Tours, and I swam alongside a sea turtle.
That evening we dined at Equator, Caneel Bay’s fine dining restaurant, which combines luxury with a relaxed island vibe. Sandra, our server, called us “my sisters” and spoiled us with Caribbean cuisine. I savored pan-seared grouper, pumpkin hash, and fried sweet plantains—all accompanied by Thai curry sauce. The open-air restaurant overlooked beautifully landscaped grounds, where donkeys grazed and flowers bloomed and the ubiquitous sea and sky turned an inky black as we dined.
But my favorite memory of the Virgin Islands was getting kidnapped, an adventure I’ll never forget. After spending the day cruising to lost beaches, where we swam and snorkeled and played like children, a family invited us to sleep in their rental property on Tortola and even gave us toothbrushes. That night as the waves broke upon the sea wall, I fell into a deep sleep full of dreams I couldn’t remember.
I barely arrived in time for my massage the next day back in Cruz Bay. At Drift Away Spa, Emily’s fingers magically disspelled all my tension. Lying there, melting under her touch, I thought about the lesson these Caribbean islands had taught me, a simple one, really. Stop where you are, stand still, and be in the moment. Right there I said goodbye to my inner-general and welcomed my inner-island girl, “my sister,” who reminds me to walk to the water’s edge and jump in.
For information, go to Visitusvi.com. No passport required.