RICH LAUVER

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PHOTOS: U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

INTRODUCTION

ST. THOMAS

POINT PLEASANT RESORT
CORAL WORLD OCEAN PARK
IGUANAS
RED HOOK & AMERICAN YACHT HARBOR

ST. JOHN

CRUZ BAY
SALOMON & HONEYMOON BAYS
CINNAMON BAY
TRUNK BAY

SATELLITE IMAGERY

       

INTRODUCTION

In the summertime I usually wind up taking another trip to the American Southwest to visit my family in El Paso, and hopefully see and photograph some more of that wonderful part of the world. This year turned out a little differently because of everyone's schedules we just couldn't seem to arrange a time that was convenient for everyone to get together. So I thought that maybe I would do something by myself this year and strike out on my own, and visit someplace I had never been before a place far removed from the desert southwest, indeed pretty well far removed from everything. I knew that the summertime is the so-called off season in the Caribbean, and rates for travel and accommodations are normally reduced anyway, but in light of the recession, rates were reduced even further, to the point where I was able to afford it. So I booked myself a trip to the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.

There are obviously many places to visit in the Caribbean, but my choice was based on several factors. First, I don't currently hold a passport, so US territories were a must. That narrowed my choices down to either Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands. Second, I don't currently hold a driver's license my choice, for economy and the planet so small size and the ease of transportation was a major factor. Puerto Rico is a fairly large island, and would be difficult to get around without a car. Third, I am a huge fan of the US National Park system, and the island of St. John is almost entirely consumed by the Virgin Islands National Park. Not only that, but it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

With St. John as a designated primary location of interest for my trip, I decided to stay on the East End of the island of St. Thomas, which is home to the little harbor town of Red Hook, and the place where you catch the ferry across the Pillsbury Sound that lies between St. Thomas and St. John. There are many resorts on the East End of St. Thomas, but there are none of the economy motels that dot the U.S. mainland landscape, so you have to decide what level of luxury and amenities you require when deciding where to stay. I settled on a place called Point Pleasant Resort which is about a mile west of Red Hook, solidly rated three stars either five stars from those who could accept what they offer in amenities, or one star from those who were expecting to be waited on hand and foot. You can read a lot between the lines of the reviews posted online for the various vacation resorts, and Point Pleasant sounded like my kind of place. I booked what Point Pleasant calls a junior suite, which turned out to be a fully equipped one bedroom apartment in one of their many buildings that dot a 235 foot high hillside adjacent to Water Bay and the Leeward Passage between St. Thomas and Thatch Cay.

As it turned out, my so-called junior suite was bigger and much nicer than the one bedroom apartment I live in here in Baltimore. The large bedroom was equipped with a king-size bed, big closet, chest of drawers, two nightstands, a kick-ass air conditioner, and a widescreen television; the bathroom was bigger than my own; the kitchen was fully equipped with a full-size electric range, microwave, toaster, coffee maker, blender, and all the plates, bowls, and utensils anyone could expect; there was a dining area with a table and four chairs; a living room with a couch, chairs, coffee table, another widescreen television and DVD player, stereo; and a large patio with a killer view of Water Bay, Coki Point, and Thatch Cay. My six night stay in this hovel plus the round trip airfare came to the astonishing price of $975, and on top of that I got a $50 restaurant coupon, and five $10 attraction coupons.

Now it must be said that Point Pleasant Resort is definitely not for everyone. It is not an all-inclusive resort, it is not the sort of place where you can call room service to have them bring you a meal and a bottle of wine, since there is no room service; it is not where you expect to be waited on and pampered 24 hours a day. It is what it is, which is a very good bargain for a very nice place to stay in paradise. It also will involve using your leg muscles, since getting from point A to point B anywhere on the resort involves either going up or down steep grades. There are the roads which connect the various units to one another, and there are rustic trails. But if you think of it as a 23 story building with no elevator, the ground level being the water's edge and the lobby on the 12th floor, you'll get an idea of what it's like. This is not a complaint it's just the way it is, and it really is a pleasant place.

By the way, you might be wondering why, since I seemed to be most interested in St. John, I didn't just stay there instead. There is no airport on St. John for one thing you have to fly into St. Thomas Cyril King Airport (STT) and take a ferry to St. John. Also, while there are places to stay on St. John, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground in terms of pricing. There are high-end resorts, like the Caneel Bay Resort where the rich and famous hang out in innumerable beachfront rooms, without telephones, television, internet connections oh, my! but lush, manicured grounds, a monopoly on some of the best beaches on the northwest coast of St. John, tennis courts and world class dining. I'm sorry, but I have a problem with Caneel Bay Resort, seeing as how they are completely within the boundaries of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, being such an exclusive enclave for the well to do.

There are other high-end resorts on St. John which are not within the national park, as well as various bed and breakfast, time-shares, and so on. There are also more economical choices for the more adventurous, some of which I considered, briefly. For instance, there is the campground at Cinnamon Bay which seems to be very popular, that offers a variety of camping options ranging from the primitive camp site to something with two walls and a ceiling, and community showers. There are also the Eco-Tents which are a similar accommodation. But I've never been a camper, so I didn't consider those choices for long before determining that my best course would be to stay on St. Thomas and take the ferry over to St. John as many times as I wanted for five dollars each trip.

I thought before I went that perhaps walking between Point Pleasant Resort and Red Hook on St. Thomas might be possible given the fact that they are only a little more than a mile away from one another. This turns out to be highly inadvisable, although I did see a very few people attempting it. The terrain, and thus the roads, on St. Thomas and St. John, are very narrow, winding, and steep and there are no sidewalks. You are literally taking your life in your own hands if you try and walk along the roads, and the only option if you were approached too closely by an oncoming vehicle would be to throw yourself against the embankment and cower in fear. Drivers in the Virgin Islands tend to go fast and furious as well. I took the ever present taxis, which are an entire local industry designed specifically for the tourists that account for 90% of the islands economy, and they are efficient, fairly priced, professional, and friendly. The taxi dispatchers are present at every big drop off location from the airport to the resorts, ferry terminals, and beaches, and they will instinctively recognize your need for a taxi and ask where you are going. Rates are not metered, but determined by a point-A to point-B sort of schedule which is reasonably determined. Ask in advance if you don't already know the rate from where you are to where you're going, or download a rate schedule from the internet in advance of your trip, or get one from your hotel. The taxis also frequently accommodate quite a few passengers, as most of them are multiple passenger vans, and the fact that you are traveling with several other people does not entitle you to a discount.

If you have never flown in to Cyril King Airport in St. Thomas then I highly recommend selecting a window seat on the starboard (right) side of the aircraft. You will approach St. Thomas from the west, and you can see the island of Puerto Rico to your right as you make your way across the Caribbean Sea. Then you begin descending on your approach to St. Thomas, and the ocean gets closer and closer and closer. Just when you think your aircraft is about to ditch in the ocean, the end of the runway appears, and you touch down. It's almost like what I imagine landing on an aircraft carrier would be like, since the runway juts out into the sea, and although you don't have the arresting cables like an aircraft carrier to slow you down, it is a short runway for a Boeing 757 to land or take off from. It's an exciting way to land in paradise!

Just to the east of Cyril King Airport is the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the city of Charlotte Amalie, with its deep water port that hosts innumerable cruise ships of behemoth dimensions on a regularly changing schedule. Duty free shops abound, with jewelry and liquor being the most popular items to be taken away. There is no sales tax in the Virgin Islands. I spent no time whatsoever in Charlotte Amalie on my trip, and in fact spent no money whatsoever on merchandise of any kind I didn't even buy a t-shirt. All the money I spent was on food and transportation.

There are plenty of great places to eat both on St. Thomas and St. John, and if you are staying in a place such as Point Pleasant Resort which provides you with your own kitchen, then you can save some extra money by doing some of your own food preparation. My first evening I dined at Fungi's the waterside restaurant at Point Pleasant where I had a few beers and a delicious plate of Caribbean stewed chicken and some side dishes. Then I took a bucket of six beers on ice back to my suite. My total for the evening came to less than $50. I had a great breakfast on my first full day on the islands at the Burrito Bay Cafe in Red Hook. A veggie omelet and a coffee set me back about $15. A simple grilled chicken breast sandwich from the beach concession at Trunk Bay on St. John was $8, but was well prepared and tasty. The best meal of my entire trip, however, was obtained from a little take-out place in Red Hook called Texas Pit BBQ, where I got a ribs and brisket combo with rice and coleslaw for $16. I lived in central Texas for 23 years, so I'm not exactly uninformed on what Texas style BBQ is all about, but I have to tell you, in all honesty, that the BBQ from this little take-out shack in Red Hook was absolutely the best Texas-style BBQ I have ever had in my life. Flavorful, tender, nice crust and spicy hot sauce I couldn't even finish all the meat, much as I wanted to. I wanted to go and get some more another night, but they're closed on Sunday.

So instead, that Sunday, I went into the Marina Market the expensive little grocery store in Red Hook and got a two-inch-thick Angus NY strip steak and assorted other groceries, and fixed dinner in my suite at Point Pleasant. The steak was so huge I made a two-night affair out of it, and it was awesome. Other meals of note included the pig roast and a repeat of the stewed chicken at Fungi's, and a nice lunch at the Waterfront Bistro on St. John on my last full day where I had the fried calamari appetizer, and Caribbean mahi-mahi fish tacos for my main course, both of which I highly recommend. With two beers and tip my lunch at the Waterfront Bistro came to only $33, and I was seated at a prime waterfront table and treated with friendly attention. Their dinner prices are much, much higher. Budget as you wish for food, because you can spend as much as you want. If you stay in a place where you have a kitchen, as I did, you can eat like a king and save by doing some of it yourself, and eating out the rest of the time. If you stay at one of the all-inclusive resorts, you're going to wind up paying more for food than you can probably eat, and you'll be locked into their menus. I think I did it right.

By the way, there is something called island time when you're visiting the Caribbean. It doesn't have to do with the time zone, which is the same as Eastern Daylight Time in the summer, and an hour earlier the rest of the year. They don't observe daylight time it makes no sense since the days are pretty much the same all year long down there. Island time refers to the more leisurely pace at which literally everything happens, aside from airline and ferry schedules, which seem to be on time. If you go to the Caribbean, plan to relax, and please don't get into a bad attitude when things aren't happening as fast as you think they ought to be, particularly in restaurants and bars. Service is slow, so go with that expectation. Your food is going to take a while. Quite a while. Go directly to the bar and get a drink before being seated at a restaurant, and then when you're seated, order another drink immediately, regardless of the status of your current drink. Be prepared to wait. This is just the way it is, so get over it before you arrive. There is nothing more annoying than being seated next to a party who does not realize this one simple fact, and to have to listen to them complain about the slow service for the entire three hours or so it will take you to be served dinner. Be sure to order another drink when you request the check, and if you drink it leisurely enough, you just might make it last long enough to sign the bill. This is island time!

Now, on to the photographs...

ST. THOMAS

Point Pleasant Resort:

Above is the first photo I took after arriving in St. Thomas, following a hair-raising taxi ride across the island and checking in at Point Pleasant Resort. I wandered down the hill from my suite and found Fungi's bar and restaurant on the water's edge just as dusk was setting in, grabbed a beer from the bar, and sat down at the corner table near the end of the bar. If you go to Fungi's and this table is available, grab it it is the best table in the joint for both breeze and view. This is the view from Fungi's looking across Water Bay towards Coki Point. That sailboat is available for charter, by the way.

My suite at Point Pleasant had a large patio which afforded the nice view seen above of Water Bay, Coki Point on the other side of the bay, and Thatch Cay across the Leeward Passage. I took the shot above on the morning of my first full day in St. Thomas as I was getting ready to head over to Red Hook and look for some breakfast. Point Pleasant has some very beautiful grounds to wander, if you don't mind the steep hillsides which can be rather strenuous in the heat and humidity. There are wonderful views, gorgeous flowers, and native vegetation. Below are some of the flowers I encountered.


The only flower I was able to identify was the hibiscus, seen in the top left and lower right images, which are found in abundance. The blooms measure about four or five inches across, and they really are that outrageously bright red and magenta color. I hadn't really considered that cactus thrive in tropical environments, but they do, and are found all over the islands in many different types. Below are pictured several that I found while exploring the Point Pleasant property and nearby areas.

If you're really into the la-di-dah sort of resort, the Wyndham Sugar Bay might be your kind of place, and it's located just to the east of Point Pleasant. Below are a couple of images of it, as seen from Point Pleasant. They have a nice little exclusive beach on Sugar Bay. I imagine tuxedoed waiters, a string quartet, and menus that don't list the price. To me, it looks like one of those behemoth cruise liners decided to plop itself down on the hilltop, but to each his own. I'm sure they have elevators, too.

By contrast, below is a view of Point Pleasant Resort as seen from Coki Point, across Water Bay. My suite was located in the five story building seen towards the right edge of the image. Fungi's restaurant and bar can be seen at the water's edge just below the first red roofed structure from the right.

A bronze plaque can be found at the little gazebo along the nature trail seen at the extreme left in the photo above, memorializing Point Pleasant's creator. It reads:

"In memory of Gunther E. Pfanner, February 24, 1922 February 28, 1981. The Virgin Islands, which he loved so much, lie before you serene and untouched. His dream was for future generations to be renewed in spirit by the beauty and peace of the sea and sky, and these emerald islands. His vision for Point Pleasant was for man and nature to live in harmony, and he achieved this, along with his wife Ruth and family, from concept to completion, with a gentle and loving hand. Point Pleasant, a sanctuary of beauty, is a fitting memorial to his perception, creativity, and love of nature."

Adjacent to Point Pleasant on the west is Water Bay, which is the location of the former Grand Bay Palace Resort which apparently closed in 2005 due to financial difficulties. The beach at Water Bay is known as Pineapple Beach, and is easily accessible to Point Pleasant visitors from Fungi's. It's a little spooky and sad, because this must have been a grand resort in its day. From what I have been able to determine, the property has finally been sold to the Wyndham corporation, and hopefully they will be able to resurrect it into something more positive than what it currently is. Pineapple Beach could actually be quite nice with proper maintenance it's actually larger then the Sugar Bay beach at the Wyndham resort to the east of Point Pleasant. While it seems that the current property is a ghost town of sorts, apparently parts of it are still available for bookings, if you want to take that kind of chance. The grounds are quite beautiful in an eerie way and seem to be maintained in at least a minimal fashion. Below is a view of one of the resort buildings.

I also observed what appeared to be security personnel on the grounds, which is probably a good idea since portions of the adjacent Coki Point are sort of run down and appear to be a hangout for local derelicts, despite it also being the home of the popular Coki Beach and the Coral World Ocean Park. If it is true that the Wyndham corporation is taking over this property, then it will almost certainly be a good thing for the local economy, despite my aversion to the high end resort atmosphere. I only hope that Point Pleasant will continue to exist if they eventually wind up being virtually surrounded by Wyndham resorts. By the way, speaking of security personnel, Point Pleasant also employs a number of security personnel. There is a vehicle gate at the entrance to the resort and a little guard house occupied by a young man during the day who wears a black tee shirt emblazoned with the word SECURITY in bold white letters.

On one of my taxi trips back to the resort from Red Hook, I was taken by a local taxi driver in what was apparently his own private car, a black Lincoln town car which had neither taxi license plates nor a roof light. We pulled up to the guard shack at Point Pleasant and the taxi driver lowered his window when the young security guard approached. The taxi driver looked at him gravely and said "I'm with the government." Up came the gate and we proceeded through onto the property. At other points the guard shack at Point Pleasant was unmanned entirely, but at least there is a pretence of security, which is probably reassuring to skittish visitors. I honestly did not feel the least bit apprehensive about my own personal security the entire time on my vacation, but then again, I live in downtown Baltimore. The least secure I felt was walking from Point Pleasant across Pineapple Beach to Coki Point.

There is a little neighborhood on Coki Point which is rather, shall we say, funky. The word ramshackle comes to mind as well. Little shacks line the road some of them are bars, and some are just places where people live. Boats are everywhere, in the water, stacked along the shores and road. A drug addict muttered something incomprehensible to me as I passed him lying in the shade at the west end of Pineapple Beach near the road. I did not feel threatened, though, although I would not go here at night. Where I was going was Coral World Ocean Park, one of the most popular tourist attractions on St. Thomas, which lies at the end of Coki Point, and perhaps the most touristy thing I did during my visit.

Coral World Ocean Park:

For a major tourist attraction Coral World is a very interesting place, as it turns out, and very family friendly if you're traveling with kids from about eight years and older, I'd say. They have some terrific exhibits, emphasizing the coral reefs and their creatures, and the surrounding tropical flora and fauna. General admission is $21 for adults, but I used one of my attraction coupons for $10 off that. Upon entering the gate, the ticket taker looked at the time and told me to run to the opposite side of the complex to the marine gardens pavilion, because they were about to bring out the sea lions. I made it just in time to see a demonstration with a couple of trained South American sea lions who each weighed about 350 pounds, who entertained and vocalized while their trainers gave them little fishes as rewards. You can also book a swim with these guys if you're so inclined.

The marine gardens pavilion at Coral World is primarily the home to a series of 21 aquarium tanks which provide some amazing closeup views of sea creatures which you might not ordinarily be able to see without snorkel or scuba gear. It's very dimly lit, so I had to push the ISO setting on my camera to as high as 3200 and use auto-focus servo to achieve any usable results creatures move, after all but the Canon 50D did an amazing job, which you can see in the photos below.




Coral World is also the home for a rather innovative undersea observatory tower which allows visitors the opportunity to get a 360-degree view of a living coral reef without even getting wet, and observe the comings and goings of non-captive fish and other creatures from 15 feet below the surface at about 100 feet from the shore. The photography from this vantage point was even more challenging than from within the more controlled confines of the marine garden pavilion's tanks, but gives you the chance to observe a much more spacious vista, as seen in the photographs below.



Adjacent to Coral World is Coki Beach, seen below, which is very popular with the locals as well as tourists. You could easily make a day out of visiting both.

Looking east from the walkway leading out to the undersea observatory, the view seen below shows the island of St. John about four statute miles in the distance.

Iguanas

Everyone seems to know about the iguanas which are everywhere on the Virgin Islands, and Coral World has an area next to one of their turtle pools which, although not one of their official exhibits, has been adopted by dozens of local iguanas as their home. They can be seen hanging out in the trees, making themselves guests for scraps when the turtles are fed, and taking in the afternoon sun on a sidewalk on Coral World which has become known as Iguana Alley. These iguanas are not nearly as skittish as those you will find in places with less frequent daily human contact, so if you move slowly among them they don't seem to mind at all how close you get to them with your camera. By the way, don't feed them, or the fish, or the birds, or any other wildlife you encounter while visiting the islands. These are wild animals, and whatever you give them is likely not part of their natural diet, and might not only harm them, but can also make nuisance animals out of them. They do just fine providing for their own needs.



Red Hook & American Yacht Harbor

About a mile and a half southeast of Point Pleasant lies the little harbor town of Red Hook, St. Thomas. Here is where you will find the busy ferry terminal which provides transportation services to the nearby islands, including the British Virgin Islands. The passenger ferry to St. John operates from early morning until late at night, mostly on an hourly basis, and the fare for the 20-minute ride is only $5, a great bargain. Most of the passenger ferries have an air-conditioned cabin, a covered open-air deck, and a sun deck topside. Listen to the US Coast Guard mandated safety orientation at the start of each trip, but remember what one well-seasoned traveler reminded everyone within earshot on one of the trips I took: "There is no wrong way to put on a life jacket!" The trip across the sound is very smooth for the most part given the typical 1-2 foot seas, except when you encounter the wake from another ferry going in the opposite direction, which can cause some pitching and rolling which is more extreme on the sun deck than down below.

Red Hook is also home to a variety of shops ranging from tourist souvenirs to marine equipment and supplies, real estate, hardware, pharmacy, and so on. There is also a good little grocery store the Marina Market where you can buy all you need to fix meals for yourself if where you're staying is so equipped. They also have a good selection of wine and beer. Prices are rather expensive, but keep in mind that the Virgin Islands have to import virtually all their food. Take a look at Google Earth imagery and try to find a farm anywhere on the islands! Red Hook also has quite a variety of restaurants and bars. I only ate at two of the restaurants the Burrito Bay Deli, where I had a serviceable veggie omelet breakfast one day, and Molly Molone's, where I lunched on a delicious grilled seafood salad the day I was leaving.

If you want to charter a vessel for sailing, sport fishing, or a diving excursion, or if you already have a boat and need someplace to put it, the American Yacht Harbor has you covered. Below are some photos of this world-class marina.


Continue on to St. John...

       

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