Monday, June 25, 2012

The Spanish Virgin Islands

Part II of our "Take a Walk Down Memory Lane" series... our second (and final) "lost blog" from 2012. (We've modified the "published date" to keep it in line with our 2012 travels.)
- May 26, 2013

Tuesday, May 29 - Wednesday, June 20, 2012
So we've all heard of the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands, but the Spanish Virgin Islands? We'd never heard of the SVIs before we began cruising, and had no idea that these gems off the east coast of Puerto Rico would so capture our hearts. The Spanish VIs, best known for the two largest islands of Culebra and Vieques, are technically part of Puerto Rico (and are thus US territory). In reality, if you forget about the oh-so-convenient US post office and non-roaming AT&T cell phone service, these islands make you feel like you're in some remote part of the Caribbean.
We first landed in the Spanish Virgins after a down-wind sail from St. Thomas. Having 10 knots on our stern gave us a perfect opportunity to use the whisker pole - similar to a spinnaker pole, it holds the jib out at 90 degrees. By putting the main sail all the way out on the other side, you fashion a "wing and wing", a.k.a. the poor (lazy?) man's spinnaker. We had a gorgeous 20-mile run to Culebrita, a national wildlife refuge off the coast of Culebra.

We entered the harbor only to see a spectacular crescent beach lined with palm trees, and an old lighthouse at the top of the hill...NOTHING else. No bars, no restaurants, no hotels, nothing. Just a few free mooring balls for anyone who wanted to stay here, and a long reef along both sides of the cove offering some incredible snorkeling. As much as we loved the BVIs and USVIs, this was something else entirely.

Our friends Damon and Marcie, who we'd all met at Lifestyles Resort the year before, had also flown into St. Thomas to spend ten days aboard Storyville. Thanks to their airline benefits, they could easily fly into one airport and depart from another. Why not come along to Culebrita and Culebra? There were plenty of flights back to the States from San Juan! Deana and Troy were terrific hosts, and even got Damon up the mast like a pro. There was plenty of snorkeling during the day and beach happy hours and music at night. Not a bad way to spend a week!

We also got to see Runyon and Ivy on Ghost. They were rushing through the SVIs on their way back to the U.S., but we were able to meet up with them for an afternoon at Culebra's Flamenco Beach. What a beautiful spot! The beach has miles of soft white sand, and is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. Many families come to Culebra via ferry from Puerto Rico and camp in the woods behind the beach. The entire area is a public park, complete with food stands, BBQ pits, and fresh-water showers. It's a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Puerto Rico, and you'd be amazed by the amount of luggage, coolers, boxes, and camping gear that gets piled onto the ferries every weekend.

We spent most of June bay-hopping from Culebrita to Culebra's main harbor at Dewey town, then along Culebra's coastline and back to Culebrita. With the exception of Dewey town, all of the anchorages had free mooring balls to help protect the fragile reefs. Bahia Almodovar had a massive but shallow reef between the moorings and the open ocean, so you could sit on your boat and watch some incredible waves crash while being completely protected where we were. Our anchorage at Tamarindo Point had coral heads right below our boats - we could just jump in the water and see hundreds of fish. If we felt like getting into the dinghy, we could go around the corner to a huge line of soft corals, or across the channel to another wildlife refuge, Cayo Luis Pena.

For creature comforts, Dewey offered it all. We could get free wi-fi in the harbor, visit a vegetable market across the street from the US post office, shop at any of three colmidas (markets), and enjoy some incredible meals in town. Mamacita's had great breakfast on the weekends, and fabulous dinners any night of the week. (If you're lucky enough to be there for their ribs, get them!) Heather's served up pizzas that would put the American chains to shame, and (we hear) a mean frozen passion fruit mojito. For a special night out, there was El Eden. Their mushroom risotto and saffron lobster risotto were some of the best we've ever had. Who would've imagined so many great restaurants on an island few people have even heard of?

As much as we've loved Culebra and Culebrita, it's finally time to haul the anchor and head back towards Luperon. August 1st will be here before we know it, and we want to be safely tucked in on our mooring ball before hurricane season gets too active. Til next time...

A huge thanks (again) to Deana on Storyville and Darnell on Island Dream for letting me use their great pictures!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

One More Run Through the British and US Virgin Islands

Pipe's Note: So you know how we didn't post any blogs for nearly a year? That's not to say we hadn't written a few...but between poor internet, delayed picture editing, and the ever-present "lazies", they just never got published. We found two entries a couple of days ago, and thought they might bring a smile to our friends who were with us this time last year...especially to Storyville and JoHo, who can't be on their floating homes right now. It's certainly brought back some good memories for us!   
- May 26, 2013

Sunday, May 6 - Monday, May 29, 2012

Yes, this is really it...our last trip through the BVIs and USVIs before heading back to Luperon for hurricane season.

After our overnight sail from St. Martin, we, Storyville, and JoHo arrived at our favorite anchoring spot in Gorda Sound just after sunrise. The first order of business was a nap, but we had a fantastic surprise upon waking up: Island Dream had dropped the hook behind us while we were sleeping! It was great to see Pat and Darnell again after their jaunt through St. Croix and St. John, and we all met up for internet/happy hour that evening at Saba Rock. Whether it was Saba Rock's potent Painkillers or the fact that we knew we were losing JoHo from our little armada at the end of the week, we decided there would be no rest days in Gorda Sound...we had some exploring to do!

We left Monday morning for a 20 mile sail to Anegada. Known as "the drowned island", Anegada more closely resembles the Bahamas than the BVIs. The island is only 28 feet above sea level at its highest point, and is made up entirely of coral and limestone.
A 10-mile long reef extends to the southeast of Anegada, and you have to navigate your way through a narrow (but fortunately well marked) channel to reach the anchorage. It's not a trip for the faint of heart, and many charter companies refused to allow their customers to go to Anegada until just a few years ago. There doesn't seem to be a restriction these days, as we saw 20+ charter boats on mooring balls as we made our way through the reef.

We decided the best way to see the 11-mile-long island was to rent a car. Not just any car, mind you - a pick-up truck with twin benches in the back! All eight of us managed to pile into the cab and the truck bed and set off to explore all that Anegada had to offer. We held our breath as we went through bottomless potholes on dirt roads to nowhere, but every turn seemed to end at a spectacular beach. Loblolly Beach was our favorite, with its protective reef beyond the swim area, long stretches of white sand, and picnic benches under shady palapas.
Cow Wreck Beach was another beauty, offering colorful chairs and a small self-serve bar. The only warning we would give to anyone wanting to see Anegada: bring LOTS of money with you! "Value-centered cruisers" that we are, the $5 beers, $8 well drinks, and $50 lobster dinners were more than we could stomach. This place really WAS just like the Bahamas!

The next few days were spent back at Jost Van Dyke, for our usual stops at Foxy's Taboo, the bubbly pools, and Great Harbor. Saturday we motor-sailed to Peter Island, and Sunday we went to Norman Island's Bight to meet up with Storyville's friends from Texas who were chartering for a week. Unfortunately, it was also time to say goodbye to John and Jolanda on JoHo, who were heading down to the ABC islands for hurricane season. We know it won't be for long, and hope see them again in Puerto Rico or down-island later this year.

Our last few days in the BVIs were spent doing some major boat cleaning in preparation for an insurance survey, followed by two days of boat repairs (plus the actual survey) at Nanny Cay Marina. On the plus side, we found a new favorite anchorage at Benures Bay, Norman Island - a lovely secluded cove just around the point from the ever-busy Bight.

After a couple of quick stops in St. John, we reached St. Thomas in time for Memorial Day weekend. We caught up with friends on Guiding Light and Peaceful Lady, made a couple of safari trips to the big US-type discount/grocery stores, and re-visited a few places (pizza, happy hour, etc.) that we'd found on our first trip to St. Thomas. Damon and Marcie, who we'd all met in the D.R. last year, also arrived in St Thomas to spend a few days aboard Storyville. Time to take them on a grand Virgin Islands adventure!

Next stop...Culebrita, Culebra, and the rest of the gems that make up the Spanish Virgin Islands. Cheers!

For additional photos, please click here

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin

Monday, March 19 - Saturday, May 5, 2012

Yes, it's official - St. Martin is our new Luperon! Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch, but after spending six weeks on this picture-perfect island, we've certainly fallen into some Luperon-like routines.

But first...a note on the crossing. Remember when we were trying to get here in late-February to early-March to meet up with our boat guests? At that time, the "dreaded" Anegada passage was throwing up 10-13 foot waves with short intervals. Not wanting to risk our home, our furry kids, or ourselves, we postponed our crossing and welcomed our friends to a BVI vacation instead. What a difference a month makes! We finally got a good weather window (10-15 knots of wind, 3-5' seas), and had a beautiful motor-sail down to St. Martin. We made great time, and arrived outside of the Dutch drawbridge soon after sunrise. After watching a few 50-foot-wide mega-yachts squeeze through the 56-foot-wide bridge, we lined up for the 9:30am opening. We entered Simpson Bay with Storyville and Island Dream, and were soon anchored on the French side near a peak that our marine charts call"Witch's Tit". No, you really can't make this stuff up...

The island of St. Martin has a split-personality of sorts, being a combination of Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint-Martin. Rumor has it that when deciding how to split the island between France and the Netherlands, the two countries each picked a person to walk from opposite ends of the island to the center; the point at which the two met would become the official border. The catch? The Frenchman sipped from a bottle of wine along his journey, while the Dutchman chose gin. Guess who got drunk faster? Yep, the gin apparently slowed the Dutchman down a bit more than his French counterpart, and now the island is about 60% French, 40% Dutch. Gotta love the local folklore!

St. Martin calls itself "the Friendly Island", and having spent six weeks there, we'd have to agree. There's a strong cruising community on both the French and Dutch sides of the harbor, and you can get just about any boat project done that you might need. We were having problems with our refrigeration and A/C units before we left the BVIs, and easily found someone who would come out to our boat to look at everything. The work was done well AND at a reasonable price - not exactly something we'd been told to expect in St. Martin. We also found two local chandleries, Budget Marine and Island Water World, both of which offer West Marine-like products (along with cash discounts - woo hoo!). We even decided to upgrade our dinghy engine while we were there. No more put-putting for us!

A couple of days into our stay, we discovered a few spots that would become our main hang-out places: Barnacles Greek restaurant & bar, home of the Wednesday night cruiser get-together and Friday night open mic; and the "other" Soggy Dollar Bar at La Palapa marina (not to be confused with the original Soggy Dollar in the BVIs). Barnacles was the perfect spot to meet other cruisers and get info about the area, while Soggy Dollar offered a stunning view of the mega-yachts (both power and sail) moored along the seawall. Both places were also close to our favorite dinner stops: Indian cuisine at Lal's "Curry in a Hurry", and the best shoarmas (EVER!) at Little Jerusalem. We all loved the shoarmas so much that we made three trips to Little Jerusalem that first week! Owners Abraham and Kathy became like family, giving Rene an extra helping and always asking after him if any of our buddy boats went in without us.

St. Martin gave us a chance to meet up with some old friends, as well as make some great new ones. We'd kept in touch with Runyon and Ivy on Ghost and Harry, Leanne, and their girls on Ulysses Blue, and learned that they were all staying at a marina north of Philipsburg. We hadn't seen them since January in the BVIs, and were thrilled to get to see them our first week in town. Ivy came down to Simpson Bay a few days later for some shopping and a tour of the French side, and we, Island Dream, and Storyville all headed up to their marina for a pool day, BBQ, and slumber party the following week. We also got to meet John and Jolanda on JoHo, who were Dutch cruising friends of Pat & Darnell's whom they hadn't seen in four years. We had a wonderful time getting to know them, and ended up feeling like we'd been friends for years ourselves. (We miss you guys!)

Getting around St. Martin was incredibly simple, thanks to public dinghy docks at most businesses and marinas around the harbor. On the Dutch side, both marine stores were situated on the water, and a large grocery store was a short walk from Port de Plaisance marina. From Simpson Bay Marina, you could catch a $1.50 bus to Philipsburg to play tourist, buy groceries, or visit a Home Depot-like hardware store. On the French side, you could leave your dinghy at the public dock for a short stroll to Le Gout du Vin wine shop, order baguettes and decadent pastries at Sarafina's French bakery, or even visit the upscale West Indes Mall on the waterfront. If you really wanted to get adventurous, you could take a local bus (okay, minivan) up to Grand Case on the north side to party with the locals at their weekly street carnivals. We fell in love with St. Martin (both sides!), and quickly understood how people could spend some significant time here.

St. Martin also offered a direct flight from the Netherlands, which allowed Rene's mom to come visit us. We were able to get a lovely one-bedroom apartment at the Flamingo Beach Resort, which we were able to access via a nearby dinghy dock (not to mention a loooong treck uphill). Mom arrived on Easter Sunday, and graciously managed to stay awake to meet all of our friends over a potluck dinner in the room. What a trooper! For our part, we took full advantage of all the "landlubber" amenities that the room had to offer: full kitchen with huge oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher (heaven!), free internet in the office, a gorgeous pool and beach, and...wait for it...washer/drier IN THE ROOM! Between us and our three buddy boats, that poor washer/drier must've gone through 20-30 loads of laundry in the three weeks that Mom was here. We certainly got our money's worth!

The first half of Mom's visit was fairly quiet since we didn't have a rental car. We spent a few afternoons at the pool, caught up on internet at the resort office, went out for breakfast at Zee Best, and caught a bus to the huge Dutch supermarket near Philipsburg. Pat & Darnell, Deana & Troy, and John & Jolanda all joined us for various pool days, lunches, and dinner parties, and everyone enjoyed getting to know Rene's mom. On Mom's first Friday night in town, we took her to Barnacles so she could see one of our favorite cruiser spots and, of course, listen to Troy play at open mic. What a blast!

We rented a car the last week of her visit, and managed to cram most of our sightseeing into those last days. One day we went to Maho Beach to watch planes roar right over our heads as they landed next door at Princess Juliana airport. Another day was spent visiting the French side for lunch, shopping, a visit to Fort Louis for its spectacular views of St. Martin, Saba, and Anguilla, and finally a drive up to Grand Case on the northwestern coast. We even got to spend a couple of days with Ulysses Blue, who invited us back up to their marina for some pool time and dinner, followed by a beach day at beautiful Orient Bay (fair warning for parents - parts of it are clothing optional!).

Our last big outing involved taking a fast ferry to the lovely island of Saba, part of the Dutch Antilles. Known as "the unspoiled queen", Saba is located less than 30 miles from St. Martin and rises 3,000' above sea level. Given it's elevation, Saba's streets are much too steep for mere mortals to climb...we'd highly recommend you hire a taxi to tour the island! We decided not to book the ferry's lunch and sightseeing tour, having been told you could hire a taxi at the ferry dock. Wouldn't you know, we arrived in Saba at the small dock, watched all but four other passengers get into the tour buses, and looked around for the (non-existent) taxis. The owner of a dockside bar called a driver for us, and we were told that "the Irishman" would arrive in about 45 minutes. The "Irishman" turned out to be a local whose family had been on the island for at least five generations, but who were we to argue? We had a terrific tour of the island, and our driver recommended a yummy local spot for lunch. Curry chicken pizza, anyone?

We ended Mom's visit with a fantastic dinner at Skip Jack's restaurant (thanks, Mom!), before her flight left on Friday. Unfortunately, Mom's departure also signaled that it was time for us to leave St. Martin and begin our slow trek back to the Dominican Republic. We spent another week in St. Martin taking care of boat projects, and found a good weather window over the weekend for the overnight trip back to Virgin Gorda. We, Storyville, and JoHo will buddy-boat back to the BVIs, where we hope to meet up with Island Dream after their USVI jaunt. Til next time...

Enjoy more pictures of our time in St. Martin here and here. Thanks again to Storyville, Island Dream, and JoHo for sharing their great photos.Link