The turquoise waters of the Bahamas Banks slipped under the wings of our Delta jet as we began our descent toward the airport on the island of Provo, Turks & Caicos. This was our second trip to Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) and, in contrast to the hustle and bustle we encountered on Provo on our previous trip in 2011, we looked forward to the quiet and solitude of Salt Cay and, later, on Grand Turk.
I had carefully crafted arrangements for our trip some months before, and we anticipated fairly smooth sailing once we arrived on Provo from Atlanta, cleared Customs & Immigration, and hopped on the small Caicos Express Airways Cessna for the 20 minute flight to Salt Cay.
Following my in-depth research on TripAdvisor, Fodor’s Grand Turk forum and emails to various property and business owners, I had selected the Castaway property for our 3 night stay on tiny, quaint Salt Cay. Upon our arrival at the little airstrip on the island, we were met by the erstwhile, efficient and friendly property manager Paul, who drove us around in his golf cart and gave us a quick tour of the settlement and harbor area. Paul showed us the two places to eat and suggested we needed to make a res for that evening’s fare if we wanted a meal. We took him up on his offer to call the managers of Island Thyme restaurant and to let them know they’d have two guests around 7pm.
Soon, we arrived at our little cottage on the secluded beach on the north end of the island. We had the buildings, the beach and surrounds totally to ourselves, with the exception of a few cows who wandered by, grazing placidly on the low scrub surrounding the cottage.
The refreshing wind off the ocean kept us cool while we unpacked and prepared to head to the settlement to dinner. Luckily, we had made arrangements to rent a golf cart, which waited patiently outside the cottage as we climbed aboard and thumped our way down a long, dusty limestone track through the scrub to the settlement to Island Thyme.
On our way we passed by numerous simple homes of the locals, many surrounded by low limestone walls with gates to keep the donkeys at bay. Old salt-raker cottages, some quite nicely updated, appeared among the small houses that clustered near a park-like area where donkeys and cattle rested under welcome shade from casuarinas pine trees, providing a bucolic and wind-swept scene as we tooled by in our golf cart.
The little restaurant was placed on what appeared to be a small “town square” of the quiet settlement. While we waited for our dinner of almond-encrusted red snapper to be prepared, we enjoyed the rooftop patio view of the late afternoon light casting a warm glow over the salt ponds in the center of the island. These “salinas” are the legacy of when Salt Cay was the world’s largest producer of salt in the 1800’s. In spite of multiple hurricane visits throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, much remains of the history of the salt trade on Salt Cay, as expressed on the Turks & Caicos Preservation Foundation website http://saltcaypreservation.org/saltcay/historicdistrict/saltcaytoday.htm
which proclaims “A stroll through Balfour Town is like a tour of an outdoor museum, 19th-century industry, with dilapidated windmills, salt sheds and abandoned salinas.”
Another interesting Salt Cay factoid can be found in Jimmy Buffett’s autobiography, “A Pirate Looks at Fifty”, in which Buffett mentions that his father, James Buffett, told stories of his father (Jimmy’s grandfather), one James Buffett, who was the skipper of a five-masted Barkentine sailing vessel named the Chickamauga, from Pascagoula, Mississippi. James told his family tales of Salt Cay, which he considered the place he had some of the best times of his life. While salt was being loaded onto the ship, bound for New Orleans, the six-year-old boy who would grow up to be Jimmy’s father would “take off with a group of local kids and…chase flamingos and catch lobsters from the beach.”
While herding flamingos was not on our agenda, snorkeling certainly was. We hooked up with a descendant of the “salt baron” family Harriott, one Tim Dunn, who is the proud owner of a lovely new twin-hulled boat which anchors his business Crystal Seas Adventures.
We had Tim’s undivided attention and his fast powerboat to ourselves, as we snorkeled several reefs over the next two days. The best reefs were located not far offshore right in front of our cottage. You can see this series of circular reef formations in the aerial photo I took. In the photo, the furthest reef to your right is the one where I spotted a bull shark, my very first (and I hope last!) sighting of these critters with the well-deserved reputation as seriously dangerous to human health.
I won’t stoop to the lurid “man-eater” moniker but let’s just say I was glad it was seemingly intent on cruising the sand at the base of the reef some 45 feet below me and that Robin was safely (?) swimming over a different part of the reef (ironically, trailing after a nurse shark) and managed to miss being buzzed by this 6+ footer. The reef fish, at least, had holes in the reef to dart into, and I watched them scatter as the shark swam rapidly along. I remained very still and was glad the critter just kept going until it disappeared around a bend in the reef.
Robin soon appeared. I mentioned the sighting, and we agreed to slowly make our way back to the boat. I saw Tim pull himself aboard and give us a relaxed wave. I figured he hadn’t spotted our visitor, which Tim confirmed once we got back aboard. He said he’d seen few bull sharks in his many years of diving the TCI (over 500 dives) and that the overall shark population was very healthy in these islands, which was most heartening to hear but I must admit that thoughts of ocean conservation weren’t uppermost in my mind when I first figured out I wasn’t gazing at a sleepy, harmless ol’ nurse shark!
In spite of SCUBA diving and snorkeling the Caribbean waters since the 1970s, (I have no idea how many dives I’ve been on but a coupla hundred would likely be a fair estimate), I’ve only been in the ocean with A) lots of nurse sharks (too many to count), B) one reef shark, C) one lemon shark and D) that’s quite enuf sharks for now, thank you.
Back on land, we totally loved the perfect quiet and isolation of the cottage. Over the course of our 3-night stay, we went to bed under a huge, bright-white-light full moon. The brisk breezes coursing through open screen doors and windows and the ceiling paddle fans made the mosquito netting superfluous and a light blanket welcome during the wee hours. We were nightly lulled to sleep and daily awakened to the sounds of the ocean waves rolling along the shoreline, the breeze through the scrub and the frequent calls of birds. No human voices. No planes or traffic sounds. No telephones. No radio or TV. No smart-phone alert sounds. Just nature. Bliss.
Our decision to stay some distance away from the little community near the town dock/harbor was a wise one, as the resident donkeys and roosters kicked up enough noise and drama to steal some sleep from the only other visitors (four adults) on the island. The visitors had chosen to stay near the center of the settlement, where, apparently, the beasts and fowl also chose to hang out. Some of the tales the other party told about the jacks waging bloody battles over the jennies were amusing, if somewhat alarming. Wouldn’t want to get between them! (The jacks, not the visitors…)
When not snorkeling or resting at the cottage, we hung out at the Coral Reef Bar and Grill right next to the little harbor near the town “square”.
While our meals there ranged from just-passable to awesome, we mostly enjoyed chatting with “Miss Debbie”, the proprietress of the bar/grill, the Tradewinds guest suites nearby, Salt Cay Divers (the primary dive operator on the island), and Salt Cay Real estate. Before long we were chatting about the TCI, Grand Turk (where we were headed next), whale watching, the resident donkeys, island history and online marketing tactics. Debbie sure is connected, and as far as I could tell, is the Go-to person on all things Salt Cay. Debbie’s life is apparently deeply rooted on Salt Cay, which struck me as different than the other 60 or more ex-pats who call the island their second home.
We were told by Tim and others that most of the ex-pats had left the island a few weeks ago, as the season wound down. Besides Paul and his wife, the only other folks we met on the island were locals (“Belongers”, as the folks in the TCI refer to themselves.)
After our three laid-back days of quiet on Salt Cay, we caught one of the few-and-far-between flights from Salt Cay over to nearby Grand Turk. Here we were slated to spend the next week enjoying the comfort of a 3br, 2 bath, fully air-conditioned private villa called “Palm Villa”, which I had found on VRO.com. We had secured the place, pre-paid, months before, after exchanging emails with the owner, a Canadian resident. We arrived at the airport to find we had no ride awaiting us from the owner’s on-island “property manager” and, abandoned at the airport, we stood around searching in vain for a pay phone (no such thing in the 21st century, anywhere, apparently). Debbie had luckily caught the same Cessna we did to GT and came to our rescue, using her cell phone to call the number I had been given for the PM, whom she apparently woke up and who admitted he had “forgotten all about” picking us up! This after I had called him, using Paul’s cell phone, from Salt Cay to remind him of our scheduled arrival!
The situation went from bad to worse. The condition of the property was simply awful– broken down, worn out, no linens, no AC, filth, exposed wiring. Suffice to say we hired a lawyer while on-island due to rectify a situation where the owner lied, misrepresenting his property in dated photos, refusing to compensate us a cent, etc. The lawyer made as much as we recovered. Lesson learned. Buy the insurance to protect yourself from property owners who are less than honest.
We managed to squeeze lemonade from lemons, and ended up moving lock, stock and over-the-barrel to the Bohio resort on GT, which turned out to be a lovely spot on the relatively undeveloped north side of the island.
Tom, the manager, was very kind to offer us a corporate rate on a standard, motel-like room when we washed up on his beach after our little surprise at “Palm Villa”. He, like everyone we spoke to over the course of the next few days, knew all about those brown houses, where they were, their decrepit state, etc and was as horrified as other islanders and business owners over the treatment we had received.
For the next 6 days and nights, the Bohio management, staff and surrounds served up a combination of off-season quiet relaxation, delicious meals, and multiple opportunities for us to jump into a boat and run a couple of minutes out to the edge of the wall and 7,000 feet of ocean blue depths. We were delighted to be situated so close to the wall, and found ourselves on a boat every day, experiencing another amazing snorkel spot.
One afternoon Tim came over to GT from Salt Cay to help with cruise ship overflow for an outfit he used to work for. I saw his boat go by and gave him a quick call on a borrowed cell phone and sure enough he was free that afternoon. Soon he anchored off the beach in front of the tiki bar at the Bohio, we jumped aboard and he took us to the northwest point of the island to a dive spot he referred to as his favorite, the “Ampitheater”.
We ended up snorkeling the Amphitheater atrium, a shallow (15-45 foot) area shoreward of the marked dive location. Wow, was that area teaming with fish! The (full moon!) tide was coming in, creating serious currents in a deep channel between fingers of reef. A large swell was running as well and the water was cold, all of which accounted for the fishy environs. The angle of the afternoon sun’s rays lit up the west-facing reef line like a spotlight, and all the colors of the hard corals, soft corals and tropical fish simply danced in our vision. Massive goose bumps under our thin dive skins finally drove us to get back aboard and we grinned like kids, enthusiastically thanking Tim for sharing a special spot with us.
Debbie’s Salt Cay Divers skiff, with skipper Ollie, was also available at the Bohio a couple of mornings, so we had Ollie and his boat all to ourselves as he took us to 3 different locations on the wall to snorkel. All in all I think we snorkeled eight different locations during the 5 days we had available for snorkeling. By the time we were ready to pack our gear, we discovered our skins were almost worn through and my mask and snorkel were getting pretty ragged and leaky after the past 3 years of Caribbean trips. Hey, a nice problem to have!
We actually got around GT quite a bit in the didn’t-want-to-start-or-keep-going golf cart, while we had access to it for the first two days on the island. We shopped for food stuffs and went to the bank to fetch money for the lawyer we hired, drove up and down Front Street innumerable times, popped into the national museum, checked out a couple of other motel-like properties I had come across during my research, had a ho-hum lunch at one of them, took photos of the short stretch of historic Duke Street that most visitors photograph (believe me, the Abacos are far prettier as examples of scenic Bahamas streets!), ate lunch out of a food wagon on dusty, hot Front Street (cruise ships were in so the street vendors were out), ate another (not-so-great) lunch at a local hole-in-the-wall eatery on dusty, hot Middle Street (where to locals live), visited a couple of thinly-stocked “convenience stores”, and saw a lot of trash and stray dogs and the shanties where the homeless Haitians lived.
We also dodged speeding cars, kids who chased our golf cart for fun, crazed cruise-ship zombies racing rented golf carts up the main drag of Pond Street, a group of cruise-ship zombies being herded, er I mean led on a tour of the town salinas on their rental Segways, and gave way numerous times to donkeys and horses that would appear suddenly and either dash madly or stroll leisurely across the street in front of us and disappear in the brush or behind a modest dwelling where the folks sitting in the shade of the porch would wave at us and call “Hello!” We always returned the wave with a smile.
After such frenzied activity, we were glad to give up the golf cart and remain “stuck” at the Bohio the remainder of our stay.
All in all, I believe this vacation goes down as one of the more unusual. Not exactly what we had hoped for, much less planned, and the additional expense of paying for, in essence, two places to stay kinda put a damper on our enjoyment. But, really, I found it hard to stay upset for long while I rested my tired-out-from-snorkeling self on a lovely padded beach chaise lounge in the shade of the casuarinas, enjoying a terrific breeze, watching Robin leisurely paddle a sea kayak against a backdrop of layers of Caribbean greens and blues stretching out toward the setting sun. Somehow, the world and my tiny spot in it clicked right back into place and kept on going round, and round, and round.
The direct flight from Atlanta to Turks & Caicos Islands steadily approached Providenciales, the largest island in the group. As the plane began its approach, we looked up from our paperback books to catch glimpses of the collection of islands below, stretching roughly east to west, surrounded by the purple-black of the “deep”, over 7,000 feet worth. The colors of the sea surrounding the islands reflected changes in the water’s depth – first royal blue, then cobalt blue, then robin’s-egg blue, and finally a brilliant turquoise over bright, shallow sandy bottom.
Viewing the familiar yet consistently stunning colors of the Caribbean Sea jump-started our excitement and anticipation of a long-awaited and hard-won week’s holiday. By the time we clanked our way down the metal steps from the plane to the tarmac and hiked the quarter mile or so to the terminal, we were hot, sweaty and grinning from ear-to-ear. We had arrived! Vacation could officially begin.
Clearing Customs and Immigration and securing our rental car was relatively painless and soon I was sitting on the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road and hesitating at each of several roundabouts while my brain processed new rules of the road in Real Time. Robin, erstwhile Navigator, refrained politely from snickering as I repeatedly flipped on the windshield wipers instead of the turn indicator.
“Yield” yielded to “Give Way”. Posted speeds were in Kilometers, not Miles per Hour- as was the speedometer- a happy coincidence. Soon enough we arrived, unscathed, at the IGA Supermarket on Leeward highway, purchased necessaries for the first few days in our rental condo and tooled down the road to Turquoise Ridge, our home-away for the next 7 nights.
After checking out our spacious, new and completely comfy (privately owned- found on VRBO.com) digs and the view of Juba Point (a bright turquoise colored bay) from the screen porch overlooking the pool, we whipped up a favorite adult beverage to fortify us as we unpacked our carry-ons and backpacks. Then, off to one of our rare visits to one of many resorts lining Grace Bay, where perfectly white sands kissed by crystal turquoise waters greet tourists (mostly American, Canadian, British) and the prices are, well, quite beyond what we routinely want to pay. But hey, it’s our first evening and we have a terrific view of the large patch reef right in front of our perch on the wind-blown upper deck of the restaurant at Coral Gardens resort.
Our drinks appear, soon accompanied by tasty meals and we’re just happy to be here, enjoying the fantastic view, the cool wind and the shade of the table umbrella. This is a treat, as we’ve agreed to go it “on the cheap” on this vacation, re-heating lunches for dinner or buying a half chicken with a side or two at the IGA and stretching it to 2 or more meals. Each day we prepare a light breakfast in the condo kitchen, pack our travel cooler with drinks and ice, tuck snacks we brought from home into our beach bags, grab the snorkel gear and off we go.
Next morning we were up bright and early, making our way to the north side of the island and Smith’s Reef, a lovely spot just off the beach, arrived at once one has made their way from the road and stomped along a hot, unmarked sand track through the scrub to the wind-swept beach.
We donned snorkel gear and were soon finning against a wicked current, past a few isolated coral heads and finally over Smith’s Reef, approximately the distance of a football field from the rocky shore. Here, the water depths ranged from 5 feet on the lee side of the patch reef to over 20 feet at the northwestern-most point.
A school of juvenile barracuda hung over the reef, facing into the current. The usual fishy reef denizens patrolled, like trumpet fish, damsels, groupers, snappers, grunts and Parrot fish, busily snapping off bites of coral and pushing that lovely white beach sand out the other end in never-ending streams.
I floated above the deep, watching the curious behavior of a young Nassau grouper, which was pointing like a dog at a spot in the reef. The grouper would move a little, roll its eyes, turn this way and that and point. I decided to free dive down to see what had its undivided attention. At my approach an octopus with a head the size of a soccer ball suddenly darted out of its hole and danced across the sand, its mantle stretched out and tentacles flailing as it tried to find another hidey-hole while the grouper gamely pursued. In a blink, the octopus tucked its body into a handy crevice of the reef and, Poof, it changed its color and mottled pattern to perfectly mimic its surroundings. Even though I knew exactly where it was, I was hard-pressed to pick out its shape before I had to head for the surface. I watched for a few more moments, but clearly the grouper was as baffled as I was, and we each went our separate ways.
We visited Smith Reef again later in the week, early in the morning when the wind was quiet. The visibility was low due to so much suspended sand in the water caused by several days of high winds, but we spotted the same grouper, the same squad of barracudas, and had the added pleasure of watching a slipper lobster bumping its ungainly way across the reef.
While hanging over the deep part of the reef, I kept looking out over the surrounding sand and turtle grass, hoping to spot a passing turtle like we had on our first visit. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a large spotted eagle ray appeared, swimming right toward us. I alerted Robin, who watched, google-eyed, while the ray came within 4 feet of us then gracefully turned and glided away on a 5-foot wing span. I followed, swimming alongside it (but keeping a safe distance from that 7 foot long tail!). A magical moment that ended as the ray quickly out-distanced me and disappeared at the edge of the visibility curtain.
The next day was still windy but we had reservations with Deep Blue to spend the day aboard their boat, snorkeling at various locations on the fringing reef around Provo and West Caicos, a relatively undeveloped outer island known for amazing corals and healthy fish populations on the nearby reef system.
A note about the reefs of T&C: The barrier reef system is the third largest in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef and the system that runs down the western side of Mexico and Belize, extending into the Bay Islands of Honduras. Since the 1980s I’ve visited numerous locations in these areas, and have witnessed the steady degradation of reefs from Florida and the Bahamas to Ambergis Caye, the reefs off the coast of Tulum and Akumal Mexico, and Roatan. My “bucket list” consists of the search for pristine-as-possible, healthy coral structures in the Caribbean with lots of healthy reef fish.
Here, off the coast of West Caicos, I finally got to see large collections of amazingly colorful Elkhorn corals the likes of which I haven’t seen since my SCUBA check-out dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo, Florida in 1972. What a breathtaking sight, to snorkel in clear water, the late morning rays penetrating the shallows to light up a scene perfectly sublime: a massive, rust-red Elkhorn coral in the center of a gracefully curving reef face festooned with large sea fans and other soft corals and gorgonians waving in the currents, many adorned with one or more cowrie shells. Each little cowrie shell appeared to be hand-painted a unique pattern of bright colors, and the play of light and shadow of the waves above gave the impression of the cowries dancing merrily as their hosts waved back and forth, back and forth with the current.
At one snorkel stop, the boat anchored in 50 feet of water right at the edge of the abyss. We jumped in the water and spotted a large school of horse-eyed jacks circled in a protective ball, enjoying the welcome shade beneath the boat. The dive master beckoned us to follow her over toward the edge of the drop-off and, as she had promised, we spotted 2 reef sharks, mom and youngster, slowly circling the top of the reef 50 feet below. At the edge of the “wall”, the water turned from a royal blue to almost purple, the visibility curtain closing down rapidly across such depths.
The day’s travels took us around the greater part of Provo and West Caicos, where we observed several resorts in various stages of development, apparently abandoned to the elements. Unpainted concrete buildings stood forlorn on the rocky shore, their window openings bruised eyes staring bleakly out to sea. Barren of any decorative trees or shrubs and surrounded by streets carved from the rock, the resorts were quiet testaments to the effects of the Great Recession, the closing of banks and the withdrawal of development funds. Combined with Britain’s 2009 suspension of Ts & Cs government over allegations of corruption, (the Premier and his fellow government ministers apparently sold off Crown land to property developers for their own personal gain), the effects of this Perfect Storm are still very much in evidence.
One day we caught an early morning ferry to explore the outer island of North Caicos, where we planned to secure a rental car for a day’s exploration of North Caicos and its rather more remote neighbor Middle Caicos.
Once on the island, we drove our rental car along the main highway toward the settlement of Whitby on the windward cost of “North” and weren’t surprised to run out of asphalt when we turned off to head toward the “Three Mary Cays”, our morning snorkel destination.
Getting to these scenic cays situated just offshore in a pristine setting required concentration and a tight grip on the steering wheel as we bumped slowly along narrow and exceedingly potholed limestone tracks festooned with sharp rocks just waiting to puncture the little tires on the poor tired rental car. At one point the track apparently disappeared in a wash-out caused from a hurricane in 2010, but we persevered and eventually ended up at our destination, on a wind-blown and rocky shore.
The cays were exceedingly scenic and beckoned, so we donned snorkel gear and, in spite of the high currents and heavy seas, we snorkeled out to the cays, which offered little in the way of reef structure or fish life around their undercut bases. A dangerous rip current threatened to sweep us out to sea, so we quickly returned to the relative safety of the razor-sharp ironstone shore, where we minced around, observing the beauty of this remote location. The bow of a large freighter poked up from just inside the barrier reef, approximately a mile from shore, serving as a reminder of treacherous potential awaiting the unwary.
Making our way gingerly along yet another track, we arrived at the highway again and headed toward the settlement of Kew and the nearby ruins of Wade’s Plantation, a Loyalist era cotton plantation founded in 1789. After an arduous drive and a great deal of dead-reckoning navigation, we arrived at a small parking area carved out of the surrounding scrub. We walked a quarter mile along a rough footpath between low stone walls to arrive at a padlocked hurricane fence. The guide books and web pages we had read described the ruins as open daily. We were disappointed but dang it, we came all this way to see the ruins!
After glancing around guiltily and reassuring each other that we might be able to talk the authorities into viewing our trespass as a minor offense if we were to be apprehended, we clambered over a broken section of wall and proceeded on a self-guided tour of the ruins. Our risky gambit paid off, as we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the main house, overseer’s house, kitchen building, a garden and the original well site, all situated on the top of a hill that, back In the Day, must have provided excellent breezes and a breathtaking 360 degree view. Although our view consisted of twisted, bulldozed trees and ruins of the plantation walls that disappeared into the overgrowth, it was not hard to imagine how busy and possibly scenic this now desolate setting must have appeared when the estate was in full swing.
After a lovely lunch at the quaint cottage housing the Silver Palm restaurant and bar (delicious pina colada!), we drove our rental car along the paved road that connects North Caicos and Middle Caicos, hardly surprised when we were faced with large sections that were washed out by the hurricane.
These outer islands are characterized by stretches of scrub and salt ponds dotted with flocks of Flamingoes in the distance. Small settlements came and went and we met few vehicles on the roads.
We enjoyed a visit to a limestone cave, part of the largest cave network in the northern Caribbean.
We stopped off at Bamberra Beach, where a large cavern carved by huge waves over millennia overlooked a beautiful little bay protected by a high ironshore wall.
Soon it was time to return to the ferry dock, leave the keys in the rental car and catch the 30 minute ferry back to Provo which, after our day on North and Middle Cays, seemed terribly cosmopolitan and teeming with auto traffic.
Highlights of snorkel trips to the barrier reef just off Grace Bay included exploring the fairly robust and healthy reef, where some places were fishier than others.
On two different stops we spotted a large puffer fish, each over 3 feet long. I always look for these comical and shy fish and consider them a talisman. During the day they seldom come out of their holes in the reef, so I was surprised and delighted to spot each one swimming out in the open—even if they were frantic to find another place to hide.
In another spot that featured deeply undercut ledges at 20 foot depths, I spotted the distinctive outline of a nurse shark’s tail in the gloom of a large overhang. I dove down and, sure enough, there it was, all 7 or more feet of it, resting comfortably on the almost-smooth ledge, hidden from casual view by the deep overhang. Robin managed to dive down to spot the critter and returned to the surface, grinning.
One place we visited on Provo was a history buff’s delight- “Pirate carvings”, reached after best-guess driving/navigation and carefully picking one’s way up an almost vertical, rocky and slippery goat-path to the top of wind-swept Sapodilla Hill, which overlooks the commercial port and the sea.
Here carved into the bedrock and several large stones were dozens of rock carvings that featured dates and names of sailors who stopped by the island in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Some names appeared more than once, with almost a decade between dates, testifying to a steady commerce in sisal (rope for sailing vessels) and cotton during those periods.
Between balancing on boats, snorkeling in heavy surge and strong currents and hiking up and down precarious hills and goat-paths, we slept well each night and found ourselves thoroughly relaxed, if a bit worn out, after our week’s stay in TCI. Typically, we avoided the resorts and shopping and the high-end tourist scene, with the exception of Robin’s parasailing adventure over the reefs fringing the popular tourist destination of Grace Bay. So OK we did indulge, just a bit. After all, vacation should be about experiencing the new and different and the Ts and Cs did not disappoint!
Video panorama of one lovely, isolated snorkel spot.
I almost missed Anguilla when planning for our 2010 Caribbean vacation. The scale of the online map of the Caribbean I first pulled up to peruse the Eastern Caribbean had reduced this petite island to a spot, barely noticeable next to the overly large text proclaiming the location of Anguilla’s “back yard” neighbor ST. MARTIN/SINT MAARTEN, nearby SAN JUAN and Antigua and Barbuda islands.
A recessionary budget and our desire to avoid overly-trammeled and expensive islands left St. Martin and Antigua off our list. Puerto Rico was similarly out of the question. I found myself looking at Barbuda as a possible destination- but pretty soon came away disappointed, because even at the height of the Big Recession, accommodation prices on Barbuda were just a bit pricey for our humble pocketbook.
Once I started exploring the possibilities that Anguilla offered, I was hopeful that I’d found an out-of-the-way, overlooked island destination that was scenic, safe, with friendly people, great snorkeling, clean and plentiful windward and leeward beaches, and decent grocery stores. Of course flight and accommodation costs needed to fall within our Reality Check realm.
If at all possible, it would be terrific if the island was not too big (no cruise ship terminals but big enough to have at least 1 airport and to explore with a rental car) and not too small (pinched resources, limited infrastructure and too few Places to Go and Things to See), yet with a unique Caribbean character– a little “something” that would make it stand out in our memories. Too much to ask, right? Not for tiny, terrific Anguilla!
What’s so special about an island 16 miles long, 3 wide, with 13,000 human inhabitants, floating way out in the easternmost reaches of the Leeward Islands? Well, for starters, this is an island that sports a coat of arms with 3 orange dolphins against a simple white background, cavorting above a blue ribbon of representative Caribbean Sea.
No fluff, no heavy-handed laurel wreaths, raging lions, menacing raptors, crossed swords, no curlicues and embellishments against busy, pretentious backgrounds. Just simple, clean design. I liked it. Looked good on a t-shirt, so I got one.
By the time we arrived at Ku’, our needs-a-bit-of-a-facelift resort accommodations situated on a wide stretch of white, firm, pristine windward Shoal Bay West beach, we were hot, hungry and just plain tuckered out from an 11 hour travel day. Our hegira took us from car to long-term parking near the Atlanta airport to a lengthy layover in a cramped, airless Ft. Lauderdale terminal to the airport on St. Martin, and thru interminable Customs and Immigration lines.
We caught a van to drive us a few blocks to the ferry dock (still on St. Martin), where we eventually caught a shuttle boat to take us the 20 minute ride over to Anguilla—after a pause at the waterfront Police station so that our passports could be collected and scanned in to some massive database.
Arriving at the ferry landing in Blowing Hole on Anguilla, we found our rental car guy (arrangements having been made via email some weeks in advance), checked the “Little Car That Could” for dings, grabbed the keys, loaded in our carry-on bags, drove half the length of the island, took a wrong turn, found a grocery, and grabbed some goodies.
Somehow we made our way to Reception at Ku’- it was all a bit of a blur. Robin reported that I managed to keep enough presence of mind to drive on the left and dodge giant potholes, and the odd goat or ground dove that would suddenly materialize in front of us.
Dinner that evening was at a neighboring restaurant, Zara’s, where we had a delicious grouper meal. Unfortunately, the fish was a bit “off”, which put a real damper on our first full day. But of course we weren’t aware of the eventual effects of dinner when we later busied ourselves pulling the cushions off the couch in the living room of our smallish suite at Ku’ to add a measure of padding to the otherwise park bench-like “comfort” of our beds. But hey, we had central AC (!) fresh water in the full kitchen and the bathroom (even if the shower water pressure was barely a steady trickle), and a nice 2nd floor balcony with comfy chairs with a partial view of the beach.
Our room selection somewhat away from the beach was at the heart of how we got such a great deal on the accommodations for the week. A helpful Anguilla resident who frequented the Aguilla Guide Forum also produced a hand-drawn layout of the resort, which helped me choose a specific room number to request, to ensure we were at least on the top floor and on a corner position! You just gotta luv the Internet and especially local forums populated with helpful island residents and frequent visitors. Simply treasure troves of info.
Rain, giant ocean rollers, windy conditions and our iffy tummys led us to spend most of the first day languishing around Ku’s lovely pool. We did drive into Sandy Ground, the main commercial center on the island to grocery shop and we also drove further down-island to find a couple of sandwich shops and beaches I’d read about on the forum. However, a mostly “down” day was a Best Bet, considering the iffy fish and still being worn out from the effort to get to our lovely corner of the British West Indies.
The following day (Monday) featured persistent heavy seas and high winds. We planned to snorkel offshore and were aware of several possible locations on the leeward side of the island. When I checked with the dive master at Ku’s dive shop, he kindly directed us to a place we weren’t familiar with–nearby Sandy Hill Bay where a lovely strip of reef, situated at the mouth of the bay, offered consistently good snorkeling in somewhat protected water.
We wandered around a bit on the narrow roads but eventually found the narrow, rocky, rough path that led off the paved road and down toward the water at Sandy Hill Bay. I gently coaxed Little Car That Could over the sharp pinnacles of ancient reef that constituted the track, trying to avoid puncturing the three matched tires and the fourth, under-sized tire that kept making a thunking sound as we slowly bumped along in 2nd gear. Once at the bottom of the track, I was thankful to be able to turn the car around in a small area of firm beach sand and point it back up the hill. Backing up that steep track may have proven to be a bit more excitement than I had bargained for.
Having the car so close meant we didn’t need to do our usual trekking down a lengthy beach to reach a convenient place to enter the water near a promising point of the iron-shore, where snorkeling is typically the best. In fact, the reef was less than 100 feet away from the car.
We stood on the beach gripping our snorkel gear to keep the wind from snatching it away and squinted at the sight of giant waves breaking on the outer part of the reef, which jutted off the beach and ran straight out into the bay for well over 400 feet. A good two or more feet of reef showed above the water, and as the waves slammed into the side of the reef facing the ocean, curtains of spume fanned up and out, creating a heavy mist that hung above the reef like a fog bank. Above the bay, low clouds scudded along, bringing relief from the mid-morning glare on the water while threatening certain rain.
We waded into the bay and donned our gear in shallow water. When I rolled over on my stomach and saw the sandy bay bottom slowly sinking away to deeper water, I sighed and grinned around my snorkel mouthpiece. It felt like coming home, being embraced in warm ocean waters, bobbing up and down on the waves, my body unconsciously orienting itself to the surge and slight onshore current. For someone raised on and near the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, it’s hard to go a year or more in-between tropical snorkeling excursions. I guess missing such experiences ensures that I do my best to try to save up every memory I build.
On the way to the deeper section of the fringing reef we paused to float above two isolated coral “heads” (really chunks of the nearby reef) sitting on a bed of sand in about 20 feet of turbid water. We cruised around the heads, checking out the tropical fish and corals, then we headed over to the back side of the reef. We slowly made our way into deeper water, swimming against the moderate current as the waves pounded the opposite reef face less than 10 feet away. The force of the wave action coming across the top of the reef toward us was a bit scary, as was the sight of the thick cloud of bubbles and the booming sound created by every wave crash. We were careful to stay several feet away to avoid being pulled and then pushed into the coral wall.
As we finned along, the sand dropped away to 40 feet, and the reef started looking less beat-up. More live coral appeared, and the fish population grew in numbers and variety. Gazing down the length of the reef, I noticed that although the visibility was less than 70 feet, we could easily see the denizens of the reef nearby. I spotted three trumpet fish moving slowly along with the current, trying their best to look like benign floating objects rather than the opportunistic, rapid-attack predators they are. As I let myself drift closer, one of the three must have spotted me because it snuggled up close to a sea fan that was waving in the current and surge. I watched to see if the trumpet fish would shift colors to blend in a bit better with the sea fan’s color but the fish must have decided my level of threat wasn’t high enough to make it worthwhile to expend the energy to crank up the chromatophores.
Before long we started to get chilled. We’d been in the 80-degree water for 30 minutes or so, and it was time to turn around and catch the free ride down current, back to where we’d approached the main reef. We passed now-familiar landmarks, including a large pile of bleached out and broken coral that had tumbled down the reef face. There was the section where dozens of dinner plate sized spiny sea urchins had been uprooted from their anchor points, and were now lying upside down, scattered along the base of the reef like so many discarded toys. I knew that most would right themselves and eventually find a new home on the reef, but I thought that they might want to wait a day or so until the big seas dropped.
Passing back by the two isolated coral heads, I pointed out a squad of seven cuttlefish to Robin. We hovered just up current of the cuttlefish, watching to see what aquabatics they might perform. I recalled a larger “squadron” of cuttlefish we had watched while snorkeling off the island of Roatan in Honduras, as mentioned in my Roatan post.
Before us, this group appeared to be content to hang in the current between the two coral heads, all at the same depth, spaced apart like a squad of soldiers at inspection. They didn’t twirl or dance or change colors like the formation had off Roatan, but every once in awhile one did extend its tentacles and snatch some unseen tidbit from the water column. We floated, shivering; finally gave up and swam in, ready to sit in the sun to warm up.
The next morning we returned to the same reef, found two of the trumpet fish where we’d last seen them and waved hello to the cuttlefish, who were in the same spot, doing the same thing and thoroughly ignoring our attention.
By Wednesday the seas had settled and the weather had turned from cloudy to sunny and hot. Early that morning we joined eight other vacationers aboard Chocolat, a 35-foot catamaran. We were headed six miles north of Anguilla to Prickly Pear cays for some snorkeling, chilling on the beach and lunch at the little bar and restaurant.
The ride over was breezy and pleasant, made all the more cheerful by lively conversation with our fellow passengers. We dropped anchor at Prickly Pear, joining four or five other large catamarans in the shallow, protected bay in front of the tiny beach Tiki bar tucked under the shade of sea grapes. The aquamarine color of the water beckoned, and as we dingied in to shore we counted 40 or more people snorkeling along the lengthy fringing reef.
Stepping out of the warm water and onto the beach was like standing in front of a giant oven door- the heat on this lee side was beyond stifling, with barely a breeze stirring. A handful of people wilted and sheltered under the few rental chairs and umbrellas perched on the broiling sand. We set our snorkel gear down on our chairs, stood in line at the Tiki bar for a drink and returned to our little patch of super-heated shade to sweat and gulp greedily at our now not-so-frozen drinks. Lunch was to be served in 45 minutes, so we quickly finished off our drinks, grabbed our snorkel gear and got in the water to cool off.
I swear I could hear my skin sizzle as I lowered my body gratefully into the cool water.
From shore it was a bit of a swim out to the reef, and the further we swam the stronger the current against us became. Pretty soon I was quartering the oncoming current, trying to discover a route to the deeper water where I suspected the current wouldn’t be as strong.
Turns out we were in Olympic Snorkeling mode, much as we had been last year off the island Anagada in the BVI. All the hard swimming really didn’t bring the reward of enjoying a pristine reef and lots of critters. Most of the reef was broken off and a lot was bleached and dead. Obviously big storms had wrecked damage. Fish were scattered and not very plentiful. We soon tired and headed in to shore.
I gave up on the patch of umbrella-heated shade and instead stood in the natural, and much cooler, shade of a large sea grape and chatted up fellow Chocolat passengers, a married couple who were from New England. Although they had bought a condo on Anguilla several years ago, they still seemed to be figuring out their home-away-from-home. The wife, in particular, was startled by the friendly and downright fearless behavior of the Banana Quits, tiny birds also called Sugar Birds, common throughout the eastern Caribbean. A quit flittered around my head, chirping and bugging me for a snack, then sat on a branch of the sea grape. I reached out slowly to see if I could entice it to alight on my hand when I spotted the quick darting movement of a small native Ameiva (lizard).
“Eck! A lizard!” the wife exclaimed in horror before I could point out the harmless little critter. As I herded the reptile with my hand around to the side of the branch where hubby could see it, the wife waxed about her abject fear of “all these lizards” found in the islands. I nodded in sympathy then grinned as I caught sight of a rather large green iguana that was shuffling along the hot white beach sand behind her, apparently headed for welcome shade—right under the picnic table bench where she held forth.
“Um, I’m glad you mentioned that you’re afraid of lizards”, I ventured, trying to figure out how to gently inform her about the approach of her nemesis. It was seconds away from contact. Before she could interject, I added “You may want to lift your feet up… ” and I pointed behind her. Hubby leaned down from his bench seat to see where I pointed. Looking surprised and not a little frightened, the wife nearly tumbled off her seat as she tried to lift her feet and spin around to look in the direction of the approaching danger.
I chuckled as the iguana scooted just past where the wife’s feet had been seconds ago and darted into the scrub. “That was a big one,” the husband said gravely, as he gave me a small wink.
Soon our group was invited to approach the restaurant and enjoy a hot (!) meal of BBQ chicken, plantains, and veggies under the partial shade on the wooden deck outside the building. The lack of breeze, the heat bouncing off the rough wooden decking and the sun beating on the shoulders of those unfortunate enough to arrive too late to secure the little shade made available under the tattered thatching overhead, and the heat radiating from our hearty, hot meal ensured that everyone ate rapidly, all too eager to return to the relative cool of the water or a piece of sea grape shade.
This wasn’t the first time I ran into the peculiar penchant of Caribbean hosts to “treat” visitors, especially those held captive on an organized trip, to a hot, steamy, heavy, meaty mid-day meal in a typically windless and shade-deprived setting! The few times I’ve been offered cool, refreshing fruit, light salads and ample cool water were on chartered sailboats during a day-sail excursion. Not a biggie but I wonder if the tendency is a cultural thing or an attempt to provide added value when a meal is included in the trip price.
Soon it was time to get back aboard Chocolat and make our breezy way back to Anguilla. The return trip was a bit more rough than the outgoing leg on our tired bodies. Once again, we day-trippers perched or leaned as best we could on the sides of the vessel in the shade of the main sail. While roomy, Chocolat’s design did not afford the comfort of a large cockpit ringed by seat cushions. The softest seating was in the (airless, hot) cabin or in the direct sun shining on the trampolines. Our group looked a bit like worn-out birds on a tree limb, crouching down into bits of shade, shifting position as the sun crept up already bright red feet, legs, and arms. After a hot day in the sun, a few drinks, a hearty meal and the constant bracing against the movement of the boat, everyone appeared tired, hot and ready to call it a day. Conversation was, understandably, minimal.
Our last two full days on the island were likely the best of our trip. Because the seas had settled, in the morning we were able to secure a lift in a small boat from Crocus Bay to nearby Little Bay (just up the shoreline) to enjoy what I had read in the Anguilla forum was the best snorkeling from shore. Calvin, the boat owner, was a taciturn but not unfriendly boat captain, who pointed out the best area to snorkel- as we passed it. And kept going. I thought he was challenging us when he said we “looked fit” enough to swim all the way back to the spot from Little Bay, where he would drop us off.
We putted along, not 30 feet from the iron shore, which presented a 50-foot high steep, rough, barren, blackened and threatening façade. Over the eons the wave action had carved narrow canyons and valleys between what appeared to be finger-like extensions of ancient coral. We passed one small valley some 30 feet wide at the base, where a narrow, coarse shell-and sand mix of steeply sloping “beach” looked like it was loose enough to swallow a person up to their thighs. Little did I know then that the shallows mere feet from the sand would soon produce a delightful surprise.
A bit further along, we entered the mouth of Little Bay, which proved to be as scenic and secluded as we had expected. Calvin turned his boat around and held the stern off the sandy beach as we clambered over the transom with our snorkel gear, beach bags and cooler. He asked what time we wanted him to return, we said in 2 hours, and with a nod, he climbed aboard, cranked his outboard, and putted away, the sound of the boat engine dwindling as he rounded the corner and slowly made his way back toward Crocus Bay.
The engine sounds were soon replaced by the calls of gulls and terns swooping around the cliffs that towered overhead and the splashes of pelicans as they dove into the clear waters to catch a mid-day snack. The beach was as broad as the opening to the bay, some 300 feet, with waves gently lapping on hard-packed sand that gave way above the high tide line to boulders and large rocks lying half-buried in loose, fine sand that squeaked underfoot.
Tucking our gear in the shade afforded by the surrounding wall, we sipped drinks from the cooler and looked around, enjoying the scenery and the quiet.
Robin spotted a rope trailing down from high above, draped over the edge of the razor-sharp coral wall and dangling down to the sand some 40 feet below. “Must be the rope we were told about that the locals use to get down here,” she said. I walked over and, in my bare feet, gingerly stepped over the rock to grab the rope. I craned my neck to gaze up the incline, which was almost vertical, and shook my head, imagining the ruined vacation that would result from one small slip on that literal razor-edged “trail”. We decided it was well worth the $15.00 per person we had paid Calvin to deliver us safely to Little Bay!
The water was deliciously cool and clear as we finned our way around the southern point of Little Bay and slowly made our way back toward the “best snorkel spot”, the first of what turned out to be seven “fingers” that we would pass. The wall to our left sloped down to sand some 20 to 30 feet below us. The angle of the sun at mid-day lit up the bright sandy bottom apparently devoid of life. I studied the variety of small tropical fish and soft corals that decorated the wall, then turned my attention to the sandy bottom, noticing a rather large patch of the signature holes of garden eels, which I pointed out to Robin. The eels were, not unexpectedly, avoiding feeding in the light of the mid-day sun. If we were snorkeling earlier, or later in the day, we would likely have witnessed hundreds of them, their bodies extended from their holes, waving in the currents as they fed on passing tidbits.
As we crossed the mouth of each bay, the water got deeper where the currents had dug out a channel in the center. There, we saw a few small schools of fish and a couple of isolated coral heads topped by sea fans and decorated with the usual juvenile tropical fish found in the shallows. So far I wasn’t bowled over by the scenery, but the swim was effortless and the water, unusually warm for this latitude this time of year, was a comfortable temperature.
As we approached the southern point of the “best spot” snorkeling bay with the tiny beach, I noticed a large coral head near the base of the wall. Both the head and the wall were covered by soft corals and large sea fans, and many more tropical fish than I had seen yet snorkeling the waters in and around Anguilla. Things were looking up!
Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility curtain, between us and the wall appeared a large school of silversides, or “bait fish”. The closer we got to the fish, the more I began to realize that this was no mere school- it was a huge shoal of thousands of shiny fish, ranging from a few inches to just under a foot in length. And it was thick- so thick that I couldn’t see through the bodies to the wall just beyond. The shoal stretched from the water’s surface down more than 30 feet to the sand, and wound its way along the shoreline as far as I could see.
Robin floated nearby and we both looked on, entranced, as the fish darted, shifted and swirled as one mass. They seemed to generally be winding their way along the shore, hugging the wall and staying as closely packed as they could for protection. Pelicans dived into the densely-packed fish bodies from above as predators below waited for their chance to make a snack of any fish that fell away from the formation.
Knowing that predators would be lurking around such a large gathering of “bait” fish, I suggested to Robin that we avoid getting between the shoal and the wall, to reduce the chance of any part of our anatomy being mistaken for a yummy morsel. As we slowly swam next to the shoal, I looked down and out into the gloom to see if I could spot any predators. Ah, there was a small group of jacks with toothy grins, swimming parallel to the shoal in the opposite direction of the shoal’s general line of travel. And there was a barracuda- and another one, smaller. And, yep, there were the inevitable snappers, looking to snatch up any pieces that might be left by a larger predator.
Suddenly I spotted a tarpon. Then another. Then another. Before long I counted six, ranging from 3 feet to almost 5 feet in length. I pointed them out to Robin, who nodded, her brows raised inside her mask. Suddenly, at the edge of the visibility screen, a really large tarpon emerged. Longer than I am tall, and thicker around the middle than my thigh, it had a large scar around the right side of its mouth, clearly from damage done by a hook. I know because I got a good look at the damage as the silver torpedo came within 6 feet of where I floated, my body (and breath!) suspended.
Although I know the fish posed no threat to us, I was still startled and not a little discomfited by the sheer size of it. The last time I swam this close to anything that big was just last year, but that was a nurse shark headed away from us after being disturbed from a nap on the bottom of a bay. This fish wasn’t going anywhere except around and under the shoal of silversides, apparently completely ignoring our presence. I decided it was up to us to steer clear of any interference, so we allowed ourselves to drift past the busy point of land and into the shallows of the small bay nearby.
Here the water quickly went from over 30 feet in depth to less than 2 feet close to the beach. Peering through the constantly shifting wave of silversides curving around the inside of the bay, I was delighted to discover a thriving reef, chock-full of soft and hard corals of every color, and small and large sea fans, each with its attendant snail, waving briskly in the current. Purple, green, red and orange sea anemones trembled in the wave action from the surface and the currents below. The sun glinted brightly off the sand in the channels between coral heads and lit the top of the reef like a stage light.
Entranced, I tried to drink in the visual overload all at once, while carefully avoiding being shoved into the sharp coral by wave action. I moved my flippers just enough to keep them near the water’s surface and to maintain steerage way as I floated in the shallow water covering this amazing underwater oasis, my belly within inches of contact with razor-sharp coral, some of it tipped by fire coral.
Suddenly I spotted a young Hawksbill turtle floating in the small grotto carved between coral heads. My approach startled the youngster and as it darted away I saw its companion, who was floating in another canyon a bit farther on, take off. Both turtles sported a bright red metal tag on the leading edge of each flipper. I figured they were both about 3 years old, based on what we’d learned during our visit to the turtle sanctuary on the island of Bequia three years ago. There, we spent a morning learning everything you wanted to know about turtles, and especially Hawksbill turtles, and we became pretty adept at estimating this species’ age based on its size. Jacques Cousteau would be proud of us!
We’d been in the water for over an hour and were getting chilled, but it was still hard to say goodbye (for now) to this amazing little corner of the shoreline and head back down the coast to Little Bay. But leave we did, passing the now-familiar pack of predators lurking around the seemingly never ending flow of silversides.
We were so captivated by our experience that we told Calvin we’d like to do it again the next day. He asked skeptically if we’d made it all the way back to the snorkel spot he’d pointed out to us. When we said we did, and went on to describe what we’d seen, he actually seemed to warm to us a bit. Guess we might LOOK like two middle-aged-pampered-white-American-tourist-gals but hey, don’t judge a book by its cover!
That afternoon we found our way back to Gwen’s Reggae Bar, our favorite place to chill on the beach, which was conveniently a couple of miles away from Ku’.
Tap, the cook, had the yummy BBQ chicken and ribs on the grill as we climbed the two wooden steps from the sand to the welcome shade of the open “beach shack” restaurant and bar. After a couple of frozen Pina Coladas and a delicious BBQ chicken and pasta salad lunch, we walked in the soft sand to the large and shady coconut grove situated next to Gwen’s. There we wiled away the afternoon in lounge chairs or a hammock strung between two tree trunks. We chatted and read books and dozed, the beach virtually to ourselves except for a few people strolling by on the beach below or the pelicans diving into the shallows. As beautiful as the water was, we didn’t swim because the breeze was brisk enough that we didn’t need to cool off. What a perfect place to hang- absolute bliss, and one of the most relaxing places I’ve found on any beach in my years of Caribbean travel.
Our last full day, Friday, mirrored the previous day. Little Bay was hosting two other couples when we arrived, but we didn’t stay to visit as we were anxious to get back to that magic little snorkel spot. Along the way there, I picked up a tiny, bright yellow Damsel fish-like attendant. It swam furiously right next to my jaw, apparently attracted by the bright yellow shirt I was wearing to protect my back and shoulders from the sun. When I would stop swimming and just float, it would dart in front of my face as if to say “Come on, let’s go!” I felt somewhat like a shark with its remora. Robin shook her head, giggling at the antics of my little pal.
As we arrived at the point of the pretty little bay, I was surprised to discover that the shoal was still there, accompanied by the same predators, including the tarpon gang featuring Big Daddy (or Momma). Amazing! We spent more time swimming around the bay, studying the reef and the critters and hanging just off the shimmering shoal of fish, watching the ballet created by the flashing patterns of the ever-shifting mass.
Later, sitting in Calvin’s boat as we put-putted our way back to Crocus Bay, I felt a twinge of sadness as I mentally waved goodbye to the fish beneath us. This being our last full day on the island, I knew that snorkeling for this trip was over. We would go on to enjoy a delightful lunch at the Ferryboat Inn near the (duh!) ferry landing, and spend our last quiet, breezy afternoon lazing about in the shade of the coconut palms next to Gwen’s. But as the evening came on and it was time to shower and pack our stuff for tomorrow’s lengthy travel day, we were both dragging around, not chatting much, the anticipation of the week’s vacation now replaced by lassitude and a touch of melancholy.
However. The excitement wasn’t quite over. We ended up spending over 2 hours in the nearby hospital emergency room because I managed to drive a large plug of earwax up into my Eustachian canal (while trying to REMOVE the annoying thing). After Robin went so far as to use two small straws from the bar to blow water jets into my (by now) painful ear to try to dislodge the plug, with no results, we realized it was either call the Doctor on call to Ku’ ($$$$$$) or go to the nearby hospital for proper lavage treatment.
The 1.5 hour wait seemed interminable. I was the only patient, so after I completed some initial paperwork, we sat in plastic chairs in the breezeway created by the wide open doors of the rustic hospital entryway, anticipating a short wait. The waiting area was peopled by two policemen, obviously there to provide security, who looked bored and hot, leaning against the makeshift registration counter. They were joined by a comatose male “receptionist”. The three were watching a soccer match blasting from a TV hung high in a corner of the waiting room. My plugged ear didn’t help reduce the cacophony of the noise, which soon ratcheted up beyond comprehension as a large family blew in with a cloud of dust from the parking lot. Grand kids, mom, dad, sisters, brothers, uncles and aunties of a very pregnant girl soon chased the policemen off and put the receptionist to work, shuffling papers, and irritated by the need to speak with all of the adult family members at once.
A woman sporting surgical scrub shoe covers bustled into the waiting area from behind a set of swinging doors to our left, passed through the area without a glance at the mayhem, and disappeared behind a different set of swinging doors at the entry to the opposite hall. This happened several times. Once she stopped for a second to get a paper cup of water from a standing water cooler under the blaring TV. Then she disappeared. It reminded me of a play in which various actors pop in and out of doors on the set, coming and going across the stage, maybe pausing to do a bit of business apropos of nothing, then scurrying away again.
Soon the woman-of-the-shoe-covers led the pregnant girl away through one of the sets of swinging doors. The noisy children went outside to play in the dust of the parking area. A couple of men settled in behind us to watch the soccer match. The women drifted outside to watch the children. We sat and waited.
Eventually I was seen by the doctor on call, a stern woman who was apparently disappointed that I wasn’t in need of her level of skills. Frowning, she motioned for me to sit in a chair and, wordlessly, she motioned to an assistant (nurse? hard to tell- no uniforms, no name badges), who was soon admonishing me, with humor, about causing my own problem. “Didn’t your mother tell you to never put anything in your ear?” she teased, in her soft island accent. In between squirting units of saline solution into my ear, my medical person told Robin “Next time you see her put something in her ear, you beat her!” While we laughed, I fleetingly noticed Robin wearing an appraising expression. Just for a minute.
Several units of saline solution and $58.00 later, my throbbing ear unplugged, I was happy to be driving the few miles back to Ku’ and grateful that the hospital was as close and as well stocked and staffed as it was! I could think of several islands I’ve stayed where the outcome would have been neither as quick nor as relatively painless.
The next morning we said goodbye to the friendly staffers at Ku’. Like everyone we had met on the island, they asked us if we had enjoyed our stay and to come back. We knew we’d heartily recommend Anguilla and the people who live there to anyone who desires a delightful, refreshing, relaxing, scenic, friendly, out-of-the way vacation spot.
We departed Anguilla with a sense of faint foreboding for its fate. Like other places we’ve discovered, we suspected our visit was barely in advance of the inevitable Tide of Progress crouching just over the horizon, waiting for the global economy to recover from the Great Recession before overwhelming these unique, but fragile, specs of land floating in a blue-green sea.
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, 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.
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 sizable (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, 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 (apparently 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 signaled 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…
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.