Thursday, December 31, 2015
In the early morning, Megan and Alex take our eleven-year old, Dain, zip-lining. This is a popular activity on St. Thomas. Reservations must be made in advance with “Tree Limin Extreme.” “Limin” is a Caribbean word that means “chillin” or relaxing, or partying in a low key, good way. You enter a course that includes six zip lines running at 35 miles per hour through the tree canopy. In the middle you cross two elevated bridges and stop on platforms as much as 80 feet in the air with views looking over Magen’s Bay across the sound to Jost Van Dyke, Tortola and out to the open Caribbean. Daiga and I are looking forward to tonight’s paddle in glass-bottomed kayaks before cheering in the New Year. We take a pass on the zip-lining.
Enjoying the quiet (no pestering to throw the football in the pool), Daiga and I linger over coffee. Through the open glass slider the breeze fans the hanging sheers. It’s overcast. Looking over the Brass Islands to the restless Atlantic, we see a lot of familiar gray. Nevermind. This is the Virgin Islands. Soon a patch of sun paints color over the gray. We opt for a long swim in the pool before breakfast. Wanting to keep our swim suits dry for later – maybe just making excuses – we swim without suits. There is nothing but that expansive water view before us. A wall of green piling over the retaining wall behind us. The freshening breeze, the damp air. At the edge of a garden. All of creation it seems unfolding before us.
Back from zip-lining, Dain is abuzz. “It’s so cool. You are literally zip-lining through a jungle.”
Now the long awaited promise. Time to jump off the house roof into the pool. To do so requires climbing a tall step-ladder, then clambering onto the flat roof. The three “boys” are up for it. The two “girls” prefer to watch. The roof is sprayed with a pale repellent coating meant to keep down mold. I worry that it could be slippery when wet so I caution Dain to be careful. The pool is plenty deep at this end. We go for it. The drop is maybe twelve feet to the water. No big deal. Right?
To leap off the roof, on the hillside above West Caret Bay, is to fling yourself into that panorama of islands and vast ocean. That wide open world, just out there, exerts a primal allure. We’re not really leaping into the void. But it feels like it.
Our afternoon takes us to Botany Bay. To reach the beach requires passing through a gated community. Alex’s boss owns property here so we are given permission by the guard at the gate to drive through the complex of luxury homes to reach the beach. Here is one of the rare places on the island with improved roads. Maintenance of these roads is helped by the fact that much of the hillside’s forest or “jungle” as Dain prefers, has been clear-cut.
Our first destination, a volcanic rock formation known as “Mermaid’s Chair,” juts to a point where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic. We hoof it through brown woods, clamber over sharp rocks, and settle into a deeply scoured tide pool that Megan and Alex have nicknamed for their oldest dog. A downpour bursts out of the bruised sky. When the worst is over, we climb a spiny ridge. East, below us, is Sandy Beach. Just outside the cove is the Caribbean. Rolling against Mermaid’s Chair from the west is the Atlantic. Waves mix in a boil amid the chimney rocks jutting north of our little ridge. In that boil two seas merge.
There is no one around. No boats. We have this pocket of paradise all to ourselves.
The small crescent beach on the Atlantic side of Mermaid’s Chair includes a bit of coral reef. Dain and I don snorkel gear. But the water is choppy. Alex warns that there can be a small rip tide. Daiga asks us to be sensible. We take the gear back off.
Sandy Beach, next stop, rims a cove with clear water, no rip tides, and big, Hawaiian-style waves. We pass a white-tailed deer walking down the path through the woods. The cove and beach are empty of any other people. Dain is beside himself. Body surfing, at last.
“Enjoy it now,” Alex says. The hillside above the beach has been purchased by a resort hotel. When the luxury complex is built, it will draw sailboats, yachts, crowds from the cruise ships.
Megan and Daiga alternate between lolling in the warm surf and lounging on the sand. The “boys” spend the rest of the afternoon chasing waves. We catch some good ones. We also catch the kind that dump you into the sticky sand and roll you and scrape raw any exposed sunburn.
“This is perfect, Daddy,” Dain says more than once. For a pre-pubescent boy traveling without friends, this is as good as it gets. Zip-lining in a jungle. Climbing rocks where two seas crash together. Body surfing waves. Over and over. No one saying stop.
Dark settles over the island around 6:30 give or take. Our glass-bottomed kayak tour, sponsored by Night Kayak at the Adventure Center at the Marriott, (the “adventure center” is a shack by the dock) is scheduled to leave the dock below Marriott Frenchman’s Reef at 7:30. Waiting for the tour, we enjoy an island moment. Rum cocktails on the Marriott’s outside deck. View looking over the cove. Rain blows in. We get wet. Ten minutes later, rain moves on. You learn to accept that being dry outdoors is optional, and “dry” is not necessarily the most fun option to choose.
When it’s time, we walk a lit path down to the dock and join the group scrumming around our loquacious guide. There are nine boats, most two-seaters. Trips are scheduled to leave the dock an hour apart and the claim is that each tour lasts an hour and a half, though, with time taken up on shore gearing up and listening to the guide’s spiel, you get maybe an hour on the water.
Dain climbs in behind me. Our guide maneuvers on a paddle board and regales us, while we paddle low-riding kayaks, with tall tales of island pseudo-history. Our glass-bottomed boats are fitted with LED lights that cast a lavender glow down into the water. In the shallows we can see every detail on the bottom. Close to shore, we come to a small anchored foot ferry. In the ten to fifteen feet or so of water below us, many large tarpon swim past. They seem as curious to look at us as we are to look at them. With their long, sleek bodies, tarpon resemble a cross between pike and barracuda shark. Their long tails are forked and the fish grow large. In this area they are known to get as big as 75 pounds. Big enough in open water to attract the same sport fishermen that might go after tuna or marlin. Big enough that when one head-butts our kayak, we feel it. Dain yelps with surprise.
Near the ferry we disturb a mature sea turtle. Judging by its size, and by how well the shell’s markings camouflage it against the rock shelf on the cove floor, it’s likely a Green sea turtle (they get up to between 300 to 500 pounds). Seeking rest, the creature shifts just enough that we can pick it out. Had the turtle not moved, it would have remained invisible to us. Now that it’s spotted, though, every one of our nine boats glides over to have a look. We paddle on. Another kayak tour group, hearing our exclamations, has scooted near and takes turns one by one looking down at a turtle who must by now have concluded that finding a better nap spot would be worth the effort.
Near the turtle we also startle a Sting ray. You only get a fleeting glimpse. With a flick of their “wings,” they stir the sand and are gone. Continuing around the curve of the shore we paddle below a cliff topped by a hillside once home to one of the several Danish forts built on St. Thomas during the roughly two hundred years, late 1600s to late 1800s, when they were the colonial power around here. By night you don’t see much. We are told that by day you can see the fort’s remnants.
Back home. North facing hill above West Caret Bay. We open prosecco (apple cider for the boy) and toast the New Year and announce wishes. Mine include hoping for another opportunity like this. I do not admit this out loud, but before coming here, the allure of visiting the Virgin Islands, if you take seeing family out of the equation, seemed tantamount to indulging a child’s dream of endless recess. Not real life. Right? A colleague of Daiga’s said he’d move here in a heartbeat if he could put his career on indefinite hiatus. The football coach at Antilles School claims he never plans to move back to the mainland. Something must be said for the allure of living on what feels like the edge of the world. If civilization is a bulwark against raw nature, here that bulwark is flimsy. These are not the same islands experienced by the Arawaks or Caribs. The wildlife and forests and seas have suffered the ravages that accompany the encroachment of what we think of as civilization. Nature, here, though, packs a powerful counterpunch. What we erect, nature dismantles. Entropy wins.
No matter where you go, the water is around you. You feel your smallness, the world’s entropic bigness. If there is a need for this reminder, there is plenty of it here.