(In which we vacation for 9 days and 8 nights, split between two locations; a “luxury”, for us, tropical rain forest redoubt, and a small, intimate Caribbean island retreat.)
“TURF”- THE RAIN FOREST
Our plane from Atlanta dropped through the clouds to reveal San Pedro Sula below, only dimly viewed through the pall of smoke choking the Sula valley where the city sprawls. As the plane rolled toward the airport gates and acrid smoke wafted through the aircraft, I was reminded we were once again visiting a third world country, where almost any unwanted item becomes litter or trash, much of it eventually finding its way either into the Caribbean Sea or a burn pile.
But, hey, we’re in Honduras, on vacation, and we are determined to have a fantastic time. Especially since this trip is the culmination of more than nine months of painstaking research and meticulous planning, including a steady stream of digital communications to schedule and secure transportation and accommodations, careful study of maps and charts, plane schedules, weather forecasts and even whale shark migration reports; Friending various entities on Facebook, shopping for deals and discounts and financial planning and navigating complex transactions worthy of a Swiss banker!
The smoky view of nearby mountains vaguely seen from the main terminal windows served to distract somewhat from the frequent ear-splitting and incomprehensible loud-speaker announcements that assaulted us during our three hour layover as we waited for the flight to the coastal city of La Ceiba, some 120 miles distant, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
Our flight to La Ceiba was short and uneventful, and upon arrival we were captivated by the sight of the Cordillera Nombre de Dios mountains, razor-toothed and mist-capped, looming over us in the late afternoon light.
We were met at the small airport by the driver of the van from the Lodge at Pico Bonito http://www.picobonito.com/ our pied-a-terre for the next 3 nights and days. As the only passengers, we had the undivided attention of Manuel, the taciturn but friendly-enough driver who kindly informed us that the cultivated fields rolling by were pineapple.
We sanguinely gazed out the windows for the next 20 minutes while the van bumped over ubiquitous tope’s (“Toh-pays”, or speed bumps) on the main road out of town. Pineapple fields slipped by and we were continually passed by drivers determined to run us or the oncoming vehicle out of our respective lanes. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, and three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks darted in and out of the traffic, while pedestrians and bicycle riders made their way slowly and carefully along the verge, somehow managing to avoid being sideswiped.
Like I said, we were fairly sanguine, having seen it all before, many times, in many Caribbean locales. All the same, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as we pulled off the busy road onto a peaceful, tree-lined, rutted and dusty track that meandered between coconut, pineapple and palm oil plantations as it wound its way relentlessly uphill, pulling us into the embrace of those mysterious purple massifs.
Manuel explained that the area plantations were owned by the Standard Fruit Company (later, Dole) which, along with the United Fruit Company, in the 1920s played a significant role in the governments of Honduras and other Central American countries, which became known as “banana republics” because of the highly favorable treatment the fruit companies were given.
In any event, we were fairly well-informed of the country’s current woes and how they could conceivably give us some concern for our safety, which is really a continuance of our experience on the island of Roatan in 2007, as my that blog posting details http://wp.me/pYCsM-n
In prepping for this trip, we had long since come to an accommodation of our understanding of the dangers inherent in traveling to a third-world country where the rule of law is iffy at best and where there is a certain comfort in glimpsing the heavily armed private security guards as they patrol the hiking trails around and roads leading into the properties where we stayed.
We realized that our 3 night stay in a tropical rain forest would expose us to an environment fraught with mosquito-and-water-borne disease, poisonous critters (Vine snake! Fer de lance snake!) and a zillion stinging and biting insects just waiting to pounce. Even so, we figured flying in planes that we knew would get smaller, older and more haggard as our travels unfolded gave us more pause than did thoughts of mosquito-borne diseases and parasites. There’s no DEET for a plane that can’t fly and won’t float!
So much for speculation and musings, we were past them, even as we were passed through the guarded entry gate of the Lodge. The scrub of overgrown plantation grounds soon gave way to lovingly tended tropical plants, shrubs, and trees bursting forth with blossoms, blooms, giant buds and flowering spikes of various sizes, shapes and shades of red, orange, and magenta that glowed among a wall of greenery decorating a large garden area bisected by a lengthy lined gravel walkway. Out sized palm and banana leaves, ferns and bromeliads, orchids and epiphytes nodded in the late afternoon breeze flowing off the mountain, seeming to beckon us toward the massive covered entry and the raised portico of the Lodge.
This description may seem a bit, well, flowery but when you see our pictures you may begin to understand why we were so quickly and so surely captivated by the sights, sounds and smells of this amazing place.
Stepping from the air-conditioned quiet of the van, my senses were overwhelmed by the onslaught of sights, sounds and odors. The late afternoon light limning the massive mahogany posts, beams and polished floors of the soaring, open-aired entry to the Lodge signaled a place that had grown from and into its immediate surrounds. The humid breeze was redolent of the fecund smell of rotting vegetation, sweet tropical blossoms, freshly watered soil, crushed gravel and cinnamon. And the sounds! A symphonic flow of bird calls pealing, tinkling, chirping and whistling blended together in a harmonious concerto, accented by the percussion of geckos and cicadas. All was overlaid by the sustained high-pitched burr of thousands of insects.
Robin and I hardly had time to share stunned smiles because here was the beaming receptionist offering us a small tray with warm, wet and scented hand-towels to refresh ourselves, even as another friendly staff person flourished a large serving tray arrayed with two sweating glasses of a cold tropical concoction, to which I agreed a tipple of rum added was in order. I even managed to notice the lovely hibiscus bloom next to my glass before I snatched it up eagerly. The glass, not the bloom.
Arriving on a Friday evening was apparently in our favor, as we were the only guests checking in, so before undergoing the rituals of registration, we were given ample time to slowly walk around the vast interior of the main Lodge entry, pulled inexorably to the vista that unfolded as we made our way to the garden side of the entry. Photos hardly do this sublime scene justice, and my first view left me rooted to the spot, just trying to take it all in.
To spare the reader more over-blown exposition, I refer you to our trip photos, several of which attempt to capture the visual lushness of the scene we encountered. But do return to the story, it will be worth your patience!
Soon we were stepping along a raised boardwalk and then down to the gravel path that led to the cabins, situated some distance from the main lodge building, yet readily reached, as long as one stayed on the gravel paths. Heavy undergrowth grew right up to the pathways, the plants and trees springing up from leaf-litter that was, on average, as deep as one’s thighs. Largish rocks poked up from the gravel walkways and my not-quite-healed injured ankle was, even in my hiking boot, sorely tested as my foot slipped off one and then another of these treacherous devils. The following day, on our ass-kicking hike to Heavenly Falls, I would find myself cursing these rocks and all their brethren who did their best to deny us the dignity of a somewhat balanced tumble. The gravel paths would prove to be tiring and slippery as we made our way around the 400 acres of the lodge property during our stay.
Our cabin appeared to float among heavy foliage and as we mounted the steps from the gravel walkway, I spotted one of the many large feeder trays piled with rotted fruit that were positioned around the property. The feeder was less than 40 feet from our cabin, just across the loop trail which our deck overlooked, and was perched on the sharp edge of the river gorge, which dropped precipitously almost straight down to the river some 200 feet below.
The sounds of the rushing river water harmonized with the buzz of insects and bird calls, which echoed off the massive trees that screened much of the afternoon light. In the gloom under the forest canopy, the cabin interior glowed from lights thoughtfully switched on, bathing yet more hardwoods used in constructing the interior of the cabin and its furnishings in a warm and welcoming glow.
Thanks to our luggage having magically made its way to the room, we were soon showered and refreshed from a long day of travel and ready to walk the grounds a bit before the typically rapid tropical sunset. But first, we faced a visit from a White-Faced Capuchin monkey, who was as surprised to see us as we were to see it! Seems the critter had been working its way toward our cabin through the trees along the ridge. (Later I learned to recognize its dog-like barking territorial call, which I had heard coming closer but hadn’t really registered.)
Robin and I were relaxing on the cabin deck under the paddle fan when we heard rustling in the trees overhead. A falling branch prompted us to step out onto the deck, and there was the monkey, peering down at us from some 30 feet up in a tree. As soon as it spotted us, it chattered at us and started moving away. In the matter of a minute it was lost to us in the thick foliage. We watched for several minutes but could detect no sign of movement in the trees or any sound.
This was my first close encounter with a wild monkey in the rain forest. I’d seen Howlers in Belize but never got as close as we did to this one. We agreed it was a special moment.
After the monkey’s visit, we headed down the hill to the magnificent dining area close by the main Lodge.
Armed with flashlights and DEET, we took a turn around the lovely and well-kept pool area and took in a view of the deep and narrow river gorge afforded from a platform nearby. The sounds of the rushing river water below drifted up to us, along with a light spray which did nothing to dissuade the mosquitoes, so we escaped to the spacious deck of the dining area and enjoyed the sight of the last golden light of the day gilding the clouds that shrouded the tallest peaks of the mountain range to the east and south.
Small mammals called Agutis darted here and there among the flowers and shrubs, and we soon understood that these rabbit-sized rodents were considered a nuisance by the locals. We found them rather cute and amusing and I managed to get a couple of shots before we lost the light. We laughingly recalled watching a Japanese tourist taking photos of grey squirrels in Florida once and figured our reaction to the Agutis were very like those tourists’ reaction to seeing a common squirrel.
An amazing meal, lovingly prepared by the chef and efficiently served by the effervescent Howard (our favorite staffer) provided a restful segue to our traipse back up the hill (getting lost along the way) to our cabin. I was too tired to linger long in the hammock on our deck, even as I was loathe to fall asleep and miss one minute of the night sounds of the forest.
Bats swooped in the faint light from our room. The bird sounds throttled back but not all of the feathered types went to bed, apparently. The cicadas really cranked it up, so loud that at times we couldn’t hear each other over the noise unless we shouted- really, they are quite loud. Grunts and peeps and squeaks abounded (we learned that many of the sounds I thought were frogs were instead geckos). As for this nature-lover who is accustomed to recognizing all manner of North American critters by their vocals, I found myself befuddled, unable to recognize much beyond “Gee I think that’s a bat squeak!” Or a mouse? Or an Aguti or other rodent?
Eventually, it was Lights Out and into the arms of Morpheus, accompanied by the sound of the rushing river below and the night sounds of the rain forest enveloping the cabin.
I was awakened suddenly around 1am by a “thump-thump-THUMP!” sound from the feeder, quickly followed by a prolonged, high-pitched squeal that rapidly faded as, apparently, some poor creature was spirited away on wings.
Right after dawn we were up and at ’em, preparing our hiking gear for what we anticipated would be an arduous but awesome hike way up a mountain and down into a river gorge, where the 100 foot drop of Unbelievable Falls and its two pools beckoned. But first, we got to watch the early morning Bird Show from the gallery of the dining area while we sipped Honduran coffee and enjoyed a light breakfast.
I have no idea how many of the 300+ species of tropical birds we saw and heard, but the activity was fierce, the bird calls loud and entrancing as tropical fowl flitted, flapped, dove, darted and soared among the shrubs and towering trees arrayed before us. For close-up activity, the fly-bys of hummers coming to feeders positioned around the gallery were a delight. At times the bird call concert would pause, and in the silence we could clearly hear the hummers’ rapid wing-beats and tiny peeps and cheeps as they flitted here and there, from feeder to feeder, aggressively defending territory from other hummers. I spotted at least 3 different hummer varieties, both male and female specimens, before I lost count.
Right on time, our guide showed up and we were off, up and up and up and relentlessly UP the steep, narrow, washed-out, dry, dusty and rolling-rock-underfoot trail that would, some 2.5 hours later, in the heat and humidity of the equatorial mid-morning (when the breeze from the nearby coast lays to!) take us to Exhaustion Falls, er, Heavenly Falls.
Upon making our way down the incredibly steep, treacherous, one-misstep-you-are-gone-baby trail into that gorge, I was ready for the rescue helicopter.
But of course no helicopter could make its way to us. Not amid these steep mountain gorges thickly covered with towering 120-plus foot tall trees festooned with tangling vines– certainly not in this vastness, which we had all to ourselves. But of course we had it all to ourselves. The only way in and out was by foot. So after resting, eating protein bars and drinking a lot of the water we’d packed in, it was time to face that steep gorge incline.
Clambering over slippery and mossy rocks and pulling ourselves up using trees and vines (while ever-vigilant for where we placed our hands!), we made our way ever so carefully up and out of that gorge. I’ve hiked some of the highest mountains in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, braved the treachery of the Rockies at over 10,000 feet and tromped 5 and 6-thousand peaks in Georgia for years but this was, far and away, the toughest hike I’ve encountered. Admittedly, I was working with an injured ankle, which made it necessary for me to plan every step, every second, which probably didn’t help!
You can view photos of the falls and surrounds, and check out my YouTube videos link for short snippets that nicely capture this rain forest experience.
Enough whining. Now it was time to buckle down and retrace our steps, back up and down steep ridges, through several valleys, past Hummingbird Gulch (my name for an area where we were surrounded by dozens of hummers, darting about our heads and objecting to our incursion). Past Army Ant hill (again, my name), where one simply didn’t stand in one place but kept dodging the lines of these voracious insects while clambering over giant, fallen trees and crunching through a hillside of dead vegetation the locals had chopped, denuding the valley to enable illegal lumbering.
Across the valley we spotted two Toucans flying from tree to tree, calling to each other in high-pitched frog-like croaks.
Further along we again walked across a steep hillside planted with cacao trees, where our guide had earlier introduced us to the sweet meat found in each gourd. White, fleshy thumb-sized bits of gooey fruit surround each cacao bean which, when processed, delivers the basic stuff of chocolate. We sucked the moisture from the white fleshy parts and were surprised at the fairly pleasant and faintly sweet flavor.
Crossing the next-to-last ridge on our way to the final downhill run to the Lodge, we stopped to admire the view out to the Caribbean Sea less than 10 miles distant. A large valley below us provided an unimpeded view of massive buttressed trees, 200 feet tall and higher, in clumps that from a distance looked like tall broccoli heads. We could clearly see many Montezuma Oropendola birds returning to their nesting colony made up of hundreds of large nests that looked like long-necked gourds. The racket these clever and colorful birds made came to us across that valley. We stood in the breeze and enjoyed the spectacle for a few moments while catching our breath.
We also passed by a lone and massive tree on the very top of a ridge. The main fork of the tree featured two huge branches and against the fork rested a long, thick tree branch. Clearly, someone had chopped steps up that branch using a machete. I looked and saw no fruit on the tree, so I asked the guide what the ladder was for. He hesitated then explained that someone was using the tree as a place to catch wild parrots for the illegal trade. I had wondered if something was amiss. Still, this sight, combined with the deforestation we witnessed as we crossed unprotected areas of the rain forest during this hike clearly illustrated much that we’ve heard and read for years about the threats to natural areas worldwide.
It seems that even in the midst of the enjoyment of nature, we are constantly reminded of the devastating effects of human impact. Poverty, disease, fear, crime, poverty, more poverty and so forth are constantly with us, no matter where we travel. No matter how I crop the images I take and dress up the stories of our experiences, the not-so-paradisaical reality is always there, ever-present. Which I guess is why we do what we do, and go where we go. We’re admittedly, selfishly, doing our best to experience what we can, even as we see it disappearing and destroyed before us. And, to be fair, WE are a part of the problem, no matter how we may clothe ourselves in “eco-adventure” language, Cool-Max clothing, and good intentions. But, honestly, if the choice is stay at home and watch the Travel Channel, I’ll opt for the travel, every time.
At this point I left the soap-box behind and, eventually, managed to stumble back to our cabin, where a shower and bed awaited. I slept most of the afternoon and through the night, only awakened once by the vocalization of some sort of cat that was NOT a jaguar but was equally NOT a house cat. I suspect it was a Margay, fairly common in this area of Pico Bonito.
The next day we were up again at the crack of dawn. We grabbed a quick breakfast, and met our guide at 6:30am for our trek to Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge on the coast nearby. I’d never heard of this place and wondered why, because it is truly an amazing place worthy of the full Travel Channel (or Lonely Planet) treatment!
The 82 square mile preserve forms a triangle encompassed by the Cuero and Salado rivers and the sea coast. It was designated a protected area in 1986 because of its endangered manatee population, as well as the complex series of saltwater and freshwater wetlands it contains. The park protects about 35 species of animals, including manatees, jaguar, Jabirus (storks), Capuchin and Howler monkeys, as well as gators, crocs, iguanas, bats and a great diversity of fish species.
We actually spotted quite a few critters during our 2 hour ride in a jon-boat. Our trip up-river had barely begun when a troop of Howler monkeys growled at us as we approached the east side of the river. The boat slowly eased through the deep shadows near the bank and at first we had a hard time spotting these fairly large and slow-moving monkeys, but soon enough the males moved to the outer branches of the trees and looked down at us while barking their warning calls.
We spent a few minutes marveling at these marvelous primates. I was struck by the contrast between their loud and threatening vocalizations and the careful way they moved through the trees; altogether a different experience than the one that awaited us elsewhere on this morning’s expedition.
Before long, the Howlers moved back into the trees away from the river’s edge, and we continued our trip, nosing into backwater canals and small lagoons off the main river to see what we could see.
We soon came upon a large crocodile floating among water hyacinths near the bank, jaws agape. When it finally moved, its lengthy body sinuously slid across the hyacinths and we estimated its length as close to 12 feet. The guide commented “Yes, no swimming in this river!” No argument here.
Cruising slowly around a lagoon, we spotted many water birds common to sub-tropical Florida, such as kites and egrets, herons and cormorants, rails and limpkins. A large Belted Kingfisher kept us company for a few minutes, crossing from one river bank to the other, chattering its signature rattling call as it zipped back and forth.
It felt kind of strange to me to be in the watery environment of a tidal fresh water river, surrounded by trees and animal life so familiar yet quite different from the outdoors where I’ve spent a great deal of my life. Here the trees were far larger, and more jungle-like, than those in the Everglades or the few remaining sections of ancient wetlands along Florida’s coasts. For instance, in Florida, very few old-growth giant mangroves and cypress trees survived 80 or more years of intense logging. I was gratified to see so many healthy, old, untouched trees lining the river and lagoon banks.
The boat skipper slowly nosed us toward a large tree overhanging the water and lo and behold, mere inches in front of us, were 7 short-nosed bats lined up on the underside of the trunk in the reflection of the water, hanging downward, their tiny legs clamped securely to the trunk. We approached slowly and I was able to get a picture of these little mammals that were so close I could have touched them. As the boat backed away, they all took flight in a simultaneous burst, and in the blink of an eye, they were gone.
Next, we turned into a narrow canal, out of reach of the light breeze over the open water. The mid-morning sun was developing a real bite as we came upon a small landing, where our guide pointed out a short boardwalk that led to a narrow foot trail through the undergrowth. We agreed to follow the trail for a short distance to see what we might run into.
We quietly made our way along the boardwalk and stepped down onto the foot trail, right into a cloud of voracious mosquitoes. We started to converse about the wisdom of continuing without a thorough dousing of DEET when suddenly the trees around us erupted in a volley of sound and movement. “Quick! Monkeys! A lot of monkeys!” our guide whispered and motioned us onward. We scrambled to catch up, looking overhead as shapes darted here and there, rattling limbs, shaking bushes, and screeching in an alarming manner. Twigs and leaves rained down and it dawned on me, those monkeys were throwing them at us!
We danced down the trail a bit more, spotting monkeys. “Here!” “Over there!” “Look- right there!” I had the camera ready to go, but the rapid movement of the monkeys through the thick vegetation foiled any attempt to photograph them, so I stood still and watched as the troop quickly moved off.
At least we got a good look at them, and no doubt, they were Capuchin monkeys, which were smaller than the Howlers and much more colorful, sporting a white scruff and face accenting black furry coats. Our guide was simply delighted, telling us that he’d not seen Capuchin’s in the reserve in more than a year.
By now, the clouds of mosquitoes made lingering a non-option so we all hoofed it quickly back to the boat and shoved off.
A short run in the jon-boat brought us to the wide mouth of the river, which debouched directly into the Caribbean Sea. We saw no signs of development along the beach, only a large gathering of Turkey Vultures busily fighting over the piles of god-knows-what that the tide had left on a long sandbar at the river’s edge. Between the vultures, the smell and the flies, the scene lost a lot of what should have been a certain appeal, and we quickly demurred when our guide asked if we wanted to walk along the beach. I figured hoards of sand flies were crowding to the water’s edge, just waiting to get their little jaws on unsuspecting tourists. Besides, I didn’t want to get a closer look at the material that was creating that nauseous smell.
Soon we returned to the dock and after tipping our skipper, spent the next hour or so in the shade of a tree just outside the preserve’s school building. Our guide provided cold water and chilled fresh fruit slices from a cooler, and before long we were joined by several incredibly mangy and emaciated dogs, which brought with them a swarm of flies. We ate hurriedly, trying not to spend too much time agonizing over the condition of the poor canines, but it was hard to ignore them when they flopped in the dust under our picnic table. One poor fellow with a glassy thousand-yard stare was so weak he could barely manage to stand, his legs shaking as with the ague, his tongue lolling. I was afraid he would collapse and expire right there in front of us. My heart ached. That was about the time Robin got up to go walk around.
With a clatter, the little-engine-that-could train announced its arrival and we didn’t dally as we joined the small gathering of passengers who were headed back to “town” with us. The train driver pushed the open-aired wagon toward the little engine and, with the help of a couple of by-standers, connected the two. We took our seats on the rough wooden benches and with a jerk the train struggled back the way we’d come, belching diesel fumes while it thumped and squealed and rattled down the narrow-gauge railway.
For the next 45 minutes we bumped and thumped and squealed our way past pineapple plantations, scrub, and herds of sleek cows grazing in low pastures that were mostly under a thin layer of water. Clearly this was a wetland, subject to flooding during the rainy season, which made for lush pasturage but required the few simple homes and ranch buildings we spotted to be built on stilts well clear of the ground.
The closer we got to the community of la Union, the more people we saw walking along the well-worn foot path beside the raised rail bed. Without exception, these rural folk were barefoot and not prosperous, judging by the worn condition of their colorless attire. Some men wore woven, straw cowboy hats, but most were bare-headed, as were the women.
I watched the faces of people as we passed, and those who deigned to look up at us wore expressions ranging from dull curiosity to resignation and weariness. I caught not a few glares of resentment. Mostly, people went on about their business and ignored the passing of what is clearly the primary connection and transport into and from the surrounding countryside.
As we came into the settlement, I was again struck by the amount of garbage, litter and junk strewn along the tracks, down the steep hillsides, at the bottom of ravines and surrounding what can charitably be called hovels that were squatting right next to the rails, almost within touching distance.
These homes were make-shift, put-together affairs, using broken lumber, tree limbs, old tin, plastic sheeting, torn tarps and cardboard. The “roofs” were often weighed down by stones or old bricks. Women washed clothes in rusted tin tubs, the lines of uniformly grey shirts, trousers, dresses, children’s school uniforms and undergarments hanging on chicken wire or rusted barbed wire fencing, or laid out on items like old refrigerators laid on their sides, wagon wheels and other unidentifiable items strewn about.
We had noticed that the few small homesteads further out of town all sported barred windows and doorways, and were surrounded by high concrete walls topped with worked iron bars. The places in town more often featured lower concrete walls with broken glass bottles thickly embedded along the top. Every window and the meanest opening sported bars or a barrier of some sort. It certainly looked to me like the residents feared each other, and this level of security wasn’t limited to this community — we saw such evidence of fear and concern for security throughout our entire trip. The only difference between how these folks lived and the places we stayed is that we had guards with automatic weapons roving discretely around the property, maintaining a 24-hour vigil, particularly at points of relatively easy egress to the property.
Our van driver was waiting for us when the little train huffed across the main street crossing in town and with a final prolonged and ear-splitting metallic screech, pulled into the engine’s tiny open shed.
The ride back to the Lodge was uneventful and we were glad to pass through Checkpoint Charlie and make our way back to the main Lodge, where lunch awaited us.
As this was our last full day before moving to an offshore island destination for the remainder of our vacation, we wanted to explore more of the Lodge property, eschewing the temptation of spending a hot and still afternoon lounging by the pool.
Fortified with a meal and packing our water, we headed to the nearby river gorge area called Las Pilas, which offered yet another brutal up and down trek, but lovely pics and a video snippet of the river made it worthwhile.
We made our way back to our cabin, trudging slowly and carefully along the loop trail that encompasses the Lodge grounds. Under that towering canopy of massive trees, the afternoon heat seemed to press in on our tired bodies, while the few bird calls and the unrelenting burr of cicadas echoed all around us. For just a moment I felt disembodied from a weird combination of fatigue and euphoria as I virtually swam through the humidity, clouds of gnats, and the wafting odors of rotted fruit and vegetation.
A late afternoon shower and chilling with a cold drink on the covered deck under a fast-spinning ceiling fan seemed in order.
Along came a Lodge employee, adding fresh fruit to the overflowing bird feeder just across the loop trail from our deck. We lazily watched him as he piled on the fruit, then suddenly he gestured at us excitedly, motioning down the ravine behind the feeder. “Huh? What did he say?” I asked Robin, whose grasp of Spanish is light years from my own.
“Something about ‘grande’, something big out there, I think,” she replied. I struggled to dismount the hammock as Robin asked the fellow what he’d seen. I could hear him excitedly chattering while I stumbled around the cabin looking for my hiking boots or a pair of socks or something to put on my feet before I could get to the feeder through the leaf-litter surrounding the cabin.
Shod, I came out onto the deck and saw Robin peering over the lip of the ravine. The employee was gone and Robin was waving at me. “Coatis!” she said excitedly. “A whole bunch of them! Moving down there!” She pointed down the ravine.
It seems that “grande” in this instance meant a Bunch, not something Big. Cool!
After stomping through the leaf-litter and coming up on the deck, Robin reported she’d seen six or more Coatimundis, or South American raccoons, moving along just below the ridge line, heading toward the setting sun. As we discussed whether to trail after them to get a photo, we spotted one climbing the trunk of a huge tree about 150 feet from us and just off the loop trail. We decided that we would likely make noise getting through the leaves to the trail and we might disturb the troop, so we decided to stay put. Besides, we could clearly see more Coatis working their way up the tree.
From our vantage point, the tree was back-lit by the now blood-orange red globe of the rapidly setting sun, the Coatis sharply silhouetted as first one, another then another crossed a low, lengthy horizontal limb to yet another tree.
The photographer in me wanted so badly to rush right down there and try to get a shot, but the nature-girl recognized the effort wouldn’t be worth it as I’d probably disturb the troop and miss out on the rest of the action.
For the next 10 minutes or so, we stood captivated by a sight that struck me as precisely something one would see on a nature video. Life imitated art in an amazing view of this family group of more than eight Coatis moving through what was apparently their Home Tree. I saw one young Coati pause on the horizontal limb, scratch itself, and be joined by another Coati, who passed the youngster then returned long enough to share a bit of mutual grooming.
And so the sun dropped over the mountaintops to the west, casting all in the deepening gloom of an equatorial evening as the night birds called, bats squeaked, and insects chirred against the background of the river waters rushing to the Caribbean Sea, far below.
In my memory, this is the most indelible visual of our rain forest visit, made more poignant by the knowledge that this was our last night in this place.
Taken together, the extraordinary sense of peaceful isolation in the rainforest, surrounded by what quickly became familiar sights and sounds of the wildlife and insects, the smells, and the majestic presence of so many massive trees will remain with me for many years to come.
“SURF” – THE ISLAND
Our quick hop from the airport at La Ceiba out to the island of Utila took less than 30 minutes, but it seemed much longer as I worked to quell my case of the jitters. I’ve been in some small planes in my lifetime, including a Volkswagen Beetle-sized kit plane that my father built when I was a teen. But, I don’t think I’ve been in a plane quite as small AND old and tired and rusted and, well, iffy as the one we took out to Utila.
The sight of the island and its attendant group of little cays did little to relieve my tension, beyond signaling that perhaps soon we would re-join terra-firma: which we did, with a thump and a bump of shifting luggage from the pile teetering behind our cramped bench seat.
We really weren’t surprised at being greeted by the sight of a wrecked 2-engine plane as we landed on the rutted, potholed, and barely-asphalt-covered “tarmac” on Utila. Clearly parts had been scavenged off the wreck but still, the thing looked like its undercarriage had been wrenched off.
Later we learned that the plane had run into a cow upon landing. Apparently, nobody was hurt, besides the cow, which we were told “disintegrated” upon contact.
OK, so Welcome to Utila! Grab your own luggage out of the plane, carry it over to the waiting van, take the short ride through the noisy, narrow, potholed, dusty, steaming and teeming streets of Utila Town to the commercial docks. Get on a 24 foot dory (motorized, at least) for the 30 minute slow cruise through the late afternoon heat and haze down the coast to Utopia Village, situated on a virtually deserted beach and within spitting distance from the living coral reef.
The accessibility of the reef is what brought us to Utila, and the starred Trip Advisor reviews are what brought us to Utopia, whose amiable, genuinely friendly staff made us feel warmly welcomed as we got the run-down on the facilities. The dive shop, spacious dining area and main lodge, handful of rooms and nearby beach side cabanas, all crafted in Honduran hardwoods, nestled in the deep shade of sea grapes, gumba-limba and coconut trees struck us as homey, serene and every bit the tropical getaway we anticipated.
The next 5 days found us snorkeling on the “house reef”, sometimes in the morning and again in the afternoon. We soon familiarized ourselves with the immediate reef area and its denizens as we’d slowly fin over the shallows and out to the wall, which dropped to depths of over 100 feet. The water temp was warm, the visibility good to excellent, the corals apparently healthy, and the small reef tropical fish abundant. However, there was a decided lack of larger fish. The usual sea turtles, stingrays, cuttlefish, red snappers, groupers, and other species we are accustomed to spotting throughout the Caribbean were simply gone. This was in contrast to our experience in 2007 on the nearby island of Roatan, where we’d snorkeled daily with a diversity of fishes, amphibians, and crustaceans.
The lack of larger species on Utila was disturbing and a topic of speculation among the 8 or so other guests of this small resort, all of whom were well-traveled SCUBA divers. Based on information from the locals, we supposed that Utila was quite simply over-fished; repeating the pattern I’ve witnessed in island travel from the Bahamas to Belize, St. Kitts to the Yucatan. Everywhere we go, we speak to the older folks who make their living from the sea, and everywhere we hear the same examples of the complete collapse of abundance and variety of seafood these people experienced in their youth.
What does set Utila aside from most Caribbean islands is that it is uniquely situated in the path of migrating whale sharks, a fact that the dive operators and resorts on the island promote to SCUBA divers and marine enthusiasts. While we didn’t get to experience a close encounter with one of these awesome fish, a group of divers staying at Utopia had briefly jumped in the water with a whale shark earlier in the week, and although the encounter was brief, it was very much an exciting footnote for some of our fellow guests.
The days flowed all too quickly through our fingers, accented by an afternoon trip that the group took over to nearby Water Cay, a deserted little island that’s as picturesque as it is isolated. While the rest of the group walked the beaches and hung out in hammocks in the welcome shade and breeze, Robin and I snorkeled around the island. This turned out to be a lot more work than we’d planned because at the halfway point, over the lovely coral reef on the windward side, we faced the unrelenting current of the outgoing tide, which meant a lot of swimming with few pauses as we made our way to the final obstacle in our path, blocking our access to a long sandbar on the island’s lee.
The obstacle was the reef itself, forming a steep and apparently impenetrable wall of sharp coral growing up from the sand bottom at about 40 feet to a height that was barely covered by the tidal outflow whipping around the point of the island. Yikes, we were in for it, so we just kept finning against that current while I probed for an opening, only to by stymied by water breaking over the reef top.
Eventually, after swimming half-way to a neighboring cay, we found a break in the wall and thankfully swam over some barely-covered razor-sharp coral to the sandbar.
A yummy beach BBQ (Barracuda, salad, pasta and rice), followed by relaxing in hammocks, helped us to recover from the snorkel workout.
One evening the group decided to take a boat ride over to Pigeon Cay, a neighboring tiny island that hosts some 500 souls who live in stilt houses built on the living reef and the scant remaining “land” that hasn’t been torn away from the islet over the centuries. Most of the island’s residents descend from the first residents, who came to Utila from the Cayman Islands in the 1830s. The fisher-folk of Pigeon Cay provide almost all of the fish consumed on Utila and to this day fish only with hand-lines.
After a brief tour of the island hosted by our most-knowledgeable Utopia staffer, the group settled on the breezy deck of a bayside restaurant owned by “Mr. Herman” and his wife Gladys. Next thing you know we were the attentive (and somewhat captive) audience of Mr. Herman as he regaled us with colorfully-told Tales of the Sea that I found riveting.
Simply put, this was a 2-hour plus display of storytelling prowess. This gent of 66 years or so could talk the ear off a cob of corn, and I found him articulate, entertaining, and believable—clearly a man who can weave tales of magic and wonder with mere words and animated gestures. What a performance!
At one point Robin drug my attention away from a story of how Mr. Herman had caught, boated (in a 24 foot hand-rowed dory), and hauled home a 1,250 pound Blue Marlin using only a hand line and his wits. I guess we were 30 minutes past having eaten a so-so fish dinner and the wind off the dark ocean, the dim lighting of the dock and deck area, and the nearby chatter of folks who’d had a snoot-full were wearing thin for Robin. She commented sotto-voice “If I were Gladys I woulda killed this guy 20 years ago!” after the umpteenth time Mr. Herman mentioned his long-suffering wife of 40 years who had put up with his frequent and lengthy disappearances to chase some gig on a merchant ship sailing off to China or Japan or Peru. The ol’ “Girl in Every Port” was the oft-repeated theme underpinning Mr. Herman’s intro to each Next Story, and I think Gladys came out the Saint. Apparently so did the group, who commanded her presence and awarded her with a standing ovation!
Well, I wasn’t put off and indeed consider the stories and Mr. Herman’s storytelling to be a highlight of the trip! Seriously, if I could afford it, I’d return to Pigeon Cay to capture this animated and gifted Teller of (Tall?) Tales on media, before he’s gone.
All too soon it was time to figure out how to cram all our dirty laundry and snorkel gear back into our roll-aboards and backpacks and catch a slightly larger plane to the horrific noise inside San Pedro Sula airport terminal and the thankfully direct flight back to Atlanta—where we once again found our tans languishing under layers of clothing in uncharacteristically chilly late Spring temps.
Our Surf and Turf Honduras adventure is sadly behind us, but thanks to photographs, videos and windy blog entries, we can return to relive special moments of our vacation, however fleeting.
Pico Bonito lodge pool pan http://youtu.be/L2KXcg3wtRE
Unbelievable Falls pan: http://youtu.be/6MJeDyL4AKU
Honduras River Gorge pan: http://youtu.be/25kOMcuSgyM
Utopia Village Utila beach pan: http://youtu.be/68uO6ld8hJw
Dec. 21, 2012- the day the world ends. Or ended. We weren’t sure, as we were at about 32,000 feet flying over the Gulf of Mexico, and couldn’t really observe much going on below. However, we were aware that we were headed for one of the hot-spots for that supposed ending- Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Yeah, that Chichen Itza. The one with the snake descending the stairs of the pyramid during the Spring Equinox. The same place that would, likely, be mobbed by thousands of people on the fateful December 21st.
Of course when we’d planned this Christmas vacation we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the End of the World racket and media play. Our chosen dates were based on more prosaic concerns like joining 5 of our pals who were planning to vacation in Cancun, and on our work schedules.
Back in the summer, when our friends were planning this trip, they kept after us to join them. We dillied and dallied and by the time I got around to finding a relatively inexpensive Delta vacation package (air and all-inclusive resort stay for 7 nights), we ended up staying at a less-expensive, “kid-friendly” resort just up the beach in the Hotel Zone in Cancun rather than joining our pals at their rather more expensive digs.
Ever the conscientious shopper, I earmarked the money we thus “saved” for a rental car and day trips. My plan was to visit our pals at their resort and also schedule several day-trips OUT of Cancun (a destination I’ve always considered as Miami South, simply a place for air transfers) to visit Mayan ruins and other places I explored when I stayed in the Akumal/Tulum area in 1999. Robin has never visited Mayan ruins or Mexico for that matter, and she’s been studying Spanish for a couple of years so, I thought What the Hell, Let’s Go, I’ll be tour guide and Robin can be Translator!
Well, as I was reminded, there’s a reason I’ve had this long-standing aversion to the All-Inclusive (AI) experience. Like cruise ships, to me the very idea of being “cooped up” with 2500 of my newest friends and people sharing their germs over buffet meals and SCREAMING, poorly-behaved KIDS and their I-don’t-believe-in-discipline-and-am-not-responsible PARENTS is, just, OMG, anathema. Hell. On. Earth.
True to the AI experience, resort “guests” were treated more like medium-security prisoners, and as a result we never saw our pals after we all got off the same arrival flight in Cancun. The resorts do not allow anyone to visit from another resort (without paying an $80.00+ fee, which I do understand, with food and drink being included but really, guys, there should be a way to ”tag” visitors who don’t want to eat or drink without paying for the privilege). The resort main reception phones aren’t answered, so you can’t leave a message for anyone at a hotel Reception desk. You can’t even leave an envelope or a message for a guest at Reception—there’s no cooperation to try to help anyone off the resort to communicate with any guest of the resort. In fact, the lack of cooperation is very emphatic and made quite clear.
It would have taken an international call placed from a one-off cell phone we would have needed to purchase simply to call one of the girls who had an international account with HER mobile carrier, and that was Way too complex cuz after all, hell, they were just like 4 kilometers from us! Believe me, both parties tried almost daily to connect with the other and next to pulling a James Bond-esque stunt, it simply wasn’t worth it to keep trying to find and visit our friends.
We were so happy to have the freedom afforded by our rental car “Sneezy”- aptly named due to the sneezing sound it would emit about every 30 seconds while the AC was running. We laughed about Sneezy, with Grumpy and Dopey, making the rounds of the Mayan Riviera! I swear, every trip we take that we rent a car, that car always has something weird and problematic about it. Stories about our rental cars would make up a blog in itself!
Thus, we were delighted to haul ass every day to get away from the seething mass of noisy people and the traffic of Cancun. A couple of different days, we headed down the coast some 2-3 hrs south to visit Tulum and Coba ruins and snorkel in cenotes and eat at some great restaurants on the beach.
Xmas eve was the day we chose to drive west some 3 hours through the jungle to visit Chichen Itza, avoiding the End of the World hoards of 3 days earlier. Turned out to be a smart move–we got there early in the morning, before the tourist busses arrived, and managed to see most of the sights that this awesome World Heritage site offers.
In the heat of mid-day, we drove a few klicks east to Ik’ Kil cenote, a spectatcular cenote I had missed during my 1999 visit. The photos and video I took managed to capture a real sense of this place, which must be simply breathtaking when it isn’t mobbed with screaming kids.
In the early afternoon, on our way back to Cancun we wandered through the scenic, old Mexican town of Valladolid. We used our handy printed-out Google map to locate Tavera de los Frailes, a simply speldiferous restaurant I’d read about on Trip Advisor. This place was everything reviewers had reported— a marvelous find lost in the maze of narrow, dusty alleys and back streets of the old town, next to a small park and nestled against the walls of a Spanish nunnery dating from the 1500s. The food was genuine Mayan fare, from scratch, inexpensive, fresh and totally yummy.
After our late lunch we drove slowly through narrow streets leading to the town square. It was late Xmas eve day, the sun was shining, the air was cool and dry, and the narrow and dusty streets were swarming with smiling, laughing crowds. People clutched all manner of bags and boxes and crossed the street willy-nilly, seemingly unaware of the traffic crawling past. All colors of the rainbow swirled in the rugs, serapes and clothing for sale hanging over the sidewalks and in shopfronts. An open truck pulled up to the curb next to us and people began to help the driver unload very large and colorful pinatas. The hurly-burly and energy were distracting, I was glad I was only able to roll the car along at a creep.
But we had to head on to Cancun, which after a two hour drive, we arrived in the city “centro”, once again caught up in the last-minute holiday shopping frenzy, this time in the main market area for the locals. This place was simply insane– traffic every which way, drivers doing pretty much as they pleased with dangerous aplomb and blowing horns frequently and with elan. I almost hit 2 pedestrians and we barely avoided being rear-ended. Even a cop who was directing traffic gave us a shrug after he stopped crosswalk traffic, gestured for me to move along and watched as a pedestrian ran right in front of me. That person just missed an ambulance ride on Xmas eve.
We made it back to the hotel zone, finally, nerves totally frayed but, for once, glad to be back in the room. Ah now for some rest. Well, not so much, with the boom-boom of the disco reverberating through the walls until 11pm. Earplugs were useless against this nightly onslaught. Another amenity of our lovely AI…
Another day we caught the ferry over to Isla Mujeres, and rented a golf cart with a ridiculous governor on it that had us creeping around the island at a crawling pace. But we did find a quiet spot or two from the maddening Isla crowds.
Basically, we stayed the hell OUT of our medium-security resort (Oasis Palms Hotel), where the elevators were tiny, cramped, airless and slow (and only 1 worked for ½ of the total resort property!); the shower hosed down the entire bath area and was never repaired; we never got towels we asked for (we took them off carts instead), the reception/desk staff were uniformly rude and completely unhelpful (so we stopped talking to them), items were routinely stolen from the rooms (a young woman frantically reported a male hotel staffer using an electronic card to enter her room, uninvited, through her locked door while she was alone) — etc etc.
To be sure, Trip Advisor had provided ample warning, with simply dozens of “Run Now, Don’t Stay Here!” reviews, and they were right. The place was simply mobbed with tons (and I mean, tons) of Fat American Families knocking you down as you minced your way to the buffet to get a banana for breakfast or dodged running kids to get near enough to stab a bit of the mystery-chicken-thing at dinner. The noise from live music, drums and bass-back-beats clearly reverberated up the seven stories to our room from the plaza below, from 8-11pm every night, augmenting the nearby disco racket. Geez, and this was the BEST option Delta vacations offered, after the expensive digs! And let’s see…. No chairs at the pool or tiny beach cuz they were all grabbed by the people at the “Grand” sister property next door, whose guests had exclusive access to better rooms and food (for a price) but their pool was in shade all day so they took all the lounge chairs at the Kid-Friendly crap sister resort with the terrific pool.
I’m the only person I know who went to an AI resort, brought in my own bottle of rum and some cokes, drank 25% of the rum, left it behind with the too-sweet cokes for the maids, and only ordered soda water with lime from the (quiet, out-of-the-way bar) the few times we sat at it after a day trip!
So forget the resort experience: check out my page with Mexico Trip Pix , with helpful captions.
Trip Coda: We flew home after 7 days in Cancun, drove into the house from the airport Thu. night, tossed dirty clothes into the hamper, repacked our suitcases, woke up early Friday and drove 7 hours down to central FL to arrive at my niece’s wedding exactly on time, 30 mins before the music cued up. Missing this wedding truly would have been The End of the World!
Check out my lengthier, meatier blog entry from my 1999 trip to the Yucatan: http://wp.me/pYCsM-g
Put me in, on or near the water and I’m happy as a clam. Unless of course, there’s a gale blowing and I’m hanging onto the edges of my bunk for dear life to keep from being flung to the deck while outside the cabin portholes an angry, tossed and foamy wall of ocean is going down, down, down past the porthole then rising quickly up, up, up to arrive at the precipitous lip of yet another gigantic wave, seeming much taller than the flying bridge of our 50 foot Hatteras motor yacht. A gust of wind blows sea foam and not a little sea water through the portholes, soaking my friend Anni’s bunk below. She won’t be pleased to discover a wet bunk, if and when we ever get out of this mess and make our way safely back to Miami and the relative calm of the dock space at the yacht club.
We were aboard the Sailor’s Hat, owned by my friend Anni’s parents. Some three weeks earlier Anni and I had driven down to Miami from Ocala, Florida to join her folks and the “fleet” from the yacht club on the annual Spring Cruise. This year, 1985, the fleet was to spend a month, more or less, cruising the Berry and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Months of preparations developing itineraries, establishing which boats were leaving when, and deciding on rendezvous points and communications protocols led to the eventual leave-taking of around a dozen sailboats and motor yachts, heading out of Biscayne Bay and across the Gulf Stream to points east and south.
We spent a couple of days at the sprawling Coconut Grove home that Anni’s dad, Cap’n Pete, had built after WWII. I helped Mother Dunan cook and freeze food and pack linens and kitchen ware. Anni helped Cap’n Pete effect some last-minute boat repairs and schlep load after load of tools and all manner of gear needed to keep the boat afloat and self-sustaining for the coming weeks.
The fateful day for departure came, with a cooperative weather forecast promising a calm crossing of the Gulf Stream. As Anni and I gathered in the bow and stern dock lines and Cap’n Pete slowly backed the ‘Hat out of her slip, our little group waved goodbye to members gathered on the great lawn of the yacht club to see us off.
It certainly felt like a momentous departure, at least to me. For several years I’d been regaled with stories of previous Spring cruises, complete with photo albums stuffed full of terrific shots of people cavorting aboard boats and yachts, big and small, and exploring unpopulated specs of islands floating in turquoise shallows in various Caribbean island chains. I couldn’t wait to join my adopted family to spend several weeks in relative isolation aboard a boat with shared spaces equivalent to less than an 800 square foot apartment.
Actually, we got along very well together, which is a good thing, because we were going to spend a great deal of time in each other’s company. And along the way I was to be reminded just how critical teamwork would prove to our safety and well-being.
Once the ‘Hat was topped off with diesel fuel, ice, beer and the all-important fresh water, our first hurdle was the crossing of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes the crossing could be smooth as glass, others the waves could stack up to well above 10 feet. Numerous skippers’ wives, who had been through a crossing or two, opted to skip the crossing and instead meet their boat on an island with a convenient air strip. This meant that some boats would initially make their way to one of the islands in the Abacos or Berry islands that offered airports. Other boats with their full crew would make their way east to Hole in the Wall, then “around the outside” and north again to the inside, protected Ababco Sea passage threading the chain of islands.
I had applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear the day before our departure, hoping to ward off the evils of mal-de-mer. Once we hit the Gulf Stream proper, the waves towered to the point that we lost sight of a cruise ship less than 4 miles away every time we dipped into a trough. And this was a “calm” crossing!
My vision was getting blurry and my speech slurry from a reaction to the medicine, so off to the port stateroom I went, to lie on my bunk fighting off sea-sickness for the next five hours or more. At one point I staggered up the companionway steps leading from the galley to the salon, to find Cap’n Pete perched on his high-boy wicker chair, which was carefully lashed to the starboard bulkhead, his bare feet planted firmly on the edge of the steering console. Anni was perched much the same on the port side on her own high-boy chair, serenely looking out over a vast, wave-tossed watery domain. Wind whipped massive gobs of foam off the tops of what appeared to me to be giant waves that churned willy-nilly, with no apparent pattern or determination, beyond that of tossing our little craft about like a bobber.
Cap’n Pete had engaged the automatic pilot but was keeping a careful eye on our drift rate as the Gulf Stream pushed the boat northward. As he explained why he was having to correct our course, my brain had difficulty processing the information through a fog of scopolamine. Also, the lurching and corkscrewing of the boat was more pronounced in the salon, and pretty soon I was headed back down to my bunk. Along the way I passed Mother Dunan, who was comfortably jammed into the corner of the booth of the galley dining table, playing solitaire. Sympathetic to my plight, she assured me we would be clearing Customs at Cat Cay by 4pm. I was looking forward to solid land again and a quiet night tied to a stable dock!
My vision and speech problems persisted, even after walking about on dry land for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until that evening that I figured out I had a reaction to the medicine. I removed that damned patch. It took 2 more days for the stuff to finally wear off. I decided I would just bite the bullet and hope to develop sea-legs naturally, without the help of any medicine. Which worked, just fine. So well, in fact, that I developed the opposite problem – getting sea-sick on land! After several lengthy days at sea, I discovered I couldn’t tolerate sitting still on a beach or in a building without the world spinning faster and faster. Luckily, the best food on the trip was Mother Dunan’s cooking aboard. Although the itinerary called for different groups to meet at several restaurants on different islands throughout our trip, I never managed to sit for long without being assaulted by land sickness. I was much better off on the boat. Even if we were in a slip, the slight motion of the boat was just enough to keep me comfy, and I was fine as long as I had a cold beer and a good book to read!
Our “deserted island” adventures began on the third or fourth day, as I recall, at Frozen Cay. It was mid-afternoon and I was below, again, trying to develop those sea-legs by distracting myself listening to my Walkman, when I felt the boat shift course and I heard the distinctive sound of the twin diesels drop below a roar– no surprise, since our stateroom was located just aft of the port engine.
From previous weekend and week-long trips aboard the Sailor’s Hat, I had been trained to respond to any change in the boat’s movement or the pitch of the engines. In a matter of seconds we left the tossing of the ocean and entered protected water. I headed up to the salon to be met with my first experience of approaching a deserted, quiet anchorage in the dangerous shallows of the Bahamas.
I was quickly asked to put my eagle-eyes to work to help Cap’n Pete carefully pick our way up sandy passages in-between coral patch reefs and rocks that could hole the boat like the antique wooden craft that she was. Anni was doing her best to “read the water”, which for land-lubbers I might describe as the fine art of staring into the sun’s glare while attempting to make sense of the cat’s paw pattern of wind as it moves across the surface tension of the sea. Depending on whether the pattern was unbroken, or formed a swirl or any number of other esoteric shapes, one might suspect an obstruction, like a big rock, to be lurking just under the surface. Or, you could do like I did and climb up to the flying bridge and with my handy-dandy polarized sun glasses, I could actually see those patch reefs and big, dark rocks and shout down directions to Anni.
It must be noted that the flying bridge was just that—a bridge, complete with a steering station. But on this boat, it was uncovered, and driving the boat in the shade was far preferable to cooking in the hot sun!
Ok so there really was more art than science at work here, but somehow we managed to maintain sufficient steerageway to dodge obstacles and bring us across more than a mile of water, deep inside the protected anchorage. Whereupon it was “anchor drill” time, when Anni and I got to do our thing.
Anchor Drill consisted of a little dance: lifting that damned giant Danforth anchor (with extra lead poured into the crown) out of its slot on the bow while avoiding crushing our bare toes. Using well-honed technique, Anni would pull out and carefully coil on deck quite a lot of line (depending on the scope Cap’n Pete wanted). Then, carefully grasping the chain attached to the ring at the top of the shank, she would dangle the anchor and a few inches of chain over the lip of the bow, awaiting Cap’n Pete’s signal from the bridge to “let go”.
My job was to stand about, close enough to relay messages between Anni and her father through the open salon doors, but not in a spot where I would obstruct Cap’n Pete’s view. Oh yeah, and of course to hector Anni to “be careful, don’t trip on that combing, don’t drop that anchor on your toe” or else make smart-ass remarks or dry observations about the anchorage if we were in a lull of time while Cap’n Pete was slowly driving us up to the absolutely ideal spot of sand for the anchor to be dropped onto. Whereupon the heavy beast was dropped with a big Splash. The coiled line would pay out, and Anni would lash the line to the cleat after Cap’n Pete signaled satisfaction with the scope of the line, then we’d scoot back to the salon (I always went through the starboard doors, Anni went through the port doors, we had it down pat after awhile) to await further orders from Cap’n Pete.
Our skipper was a retired Navy man, had been the Commodore of the yacht club time and again over the years, and was considered the most learned and senior of all the boat owners at the yacht club. Living up to his reputation for Safety First, he always came out on the bow to check his anchor, to feel the boat underfoot, to sense her movement in the wind and any current or tide that might be running. All this before he would ever shut the engines down. Anni and I would remain alert, rather like two hunting dogs waiting to be let loose, until those engines were shut down and Cap’n Pete, a man of few words, would give us a small wave or grunt “Ok, good” or something equally weighty.
I soon learned on this trip that the end of anchor drill didn’t exactly signal time to go swimming or crack that first beer. Rather, my job became that of window cleaner. Because we spent almost all day out on the open ocean, the boat would be coated in sea salt, so I got to sponge a little of our precious fresh water, mixed with Joy dish washing liquid, onto the massive acreage of glass encasing the boat’s salon. The job entailed being out in the broiling sun, with nothing on but quick-dry shorts and a tiny crop-top cotton shirt, sponging and squeegeeing until the glass shone like, well, glass. I soon learned to glop on sun screen, don a hat, and work efficiently. Eventually I reduced the task down to less than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, as soon as we hit calm water, Mother Dunan typically started her stint as “Galley Slave”, prepping a tray of appetizers, which Anni would ferry up to the salon to spare her mom going up (and down) several galley steps, making the turn on the little landing, then proceeding up (and down) several more steps. Boating could be hard on one’s knees!
Sometimes Mother Dunan would begin dinner preparations, depending upon what time of day we arrived at the anchorage. Or, on numerous occasions, we might join, or be joined by, another boat of our little fleet, in which case the already-scheduled host boat would trot out the appetizers, ice and drinks while the guests freshened up, donned their nicest “among friends” evening boat attire, then would dinghy over to the host boat for cocktail hour.
One such occasion found us tied up at a slip in Hopetown Harbor, rowing the dinghy over to the evening’s cocktail boat anchored in the center of the harbor. The host boat, a 30-foot sailing vessel, served as a stable, if cramped, platform for the 20 or so guests, who perched on any available flat area, trying to balance paper plates of goodies and plastic cups of wine.
The sun was sinking into the west, setting the famous lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor aglow and bathing us in the last of the day’s heat. Anni and I were chatting about the name of a nearby boat, the Carpe Diem. I said something about the appropriateness of the name for a day-sailor when an elderly gent on a comfy cushion in the cockpit behind us said to his companion “Look, Carpe Diem. Doesn’t that mean Fish of the Day?”
I had just taken a hefty bite of a cracker balancing a tasty slice of sharp cheddar and nearly choked as I let out a sputtering guffaw. The gent’s companion said something like “Now there’s a young lady who must know her Latin. Tell me, miss, isn’t Carpe Diem Latin?” I laughed and said “Yes—Latin for Live for the Day, I believe”. Silence from behind me. Anni lifted her eyebrows quizzically. I turned around, faced with two older gentlemen who looked surprised and, I thought, a bit pained. I didn’t understand why they were so obviously put off until the companion laughed and said “Of course! Live for the Day! How could we forget?” And here I thought I’d overheard a clever pun!
It wasn’t until later that evening, back aboard the ‘Hat, that I learned that the Fish of the Day gent was a recently retired director of the Smithsonian. And yes, he was quite serious and did really believe his version of the Latin translation. I don’t recall seeing that particular fellow again during the cruise. He may have been one of many who flew into Marsh Harbor to join the fleet for a leg or two of the journey, to return to Marsh Harbor to fly away again; apparently to a place where they don’t know their Latin.
Then again, he may well have been aboard the tres’ expensive, modern, fiberglass 60-something foot Bertram motor yacht, which joined us and another member of the fleet sometime later in the cruise. It was late in the afternoon, once again, when we approached a tricky, narrow anchorage between two of the dozens of tiny, low, scrubby islets that make up an area of the Abacos called Double-Breasted Cay. The only protected anchorage there is quite narrow, with a typically high current at tide change. Knowing this, Cap’n Pete determined to arrive ahead of other boats to secure a safe spot for the ‘Hat. He explained that, due to the likelihood of significant tidal currents swinging the boat onto exposed reef/rocks on either side of the narrow passage, we’d set two anchors off the bow so that we could swing a bit on either one in such cramped space.
As Designated Diver, it was my job on this occasion to don snorkel gear and dive some 30 feet down in the (luckily) crystal clear water to the sand, reposition the thousand-ton (it felt like) anchor and dig the flukes well into the sand—in the correct direction, of course. Only after the main anchor was set to Cap’n Pete’s satisfaction would the second anchor be placed in its proper position.
This was one of the more challenging assignments I was given. There I was, feet planted firmly in shifting, fine sand at 30 feet, using the weight of the anchor to steady me as I craned my neck upward, trying to see Cap’n Pete through the patterns the wind was making on the surface of the water. He was hanging over the stanchions at the bow, gesturing for me to move the anchor “over that way”, holding his arms wide to indicate the distance the anchor needed to be moved. Ok, I thought, I can do this. But I need more air. So back up I went, floating in front of the bow while Cap’n Pete gave succinct directions. Back down, plant my feet, lift that big-ass honkin’ anchor, grunt out a precious large bubble of air, glance upward, see him gesturing again, move the damn thing once more then back up, in a hurry now, for more air. More discussions ensued. Back down. This went on for far more time trips to the bottom than I had bargained for. Not to mention my breath-hold capacity was dwindling precipitously each dive.
One last galvanic effort and the thing was set. Anni was at the transom, watching me crawling, exhausted, onto the swim platform. While I caught my breath, she quipped “Hey, wanna go snorkeling before dinner?” Very funny. The only thing I was ready for was a brief fresh-water shower and a cold beer.
About this time here came that big Bertram, barreling into the narrow passageway. Cap’n Pete observed something dry and not too complimentary about the careless approach. Sure enough, as we watched and Cap’n Pete predicted, the boat’s skipper was positioning his boat to be anchored way too close to us for any margin of safety, especially if either boat dragged anchor or even swung more than a bit on an anchor. Much discussion ensued between the skippers. We left it to the men to work things out, as Mother Dunan shooed us below to help prepare for the group cookout slated on a nearby islet.
A third boat, and perhaps a fourth (my memory hazes) joined the line-up, and our little group crowded the protected anchorage. Too bad if some other group showed up, we had the prime spots. Now, off to the cookout!
The four of us crammed into the 12 foot Jon Boat-cum-dinghy. And now a word about that much-rightfully-maligned boat. Usually, the Sailor’s Hat was the largest boat in the fleet. You’d think she would sport a lovely little Boston Whaler, complete with electric start engine and steering console, but no. The utilitarian and humble little aluminum Jon boat perched on the after section of the fly bridge, sitting out in the sun and baking to temps hot enough to cook meat, her white paint oxidizing so that every article of clothing or strip of bare skin that came in contact with the surface would come away with an almost-impossible-to-wash-off white chalk!
The dinghy further endeared itself to those who had to balance on the often slippery deck of the bridge while wrestling with the somewhat rusted and recalcitrant tackle used to winch the thing over the side. Next, the single stroke little-engine-that-could would be brought out from its storage area, bolted onto the dinghy’s transom, topped off with precious fuel and cranked. Or so we hoped. Actually, the thing needed work during the cruise, and I believe it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth island stop that we finally got a working engine to save on the rowing duties, which I was exempt from, having had absolutely no experience in the fine art of rowing. I could paddle a canoe through the proverbial eye of the needle, but rowing left me confounded, describing ever-widening circles or sketching a snake-like course over any distance I attempted to traverse.
So, there the four of us were in the dinghy, Mother Dunan perched precariously on top of a coffee table cadged from the salon, gripping a large bag of foodstuffs. A group of a dozen or more people were making energetic preparations to clear flotsam from the only narrow strip of sand on an island otherwise covered with thorny, low scrub. The resident sand flies waited to strip the flesh from the unwary who wandered a few feet away from the water, which proved a problem as the tide began to come in. We’d barely managed to distribute food stuffs, and the portable charcoal grill was still warming up, when everyone decided to abandon the island for the comfort of our boats. Darkness having fallen, we splashed through shallow water, loaded up the dinghy, got Mother Dunan back aboard her coffee table, waved goodnight to everyone and high-tailed it, as fast as Cap’n Pete could row, back to the ‘Hat. Yet another case of a land-based mishap, as far as I was concerned.
Fast-forward to the end of our Abaco and Berry Islands trip. We were met with glassy, calm waters as we cruised west most of the day across the Gulf Stream back toward the east coast of Florida. It was late afternoon and we were miles away from the coastline when we first spotted the tops of thunderheads just above the horizon. Throughout the afternoon, as the twin diesels worked to move us steadily to the west through the eerily calm, deep aquamarine blues of the Gulf Stream, the thunderheads grew into severely-bruised appearing massifs, arrayed in a towering wall as far as we could see across the horizon to our front. The weather reports went from bad to worse. The closer we got to the coast, the more lightning we could see firing from cloud to cloud. After awhile, it looked as if there was a massive artillery barrage as far as one could see, with colors ranging from deep magenta to orange to a sickly, too-ripe banana yellow to shades of greens, purples and blues.
I was awed and increasingly alarmed as I watched the Florida land mass appear infrequently at the bottom of the cloud wall. It eventually disappeared altogether. Only my faith, or dread, of knowing the coast was There lent reality to the scene.
The obvious question is, why in the world did we keep going? Why not just turn back or head north up the coast and away from the storm front? Well, going back wasn’t possible – we had only so much fuel and Cap’n Pete calculated that the return trip back to any close port in the Bahamas would mean an almost head-on push against the Gulf Stream, which would consume a helluva lot more fuel. Not to mention he would need to be at the helm of the boat for likely most of the coming night. At 70-something, with eyes that were scheduled for cataract surgery, our skipper determined that a return to the Bahamas was a foolish and very dangerous option.
A change in course to follow the north coast of Florida and duck into the intra-coastal waterway at, say, Cape Canaveral or Jacksonville, might be a likely choice, considering our present course and fuel consumption. However, the storm front stretched virtually the entire length of the state; we had stumbled into a late spring cold front, one that was rapidly developing into a very dangerous storm for all residents of the east coast of the state. Tornados, flooding, downed power lines and wind damage reports soon frequented every radio station we tuned in. The marine weather forecast had been trumpeting small craft advisories since we’d first spotted the thunderheads.
So after listening carefully to every snippet of weather information he could get, Cap’n Pete’s best judgment was that we should go for it, drive under that massive, anvil-shaped storm front and into the gloom of the looming wall of rain. We were just a few miles offshore, and once we ducked into the intra-coastal waters, we should be able to safely navigate “the ditch” down the coast to Biscayne Bay and, eventually, the home slip for the Sailor’s Hat. However. First we had to get the boat, and ourselves, through what was likely to be a very hair-raising couple of hours of boating.
As Cap’n Pete monitored the weather reports, Anni set to checking the lashings on the dingy and securing every moving thing in the salon. Mother Dunan and I scurried about the galley and checked the staterooms and heads, securing movable items in every storage space available and stuffing pillows, blankets and clothing into the galley cabinets where glasses and crockery were stored. I tried to secure the portholes in the stateroom I shared with Anni, but two were so corroded that they wouldn’t batten down.
As soon as we came under the anvil storm front, the conditions rapidly deteriorated. We were headed inexorably into a maelstrom that looked like the end of the world to this gal, who got bug-eyed over 5-8 foot seas on our first Gulf Stream crossing. I could barely keep my feet, even though I was hanging for dear life onto the rails of the stairs leading from the salon to the galley. I peered fearfully across the steering console, where, over the bow, that dark awfulness loomed. The seas all around us were tossed and turned, churning will-nilly. All thoughts of sea-sickness flew from my brain. I remember feeling like we were so small, so tiny, and being literally swallowed into the gigantic maw of a massive beast that would never, ever let us go.
Cap’n Pete had closed the windward salon door but lashed the lee salon door open – a ready escape route, I figured. None of us had life jackets on, although we all knew where they were stowed, under seats on the afterdeck. Of course, if anyone ventured out there now, they’d be washed overboard.
The boat bucked like a bronco, struggling up one side of a wave, tottering at the pinnacle, then rushing down the other side, to come crashing down in the trough with a massive “Boom!” that caused my teeth to snap together until I learned to anticipate the blow.
Mother Dunan was laid out on an air mattress, in the middle of the salon floor, on her back with her arms and legs splayed but planted as firmly on the deck as possible. The ship’s bell on the afterdeck clanged like a fire engine bell. In the gloom of the salon, Anni and her father’s faces were mirror images of each other, tensely peering through the now-slamming rain to try to determine any hint of a pattern the waves might offer, any indication of which course to follow to reduce the rocking, tilting, slamming and wild gyrations the poor old boat was going through.
I heard a loud “thump” from below and Cap’n Pete told me to not try to discover the source of the racket, but to go down to my stateroom, jam myself into my bunk, and stay there. Which brings me full circle, to the opening of our little tale of a spring cruise.
Cap’n Pete managed to drive us through that wet, dark hell straight to the mouth of the river at Fort Pierce, some 130 miles north of our final destination. Once we hit the intra-coastal, the relative calm and silence were startling, and as the darkness of the storm was replaced by the late afternoon light, we made our way slowly south down the intra-coastal. Waiting for bridges to open was lengthening our trip home to another 6 or more hours, so as evening came on, Cap’n Pete took us through another cut to the outside, where the storm-tossed seas had settled down to a steady chop. We hauled butt down the coast, heartened by the lights of homes, businesses, traffic and civilization off our starboard side.
I remember slowly savoring the sandwich Mother Dunan had made, grateful for a quiet passage and the steady, reassuring thrumming of those powerful diesels, shoving us further south, toward the Port of Miami and eventually, home. But first, we had to again maneuver in the narrow confines of the intra-coastal waterway, dodging small craft that failed to consider that a 50-foot boat can’t stop on a dime and a large tour boat that did it’s best to jam us into an old bridge jutting out from land.
Anni and I spent a good deal of time out on the bow, doing our best to spot the lights of channel markers that were lost in a sea of colors and lights against the Miami skyline. After hours of picking our way along, we finally reached the familiar lights of the yacht club. It was after midnight, and the place was locked down tight. Customs was long since closed, so we left the yellow quarantine flag flying and everyone fell gratefully below to our bunks. It had been a long day, some 18 hours since we had set out from our last port in the Bahamas.
We spent another day in Coconut Grove, schlepping gear back to the house and cleaning the boat. It took me another four or five days to get my land-legs back, and the boat movement remained in my head for another couple of days beyond that.
I was very glad I had come along on the cruise and realized it had been, for me, the trip of a lifetime. I look back at the photos and slides we shot and recall scenes like being dive-bombed by sea birds as we stomped through a large nesting colony on Frozen Cay, making our way to the windward side of the island to catch a glimpse of the sailboats in the fleet approaching the anchorage. Highlights included visiting Revolutionary War era ruins and a large blue hole on yet another deserted island, and walking around Man-O-War Cay early on a Sunday morning, buying freshly-baked Bahama bread from the window of a lady’s house while listening to the choir from the little church, music wafting down the narrow lanes between the gaily-colored homes and cottages lining the harbor.
I got some snorkeling in, as well, on a reef off Green Turtle Cay and some fantastic snorkeling in the currents ripping through and among the shallows surrounding the many tiny islets of Double-Breasted Cay.
But of course the most memorable thing about that trip was the people—spending time with my adopted family, meeting many members of the fleet, and sharing memories. Like the morning we and another boat were anchored in a small bay near yet another deserted island: Anni got up at the crack of dawn, took the dinghy ashore and spelled out a giant Happy Birthday, Janie with seaweed on the steeply sloping, sandy shore. When the folks aboard the other boat in the anchorage arrived topside for their morning coffee, they laughed, called across to us, waved and generally made their delight known.
I also learned about many things nautical, and how to be useful and safe aboard large and small boats alike. Not to mention a great deal of history about the Bahamas, the Berrys and Abacos, and how to read The Cruising Guide and, yes, eventually how to read the water. It was, indeed, a memorable trip, simply messing about in the Sailor’s Hat!
Our vacation on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, was in many respects a mirror of my visit there in 2006. (You can read that older entry in this blog to get some of the details of the island). Which is to say, it was a delightful place to kick back, enjoy the beach, and relax. We also came to recuperate and regenerate. Robin’s brother Don had passed away suddenly less than 2 weeks before our scheduled vacation– the same week we learned that my brother Mike was diagnosed with Stage 4, pancreatic cancer. We understood we were in a trough on an ocean of emotional upheavals, and tried to make the best of our down-time.
We were also recovering from a flu bug that was amplified by an extraordinarily intense spring that left our sinuses full of pollen and fine particulates. We were looking forward to having a week of breathing fresh sea breezes before returning to the not-so-balmy air of Atlanta, where Code Orange days are routine in the summer months. But I digress.
Flash forward as we each sip a first frozen concoction at the Pump Room, situated above the downtown ferry dock on St. Thomas, USVI. The almost-4-hr plane ride from ATL to STT was uneventful, and the fact that we didn’t check luggage facilitated a rapid transfer from the airport to the ferry dock and much-anticipated refreshment.
My body ecstatically soaked up the familiar tropical heat and humidity as we tooled over to Tortola on the, as it turned out, SLOW ferry. Not to worry, we arrived at West End in fine fettle, cleared Customs relatively painlessly, and greeted our rental car host Denzyl Cline, who tripped us over to his office nearby and, quick-as-a-bunny we were driving on the left and tooling up one of many steep, switchback roads, headed to the Heritage Inn, our home for the next week.
We made a quick stop in Cane Garden Bay to get water, rum, cokes and snacks, then doubled back over Windy Hill to the Heritage Inn, in ample time to check in, get a hug from Rosa, who remembered me from 2006, unpack a few items in our room, then down the stairs to the Banakeet Café, home of delicious food and drinks and the best sunset view from any eatery on the island.
Beautiful sunsets and gorgeous, virtually deserted beaches were hallmarks of our stay. We didn’t venture far on the island, as I had driven it a couple of times in 2006 only to discover that the best beaches were close to the Heritage Inn. However, a planned highlight was a day trip over to Anegada Island, rightfully famous for miles of pristine beaches, a nearby fringing reef and just a couple of small bar/restaurants on those beaches to serve the infrequent guests.
A 1.5 hr ferry ride, some of it across deep water (read: rough ride) took us to Anegada early of a morning. After a bite to eat at the only “resort” on the island, near the ferry dock, we shared a jitney ride across the island to Cow Wreck beach, one I had read featured great snorkeling. Well. The beach was simply awesome, curving away to both horizons, with nobody, no boat traffic, only 2 kite-boarders having a ball in 17-knot winds—which were blowing hard directly onto the beach. The surf was booming out over the reef, and the normally placid water inside the reef was dense with suspended sand. But hey, we donned our skins and got right in, before the winds could pick up any more, which of course they always do as the afternoon comes on…
Welcome to Olympic snorkeling, swimming against wind-driven tide and shallow water surge. We battled our way out toward the reef, carefully picking our way between coral heads that came close to the surface, and keeping our distance from patch reefs that were hard to see in the low visibility.
On our way out to the reef, I spotted a 5-foot nurse shark resting on the sand in about 15 feet of water. I pointed it out to Robin, who was tickled pink to see her first shark in the wild. We let the surge take us quietly near the critter, which glided away when it saw us. That left us with a large, curious barracuda, who kept turning toward us and disappearing in the turbid water, only to present its flank, as if to remind us that this was a sizeable (4 feet in length) fish. We went on about our business and left the ‘cuda to its patch reef.
The usual reef denizens appeared in and out of the visibility curtain, and we soon tired of fighting the current and surge. A lengthy swim back to the beach provided ample opportunity for Robin to learn to ride the surge, resting as the wave return pushed us out toward the reef, waiting some 5 seconds, then catching the in-coming swell and kicking hard to take advantage of the ride. This was surely an exercise in patience, but also the smartest and most energy-efficient way to return to the beach safely.
As Robin learned, getting out of the water can be the most awkward challenge. My experience was: The surge rapidly took me in to the shallows, where the water became solid with suspended sand and I couldn’t see a damn thing. I reached out and down with one hand, prepared to fend off the bottom if necessary. I saw a few small chunks of rock sweep under me – my eyes adjusted to focusing on the rock then lost a focal point again as sand swirled. Vertigo reigned. I peeked above the water and saw I was still 30 feet or so from the water’s edge. Looking down, I saw a cluster of sharp rocks in what was suddenly very skinny water. Finning over these knee-knockers quickly, I came to the sand trench typically dug by strong onshore currents. Wallowing in the trench while getting battered by incoming waves, I worked quickly to get my fins off, before the next BIG wave, aided by a wicked undertow, could tumble me over those rocks I just crossed. Grasping my fins tightly, I danced two quick, steep steps onto firm sand and I was home free.
Behind me, Robin was tumbling in the surf, struggling with her fins. I gave her a hand and soon we were both standing, reeling really, on hard-packed beach, our snorkel skins covered with sand. The wind was blowing hard enough to threaten to snatch the gear out of our hands. Slowly we made our way back up the beach to our lounge chairs, where we collapsed gratefully.
The high winds attracted two kite-boarders, whom we enjoyed watching throughout the day as they flew across the bay at 35 or more MPH, jumped the outer reef, turned flips and maneuvered skillfully around an inflatable anchored near the Cow Wreck beach bar. I struck up a confab with Bob-the-dentist-from-Texas, who proudly watched as his wife Cathy zoomed past. He explained she had taken the sport up a few months earlier. At 49, she looked every bit the pro to me, and I was amazed someone could master a sport that appeared tough to learn. Seems Bob and Cathy came to Anegada for 3 months every year to play on kiteboards—what a life! And a very nice couple.
The day flew by and soon it was time to head back to the ferry. On the way we passed a few skinny cows wandering around the dunes behind the bar. Cow Wreck, indeed. Poor things were bony, small and look half-starved.
Our next adventure was a day sail with snorkel stops aboard Kuralu, a 50 foot Catamaran I had been aboard in 2006. The day was windy—great for sailing but not so for snorkeling where I really wanted to go, which was at the exposed rocks called The Indians. We almost called it off, especially since Robin was feeling a bit shaky after what we suspect were bad crab cakes she’d eaten the night before. However, she decided she should be fine aboard, as she “never” gets seasick, so off we went. Big Mistake. Not 10 mins after the sails unfurled, she hurled and kept at it for another 6 hours. She barely made it into the water for a brief snorkel stint at our first stop off Norman Island in protected waters. The rest of the day she heaved every 20 minutes. She was close to needing rehydration via IV but she did manage to get enough fluids, including Gatorade, into her system to aid in a slow recovery. In any event, poor Robin remained off-her-food and listless for another 5 days.
Our final day of vacation was less adventuresome and allowed Robin to chill on a virtually deserted beach on a nearby island, Jost Van Dyke, a short ferry ride from Tortola. We caught a jitney over the mountain from the harbor to scenic White Bay and enjoyed a restful, quiet day swimming in clear, calm water and lounging in the shade in front of Ivan’s Stress-Free bar. Ivan’s offered delicious, if strong, Pain Killers, my favorite BVI drink. Robin sipped her Gatorade and we shared a delicious fish sandwich. A rain squall passed through, providing a welcome fresh-water rinse.
I had a nice chat with a somewhat waspish middle-aged Aussie woman who was the purveyor of a small display of driftwood, each piece crudely decorated with small shells, bits of colorful plastic and other curiosities apparently gathered from the high-water wrack line on the beach. Her story was interesting: she and her husband had suddenly, with-no-warning-to-the-kids-or-family, sold their home and furnishings in Sydney, provisioned their 35 foot sail boat, and taken off for ports unknown. Apparently the mid-life-crisis that brought on this abrupt change of venue took the kids by surprise, and months later the parents were still receiving telephone and email entreaties to “Come Home!” and to basically explain themselves! Mum and The Old Man were happy to be away from (apparently) a life of children-with-drama-issues, and they found themselves back on Tortola, where they had lived some 30 years previously (apparenty before the kids came along!)
These days Mum made crappy sea crafts that she sold to passing White Bay tourists and The Old Man drove a cab on JVD. Nights were spent aboard their sailboat, she explained, pointing to a somewhat weathered mono-hull anchored out in the bay. I asked Mum if she and The Old Man had any plans, and she shrugged, admitting that they weren’t making any money and would likely head back to Sydney once they either managed to scrape up enough money to provision for the trip or if the kids would be willing to send some money along to help pay for the trip!
Of course there was more to the story, what with the kids holding the promise of money over the parents’ heads, contingent upon the parents selling “that damned boat” and flying back home. And of course the parents were refusing to give up the boat, their only valuable and the essence of their determined independence. In any case, the story was soon interrupted by the arrival of a large Windjammer sailing vessel to the bay, which vomited a crowd of loud, obnoxious, drunk or determined-to-get-drunk-rapidly American tourists onto the beach in front of Ivan’s. Their arrival signalled our departure, and so ended our bucolic day at Ivan’s on White Bay, JVD.
So many islands, so little time! This was my 2nd stay on Tortola, and as I watched it drift away under the wing of our Atlanta-bound Delta jet, I knew we’d likely not return. I determined that as soon as I got another job (having been out of work for 7 months in the Big Recession), I would start planning our 2010 trip to, lets’ see…Anguilla or Barbuda, those 2 islands keep coming up in conversation with seasoned, off-the-main-path Caribbean travelers. Hmmm – eeny, meeny miney, mo…
Talk about a bucolic Caribbean island! Bequia (“Beck-Way”) certainly meets that definition.
Located in the West Indies near Barbados, Bequia is a tiny, 7-square mile, volcanic-based oasis floating on a sea of cobalt, aquamarine, Copenhagen-and-all-manner-of blues and greens. With approximately 5,000 residents, Bequia is truly quite undiscovered- no cruise ships call and the somewhat arduous connections to get there dissuade casual vacationers or those looking for even 3 star accomodations. Yachties know it well but even so it is somewhat off the beaten cruising path, unlike, for instance, the Bahamas or the Virgins. The island offers no hi-rise hotels, no resorts, just a few restaurants, 3 little stores, and very little shopping, primarily made of the same old T-shirts and mass-market crap in the few stores and sold by street vendors.
The island is turning into a retirement destination for Canadians, Americans and UK types. I liked the greenery of the volcanic hills, all the Bouganvillia, every kind of Bird of Paradise and all sorts of Hibiscus and of course orchids everywhere. The fragrances were heady. Not to mention the brightly-hued little Quits, a species found throughout the Caribbean and the ubiquitous ground Dove, a smaller bird than the Mourning Dove found in North America. Several mornings we sat out on the villa patio and watched a squadron of hummingbirds work over a large, flowering tree that hung out over the steep ravine below. Finches, and Magpie-like members of the Crow family called and chatted, flitting about from tree to tree all day. Two mornings we heard a throaty, raspy loud series of calls that sounded to my ear very parrot-like. I don’t know if the threatened Amazon Parrot found on nearby St. Vincent makes a home on Bequia, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, as the islands are a mere 9 miles apart.
The other major boon of Bequia is all that fresh, salt-sea air, a balm to those of us who live in cities with poor air quality.
Caribbean vacations are each different, in the context of the “sameness” of Caribbean travel- heat, inefficiencies, airport hassles, sullen locals, iffy and limited food selections, slow service, high prices for all goods brought to the island. But hey, one becomes more tolerant with age and experience, especially if assisted by a rum punch or two. However, those rum punches nearly proved my undoing, as I tooled around in a right-drive Jeep on the left on extremely narrow, winding and steep “roads”, with no shoulders, just steep drop-offs on one side to the ocean and a concrete ditch between the pressing hillside and the narrow, switch-back roadway. The ditches were about 2 feet wide and 4 feet deep- just enough to capture your tire if you slipped into one, which I did when avoiding a cement truck that came whipping around a bend. I was careful to avoid snatching the tire back on the road (without power steering that was a trick!) and send us careening off the hillside. Such near-misses soon became routine and the subject of somewhat breathless giggling.
Water-borne activities were also a source of, if not panic, then a certain touch of consternation. Robin had a moment’s hesitation when we were sailing over to Isla a’ Quarte, a nearby undeveloped island. We were in 6-foot seas, fairly big in that small boat (32 feet) and it was quite windy so as we came up on the wind the boat heeled very steeply. Robin found herself on the lee side, sitting in the cockpit facing to the stern with her elbow on the combing- I guess her elbow got dipped in the ocean (we were heeled at about 40 degrees) and she asked if the boat was gonna tip over. I laughed and Nikki, our skipper, was kind enuf to just grin. He was perched with one foot on the high side and another on the low side of the cockpit, his bare toes curled to grip the edges of the bench seat, looking very piratical. I braced my feet across from my seat to the edge of Robin’s and enjoyed the wind. She’s never sailed before, much less under very brisk conditions on the open ocean but she decided she likes it.
The stars were right down on our heads every night. Lotsa meteorites! We’d turn off the lights in the villa and that was a DARK night- no light looms from towns or cities, and headlights from a car traveling the shore road miles away lit up the night like a spotlight. I could spot a campfire on the beach over 2 miles away as clear as a bell and could see people moving in front of the light cast by the flames! Amazing.
One day we were hanging on the beach- I swam out to a patch reef offshore and in about 30 feet of water watched a large Spotted Eagle ray feed for 20 minutes. Its wing span equaled my own, its tail was like 3X the body length. Elegant and magificent. It ignored me above and grazed the top of the flattish reef and nearby sand and grasses. Too weird- they have a pointed snout but when they feed they deploy these membrane-like flaps on either side of the mouth. The ray rooted in the sand or grass, digging up crustacheons no doubt and kicking up a cloud. Then it gulped once or twice, folded in the mouth flaps and swam to another likely patch and repeated the procedure. Way cool to watch.
The marketer in me wants to trumpet this not-so-discovered corner of the Caribbean to the world, but the weary, salary-slave-seeking-respite part says “Shhh! Keep it a secret!”
Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas (STT) by plane can, on a good day, put you at the downtown (STT) ferry dock, awaiting one of the ferries for Tortola in about, oh say, maybe 8.5 hours – not counting the drive to the ATL airport or the 15 min taxi ride from the airport to the ferry dock. But, it’s the full moon in May, 2006, the Saturday afternoon sun is bright, a steady breeze blows dust and dirt along the streets of St. Thomas and ruffles the amazingly blue and clear waters surrounding Charlotte Amalie. We are already, in our minds, on Tortola, sipping a cold something and watching the sun set from the outer edges of the Banakeet restaurant at the Heritage Inn – our home for the next 7 days or so. It will be a short, adventurous, pleasant, and somewhat painful stay. But first, the hour ferry ride over to Tortola, which gives us plenty of time to slowly get into limin’ mode, which is slang for, well, limin’. Think of it. A lime. A drink. Sittin’ in the shade on a breezy beach – limin’.
Clearing customs in any port is no joy but the standard operating procedure at West End, Tortola, treated us gently, and so we made our way out of the breezeway and into the sweltering sun to ask around for Denzyl Clyne, who showed up, as agreed, to take us 2 minutes down the shore road to his car rental shack, where we yakked with other eager vacationers doing the same paperwork drill to secure the must-have 4WD jeep capable of negotiating the steep, winding, treacherous hills and switchbacks of this 59 sq. mile chunk of the British Virgin islands.
Tortola is located some 90 miles east of Puerto Rico, a stone’s throw from the USVI’s St. John and a world away from the stress of work, household upkeep, lawn chores and other bothers. Officially, some 22,000 humans call the island home, about 2/3 of them living in and around the capital and seat of commerce, Road Town, which we steered clear of as we went up, up, up and over and down, down, down one of what would be many “hills”, to cross to the side of the island where the tourists tend to congregate.
Driving along the North Coast Road (a fairly flat section), we enjoyed the water views, the pelicans and frigate birds wheeling, flapping and, in the pelicans’ case, diving. The driver, Lynn, managed to negotiate narrow streets, parked cars, stopped cars, chickens and the odd goat and wandering pedestrian with aplomb, while driving on the left of the skinny road. Luckily, driving on the left is like riding a bicycle, (for those who have done it before, I should say) – although here it’s not recommended one falls off – it can be a very long, very direct way down to sea level.
Soon, it was time to shift back into 4WD and head way up, up and winding and up and switchback (4 of them, keep count) and here we are, home for the next week. Park the jeep and walk toward the edge of that precipice just under the Tamarind tree and, oh my gosh. Look at that view. From over 400 feet up, on this breezy hill, where you can smell the salt sea air, the loamy soil, green growing things and the singular tart odor that always reminds me of the jungles of Mexico and Belize. The islands to the north are clearly etched against a soft, dusty blue sea way below. Boats sailing between us and the nearby island of Jost Van Dyke make tiny white scratches on the surface of that incredibly blue Caribbean Sea. I don’t have enough names for the different hues of blue I’ve seen these waters reflect – it’s been a few years since I’ve been in this section of the Caribbean and I’m almost overwhelmed again by the intensity of the sight and my reaction to it. Or maybe I just need a pina colada. Time to unpack and head for the bar of the Banakeet!
The sunset was awesome, the food and drinks at the Banakeet lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. The room at the Heritage Inn was rather small, cramped really, but we didn’t spend much time in there – well, except for the days it poured rain and threatened to wash the place off the mountain. Speaking of which, Sage Mountain, the highest point on the island at over 1,700 feet rose directly behind the Heritage Inn. The peak was often shrouded in mist and light rain during our stay, except for the one day we managed to hike the trails in the Mt. Sage Nat’l Park. It was dark and cool under the canopy of huge fig trees and other, rampant growth. Birdcalls surrounded us as we trekked through the jungle-like greenery- it was a tiny piece of rain forest on an otherwise rather arid island that boasts mostly cactus, succulents and other moisture-hungry plants.
During our stay we drove to various beaches, discovering chilly waters and interesting snorkeling at Brewer’s Bay, as well as a delicious meal at Nichol’s beachside grill there. At Brewer’s Bay, cattle were resting in the deep shade of the sea grapes well above the high water mark and chickens pecked through the leaf litter. A small village of tarps sagged in the deep gloom of the shade. More like a hobo camp than party destination, the place was abandoned (except for the cows and chickens) and gave me the willies as I curiously poked around.
Another scenic and out of the way beach is Smuggler’s Cove, way down at the west end of the island. Negotiating the very rough and steep track is made worthwhile when you arrive – no real facilities here but you can buy a t-shirt or sarong from the ad-hoc beach vendor or even get a frozen drink, mixed to your specs with the assistance of a car battery.
One night’s dinner at Myett’s in Cane Garden Bay, the main tourist center on the north side of the island, gave us reason to avoid the place and try Coco Plums in Carrot Bay- a much tastier proposition. In spite of the resident and voracious no-see-ums that hang out at Coco Plums, we ate there several times and came away delighted with the quality of the food, service and atmosphere. Funky place, great prices, decent service and the seared pan mushrooms were a much-anticipated appetizer! Just don’t hit that big fig tree when you go to back out into the street…
Early in the week we caught the 8am ferry for a 20-minute ride over to nearby Jost Van Dyke island. Frequent Caribbean travelers know that early morning ferries are mostly peopled with workers, and so we weren’t surprised to discover no taxis waiting at the other end to take us across a steep hill to White Bay, a well-known gorgeous beach area with a string of bars and small boutiques along the white sands. So we grabbed our stuff and hiked into town, which we could see just around the curve of the harbor. Found a taxi driver awake and secured a quick trip over to Ivan’s on White Bay, where we set up camp for the morning under the shade of yet more sea grapes. A handful of sailboats, mostly 40+ foot catamaran’s, rode anchor or mooring balls on the beautiful, crystal clear water, providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
After swimming and limin’ for a coupla hours, we hiked down the beach and around a pointy-and-jagged ironshore headland with the aid of a slippery goat trail. We stumbled, sweaty and hot from our trek, down the soft beach sand to the famous Soggy Dollar bar. Party boats had made their way to anchor just off-shore by then and a crowd of rowdy high school kids were raising a ruckus, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a delicious lunch, a couple of pain killers, a couple of beers, and taking pictures.
Dinah used her Blackberry to call back over to our hostess Rosa at the Heritage Inn to follow up on arrangements for a sail/snorkel day trip for the morrow- all was set!
Wednesday (the morrow), we were up and at ‘em early to drive back down the North Coast Road, through Carrot Bay and around Apple Bay, across the mountain on Zion Hill Rd., shifting out of 4WD again and tooling over to Soper’s Hole in West End, the yachting mecca and upscale shopping area catering to folks with a lot more money than sense. Just kidding- Soper’s Hole is scenic and justifiably famous for something or other. Lotsa slips at the marina, anyway. One of them hosted our skipper Robin’s catamaran Kuralu.
After a bite of breakfast at the little Pisces restaurant, we joined 4 other folks on board Kuralu for a terrific day of sailing, snorkeling and enjoying the company of our skipper, his hunky son Tom, Kaley-the-wonder-dog and fellow passengers. Just enough wind to push us along, so off we tacked to the Indians, some tall rocks sticking up out of the ocean bottom, swarming with more soft corals and fish life than I’ve seen for years, outside of the reef off Ambergris Caye in Belize. Cool water didn’t keep us away from almost an hour communing with the fishies – I was in heaven. Snorkeling the Indians was just like snorkeling a wall, except one could move from one wall to another. Depth to the sand was approx. 40-50 feet and lotsa sun shining down lit everything up beautifully.
This stop proved to be the highlight of this snorkel trip and provided a potent visual that is indelibly etched into my memory. One of those magical moments unfolded, simply out of nowhere, when I swam around one of the rocky outcrops and encountered a huge school of silversides. Thousands of 4-6″ long fish formed a large ball, approximately the size of a car, creating a dazzling, shimmering display in the rays of sunlight spearing the blue water. As I swam toward the ball, it parted just wide enough to let me into the center, and then the gap closed behind me. I found myself in the core of a solid vertical tunnel of fish that stretched from a foot below the ocean’s surface down to the sandy bottom below. I held my breath as long as I could and slowly corkscrewed toward the surface, mesmerized by the fishy envelope around me.
I lost track of time, but likely only enjoyed a few minutes of this amazing swim before the fish shoal moved out into open water, leaving me behind, where I floated, dazed and grinning from ear-to-ear.
Back aboard Kuralu and drying off, we were entertained by Kaley, who would leap off the stern with a big SPLASH and swim like mad to fetch the Frisbee that Tom tossed overboard. Once Kaley had it in her mouth, she’d turn around, swim back to the stern and board the boat using the swim ladder! Truly a wonder-dog!
The cobalt blue of the ocean slipped astern as we headed over to anchor off Norman island for a fantastic lunch aboard Kuralu and some desultory snorkeling in a somewhat brisk current over mostly boring, half dead and fishless reef. That swim didn’t last long, although the two nubile sisters from Miami Beach did spot a turtle. Darn, we missed it.
The sisters got to show off a bit more skin than previously displayed around their miniscule “swim suits” when we headed around the corner to another bay, where the infamous “pirate ship” (think Disney with rust stains), the “Willy-T” lay at permanent anchor in an almost pristine setting of soaring green hills.
The old scow of a boat was anchored in about 40 feet of crystal clear water over a white sand bottom, with a few, long and dark shadows lurking just under the surface in the shade of the boat. I thought the fish were Jacks. I’m sure they and other critters are accustomed to eating anything that falls or is tossed off that boat.
Anyway, the thing is, if one jumps off the upper deck of the ship into the water some 30 feet below, er, naked, one Gets The T-Shirt. Of course the girls went for it.
A few fellas were hangin’ at the bar and happy to provide an appreciative audience. The girls were concerned that the impact of hitting the water might damage the investment they had in their superstructures, but a self-entitled “surgeon” who claimed he had “done a million of them” (I doubt he meant jumps) suggested the girls might hold onto their attributes tightly as they struck the water. Some fellas thought this was bad advice, as it might ruin the view. The women all encouraged the girls to protect their investments. I was given the task of capturing the seminal leap, using their digital camera, which I managed to do, quite to their satisfaction. They decided that was one shot they weren’t going to share with Dad and StepMom…
Post-leap and the donning of “swim suits” in the pellucid waters, we all (Kaley included) piled into the dingy for a quick run back to Kuralu and headed back to port, where the beginning of what was to be a day and 2 nights of torrential rainfall awaited us. The Big Rains caught us at breakfast at Rhymer’s down in Cane Garden Bay the next morning. Like the 15 or so other patrons, we were stuck there for well over 2 hours, with no letup in sight. Finally, we headed out in the rain to the Suzuki and carefully made our way toward the Heritage Inn, crossing the bridge over a “ghut” (large gully that drains water from the steep hills around) that was filling faster than it could drain into the bay.
Half way up the first of several steep hills, we could go no further – the road in front of us was awash with fast-flowing, muddy water with boulders and rocks tumbling along, easily as deep as the tires on the Suzuki. Turning around, we were stymied when arriving back at the bridge over the ghut – the bridge was under water and there we sat, waiting for the water level to drop. It was about an hour later that the rains let up and we slowly picked our way past rocks, boulders, holes in the road and hillsides washed onto the roadway, to arrive back at our room.
At some point I managed to slip on wet tiles on the stairs to our room and damaged my leg rather severely, which laid me up with ice and Ibuprofen for an evening or two, but didn’t keep me from snorkeling and, luckily, had no direct affect on the articulation of either elbow.
Our last full day we drove down (up?) the island, getting lost along the way and finally found Lambert Bay – a very scenic place with the added attraction of Lambert’s Resort. We hung out on the resort’s beach loungers, which allowed us to put the little sand chairs we’d packed all the way from the ‘states back in the Suzuki (later we donated the sand chairs to the Heritage Inn, which had none for guests to use.) Lunch at the resort’s restaurant and a coupla pina coladas later and soon it was time to head back to our room and head back out for dinner.
On our ferry ride back to STT, I overheard someone say that he preferred to take the slower route to and from Tortola (vs flying in), because it gave one the time to slowly either wind down (upon arrival) or wind up (to get ready to clear Customs and Immigration and deal with the hassles of modern-day air travel). I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I watched Tortola and St. John slip astern and, later, as I got my final glimpse of those incredible blue Caribbean waters just before the plane rose above the clouds.
Off-season Caribbean island travel has its rewards…like less expensive stays, fewer people at the popular spots around the island, a personalized rain forest tour and having restaurants to yourselves.
It was May, early off-season for our destination, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. These sister islands can be found in the Leeward Island group in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, to the west of Antigua. Perusing the Internet in preparation for our trip, we discovered that just 2 miles separate the islands at their closest point, and according to official websites, offer visitors …” a relatively authentic island experience, (with) luxuriant mountain rain forests; uncrowded beaches; historic ruins; towering, long-dormant volcanoes; charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis); intact cultural heritage; friendly if shy people; and restored, 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant, if sometimes eccentric, expatriate British and American owners”.
Thus adequately prepped by our research, we arrived on St. Kitts with realistic expectations. As seasoned Caribbean travelers, we’re accustomed to traveling off season (southern natives don’t mind the heat and humidity), quickly adjusting to the slower pace of life that typifies most cultures in the Tropics.
After clearing Customs at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on St. Kitts, we were met by a helpful employee of our car rental company and, before we knew it, we were tooling merrily along (on the left, of course) toward the brilliant sunset, headed for the Timothy Beach Resort (TBR), our home for the next week or so. Having arrived on a Saturday, we looked forward to a delightful introduction to the island via the highly-recommended Sunday Brunch at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a lush, tropical oasis on the Atlantic side of the island.
Ottley’s was virtually deserted when we visited on that windy, rainy morning. Heavy mist swept across and obscured the peaks of the rain-forested mountains in the near distance, leaving behind large dewdrops on the flowering bougainvillea and carefully tended lawns and ornamentals.We were enjoying the silence and solitude accented by bird calls when we were approached by a large, friendly, wet and smelly golden retriever, who greeted us with a gentle tail-wag and a wet nose then led us down the royal palm-lined track that skirts the main building. Our canine host paused to munch on a ripe mango then followed us as we explored the rainforest trail located behind the property.We spent a few minutes quietly stepping over fallen mangoes and looking up at the towering trees festooned with ferns and liana vines, then made our way back to the swimming pool area, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and served one of the most outstanding meals we enjoyed during our stay.
Noon is a bit soon for us to be drinking alcohol, but the rum punch or mimosa comes with the meal, so we threw all caution to the wind and went for it!
During our meal, we were amused by the black and white cat that slept on a low wall of the open-air dining area. A quiet older couple dined right next to the cat, which snoozed quietly. Four businessmen showed up and started a loud conversation, which startled the cat and grated on our ears, formerly accustomed to the sound of the wind through the rainforest. The cat sauntered over to us to extend greetings, which we cordially returned. The reception it received at the loudmouth table, however, was a rude kick. We decided to steer well clear of such dismissive and arrogant interlopers.
After the meal we walked the grounds some more, as the sun came out and bathed the hillside in heat and a white-gold light. We ran into the operations manager, who greeted us warmly, inquired about our stay, where we were from, and offered to take a photo of us with our camera, which we accepted. The manager inquired if we were enjoying our stay, and indeed throughout our time on the island, we were continually asked by servers and others we met “How are you enjoying your stay? Are you having a good time?”
Thoroughly stuffed with excellent food and mellowed from the serenity of Ottley’s, we hit the shore road and continued our island tour, counterclockwise, a direction that friends on the island suggested would help us to unwind. We passed numerous sugar processing ruins that dot the island. After a couple of photo ops, we came to Black Rocks. Parking the car at the top of the headland in what appeared to be a small park, we dodged a flock of the ubiquitous goats that inhabit the island. The goats had more sense than we did — they didn’t even get close to the loose, steep track that led down the dangerously sheer hillside to the volcanic rocks below.
At Black Rocks, huge waves crashed all along the shore, as far as one could see in both directions, tearing themselves into spume and mist against the jagged, massive volcanic rocks below. The scene was one of immense energy and I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. Normally, I readily clamber over rocks and boulders encountered on hikes and tramps, but this place engendered in me a caution that kept me well away from the edge. Besides, the wind was blowing so hard that it I was afraid of being blown overboard, so we hung out, snapped a few shots and returned to the car.
Further along we came to Dieppe Bay, passing the Golden Lemon Inn, which we aimed to visit for a luncheon later in the week.
Around the top (northern end) of St. Kitts, we spotted Brimstone Hill fortress on our left– a Must See and, on a clear day, you enjoy the most magnificent views available (unless you do a rainforest hike — more about that later.)
We typically bring along a small, collapsible cooler on our trips, and this visit was no exception. Fortified by bottled water, a Yoohoo, local soft drinks and Carib beer (potable if Very Cold), we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy digs at Timothy Beach Resort early every morning to spend the day exploring the island. Power bars and other snacks kept us going until we chose a time and place to stop, eat, and chill.
One day we drove over Monkey Hill just below TBR, and made our way down to Turtle Beach. The rusted A-frame of a destroyed building, litter and the overpowering smell of cattle crowding around a fresh water tank greeted us at Turtle Beach. It was a holiday, and large groups of partiers were having their revelries.
We bumped along through the soft sand, skirting the shore, to a quiet place where we could get out of the car, hoping to enjoy the view of Nevis across the way – only to be scoured by sand whipped up by the gale blowing across the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts. Oh well, not much snorkeling here today! In fact, it was difficult to keep one’s feet.
As to snorkeling – I’m a SCUBA diver from Way Back but do enjoy exploring island shorelines for snorkeling. Having done my homework by reading posts on the St. Kitts/Nevis message board for several months, I determined we might head to the southern end of South Friar’s Bay area for snorkeling. Hmmm. Not much to see, except a couple of coral-encrusted canon which we were told had been recently “studied” by students from I-forgot-where. When we snorkeled over the canon, which were lying in about 10 feet of water approximately 70 feet from shore, we spotted dozens of small plastic Zip-Lock bags strewn all around the site. Each bag had a white, flat plastic “stake” in it. Each plastic “stake” had cryptic writing on it. Some of these bags were tucked in among the surrounding rubble, but most of them had floated free and were lying on the sandy bottom. It wouldn’t take much of a sea to scatter these bags all along the bay bottom and onto the shore, or out to sea. This “research” effort struck me as little more than litter, for certainly those plastic bags and tags would only add to the flotsam and litter we found everywhere piled above and below the high-water mark. Not to mention the danger to turtles and other animals, fish and coral reef structures. Not to mention the half-life of plastic litter.
The best off-shore snorkeling we found was the shallow, man-made reef structure that parallels the shoreline along the northern end of South Friar’s Bay, from the Shipwreck bar north. This “reef” is located approximately 25-30 feet offshore (depending on the tide) and in about 8-10 feet of water. We found the structure best suited to early morning exploration, before the winds and seas kick up.
One can ride the gentle current that slowly pushes you northward, drifting and peering under the shallow ledge for shy critters like boxfish, trumpet fish, damsels, blennies, angelfish and all manner of juvenile reef fish. If the waves kick up, the visibility gets pretty low, so we learned to stick with the early morning dip for best results.
We were dismayed by the amount of garbage and trash piled up behind the Shipwreck bar, at the base of the hill. Rusted out beach chairs, boxes, broken wooden seats and every manner of plastic container were heaped with no consideration for aesthetics or safety. As a commercial photographer, I am typically careful to crop such eyesores out of lovely beach scenes, but I did take several shots of the “alternative” views. On one hand, I can’t help but believe this is a sign of laziness and Not My Job attitude on the part of people who own and operate these beach-side “businesses.” On the other hand, throughout my travels across the eastern and Western Caribbean, over the past 25+ years, this sort of visual has been all too common and reflects the difficulty of solid waste disposal on islands, the lack of infrastructure, funds and planning for such disposal, the dismal attitude of poor and struggling islanders and the nonchalant attitude of tourists who are, for the most part, completely oblivious to their contributions to the plight of these closed ecosystems.
But, back to the travel log flavor of this story: We made a point of visiting Romney Manor, the 350-year-old estate once owned by a British earl, and the home of Caribe Batik. What gorgeous surrounds, lovingly cared-for, well- tended lawns and exotic plants and fruiting trees! The batik goods at this tropical “factory” are breathtaking – we just had to buy a gift for ourselves as well as family and friends back home.
However. Once again Reality bit us in the butt. Like the approach to Ottley’s and the Golden Lemon and other destinations, we passed through horribly run-down and poverty-stricken areas, with sights like a huge sow sleeping underneath a wrecked and rusted truck carcass and the troubling sight of a naked toddler wiping herself clean (and dropping the rag) after defecating in the bushes across from her home (a shanty, really), which apparently sported no running water or sanitary facilities. Such scenes do not hearten the tourist, however enchanting some areas may appear.
Leaving such painful sights behind, we opted for a rainforest hike so early one morning we met our earstwhile guide Hugh Rodgers for a personal, guided hike on Mount Liamuiga, the dead volcano that is such a massive feature of the island. Over the course of a couple of hours, we were guided up and down well-tended (but not well-worn!) trails under and through the triple-canopy as Mr. Rodgers shared with us his prodigious knowledge of the fauna, flora and history of our surrounds.
We appreciated that Mr. Rogers could strike just the right balance between informational chat and allowing periods of silence to stretch out so that we could enjoy the sounds of the animals, insects and the smell of nutmeg on the wind– an enveloping, sensory experience.
After our rainforest hike, we decided to spend a day visiting Nevis. This smaller island is just across a deep water channel from St. Kitts but, in many ways, seems slower and much more a reflection of the imperial era of European influence.
Small as it is, Nevis almost proved more than we could see in a day, even though we were perfectly mobile in a rental car. Our research unearthed key points of interest, so after a quick early morning bite to eat at a cute restaurant overlooking the ferry dock in Charlestown, we set off on a day-long drive around the island, taking in the Botanical Gardens (beautiful and worth banging down a rough track, with little signage to point the way) and places to stay, several of which are built around historic sugar plantations.
By the time we’d visited the Golden Rock Estate’s one hundred acres nestled high up in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, the all-inclusive Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778 and the home of Fanny Nisbet, eventual wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson), the Four Seasons Resort Hotel with its extravagant pool and exorbitant drink prices, and a few smaller, out-of-the-way beach properties, we were satisfied we’d pretty much “done” Nevis. Tired but happy wanderers, we turned in the rental car, boarded the ferry for the short trip over to St. Kitts, and a lovely dinner at one of several restaurants near the center of Basseterre.
Segue to the town of Basseterre, one of the oldest in the Eastern Caribbean, which retains much of the Georgian character of Nelson’s days. The town is the main commercial and industrial center of St. Kitts, and features bustling port traffic, ferry traffic, foot traffic in and out of stores and along narrow streets, and animal traffic in the form of goats and chickens that wander about, dodging, well, traffic.
Driving to, from and about in Basseterre proved a challenge, even for this driver accustomed to tight spots in and around Boston and squeezing into tiny parking places on the streets of Atlanta. Roundabouts do little to sort traffic but do provide picturesque distraction as one attempts to avoid being side-swiped while negotiating the myriad of 90 degree turns that define the entrance or exit of these somewhat dysfunctional traffic managers.
Of particular interest was the center of a roundabout featuring a half-size concrete statue of a faintly Victorian lady, clad in a (as-best-I-recall) diaphanous, wind-blown gown. Adopting a Statue-of-Liberty stance, the figure, situated on a chipped concrete pedestal, held what once must have been a light fixture. Somehow, through the years, the light had been lost, the fixture broken and replaced by what appeared to be, yes, a rusted metal drainpipe! Just as our island-dwelling, ex-pat Brit friend had informed us, “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” stood forth for all to see, but try as I might, I could only capture a wildly tilted image of her outside the widow of our car as we furiously went around and around. Tiring of the life-threatening adventure, we soon bailed from that roundabout and headed to one a bit more genteel.
The centerpiece of Basseterre’s evocative Georgian architecture is its Circus, a positively spacious and well-organized roundabout modeled in proper Victorian patriotism after Piccadilly, in London. In the middle of the Circus stands the bright green bronze of the Berkeley Memorial Clock, an ornate, cast iron tower with four clock faces and more than a little architectural decoration. Decorously immobile, it posed for several pictures, much to my satisfaction.
With one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis reflect some of their pre-Columbian past and a great deal of their European history dating from the 1400s to the Spanish, French and British periods. Whether you choose a little bit of history, a lot of local color, ancient volcanoes surrounded by rain forests, wind-swept hillsides dotted with the ruins of old sugar mills, modern romantic getaway resorts, or a mix of them all, St. Kitts and Nevis offer a variety of material from which any visitor can craft a unique Caribbean vacation.