1st Stop: St. John

Leaving St. John…Paradise Island

Posted on: Saturday, January 3rd, 2009
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | One comment

There must be other places as beautiful as St. John, USVI. And if there are, I sure hope to see them before my travels cease. Meanwhile, leaving is not easy. The packing and practicalities stink, naturally—but moreso because here is that rare place that makes it easy to relax, let go, and lose track of time.


Trunk Bay. On just about every "Top 10" beach list.

Where have these 18 days gone? And how could our BreakAway be 1/4 over? Despite a gradual descent into Island Time, hours race by like the swift little bananaquits that flit about crazily every morning.


The days have flown by like 3 little bananaquits.

Maybe the next island on our itinerary won’t be in such a hurry to teach that you can’t slow down time, even while you can slow down yourself. Hope so. But I’m in no rush to find out.

I AM always in a hurry to get long travel days over, though. That’s St. John to St. Vincent. A hellish day of travel that, with any luck, will be a “good” adventure—never mind that Liat Airlines (an island hopper down here) has already sent out emails warning of impending delays, cancellations, and worse.

Some sort of air traffic controller’s strike. Or something. “Plan” on it.

So what does this travel day look like?

  • Pile the luggage in the Jeep.
  • Drive across St. John to Cruz Bay to board a boat.
  • Ride that ferry to port Charlotte Amalie (on St. Thomas).
  • Catch a cab to the airport.
  • Do security, customs, luggage, and wait, wait, wait.
  • Walk on a runway to board a little plane.
  • Fly to one island, but stay on the plane. Wait.
  • Fly to another island; transfer planes (after a 3+ hour wait).
  • If possible, leave the airport to have dinner and see something.
  • Arrive on St. Vincent, late.
  • Cab to our hotel.
  • Find something to eat. Swim in the pool? Move in and C-R-A-S-H.

We’ll be in St. Vincent for 3 short days, before moving on again.


It's hard to leave St. John, where beauty abounds.

Moving on to see “more” seems silly at the moment. Perhaps no island could be better than St. John. But I’ve been here many times, even lived here for a half-year.

But back in Minnesota, in the throes of winter, in fits of courage and excitement and seductive web-travel-planning, we set out to see the Caribbean. Get lost, but NOT in America.

Pack those bags. Fasten your seat belts. Spread those wings. Let’s fly.

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Just Another Day…On Drunk Bay

Posted on: Friday, January 2nd, 2009
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | One comment

Yes, it really is called Drunk Bay.  And it’s arguably the wildest, waviest, rockiest beach on St. John.  Hardly anybody goes there.  It’s a long walk.  Gets real hot.  Swimming is impossible.  Ain’t no bar.  But visual grandeur and surprises?  Guaranteed.  The latest trend (and surprise) seems to be making coral humanoids.  

Here are a few.  To meet more, visit my flickr page...


What do you do with a drunken (coral) sailor?


She likes to tan in the nude (and needs sunscreen).


He should have read the fine print on the Viagra label.

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New Year’s Eve, Coral Bay Style

Posted on: Thursday, January 1st, 2009
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | One comment

Spaghetti dinner with friends was fun, but nobody wanted to stay up to see the years collide. Except the kids, of course. But they need sleep. I don’t. So by 11, this modest house party was over and there wasn’t an awake soul around me.


HAPPY NEW YEAR! In coral! In Coral Bay, USVI.

I’ve never missed a NY midnight, yet hitting the hay became my decision. I was nearly horizontal. But then the church bells started ringing…

“Come to church!”

Oh yeah! I remembered. The Moravian Church just across the bay holds NYE service at 11—and rings bells like crazy at midnight. They sing and sing and then shake hands and wish each other Happy New Year with smiles of contagious hope.

So my clothes came back on, and I headed out the door. I was late to church, but God don’t mind. And neither do Moravians. Once in the classic old structure, I was clueless about which hymnal or page to follow—and not being a Moravian, that happened a lot.


The Moravian Church has been there for many, many New Years Eves.

But not to worry: A parishioner would appear—head bobbing and voice booming—from beside or behind and hand me the right book and get me on the same page.

All singing was a cappella—no piano, organ, no guitars. Just loud, proud voices echoing through this gorgeous old sanctuary. A church like this thinks nothing of hymns with 12 verses and a chorus each time between them. The lyrics were all about starting anew, the passage of time, faith and renewal.

Repeat! Repeat! Until you believe!

In between hymns, the pastor might say a few things in Christian Island Patois. Through his words, through wide-open windows, two live bands—one reggae and one classic rock—came crashing in like noisy (but not uninvited) guests.


"This better not end up on some stupid blog!" they said.

“Legalize It!” “Tumbling Dice!” “Suzy Q!”

We must sing louder to drown all that out!

At midnight, hoots and howls from the streets and bars joined a clamor of car horns, conch blasts, and fireworks. But nothing compared in sheer volume to the peeling of the bell we sat under in church. That thing must have rung hundreds of times, for five minutes or more.

The sound was glorious and made it impossible to think. Feel it! Listen! Resist the temptation to plug your ears!

One more hymn, and we received the benediction. May the Lord bless and keep you…lift his countenance upon you…and give you peace and prosperity fo’ the who’ yeah a-haid!  Amen Amen Amen!  

Church is out. A New Year begins. It’ll be just like starting over.

Then came gentle handshakes from folks age 3 to 103. The only other White person was a beaming, elderly lady with messy hair, a humped back, and a yellow rain slicker. A number of fellow worshippers kept hold of my hand and said,

“I’m glad you came tonight.”

So was I.

Unlike the island-bro many-moves handshakes (that’s so fun, but so macho), these grasps were simple, caring. And nobody worried about that pushy, dated, dress-for-success suggestion: Always assert a firm handshake.


Early January 1, 2009. A new day, and year, dawns.

On the way home, I stopped by to sing more, but now on to rock and reggae with fellow St. John sinners. “Work of Art” was thumping big backbeats at Skinny Legs while dressed-up natives and dressed-down locals rubbed shoulders with Yachty babes in black lace and their East Coast boyfriend bums in Polo shirts.

The bartender charged me half the usual price for my red wine and knocked twice on the well-worn wooden bar. I took communion.

Then on to Island Blues. Drunks danced with abandon and filled the air with smoke to the sounds of butchered Hendrix and Stones. One local cutie would soon have her choice between two tan men competing for her attention like the geckos here lazily joust over a bit of sugar.

I stayed till almost 2. The party had only begun. Happy New Year.

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Medical Emergency…Requisite BreakAway Bummer

Posted on: Saturday, December 27th, 2008
Posted in: Rants & Roadkill, Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | Leave a comment

When on Sabbatical, expect many surprises—not always good. You can BreakAway. But you can’t run away from the Bad Thing. Moreover, you may unknowingly step out of the comfort zone and into the danger zone. So remember this 5-word mantra: I knew this might happen. Repeat. Breathe deep.

Smashed FingerCurlyGirl has had two strikes already on this trip: a bee sting on the deck and fire ants in her pants in the parking lot of a restaurant. But today she struck out, got beaned, got ejected from the game, AND sent us all into extra innings in the ER. A smashed finger in a heavy door can do that. It can ruin your day—maybe more. Even if you’re a comeback kid.

When S*#@ hits the fan, I like to envision the WCS (worst case scenario). Deal with that first. In this case, death seems unlikely. Surgery? Possibly. But we might still make our plane to St. Vincent next Sunday. Guitar heroine-ism may be compromised, but there’s always piano.

Still, I hate emergency wards. Who doesn’t? The good news is that, so far, (as we say in Minnesota), it could be worse. Today’s long day—one that went according to no plan—went something like this.

  • 10:40.  I leave house to go pick up friends B&E, who arrived from NYC last night but are carless (thanks to car-rental overbookings and incompetence), in a house atop Bordeaux Mountain. We are all planning to go to Maho Bay beach for the day. Coolers and gear are packed. Snorkeling and Red Stripe await.
  • 10:45. As I pull out of the driveway, CurlyGirl screams and AllBoy comes rushing out the door. She has caught her hand in the heavy door. The winds are strong; her hand is small. Partner comes out to help. I leave post-haste as drama unfolds, convinced that this is just sibling stuff.
  • 10:55. Atop Bordeaux Mountain, I can’t get to B&E’s house, because construction vehicles are in my way. I negotiate with Guys who move heavy machinery. Then back down the steep hill to B&E’s house—a death-defying act in its own right. I’m loving it.
  • 10:58. Mom E is waving and yelling from their house as I try to get there. I wave back. I am calm. Navigating steep, pot-holey hills and fresh mud backward in 4WD. How cool is that?
  • 11:01. I arrive. B&E’s 2 daughters greet me, concerned. I am told by the Adults that there is a Medical Emergency. CurlyGirl’s finger is cut open. I call home. Girl caught her finger in the door a SECOND time—after I left—when the wind slammed it shut again. This time: Serious. “I think the end might fall off,” Partner tells me in a very shaky voice.
  • 11:05. Phones stop working. We try them all—landline, 2 cels. I must get home. I suggest that B&E and 2 daughters come with me, or they’re stuck atop the Mtn all day. They pile in.
  • 11:12. I drop the Family at the bottom. Head home, up the other side of the hill. Partner greets me, in near panic. Blood is everywhere. This is unusual. I take a look. Indeed, middle finger is “dangling at the tip; might fall off.” CurlyGirl’s shock symptoms on the couch (watching “Tinkerbell”) suggest this is serious. No movement. Pupils dilated. Shallow breathing. Even AllBoy looks shocked.
  • 11:15. Phones are working again and calls are made to the local medical practice. Dr. C (we go way back) explains that his clinic is closed (it is Saturday, after all) and the ER is probably the best option. Though they have no X-rays. Yet on-call doctor is credible and does mastery stitchery work, if needed. Good to know.
  • 11:18. Strap Self and Partner and Boy and Girl in car. Head back down the hill. Drop Boy with Family B&E, who get to beach via temporary use of Crusty Jeep.
  • 11:20. Girl and Partner ride in back seat. I put on music in vehicle. Children’s Pain Killer begins to take effect. Visions of St. Thomas surgery rooms dance in my head. “I knew this might happen…”
No BreakAway is complete without a visit (or 2) to the clinic.

No BreakAway is complete without a visit (or 2) to the clinic.

  • 11:40. Arrive at St. John’s Only Clinic. Nurse and doctor are awaiting, though it’s doctor’s day off. Impressive. They take us straight to a room, hand me paperwork. They schmooze the patient, who does NOT want them to remove the bandage. Much loud crying.
  • 11:45. They unwrap bandage. Girl screams bloody murder…for next 20 minutes or so. They gradually wash, dab, fondle, pick, probe, confab, and ponder.
  • 12:05. Dr. explains that the cut is severe, nearly through the finger. Straight through middle of the fingernail. They could remove fingernail, but that would hurt more—and nail may act to hold finger together. Don’t know if bone is broken or crushed. Don’t have X-rays. Can only wrap tight and hope it holds.
  • 12:10.   They rewrap the finger, to the sounds of Girl screaming and thrashing. It takes 2 parents to hold her down. I show her pictures of rock stars and bad ads in Rolling Stone magazine to try to distract. It works, at times. She likes Brad Pitt. Yells NONONO when I suggest I grow a mustache, beard, long hair.
  • 12:15. Dr. pulls me aside for a pep talk and discharge marching orders. Finger too small to do stitches, splint, surgery. Let’s just hope. (Smile, shrug of shoulders.) No swimming til at least Tuesday—no ocean, pools, water. Tap water here is NOT good. Wash with bottled water. Use disinfectant. Rewrap daily. Try “liquid band-aid” first times in water next week, but know that stuff stings. (I’ve never heard of it.)
  • 12:17. If fever or green pus, bring in immediately. Know that infections are more common and severe down here. Even the air has germs.
  • 12:20. More paperwork. Sign off; copy insurance card. No cost. Doctor leaves.
  • 12:22. We exit. Head to downtown Cruz Bay to buy medical supplies as suggested, pick up some seafood to cook for dinner, and find B&E a rental car using old contacts.
  • 2:30. Supplies are in hand. As is fresh tuna, salmon, London Broil, and prawns. Car procured after much drama with old ‘friends’ at local car rental joint (owner will rent his own jeep and drive his beater). I stay in Cruz Bay to wait for B, ensure closure on the rental car deal, and drive Crusty Jeep back to Coral Bay.
  • 4:00. Home. Start chopping vegetables and cooking. Good therapy. Never mind that the knives here are sharp and I cut my middle finger…
  • 5:55. CurlyGirl is strong. Her parents are spent. Dinner is served (the first course).
  • 10:55. Dinner is over. Children’s painkiller is served (again). Step outside to thank the stars and repeat: 

“I knew this might happen.”

  • 11:55. Retire.
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Let History Not Go to Ruins

Posted on: Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | 2 comments

Annaberg Plantation ruins rock.  The National Park Service has a big challenge maintaining all their holdings, but they’ve kept this treasure from going to ruin.  With a view of the Sir Francis Drake Channel (great sailing!) and Tortolla (great daytrip!), there’s a lot to go right.  Today was a treat for the camera.  Beaches and vistas offer not so much to focus on.  But here?  A sea of plenty.

Annaberg Sugar Ruins: A sweet slice of history.

T’was a pleasure to be here on BreakAway, on a more leisurely pace.  Rather than rushing through this requisite stop, we were able to wander, ponder, and linger.  What a great day for home-schooling.  This temporary teacher was able to mostly shut up and let the sights and stories speak for themselves.  

For about 100 years until 1848, this island grew tons of sugar cane on 75% of its land.  That fact is hard to digest–because the terrain here is rough, rocky, and steep.  But even harder to ponder is that the peak population then was shy of 2,500.  1,000 Danes, and 2,500 slaves.  Clearly, everybody worked long and hard and in nasty conditions.  

A Rocky Proposition:  Faraway Farming on Precipitous Mountains

When the bottom fell out for their crops–most of which had been shipped back to Europe–they shut down the sugar mills and freed the slaves.  Most Danes went back home, but some stayed on in what was then called “The Danish West Indies,” and have generations still here.  Heck, there were Danish-speaking visitors touring the site on this day.  

Walls with stone, coral, and shells remain popular.

Since my own lineage is 50% Danish, I enjoy getting in touch with this rare heritage connection.  The streets and sites still host Dane names; “bergs” and “steds” are everywhere.  Heck, even the native patois still holds Danish language and lilt–along with African, English, and more.  As local leader and legend (now 90-something), Guy Benjamin, once said to me with a smile, “We were Danes here once too, you know!”

As for the slaves, most were given a piece of land, and most stayed.  Many descendants still live here, are regarded as the native settlers, and hold what are now sometimes valuable expanses of property.  Some post-slavery anger and edge carries on, to be sure.  But the vast majority are kind, proud folks.  Their traditions live on in the schools, churches, festivals, and daily life.  

It's impossible to envision farming by hand here.

St. John Becomes a National Park

Although there’s virtually no farming today, at least 75% of the land remains natural and raw–thanks to the Rockefeller family.  They bought up that land from Denmark, saved one pristine, rare flat slice (with seven small beaches) to create the famous “Rock Resort,” Caneel Bay.  Then, in 1956, they gave the rest to the U.S. National Parks.  We can’t thank them enough.  

That pristine treasure is what makes this island so singular.  Most beaches are public with NO development.  There are only two resorts and just a handful of condos.  You can find groomed hikes, decent facilities, and even an underwater snorkel trail.  Best of all, you can find countless places and be completely alone in untouched Caribbean wilderness.  

Like this purple succulent plant, the past lives on...

Dozens of ruins are still diligently maintained throughout St. John.  But Annaberg is the largest, most popular, and most storied.  A trip there helps put the puzzles of the past together, while also providing breathtaking beauty, awe, and perhaps a few ghosts.

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Artisans in Paradise

Posted on: Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | Leave a comment

As part of their efforts to bring the past into the present, the Annaberg Ruins host local artisans to demonstrate island crafts several days a week.  The day of our visit, a master gardener took us on a tour of a perfectly maintained plot.  And atop the hill, an old-school chef treated us to fresh johnnycake.  

Bananas, Bay Leaf & Ripe Guava

Of many tastes offered, the sweetest was sugar cane!

It’s not easy maintaining a garden on St. John.  With rocky soil, a long dry season, and steep hills, it takes a patient and persistent master gardener to bring fruits to hard labor.  There are some, though, including the gentleman who helps keep Annaberg in bloom.  The garden there includes papaya, bananas, guava, and mango trees.  And lower on the ground, many herbs like bay leaf (“smells like Old Spice after shave”) and lemon basil flourish.  

There was plenty to taste, including the herbs and sweet guava.  But best of all (especially for the kids) was sliced up stalks of sugar cane.  “You can chew and suck it, but don’t eat it!”  

Fresh Johnnycake Cooked in a Hot-Coal Pot

The chef served up a delicious taste of tradition.

Johnnycake is a local delicacy–a sweet, flat bread that can be cooked or fried.  Our chef prefers to bake it, and the warm, crumbly samples were so delicious I’d not change a thing.  Hot-coal cooking is still popular with locals, perhaps to keep the heat outside the house.  Light coals, spread them out, and then place a large cast-iron pot over it.  You can cook most anything in there, from stews to fritters to, of course, johnnycake.  

This chef added the extra step of putting a cover full of hot coals on top of the pot.  That way, the heat comes from all directions–and makes for a nice, crispy crust.

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Don’t Feed the Donkeys!

Posted on: Monday, December 22nd, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | Leave a comment

Yep, there are wild donkeys on St. John. They’re not that wild, actually, and sometimes look lazier than statues. But they’re feral. And even though most tourists are tempted, it’s best not to to feed them. Or pet them. Or even get close. They’re aggressive and have bad breath.

Beware the feral donkey, and their do-do.

Beware the feral donkeys, and their do-do.

Why are they here? Like so many locals, they arrived long ago and got stuck.  Like being on island time. Not that donkeys have anywhere else to go.  

Most folks say they were used for farming—way back in the 1700s and 1800s, when 75% of this hilly place grew sugar and spices for shipping back to Denmark.

Nowadays, they mostly harangue tourists, nosh on dumpster chow, chomp on landscaping, and have loud sex in the middle of the night. (While two procreate, the others cheer them on.)

They’re not entirely useless. Local “bush doctors” watch them for clues on what bark they chew on when arthritis sets in. St. Croix (USVI) requested and imported some for their own local color. And one enterprising US escapee used to offer rides on a tame one to gullible vacationers.

She went out of business and moved back to New Jersey. As for the donkeys, they’re still here, providing an moving-target driving hazard and making asses of themselves.

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Happy Solstice!

Posted on: Sunday, December 21st, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | Leave a comment

Like so many migratory creatures before us, we’ve fled the north and headed south. There are many benefits to this shift, of course, but the one I am appreciating most today is the extended daylight—a welcome contrast to home, especially on this, the shortest day of the year.

A sweet St. John solstice sunrise...

A sweet St. John solstice sunrise...

For better or worse, I’m usually in Minnesota for the Winter Solstice. The sun rises just shy of 8. It’s down by 4:30. On a cloudy day, the world can seem so dark that the streetlights never turn off. It’s enough to make a large percentage of the population very, very SAD.

Yet lots of people celebrate this Pagan holiday at home. So my mind turns to the commemoration that feels out of place on a tropical island, and I send a toasty-warm toast to my frigid friends Up North, along with this…


Top 11 Reasons I Love the Winter Solstice

  1. Saunas make perfect sense—followed by a jump in the snow.
  2. The Akavit and beer stay cold outside.
  3. You can walk on (frozen) water.
  4. For six months, the days keep getting longer.
  5. For 12 months, they’ll be longer than this one.
  6. Green grass that turned brown is now covered in white.
  7. Full-bodied red wines are fully in season.
  8. No nasty sunburn or skin cancer risk.
  9. Fire (a la candles and fireplaces) bring light into darkness.
  10. You can sleep in and still see the sunrise.
  11. Finally time to give up on last year’s New Year’s Resolutions.
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On St. John…The BreakAway Begins

Posted on: Thursday, December 18th, 2008
Posted in: Travelog, 1st Stop: St. John, Latest Trip | One comment

Face it: 12-hour travel days do not a great BreakAway make. But we survived it, as did the luggage and children. Air travel becomes increasingly bumpy, so to speak, but that’s survivable too. (So far.) It’s all about managing expectations.

Finally.  We made it.  The journey has begun.

Finally. We made it. The journey has begun.

That said, a Sabbatical-taker or schemer might be well advised to repeat those five words often. I’m just happy to be HERE, on the isle of St. John (and yes, I Love St. John), in tranquil Coral Bay—overlooking gumdrop mountains and islands, feeling cool breezes and soaking up the sun. Did I mention the popcorn clouds and bobbing sailboats?

I’ve got a feeling (“a feeling deep inside”) we’re not in Minnesota any more. But like life in Minnesota, an escape like this still features pesky “to do” lists…

  • Work. There’s always work to do, of all kinds: Job work; Life’s work; house work; parenting work; home-school work. Most of that is more challenging here, and can seem out of place.
  • Mission. Modern BreakAway theory holds that a hiatus holds some responsibility to self: Why ARE you here? In my case, the Mission list is long. This site tops it.
  • R&R. After unpacking, meal plans, grocery runs, and internet grapplings, each day should hold some “down” time. Wa-a-a-a-y down. Read. Do music. Talk. Listen. Chill (but not in a Feeling Minnesota way.)
  • Learn. Most days in most places have much to teach. Here, the observant participant can experience nature, culture, history, new friends, and maybe a little local libation and color.

A popular t-shirt here says, “Coral Bay…2,000 miles from reality.” While that’s true, everyone knows that Reality actually follows you wherever you roam. As troubador Harry Chapin sang,

You can travel on 10,000 miles, and still stay where you are.

So you can’t run away, really. But you can get away. Even BreakAway. A respite is a time set aside for revering reality—while re-creating it too. The journey has begun.

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