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A Wonderful Trip To The Virgin Islands

  • Tuesday, May 14, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell

Next winter, when Christmas has been dead and gone for three weeks and the sky is dead and gray, too, and ice has canceled school for a week, ask yourself if you’d like some easy, affordable snorkeling in the Caribbean with sea turtles, pastel coral and Lisa Frank fish. Then go to Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John.

I was there in January with my 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, and my dad. We bummed around for five days, snorkel gear in tow, hitting four beaches along St. John’s North Shore and returning to Lucy’s favorite on our last day.

Travel Dad is my favorite Dad and I’m going to make darn sure my children meet this guy. Dad is a retired Delta Air Lines pilot who also flew in the U.S. Navy. He has always loved to zip down to the Caribbean to scuba, snorkel and sail. He is in his element doing any of these things, hiking in Nepal or feeling for open side doors at famous European opera houses. He’s no dead weight. He has ideas and energy to get from point A to point B, on a budget, all fine qualities in a travel partner and in a dad.

Cinnamon Bay Campground inside the national park was our worthy basecamp. It’s big and it has everything: a long beach with lots of shade, crystal-clear water, a couple of park trailheads and sugar plantation ruins, a restaurant, a pro shop, ranger talks, laundry and a general store. The layout is both social and private. We stayed in a huge, fully furnished wall tent with a decked floor and electricity.

THE BEACHES

We visited four electric-turquoise bays with sugar-sand beaches: Cinnamon Bay Beach, Honeymoon Beach, Maho Bay Beach and Trunk Bay Beach. On our last day we returned to Lucy’s favorite: Trunk Bay.

This vacation was very lazy compared with most trips I’ve taken with Dad. Every day at about 11 a.m. we’d wander up to the campground entrance to catch a safari taxi for $6 per person. These big open-air trucks with bench seats shuttle passengers a few miles along North Shore Road between beaches and the town of Cruz Bay. I had collected masks, snorkels and flippers from friends and family in the weeks before our trip, so we did not rent or buy any gear for this trip. Each person also carried a towel, sunscreen and snacks, and we were totally set for a few hours away from the campground. Somehow Dad fit a noodle in his carry on, and we found a second one in the campground giveaway bin. We floated on these while we snorkeled.

We had four perfect days of snorkeling, walks on the beach and overpriced tiki truck lunches. The fifth day had beautiful weather, but cold temps in the States had caused big waves and poor visibility for snorkeling, though a handful of cruise boat day-trippers tried anyway.

These beaches had flat, calm water, reliable taxi traffic, restrooms, leafy picnic courts in the sand, and 16-ounce Painkillers for $20. Everywhere we went accepted cash or card.

Sea grape trees lined the back of every beach providing ample shade. Each beach attracts different sea life including coral, sea turtles, sea urchins, birds and butterflies.

Day 1, WARM-UP AT CINNAMON BAY:

Our first day we explored Cinnamon Bay Beach and Campground. We didn’t need any transportation. We bought $6 cinnamon rolls and muffins at the open-air Rain Tree Cafe onsite and gathered our snorkel gear.

The entire campground is car-free and walkable. Lemon-yellow butterflies glinted around the noni trees along the alley connecting the campsites to the wide main avenue, where the cafe, pro shop, tiki truck and path to Cinnamon Bay Beach are located. The butterflies even flutter out over the water as they fly from island to island.

We snorkeled in three-foot-deep water over craggy rocks and coral. Lots of the coral was bleached gray from hurricanes and a spell of 104-degree sea temperatures, but new mustard hill coral tinted our view here and there, along with lovely lavender fan coral, and many fish. Any aquarium is just a television screen compared to this magic.

“This is Nat Geo,” Dad said, a high compliment that he also gave that week to his grandmother Nettie Tingle, whose family was featured in a National Geographic study about dirt-poor cotton sharecroppers in Alabama during the Great Depression. Lucy and I got to hear lots of family tales because Dad likes to chatter when he’s having a good time.

Cinnamon Bay’s were the only waters of our trip with sea urchins, and we did not swim around a small point to Peter Bay to view the underwater remains of a plane crash.

After lunch we hiked the one-mile Cinnamon Bay Nature Loop Trail through Danish sugar plantation rubble, and then Lucy and I took a nearby spur trail to America Hill to see the ruins of a pink great house and a postcard view of the British Virgin Islands.

After a late-afternoon fit of jitters and homesickness, Lucy and I started loosening up to island life. The bath house showers are open-air, and we howled at the moon in our side-by-side stalls, tilting our heads back to rinse the shampoo.

***

Throughout our stay, stacked-stone artist Dave Queeley was carefully laying low stone walls throughout the campground. He makes a trough with big stones and then fills it in with small stones.

He told me his walls are the “archaeology of the future” and gave each wall a simple name like Lord of Cinnamon Bay. Mr. Queeley had a huge smile and wore a cloth bucket hat. He works for NPS at the campground and builds the walls in his spare time. He grew up on St. Thomas and has written several preacher-prophet books that are for sale on Amazon. He explained to me that the noni tree has an ancient history as an original painkiller and healer of cancer. He described how to break the leaf’s middle vein here, here, here, soak it in water to soften it and then wrap it around a wound. Sun tea made of noni fruit, set in the windowsill from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., will shrink the prostate, he said.

Goose, a sunburned audio technician from Philadelphia, comes to St. John whenever he can. He had shoulder-length, wavy blond hair and wore a Hawaiian shirt or no shirt every day I saw him. He wants to open an island bar and music venue some day. Our last evening on Cinnamon Bay Beach, when seas were rough, he showed us Goose’s Bay at one end of the beach: an alcove surrounded by high rock walls which amplified the pounding of the abnormal 12-foot ocean waves.

We didn’t see any, but wild, gentle donkeys wander St. John. Goose told me that island residents have named them and keep track of their health and whereabouts. He said one donkey befriended him and followed him for a couple of days, even surprising him in a bar parking lot at midnight, shyly spying on him from the trees. Another time he said he paused a cross-island drive for an hour-long conversation with a donkey on the side of the road.

Day 2, ALL-DAY DELIGHT AT HONEYMOON BEACH:

Our second day we took the safari taxi all the way to Cruz Bay for $11 per person, about a 20-minute ride. The National Park Visitors Center there looks neglected, and I was surprised it was closed on Saturdays. But the restrooms are open until sunset so we topped off our water bottles and set out for the Lind Point Trail, across the parking lot behind the visitor’s center, which leads to Honeymoon Beach. This hike is one mile and takes 30 minutes. We have packed light with snorkel fins and mask, towel, sunscreen and noodles.

We see a hawksbill sea turtle MINUTES after getting in the water and Lucy is immediately in love. After decades of snickering at sea turtle tattoos, spare tire covers and toe rings, suddenly I love it all. The water at Honeymoon Beach was incredibly clear, clearer than Cinnamon Bay’s and clearer than a swimming pool, Lucy said. We saw beautiful pastel purple fan coral and dark jewel-toned coral growing in fingers amongst the crags.

ALTERNATE ROUTE TO HONEYMOON BEACH, if you don’t want to go to town and don’t want to walk two miles: From Cinnamon Bay, ask the safari taxi driver to take you to Caneel Bay Resort, which has been shuttered since hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. For $6 per person, the resort offers its own shuttle service from North Shore Road, through the jungle and abandoned resort, to Honeymoon Beach, a public beach inside the resort. The ride is about five minutes.

We returned to Cruz Bay on the Lind Point Trail and stopped at High Tide restaurant for a very late lunch – mahi sandwiches – at about 3 p.m. High Tide is right by the ferry port on the town’s tiny, picturesque bay. We had a view of small, private boats puttering up to anchor at the beach and passengers wading in, holding their luggage high.

Almost everything seems to close at 4 p.m., so we hurried across the street to a souvenir market in a shabby square with a bandstand where we met Eartha, a jewelry seller who had spent a couple of decades in the States. She showed us a heart-shaped Larimar stone pendant, and in her lovely English creole accent she told Lucy the stone is the same color as her light blue eyes, “innocent angel” eyes that shouldn’t be so shy because—Eartha spoke just to Lucy—if she’ll just look people in the eye she’ll get whatever she asks for.

***

The next three days were the first two on repeat. Maho Bay Beach was “just like ‘Wild Kingdom,’” a cruiser commented as we watched a floppy school of fish splash along the shoreline to a waiting pelican, who ate three of them immediately. We saw three sea turtles, a sting ray, and glowing skinny needle-nosed fish. May visitors snorkeled in from small charter boats floating beyond the bay.

Maho Bay’s tiki garden had an IG-able sea turtle sculpture, corn hole, limbo, and $7 ice cream drumsticks. Lucy noted that the water was not as clear.

We spent our last two days at Trunk Bay, the most commercial beach we visited. There’s a huge bathhouse complex and an NPS kiosk where each person must pay $5. The first day we snorkeled a very short underwater trail marked by buoys. The trail did not circle the tiny offshore cay, probably because of rough water. But there were lots of fish and coral, and we body surfed.

The second day, with poor visibility, we were content to ride the waves up and down on our noodles. This would have been relaxing except the waves were bigger than any Lucy had ever seen, so we were obliged to whoop like we were on a roller coaster.

CAUTIONARY TALE: Ram Head Trail and Salt Pond Bay at the other end of the nine-mile island were initially at the top of my list, but I was suspicious of the availability of transportation, water, food and shade because we did not rent a car. Sure enough, we met a poor soul who had taken a sporadic public bus to the beautiful spot and was then marooned. She described heat, thirst and waiting by the side of the road for hours, overwhelmed with frustration and exhaustion, until she and her husband bummed a ride with a stranger back to Cinnamon Bay. I feel a small sense of loss for missing the Ram Head Trail and Salt Pond Bay, and I wanted to visit the east-end town of Coral Bay, but I was glad to admit my limitations and make a sane decision to skip it. This time.

TRAVEL DAD

Away from his nine other grandchildren, Dad held uninterrupted court. The Richter scale had alerted him to Taylor Swift and, mystified, he had downloaded "The Eras Tour” to watch on the plane. He taught Lucy how to avoid eye contact with the alpha Japanese snow monkey at the hot springs of Nagano, because, unlike other fanged aggressors, he will hold you with little people hands while he bites. He talked about cosmic radiation and meditatively described the feel of chewing food in the mouth and pushing it down the throat while Lucy gazed at a point just past his head. Dad has been known to read an entire bedtime story in the Monty Python voice.

Dad’s grandfather, Andrew Jackson Guess, Sr., Nettie’s husband, was a “walker” on Signal Mountain. He held out and didn’t drive when cars became common in the ‘30s and ‘40s. His friends would give him rides, or he would walk up and down the mountain to work building the Chickamauga Dam.

Dad is a walker, too, though more of a globetrotter. He moves through air, he moves through water, he moves through land. What he can’t reach with his body, he’ll pry with his camera, still managing to occupy the light waves.

AT HOME AT CINNAMON BAY

All of Cinnamon Bay’s facilities were devastated by hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. It re-opened in January 2022 after a complete overhaul. Everything is new. The Rain Tree Cafe is an al fresco pavilion with elements of tropical modernism. It’s open to guests all day long with Wi-Fi and open tables to play games or work.

The Rain Tree Cafe serves breakfast and dinner, but not lunch, every day. There was one kid’s meal option each night, but Lucy never wanted it so we would split a $25-entree. We also split the Special Pancakes almost every morning and, luckily, it was usually chocolate chip. The snack truck on the way to the beach serves lunch: hot dogs and sandwiches for $10 to $20.

Our family tent had an extra wing with bunk beds where Dad slept, and Lucy and I shared the queen bed. It had a porch, Adirondack chairs, a huge cooler, a picnic table and a camp stove kit that could be unlocked for a fee.

We watched a classic Disney princess movie on Dad’s phone every night, and I caught a gecko with a cup in the tent, but I cut off his tail! We set him free in the nonis and sea grapes to regrow his tail.

Our wall tent had electricity and real furniture, plus that classic zzzzip to open and close the flaps. The temperature was in the mid-80s during the day and the 70s at night. With the overhead fan on low, we were all very comfortable. But the tree frogs and birds were loud at night, like a parking lot full of chirping key fobs, but that’s what you get when you’re in a tropical paradise.

The bath house was a few seconds down the path, and right past it was a back trail to Cinnamon Bay Beach. Most mornings and nights I would pop down this hidden, verdant passage with my toiletries to say hello to the beach, alone.

GETTING THERE AND BACK

We flew from Nashville to St. Thomas, the big island, on Spirit Airlines for $189 per person, plus $100 each for a carry-on bag. This was less than half the price of other carriers or city pairs, which made the trip possible.

Though USVI is promoted as an easy destination that doesn’t require a passport, I traveled with ours because I read different things about other required documents and I didn’t want any trouble traveling with a minor. I stowed the passports in our tent all week without any issues.

From the St. Thomas airport we took a shuttle bus across the island to the town of Red Hook, where we boarded the 20-minute ferry for Cruz Bay in St. John. The shuttle was $26 per person and the ferry was $8 per person. In Cruz Bay we caught a safari taxi with other travelers to Cinnamon Bay for $11 per person.

My dad had been uneasy about safety on St. Thomas, especially after dark, and he was right! We had no trouble and I never felt unsafe, but St. Thomas was rundown. The ferry and shuttle employees in St. Thomas were impolite, they wore dirty clothes and their service was so sloppy it was unpleasant. The St. John locals we met including Eartha and the Cinnamon Bay staff were much more friendly and professional, but still so reserved I couldn’t tell if they liked tourists. I never like to be hovered over, so the vibe suited me just fine. Our last taxi driver, who was very jolly and accommodating, told us he had moved to USVI from BVI because the economic opportunities were better.

My mom drove us to Nashville and my husband drove us home to Chattanooga. This saved us a lot of money in plane tickets, but it really saved my sanity on our long travel days. Thanks, Mom and Drew!

A tiny gecko caught in the wall tent
A tiny gecko caught in the wall tent
photo by Hannah Campbell
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