Virgin Islands: Thursday, October 9

“Are we on ‘The Amazing Race’ or ‘Survivor’?”

We were scheduled to fly out of Hartford CT rather than Boston, as tickets there were cheaper, as was the parking. The down side was that driving there took about 90 minutes, rather than the 45-60 it took to get to Boston.

We planned to leave a half hour earlier than we needed to, in order to account for delays etc. This meant that we had to get out of bed at the unearthly hour of 5:15 in the morning.

The previous night, Michael ended up cutting his finger rather badly, so he and Amy ended up in the emergency room until about 2:30 am, so they were both pretty beat on the trip down.

Unfortunately, getting the last minute details taken care of took longer than expected, almost exactly a half hour, so we left with no real time cushion.

The drive down was fairly uneventful, and we pulled into the airport just about an hour before our flight. We parked in the parking garage, walked to the terminal, and looked for American Airlines. A helpful person there told us that we were in Terminal-A, and that AA was in Terminal-B, which was a brisk five minute walk away! So we ended up hiking across the airport with all of our bags in tow.

We had checked in and printed out boarding passes the night before, but we still had to check (and pay for the privilege) two bags. Then, when we got to the security checkpoint, we inquired about food beyond, then ended up going back a short distance to a small cafe. We got some egg and bagel sandwiches, that we took with us onto the plane.

By the time we cleared the checkpoint and got to the gate, almost everyone else had already boarded the plane. We got on, stowed our bags, and managed to eat our breakfast before we left the gate. Still, we were cutting things a bit closer than I would have liked. (A theme that was repeated several times on the trip.)

The flight down to San Juan was pretty uneventful. As opposed to flying to Florida, this flight was almost completely over water. It was an older 757, so we didn’t have individual TV screens (much to Michael’s dismay), and the movie was “Speed Racer” which has about the most annoying editing style that I can recall a movie having. (It would be too involved to describe the techniques used here, particularly if you haven’t seen the movie, but I found it preferable to not watch it than to sit through it.)

After landing and de-planing in San Juan, we asked a staff person where we should go to find Cape Air. They ended up directing us to a guy on one of those glorified golf carts, they use to haul people around the airport. The guy drove for quite some time, certainly to a different concourse than where we started. Then we went down some stairs to the ground level (no jet-way for us!) to find Cape Air.

Our flight from San Juan to St. Thomas was to be on a little twin-engine Cessna (a Cessna 402C, in case you are interested). It was not pressurized, had piston engines, and sat nine, if you include the passenger in the copilot seat. It was by far the smallest commercial plane that I’ve flown on.

We checked in, and found that the carry-on limits for this plane were *much* smaller than on the jets. Essentially all of our carry-on had to be gate checked. They also asked us our weight and weighed our luggage. I guess they have to be very careful not to overload the plane and to keep it balanced. I found out later that the main luggage compartment for the plane was the nose, with some storage in the engine housings.

As we were shown to the plane, I began to get very nervous about our two checked bags. I was afraid that American would toss them out at the baggage claim, and that we needed to pick them up and bring them to Cape Air ourselves, but in the end my fears were groundless; the checked luggage did what it was supposed to do and automatically make the connection.

We boarded the plane and got the standard safety briefing by the pilot. Then he tried to start the engines, but the left engine wouldn’t start. Eventually, we de-planed and went back into the terminal to wait. We weren’t too worried, as we had no firm connections to make.

When I heard the name “Cape Air”, the first thing that came to mind (after the movie “Cape Fear”) was Cape Cod. It turns out that the Cape Air that flies from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands is indeed the same airline that flies out to Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, etc.

After maybe a half hour or so, we were again called out, and this time there was another plane next to our original plane. I guess they found a spare plane somewhere. This time both engines started, and we took off. It was pretty neat being able to see the cockpit gauges and watch the pilot fly the plane--particularly when he had the autopilot engaged and wasn’t paying attention to the controls.

We flew out at around 4,000 feet, which put us below the highest mountains in Puerto Rico. We had a great view of the island and its surrounding water.

After we landed in St. Thomas, we were escorted into the airport, where we had to wait a few minutes for our few pieces of luggage to appear. I think it would have been easier to have just waited at the plane, and taking our luggage in with us.

The airport reminded me of the airport in Arusha (Tanzania), although the one in St. Thomas was slightly bigger.

We went outside and found a taxi to take us across the island to the ferry dock. We shared the van with a couple from Maryland, who were down there for a wedding and an associated vacation.

Driving around the Virgin Islands was a bit strange. As in England, they drive on the left side of the road. But the cars are all “American style” in that the driver is on the left. So all of the drivers were on the outside of the street.

We were there just before 4:00, so we caught rush-hour traffic. It took us between 45 minutes and an hour to cross the island (the long way) and get to the ferry dock on the eastern edge. The island itself looked rather poor and again reminded me of Arusha. In terms of economic level, it was a definite step up from Tanzania, but it reminded me more of there than of the US mainland.

On the other hand, the cemeteries reminded us more of the Polish ones we had seen, with people in stone “boxes” partially out of the ground, and much more densely packed.

We caught the 5pm ferry. We found that we had to pay for ourselves *and* each of our bags. The bags were “checked” in that we handed them to a crew member at the boarding ramp, and he passed them to someone on board who stored them out on the lower deck. Then when we landed, they carried them to the dock, where we picked them up. It seemed very silly to me, and I couldn’t really see why we couldn’t carry our bags onto the boat ourselves.

I was starving, so I got a hot dog while waiting for the boat. Amy and Mike just had smoothies.

The water down there is incredibly clear and green. It does not look like the water up north at all.

We got to St. John around 5:30 and promptly found a taxi to take us to the Cinnamon Bay campground. The taxis there are rather strange. They look like you took a pickup truck, removed the sides above the bed, and then put a couple rows of seats on the bed. There was a roof overhead, and some vinyl coverings that could be dropped down in case of rain.

The roads in St. John are much narrower and more windy than on St. Thomas. (Half of St. John is a National Park, and so the island is relatively unpopulated.) There are two main “cities”, Cruz Bay on the west (where we landed), and Coral Bay on the east. (Everything there is named after the bay it is on.) The island is essentially one big mountain, looking roughly like a football running east-west. There are two main roads. Rt 10, which is also called “Centerline Road”, goes from Cruz Bay, along the ridgeline, and then drops into Coral Bay. The other, Rt 20 (which is so big that it has a 20 MPH speed limit) goes out from Cruz Bay along the northern coast, before climbing the mountain and joining with Rt. 10.

My first sense of the roads were that they were very narrow, windy, and steep. There are ridges running out from the main bulk of the mountain, which divides the island into bays. Thus to get from one bay to the next, you had to go up and over one of these ridges. To do this, the road would climb really steeply through a number of switchbacks.

Then, on the last ridge before Cinnamon Bay, I found the hill that made the others pale in comparison. According to Amy’s guide book, this is nick-named “Honky-honk” hill, because you are supposed to honk your horn going up and down the hill, so that others know you are coming.

The inside lane of the turns on the switchbacks are much steeper than the outside lane. I’m guessing that on this hill, the slope on the inside must have exceeded 45 degrees. The sharpness of the turns was such that you had to look out of the side window rather than the windshield to see where you were going.

It wasn’t as bad when making a left-hand hairpin turn, as you could look out your own side window. It was worse when taking the right-hand switchback turns, as you would be literally looking across the vehicle and out through the passenger’s window to see where you were going. It was particularly disconcerting at night, when you would be looking in directions far removed from where the headlights were pointing.

Then to make matters worse, there were a few driveways dropping steeply off the side of the road. There was one in particular, where I could easily imagine that if you veered a few feet too far to the left, you could easily end up with the right side on the road and the left side in the air, and flip the vehicle if not end up rolling down a hill.

We got to Cinnamon Bay around 6pm, just as it was getting dark. We found that reception was closed, but they had left us a map of the campground, and an indication where we should go to find our “cabin” (essentially two walls and a roof, with the other two walls being screening. It was one step up from the tents, in that we had electricity and a small table inside).

We carried our luggage down to the cabin, which was a bit of a challenge as there were coconuts and fronds littering the ground. (It was hard getting the rolling luggage over the fronds and between the coconuts, not to mention the rocks and divots from the dirt road.) We got our stuff stowed, then went up to find their restaurant.

It was, not surprisingly, closed. So we figured we would stop at the store at the campground, get some food, and cook it ourselves.

The store was closed as well.

I wasn’t sure whether to feel like a member of “The Amazing Race” or someone from “Survivor”. Here we were, stuck on the edge of a tropical island, with essentially no food, as night was closing in.

I figured that we had two choices: we could call for a taxi, drive into town, get something to eat, and then take a taxi back out, or we could just eat a little gorp and pecans that we had packed in our luggage for the plane flight. The decision was made for us when we found we had no cell phone coverage, so we couldn’t call a taxi.

So we just ate some nuts, got ourselves organized, and went to bed.

The place claimed to have opened a day or two before we got there, and it claimed that the store was open until 8, but the reality was very different. We found out that the store closes at 3:30, and pretty much everyone who works there is gone by 5pm. It was not at all what we were led to expect.

The surf was up, which didn’t make for the best snorkeling, but it made a neat sound to listen to as we fell asleep. The sounds of the jungle were quite loud, although I’m not sure if they were frogs, crickets, or other critters. It made for a fairly pleasant semi-white noise.

One advantage of the cabins over the tents was the electrical power, which also meant that there were two fans attached to the walls, that we used to good advantage. I was rather warm at the start of the night, but by the middle, I was almost a big chilled.

So ended our first day in paradise.

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