Three different planes. Four different airports. An entire day of confusing directions, questionable food, hectic connections, indifferent wait staff, and the constant anxiety of wondering whether we left the oven on at home. But after an exhausting day of traveling, Jocelynn and I finally made it to the idyllic Caribbean island of St. Thomas.
Being unfamiliar with the area, and what fun things there might be to do down here, we asked for suggestions. And pretty much invariably people told us that the thing to do on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas is to take the ferry over to the Virgin Island of St. John.
We had come thousands of miles to an island, only to find out we’d missed, or something. I was thinking, if the thing to do here is go someplace else, why didn’t we go there to begin with? And then we’d be there, and wouldn’t have to leave. Something smelled fishy, no pun intended. But no, the folks assured us we’d love St. John. And these were people living on St. Thomas.
So we took the ferry over, which runs every hour on the hour all day and evening. The ferry is impressively punctual, considering the folks down here pretty much live on island time, which is just like regular time, except it seems a lot slower but goes a lot faster. But the ferries are pretty strict, so you don’t want to be late; or, you’ll have to wait for the next one, which doesn’t really matter.
The ferry took us to Cruz Bay on St. John, which looks like the postcard picture the travel agencies show you but you never actually find on your trip. It’s got the quaint little shops and seaside stands alongside an open market area where locals sell native crafts and hand-carved doo-dads, right next to the sailboats anchored in the transparent, azure water that laps lazily against a strip of white sand beach, all surrounded by gently swaying palm trees and gently hawking taxi drivers offering island tours for only $25—plus tip, of course. Well, the hawking is not always gentle, but these folks have to make a living.
So we browsed the market area and started hitting the shops, paying particular attention to the ones with the front doors firmly closed. That’s one of the first things you learn when visiting the Caribbean Islands – shops with closed doors are usually air-conditioned. You need to keep a weather eye out for such minor indicators because that’s the only way to survive the intense heat of the Caribbean sun. I understand that’s how the original pirates got by. Well, that and the rum.
The first shop we entered was the Turquoise Turtle, a tiny place which leans toward women’s clothes and jewelry and such. And the first people we met were the store owners, a nice couple who bought the place and moved here from Dallas three months ago. Small world. The Wyatts are great folks, and if you ever get to St. John you need to stop in and see them. And get hooked.
The Turquoise Turtle, we learned, actually has the patent on the famed Island Hook Bracelet, which is made in the islands by lots of folks in many variations. But if you want an original, you have to get it from the TT.
The story goes that, many years ago, a young local woman was in love with a sailor, and they wanted to get married. Wedding rings were pretty much impossible to come by on the islands; so she raided his tackle box and swiped some hooks and steel leaders, and crafted two bracelets out of them, which probably made fishing a lot of trouble, but there you go. On their wedding day, they ‘hooked’ each other, exchanging the bracelets, and an Island Tradition was born. And Island Traditions never die; they just get borrowed and taken home by tourists.
After we got back from St. John to our hotel on St. Thomas, we found out that my childhood friend, Steve Horner, bought a barbecue place on St. John three months ago. It’s called the Barefoot Cowboy, but don’t hold that against him. I think it was already named when he got it. And I also hear you can get some really great barbecue there, and if there’s one thing that’s been lacking in every tropical paradise I’ve ever been to before, it’s good barbecue.
So now we have to go back to St. John to see Steve and eat barbecue. But that’s OK, because we’re planning to visit some of the bays around St. John anyway, and see if we can’t find some sea turtles. I’m trying to talk my wife into letting me rent a Jeep, since it would be cheaper than taxis, but she’s afraid I’ll kill us because they drive on the wrong side of the road down here.
It’s a tough life down here in the Caribbean, but I think I’ve finally figured out how to get by. I swiped a shirt that says ‘staff’ on it, and I just stand around the hotel lobby with my hand out. Because tipping . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who is by now often mistaken for a native in the Virgin Islands. Write to him at [email protected].