Weird Creatures and Strange Times: Virgin Gorda Trip Report, Part II

Things we have seen in the water that have not freaked us out: a good-sized reef shark. Any number of barracudas, some at close quarters. An enormous pure white ray in Mexico, around four feet across (and maybe seven feet long?), that matched its background so perfectly that the only way I saw it was the little puffs of sand that it stirred up as it hunted.

Things that drove us from the water fairly quickly? This.

Glowy!

Moon Jelly at Mountain Trunk Bay

And, strangely enough, this:

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Ginormous Lobster at Mahoe Bay

Yeah, I know moons are not a particularly dangerous jelly, but they do have a sting and there were quite a few out there. They’re incredibly photogenic but I really prefer to use the zoom! That lobster was a monster, king of the crustaceans, and it seemed to be in a big hurry to get somewhere that was right behind us.

Savannah Bay

On our first day we made a big circle of the island to get our bearings, stopping at Hog Heaven for barbecue, rum swizzles, and the view, then planted ourselves on Savannah Bay for a snorkel and a nap. The nap was a little tough because there were plenty of people partying on Sunday Funday, but it’s a big, beautiful beach and wasn’t even close to crowded.

It’s far from the best snorkeling on Virgin Gorda, but it was better than the best snorkeling in some other places…a really big reef, very close to shore, and very shallow. It makes for some good photography:

Baby Bar Jacks

Baby Bar Jacks

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Sea Fan ready for its closeup

One notable thing about Savannah Bay: it’s maybe the only place I’ve ever seen a lot of healthy staghorn coral. I came to snorkeling late, after the horrible mass-bleaching event of 2005, and the staghorns were hit hard. But look at this beauty! And it wasn’t the only one!

Hope those white tips aren't a bad sign

Hope those white tips aren’t a bad sign

And here’s a question for any fish expert reading this. What is this? Maybe 10 – 12 inches long, swam more by wriggling than flapping its pectoral fins, colors pretty accurate. I’ve been looking through the reef fish book and haven’t found it yet. Leave a comment and let me know.

Mystery fish

Mystery fish

I’m sure it’s not particularly rare, but it was a cool one.

Mahoe Bay

We absolutely loved this bay. If we were wealthy we’d have a tough time resisting a fancy villa there…it might be best to avoid staying there if you like to explore, because it’s a really special place. It’s a double reef, kind of a big horseshoe, and everything is at an oddly perfect depth. It’s deep enough not to worry about scraping yourself and damaging the coral, but it’s shallow enough to see everything clearly.

It’s also where we saw our first porcupinefish ever. I heard Buck yelling, “Kate! Come over here! There’s a fish that looks like a bulldog!” And sure enough, it was hanging out where we could see it and it didn’t run away.

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He was a pretty relaxed fish, maybe two feet?

Maybe the same guy, maybe not, a couple of days later

Maybe the same guy, maybe not, a couple of days later

And because we’re weird that way, it’s not really a vacation without sea turtles.

A very zippy little loggerhead

A very zippy little loggerhead

So yeah, Mahoe Bay’s amazing, but don’t stay there if you like to go adventuring, because you’ll never leave. Unless you’re afraid of 30-inch spiny lobsters:

Enough lobster for a family of four

Enough lobster to feed a family of four

Mountain Trunk Bay

The entire Nail Bay area, both Nail Bay itself and Mountain Trunk, kind of pissed us off. There’s a ton of construction on Nail Bay where they’re grading a hillside and building a new house. It was incredibly loud and it made me wonder whether the runoff is going to damage the reef. Mountain Trunk Bay had enough jellies to make us uncomfortable. In addition to the big moon jelly at the beginning of the post, there were a lot of little clear ones. I didn’t get stung. In fact, I never have had a real jellyfish sting—just the agua mala, but in Jamaica instead of Mexico. But that’s because I steer clear.

To top it all off, Mountain Trunk has dark sand that’s incredibly hot underfoot, which means that you have to wear your sandals to almost the edge of the water then kick them off and hop over the sand yelling ouch ouch ouch ouch.

That being said, it’s a beautiful bay and here’s what we saw before fleeing in terror: a fish wall.

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It was absolutely immense—maybe 40 or 50 feet long and 20 feet high. From the shore it looked like a reef!

Spring Bay

Spring Bay is one up from The Baths and is similarly full of huge granite boulders that form calm pools. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place to bask in the water and float around. In the main part of the bay heading toward The Baths the snorkeling’s pretty good; it’s full of the huge boulders and there are lots of fish and some nice elkhorn coral.

What can I say? There aren't many things that make me happier than a big school of blue tang.

What can I say? There aren’t many things that make me happier than a big school of blue tang.

We don’t have lots of underwater pictures from Spring Bay because I made a long video while tailing that school of blue tang up toward the point. This is part of my personal theory of snorkeling…I try not to be a snob about it, looking for rare fish and making lists. My two favorite things are big schools of blue tang and parrotfish, just because they make me happy. Virgin Gorda had lots of parrotfish so I could float around watching them peck away at the reef to my heart’s content. Seeing something a little bit more rare or exotic is really cool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not necessary for my complete enjoyment.

Weird Creatures!

Devil’s Bay…aaah. So very lovely. Not a snorkeling beach, just placid turquoise water, perfect for basking. But also the place where we had an unpleasant experience with the weirdest creature we’ve ever encountered.

We walked down the trail rather than tangling with the Baths—plenty of rocks, but much more navigable. It’s lined with huge cacti and a really fun walk in general. Then, as we were basking away happily, like so…

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…something sharp poked me in the butt. “There’s something prickly in my bathing suit,” I told Buck. “I think you brushed against a cactus,” he said. And we bickered a little about it, because even though I’m clumsy I tend to avoid cacti after an unpleasant encounter with a prickly pear in New Mexico.

Finally I managed to pull this poky thing out of my bathing suit. It looked like a quarter-inch tube of glass…weird. And then I started to feel more of them. And then Buck started feeling them, too. We started to look suspiciously at the buoys and the boats off in the distance, wondering if it’s possible for boats to start shedding their fiberglass.

After spending some time on shore picking this stuff out of our rashguards and bathing suits (and wondering how the other people in the bay could stand being there, even if they did have a six-pack with them) we made our way back and had a drink at Top of the Baths, floating in the pool and picking bits of glass out of our suits. Devil’s Bay, indeed!

It would have remained a mystery except that I kept thinking about it and through the magic of Google found out what they were: sea butterflies! From Wikipedia:

They are rather difficult to observe, since the shell (when present) is mostly colorless, very fragile and usually less than 1 cm in length. Although their shell may be so fine as to be transparent, it is nevertheless calcareous;[4] their shells are bilaterally symmetric and can vary widely in shape: coiled, needle-like, triangular, globulous.

These were so fine as to be transparent, and they were definitely needle-like. Here’s what they look like picked out of your rashguard weeks later and put on a black background for contrast:

They were clear when we were there, but turned white after going through the laundry.

They were clear when we were there, but turned white after going through the laundry.

Sea butterflies! So now you know!

Strange Times

We’d been monitoring the weather, since even a low-key hurricane season bears watching when you’re in the Caribbean in July. And sure enough, Tropical Storm Bertha made its way up through the islands and arrived the day we were supposed to leave.

We checked in with Speedy’s and they said they would still be running. We thought of leaving for St. Thomas a day early and getting a room there, but we were enjoying Virgin Gorda too much so we just decided to go with the original plan.

Then, after one last day on Mahoe Bay, we got back to Bayview and found out that St. Thomas had closed the port as of 5:00 p.m. We weren’t getting there that way, no matter what. Luckily, our apartment had two more free nights and American Airlines provided free changes due to the weather, so we just decided to stay. As my mom wrote when we e-mailed to line up an extra day of dog sitting, “Well, it’s a new experience and at least you can say you’ve been through it.”

And it was the laziest day of our lives. We charged everything up, bought some extra groceries, beer, and mixers, and just spent the day on the porch watching the storm.

It wasn't that violent, but it was incredibly wet

It wasn’t that violent, but it was incredibly wet

Honestly, we’re just now getting over it, a month later. It turns out that spending a day doing nothing, while it sounds appealing, really isn’t good for you. It makes you foggy and the fogginess lasts like a nagging cold.

And Finally…

We loved this island. We will be back, and next time we will do more than just sit on the beach and go snorkeling. We’ll rent a dinghy and go snorkeling!

 

 

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Virgin Gorda Trip Report: Wow

Wow. Yowza. Ooo-ee. OMFG. Holy s&%t.

That’s Virgin Gorda.

Yep, you just gaze and gaze

Hog Heaven: Decent BBQ, Strong Drinks, and this View

There are some places in the world that are literally stunning. Big chunks of the American Southwest, for example—it’s hard to even drive in Southern Utah without running off the road because you’re gaping at every turn. St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is that way; the first time we went we spent all of our time with our mouths hanging open, gazing and gazing, and even though it’s a big wide world we had to return to actually experience it instead of just looking at it.

When I found cheap airfare to St. Thomas for my 50th birthday week I figured we might go to St. John again, but I’ve always had Virgin Gorda in the back of my mind. The second time we went to St. John we took a day trip over to see The Baths and it was pretty great, although climbing on rocks barefoot isn’t really my jam. We’d also gone over a year without using our passports, which is just unacceptable.

So Virgin Gorda it was, and it was a very good decision.

How We Got There

It’s a serious pain to get to from our fair city, involving either two flights and a looong ferry ride (which we did) or two big flights and a tiny plane for the last leg (which we may do the next time). All of our flights tend to leave at some ridiculous time like 5:30 but this one was at the luxurious hour of 7:00 a.m. Sounds good, but we went to a lovely wedding the night before and it felt more like 4:30. And even with a short layover and easy flights, 13 hours of travel is a lot of travel. But it does cut down on the number of gringos you run into when you’re there!

When we arrived at the ferry in downtown Charlotte Amalie they said it was going to be leaving at 4:30 instead of 4:00. There were no cruise ships in town so we walked along the harbor, stopping to look at the fishermen’s stand, and into town a bit. There were some food vendors set up as a fundraiser for a local elementary school so we had some nice fish, rice & peas, and johnnycakes while looking at the water then headed back and had our first Carib of many while waiting to board.

The ferry ride was amazing and beautiful. It passes by many of the gorgeous places in both the USVI and BVI. All along the North Shore of St. John I was saying, “There’s Salomon Bay. And hey, that’s Jumbie Bay, remember that? Oh, Cinnamon Bay and Whistling Cay, I always wanted to take a boat out there to snorkel. And Waterlemon Cay! We were there!”

I’m interested in Tortola cause it’s so incredibly hilly and so surrounded by sailboats, but I couldn’t find decent lodging in our budget. I’m pretty sure this is the marina at Nanny Cay.

So many boats!

So many boats! Or I guess they’re yachts, buncha fancypants

Customs was really easy. For some trips we’ve gone to a local Italian market the week before and bought seriously good salami and capicola and cheese for our beach sandwiches (freeze them and put them in a small cooler in a checked bag) and they just let us right through, no problem.

Where We Stayed

I have officially outdone myself. Bayview Vacation Apartments is the best value in lodging that I’ve ever found, and I’ve found many. It’s hard to even know where to begin…it’s huge, for one thing. They’re not apartments, they’re townhouses, with a full kitchen open to a real dining room, a sunken living room, a powder room, two big bedrooms, two renovated bathrooms. There are FOUR porches, two upstairs and two down. The bedrooms have air conditioning, which you absolutely need in July. And the housekeeper comes in three times a week!

Jimnaaay!

Our Jimny in our own private parking space

So, my thinking on vacation housing. This blog is largely about how to go to the same places as rich people without being rich. Since transport costs are pretty much fixed, there are only a couple of ways to make that happen: sleeping and eating. Despite our middle-aged spread we are not people who have any particular interest in eating three huge meals every day, so eating is really not such a big deal. Lodging, however, can be outlandishly expensive.

We paid $570 for a week in our two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath townhouse. For that money we could have had one night at Little Dix Bay (a very lovely, ultra-luxurious resort). We could have had one night and maybe a few extra hours at my dream villa on Mahoe Bay, which has an outdoor ping pong table with wet bar (yes!!), a four-hole putting green, and a Zen garden. We could have even made it to 3.5 days at Guavaberry Spring Bay.

But here’s the thing about these gorgeous ocean-view properties: you just sleep in them. Well, you also fix breakfast and maybe hang out drinking rum punch after you get back from the beach. And the way you get an ocean view is to build on a hillside and keep the trees cut back, so the 90 degree sun is just beating down on you. In many ways the Bayview approach, with this amazingly beautiful garden, is more comfortable. Shade feels good.

IMG_1038

It was also impeccably clean, newly renovated with fancy bathrooms, and within walking distance of the yacht harbor (which has restaurants, shops, and a supermarket). The owner was kind, friendly, and helpful. Absolutely highly recommended, and a peek at her reservations board showed that she probably doesn’t need to spend a lot of time marketing these days…pretty much no vacancy in peak season.

What We Did

What we thought we’d do:  rent a dinghy and boat around. Take the ferry to Anegada and try to see pink flamingos.

What we did: go to the beach. Snorkel. Repeat.

Here’s why:

 

That's Buck snorkeling

Savannah Bay, where we were pestered by beach chickens

 

Sorry, bad panorama

Mahoe Bay, the best overall

Shallow and floaty

Between Spring Bay and Little Trunk Bay, absolutely amazing

We spied on a fisherman

Mountain Trunk Bay

Pretty but deadly

Devils Bay

We are still wimps about rock climbing

The Baths

I think I’m going to have to break this up into two parts, it’s getting so long. I’ll try to get to it fairly quickly while it’s still top of mind, because it’s going to be time to start thinking about our next trip soon. But just as a preview, the next post will be titled “Weird Creatures and Strange Times.” Oh yes.

The List

I’m turning into my Dad.

It’s been coming on for some time. I get up at the crack of dawn regardless of the day of the week. I’m fidgety and nervous if there are dishes in the sink. I make really, really good hamburgers.

But one of the most Dadlike things of all is the lists. While we were growing up he’d sit down at the table and say, “Let’s make a list.” It might have things like Buy screws – Vacuum pool – Cut grass. Or it might be something like Bait – Dog food – Practice. No occasion, large or small, went without a list.

Whether it’s nature or nurture, I do exactly the same thing. Groceries, chores, work deliverables: list, list, list. Even a really lazy weekend usually has a little list consisting of “Rock out. Have fun.” There are scraps of paper everywhere I go with my awful scrawl and things laboriously crossed out.

So you can just imagine what it’s like when we travel! Here’s my best packing list of all time:

I am nuts

This was for a really great trip: we flew to Vegas (Southwest, for the free checked bags), rented a car, stopped at Whole Foods right by the airport for food, and drove to Zion National Park for two nights of camping. We also hit Bryce Canyon, then spent two nights on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Back to a suite at Caesar’s Palace for a night, then a whole day at the outlandish pool before heading home.

Camping by plane is a little tough: even with four free checked bags you can’t really go as hog wild with the gear as you can when you’re loading up the back of the station wagon. This list was so amazingly good that I’ve kept it on the refrigerator and referred to it for every camping trip since, even the ones that are less than an hour away.

We’re not camping next week, but I’ve got a really good list anyway.

 

House of the Day: Maybe Our All-Time Favorite

We went to St. Croix this spring for our longest vacation ever: eight whole days! I am incredibly intrigued by this island, even more so after staying there. It’s not tiny and glamorous. The beaches for the most part aren’t soft and blinding white. It’s not all spruced up and ship-shape. It closes down well before dark.

But it’s kind of…comfortable. There are big supermarkets and farmer’s markets (and farms in general! local agriculture! as a gardener I’m envious). There’s even a Home Depot. It’s the kind of island that makes you go, “Hmm. We really could live here.”

Everywhere we go I manage to come up with a business idea. Vieques? They really could use a good ice cream shop. Salt Cay? It could turn into a paradise if they would just compost and create some actual topsoil. And on and on. But the best business ever is the compound of cottages that was our home-base in St. Croix.

Yes, I had to work

Taking care of business

Three cottages (with another on the way), plus owner’s residence, pool, and garage, in a handy spot but tucked away in the forest. It was just beautiful there, incredibly quiet and peaceful. Lots of dogs, friendly landlady, well equipped, well maintained. Cool and breezy. Outdoor shower. I could have lived there for years instead of eight days.

So, now I want to buy a place with some rentals in St. Croix. Having seen what goes into it (constant work, lots of money) I’m not sure I’d be able to pull it off, but it’s good to dream. If I could just get truly reliable Internet and keep my current job and salary there’s a place available that would be perfect…

The House of the Day is a Hotel: Hotel Yeneka, La Paz, Mexico

I’d be fine with never staying in a conventional hotel again. Even the nicer ones give you very little more than a bed, a dresser, and maybe a little working or relaxing space. If you’re really lucky you’ll have a little coffee maker. For me, personal travel only becomes truly relaxing when I can get up and throw on a caftan, grab a cup of coffee, and head outside to ease into the day.

But conventional hotels are one thing and the Hotel Yeneka is a different beast entirely.

Now that's a place to chill!

They also call themselves the Hotel Arte Museo Yeneka—that crazy garden full of art is where you go for your complimentary continental breakfast and your two free shots of tequila each night. All of the rooms have wacky themed decor. And you negotiate your own price! (From what I understand it’s probably around USD$40 – $60.)

I’ve been thinking about a big swing through Baja California Sur for a while now…Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, and Todos los Santos. If I couldn’t stay here in La Paz I’d be so bummed.

Mofongo, One and Done: Vieques Trip Report

It just doesn’t make any sense to go to Puerto Rico and skip the mofongo. Mashed fried plantains with bacon is your national dish? Sign me up!

Or so I thought.

Midway through our trip to Vieques over Memorial Day week this year we went up to Isabel Segunda for dinner. Man, is that town dead at night in the offseason—you might see someone riding around on a horse, but then again, you might not. We had already been up there once for dinner at Coqui Fire, but we were ready for some Puerto Rican food. We drove around looking for someplace that was actually open and finally went to Sabores (or Biekes Bistro, I can’t remember which).

Was the food good? Sure…we tried a variety, some fish, some chicken, some beef. I had skirt steak and mofongo and it was amazing that I actually survived the experience. Mofongo may be the heaviest thing that a human being can ingest and live. I almost couldn’t climb into the Jeep. Upon arrival at the rental house I went into the bedroom and groaned. The other person who had mofongo did the same.

You’re thinking, “Well, what did you expect? It’s fried plantain with bacon.” But people eat it daily! How do they survive? It’s a hot climate!

Anyway, on to the trip report.

Getting There, Getting Around

This was our first time in Puerto Rico, but I’m sure it won’t be our last. To get to Vieques or Culebra, its sister island, you need to take a small plane or the ferry. The ferries are supposedly incredibly unreliable and when we were booking the trip I was feeling fairly prosperous, so I booked us on the 15 minute flight from Ceiba airport. It’s about 45 minutes from San Juan, so we took an $80 cab ride down there, passing through areas that looked oddly like Queens but with palm trees (which makes sense when you think about it).

We had some time to kill so we hung around outside looking at birds and chilling with an island dog. I’m always a little ambivalent about island dogs—on one hand, every dog deserves to be loved, cherished, and cared for. On the other, they get to keep their balls, live on an island, and chase crabs. One of our first discoveries on this trip was that even an emaciated island dog hanging around the airport parking lot will turn its nose up at a Twizzler.  Hmm, may need to rethink our airplane snack of choice.

The plane is incredibly small and there’s a strict 25 pound weight limit on baggage. They even weigh you on the baggage scale to make sure you didn’t lie when you booked your tickets and to balance the load. We’re turning into small plane connoissuers and this one was a gem:

Air Flamenco

The wheels don’t retract!

We picked up our Jeep on arrival and you definitely need one on Vieques. The main roads are great, but getting to the good beaches is a little bit of an adventure even with high clearance and four wheel drive.

On the way back we took the ferry to Fajardo: cheap, scenic, pretty much on time. But we did the gringo thing (of course) and sat outside for the views, and the brand new eyeglasses inside my knapsack actually melted in the sun.

Vieques-Fajardo ferry

When ferries are good, they’re very very good

Where We Stayed

Vieques has two towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. Isabel Segunda is larger and has more services: the ferry, the fisherman’s market, government offices. Esperanza on the other hand has the Malecon and tourist-oriented conveniences. We stayed at Casa Anolis in Esperanza and it was a great value: three bedrooms with absolutely essential air conditioning, a totally adequate kitchen, a great back porch with a view of the ocean, and lots of fruit trees in the yard. It also had a huge shower with water pressure that knocked you backwards, plenty of towels, and laundry on the porch (very useful when you’re limited to 25 pounds and bringing a laptop and snorkel gear). It was a good choice.

Food and Drink

Mofongo aside, Vieques is great for chow. There are food trucks on the road toward the beaches during offseason weekends and you can get great, reasonably priced empanadas (fish, shrimp, chicken, crab, conch) and pinchos (pork, chicken, shrimp).

We had a pretty great time at the grocery stores, too. We didn’t do a lot of cooking—one big breakfast, one dinner—but we did a lot of snacking and drinking. Of all of the island grocery stores we’ve shopped, nothing beats the great big Plaza Extra on St. Croix. It’s as big as a Costco! But the Morales supermarkets on Vieques are just fine, with good selections of booze and mixers, Goya wafer cookies, and fairly reasonably priced sunscreen.

Another thing Vieques does well is the fisherman’s market in Isabel Segunda. It’s a central location for buying fresh fish and lobster. There’s no heading to the beach and haggling with individual fisherman, you just show up in late morning and point at what you want. And it’s in a pretty spot:

Awesome

The fisherman’s pier

Another crazy thing about Puerto Rico is the Gasolinas—little cocktail pouches like juice boxes for grown-ups. We found one in the freezer when we got there and there’s one in our freezer right now.

Beaches and Snorkeling

Vieques is the only island in the Caribbean on which huge tracts of land are closed to the public due to unexploded ordnance. That’s right—for 63 years the U.S. Navy used it as a bombing range and over 8,000 acres are still closed because there are bombs laying around. While it means that this land is going to be preserved forever because it belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s appalling for the economic and physical health of the local population. They have elevated cancer rates (perhaps due to the depleted uranium in the shells) and the environmental disaster is no doubt affecting the tourist numbers.

Perhaps the best beach on the island, La Chiva (Blue Beach), is closed for at least six months because they’ve found unexploded bombs in and around the little cayo just offshore. This was a big disappointment, but we did hit a variety of other beaches: Sombe (or Sun Bay), Caracas (Red Beach), Navio, Media Luna, Punta Arenas (Green Beach), and the Rompeolas (the old Navy pier on the north side of the island).

Over time my standards for beaches have changed. I used to boogie board. I wanted surf. I’ve changed, and now I want to snorkel in calm, clear water. Most of the beaches on Vieques were a little rough and very cloudy (and we found a Portuguese Man O’War washed up on Navio and promptly left). That doesn’t mean that they weren’t fun and great, but we’ve turned into snorkeling snobs and the snorkeling on Vieques simply isn’t up to the standards of the U.S. Virgin Islands. That being said, I crossed a big one off my list:

They are so cool

A spotted eagle ray!

And Buck both a) saw and b) documented a hawksbill turtle hiding under a ledge at Punta Arenas:

 Adventures and Wildlife

We went to Vieques in large part for the bioluminescent bay and for a while we thought it might not happen. Formerly the most consistently bright bio bay in the world, Mosquito Bay went dark this winter. The jury’s still out on what caused it: unusually high tides, salinity, pH, runoff, or other human factors. Regardless, it’s a nightmare for the island. There’s graffiti everywhere saying “Save the Bay.” Tour sizes are now cut by 50%, and for now tours are available only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They’re finally enforcing the rules about not swimming in the bay (which would be amazing, but sometimes you have to have less fun to avoid killing the things you love) but we found that they didn’t enforce the prohibition against bug spray. We didn’t do it, but people in our group were spraying down like crazy at the edge of the bay.

We set out on Sunday night down the incredibly bumpy road in an enormous van, which promptly got stuck in the muddy lot next to the bay. We hopped into two-man kayaks and spent around an hour.

If this is what the bay is like when it’s dark, I’m really sad we didn’t go a couple of years ago. Here’s what they don’t tell you: despite all of the Photoshopped pictures of an eerie blue glow, the dinoflagellates actually sparkle. It’s even trippier and weirder than I thought it was going to be and Buck kept saying “Stop paddling and put your hand in the water!”

In addition to the bio bay, Vieques was a hotbed of animal life. The island is full of seemingly wild paso fino horses, a small breed known for their pleasant gait. While most of them are owned by someone, they just wander around at will and you have to be careful while driving:

paso fino

Horses in the road

P1010323

People—mostly young men—throw blankets on them and ride them around without stirrups just as basic transportation. Because none of them seem to be gelded, there are tons of baby horses tottering around on their incredibly long legs and lots of pregnant mama horses looking very uncomfortable. Also, because none of them seem to be gelded, there’s a lot of…tumescence going on.  I’m fine with never seeing an aroused male horse ever again, just saying.

The other crazy thing was the scarlet macaw. Our first morning there someone spotted it in a distant tree and we kept seeing it hanging around the neighborhood. They’re not native to Vieques, they’re mostly a Central American species, but perhaps someone had one as a pet and released it when it got inconveniently large. Once it was out it was definitely thriving, eating mangoes and carambola and generally ruling the neighborhood with an iron beak.

One morning we were out on the porch looking at it when it flew directly overhead and landed in our mango tree. It just hung around all morning and allowed us to look at it and get real close for photo ops. Absolutely amazing.

Well, hello to you too

Enough Already!

This is incredibly long and I admire you for reaching the end. Will we go back to Vieques? Maybe, but not for a very long time. There’s so much left to explore, even in Puerto Rico alone.  I want to see the Arecibo observatory and the El Yunque rainforest. I have always wanted to go to Culebra. If we were rich we’d do a crazy expedition to Isla Mona. Etc. But it was a blast and a totally worthy experiment in moving the group beach vacation to a more tropical climate.

 

Anatomy of a Vacation Decision, Part 2

It may be a blog that I don’t publicize much except to my friends (although maybe that will change if I post more frequently) but I feel kind of bad that I haven’t been keeping it up. My excuse is that shortly after I wrote the last post I spent a day in the garden weeding then spent the evening typing and typing and typing for work and basically ruined my right hand for a month. I have carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis and an entire day of extreme overuse made it blow up to enormous size and turn red. It stayed that way for a while and I spent most of my time in splints since I can’t really take a few days off  and rest it. Then we went on vacation and then…anyway, excuses, excuses.

When I left off we had eliminated Cayman Brac, Eleuthera, Roatan and Jamaica while keeping St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands on the list. The list also included a big one that is utterly impractical for most of the year: St. Barthélemy.

Ah yes, St. Barth’s. Swimming pools, movie stars. One of the most expensive places in the world, where a hamburger and a rum punch will leave you $50 poorer. Make that 50 EUROS. But it’s ridiculously gorgeous, which is why the movie stars, record moguls, and Internet billionaires go there.

St-Barthelemy

The thing is, they go there in the WINTER. From late April until August it reverts to a normal, sleepy island, albeit with world-class pastries and expensive hamburgers. (In August Europeans use some of their 1000 vacation days to visit la plage, sans exchange rate difficulties.) It also has one of the world’s most terrifying airports. We need to go just so Buck can film the landing (he’s geeky that way):

There are two hotels on St. Barth’s that provide you with an apartment or cottage, rental car included, for less than 100 euros a night in the offseason. The Auberge de la Petite Anse overhangs a little bay and is next to the trail to the most beautiful and secluded beach on the island. Not fancy, but 60 euros a night. That’s just a hair over $80, INCLUDING rental car. The Auberge de Terre Neuve is a little more money but you get a really nice freestanding cottage (and rental car) for 80 euros. We figured that we would just cook for ourselves most of the time.

Meanwhile, we were still thinking about the snorkeling. St. Barth’s seems to be okay, but maybe not as good as the Virgin Islands. So off I went to my favorite website, ITA Software, to research airfare for both places, multiple tabs open, typing furiously.

Ouch. St. Barth’s was going to be really high. Meanwhile, flights to St. Thomas were the cheapest I’ve seen, so we clicked “buy.”

I shot off an e-mail to this place and waited. And waited. And waited. While we waited, we got to talking and realized we hadn’t used our passports this year. It’s really a waste of such handsome official documents to keep them stashed in my underwear drawer. We’d been to St. Croix and were preparing for Vieques, both of which are lovely and interesting products of U.S. imperialism (more on both some other time), but the passports had been sitting sad, lonely, and unused.

A few years ago we splurged on a day trip to Virgin Gorda to climb around The Baths. What an amazing place…enormous boulders stacked up in a shallow turquoise sea. While wandering around as the boat crew dealt with customs and immigration we stopped by Bucks Market for a photo op and found a lovely elderly woman selling homemade patties out of a cooler. We bought a conch pattie to munch on while looking at sailboats in the Yacht Harbor and it was one of the best things we’ve ever had. So yeah, we had fond memories.

thebaths

 

bucksmarket

If St. Barth’s is one of the most expensive places in the world, Virgin Gorda isn’t far behind. Put it this way…it’s not hard to run into Richard Branson (who owns Necker Island, just a mile or two away), a Google founder, or an aging rockstar–especially if you’re on a boat at the time. But there are some inexpensive places to stay that are genuinely nice: Fischer’s Cove Beach Hotel and Bayview Vacation Apartments (who really need to get rid of that music on their website).

Normally I’d be all over a cottage directly on the beach like Fischer’s Cove, but in the height of summer even a sea breeze probably wouldn’t keep it cool enough for Buck to sleep. Meanwhile, Bayview is really more like a townhouse than an apartment–two stories, air conditioned bedrooms, upstairs and downstairs porches–and costs even less at $570 a week. The two stories thing is a really unexpected luxury. Buck can sleep in while I go downstairs at my usual ridiculously early hour to guzzle iced coffee and work. And who minds working when you’re doing it from this porch?

bayview

So Virgin Gorda it is. I’m foolishly excited about renting a Suzuki Jimny

800px-1998_Suzuki_Jimny_01

even though the guys on Top Gear hate them because screw those guys. It’s exactly the kind of thing I wish we had here: a tiny four wheel drive vehicle for summer adventuring and winter errands, small enough to park in the city. There’s at least a possibility that we’ll get to test our competence by driving stick with right-hand drive on a mountainous island (left hand drive=no big deal, right hand drive=adventure!).

And there’s a very good possibility that we will spend my 50th birthday doing this:

dinghy

It even looks like us!

I’ll just leave you with this image from the Virgin Gorda underwater webcam, with a banded coral shrimp and some Christmas Tree worms. I promise not to go two months between posts from here on out.

shrimp virgin gorda

Anatomy of a Vacation Decision

I’m turning 50 in July, and while I’m not terribly oppressed by the aging process I really don’t like to spend my birthday at home. There’s just so much awkwardness. Do we throw a party? Do we pretend it’s not happening? And why does no one seem to understand that the best birthday cake is dark chocolate with vanilla buttercream (or gobs, gobs are always good)?

We thought we weren’t going to be able to leave town for this big milestone and it was getting me down. We started planning to go somewhere great a week or two later, or maybe have some sort of extra-special trip in November to make up for it. Here were the criteria:

  1. Limpid blue water.
  2. Lots of fun, sporty things to do: snorkeling, biking, kayaking.
  3. If possible, outside the U.S. I feel like we’re wasting our passports if we don’t use them.

I started going through my huge library of bookmarked vacation properties. St. Bart’s? In the offseason it’s super cheap as long as you don’t start eating too many fancy meals, and you can go around pretending to be a movie star. A fat, 50 year old movie star. Whale sharks? But we were in Mexico just last year.

Narrowing it down based on snorkeling, I started looking at the Caymans, Roatan, Eleuthera, and St. John. Then I threw Jamaica in just for the hell of it because we stayed on the Negril cliffs for a long weekend a couple of years ago, absolutely loved the people and food, and are itching to go back.

Grand Cayman? Holy crap is it expensive, and beaches lined with high rises don’t really appeal. But Cayman Brac looks like our kind of place. It has great snorkeling, most places provide free bicycles and/or kayaks, and there are really cool caves and a parrot sanctuary. I could break my lodging for $100 or less per night rule to stay at Winta Cottage. It’s a house on stilts!

wintacottage

But they serve sea turtle on Grand Cayman (farmed, but still) and even the cheapest island is still a little pricey. Maybe spring break sometime?

And then Roatan. We’ve been thinking of going for years. It’s supposed to be one of the top two places for snorkeling in the Caribbean, right up there with Bonaire (which we’ve also been thinking of for years). There are plenty of reasonably priced places to stay, but it has a reputation as one of the buggiest places around. Google “roatan sand fleas” at your own peril. We’d still like to go, but not in the rainy season. No way.

Eleuthera…well, it’s just the prettiest word. And they know a thing or two about conch in the Bahamas. I’ve had my eye on a little complex of cottages in Gregory Town, five minutes walk from the Friday night fish fry, for years. But then I found Take Ya Time cottage.

takeyatime

A golf cart and two kayaks, that view, and $110 a night? I would love to barrel around the Bahamas in a golf cart. Unfortunately Rainbow Bay seems to be the equivalent of a newly built subdivision in the U.S.

So, Jamaica? My original idea was to fly into Kingston, rent a car, drive to the Great Huts and spend a few days, then gradually work our way back along the north coast and fly home from Montego Bay. But I’ll admit it: I’m afraid to drive in Jamaica. Those people are nuts.

So if we stayed in one place, Treasure Beach seemed like a good option and in the low season we could even afford to stay at Jake’s. The only problem is that I really don’t like to spend an entire week eating out for every meal, and we’d end up spending quite a bit on excursions and such: looking at crocodiles in the Great Morass, trying to make it to Little Ochie’s to eat in a boat on the beach, drinking at the Pelican Bar. I mean, look at the Pelican Bar. Just look at it.

pelicanbar

I’d want to be there every day. But maybe Treasure Beach would be a better group vacation? Jamaica is a place I want to share.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Buck will be able to take my birthday week!

To be continued…

The One That Got Away: Casa Tangamanga, Tulum

tangamanga

I will never deny that we are very fortunate, privileged people. First and foremost, by saving and careful economizing in other areas we usually manage to take four real vacations a year. But above and beyond that, we were incredibly fortunate to make it to Tulum when it was still fairly cheap.

In the world of tourism on the “Riviera Maya,” for a long time Tulum was the place for hippies, backpackers and assorted weirdos. Spring breakers went to Cancun, partiers went there or to Playa del Carmen. The vast proliferation of all-inclusive resorts along the coast gave people who prefer buffets and swim-up bars an excuse to stay at their resort and leave only by tour bus.*

In Tulum, the hotels were (and still are) collections of beach cabanas off the electric grid and not necessarily bursting with creature comforts. For a long time many of them had sand floors, which is cool but means that your bed will turn into a massive exfoliating device after a few days.

But the beach…oh, that beach. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, lined with palm trees, fluorescent turquoise, and stretching for miles. The whitest, finest sand I’ve ever felt. Literally like powdered sugar. It’s impossible to get rid of it, just like powdered sugar. My Kindle cover had Tulum sand in it until the day the Kindle died.

We went during the financial crisis and stayed in a gorgeous little cabana with a view of the ocean. The bathrooms were shared, but they used conch shells as showerheads. It was ridiculously romantic and it cost around $450 for the week. Now, even one way back near the road will run you about $160 a night. Tulum has turned into a place where you’re more likely to run into a movie star than a naked hippie doing his salute to the sun when you head out for a cup of coffee in the morning.

When this property started up I got really excited. Small, personal, shared outdoor kitchen, and it would hold a bunch of people. At the time, even in high season, you could rent the entire place and sleep up to 12 for around $275 a night. Now it’s around $500 a night for three rooms.

So, goodbye to Tulum. I’m glad we met you when you were still cool. I still love that coast of Mexico but we’re going to have to head farther south.

* We’ve been to all-inclusive resorts twice for a grand total of six nights. And while I can totally murder a decent buffet and make it economically unfeasible for the hotel ownership, it always really got to me that people bring enormous, quart-size insulated mugs to resorts so they can fill them with booze and not have to move for an extra 20 minutes as they lounge around getting absolutely drunk. C’mon now. At least get up once in a while to get another drink.

 

House of the Day: St. John, USVI

Now THIS is a group vacation spot on perhaps the best island of all: St. John.

Having been to St. John first, even while camping, tends to spoil one for every other island. It’s so beautiful you just go around gaping and gasping the whole time. The other Virgin Islands call it the “Millionaire Island.” But you can always stay in a shipping container with a kitchen on the screened porch for $60 a night!

By the way, they appear to have made their window treatments out of the IKEA shower curtain that’s currently in our bathroom.