Saturday, December 26, 2015: Welcome to Island Life.
Our first afternoon on St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands, we drive the twisted, narrow road to “Mountaintop” for its fabled banana daiquiris and views. A large Quonset hut that resembles an airplane hanger, Mountaintop is a destination for the open-sided taxi-buses delivering folks off cruise ships. Along with an impressive array of mango-based hot sauces and souvenir gifts, the cliff-top shop commands eye-worthy views looking north over Magen’s Bay Beach toward the Atlantic and east toward Pillsbury Sound and the British V.I. Below us, the white sand beach lines a calm horseshoe bay. Sipping daiquiris that go down way too easily in this sultry tropical heat, we watch yet another storm brew, dump, and dissipate.
A Christmas getaway to the Virgin Islands? What could be wrong with that? When you live in Seattle. When you’ve just endured the wettest December on record. This close to the winter solstice, combine long nights with a perpetual overcast famously described by Annie Dillard as like living under a pot lid, and, well, the appeal of breezy blue and sun and sand is probably too obvious to mention. But, I was prepared to not be altogether seduced by rummy island languor.
My daughter, Megan, had warned us: life in paradise has drawbacks. A UCLA doctoral abd (all but dissertation), Megan had decamped to St. Thomas to join her husband, Alex, a tax law attorney working out of an office in the islands’ only town of any size, Charlotte Amalie. For our week visit, Megan had planned enough fun outings to paper over the troubles of living here. Daiga wanted a sunny break from Northwest gloom. Dain, our eleven-year-old sixth grader, was really looking forward to body surfing, snorkeling and zip-lining. None of us had ever been to the Caribbean before. I wanted to see how my daughter, who’d spent her life in Seattle, Portland, and lately L. A., was acclimating to life on a rock in a tropical sea.
The roads, she had warned, are narrow, winding, steep, and dangerous. She wasn’t exaggerating. The high-five on St. Thomas, goes the running joke, is passenger side mirrors smacking each other in passing. Following our evening arrival at the airport, the drive in their Toyota 4-Runner up to their house on the north-side hill above West Caret Bay, takes us on a road hardly wide enough for two cars to pass. Paved, yes, but cracked from the relentless pressure of roots and torrential rains. The gaping potholes show the underlay of brick and stone. Thick vegetation presses in from both sides, obscuring any view that would be helpful at hair-pin turns. There are no shoulders, no sidewalks. Aside from the occasional intrepid local, no one walks outside the marinas. It just isn’t safe.
With a land area of 31 square miles, slightly over half the size of our familiar Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan Islands, but with a population ten times that of Orcas, at about 52,000, St. Thomas is the northwestern-most large-ish island in the Virgin Islands, a long archipelago of jutting volcanic rocks that forms the east end of the Caribbean. To the north and west are the much larger islands of Puerto Rico, then Haiti and the Dominican Republic, then Cuba, and finally, way up over there, Florida. St. Thomas was colonized by the Danish in 1666. The land was divided into sugarcane plantations dependent on African slave trade for labor. In the 1700s, the Africans revolted and became free citizens and stayed, replacing the long gone indigenous Ciboney, Arawak, and Carib people. Appealing for its calm, natural south-facing harbor, St. Thomas once boasted the infamy of hosting the world’s largest slave auction. Because of its attraction for shipping, it was invaded repeatedly by Brits, given back to the Danes, and ultimately purchased, along with St. John and St. Croix, for $25 million in gold by the United States in 1917.
Almost a hundred years later, we are here to sample its appreciable natural beauty.
Their house, a sprawling, high-ceilinged, breezy, concrete and stucco one-story affair with big windows and glass sliders and a separate cabana and an enormous sun-heated swimming pool, is built on terraced land held in place by tall revetment walls. The unbroken view looks north across the pool’s reflections of the sky over Inner and Outer Brass Islands to the wide open Atlantic. Dain spends a good bit of time by day, when not chasing a football into the pool, watching storms gather, blow over the islands, and sail hither. By night, this end of the island is so dark – there are no streetlights except down in town by the marinas – he logs constellations of stars he has had only a theoretical knowledge of at home.
We are mesmerized. The fast-arriving tropical nights usher in a symphony of sounds that is both mellifluous and loud. Birdsong, percussive insects. Tiny frogs, no bigger than a thumb, emit a high-pitched call that sounds like “ko-kee,” emphasis on the second syllable, which goes up an octave in register. Roosters crow, if disturbed by the bark of one of the wild dogs. Roosters, chickens, and the progeny of abandoned dogs have freely roam the island.
Structures tend toward entropy. The damp, warm, tropical sea air requires constant vigilance to fight against nature’s tendency here to return to chaos. Steel quickly rusts. Aluminum – window casings are mostly aluminum as hardwoods are expensive and must be imported – grows fuzz. Concrete heaves. Grouting crumbles. Moisture invades everything. Close up your house for a week and mold takes over. Towels, if not heated by the sun, never feel quite dry. Lizards are welcome housemates; they eat bugs. A rock, covered with a thin pelt of green, surrounded by wine dark sea. This is my daughter’s new home.
After daiquiris at Mountaintop, Megan has errands to run, so we drive with her. Charlotte Amalie, the biggest town in the Virgin Islands, has a population of about 18,500. It’s small downtown occupies a thin flat stretch on the south shore at the head of St. Thomas Harbor. Homes line the hills above the harbor. Considered attractive for its Danish colonial architecture, the town is home to the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Its now extinct beer halls were once popular with pirates, including Blackbeard (Edward Teach).
We walk along a busy marina featuring an anchored cruise ship and tied-up yachts and pleasure sailing craft. We avoid the jewelry shops that are two blocks deep and cater, with highly inflated prices, to the “boat” people. There is a small open-air market with day stalls frequented mainly by locals. Alex’s office, in one of the Danish colonial buildings, overlooks the marina. We choose not to interrupt his work so he can get back up to the house to finish smoking the rack of lamb for feast of a dinner.
It would be an adjustment, life here. You’d have to learn to unplug from many of the usual amenities. But we are here to savor the pleasures, and they are considerable.