A glance at the wilder side of the Virgin Islands’ sun-soaked resort hub
With curls tied back and beads of sweat decorating my collarbone... I wore aged Cruzan on my hand like the women of Park Avenue wear Valentino.
This was nothing like the serenely silent Massachusetts pine forest of my childhood. Everything here was alive. Trees undulated. Clouds did not so much drift as shove aggressively past each other in some sort of ethereal race. Even the stones seemed to be breathing. As my eyes adjusted to the blinding moon, my ears were overpowered by bestial sounds. The leaves sang. The foliage whispered of my indiscretions.
Despite being surrounded by woods, my feet straining in soil richer than molasses, I could never forget the sea’s presence. She coiled her indigo tentacles around every inch of this hot-blooded island. Even the hummingbirds had an inky blue hue, shining like shattered ocean pieces flitting about the vines.
Never had I felt so removed from my Manhattan home. Besides the presence of a spider I was eyeing warily, this was a level of peace I had not experienced in quite some time.
I had left one island for another. To my delight, my boyfriend had looked up two old friends of his who had lived full-time on Saint Thomas for over forty years. Hospitality was in their blood and we soon found ourselves invited to stay the week.
This pale girl had found herself in the Caribbean and so far it was suiting her nicely.
There were minor hurdles along our journey south. The most exciting being our pilot’s announcement that this was our plane’s maiden voyage (“As long as he doesn’t say it’s ‘un-crashable,’” I muttered to the unamused woman on my left).
Despite the hardships, we arrived safely. The island’s stunning warmth cradled me the moment I stepped off the flight. We were then greeted by our two happily enthusiastic hosts. I was lulled into a false sense of security as I sat my drowsy self in the back of their car.
It was then that I experienced my first Saint Thomas drive. To say that yellow lines and speed limits were regarded loosely (or even present, for that matter) would be a wild understatement.
When I had tried to research this territory before arriving, I found myself overwhelmed by images of cruise ship crowds. While it is true that Saint Thomas is home to Charlotte Amalie, the cruise ship hub of the Virgin Islands, I had expected the port to be just my first-glance online result. To my dismay, I found little other information about the island in my search.
Those fanny-pack riddled images were heavily present in my mind as we departed the airport parking lot. Soon though, we had left the duty-free shops behind and those images had deserted us.
Chaotic tourist crowds gave way to idling locals. Combed and tidied sand gave way to dark jungle clay. Along the shore, the crystal clear water was so blue it looked like an overly-photoshopped resort ad.
The next morning as I picked an ant out of the peanut butter, I pondered my day. (When I mentioned the large ant population of their property to my hosts, they said they as humans had moved onto their home, so why should they force them out? I pulled my breakfast closer and smiled warily. It seemed that nature was truly everywhere. )
What to do? This was a level of solitary confinement I was not sophisticated enough for. As a Manhattan bartender, it was astonishingly out of my comfort zone to be left alone in the wild with no plans. And so, as any self-respecting New Yorker would do, I went on the move.
I left my impressively laid back boyfriend to his daiquiri and guitar and started up the mountain in search of a worthwhile view our hosts had mentioned. Fortunately, the “easy breezy” hike put me in need of a pause part way there. Once I looked up from the reminder I was setting to look for Brooklyn gyms, I found my view affronted by a disintegrating building.
Lust overtook me at the sight of the abandoned home. It had been deserted halfway through construction, leaving me both mournful and wanting. Tangled, vexed clouds seemed to reach down and inhabit the spot. As I (somewhat foolishly) pushed aside vines and thrust myself through a window, I experienced my first moment of silence on this tumultuous piece of land. It was as though someone had hit pause on the constantly looping Brookstone Sounds of the Jungle.
I found a columned back porch, grandiose in its solitude. Despite the fact that this was definitely not the approved public viewing spot my hosts had intended, the scene was astounding. Forest, beach, and ocean wound together like pubescent ballerinas: rugged in their strength, wild and fervent in their movements. I was continuously impressed by the way this blazing island wore its heart on its sleeve.
A lizard grazed my foot, bringing me out of my reverie. I turned to go, the sun licking at my fragile Celtic skin and my thoughts on the Dark ‘n Stormy awaiting me at the house. With one leg back out the window, I had a moment of apprehension as a uniformed police officer drove by. Once I saw the Bud Light in his hand though, I figured my fears were for naught.
Later that week, I found myself drinking wine underneath the blazing island stars with my hosts. They asked me of my interests and I mentioned how recently I had been missing singing. The woman asked me, in a confused tone, “Why have you not been singing if you miss it so much?”
As I stammered a defeated excuse about the trials and tribulations of being a busy New Yorker, my host regarded me gravely across her glass of Syrah. In an intense tone I had become unaccustomed to after days of R&R, she said, “Well make time, honey.”
I was beginning to observe that underneath this seemingly care-free existence, there is a fierce belief system. These people have chosen to move their lives here. While the outside world may see it as “escaping,” they have actually fought for what they consider to be the best version of their day to day. Therefore it is quite clear to them that if I do not enjoy an aspect of my life, I had better do something about it.
This set of beliefs was lingering in my mind the next afternoon as I sat in the sand, camera and tripod poised, waiting for sunset. Further down the beach, locals were having a party, enviable in its camaraderie and joy. The smell of weed and rum settled around me. Did they share the passionate lifestyle I had witnessed in my hosts? What did they think of their day to day?
A man left the gathering and approached me, nodding appreciatively at my Nikon. “We have the best damn sunsets on the whole planet! Don’t you doubt it!” With a genuine air of hospitality, he invited me for a beer, which I happily accepted.
Sitting amongst the party guests, I did not do much talking. Just listening. The chatter was not very different from what I overhear during a bartending shift in the city. There was most definitely a more welcoming manner though. An eagerness to involve absolutely everyone around you in the conversation.
The sky brightened. The man was right. It was the best damn sunset I had ever seen.
The hospitableness of this island was palpable. From our hosts, welcoming us into their home without question, to these beach-goers, who couldn’t have someone sitting alone while they celebrated. Maybe for that man, part of fighting for the best version of his day is to make sure that those around him are also enjoying theirs. And of course, to make sure they have a beer in hand.
I leaned back in my chair, letting the sunset pass over me.
And then... evening fell. I swear dusk is a gift from the ancient gods to remind us of their presence. This island was, without a doubt, much more than the pretty cruise ship ads. Though the water really is that blue.