St. Thomas (1)

This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series Cruising with Teens

Sleep was fitful for me. I was excited at the prospect of returning to St. Thomas, where we lived from 1977-80. As a cruise destination, St. Thomas has taken some heat lately on the boards. For us, it will always be fondly remembered as ‘home’. I hadn’t been home in 24 years, and today was the day.

The wakeup call came at 6:30, and it was just in time. St. Thomas was already sliding by the window, and the sun was just starting to rise. Our view was to the aft, and I did not recognize anything in particular. The sun said we were sailing west, so I assumed we were heading along the south coast toward the narrow entrance to Charlotte Amalie harbor.

I ran upstairs for some coffee and returned to find Kris settled on the couch. She was wrapped in her bathrobe, silently watching the island slip by. This would have been a great time to be on a verandah.

I settled into a chair and placed the camera on a table. Every couple of minutes I snapped a picture through the window.

“We’ve got to be getting close to the harbor,” I said.

“I can’t wait,” replied Kris. “It’s going to be so great to see Frank and Chris.”

I worked with Frank during our years on the island. Among other things, we incorporated a company to do video work. Nothing much developed in this area before Kris and I moved away, but Frank stuck with it and has been very successful. We arranged to meet him at his studio, Mountain Video Associates, located right on the dock in the Havensight Mall.

I could tell that the ship was taking a right turn, not because of any physical sensation but because the sun suddenly veered left and disappeared behind the hills.

“Should see Frenchman’s Reef any second,” I said, expecting to see the large homely hotel come into view. Right on queue a large hotel appeared, but it looked nothing like Frenchman’s Reef. “Wow, that’s new. Where are we?”

It took me a minute to analyze the situation and realize that we were indeed seeing Frenchman’s Reef Hotel, and that it had received a complete facelift. The site is distinctive, but the building was totally unrecognizable.

Breakfast was due to be delivered at 7:00, but I couldn’t wait around any longer.

“I’m going out on deck. I need to see where we’re going.”

“I’m fine right here,” responded Kris. Easy to please — give her a bathrobe, coffee and a view and everything’s fine with the world…

Grabbing the cameras, I went up on deck. The harbor spread out before me, and Charlotte Amalie snuggled against the backdrop of the sheer mountain face. There were a couple of people jogging around the track on deck 11, seemingly oblivious to the stunning sights all around. Otherwise, I had the space to myself.

I worked on getting my bearings. Our first residence overlooked the town and harbor from a spot just below what was then called the Mountaintop Hotel. The whole top of St. Peter Mountain was in the clouds, reminding me why we sometimes had mushrooms and other fungi growing in the carpet up there.

St. Thomas looked much the same as I remembered it. For the first time in three cruises, we were in a place that had some real dramatic beauty. There is something magical about mountains meeting the sea, and you just don’t see it anywhere in the western Caribbean. The harbor at Charlotte Amalie is the cauldron of a collapsed volcano. From the top of the mountain you can really see the shape and the remnants of the rim.

Some large new buildings dominated the scene at the east end of town. They had the look of government installations, which indeed they proved to be. Also visible was the new hospital. Kris worked in the emergency room at the old Knud Hansen Memorial hospital, and I heard the horror stories every night. Let’s just say that a new hospital was a very good idea…

Mega yachts lined the waterfront, and one was actually making its way out to sea. It’s nice to see these things being used now and then. Mostly, they just there and look pretty. I recalled one that sat motionless on the waterfront for months. It had a helicopter strapped to the landing pad, speedboats hanging off the side, and a half-dozen golf carts lined up on the deck. Too many things needing maintenance for my taste…

Millennium took a hard right after passing through the mouth of the harbor and eased into the third and last position at the dock, behind Carnival Victory and Sun Princess. The rear of the ship extended well past the end of the main dock. In the late 70’s, four ships could comfortably fit here – five in a pinch — and as Frank would later tell me, the dock had been extended over the years, twice. Ships have certainly changed.

Although I had never seen it from a cruise passenger’s perspective, the dock used to be a pretty ugly place. Now many of the industrial sheds were gone, replaced by several buildings containing shops and offices surrounded by pleasant landscaping. Shoremen sprang into action and tied Millennium to the dock. The whole thing had an air of professionalism, not the first trait that comes to mind when thinking about St. Thomas, based on my time there.

Although we had glimpsed the sun earlier, dark clouds were now predominating. For just a moment the mountaintop emerged from the mist, and I saw the old homestead. We rented the guest apartment in a house directly across the street from Fairchild Park, which sits on the ridge along the road to Mountaintop in an area called Estate Lerkenlund. At roughly 1200 feet above sea level, the views were spectacular.


Friday night view from home in the 1970’s

Our landlords were characters – he was a former senator and she a retired actress. They lived on the upper floor of the large house with their two dogs, Peeky and Pokey. The ‘great room’ was about 60’ x 25’. One of the long walls was composed entirely of sliding glass doors, affording a spectacular view of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor.

For reasons that are beyond my comprehension, our landlords kept the blinds in this room closed at all times. Every piece of furniture was covered with sheets, and the air was stale. They spent their lives sitting in the kitchen at the rear of the house, drinking wine and arguing loudly. In the two years we lived there, I never saw them leave the house – and by that, I mean I never saw them outside at all. For that matter, I never saw the dogs outside either. As far as I know, their maid brought in all the food and other necessities. Despite the oddities, we enjoyed a good relationship – they just loved our dog Foxy, and became honorary grandparents to Ryan when he was born in 1979.

I went back to the cabin to find that breakfast had arrived. I also found that Kris had eaten hers while wearing her bathrobe, showered, dressed for the day, packed for the beach and tidied the cabin. I guess I must have been gone for a while, mesmerized by the views and lost in the memories…

After eating a cold omelet, I got ready for the day. The boys were due to show up at 8:30, and Kris called them at 8:20 to make sure they didn’t oversleep. Good move – they hadn’t stirred.

At 8:35, Wells and Dan rang the doorbell and were admitted to 8106. They looked terrible.

“Another late night?”

“Yeah. Actually, I went back to the room early,” mumbled Dan.

“What time?”

“3:30.”

“When did Wells come back?”

“About 5:00,” Wells volunteered.

Oh boy… I questioned the wisdom of their late night habit. “You knew this was going to be a busy day, right?”

“Oh yeah, we’ll be fine,” said Dan. Wells fought to keep his eyes open.

Actually, I had no idea what the day would bring. Planning hadn’t gone beyond meeting Frank at 9:00. After that, anything could happen.

I called Paul for an emergency pot of coffee. He arrived seconds later, and we began a caffeine transfusion on the boys.

Five minutes before our scheduled meeting time, we collected our beachwear and headed out. Emerging into the daylight on the gangway, Kris stopped our progress and insisted that we pose for the ship’s photographer.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked. The photographer was busy posing another group, and we were blocking the way. I herded us to the side.

Kris tried to reason with me. “Well we don’t have a nice picture of all of us together. It’ll only take a minute.”

“I know, but take a good look at the subjects.”

She took one look at the boys, and changed her mind. “Oooo, they don’t look too good, do they?”

We politely declined a dozen solicitations from cab drivers and walked the few hundred feet to the building where Frank’s studio was located. He was waiting for us inside.

Other than completing the transition to gray hair, Frank hadn’t changed a bit. I haven’t had many opportunities to see an old friend for the first time in 24 years – hard to imagine it had been so long. We spent a few minutes catching up on life’s highlights. The boys melted into some comfortable chairs while we chatted.

Enthusiastic and energetic, Frank gave us a tour of his studio and showed us some of his work. He does much of the ‘location’ footage for the tour and shopping promo videos shown on all the cruise lines, local TV advertising and programming, as well as location work for several networks. He had just finished a project with TechTV, and would be flying to Miami in a few days to cover a million dollar fishing competition for ESPN.

When the technical talk got too deep, Kris admired the bulletin board displaying photographs of various stars Frank and Chris had worked with over the years. She pointed out a picture of Chris standing with Victor Borge, who lived for many years on St. Croix.

“So where’s Chris?” asked Kris.

Frank explained that she was at school, and hoped to break free for lunch. She was just finishing up a degree in Nursing, realizing a lifelong ambition. I could only think about Kris’s mid-career flight from nursing to teaching – here we had Chris going in the opposite direction.

It was time to make a plan and get going. “So, what would you like to do?” asked Frank.

“Well, it would be nice to see a few of the old haunts, and we promised the guys we’d get them in the water. You can just dump us at a beach later.”

“I have a production meeting at Frenchman’s Reef at 4:30, but otherwise the day is ours,” said Frank. “Lets just get in the truck and see what happens.”

We roused the boys, who were slumped over in their chairs, and headed to the parking lot. Frank has a huge SUV, and we piled in.

“I know where we’ll start,” said Frank. “This was built after you left…”

He drove out of the parking lot, crossed the street, and entered another parking lot beside an industrial building. Around the back, he aimed for a gap in the trees and entered a narrow road that immediately climbed straight up. After a few hundred feet, the road began to snake through a series of hairpin turns. The SUV took the entire width of the pavement, and required planning to get it around the corners in one motion. My ears blocked as we gained altitude. Thick vegetation encroached from both sides of the road. The only view was of the sky, which had begun to brighten.

After a few minutes, the road ended in a small parking lot at Paradise Point – the destination normally reached by cable car. This attraction was built several years after we moved away, and I knew of it only through mention on CruiseCritic.

The view was still blocked by vegetation until we walked toward the outdoor café. Once out on the deck, I could hear each of the boys draw a sharp breath.

“WOW!”

“Holy #&*!$”

I shot a stare at the verbal offender. The reaction was understandable, though. This was they boys’ first real view of the island, and it was a good place to start.

“This is awesome. Look at that water! I can’t believe you guys lived here.” Dan was obviously impressed.

Paradise Point is really quite nice. The view of the harbor and of the ships in particular is first rate. There is a café with a big deck area, shops and various lookout points. Frank explained the massive hydraulic counterweight system used to keep the cable system balanced as the cars went up and down.

Frank pointed to the hillside to our south, the location of his new house. “We got wiped out in the last hurricane,” he explained. He held the boy’s rapt attention with stories of the hurricane and the long recovery period. The part about not having telephone service for over a year really got their attention.

We hit the road and headed toward downtown. Frank pointed out the big changes, most of which resulted directly or indirectly from hurricanes. On the waterfront, one hotel sat shuttered and rotting, too damaged to repair. Another was gone entirely.

A new government building held the jail. When we lived in St Thomas, the jail was located in the historic old fort on the waterfront. The prisoners spent their days shouting out the windows at tourists.

We side skirted the main shopping area and got on the road that leads up the face of the mountain. I was surprised to see that it was marked by a route number, as were all the ‘main’ roads. We stopped for a couple of scenic views before cresting the hill and turning onto the road to Drakes Seat.

“Is the guy with the donkey still there?” asked Kris. The man and his donkey had been a fixture at Drake’s seat forever.

“Nope – vendors aren’t allowed there anymore,” answered Frank. He went on to explain a recent deal in which The Nature Conservancy acquired more than 200 acres of land from a private estate. The acquisition included the Drake’s Seat Overlook and the entire hillside running all the way down to Magen’s Bay (including 600 feet of the beach itself). In a deal with the local government, the Conservancy donated the beachfront to the people of the Virgin Islands. One upshot of the deal is that no vendors are allowed at the overlook anymore – even the guy with the donkey.

There is a reason why Magen’s Bay is named on of the world’s most beautiful beaches – because it is, particularly when viewed from above. The colors are otherworldly, and if the sun is shining just right, it is hard to convince yourself that it is real. Pictures look fake, and cannot give the view justice. The sun was barely penetrating the clouds during our stop, but the view was still gorgeous.

Frank pointed out the house where he lived back in the good old days. I looked up the hill and spotted our second residence, which we called home after son Ryan was born. It had a nice view down the valley to the head of Magen’s Bay, an image that is forever burned into my mind. We decided to do a ‘drive-by’.

It was a quick drive. In a few minutes, we stopped in front of 1-42 Estate Wintberg. The house was instantly familiar, but two things stood out. First, there were a lot of new houses on the hill above, where there used to be nothing but trees. Second, the house was surrounded by a high, ugly chain link fence.

“Who ever lives here now must really be worried about something,” I said while climbing out of the truck to take some pictures.

A little yappy dog on the house’s deck announced our arrival. He was so upset with my presence that I was sure someone would come out and ask what I was doing – either that or shoot me. Sadly, the view that we enjoyed of Magen’s Bay was not visible from my vantage point.

We spent a lot of memorable time in that house, and told some of the stories to the boys as we continued on. One of the most frightening experiences came when we rode out hurricanes David and Frederick, which arrived back-to-back one year. Kris and I hid in a closet in the basement with little Ryan, unable to converse over the sound of the wind. We had no power for months afterward.

One night while cooking dinner, I heard a low rumble off in the distance. It was coming closer, and at first I thought it must be a big jet flying very low. The rumble grew louder and louder until I could feel vibration under my feet and became convinced that a big truck was about to crash through the wall. Then the house began to shake, and I had difficulty standing – everything was fuzzy from vibration. The motion continued for about 15 seconds, and then the sound rolled on in the same direction, fading like thunder in a storm. That was our first experience with an earthquake, and it was a pretty big one – between 5 and 6 on the Richter scale. I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since we were living on an ancient volcano in the collision zone between the Caribbean and North American plates. Just to the north of St. Thomas is the Puerto Rico trench, where the two plates have bent downward under stress to produce the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean — 28,374 feet.

Frank crested a hill and started to descend into a valley. “Know where you are?” he asked.

The geography was familiar, but something wasn’t right. “This looks like Tutu, but where are the apartment buildings?” The most striking feature of the Tutu I knew were many mid-rise apartment buildings that snaked all the way down the hill to a commercial area.

“Gone. They were so damaged in a hurricane that they were abandoned and torn down.”

I could still see the remnants of the foundations and the outline of the roads. Hundreds of people had lived there. At the base of the hill we entered the commercial area. The little strip mall that had dominated in the late 70’s was abandoned, a victim of newer and larger shopping areas. The Kentucky Fried Chicken had survived, and the main intersection had a genuine traffic light. Shocking…

“We even have a Home Depot now,” said Frank pointing to the distinctive orange-highlighted building. “Can you remember what it was like to get supplies?” I certainly did – impossible is a pretty accurate description. “I have to stay out of there. I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”

We continued through town and headed toward the East End. Frank pointed out the house of ill repute, unchanged and still thriving. We came to an area where dozens of parked cars lined the road. “There’s the road to Red Hook. There are so many people going back and forth now that they have to park all the way out here. It’s terrible.”

As we continued down the road, Frank prepared us for the next sight.

“A few years ago, there was a federal program to fund bridge building. The local government wanted to get in on that one, so they spent $10 million dollars to build a first-class bridge.”

“A bridge over what?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine.

“Ah, here we are.” Frank turned onto a small side road, went over a short bridge spanning what looked like a drainage ditch, and then turned around in a dirt parking lot filled with abandoned vehicles. In front of us was one end of a wide concrete bridge that abruptly ended at the top of a scrubby dirt incline.

“The Bridge to Nowhere. Usually when I come by here, there are goats all over it. They like it up there.”

The boys were getting a kick out of this.

“So what are they going to do with it?” Dan asked.

“I have no idea. Maybe they’ll connect it some day, but this road doesn’t even go anywhere.”

Continuing on, we stopped at an overlook above Sapphire Bay. (panoramic picture coming soon)

“See that island over there? You can buy it for $7 million. Cheaper than the bridge.” He went on to tell about a recent video job in which he filmed the island for the seller while hanging out of a helicopter.

“Cool,” said Wells. Both boys pressed for details, and were rewarded with harrowing tales of aerial videography. I couldn’t listen.

“I’d love to buy that place,” said Dan. “Looks like it has a great beach.”

“Actually, there’s no beach at all. That strip that looks like a beach is just coral, hard and rough. There’s no harbor – nowhere to land a boat. No electricity, no water.” He went on to tell about the owner of one island who spent a huge sum to have an underwater cable run for power. Unfortunately, the contractor failed to secure an easement from the owner of the land where the cable emerged on St. Thomas. The island is still in the dark.

Frank’s cell phone rang. Chris was calling with bad news – there was no way she could get out of her school commitment, so lunch was out of the picture.

The boys were more awake, and picked up on the fact that Chris was attending college.

“They actually have a college here?” asked Dan.

“College of the Virgin Islands,” I piped in.

“It’s The University of the Virgin Islands now,” corrected Frank.

Wells and Dan looked at each other, and were struck by the same thought. All their agonizing about where to go to college ended.

“I’m going to UVI,” proclaimed Wells. I hadn’t heard such enthusiasm about college before.

“Me too,” added Dan. “Well, actually, I think I’ll just move here and work. Is it easy to get a job?”

We had a long conversation about the pros and cons of learning, living and working on St. Thomas. Thankfully Frank was able to give them pause for thought on several fronts – it really isn’t an easy place to do any of those things.

I changed the subject. “We should get to a beach.” The sun was shining at the moment, but it looked to me like we’d be seeing some rain before the day was out.

We discussed where to go. Magen’s would be nice, but the boys couldn’t go home without at least one snorkeling experience. There’s nothing but sand at Magen’s Bay.

“Well then, we should just go to Coki — give these guys some real local flavor.” On queue, we pulled onto the road leading to Coki Beach. Frank pulled alongside a cemetery and parked next to the fence. The cemetery was filled with crude crypts, leaning stones and rotting flowers – a very disconcerting sight.

“What is this, the Beach of the Dead?” asked Wells.

Welcome to Coki Beach, the real Virgin Islands…


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