On our fourth day on St. John, soaking up the sun at Jumbie, I marveled again at the quality of the water: pellucid, intensely salty, and spanning all colors from "gym suit green" through cerulean and Prussian blue. I wished I could be more specific in my postcards home: I wanted to say "turquoise", but the mineral itself ranges from seafoam to robin's egg....
The answer was at the end of my arm. I've worn this ring for over 30 years; I'm a walking paint chip!
If only I could photograph the temperature. It seemed impossible that there was snow and ice anywhere on the planet; surely American Airlines was in league with Doctor Who, and our transport had been a TARDIS disguised as a 757. The water matched the air, in the low 80s. That may sound like bathwater, but it's just cool enough to soothe your scalp and renew your awareness of paradise. As a New Englander, I couldn't shake the habit of bracing for a shock when I dove in. Instead, it was like biting into the last chocolate in a box: you know it's a nougat with stale peanuts, but it turns out to be a fresh cherry cordial. Delightful!
Up north, the beaches are wider (from dunes/vegetation to surf). They're also heavily populated and strewn with trash. St. John's narrow strands are pristine and, in December anyway, comparatively deserted. The pale sand hardly heats up, so there's no firewalking to the high water line. The tide is only about 6 inches, not 6 feet; you won't have to move your towel to escape encroaching surf.
You don't have to be on the sand to appreciate the beaches, either. The requisite shot below, of Trunk Bay, was taken from Route 20. While it's hardly the only spectacular view on the north shore, it's accessible to shutterbugs who notice a wide patch in the road. It takes a few days' worth of rocketing by in a taxi, fists clenched on grab bars and eyes riveted on switchback traffic, to get a bead on vantage points for vistas like this.
The beach at Trunk Bay is managed by the National Park Service, which charges the modest entry fee of $4 per person. We had planned to visit it, but by the time we were willing to forego our almost daily trips to Coral Bay, the cruise ships were in at Charlotte Amalie. We'd been told that this meant heavy tourist traffic at Trunk, so we snorkeled elsewhere.
For instance, the first beach I visited, Big Maho:
This beach was just down the "goat trail" from our tent cottage. Mornings on the north shore are great; the beaches are shaded but you can enjoy the sun when you're in the water.
|Hang up your T shirts and shorts, grab your snorkels and float the day away.
|Maho Point, on the east end of the beach. Tent cottages are nestled in the trees.
After that first swim at Big Maho, we caught a ride to Cruz Bay to pick up our rental Jeep. Steph couldn't wait to show me the island, so we took Route 10 as far as we could go - through Coral Bay and on to the East End. Like Jones Street intersections in San Francisco, the East End hills are so steep that at the crest, your hood obscures the road. On St. John, the far side could be a right angle, or worse. Here's a "Jeep Cam" video (from the On-St.John blog) of the return to Coral Bay. Bear in mind that it's wide-angle, so the view is flattened - and the camera is on the Jeep's roof.
Just past the Sloop Jones shop, we saw a tiny beach on Hansen Bay. The road didn't go much further, so we stopped here.
I hurried to take off my shorts and shirt, grabbed my (ancient) snorkel set - and the strap broke! Steph assured me that we could rent a set or find a deal on a used one. She offered me hers, but I was happy just to take a dip, so I kicked off my shoes.
I was surprised that the beach was rockier than it looked, although it didn't deter this Yankee. What I'd forgotten was that my bare feet were winter-tender, and Steph laughed herself silly watching my comical hops as I waded in - and right back out again. She'd been sheepish about her dubious footwear fashion statement, but I'll never giggle at Crocs again. To her delight, she found that Crocs float!
Steph snorkeled over to the left and was rewarded by the sight of a huge Hawksbill turtle - about 2 feet across. Meanwhile, I slapped on some sunscreen, caught up on my trip journal, and watched a small parade of wild goats trot by, not ten yards from me.
Our next beach was Cinnamon Bay, just west of Maho. The beach is famously fantastic: a mile of white sand and good, handy snorkeling. I had scored a used snorkel set, and it fit perfectly. That surprised me; as a kid I had trouble with my siblings' equipment when we tried it out in Massachusetts. (I told Steph, "Not much to see anyway, though: Sand. Sand. Mikey's foot.")
I went through all 27 shots on my el cheapo "splashcam" in a matter of about 10 minutes. Swimming out, I learned to use it as a paddle (luckily, it had a rubber wrist strap). It's not easy to locate the viewfinder when wearing a mask, never mind see through it and frame a good subject. After a dozen shots, I wised up: the lens was obviously a wide-angle, so I extended the camera downward in hopes of a closer pic (most fish stayed close to the coral).
My reward for this strategizing was 26 royal-blue shots of distant rubble (approximately 3 of which contained microscopic images of fish), plus the snorkeler at left. So much for splashcams! I am glad this one shot captures my perception of being a couple of feet under my subject, though I was on the surface too.
The black spiny urchins have a terrible beauty, nestled around the coral - a powerful reminder to stay well above the reef and not to tread water. There were plenty of blue tangs, which are a vivid blue (many with yellow tails; those are the juveniles, while babies are all yellow). Our favorite was what we called a "box fish". His lips and forehead were prominent, making him look stubborn, but what was really amazing was his shape: in cross-section, he's triangular! He was mottled, white with dark gray or brown.He (and most fish) seemed wholly unconcerned about our presence. He was, we learned later, a smooth trunkfish. I guess that's appropriate, if you think of a trunk as having the shape of a doctor's bag! Trunk Bay, on the other hand, was named by the Danes for its turtles' resemblance to trunks. I'm not sure what those Danes were drinking.
Back on shore, Steph pointed out Peter Bay Estates, on the point west of Cinnamon Bay. Kenny Chesney is among its residents. We're not sure which is his house, but we've narrowed it down to either the top tier, second from right or the lower tier, closest to the catamaran's mast.
Hearsay just in: an alert reader has informed me that, on a day sail, the boat's captain said that Kenny's house is directly on the beach at Peter Bay, and the house closest to the catamaran in my photo is owned by the creators of Google!
Spontaneous water sports seem to abound on the island. There are no thundering breakers here, so the locals make do. These two were in deep water, with paddles, looking like Caribbean gondoliers.
The next beach for us was Hawksnest, two bays to the west on Route 20. The stretch of road between Peter Bay Estates and Trunk Bay will either be your favorite drive or your worst nightmare: the triple switchback! I can't stress enough that these photos don't convey the outrageous incline, but you can see how tight the turns are.
|This is the westernmost switchback, heading east.
|The middle one, westbound. It's a true hairpin (note the angle of the dashboard!).
Here's the easternmost switchback, headed west. That Suzuki really bit the guard rail, probably when the pavement was wet. It stayed there for the full 10 days of our stay!
For a better taste of the triple switchback experience, watch this Jeep Cam video from the On-St.John blog.
As Steph says, Hawksnest has "cheater snorkeling". You can just fall in the water and be right at the edge of a reef; there are two of them immediately offshore.
How I wished I still had frames on the splashcam. The black and white striped angelfish were gorgeous, but I'm fickle - a parrotfish stole my heart. I thought, "OMG, no seriously, Peter Max invented it." His body was a mosaic of blue and green; his tail, mostly yellow and orange. He was only about a foot in from the edge of the reef, nipping repeatedly at the coral. Steph told me later that often you can hear them crunch! Having been tipped off, I held my breath at Waterlemon Cay and listened. They sound like they're eating Wheat Chex.
Steph motioned me over to see a lettered block of concrete on the bottom; it declared the reef to be experimental. From what I understand, healthy pieces of coral broken from a reef were tied to a damaged reef. In 2005, the average water temperature was 3 degrees above normal. The coral's varied colors became "bleached" as its sustaining internal, symbiotic plant life died. While not vivid, the coral was regaining color at our visit, so it looks like the experiment is a success.
At right is Peace Hill (behind the reef, above). At the top is the ruins of the 18th-century Susanaberg Plantation's sugar mill. Originally a horse mill was used, but it was replaced by this windmill, powered by trade winds. I can only imagine the grueling task of transporting cane by donkey cart to the summit! The resulting juice was channeled down to a distillery on Denis Bay beach, on the other side of the hill.
More unusual water sports: we watched this woman and dog for at least ten minutes. She kept throwing him overboard, then encouraging him to swim back to the kayak. Lather, rinse, repeat. Finally she beached the kayak and let him out. Why walk the dog when you can "swim" him?
Update to Dog Overboard: Julie Van Pelt and her Hungarian Vizsla, Kai, go kayaking on a regular basis. The obvious present for his upcoming first birthday (June?) would be a... snorkel! Kai loves underwater life, launching himself into the deep repeatedly to get a better look. I couldn't have been more wrong in my imagined narrative! For Julie's e-mail to me (and the aptness of Kai's name), see Letters to the Editor.
My brother-in-law had urged me to find Gibney Beach, his favorite secluded spot on the island. It's small, he said, but it has coconut palms and white sand, and it's accessible by a short trail from North Shore Road. We asked around; several people knew its name but couldn't give us directions, so we jumped in the Jeep and took off. Seeing a 3-vehicle parking spot just west of the Trunk Bay overlook, we pulled in and crossed the street to a trail head.
The trail ended here. We were encouraged and amused by this baby coconut palm - but it was the only one; we were at Jumbie Beach.
Cinnamon Bay I
Cinnamon Bay II
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