Voyage to the Caribbean

by Don Boese

The great Itasca Community College trek to visit the British and American Virgin Islands had been long anticipated by the present and past students and others joining our group of fourteen. Nine of us were to depart from Itasca on Saturday, August 1, l998, and we gathered at Dailey Hall at 7:30 A.M.

Tiffany Riley, Brian Vroman, Mert Petersen and her husband Tom, Paige Erven, Des Dahline, Andy Lazella and myself and my son Alexander (twelve) stood soberly in the parking lot by our van as I gave an update on the first potential hurricane of the season, Alex, headed at that point directly for our destination and scheduled to arrive at about the same time we were. There existed a real possibility that all carefully laid plans could end with some of us stranded in Chicago or in Puerto Rico and other participants in various departure cities. We could only hope that the stiff upper winds that were for the moment keeping hurricane Alex on the tame side would continue.

We headed for St. Paul and once there, always with Alex lurking in background thoughts, we checked in at the no-frills Midway Motel for our one night stay. The day was spent in St. Paul activities, including a visit to Como Zoo, to the Barnes and Noble in Roseville (the fifth largest store of the bookstore chain and an impressive place) and to the Cathedral. And, we toured some of the remarkably diverse foodstores of the city including Italian, Russian, spice, organic, and Asian examples, the later disconcerting to one of our members who didn’t care for the “meat/fish staring back” from various counters and cases, but all agreeing that St. Paul could accommodate a wide variety of tastes. After dinner at Old Chicago, a late night tour of the Hamline Campus across from our motel was led by soon to be resident, Andy Lazella.

We had no specific information in regard to Alex early Sunday morning as we set out for the airport but were glad to see no flight cancellations listed for our destinations. My old friends dating all the way back to graduate school days, Fred and Mary Joan Bauries, left from Michigan and joined us in Chicago for the flight to Puerto Rico. In the meantime, Marilyn and Bob Ferlita were leaving from Omaha and Cathy Piskal from Phoenix, they to meet in Dallas, and then to join us later in the evening in Charlotte Amalie.

Tiffany, Andy, Paige, Des, and Brian supplied me with trip journals at the end of our voyage (from which I learned a great deal more about various aspects of this trip) and I will draw on them as our story continues. Tiffany noted:

Its here! Our day of flying and the view is wonderful. The clouds are very relaxing, soft and fluffy. I have never flown over the ocean before and it is strange because it doesn’t look real. I can’t see any movement from this far up.

We were all delighted to hear the pilot say that the weather in Puerto Rico was fine and that Alex had dissipated at sea, producing no trace of wind or rain in the islands of the Lesser Antilles. In Puerto Rico we boarded the small plane for the 35 minute flight to St. Thomas, and as always, as the plane passed over the western tip of the island and I looked again at the green hills and turquoise waters, I felt a strong emotional pull for this place where I taught school in l960 and have returned to visit many times since. We landed, gathered our luggage and hired a large van to take our group to Charlotte Amalie and the Windward hotel located on the town’s famous deep water harbor which over the centuries has served well the purposes of pirates, merchants, naval ships and most recently cruise vessels. Shortly after we had checked in and were dining in the hotel restaurant the rest of our party arrived and amidst introductions and hugs our entourage was complete.

The aircraft carrier, USS Enterprize, was anchored just outside the harbor and with a crew of 5,000 the town was nicely accommodated with sailors, some of whom were soon acquainted with some members of our group. I read in the journals that dancing until 4 A. M. was enjoyed by a few while others of us got a good night’s sleep, looking to another day of travel to reach Tortola and our remote hotel destination there.

After going to the Tortola ferry terminal to purchase tickets, the group dispersed to enjoy a morning in Charlotte Amalie exploring the duty free shops housed in old Danish warehouses and offering at attractive prices luxury goods from throughout the world. I had been in a flurry of e-mail discussions with the proprietor of our Tortola hotel during the days before departure as earlier arrangements had fallen apart.

It was carnival time on the island and for three whole days everything was shut down while the revelers celebrated. A man named Ritzel was to meet us at the West End ferry dock and somehow convey us through thronged streets to the East End hotel location. Knowing that Caribbean agreements do not always work well, I was delighted, after a smooth passage over blue waters and around green islands with unending white sand beaches, to find Ritzel indeed waiting for us and a safari truck ready for passengers and luggage. Although the driver and passers-by had to bounce a pick-up truck onto a sidewalk to negotiate a narrow street in packed Road Town, after a lengthy ride, as Paige wrote, maneuvering “death defying corners,” we arrived at the Tamarind Club.

The Tamarind, on a green, lush hillside a mile from Josiah Bay with its beautiful white sand beach, is a delightful place! The dozen rooms are arranged around a large swimming pool that served as a major attraction for all of us and the attached open-air restaurant was headquarters for our comings and goings. Because of the holiday, the Tamarind was closed but owner Bob Granfeldt offered us use of the place so long as we would take care of ourselves and pick-up and clean-up and as he put it, “Pretend you live here.”

Impression from Brian: ” The Virgin Islands are very rocky, often with cliffs dropping precipitously to the water’s edge. Bright blue skies and even brighter water are dazzling to the eye,” and Paige, “The scenery is absolutely breathtaking,” and even Des recovering from way too much “rotten local rum,” as she described it, actually a superb island spiced rum, could write “There are no adequate words to describe the beauty of the nature that surrounds me.”

Our rented Monteros were awaiting us at the Tamarind and we proceeded down to the East End carnival grounds for dinner, no one choosing from the food stands the Tortola “national dish,” goat water, a tasty stew, but several having conch in butter sauce and others local fish cooked whole, heads, eyes, fins, the works.

Our first whole day in Tortola was one of the best of the trip. After a 6 A.M. walk and swim at Josiah Bay with the sun coming over the mountain top and gradually lighting the opposite hillside, followed by a breakfast of English muffins and passion fruit jam, we headed out to explore the beaches of the north side. Brian serving as navigator soon learned that the map of the island was of limited value in that what looked like plainly marked “main” roads were often indistinguishable from driveways and side paths and there were frequently intersections at which choices had to be made with little help from map study.

The roads are very steep and winding and driving is not pleasant because of the islander’s dangerous habits of speeding and careless passing and hogging going down the center of the already narrow roads. Cathy driving the second car was, as Paige noted, sometimes abruptly “left on a steep incline while the navigating car decided which way to go.”

We spent the morning at the various beautiful beaches and a number of the group tried snorkeling with experienced Alex as guide and were quite amazed at the variety of life in those waters. Des wrote, “It is strange, almost eerie to snorkle in the ocean and the floor is just gorgeous!” At Cane Garden Bay, while the others swam and walked the long stretch of white sand, I was determined to find the Callwood Distillery that has been producing rum for two hundred years.

With help from several locals, I headed in the right direction, finally zeroing in and after further inquiry was pointed in the direction of a narrow little road heading into the bush, and back a ways was a crumbling ramshackle place where in a decrepit room with a shelf full of bottles, I purchased from the source two bottles of white and two of dark rum; as the Cane Garden label is not available for sale elsewhere, I was delighted to be able to add them to the list for our nightly rum tasting sessions. As I left ,a black gentleman had also found the place and was entering and said, “See you got yours,” to which I enthusiastically nodded. Those rums went very well with tamarind and lime!

After circling the entire island, we stopped in Road Town for lunch, where just about everything except Pusser’s famous restaurant was closed tight for carnival. Fortunately, the grocery store was also open and we shopped for dinner. I had been looking forward to cooking in the Tamarind restaurant kitchen and with much help from the group with preparation and clean-up, provided two meals there. And, I don’t mind saying, my salmon in mango cream sauce turned out very nice!

The afternoon and evening was spent in the pool and in enjoying the atmosphere of the Tamarind. The group came to very much appreciate the warmth and friendly hospitality of Bob and Mary Granfeldt. As Americans living and working on the island for some years, they are a rich source of information on all aspects of Tortolan life and what Andy noted as “an interesting place with laid back and friendly people.” I gave, with Bob’s very welcome participation, the first of several history presentations on the diverse background of the Virgin Islands.

The next day after a 6 A. M. Josiah Bay excursion and breakfast featuring as Des put it, “one of Mary’s scrumptious cakes,” a shopping venture scheduled for the morning was of limited value because most of the stores remained closed. An outdoor plaza of tent shops did provide some diversion and a hairdresser who provided island style braids for several of our entourage.

A parade that was to take place in East End prompted Andy to note,

If you want efficiency, Tortola is not the place to go. The easy-going attitude of the island’s inhabitants makes any sort of scheduling irrelevant. In attempts to find out when the parade was to be held, we were given a wide variety of times ranging between 11 and 5 o’clock.

A few of the more determined of the group did finally see the parade, noted as “five minutes long” by Paige, but it was complete with mocko jumby stilt walkers.

Our last full day in Tortola included a side trip to nearby Beef Island, passing over the ramshackle one lane Queen Elizabeth Bridge and on to a long walk on Conch Shell Point looking for shells. (I wish I could have been present in the other car where a discussion of points of comparison between Bovey and Beef Island took place.)

Shelling was good and included several scarcer varieties turned up by careful pickers. Later, stores were finally open and shoppers had fun. Our last evening was in the now open Tamarind restaurant and we all enjoyed a fine dinner with others to do the cooking and work. Appropriately, Andy wrote as our Tortola stay came to a close:

Despite the inefficient, laid back, and at times simple ways of the Tortola folk, much can be said in favor of their way of life. They have retained a kind and courteous attitude towards people that is often lost in other cultures.

The next morning after the usual six o’clock swim at Josiah, we prepared for departure. With hugs for Mary and handshakes for Bob and many thanks for their numerous kindness’ and with not a one of us liking the idea of leaving the Tamarind behind, we headed for the West End Ferry. There, amidst the bustle of loading luggage and passengers, suddenly with no explanation but with a burst of non-Caribbean style activity, the ferry gates were closed ten minutes before scheduled departure and with a disconcerted half of us still on shore the boat left even as others of our group on board were trying in vain to indicate to the crew our plight.

The ferry was almost to Charlotte Amalie before explanation was given to them that another ferry had arrived and was immediately behind bringing over those of us who had been left in Tortola. So, we were quickly reunited in St. Thomas and ready to begin the next stage of our adventure.

Although the islands are geographically not far apart, St. Thomas is a different world compared to Tortola. While Tortola is as many of our group described, “laid back,” St. Thomas is bustling and hectic and fast paced and, according at least to those who live there, Charlotte Amalie is the New York of the Caribbean.

We picked up our mini vans and took first luggage and then people to the Island Beachcomber, a long established and popular hotel. While by no means a duplication of the Tamarind Club, the Beachcomber is right on the Caribbean Sea and it is a short hop out of one’s room through a pretty garden and into the inviting, warm water. We had bright moonlight on both islands and late beach walks and swims were popular with some of our group (one of the more notorious of our intrepid travelers taking the opportunity to moon the moon while skinny dipping, I read in one of the journals).

The only scheduled event for the rest of the day of arrival was a trip to my favorite St. Thomas beach at Brewer’s Bay. No sooner did we enter the water than several little native girls swam over to excitedly tell us to watch out for the tiny little black, winged ants that we then saw were everywhere swimming and drowning, because “they bite.” And even as we attempted to swish them away, a heavy tropical downpour began. The salty rain made eyes uncomfortable and was hard enough to actually hurt as it pounded down. We deserted Brewer’s Beach and with sopping towels and shirts and lots of sand, piled into our van with the warning sign telling users not to get the seats wet or sandy. Although Andy wrote that it would “certainly be a better place to swim on another day,” we never did make it back there.

Our group had bonded well during the Tortola stay with much laughter and good humor and we enjoyed each other’s company, although I was accused of using some sort of voodoo responsible for all discomforts, that soon being expanded into the idea, as Tiffany wrote, “Don’s attempt to poison us all, one by one,” is working.

As tour leader, I thought in group terms as I had 14 people to accommodate and two vehicles with designated drivers (island rules in regard to rented vehicles are very strict) to provide for all, that leading to one snap from a traveler that, “We are not bookends, you know.” On the many other of the forty some ICC trips I have taken, my philosophy has always been I am going here and here in Chicago or Winnipeg or the Twin Cities or wherever and you may join me or not as you see fit.

This trip, as I knew would happen, particularly in St. Thomas with its diverse offerings, would be more difficult as group members divided on what paths to follow. But, matters were always resolved and some, with admonitions to be careful (crimes and crimes of violence are all too frequent in St. Thomas) went to a night club called “Duffy’s Love Shack,” which according to Tiffany was “the hottest spot on the island” and included some drink concoction called a volcano which also left Tiffany incapacitated the next day. I had arranged no sailing venture, certainly a fun way to experience the Caribbean, because I wanted to keep trip costs low and there was plenty to see and do on the schedule without that. But again, matters worked out and a number of our group went on a day sail while the rest went to St. John.

An enjoyable visit was made to Coral World, the dumb name making it sound rather like a tourist trap with lots of junk. In reality it is a first class, indeed world class, aquarium dedicated to showing and explaining the sea life of the Caribbean. The site was totally destroyed along with much of the rest of St. Thomas during the onslaught of Hurricane Marilyn several years ago. Our visit coincided with the grand re-opening, which featured the original l978 admission price, far less than the current $18 fee.

We arrived early and had the place pretty much to ourselves and had opportunity to study at will without crowded windows. The most striking exhibit at Coral World is the great underwater glass tower which is built right on a coral reef with an abundance of “wild” fish, the only unnatural aspect being that feeding brings far more together than would otherwise be the case.

Although our snorkelers had continued to have good luck ,even including a large sea turtle, now all could truly appreciate the Lunch at Eunice’s Terrace, a St. Thomas landmark featuring native food was as good as always. President Clinton had been there recently and the chair he had used was decked in red, white, and blue.

Some of us spent a quiet evening with Cuban cigars smuggled over from Tortola and the usual good island rum and delivered pizza while others went to another night spot that occupied their attention until a late hour. All of us were ever more realizing that our long anticipated trip was coming to an end.

With two days left in the islands, half the group took the ferry to St. John and the other half went on a day sail. St. John is the prettiest and the most deserted of the Virgin Islands in that once much of it was owned by the Rockefeller family and was later donated to be used as a national park. There I drove a safari truck, stick shift, under-powered for the mountainous driving as it turned out, and one not pleasant experience was to stall in low gear on the curve of a hairpin turn that was headed straight up.

But the beaches are spectacular, as are the views of the Atlantic and all were duly impressed with the shear beauty of the place. One of the high points was a visit to the extensive ruins of an old sugar plantation. As Brian wrote, “There is a more sobering side to St. John. At the plantation ruins the thoughts of slavery and the labors done in sweltering heat and oppression forcibly come to mind.” And indeed, thoughts of the brutal past which maintained the plantocracy living in splendor based on slave labor comes easily alive. The day sail included topless sunbathing, one of the group not using sunblock and paying a price for that, and snorkling, including a swim with sea turtles. Judging from Tiffany’s words that the “experience cannot be put into words” and that “it was the best day of my life,” assumption can be made that the event was successful and satisfying.

The last day was spent in Charlotte Amalie, beginning with a visit to the fort built in 1677 to maintain Danish power in the Caribbean, now serving as a museum depicting the island’s past. After that, shopping and browsing in the many shops occupied attention. Following an afternoon of swimming, the last evening was spent at the 1829 Hotel Restaurant, one of the elegant establishments of St. Thomas. Sitting on a balcony, cooled by the trade winds and overlooking the lights of charlotte Amalie and the harbor, we enjoyed a beautifully served and prepared course dinner combining elements of French and Caribbean cooking.

Departure was hectic as it always is, but all made it through immigration and customs inspection without difficulty and we were off for Puerto Rico, there to catch a flight to Dallas and then to the Twin Cities even as others of our group dropped off along the way to their various destinations.

On the airplane, Andy wrote:

My overall perspective on the islands is that they truly posses something special. I think it is some sort of romance that overwhelms those who arrive upon their shores. I was impressed with the cultural aspects of the islands and the easy-going attitude of the natives works well with their friendly and cheerful attitude.

Shortly after Andy wrote that, we found ourselves stranded for an extra four hours in the Dallas airport while central computers checked some aspect of malfunctioning in our aircraft. Better such a delay at the end of the trip then at the beginning, but the wait seemed unending and we were not back in Grand Rapids until after 2 A.M.

And as for me, utilizing the customs exemptions for duty free liquor not used by various members of our group, with a carefully orchestrated and impressive safari of A. H. Risse boxes from St. Thomas’ great liquor emporium snaking through airports and airplanes, I have returned to Bovey with an extraordinary collection of 35 different rums distilled in small operations on six different islands, none of them available except in the Caribbean. A trip momento indeed!

Finally, if our Caribbean adventure sounds good to you and you would like to participate in another Itasca Community College venture to the Virgin Islands in early February, contact me and I will provide information.