Keeping left in paradise

I thought I knew about the Virgin Islands. My stepfather's kids wintered in Charlotte Amalie for several years, and I'd had it up to the teeth with their deep tans, snorkeling stories and jungly oil paintings.

In my teens, I visited the Bahamas - finally getting a Caribbean pushpin in my map. Spring break in Nassau, 1969: rum Cokes on the beach, blistering sunburns and a pound of sand in my bathing suit from bodysurfing. Fabulous! A few years later, I accompanied a family to Scotland Cay, serving as a mother's helper. We had most of the tiny island to ourselves, so the two trips gave me different but satisfying tastes of the Bahamas experience.

Back in the Caribbean for the 1998 total solar eclipse, I fell in love with Aruba. Oranjestad was an explosion of color, crazy drivers and casinos, but elsewhere there were long stretches of unpopulated beaches, a solitary (and puzzlingly conical) mountain, and parrots who said, "Bon bini!" Although the interior is a mini-desert, the shores sport divi-divi trees shaped by constant northeast trade winds. The ABC islands are also magically exempt from hurricanes.

This December, I was thrilled to accompany my cousin, Stephanie, on a ten-day trip to St. John. Because it has no airport, we were to land in St. Thomas - I would finally set foot in Charlotte Amalie! Ferry schedules dictated our taking a taxi across the island to Red Hook. Although my sweatshirt and down vest had long since been stowed, I baked in the cab - its windows didn't open! I'd rather cook in the Caribbean than be numb in New England, so I enjoyed the heat. At any rate, I was distracted by the traffic. In the Virgin Islands, one drives on the left - usually in a left-wheel vehicle! I've driven happily in the British Isles, but I prefer the Virgin Islands setup. It makes sense to be on the curb side of the car when navigating narrow roads.

The short ferry ride to Cruz Bay felt like a trip back in time, as St. John's rippling silhouette changed from ethereal blues to deep, plush greens. Although the harbor was busy with pleasure boats and the town is a charming collection of shops and eateries, Cruz Bay is dwarfed by the jungle-carpeted mountains which cradle it. And into the mountains we went, cooled by the breeze in an open-air taxi - and rendered speechless by both the tight switchbacks on the narrow North Shore Road and the views of beaches and reefs far below.

This statue celebrates the 1733 plantation slave revolution. Conch shells were sounded as a general alarm; the figure's left hand holds a tool for cutting sugar cane.

Thanks to Laurance Rockefeller's 1956 donation of vast tracts of land, roughly two-thirds of St. John is National Park. This view east to Coral Bay gives an idea of how well settlement has been restricted; the mountains are pristine, aside from small businesses and residences on the few interior roads.

Just when you start thinking everything on the island must be green...

       

...you discover the locals' dazzling palette.

Spin around from the view of Coral Bay, above, and you'll see this whimsically painted focus of the Centerline switchback.

We stayed at Maho Bay Camps, on the north shore, in one of the eco-friendly tent cottages perched on the side of a coastal slope. Two perfect beaches were available to us, Little Maho by a raised stairway and Big Maho by a steep "goat path", so we started there - but over the course of our stay, we visited seven other beaches. Delightful surprises: pelicans outnumbered tourists (and barely acknowledged them); the air and water temperatures matched, at about 83F; and the sand was soft and white on all beaches, with the exception of one rocky cove (Hansen Bay).

I have snorkeling stories of my own now, but there was plenty to see from my towel too. Kayaks, sailboards, catamarans, sloops and schooners crisscrossed the water, some flying Jolly Rogers and sounding conch shell greetings. SCUBA divers swam ashore, sand crabs emerged from their tunnels, and wild chickens attempted to ransack my beach bag. Fair-weather clouds appeared over the high horizon behind us and floated northward, providing intermittent relief from the sun.

On our first full day, having scored a beach fix at Big Maho, we set out for Cruz Bay to pick up a rental Jeep. We're not big hikers, but we had two good options. Taxi traffic is regular, and most will take a roadside pickup. Surprisingly, though, hitchhiking on St. John is a common (and safe!) practice. We got a ride immediately from Maho guests, who took us to Hawksnest Beach. After scoping it out and talking to a couple from Virginia (owners of the T shirt, below), we caught Frett's Taxi to Mongoose Junction. "Mongoose? There are mongooses on St. John?" I asked Steph. She said, "Oh yeah, we'll see them. They were all over the place at Cinnamon Bay when I stayed there." They were imported long ago to quell the rat population, but apparently the research was sketchy. Rats are nocturnal; mongooses, diurnal! Perhaps the plan does work - at dawn and dusk. In the meantime, mongooses feast on wild chickens, and feral cats take care of the rats.

Geckos take care of the mosquitoes, but even if they didn't, I'd still love them. They, like almost all wildlife on St. John, are unafraid of humans, and it's easy to ascribe human emotions to them. When they spy another gecko, they straighten their front legs in an alert, assertive pose. Stephanie voiced the display: "I'm big." These gecko push-ups never failed to amuse us.

Believe what you read about Skinny Legs' hamburgers.

Add shorts and a bathing suit, and you have your St. John wardrobe. (On Sundays in town, be sure your duds are clean and presentable.) No need to pack anything else, unless you plan to attend the annual, open-to-all "prom" - its dress code is Island Formal (dinner jacket and flip-flops).

  

Dusk falls like an anvil in the tropics, but there's time to snap a few dreamy shots before returning to your Painkiller. Head to Cruz Bay for great food and entertainment (at relatively high prices), or catch Hamilton's taxi excursion from Maho to laid-back, artsy Coral Bay. Trust Hamilton's recommendations!

~~~ Now go back and roll over all the captions you missed ~~~
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