Thursday, 23 March 2023, Cruz Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands
Okay, class, how many of you knew that (some of) the Virgin Islands belong to the U.S.?
That's right, Denmark sold us the islands (St. Croix, St. Thomas, St John, and numerous lesser islets) in 1917. The native forests had been chopped down in the 1700s and 1800s and replaced with sugar plantations, disrupting the island's ecology. When developers started eyeing the island in the years after WWII, Laurance Rockefeller bought up land and donated it with the stipulation that the NPS preserve and manage it. (Where would the park system be if not for the Rockefeller family?) In 1956, Eisenhower signed a bill naming it our 28th National Park.
Virgin Islands NP would kick off my my tenth parks tour - but first I had to get there. Given the difficulties we'd encountered flying to Hawaii, with cancelled flights and delayed baggage, I wondered what lie in store today. The vexing time I'd had planning this trip, trying to arrange a full schedule of tours and rentals, had also left me feeling vaguely out-of-sorts.
This time, though, no airline snafus would bedevil me. With 90 minutes before the flight, I had ample time to stroll the terminals from A to F. Though it is only a midsize airport, PHL does an exceptional job with their public art - some permanent exhibits (like the 30' stretch of wall divided into small compartments, each partition holding a knickknack representing someone's 'Philadelphia story'),
others temporary installations (like the splash of color in the woven fantastical animals),
or the walls touring films or music made in Philadelphia (Rocky, anyone?).
Tired of strolling? Many colorfully adorned chairs offer a chance to rest near simple decorations.
And I even saw a free short story vending machine - you choose a 1-, 3-, or 5-minute read, and it prints out a scroll for you.
My plane started boarding early, with most people in their seats before I reached the gate. The pilot must have then caught a tail wind, since he touched down on St James 40 minutes early. Seeing the islands glistening in the sun as we
approached allayed much of my unease, and I prepared to tackle this paradise.
Call it my 'micro-airports tour' - Fairbanks, Jackson Hole and the Hawaii airports all ranked on the small size, but St. James seemed even smaller. Walk across the tarmac to the crowd milling at the baggage claim, one of four in the building. Head outside to the shuttle stand, and get directed to the 12-passenger van rapidly filling up with suitcases. Then watch the moribund traffic squeeze us as we exit the airport.
My first impression of Charlotte-Amalie ranked it with many other under-developed towns I've visited over the years. (No, still far more modern than Boquillas next to Big Bend NP): low-slung buildings, heavy traffic.
And despite the cars having steering wheels on the left side (as it is stateside), they drive on the wrong side of the road here. (Okay, okay - left side or wrong side, it's not the right side!) Big difference: gas prices were displayed in US dollars.
Our driver quickly tired of the molasses-like traffic, so he turned off the main drag. Now we wound our way down side streets lined with old, colonial-era buildings, with barely enough room for two-way traffic to pass. (That is, when he didn't find even narrower one-way alleys to zip down.) If a car in front of us was slow to react to a green light, the driver quickly exercised his horn. That - plus driving on the wrong side - added to the feeling of being in a foreign land.
The drive to the opposite end of the island (under ten miles) took fifty minutes. Most of the road ran through urban sprawl, broken up by a few hilly stretches the road snaked through. I kept catching glimpses of the water to the side, or ahead of us as we crested a rise. We made it to Red Hook just after the 3:00 ferry finished boarding, so I bought my ticket and wrote in my journal as I waited for the 4:00.
The ferry ride took only 20 minutes. Just beyond the pier, an open-air plaza filled with vendors hawking t-shirts, sundresses, jewelry, stuffed animals, and the like waited to vacuum up tourists' money.
My hotel, according to my map, lay a quarter-mile down the street, up a slight hill - a five-minute walk, unless you're pulling a wheeled suitcase and carry-on bag. I checked in, then headed back to the pier area to familiarize myself with what was available. Hmm... an Irish-Caribbean pub. Have to check them out for dinner one night.
I hung around the port until the sun set - not the captivating colors I saw often in Hawaii, but still a nice way to welcome the evening.
After dinner, I headed out on foot for the Westin St. John resort. The waitress said, "You may want to re-think that. It's a mile away, and it goes up a steep hill. It's worth $6 to take the taxi..."
Pshaw. I can do a mile, easy. Though she didn't lie about the STEEP hill. And she didn't didn't mention that the sidewalks aren't continuous, or that stretches of the road were dark. Still, I survived the trek (though I would take the taxi back), and made it over to the shoreline. See, I'd decided to kick the trip off in style with a guided night-kayak ride. Here, the kayaks are clear plastic, each with strips of lights to illuminate the water (and fishes) below.
I arrived an hour early, so I sat on the beach in the dark, giving the stresses of the day the rest of the night off. The quiet was nearly total, only broken by someone moving about his boat tied up to the pier, and by a low thrum of a far-away engine. Lights dotted the hillside, and a mere sliver of moon provided scant light to the surroundings.
A bright star perched above it, and directly overhead I saw a plethora of stars.
Soon enough the early tour rounded the pier on their way back to shore. Each of the half-dozen kayaks projected a halo of bluish light into the water.
Once the early paddlers had moved on, the guides encourage us to rub on flourescent face-paint (hey, you're on vacation, loosen up!).
before assigning each of us to a double kayak.
I've done full-moon kayaks before, but this felt entirely different.
We slowly paddled through the bay, looking for fish swimming beneath us. Often, the fish would jump from the water, surprising the people in the nearest boat. All in all, a unique way to start this journey.