A hiker’s view of St John, USVI

The Island of St John has a long and fascinating history, traces of which can be found if you are willing to venture a bit into the bush…

I visited St John for 2 weeks in the fall of 2016. Being a hiker at heart, it was not your typical Caribbean vacation!

Coral Bay, 5 am Nov 1

Good morning from the deck at Susan’s house, overlooking Coral Bay, on the East end of St. John.

Woke up to lightening and thunder, got to thinking about how good a cup of coffee would taste, and the rest is history, as they say. Now it is raining; the frog chorus is still going at full strength.

Yesterday was another fun day. I was recruited to make a scone for breakfast , which I was happy to do, although we had French toast in addition. Big breakfasts are the order of the day around here, because lunch can be iffy. Yesterday was lucky because we had lunch at Mongoose Bay, which is an interesting architectural construct featuring places to eat and buy interesting artistic things from all over the world as well as locally produced stuff. For example, for lunch I had a “Texian pizza”, which was a piece of flatbread baked with jack cheese, black beans and a bit of salsa, dipped in sour cream (or maybe it was yogurt). A global dish for a global art village.

Sea turtle (photo by Glenn Harman)

I was ready for lunch after an interesting morning of snorkeling around Maho Bay. Maho Bay is on the North side, and is the closest beach to the road and parking. Susan was giving a swimming lesson to the nine month old baby whose mother is lending us our double kayak and SUP. Maho Bay has a very nice long gradual approach into the water with a sandy bottom. There is also a lot of sea grass growing on the sandy bottom, which provides grazing for sea turtles. So it is a perfect place to paddle around with a mask and snorkel with your face in the water, looking for turtles. The turtles don’t seem to mind large primates floating around above them, oogling them. They just keep munching away at the sea grass. They are pretty big. The first one we saw was about 2.5 feet in diameter, with a remora attached to it’s back (carapace). When the turtle would ascend up through the water the remora would detach and flip over to the bottom of the turtle plastron). I got a good look at the remora when this happened and it is one of the ugliest creatures ever. Remoras could inspire a whole horror film series…. zombies vs remoras….Ugh! The turtle was cool though. Didn’t even seem to notice the remora. I guess there is comfort in living inside a nice strong shell. After awhile we paddled over to a rocky area, which provides infrastructure for building coral reef and all the interesting flora and fauna, like Donkey Dung Sea Cucumbers. No kidding, we saw one- Glenn even showed me a picture in the book later on! I wasn’t sure whether it was animal or vegetable, but there was a large pile of cucumber poo next to it. You figure it out. We also saw a few varieties of Angel fish, permit fish, ballyhoo, Christmas tree worms and bristle worms. My favorite was the trunk fish. The one we saw was pretty small, more like a briefcase, but very cute. I tried following her around, but she was pretty busy doing her thing with the coral.

This shark was taking a nap until we came along and woke him up!

Besides, Glenn popped his head up right about then and said “c’mere, there’s a shark.” I thought to myself, shouldn’t it be, like, “swim away fast, there’s a shark,” but he was doing the hand signal thing for come. The shark was about 4 feet long, a nurse shark, evidently sleeping down on the sand in a cozy spot amongst the rocks and corals. So my brother decided to take a picture, which woke up the shark, which proceeded to head for deeper darker country. Pretty cool. Susan finished her baby swim lesson and joined us, along with a gal named Bev, who is a traveler and sailor and works at one of the shops selling interesting artisan things from around the world. Bev also joined us for lunch, and we had a good time exchanging stories about sailing, shipwrecks, cats and other stuff.

St John has its own classic architectural style, complete with tough tropical plants which can grow anywhere! This was part of the ruins of the distillery at the Annanberg Plantation

Next on the agenda was errands in Cruz Bay. The post office, the car insurance office, the bank. Susan also showed me where the Westin Resort is, where I will be going to attend the vet conference. Navigating the roads and parking areas (I hesitate to call them “lots”) of Cruz Bay was intimidating to me, not only because everyone drives on the wrong side of the road, but because the roads are extremely narrow, winding, and packed full of vehicles. In addition there are things like Jacob’s Ladder, which are roads that go straight up and straight down, and when you get to the top you can’t see the road going down, you just have to have faith that it is there and keep going forward over the crest of the hill. I really wish I could just walk everywhere….
After errands we decided to visit Elaine’s gallery. Elaine is a water color artist who likes dogs. She has a studio right on the bay. A few years ago Glenn sent me a T shirt made from one of Elaine’s paintings, featuring her dogs lounging in the hammock in front of the studio. So it was very exciting for me to walk up the sidewalk and see the actual hammock in the actual beach on the actual bay on my shirt! (See photos attached).

Elaine’s Gallery sits right on the harbor at Cruz Bay. I love her watercolors- they usually have dogs in them!

Elaine was there too. She had sliced her arm rather badly the previous day, and when they told her I was a vet she asked if I wouldn’t mind helping her change the dressing on it. She needed stitches. Fortunately I did not have needles or suture material, or I probably would have been obliged to sew her up. Instead she said she would go to the local clinic. Phew! I already had been practicing medicine without a license earlier in the day, extracting a fragment of shell out of Glenn’s big toe. Didn’t want to push my luck. We are going back to the gallery Wednesday, maybe, for a little reception and open house thing. I will probably have to pick out a painting to bring home. I hope Elaine is stitched up by then.

Kite cruising over Coral Bay on a stormy evening. Photographed from the back deck at Horizon’s Cottage

After the gallery we headed back to the East End via Center Line road. This is an eight mile road that goes up and over the ridge line of the island and takes 30-50 minutes to navigate. There are some good views along the way. We stopped at an establishment called Skinny Legs, which has a bar and some tourist shops, including the home of the Jolly Dog T-shirt company where I did a little shopping of course.

Somewhere along the course of the day I picked up a real estate magazine for the Virgin Islands. Just being nosy. Anyhow there were a few listings for the Coral Bay area, and so we decided to go for a walk to see if we could find one of them. We didn’t but it was fun trying. After that it was time to start constructing the eggplant Parmesan, which turned out pretty good. Glenn made banana-pineapple Foster for dessert. Delisch!

Well another thunder storm just arrived and dropped a torrent on us. Looks like we might have to cook up some inside activities today. Hopefully the internet connection is still up so I can ship this report to you folks.

Sail on,

Stand Up Paddleboarding on St John, Hurricane Hole. This is a great way to get a workout and see some fish, but not recommended for long distance travel!


November 3,2016

Coral Bay, St John, USVI

Stormy weather, USVI

The internet connection is down and Verizon simply does not work here. The only outside communication is through Susan’s cell phone, which uses AT&T. Glenn uses AT&T but he has an old phone (iPhone 4), and it won’t handle the new operating system required to function with AT&T! So I haven’t been able to share my photos and adventures with folks for a few days, or hear any news from home. My last report from home was that it had been raining a lot and Hank and the dogs were getting cabin fever, which is always potential trouble since I am not there to throw on the rain gear and take everyone for a tromp in the wet woods.

It has been stormy here too, which is the reason we have become incommunicado. A humdinger of a thunder and lightening storm passed right over the island 2 mornings ago and took out the tower on Bordeau Mountain, the highest peak on St John at 1200 something feet. I haven’t climbed up there yet; naturally I would like too (but not in an electrical storm!)

Turtle Sanctuary at Brown’s Bay. There’s not much beach and it’s quite a hike to get to it, so it’s a good place for turtles. And mosquitoes.

Instead they let me off leash at a trailhead here on the East End of the Island, called the Brown’s Bay Trail. It climbs up over a little ridge and drops down to a forested beach on the North Shore. Traveling by foot over the island reveals a much different world than one experiences when swimming, snorkeling, boating, driving, or poking around the tourist attractions. Frankly, the flora and fauna is armed to the teeth. Apparently this is a requirement for a species to survive in a tropical paradise. It seems that everything has the ability to defend itself by biting, stinging, poking, penetrating, poisoning, tripping, strangling, etc, any potential aggressor. There are mosquitoes carrying a variety of nasty infectious diseases, swarms of invisibly tiny biting gnats (called no-see-ums), spanish jacks (a wasp whose sting makes you swell up like the Pillsbury Doughboy), scorpions, tarantulas, and termites who swarm out of their nests when in rains and eat your house! Underwater there are poisonous black sea urchins, fire coral, bristle worms, barracuda and I’m sure dozens more I have yet to learn about.

Giant thorns cover the trunk on the Monkey No Climb bush, Reef Bay Trail, St John, USVI.

Spiny seed pods and spicules of sharp coral on the beach will embed themselves in the bottoms of your bare feet when you walk across the beach. Only the sharks are harmless. It’s no wonder the sea turtles have evolved to live in a suit of armor! Then there are the plants! The cactus are civil enough to display their thorns in broad daylight. Most other plants are less obvious, with their thorny defenses hidden amongst their succulent leaves, or bear thorns so tiny that you aren’t aware of them until they have grabbed your clothing if you’re lucky, your skin if you are not. The tips of the yucca leaves can penetrate an eyeball.

Christmas Bush is like poison Ivy, only much worse. We found this one dangling over the trail down Bordeaux Mountain.

Perhaps the most formidable is the Manchioneel Tree, whose sap will burn your skin. Woe to the hiker who takes shelter under the Manchioneel tree during a rainstorm. The sap washes off the leaves and branches and drips down on the unwary. Pity the first person who madeapplesauce from the apple-like fruit of the Manchioneel tree!
So the key to avoiding pain when hiking on St John is this: DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! Wearing insect repellant is helpful too. I’m pretty good at dodging leaves and branches, but unfortunately I neglected to bring bug spray. Bugs are usually not so bad when the air is moving. Unfortunately if there is no breeze, then the other option is for the hiker to move. I quickly discovered that if I stopped to do anything, like mess with my camera or admire a view, I would quickly be mobbed by mosquitoes and biting gnats. So I kept moving. When I reached Brown Bay I considered taking refuge in the water, but that would have meant a salty hike home, so I just kept walking. I like walking.
After awhile I became aware of a musky animal odor that reminded me of when I used to work at a zoo. Mustelids? No, there aren’t any on the island. Hoofstock- yup. I noticed a few cloven hoofprints in the mud and then some tiny curved horseshoe prints. Miniature equestrians? Nope.

Donkeys are common companions on the trails on St John. They are not native, and usually have attendant swarms of biting insects. But they’re cute!

Feral donkeys! Yes! The odor got stronger and the prints got fresher as I rounded a bend to find a family of 4-footed hikers meandering up the trail ahead of me. They obliged me with a few photo opps and then moved off the trail out of my way, taking with them most of their attendant swarm of gnats- yikes!
Eventually I came to the ruins at Windy Point. Here’s the thing about the islands- they have a much longer history of human habitation than you would expect. Western Europeans discovered the islands and settled here 500 years ago, and they were far from being the first inhabitants. Arawak Indians had set up camp ages before the Europeans. When the settlers died, got eaten, or otherwise succumbed to the challenges of living in a tropical paradise, their dwellings and infrastructures were reclaimed by the jungle. Now, we call them Ruins, and there are a lot of them on the island. Some have been excavated and restored to a degree, and are accessible as tourist attractions, but most are still hidden away in inhospitable recesses of thorny, prickly, poisonous, hostile jungle flora and fauna.

The old Fort overlooking Leinster Bay, North side.

At the top of Windy Point I stepped onto a real life set for an Indiana Jones movie! If I had an internet connection I might be able to tell you more about the history of this place, called the Great House ruin. It reminded me of Bodie, our local Sierra Nevada ghost town, but more ancient and tropical. It was also gorgeous- half-fallen brick walls covered with thick pink flowery vines, crumbling brick doors and windows framing distant views of bays, boats and the BVIs just across the Straits. Wow! Luckily for me there was also enough of a breeze to keep the insects at bay and I could spend some time taking pictures. I even sat down and ate lunch on a semi-intact foundation overlooking the ocean! Windy Point wouldn’t have been a bad place to live in the 1700s. According to Glenn, the owner died at a relatively young age, and his interred in a tomb nearby the house. His ghost was evidently at peace or had moved on- I was not aware of any spirits (despite having read a Dean Koontz novel on the airplane!).
The next stop was Watermelon Cay. The ruins there were equally exotic and picturesque, but not so innocuous, as I was stung on the back of the leg by something offended and venomous. Fortunately the pain subsided within a reasonable period of time, and I was extra-careful after that.
Continuing west along the North coast, I walked the length of Leinster Bay. There is no beach. At times the trail is cut into the hills which drop straight down into the water, and the recent storms had brought down several avalanches of mud and cactus across the path. Other places the trail squeezed through Maho and Mangrove trees. I could see the ruins of old stone retaining walls in the swampy jungle to my left. Cool! Eventually I came to an outpost of modern civilization- the National Park Service of the United States! Parking lot, rest room (yay!) and paved road. A few tourists wandered about and I followed them up the path to the Annanberg Ruins, which have been beautifully restored, complete with paved pathways, interpretive signs, and no venemous flora or fauna! Just a few fat tourists wandering around with their eyes on their smart phones, posting selfies on Facebook. Harmless enough.
At this point I prefered tourists to Spanish Jacks, and so I decided to continue around the road for the rest of my hike.

It’s kind of satisfying to see the beautiful way nature is taking back the jungle here at Francis Bay.


At Francis Bay I discovered more incredibly beautiful ruins draped in pink flowering vines, salt ponds with swarms of hungry mosquitoes, and then a beautiful white sand beach. From there the only challenge was the walk up the hill, (steep and windy,) and remembering to stay on the left side of the road and jump into the ditch whenever I heard an approaching car. At the top I found the trail down to Coral Bay- an old abandoned road that switch-backed steeply down to King Hill Road, a tropical ghetto otherwise known by the locals as la-la land! Then home to Susan’s house, to wash off the residual itch and salt crust in a welcome fresh water shower.
And that was my grand walking tour of East St John!

I ventured to touch this pencil urchin only after watching our guide handle it and convince me that it wasn’t as venomous as it looks!