The Virgin Islands Part Six: Into The Crowd

Wednesday afternoon, December 30, 2015

We have just left Waterlemon Cay, snorkeler’s nirvana. Toby opens the engine on our Key Largo twenty-two footer. We charge across the open middle of Pillsbury Sound, drenched by our own wash, enter British Virgin Island waters, and dock in Great Harbour on Jost Van Dyke. Here we are required to go through passport control.

Home to about 300 West Indian locals, originally settled by Arawak and Carib people, then colonized by the Dutch, who imported enslaved people from Africa, and named for a Dutch pirate, this small island (twelve square miles), today is still not all that developed. It has a few hotels and a steep, forested interior with trails and good viewpoints for whale watching. The island is most famous among Virgin Island boaters for its New Year’s Eve celebration at Foxy’s. And, for the Soggy Dollar Bar.

ST Thomas Dec 2015 13

pelicans and Brown boobies on a floating dock in Great Harbour

The tiny marina at Great Harbour is busy. Hundreds of sailing craft are tied up in the harbor. Tomorrow there will be many times this number. Among the boats lashed to the dock, one is being unloaded. The dock is stacked with dozens of boxes of champagne, fuel for the coming celebration. We tie up beside this boat and crawl over it while the local workers continue unloading.

We have to get our passports stamped. Toby, Megan and Alex troop into the customs building, a small stucco structure just off the beach. Travelers from cruise ships are charged $45 a head for visa stamps. Locals get a different rate. We are prepared to pay whatever fee is required.

St Thomas Brown Booby

a Brown Booby flying in the Virgin Islands

We three stroll the tree-shaded, sandy, puddled road that follows the brief curve of the beach. Five pelicans take their leisure on a floating dock just off shore. Brown Boobies dive for fish near the pelicans. Frigatebirds wheel and circle overhead. Even the birds seem to sense there’s a party brewing. Daiga finds a gray pearl in the sand. Not as good as prying it out of an oyster, but she claims it as a keepsake.

The rutted lane is lined with stalls. Most aren’t open today. At the far end of the lane is the open-air pavilion called Foxy’s Beach Bar. This busy pavilion includes bars and cafes and a boutique selling the usual tee-shirts and trinkets for tourists. We wait here. The others very soon come along. We now have the required visa stamps and can proceed.

Behind the pavilion, amid the palm and locust forest that is at the foot of the spine rising into the island’s center, is a small resort village with a couple hotels. It was developed at the behest of Foxy. The local celeb himself is sitting in a plastic chair, on sand in shade, near the pavilion, holding court. A West Indian in his 60s,  salt and pepper beard and wild gray Rasta hair, the former reggae musician, reputed to have played with Bob Marley and to have been feted by the Queen of England (could be only rumors), is personally responsible for drawing the tourist industry to this island. He loves to talk and is knowledgeable about world politics. His facts, albeit, can be sketchy. The mostly twenty and thirty somethings in bathing suits, milling about the pavilion, drinks in hand in plastic cups, make a point of lining up to talk to Foxy. He is part of the attraction.

Megan, Daiga, and Alex wait for the line to dwindle and take their turn. Daiga tells Foxy we’re from Seattle. Foxy gesticulates demonstrably. He’s been to Seattle. In a voice raspy with too much smoking, he opines that poor people who couldn’t afford to live in Seattle settled nearby Bainbridge Island. You see the path his reasoning takes. We don’t bother to correct him. Young people off the boats press near and snap photos with him on their smart phones. It’s a little embarrassing to watch, but he seems to welcome the attention.

Time for lunch. Toby has someplace special in mind. It will mean backtracking, but he assures us it will be worth it. We are certainly hungry after our morning of shivering in the downpour then snorkeling and then that harrowing boat rescue.

St Thomas Foxy's Taboo

Foxy’s Taboo

We clip around the south side of Jost Van Dyke and head east and stop at a marina looking out at Diamond Cay. We tie up at a small dock. Behind it is an open air concrete structure with pointy red tower roofs known as Foxy’s Taboo. The place is named for one of Foxy’s daughters. Behind that is cleared ground, another low structure or two, then the forest rising to the central ridge of Jost Van Dyke. There is really nothing to stop for here except Foxy’s Taboo.

Despite its isolated location, the place is crowded. We soon find out why. Lunch is amazing. We order grilled white fish sandwiches and grilled calamari. Sip rum drinks. Dain has a Virgin. The seafood was caught this morning and is delicately spiced. Wanting to relax, Dain climbs into a hammock tied between palm trees and promptly falls asleep. Daiga and I walk around the marina. Take in the view of nearby islands, the cove, bobbing boats. Listen to the click of halyards against their masts. The breeze susurrating through palm fronds. Hard to imagine that out there the stress-filled world we call home is still spinning at its usual breakneck pace.

We backtrack west to Sandy Spit. Last chance for snorkeling. This tiny, tiny island just off Jost Van Dyke’s south coast, is surrounded by a ribbon of white sand. In the middle is a knoll covered with swaying palms. This island is so small, so easily accessible by boat, and so picture perfect, it is a popular destination for photographers seeking the iconic tropical image. Dinghies deliver tourists here from cruise ships. One rubber dinghy drops off “pirates” hired to stage a Caribbean birthday experience for kids. Dain is a little jealous. Filming is going on as we approach. Daiga is fairly certain she has seen a beer commercial filmed here. Megan and Alex corroborate that a commercial for Corona beer, and another one for America Express, were filmed at Sandy Spit.

The other three swim in and loll on the white sand. Toby stays with the boat. Dain and I gear up and snorkel. Not much coral here. The fish seem to have been spooked away by the boat traffic jam. We swim and dive under and around the tied-up boats, pretending we are dolphins.

Last stop. White Bay and the infamous Soggy Dollar Bar.

St Thomas Soggy Dollar Bar

Beach by the Soggy Dollar Bar at a quiet time

Daiga’s co-worker had told her this was one of his favorite places on earth. Swimming in with wet dollars to this lonely beach to buy rum drinks and relax was for him the essential Caribbean experience. What we find is something different altogether. This bar has meanwhile, since his day, achieved world-wide acclaim. What we encounter is the biggest crowd scene we’ve seen in the Virgin Islands, by far. The bar takes its name from the fact that there is no dock. Boats can’t haul up on shore. You have to tie up out in the bay and swim in or, if the tide is low, as it is now, wade in. A few thousand people in wet bathing suits pack the beach. The bay is so choked with small craft any real swimming would be inadvisable. The day before New Year’s Eve is celebrated at Foxy’s, you come to the Soggy Dollar. This is the one place that takes plastic (you no longer really have to carry soggy dollars in your swim suit). Unlike elsewhere in the islands, the service is efficient. We buy “Painkillers,” the bar’s signature drink. The rum and pineapple and cream of coconut drinks are poured out of a mixer into white opaque plastic souvenir cups with a logo that says “Original Soggy Dollar Painkiller” against a backdrop of palms, beneath that the subtitle: “A Sunny Drink for Shady People.”

Many younger revelers are getting drunk and silly. No harm done as long as they navigate the boats safely. This once remote place does however feel like a Florida spring break mecca. Dain joins a line that forms under a tall shady locust tree near the bar. A game is being played. You balance on your forehead a metal washer that dangles at the end of a long string tied to a tree branch overhead. You bend over backwards, like doing the limbo. If you manage this without falling over, you let the washer fly toward a target with a dowel rod affixed to the tree trunk. If the washer encircles the dowel rod, great cheers arise. While I watch, a college-aged woman attempts this feat with the washer pressed between breasts. Her posse of guys hoots with appreciation. She manages to not fall over.

Daiga and Megan watch Dain when it’s finally his turn. Alex and I sit with our Painkillers in shade. He’s been coming to the B.V.I. on sailing trips with his parents since he was a kid in his late teens. The Soggy Dollar then was an outpost. Only local boaters knew about it and you really did have to swim in with your dollars. He has fond memories of sleepy nights out in the calm bay. Once cruise ships put the Soggy Dollar on their itinerary, word got out. Now the Soggy Dollar is written up, claims Alex, in all the Caribbean travel guide books. The business is good for the locals. Sure. For Alex perhaps, and no doubt Daiga’s colleague if he were to see it now, much of the charm is lost.

It’s a good day for Dain. Two bullseyes on the target tree. We motor back south and west across Pillsbury Sound to St. Thomas. Tired, happy, still banging full-tilt over swells. Toby still bemoaning the fate of his drop ladder, cracked while we rescued the foundering dinghy this morning. Storm clouds build, dump, sail on. Frigatebirds swoop. Nothing but islands and sea in every direction. This is the tropical paradise you hear about.

Back on St. Thomas, we snag pizza to go at “Thirteen,” a roadside restaurant that has mainland quality dinners but also sells pizza to go.  Best of all, it’s conveniently near home.

No pool romping tonight. This long day of pounding over swells, snorkeling over coral reefs, rescuing dinghies, sidling into the beach party scene, is having a soporific effect. Bed early tonight. Tomorrow promises the zip-line adventure Dain has been eager for all week. We plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve Caribbean style. Family, Caribbean style.

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