Though we spent most of our week on St. John, we did want to check out some of the other islands, which are all relatively close. Below is a map of the Virgin Islands – in short, American property to the south-west, British property to the north-east.
For our first trip, we decided to do a “highlights” tour of the British Virgin Islands via a group charter boat. Leaving St. John, it wasn’t long before the island chain began to look like the mountain range it really is…
A few readers in fact suggested the Virgin Islands could only properly be explored by boat, and that we should charter a private boat for the week. Sadly, the $5,000 price tag put a bit of a dent in that idea, but I would’ve loved to have been able to explore small, uninhabited islands like this one off St. John…
…which nevertheless has its own traces of past civilization:
For our trip to the British Virgin Islands, we had five stops, the most offered by any of the various charter boat tours:
- Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda – Shopping while we check in with customs
- The Baths, Virgin Gorda – Explore “The Baths”
- Cooper Island, British Virgin Islands – Lunch
- Norman Island – Snorkel off The Indians
- Jost Van Dyke – Drinks at the Soggy Dollar Bar
The trip was not cheap, coming in at $145/person + $30 customs fee + $20 lunch + Whatever you spend at the Soggy Dollar Bar. But hey, when’s the next time we’ll be here again? The boat had an open bar, and I figured we’d learn a whole bunch about the British Virgin Islands.
I learned exactly three bits of history on the entire cruise.
One, this shot from the Gilligan’s Island theme song was staged on one of the Virgin Islands:
Two, that Alan Alda used to own an entire island in the area, but sold it and now just owns a really big house:
Three, one of the first Corona ads set on a beach was shot in the Virgin Islands:
Look, I realize we’re all on vacation, and no one wants a dry historical lecture or anything, but we were literally in a different country! Maybe a sentence or two about how the British came into possession of the islands?? (the English captured Tortola from the Dutch in 1672 and annexed additional islands in the following years).
It didn’t take long to realize that we were essentially on a $200+ booze cruise, supplied by $11 bottles of Cruzan Rum.
Now, this wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world…
Except, literally everyone else on the ship were newlyweds on their honeymoon. And as it turns out, newlyweds like to gab endlessly with other newlyweds about being newlyweds. A major discussion topic for the women was what to do with their rings when they went swimming; the guys just kept asking me when I was planning on having my balls cut off too. Needless to say, my girlfriend and I mostly stuck to ourselves.
But look – a rainbow showed up to cheer us up!
A quick note about weather in the Virgin Islands: despite the fact that our weather forecast predicted rain every day of the trip, the weather was absolutely beautiful, averaging 85 degrees for the entire week. Oh sure, it did rain every day – but in the Virgin Islands, when it rains, it rains for about 10 – 20 minutes or so, and that’s that. When we set out for the British Virgin Islands that morning, the skies were cloudy; within 20 minutes, blue skies:
Our first stop was to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, to check in with customs and go shopping in town. Spanish Town was originally settled by Cornish miners, and ruins of their operations – including mineshafts going over 240 feet underground, below the sea – still exist today as a National Park:
Unfortunately, there were only a couple of gift shops near the dock, all were closed, and we didn’t actually have time to go further into town for the advertised shopping. The bar was open though.
We hopped on the boat, and took a quick cruise around to The Baths, which both my girlfriend and I had been really looking forward to.
Evidence of the Virgin Island’s volcanic beginnings, The Baths consist of dozens of huge granite boulders that were strewn along the shore sometime after the last Ice Age, forming grottoes, arches, tidal pools, etc.
We had to swim to shore, so I couldn’t bring my camera, but here’s a picture from Flickr user Ian Carvell:
Another, from Flickr user Ashley Aull:
As we were swimming to shore from the charter boat, suddenly, someone yelled “I’m being bit!” Someone else cried out “Something’s stinging me,” and then we were all making a mad beeline to shore. Turns out, we’d swum through a big cloud of jellyfish. Yay! I didn’t have much of a visible reaction, but my girlfriend looked like she’d been hugged by an octopus:
Our group of 20 finally made it to shore, and man did some of the newlyweds get hit hard. Now, here’s the thing – I certainly don’t blame the tour boat for this mishap – it’s the ocean, for God’s sake, and jellyfish do happen to live in it – but I did expect our guides to maybe reassure the group, especially the people who had never been stung by a jellyfish before. Maybe something like “OK, listen folks, I know that was painful, but jellyfish are harmless. We have amonia in the boat to help take the sting away, and if anyone has an allergic reaction, we are prepared to deal with it.”
Instead, we all just sort of stood around the beach in pain as our two guides looked clueless as to what to do next. Finally, they just led us on the absolute fastest tour imaginable through the Baths. We barely had any time to enjoy it, and had to keep dodging washed up jellyfish at our feet. We finally made it to another beach, and swam back to the boat. Eventually, a bottle of amonia was passed around, but about the only advice we got was, “Well, let’s get back on the boat and drink some more!”
Next up was Cooper Island for lunch…
Cooper Island doesn’t seem to be known for anything historical. There are some resorts on the island, and that’s pretty much it – I’m not even sure there’s a main road. Below, the local island dog gets some sun:
I believe we ate at the Cooper Island Beach Club, which was probably the first enjoyable stop on the trip – great food, even better views.
The view – note the two kids jumping off the mooring:
I love book exchanges at hotels, but there’s something special about one on a remote tropical island:
After lunch, we boated our way over to Norman Island to visit The Indians, an archipelago of islets so-named because of their supposed resemblance to a Native American chief’s head dress.
The Indians extend far underwater, offering some pretty great snorkeling. We spent about 20 minutes here, but were urged to not delay, as we had to get to our next stop: the legendary Soggy Dollar Bar.
Located on Jost Van Dyke, the Soggy Dollar Bar is so-named because the only way to get to it is by anchoring off-shore and swimming to the beach (at least, this used to be the case; there is a road now on the island, but still no dock).
I’d been wanting to visit the Soggy Dollar Bar since I first heard of it years ago. Of course, as our boat pulled in, the captain decided to interrupt the pleasant quietness by CRANKING Sweet Home Alabama – the Americans have arrived! The Newlyweds loved this and started yelling “PARRR-TAAAAAAY!!”
The place was pretty packed, but it was still very charming. There’s just something about an isolated tropical bar that can’t be beat…
The actual bar at the Soggy Dollar Bar…
…with soggy twenties hung out to dry!
Below is bartender Mic, who’s been there forever, mixing up Painkiller after Painkiller, a drink said to have originated at the Soggy Dollar:
Mic has quite the array of tools for a bartender:
The Soggy Dollar’s coffee table:
After an hour and change, we started back to St. John, and it was about then that the crew began telling us that they only get paid in tips. This was the first we’d heard of this, and talking with the other folks on board, we soon learned that a $30-$60 tip would be adequate…which now meant our half-day trip was on its way to $250 a piece. I never, ever want to shortchange anyone when it comes to tipping, but SOME heads-up on the website would’ve been nice!
In sum: 20 minutes at the Baths; an hour for lunch; 20 minutes of snorkeling; an hour and a half at the Soggy Dollar Bar. The rest of seven hour trip, spent surrounded by drunken newlyweds acting like drunken newlyweds. Not necessarily the best way to see the British Virgin Islands, but at the end of the day, I’m glad we went – the Virgin Islands is too beautiful for anything to be too disappointing, even when you’re attacked by jellyfish who hate newlyweds.
A few days later, we took the ferry over to St. Thomas, the territorial capital of the US Virgin Islands:
A few hours walking around Charlotte Amalie was enough to make me glad we’d chosen to stay on St. John. It’s not that Charlotte Amalie isn’t beautiful, or lacks history – just check out their Fort Christian, the oldest standing structure on St. Thomas dating to the 1670′s:
The problem is that Charlotte Amelie is the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean, with as many as eight cruise ships showing up per day, and is basically a duty-free wonderland. The entire downtown is filled with tax-free shops in this order: jewelry store; liquor store; luggage store; gift shop; repeat for about a mile. The shop owners all stand outside trying to sucker you in, and what could be one of the most charming places in the world just feels really, really tacky:
St. Thomas, like St. John, is really steep, as evidenced by the famous “99 Steps,” which lead up over the town to a tower said to have once been used as a lookout by Blackbeard himself.
The steps – actually 103 – were built by the Danes in the 1700′s; there’s absolutely no proof Blackbeard ever set foot here, though an entire hotel has been built around the legend.
We stopped by the beautiful Government House, built in 1867:
Nearby, the Lieutenant Governor’s building had one of those seals that feels distinctly like the 1950′s:
Another St. Thomas residence with a balcony; walking the less-trafficked streets of Charlotte Amalie, you definitely can feel like you’re in the old world Caribbean at times.
Below is the former Grand Hotel, once of the premier hotel of St. Thomas.
The Grand Hotel was built in 1839, and remained in business until 1975, then one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the world. Below, a picture taken in 1965:
Originally, the hotel had a third floor, which was lost in 1896 most likely to hurricane damage:
Today, it’s occupied by shops and offices. Below, a 1965 picture of the veranda, when it was a cafe:
Just inside the veranda is the original ballroom:
We also stopped by Charlotte Amalie’s Alvaro de Lugo post office, built in 1938. At the time, it was said to be “the first of its kind amidst the antiquated structures of the town…”
Inside are a pair of really neat WPA paintings by artist Stevan Dohanos.
Enormous iguanas were running all over the place in town (though were a bit camera shy):
A bit north of the iguana was the beautiful Hotel 1829 (founded, of course, in 1829). Unfortunately, to enter, you had to buy a group ticket to a bunch of other attractions, which I believe included entry to some sort of exhibit on amber or crystals or something on the ground floor.
A very cool taxi dispatcher – I swear this picture could’ve been taken in the 1950′s:
We enjoyed walking around St. Thomas – some of the buildings are absolutely gorgeous, and there’s a feeling of time-worn history everywhere:
But I think it ultimately just made us appreciate the untouched feel of St. John even more. I obviously can’t speak for all of St. Thomas, but Charlotte Amalie certainly felt like a town that was trying to squeeze out every last tourist dollar possible, from pirate tours to overpriced grouped admissions to bland restaurants to the endless duty free shops to, er, amber museums. It’s not that the beauty wasn’t there – in fact, I only shot the prettier side of Charlotte Amelie, and from my pictures, you might think my criticisms are nuts.
But with up to 8 cruise ships coming in every day, I guess you don’t have much of a choice but to mine it for all it’s worth, right? Comparing it to St. John is almost a cautionary tale of what stands to be lost at the hands of commerce.
On the way back, we passed nearby Water Island…
…which of course had to tease me with yet more abandoned ruins…
Sadly, these will have to wait for another vacation.
Final Virgin Islands post coming Wednesday: what this all costs, and how to get there!