High Grade

I will never understand people who go to different countries and spend all of their time behind the walls of a resort.

OK, scratch that.

I absolutely understand people who go to Jamaica and never leave a resort. I just disagree with them quite intensely and feel the need to question their fears, motivations, and general attitudes toward people of different cultures and socio-economic levels. Because if you’re afraid of Jamaica (or Mexico, or any inner city in the United States) that’s on you. Yes, there’s crime in Jamaica. And in Mexico. And in my neighborhood. And even out in the mountains of Pennsyltucky.

There’s a whole world out there where people look and sound and think differently. That’s why you travel. It’s not a reason to stay away or lock yourself up in a resort.

So, down off my soapbox.

People will claim that they want a resort for the relaxation. All I will say is go to Treasure Beach. You’ll be really relaxed, verging on comatose. We’ve been twice at this point, and we’re trying to figure out whether we should ever bother going anywhere else on spring break. It’s that great.

About Treasure Beach

Treasure Beach is a series of bays on the south coast of Jamaica and describes itself as “the home of community tourism.” Their branding is accurate: it’s a treasure and you will feel like a part of the community.

The best known place in Treasure Beach is Jake’s Hotel, and that’s a pretty great claim to fame. It’s a really wonderful, quirky property that defines “boutique” while still being accessible to the community at large. If we were into hotels we’d stay there in a heartbeat, but even if you don’t like hotels it’s worth a stop because the food is good, the drinks are strong, and you will feel welcome.

The bays that make up Treasure Beach are, from west to east:

  • Billy’s Bay. We’ve seen this area primarily from the sea. There are lots of villas and some reasonably priced guest houses and cottages, but it’s a long walk to…
  • Frenchman’s Bay. This is the hub of beach activity, with a few hotels, some restaurants, and some world-class beach shacks for drinking and eating.
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This is the BUSY bay of Treasure Beach, which gives you an idea of how peaceful it is.

  • Calabash Bay. A little quieter, with villas and guest houses and a lot of fishing boats.
  • Old Wharf. A quiet area full of villas, with a scalloped coastline that is wavy in some areas, sheltered in others.
  • Great Bay. We’ve never made it quite this far because it’s a really long walk, but it seems to take peacefulness to the next level.

Practicalities

Jamaica has two international airports, in Montego Bay and Kingston. You’ll want to go to Montego Bay for Treasure Beach (and for most other areas of Jamaica except for Kingston itself and maybe Portland Parish).

Getting to Treasure Beach takes a while–it’s a solid two hours from MBJ, going up and over the spine of the island and down along the beautiful, peaceful South coast. The closest big town is Black River, which goes back to the 17th century and has some relatively old surviving buildings, along with the area’s largest groceries and the river itself.

So how do you deal with this drive? Just contact Treasure Tours. In fact, just contact them for most things, they’ll hook you up and make sure you’re happy. They have a team of great drivers, will take you on tours, represent a bunch of villas and guesthouses…and they’ll keep checking in to make sure you’re having a great time. It’s a wonderful company. They will even arrange to have one of their drivers change money for you at a really good rate.

Accommodations are available at all price points from all of the usual suspects: VRBO, Airbnb, Booking.com, etc. But you can also zoom in on the Google maps and find a bunch of smaller places that can be worth checking into…Shakespeare Cottage, for example, is very centrally located, has rooms as low as $26 a night, and seems to have many repeat guests.

Our First Trip

In March 2016 we stayed at the Moringa Ingadi Village (hosted by Jayne), just a few minutes from Frenchman’s Bay. It was a wonderful place, quite new at the time, and just a great setup for a group of friends. We needed four bedrooms, so we took Frangipani House and the Moonflower Treehouse and we were quite happy with the accommodation. We had very comfortable rooms, several lovely gathering areas, and a fridge to hold the Red Stripe and mixers. Mission accomplished!

We spent our time eating, drinking, swimming, wandering, and adventuring. Moringa Ingadi is a five minute walk to Frenchman’s Bay so we went down every day and battled the waves (it was pretty rough that year), or varied the routine with a walk to the other bays, or took a tour. And of course we spent a lot of time eating and drinking, because Jamaica’s one of those places you could go to just for the food.

And speaking of food: go to Smurf’s. Treasure Beach has a bunch of restaurants, but for breakfast (and perhaps some dinners, and to have a cake baked for a special occasion), go to Smurf’s. Miss Dawn roasts her own Blue Mountain coffee in a cast iron skillet and serves ridiculously large Jamaican or U.S. breakfasts for around JA$650. And it’s delicious!

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Excursions

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There are two big ones you really should do from Treasure Beach: YS Falls and the Appleton Distillery and the Black River and Pelican Bar. They’re both a pretty full day and are both absolutely worth it at about $50 a person for each day (with some extra for food, drinks, and admissions).

YS Falls is just a gorgeous place, with a bunch of waterfalls in the rainforest, a zipline, rope swings into the water, and some nice pools and decent food. The water is a little cold for me, so I spent my time wandering around looking at the plants and people watching.

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It’s not too hard to combine with Appleton, which is fairly old and historic. They really know how to do a tour: they start you off with rum punch, then take you through the process with very engaging guides, and finish you off with a generous tasting session. We did buy some booze there, but it’s not absolutely necessary…and the amount you have to drink pretty much covers the cost of admission.

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But the drive itself is great. On the way to the falls you pass through a village where the main business is selling spicy boiled shrimp. The plantation with the falls also is a working farm with cows and thoroughbred horses (which seem pretty happy in Jamaica!). Then between the falls and the distillery you pass through a bunch of villages and cane fields and drive down Bamboo Avenue which is just as nice as it sounds.

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High Grade

So now we get into a really crazy and wonderful adventure. I’ve talked before about wanting to go to the Pelican Bar, which is driftwood held together with zip ties and rusty nails on a sandbar hundreds of yards offshore. You can just catch a ride on a boat out there, or you can combine it with a trip up the Black River.

Take my advice: go up the Black River. Make them take you all the way to Sister Lou’s for crabs. Sure, have a drink at the Pelican Bar on the way back, but the Black River is amazing.

But we didn’t really know all of that the first time we went, when we went with High Grade.

We asked Jayne and Carlisle the best way to do it, and they hooked us up with High Grade, their neighbor on Parottee Beach. Instead of grabbing a boat from Frenchman’s Bay, we got a ride up there and found High Grade…owner of an old wooden boat, proprietor of the world’s smallest beach bar, and sound system aficionado.

 

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High Grade’s boat on Parottee Bay.

High Grade didn’t do this stuff often. He didn’t have a line of patter–and in fact, spoke mostly patois and very little English. But he had one of the most amazing bars I’ve ever been to:

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After a lot of preparation and a few Red Stripes, we went up the Black River, looking at crocodiles and mangroves and some guys who were illegally spearfishing. We didn’t make it all the way up to Sister Lou’s, but we loved it.

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Mangroves.

Then we went out to the Pelican Bar, but the water was rough and they appeared to be closing up, so we just went back to High Grades for beer, fried fish, and the sunset.

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And yes, we were the only people there.

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!

 

 

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.

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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.