Saturday, July 11, 2009

Riding Ferries and Drinking Rum in the Virgin Islands

The title is a little deceptive, because just about the only place in the Virgin Islands where you can’t drink rum or beer is on the ferries. When you see how these passenger boats pitch and roll on their fast run between islands, you can understand the “no eating or drinking, all passengers must be seated” policy.
But once on land, it’s anything goes. As a U.S. territory (residents are citizens, but can’t vote for president), the three U.S. Virgin Islands have all their own laws. Driving is on the left, British style. The drinking age is 18 and there are no open container laws -- you can drink a beer on the street, on the beach, on a hiking trail or anywhere you like. You can even take an open beer into and out of any of the many bars on the three islands. There are, of course, strict drinking and driving laws, but go on foot, and the laws are pretty much the same as when pirates ruled the land.

Welcome to the Virgin Islands
Located a thousand miles southeast of Miami, the three U.S. Virgin Islands (and 50 or so neighboring British Virgin Islands) are at the northwest tip of the Lesser Antilles…that circular band of islands that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic.
Compared to the larger islands of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Virgins are just specks in the sea. St. John is the size of Manhattan, many of the islands are smaller and most are uninhabited. They look like lush green mountaintops sticking up out of a turquoise sea, many of them rising up to 1,700 feet in height and all of them visible from each other. And of course, they are ringed with some of the most gorgeous and famous white sand beaches on earth. The relatively safe waters with lots of pristine anchorages make it a top bare-boat sailing destination, and the marinas on Tortola, the sailing capital, are filled with sailboats available for weeklong charters.
It’s deep Caribbean – the dream everyone has of get-away-from-it-all islands, exotic but safe, easily negotiated, hassle free…and as a result, expensive and crowded. Most people see the Virgin Islands in one of three ways: chartering boats on expensive sailing vacations; staying at even more expensive, uber-upscale resorts or invading the islands with mobs of their fellow shipmates on frantic day trips from cruise ships.
But there is an alternative. Go to St. John in the off-season of May and June, before the hurricanes and after the mobs, and there are a number of reasonably priced small inns in the town of Cruz Bay that make an excellent base to go island hopping by ferry. We stayed at the St. John Inn ( for $130 a night. It’s a funky, ramshackled place, with a nice deck for breakfast (included) and free rum punches at sundown, but best of all, it’s a five-minute walk to the West Indies beach bars and shops of the hip little, backwater village of Cruz Bay.

Exploring St. John

The center of Cruz Bay is a small, palm-shaded plaza, surrounded by shops and restaurants in buildings painted peach, lime, rose and purple and covered with pink bougainvillea. A string of popular bars line a little beach and harbor filled with boats and in the distance, just three miles away, are the mountains of St. Thomas. It’s one of the top spots in the islands to watch a sunset.
From Cruz Bay, it’s an easy walk to dream-like beaches. Head to the National Park visitor center on the edge of town for a copy of the The Hiker’s Guide ($2.95) and from here it’s a 15-minute walk to idyllic Honeymoon Beach or snorkeling at Salomon Bay. Sixty percent of St. John is protected as the Virgin Islands National Park and the rest of the island is nearly as wild with only one other small town, two upscale resorts and some scattered private residences. In 1956, millionaire Laurence Rockefeller saw that development could destroy St. John, so he bought two-thirds of the island and gave it the U.S. government to become a national park. Today the park preserves 13,000 acres of land and underwater coral, 140 species of birds, 740 plants and 50 types of coral.
Only 3,500 people live on St. John and there are very few places to stay so by evening, the island population is small, giving Cruz Bay an “end-of-the-world” feel. There is no airport on St. John and the hourly ferry to Red Hook is the only connection to civilization.
Of course, St. John also has some of the most famous beaches in the world. Trunk Bay makes every top 10 beach list and island calendar and is even on a U.S. postage stamp. The beach is just the beginning. Lying just offshore of this too-good-to-be-true white sand lined with palm trees are two tiny islands and a coral reef offering superb snorkeling.
The national park has put in a 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail here. They’re very proud of the trail, which consists of signs sunk in 10 to 15 feet of water identifying fish and plant life. It’s okay, but in truth, the underwater signs are a bit hard to follow and distracting. With schools of kaleidoscopic fish, coral and plants in every direction, the last thing you need is to be reading an underwater brochure.
More impressive is that here, and in equally pretty next door Cinnamon Bay, the national park shop sells cans of El Presidente beer from the Dominican Republic for $2….and you’re more than welcome to drink beer on the beach or throughout the park. There are also fresh water showers, lockers and snorkel rentals.
You can get to the beaches from Cruz Bay by open air taxis ($6 to Trunk Bay each way) but to really explore the island, you need to rent a car ($50-60). The roads are crazy, incredibly steep, blind curves and of course, you’re driving British style on the left but with American cars made to drive on the right. No worries. No one goes over 20-30 mph, and usually much slower.
There are pull-offs and knock-dead views every half-mile, and the island is covered with hiking trails. Leinster Bay Trail follows an old Danish road around the sea to Watermelon Bay, one of the best snorkeling areas known for sting rays and sea turtles. The short trail to the Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins has gorgeous views of all the islands and is a good introduction to the strangely brutal history of this “paradise.”
Columbus was the first European to see the Virgin Islands in 1493. It was at St. Croix that the first bloody skirmish between the native peoples of the Americas and whites of Europe occurred when some Carib Indians attacked his ships.
Columbus didn’t report seeing anyone living on St. John or many of the islands. Archeological finds prove that there were native peoples here, but they were gone by the 15th Century.
For a 150 years after Columbus, the islands remained deserted, but then everything change drastically when the world discovered the simple pleasure of putting sugar into tea.
Between 1660 and 1725, the per capita consumption of sugar in England increased by eight times, unleashing a mad scramble by European powers to secure Caribbean islands for sugar plantations. The profits to be made from sugar were unimaginable; contemporaries likened it to a gold rush. Every European country sent ships to take and seize different islands. By 1650, there were 75,000 people involved with sugar living on Barbados, more than the entire population in the all the original 13 colonies at this time.
It was the Danish, of all people, who raised the flag on St. John in 1718. By 1733, there were 109 cane and cotton plantations on the island.

When Sugar was King

Growing sugar was wildly labor intensive and the only way to make it profitable was to use a small army of slave labor. Hundreds of thousands of African slaves were transported to the islands to live in miserable conditions, working backbreaking days stooped over in hot, sunny cane fields. Throughout the 18th Century and half of the 19th Century, the number of slaves brought to the New World outnumbered the number of Europeans immigrating there.
Because of its isolation, St. John became an especially harsh place, an island where difficult slaves were sent or where slaves fresh from Africa were sent to be broken. In 1733, a group of male slaves from Akwamu, a warlike nation in Guinea, were sent to St. John and put in the fields – a job they considered “women’s work.”
The strategy backfired. The former warriors smuggled cane bills, a type of short machete, into the fort on St. John and killed all but one of the soldiers. Then they fired a cannon, signaling an island-wide revolt and a general killing of whites. The slaves held the island for six months, but in the end, one out of every three people on St. John, black and white, was killed before a French force subdued the rebellion. This was just one of 75 little discussed slave revolts that occurred in the British West Indies before 1837.
The Annaberg plantation ruins date from 1780 and includes a former windmill that was used to crush the sugar cane.
At this time, for every two pounds of raw sugar produced, there was a byproduct of one pound of molasses. Until about 1650, molasses was a nuisance; no one knew what to do with it and tons of this “waste product” were dumped in the sea.
And then someone discovered that if you added water to molasses, let yeast attack it and then distill the results, you create a beverage that was first known as “kill-devil” and later was simply called “rum.” By 1655, Barbados alone was producing 900,000 gallons of rum a year.
Rum became staple of life in the colonies and to all seafaring men. Robert Louis Stevenson summed it up in “Treasure Island,” when he has pirate Billy Bones say, “I’ve lived on rum, I tell you. It’s been meat and drink, and man and wife to me.”
Today, one of the finest rums in the Caribbean, Cruzan, is still made on St. Croix. To try it, go to one of the many Cruz Bay bars. Along the waterfront, there’s The Balcony, Beach Bar or Hide Tide Bar & Grill ( or in town the Quiet Mon Pub ( and the crazy popular Woody’s. For dinner, the Banana Deck and the Fish Trap have great seafood. But remember, with an open container law, everywhere on St. John is a bar. We spent most of our time drinking a delicious Blackbeard Ale (or a lighter Carib for a change of pace) from the convenience store, walking and drinking beer on the beach and in town.

Tortola and the British Virgin Islands

From St. John it’s easy to visit the British Virgin Islands on day trips by ferry. Because you have to go through customs, there is a separate dock area with ferries going to Jost Van Dyke (famous for a handful of crazy bars); Virgin Gorda (famous for the Baths, rated one of the world’s best beaches) and Tortola, the capital and most developed and most mountainous of the BVI’s. The ferries leave on an erratic and maddening schedule, so if visiting the BVI’s is important to you, you need to plan your trip around their infrequent departures. Go to:
for ferry departures…and good luck. If you can’t see all the islands, don’t worry, because all the islands are good.
The most frequent ferries are to West End, Tortola, a magical, West Indies town filled with boats and bars, palm shaded balconies, pastel colored buildings with white shutters and a Pusser’s Rum outpost of civilization.
For more than 300 years, rum was a staple of the British Navy. Churchill supposedly said it was “buggery, rum and the lash” that made the British Navy, but while that oft-repeated quote is doubtful, the Royal Navy did serve rations (a “tot” as they called it) of up to five ounces of rum a day to all sailors until as late as 1970.
The five West Indies blended rum they served has since been revived to the original formula and is called “Pusser’s,” because it was the purser on the ship that dispensed it, and if you drank five ounces of rum a day, you’d also have trouble pronouncing purser.
Made in wooden pot stills, the same way it was at the time of Trafalgar, this single malt rum is the “father of grog” and every seaman’s choice,
There’s a Pusser’s store and pub in West End and also in the capital city of Road Town, and both are great visits for their naval ambiance and souvenirs, the best of which is a $10 enamel tin cup that features a sailor being hanged with the slogan, “Good to the last drop.”
You can pick up a rental car at West End (make arrangements through your hotel ahead of time, the rental cars are located outside of town and will have to meet you). You can easily explore the island in a day, with stops at spectacular Cane Garden Bay, the showpiece mile-long beach that often makes the world’s top 10 beach list. The beach bars here are a great place for lunch; a lobster salad sandwich on whole wheat bread was $8…the palms overhead and gentle surf lapping at your feet are free.
Along the way, stop for a beer at the Bomba Shack in Apple Bay. The bar is made out of driftwood boards that Bomba nailed together in a crazy maze of rooms decorated with panties, bras and hand-painted signs, the most memorable of which was “Give Bomba your panties and be blessed.” The bar was deserted when we stopped by, but hundreds of photos tacked to the walls (many of Bomba hugging topless blonds) attest to some wild nights, especially during their monthly full moon party.
Bomba’s nephew is opening his own mini-version of this craziness on Long Bay Beach called “Nature Boy’s Bar.” The government is giving him a hard time, so stop by for a beer and give him your support (look for the BVI flag at the end of the beach).
Road Town is a real city, by Caribbean standards, but also a bare-boating capital surrounded by mountains. Cruise ships have invaded here, so there’s plenty of shops for day-trippers, but it’s still small scale. The Pusser’s Pub is a dark, cool bit of England with prints of naval battles and Nelson.

St. Thomas Madness
Neighboring St. Thomas (just three sea-miles from St. John) has only 50,000 residents, 85% of them people of color. It can feel as remote and exotic, but an abundance of cruise ships can cause overnight population explosions. St. Thomas is one of the biggest cruise ship ports in the world, capable of holding four mega-cruisers at one time with up to18,000 passengers day-trippers (1.5 million visitors a year), who swarm ashore in a mini-D-Day invasion to embark on frenzied trips to the duty free shopping that lines the main street of the capitol town, Charlotte Amelia. Another perk of being a territory – all three islands offer duty free shopping at every single store -- and you can bring home six liters of liquor instead of the usual two.
Which means St. Thomas can be big-time tourism when the ships are in. The century-old stone warehouses that line the back streets of Charlotte Amelia, with their West Indies architecture, green and black shutters and big arched entrances, are now filled with upscale watch and jewelry shops, elegant liquor stores, and international clothing stores. Little side alleyways offer shade, bars and restaurants, antique shops and palm trees to help disperse the crowds.
It’s an odd town. The Greenhouse Restaurant ( is a great little pub with open views to the harbor, and is next to S.O.S. Antiques, a wonderful pirate shop filled with authentic canon, flintlocks, swords and even a blunderbuss for a mere $4,000. It’s also the official shop for Blackbeard Ale souvenirs – the only place on the island where you can get t-shirts, caps, and coasters from this great Virgin Island microbrewery But as nice as this enclave is, it’s a pistol shot from the St. Thomas Hooters, located in a hideous modern building.
All of this changes at 5 p.m., when deep whistles signal that the ships are departing, and St. Thomas reverts back to being a sleepy, edge-of-the-world backwater…that might even be a little dangerous. Everyone agrees – don’t venture too far from the shore and into town after dark.
You can stay in town at one of the guesthouses like Galleon House ( for as low as $85 in off-season. They have a great deck overlooking the town and there’s a pleasant walk along the harbor to Frenchtown, a tiny neighborhood of residents from St. Barthelemy with a popular waterside pub, Hook, Line & Sinker. Also in town, Blackbeard’s Castle (he never was in it, but it is an authentic 17th Century fortification) is also interesting, but most people who stay on St. Thomas head to one of the beach resorts.
If you stay on St. Thomas, rent a car, try to get used to driving on the left on horrendously steep hills filled with blind curves and views (with no pull-offs) and visit the highlights. Drake’s Seat (where Sir Frances Drake is supposed to have sat, high on a mountaintop, looking for Spanish treasure fleets to attack) is worth a stop, particularly as it looks down on Magen’s Bay – consistently rated one of the top beaches in the world. It’s a knockout, if you can hit it on a day when there are no cruise ships in town. There’s a great walk in thigh-high water along the rocks to the north.
Coki Beach is where to go for snorkeling, and though everyone will tell you the coral in the Virgin Islands is dying, for walk-in, easy-access, off the beach snorkeling, it’s tough to beat. Stop at Buddy’s Bar afterward for a Carib or Blackbeard Ale.

IF YOU GO: For information on the U.S. Virgin Islands:
For British Virgin Islands:

WHAT TO READ: and a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis is the ultimate book to take on any Caribbean vacation. In a fun and highly readable book, he tells how rum has shaped the history of the world (or at least, America) by relating the stories behind ten popular cocktails. How many books are not only fun to read on the beach, but also increase your knowledge and enjoyment of rum at night?
For excitement, read Treasure Island – the greatest adventure and pirate novel of all time. Legend says that Robert Louis Stevenson used Norman Island in the BVI’s as the island in his book. Yo ho ho…..