If you're staying at Maho Bay Camps, sooner or later you'll want to visit Coral Bay. And if you don't have wheels, you absolutely must check out the clipboards across from Maho's general store so you can sign up for a trip with Hamilton.
Hamilton Eugene has many irons in the fire, but he devotes most evenings to Maho guests. Up to 15 people can be seated comfortably in the prettiest taxi on the island, and its jovial driver will entertain and educate you on the way to your chosen nightspot. If you're undecided, Hamilton has the goods on each watering hole and eatery; he'll drop you off, individually or en masse, and return in a few hours to gather you for the ride home.
Some taxis on the island are white-knuckle rides, but Hamilton's has good suspension and he's a considerate, careful driver. (I swear he's not paying me to say this.) Ask questions, enjoy his sly humor, and soak up his vibes and gently dispensed wisdom.
Hamilton follows the route above (in yellow). I wouldn't be surprised, though, if (on a daylight trip) he entertained requests for a detour to the Bordeaux Mountain switchback (circled).
There, you'll find a breathtaking view of Coral Bay:
The Colorful Corner shop is as crazy inside as it is out! It's jam-packed with all sorts of island memorabilia, crafts and larger decorative items. I was drawn like a crow to this shiny object, a bit of lampshade Victoriana with shell inserts.
On to Coral Bay. Practical matters first: even if you have sunscreen and bug spray, chances are that you'll need more. Love City Mini Mart is your friend (take a right at the Coral Bay triangle and continue past Domino's gas station). While we're disappointed that its new paint job is an uninspired, uniform cream, its inventory caters to both your needs and your excesses. The staff is friendly and helpful, and you'll be boogieing to their boom box as you choose the rum for your homemade Painkillers.
My neice Erin lived on St. John for several years; her house was high on the hill in the background. I love her anyway.
I don't mean to give short shrift to the many great restaurants in Coral Bay. We only had 10 days, not all of which were spent on the east end of the island; as you'll see, we loved some places so much that we didn't care to look elsewhere!
Every online review I'd read insisted on breakfast at the Donkey Diner, and Steph agreed. (Go back to the triangle and turn right.) Although it's been under new management for a year, it's still "kickass food", not to be missed.
You won't have any trouble making friends on St. John, but to get a jump start, head to Skinny Legs (a short walk from the Donkey Diner).
Skinny Legs is a state of mind, and what better way to adjust your latitude than to get on the outside of a Painkiller? The Soggy Dollar, on Jost Van Dyke, claims to have invented it, but you can craft a reasonable facsimile:
2 oz dark rum
1 oz cream of coconut
4 oz pineapple juice
1 oz orange juice
Shake or stir ingredients, and pour over ice in an 8-oz plastic cup. Sprinkle nutmeg on top.
Not all businesses on St. John double up, but Jolly Dog does share space with Skinny's. Both have souvenir shops with great T shirts for all tastes and sizes.
Christmas lights were already up by the time of our visit, but at any time of year there's plenty of quirky ambience. Condiments are presented in 6-pack containers on each table. Much of the decor is leg-related - I had guessed that the shoe mobile was an organic result of lost footwear. Mo (pictured; our favorite server) dryly called it the "Lost Sole Memorial".
Sports are a secondary theme. We were delighted to find that at least half the memorabilia promoted the Red Sox or Patriots! It turns out that this was the work of Mo, who moved to St. John from Quincy, Mass.
Skinny's is more than "a pretty OK place". The charred-to-order burgers are killer - in flavor, variety and size. There's no deep fryer, but chips are served, and you wouldn't have room for french fries.
Outside, down the stairs on the other side of the Lost Sole Memorial, there's a horseshoe pit, shaded tables, a gaming enclosure and this jaunty bench. Presumably, not all games are played simultaneously. It's a great place to make friends - including dogs, donkeys, goats and geckos.
The bags of water hanging from the porch roof are "fly confusers". Islanders swear that bugs, with their compound eyes, perceive it as a wall. The dark objects are pennies, but Mo didn't explain their purpose!
On one of our evening trips, Hamilton talked some of his passengers out of going to Miss Lucy's (under new ownership; Miss Lucy died a year
or so ago) and suggested Island Blues; others went to Sweet Plantains. He dropped us off at Skinny's.
There was live music: Lauren, whose voice and playlist were outstanding. When she sang the Beatles' "I Will", I teared up, thinking of Jef. She did "Angel from Montgomery", and I said in amazement, "You're too young to love that song!" I asked about her guitar, because I planned to see if Jef could guess what it was (she said it's her husband's, a Takamine).
Hamilton, who had joined us earlier, suggested that we go over to Island Blues after Lauren's first set. It's a restaurant/bar with a great location, right on the harbor. One of our friends was especially impressed with a menu item: ceviche for $10 (and it was spelled correctly!).
I wasn't wild about that night's band, which certainly didn't play the blues - but I admit, maybe "Island Blues" refers to the color. At least the bass guitarist knew his stuff. I thought the rest of them needed to find "the zone".
A friendly face at Island Blues! We hadn't seen Mo at Skinny's, and here's the reason - she was on bar duty across the harbor. She's laughing because I was wearing part of the Painkiller I brought with me from Skinny's; I had just set it on the edge of the bar, which has a long, beveled slope towards my lap.
Imagine our surprise when Lauren walked in, fresh from her gig at Skinny's. I asked what she was doing there, and she said her husband, Bo, was in the band! I'm afraid I looked a bit stricken - until she said that he's the bass player. (I knew she had good taste.)
As the evening drew to a close, Hamilton mingled with us, enjoying a beer and offering sage advice. His St. Petersburg hat and Alaska T shirt seem incongruous, but he's a world traveler; the summer of 2009 found him in New York, Great Britain, Sweden and eastern Europe.
Don't worry about the beer, by the way. Hamilton paces himself. In fact, on St. John you'll get pulled over if you're not wearing your seat belt, but while you're fishing for your license and registration... the cop will hold your beer for you!
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