Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   August 2007

Virgin Beauty ? Really!
or, St. Thomas: A Rebuttal

by Barbara Gail S. Warden

A part-time cruiser, one of my main bases on dry land is the Virgin Islands' notorious St. Thomas. Yes, St. Thomas. Yes, I know, you anchored in St. Thomas Harbor next to three megalithic cruise ships disgorging 3,000 sweating tourists apiece. Or banged your shins and head in the steady - or rather, unsteady - swell perpetually running into the cute, overpriced harbor of Red Hook. I did too. Why develop a harbor open to the tradewinds?
But when you know where to go, St. Thomas is different. While I've heard some locals say they don't touch the ocean from one month to the next (tough on an island 20 miles long and about three miles across, but you hear it all the time), my friends and I - well, we're a little different. Maybe we haven't been around the island long enough to be inured to its beauty. Maybe we've been here just long enough to appreciate it. However it happens, we appreciate its marvels, and here are the ones you should visit. From your boat.

Honeymoon Cove at Water Island
Water Island, a gorgeous anchorage or a short dinghy ride from Crown Bay or St. Thomas Harbor (yes, just ten minutes from the dreaded cruise ship docks), is like the Nantucket of the Caribbean. No, Fire Island, because many insular natives here drive golf carts instead of cars. The basic, inherent psychic disconnect between busy commercial St. Thomas dwellers (the New York or Jersey of the region) and these reclusive and iconoclastic islanders means that practically no one ever comes here.
And Honeymoon Bay is the most beautiful spot. This remote little slice out of paradise is a small cove sheltered on three sides, lined with white sandy beach, palm trees, and a few rickety thatched shelters. It's remote enough that I've never seen it packed - often, it's practically empty.
Sailboats lie gently in this great anchorage, one of the few here truly protected from the prevailing winds: you can rest smoothly at anchor under the shelter of the big rock headlands that leave only the west open. The approach is dead easy, and with the wind cut off by the island you practically coast to a stop in a perfect spot for your anchor. And the rocky headlands plunging into the water are also a great bet for marine life - fishing and snorkeling. During the day, Heidi, a transplant from mainland US, drives up in a truck and grills burgers, hot dogs, and truly amazing sloppy joes (wait, I think the joes are only on Thursdays) by the beach. On Saturday nights, you can dinghy in and reserve a picnic table for a moonlit gourmet dinner under the stars. Or radio the Pizza Boat to deliver pizza to your cockpit (really). And don't miss movie night, where they rig a giant translucent sheet you can watch from both sides - from the beach or from your boat - and not oldies, but spanking new releases. Go figure.

Magen's Bay
This fabulous beach can be crowded on weekends, but here's a tip: You live on a boat. You don't work. Go on a weekday. Also, any day after 4:00PM is pretty empty. Another film-worthy cove with palm trees galore, Magen's is a bit more of a destination. On the north coast, it offers another easy approach, and rarely are there other boats at anchor in this stunningly beautiful and wonderful spot for swimming and picnicking. It's also about six times the size of Honeymoon, perfect for a sunset run along the packed sand at the waterline, with nice snorkeling along the sides to cool off.
At the far end (on the right from your anchor), the few people you see are locals - families and church groups who've been coming here for generations. One recent afternoon, as I was getting up to leave, a generously endowed lady with a striking bosom and even larger derriere strolled majestically across the beach. Stopping thigh-deep in water, she started belting out gospel like Ella herself. People of all ages materialized from the sea, the beach, and behind palm trees, all joining in at the tops of their lungs. Everyone just suddenly burst into song. It was like falling into the middle of a South Sea island musical. I stayed another 20 minutes just to listen.
If you anchor here (if you don't mind a gentle, occasional swell), also don't miss the popular end of the beach for free half-fresh/half-salt showers at the bath house, lunch at the beachside bar or the restaurant, ice and souvenirs at the gift shop. With a little luck, you might never need to leave.

Peterborg Point
This truly amazing, remote, otherworldly spot is just minutes from popular Magen's Bay. We hiked out here one morning and spent hours just clambering over rocks, scaling small cliffs, and lounging in absolutely unbelievable pools of startlingly clear green water surrounded by rocks.
We saw no one. Not a soul, except the dead departed souls of the crabs that are scattered all about, oddly high and dry from the ocean. Perhaps there is a magic in this place that attracts them out of their natural elements, and they can't find their way home before they die on the sunny rocks. It feels magical you could believe many strange tales here.
We spent about an hour in one tiny pool, a creation of rock exactly like a deep Jacuzzi, with an entrance guarded by spiky black sea urchins. We floated in buoyant crystalline green water, did perfect somersaults without touching the urchins, and rested our feet on the edge to float side by side, gazing at the sky. "This is what it must feel like in the womb," said my friend. We contemplated this for a while, arms draped loosely about one another, sides touching, then added simultaneously, "For twins." We took turns snapping pictures (the unusual clarity of the water gives a strikingly clear view below water, which I luckily realized before my parents saw the photos), and talking to each other underwater, listening to our voices echo weirdly, drowned and diminished yet perfectly clear.

And Surrounding Islands
And recently we took off for Tortola, a mere hour or so by ferry, or a few hours by sail. Several of us rented an SUV and drove down remote, barely accessible dirt dare-I-call-them-roads. We jumped ditches and traversed trails (and changed tires). We found several deserted beaches (Smith's, and another that some of us thought was Smith's but others thought wasn't) and great hiking and mountain-biking trails. We talked off and on about diving out on the wreck of a giant old broken-in-two steel boat that sits just off the coast, half in 15 to 30 feet of water, half over the drop-off in 80 feet, but didn't.
Instead, we met a small boy who showed us his baby chicken which had died that morning, and a small girl who showed us her baby goat (still alive). My friend Keith and I took turns holding the baby goat but no one touched the chicken. We met an old woman whose legs were speckled brown and white like the old Appaloosa of a friend of mine. The woman was scaling tiny fish for dinner, oblivious to about 200 flies buzzing all about her. We visited the Tortola Music Festival, heard lively reggae, bought magic mushrooms (legal here, but icky - they're freshly dug and they look... and taste like black slugs), and our friend Rosh and I went for a run along the beach. The next day, we zoomed back on the ferry. We thought briefly about going to Virgin Gorda (only another hour or so away) to explore the wonderful natural rock formations and secret pools there, but we didn't. Maybe another time. After all, it's not far.
Now I've headed back to spend the summer on Cape Cod, but my friend Keith just called from St. Thomas. He's going diving this afternoon, probably on one of the wrecks off the south side of the island. Then he and some friends might head over to St. John to do some hiking and possible drinking while hiking in the island's vast national parklands. After all, St. John's only half an hour by ferry, an hour or so by sail.
As my friend John says, "Sooo, it's not your favorite tropical island: it's just got some amazing places, beautiful beaches, ever-changing population, and is surrounded by other beautiful tropical islands? Oh. Well then."
Former marketing executive turned sailor/freelance writer Barbara Gail S. Warden presently divides her time between adventuring in New England and exploring the Caribbean - and writing about it all.

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