RICH LAUVER

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IMAGES: 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

       

ST. JOHN

Cruz Bay

St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is sometimes referred to as the "Beverly Hills of the Caribbean" due to the opulent homes and estates which dot the hillsides of that portion of the island not contained within the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, which encompasses the vast majority of its total land area, measuring less than 20 square miles. Cruz Bay refers to the harbor and the village on the west end of St. John, and is where the ferry will deposit you on your trip from either Charlotte Amalie or Red Hook in St. Thomas, or from the nearby British Virgin Islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda. Since there is no airport on St. John, the only way to get there is by boat.

Cruz Bay was home to less than 3,000 permanent residents as of the year 2000 census; about two-thirds of the entire island's population. It's just about as picturesque a tropical port town as you can possibly imagine, with numerous shops, restaurants, and bars in the immediate area near the ferry terminal. The Gallows Point Resort dominates the view on the south side of the bay, while the Cruz Bay Battery home of the U.S Customs offices sits atop a rocky bluff on the north side.

If you're headed to the beaches or other destinations on St. John, look for the taxi dispatchers as you're exiting the dock area and simply make eye contact with one. They will ask where you want to go, and will sort out everyone and assign you to one of the many open-air, canopied safari taxis waiting nearby, and you'll be on your way in a matter of minutes. I visited St. John on four of the seven days I was in the Virgin Islands it's one of the main reasons I went there, after all. Below are a couple of photos taken from the sun deck of the ferry as we were approaching Cruz Bay. In the right-hand photo you can see the ferry terminal at the left side of the image.

Cruz Bay Battery, seen below, was built in the 18th century when the islands were under Danish rule, and was originally a fort from which Cruz Bay harbor could be defended with cannons. It now houses most of the government offices of St. John, some of those in what were formerly prison cells. These photos were also taken from the sun deck of the ferry as it was making its 180-degree maneuver just prior to docking in Cruz Bay.

Upon disembarking the ferry at Cruz Bay, don't make a mad dash for the shoreline. Instead, grab your camera and linger a few minutes on the dock, because it's a great vantage point from which to see the bay front.


There is a little beach in Cruz Bay on either side of the ferry terminal, but it's not one at which you can or should go swimming, because of the boat traffic. The water here is beautiful and clear, though, except for when a ferry is docking, as they tend to churn up a fair amount of silt when they're turning around next to the dock. Below are some views of the Cruz Bay beach from various vantage points near the pier.


From the ferry pier and the beach area on Cruz Bay you are just steps away from the many shops and restaurants situated along the bay front.



I thought it was a little strange to see both Texas and Mexican restaurants among the culinary offerings, but given the experience I had with the Texas Pit BBQ stand on St. Thomas, and their outstanding barbeque, I guess it's not too surprising. Good food is good food no matter where you are. I checked out the menu at JJ's Texas Coast Cafe pictured above while deciding where to eat lunch on my last visit to St. John, but opted for something a little more Caribbean in nature. The Waterfront Bistro got my lunch business, where I started with the fried calamari appetizer with basil aioli and a spicy tomato sauce for dipping, then moved on to some really great mahi mahi tacos, garnished with shredded cabbage, fruit salsa, and lime-habanero crema, accompanied by a St. John Brewers Island Summer Ale. Plus, I was seated at a table right next to the Cruz Bay beach. Well worth the $33 including tip.

Just beyond Margarita Phil's Eatery and Cantina in the lower left photo above you can see one of the signs for Mongoose Junction, which is a gorgeous little collection of specialty shops, restaurants, and bars, and one of the main tourist destinations in Cruz Bay. Clothing, knick-knacks, souvenirs, fine art, and jewelry are among the offerings. Jewelry, watches, cameras, and liquor are the main shopping draws in the Virgin Islands, since there is no sales tax, and you get a $1,600 duty-free exemption when returning to the mainland. Most of the airlines will even give you a free box to transport your 5 liters of duty-free liquor back as checked luggage, and I saw a good many people doing that. In fact, just as we entered their airspace, US Airways the carrier I booked, and so entrepreneurial began offering bottles of booze and cartons of cigarettes for sale to the passengers. I didn't see many takers, though.

Mongoose Junction is a definite must-see, though, even if you don't buy anything. I already own a good watch, and I had just purchased my new Canon 50D camera body a few months before this trip, from out of state so I didn't pay any sales tax anyway. I hardly ever drink hard liquor, and I don't wear jewelry, but it was fun to visit the shops and pretend I might be interested. As a matter of fact, I didn't buy a single piece of merchandise during my stay on the islands not even a t-shirt. Everything I spent aside from airfare and lodging, and my admission to Coral World, was for transportation, food, and beer. As it worked out that added about $600 to my trip anyway, but then again, I drink a lot of beer.

And speaking of beer, I stuck with the local brands for the entire stay. Carib is a light lager brewed In Trinidad, very similar in taste to Mexico's Corona. Everyone is familiar with Jamiaca's Red Stripe. Presidente, brewed in the Dominican Republic, is what I stocked the fridge in my suite with. Blackbeard Ale, brewed by the Virgin Islands Brewing Company, was a nice find a malty, dark beer they had at the bar at Fungi's on St. Thomas, which I depleted their supply of one night. I got thirsty during my wandering around Mongoose Junction, so I stopped by one of their restaurants and asked the bartender what they had, and one of the beers he mentioned caught my attention. Tropical Mango Pale Ale from St. John Brewers was easily the best beer find of my entire trip simply delicious!

Below are some photos I shot of Mongoose Junction.


Near Mongoose Junction you can also find the visitor center for the Virgin Islands National Park, seen below.

Salomon & Honeymoon Bays

Finally, the beaches! But wait before you get there, you have to get there. I had originally planned to visit several more beaches than what I ended up spending time on, but then reality set in. You just can't really do more than one or two in a day's time, for various reasons. First, getting there takes time, and since I was staying on St. Thomas and most of the beaches I wanted to visit were on St. John, I had the added transportation times like the taxi ride between Point Pleasant and Red Hook, waiting for the ferry, the ferry ride itself, then once on St. John another taxi ride to whichever beach it was I was visiting that day. Then when you finally arrive, you want to spend some quality time, so more than one beach in a day is really pushing the envelope. Now in all fairness, if you get an earlier start you can probably do more sunrise was at about 5:30 am while I was there in the middle of July, and the sunset was about 6:40 pm. Around the time of the winter solstice it's more like 6:30 am for sunrise and 5:30 pm for sunset. Since the islands are in the tropics you really don't get the extended daylight hours in the summer like you do in the temperate latitudes. If you're actually staying on St. John and have a car at your disposal, then you could easily do several beaches in a day, at the risk of some serious overexposure to the sun, which is intense.

My first beach excursion involved hiking to Salomon and Honeymoon Bays on the Lind Point Trail from Cruz Bay. The trail begins just behind the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center, and winds its way along a path that roughly follows the shore line, although it's through the forest, so you can't really see much beyond your immediate surroundings, except by taking the little spur to the overlook at 160 feet above sea level, which offers some spectacular views of Cruz Bay, the Pillsbury Sound, St. Thomas, and the nearby cays and other small islands.

You can continue on from the overlook and eventually reconnect with the main trail, or you can descend the way you got there and take it up where you left off. Either way, you will finally begin to smell the ocean and hear the little waves sloshing against the shore at Salomon Bay before you can even see it. A short spur off the main trail takes you down to the small beach, accessible only by trail or water, which tends to keep it very sparsely populated. This beach previously had a reputation as being clothing-optional, but nudity is prohibited now at all Virgin Islands beaches, and park rangers have been known to hand out $100 citations, so wear a bathing suit if you go. That being said, there are no facilities whatsoever at the Salomon Bay beach, and thus no place to change, or use the bathroom for that matter.


Returning to the Lind Point Trail from Salomon Bay, it's just a short distance further to Honeymoon Bay and its equally beautiful beach, which is about three times as long as the one at Salomon Bay. Situated in between the two beaches lies the private residence of the Virgin Islands National Park director nice work if you can get it, and what a great place to live! The beach at Honeymoon Bay is considered one of the seven beaches associated with the Caneel Bay Resort, and is adjacent to Caneel Bay itself, so there will be relatively more visitors here than at Salomon Bay, although it is another beach with no facilities.

To be honest, between the two beaches pictured above, I preferred Salomon Bay, but my opinion may be tainted by the fact that by the time I got to Honeymoon Bay I was getting low on water, was very hot and sweaty, had neglected to pack my swim trunks, and knew I had to hike back to Cruz Bay. Even though the trail is only 1.2 miles out to Honeymoon Bay from the start, the side spur up to and back from the lookout point adds some to that, so it was probably only about a three mile round trip. But I did it with insufficient water and in the hottest part of the day. With the humidity combined with an air temperature in the low 90s, it feels more like 100 degrees. There is no breeze on the trail since you're in the forest. By the time I made it back to Cruz Bay I was exhausted and dehydrated.

I made my way back to the ferry terminal and returned to Red Hook in St. Thomas where I went grocery shopping for beer to stock the fridge at Point Pleasant, plus coffee and some stuff to make sandwiches for breakfast the following morning. Then I headed back to the resort, drank some water, and went swimming in one of the pools at Point Pleasant before having dinner again at Fungi's. Later that night, drinking cold Presidente beers in my suite, I decided what I was going to do the following day.

Cinnamon Bay

Now that I had coffee and food in my suite, I could save some time and money getting ready for the day ahead. I made a strong pot of coffee and fixed myself a couple of protein-rich sandwiches from whole wheat toast spread with hummus and some turkey cold cuts that I had picked up at the grocery store the previous day. It was pretty idyllic sitting on my private patio sipping coffee and munching my sandwiches while looking out over Water Bay in the morning. After making sure I had all my gear, including swim trunks and a beach towel this time, I went over to Red Hook just in time to miss the 10:00 ferry. While waiting for the next one, I wandered around Red Hook, and stopped in again at Burrito Bay Deli for an iced coffee drink, and picked up a big bottle of water.

Finally making it over to St. John on the next ferry, the taxi dispatcher sorted us all out, and I got into a safari taxi with about seven others who were heading to Trunk Bay for their day, and we took off along the North Shore Road. It is an amazing road, indeed two narrow lanes of asphalt that wind, climb, and descend along the north shore of St. John. Make sure to hold on tight! Just before reaching Trunk Bay there is a lookout along the side of the road about 120 feet above the bay, and the taxi drivers routinely stop there to let passengers take a look and take photos. It is one of the most frequently seen images of St. John, but don't let that stop you from getting your own shot. Here's mine.

A few minutes later the taxi arrived at the Trunk Bay parking lot, and everybody but me got out, paid the driver, and headed for the beach. It's just a short distance further along the North Shore Road to Cinnamon Bay, which is the home of the Cinnamon Bay Campground operated by the National Park. If you're into camping, this is the place to be on St. John. There are accommodations ranging from screened cottages, to tents, to bare sites, all just a short walk to the beach. The campground's facilities include a restaurant which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you don't feel like cooking for yourself, a bar, a beach shop in case you forgot your swim suit, a general store, and water sports equipment rentals. There are four restroom and shower facilities in the campground, and fresh water spigots. It is easily the most beautiful campground I have ever seen. Below is a photo of the visitor center.

Just across North Shore Road at the entrance to the Cinnamon Bay Campground lie the ruins of an old sugar mill. The Cinnamon Bay area was the site of a sugar plantation beginning in the 18th century, although the ruins seen there today date from the mid-19th century. Soil depletion and the emancipation of the slaves brought an end to sugar cane cultivation, and the area switched over to bay rum production, and later to cattle production, which lasted into the mid-20th century, when the land was finally donated to the National Park. The ruins are situated in the forest, which is quickly taking over. There is a short self-guiding trail with informational markers that winds through the ruins, and I had the entire area to myself to wander and photograph.




After about an hour or so wandering through the ruins, I crossed the road back into the campground and headed, finally, to the beach at Cinnamon Bay the longest beach on St. John. It's about one mile in total length between Peter Bay on the west end, and America Point on the east. Before changing into my swim trunks I took a leisurely stroll along the beach and documented it with my camera, some of the best shots of which are seen below.








Cinnamon Bay beach is actually quite narrow in many places that is, the space between the vegetation line and the water, which is just a few yards wide in places and beach erosion has been a problem for generations. Apparently this problem has been traced to the sedimentation introduced into the bay from sugar cane cultivation in the 18th and 19th centuries, which caused a dieback of the coral reefs from which the sand is generated. All the sand beaches on St. John are coral sand, and if you don't have healthy coral reefs then you don't get sand replenishment on the beaches. The waves are very gentle during the summer months when the prevailing winds are from the east, but during the winter months the north shore beaches of St. John can be battered by much more powerful waves, which suck the sand away from the beach and out into the ocean.

It's very important to know what a profound impact human activities have on such a delicate ecosystem. Coral reefs can only survive in certain narrow conditions of temperature, salinity, and gentle currents. This is why visitors need to adhere to the rules and not do anything to disturb this precarious balance of nature. Snorkelers and divers are constantly reminded not to touch or stand on coral, because even the most casual touch can disturb the delicate mucus layer of the reef coral and cause what is known as coral bleaching a sure indication of a dying reef. And certainly this concept can be carried forward into a more general discussion on the impact of human activities on the global environment in so many other ways.

That being said, this is truly one of the world's most beautiful beaches, and when I finally got into the water it was sheer bliss. The water temperature was about 82F degrees, which is ideal for swimming, and it's as clear as a glass you would draw from your kitchen faucet at home. The shore at Cinnamon Bay slopes very gradually in depth, which makes this a great beach for small children to be introduced to the ocean. There is no seaweed, no jellyfish in fact, no fish at all near the shore where it's just a sandy bottom that offers nothing of interest for them. Just beautiful, warm, clear water and gentle waves. A sharp contrast to the last time I visited an ocean shoreline, at South Padre Island in Texas, where big waves break right at the shore, the water is gray-green and seaweed laden, and a strong undertow threatens to take you out to sea. If you get tired while swimming on the north shore beaches of St. John, at least during the summer, all you have to do is float and you'll wash up on the shore in just a minute.

By late afternoon I thought it was time to get out of the sun, so I gathered my gear and changed out of my swim trunks, and went to the parking area at the campground to scope out the taxi situation for getting back to Cruz Bay. As is typical, everything happens slowly on the islands, and although there were a couple of taxis parked there, they don't like to go with just one passenger, so I had plenty of time to relax and get a beer at the campground bar before a few more passengers showed up and we made the trip back. We made it back to Cruz Bay just in time to catch the ferry back to Red Hook on St. Thomas, and I picked up that awesome barbeque from Texas Pit BBQ before heading back to Point Pleasant. A perfect end to a perfect day!

Trunk Bay

The day after my visit to Cinnamon Bay I decided to take a break from the sun and stay on St. Thomas, and that's when I explored the grounds of Point Pleasant and walked over to Coki Point to visit Coral World Ocean Park. The following day, though, was devoted to Trunk Bay, the most popular beach on St. John, and the only one which charges an admission fee, albeit a very nominal $4 for adults. After morning coffee and my breakfast sandwiches, I repeated the taxi trip from Point Pleasant to Red Hook, this time arriving in close proximity to the departure of a ferry to Cruz Bay on St. John. The taxi dispatchers at Cruz Bay efficiently sorted everyone out and a full safari taxi was on its way in no time.

There is no campground at Trunk Bay, but it is the only other north shore beach on St. John which has a full complement of amenities, like restrooms, showers, water sports equipment rentals, snack bar, plenty of picnic tables in the shade, and lots of obnoxiously hilarious sea gulls "Mine? Mine?" (surely you've seen "Finding Nemo"). As per my highly calculated methodology, I spent a while wandering up and down the beach and documenting the scenes with my camera, the results of which are seen in the pictures below.







If that's not enough to invite you to the Virgin Islands then there's nothing anyone can do to help you. A couple of the photographs seen above I took, after quite some deliberation in my mind, by wading out into the water, carefully, with my $1600 worth of camera body and lens strapped around my neck, because I thought it was just such a remarkable vantage point from which to illustrate the unbelievable clarity of the water. I certainly would not have done so had the ocean waves been any less calm than they were, but the ocean cooperated and my camera gear remained dry.

One difference between the beach at Trunk Bay and the one at Cinnamon Bay is that at Trunk Bay the water depth increases rapidly from the shore. A mere 20 feet from the shore line, the water depth is about five or six feet, so families with young children should be aware and don't leave them unattended at the shore. It is still a relatively calm shore, again at least in the summertime, although I did notice that the gentle swells were somewhat larger than at Cinnamon Bay, perhaps reaching 18-24 inches at times, but the push of the waves to shore seemed even stronger than at Cinnamon Bay, so it would be hard to drown. Nonetheless, this is  the only beach on St. John with lifeguards, although there are only two lifeguard stations and a lot of beach for them to cover. I also observed a rather strange phenomenon while I was swimming that of the surf roiling vigorously for a few strange minutes at the shore line, accompanied by a distinct undertow. I'm not familiar with ocean tides and how they manifest themselves, but perhaps this phenomenon had something to do with the tides. It wasn't particularly frightening, it was just a weird thing that I've never seen before, and only lasted a few minutes, and then the sea calmed down again. Maybe somebody can clue me in.

Trunk Bay is also famous for its underwater snorkeling trail around Trunk Cay, the rocky offshore islands seen in several of the photographs above, which includes underwater signage to inform snorkelers what they're looking at. It's easy to see why Trunk Bay is so popular, and rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Now that I've been there, I'm completely spoiled, so I guess my only option is to return.

       

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