St. John: An Inauspicious Beginning

The girls’ “big” Christmas gift this year was, in fact, big: a family trip to St. John, United States Virgin Island. Tim and I have been planning this since March and decided to keep it a secret from the girls. Saving the big reveal to Christmas Day was awesome! For their final gift, the girls were given clues: sunglasses, a snorkel, mustard, and some Scrabble tiles. Why mustard? Well, on our last trip to St. John with the entire Martin clan nearly 7 years ago, we made sandwiches with Grey Poupon which they thought was so spicy and have referred to since as “St. John mustard.” Why Scrabble tiles? It’s a game we enjoy as a family (and have a hilarious story about a young but not so innocent Oakley – but that’s another post), so it was fun for them to decode the letters to spell out “St. John, USVI” even though someone lost the “V” in the excitement. Oh, well! After their initial puzzlement, they pieced together the clues and solved the mystery destination. They also got two books to research the island, St. John Off the Beaten Track and St. John Feet, Fins, and Four Wheel Drive, both of which we highly recommend.

Four days later, on December 29th, we embarked on our St. John adventure. After two flights, we safely took a taxi (this one kept all its wheels on the entire time) from Charlottee-Amalie on St. Thomas to Red Hook, where we caught the ferry to “our” island.

To here

Captain Louie

Once we docked in Cruz Bay on St. John, we headed straight for the snorkel shop to pick up the gear we had reserved. So far, so good. Then Tim walked to the car rental place to pick up our 4-door and 4-wheel drive Jeep Wrangler which he booked back in March. Pro tip for island travelers: Call the car rental place the day before you go. Even if you have a confirmation number from 7 months earlier. Just do it. Or you may end up like us – carless, hungry, tired (after waking up at 4 am!), and needing to be at Coral Bay on the other side of the island.

So we scrapped our grocery shopping plans and hopped into an open air taxi (a glorified pickup truck with a cab outfitted with two benches), traversed the crazy island roads, met Jared who gave us the keys to our stunning home for the next 8 days, Cliffhanger. Jared shared a few tips with us: the moon would rise shortly over the ocean and could be seen from our deck (simply amazing!). He also told us that a seafood dinner was just a short walk away at a restaurant called Shipwrecked:

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Tummies now full, we hatched a plan for Tim to take the bus the next morning back to the other side of the island and get a car. Problem #1:  the bus doesn’t run on Sunday, so he hitchhiked in this! 

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Meanwhile the girls and I explored around Cliffhanger.

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Oakley found a tiny conch

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Stunning view of Coral Bay from our deck

Finally, Tim came home with a car. Kinda. One with every light on the dashboard on, including the 4-wheel drive, gas, break light. “It’s fine, mon” he was reassured. Against all odds, the car made it back to our side of the island and then proceeded to nearly run out of gas. Oh, and the gas station on this side of the island is closed. Not because it’s Sunday but permanently. We called Jared, who called a friend to meet us at Love City Market with a can of gas. Enough to get us to the other side of the island to find a gas station that actually has gas. Since we had to return to the west side of the island, we decided to visit Hawksnest, one of the North Shore beaches, and snorkeled for the first time as a family. Not a spectacular snorkeling spot but the perfect place to begin – an easy, sandy entry and gentle waves with some colorful fish and spiky sea urchins.

On the drive back, we started spinning our tires and rolling backward down a steep incline. Tim, the driver, remained calm but the water bottle in my hand didn’t survive. I didn’t think we’d survive the week in the Jeep Compass either, so we resolved to trek back over to Cruz Bay the next morning to demand/beg for a different car. But not before we tried eating dinner at two restaurants that were closed before finally settling on Island Blues, which gave us the blues. We hit our low – 2 days trying in vain to get to our island getaway and secure a car for exploring.

Monday morning we ventured to Salt Pond for a bit of snorkeling (saw coral, urchins, fish) before getting a phone call that they had a car – score! We left immediately and exchanged our Jeep Death Trap on Wheels for this beauty.

St. John Jeep and Gas Station

The “former” east side gas station 

“What are these?” the girls ask when they climbed into the back seat, referring to the window cranks. Oakley fell in love with the Jeep Wrangler and now wants one when she grows up (of course it doesn’t hurt that Coach Mo drives one as well). The island was finally ours to explore fully, as long as we gave the goats and feral donkeys (donkeys were the preferred form of transportation on the island before cars) the right of way: 

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After a lunch of fish tacos at the Sun Dog Cafe, we headed to Trunk Bay, which is part of the national park and has a snorkeling trail. With the help of the signs, we identified some cool trumpetfish and parrotfish. We ended the day at Skinnylegs, a burger joint and bar in Coral Bay, and a vast improvement from Island Blues.

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