Landscape and travel photographer Dominic Urbano shares impressions of travel to the United States Virgin Island of St. John.
Vacationing and photography on St. John USVI –
At the end of April Sloan and I took a vacation to St. John Island. St.John is in the U.S. Virgin Islands and is noted for its quiet ‘off the beaten path’ beaches and unrivaled snorkeling. Our vacation research started with a general Caribbean vacation idea, narrowed to St. John, and eventually to a great little place overlooking Kiddel Bay. We wanted quiet time with each other and an adventure in an unfamiliar climate and place. On St. John Island we had that and more.
Our research on places to stay on St. John led us to the vrbo.com web site. Plenty of rentals to choose from but not being familiar with the island it was difficult to determine what we may be getting into from idealized photos and descriptions. We settled on a place called the”Kiddel Perch” It may have been the vacation find of the decade. For a week we had our own house on an isolated Caribbean bay. No other houses within sight and virtually no other visitors to ‘our’ beach for the entire week. We made a one day trip to The Baths and Devil’s Bay on Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Other than that we did what we could to explore the unique island of St. John, its amazing beaches, bays, reefs, and restaurants.
Below is a brief summary of my impressions of St. John. My only disclaimer is that they are just that. Impressions. I don’t pretend that within a week I can claim expertise about any place. I intend to share my impressions both positive and negative… take them for what they are. The observations of an outside visitor.
Kiddel Cottage / Kiddel Perch / Kiddel Bay USVI – (note… the spelling of “Kiddel” seems to be up for debate. Also spelled as “Kiddle” depending on where you are looking. Maps have it as “Kiddel” so I will go with that)
We were incredibly lucky to have found Kiddel Perch. The upstairs area of Kiddel Cottage, the Perch, is a studio style apartment. A kitchen, tiny bathroom, screened in porch that serves as the bedroom, and a deck overlooking Kiddel Bay. I am not sure if it is possible to have your own Caribbean beach and bay for a week anywhere else in the world but that is what Kiddel Perch afforded us. Situated about a half mile up a bumpy rock/dirt road our little house was a gem. No other houses in sight and just a few hundred feet away from the cobble beach. Make no mistake… it is a simple little place. No frills if you will. We were also fortunate to have the entire building to ourselves. A two bedroom ‘Cottage’ makes up the downstairs area and for all but the last night of our stay it was vacant.
(on our last night visitors arrived to stay in the downstairs… we could clearly hear them as they talked and moved about. Our quiet solitude may well have been different if there had been occupants downstairs the entire week)
Down side to Kiddel Perch? Nothing significant… The bed is mediocre but we slept soundly in the screened porch with the sounds of birds, waves, and critters making a constant and pleasant song. We were provided with only one set of linens for the entire week. Would have been nice to have some extra sheets but we made do by rinsing out the one set in the sink and hanging them out to dry. The road up to the house is bumpy but no problem. (If you have a bottle of wine in your stores you will want to hold on to it before starting up the road) You will be a little surprised by the junk cars that line the drive but St. John is littered with junk cars. An unfortunate part of the local landscape.
Impressions of St. John USVI –
“St. John is chill.” The statement came from a woman sitting behind us as we rode the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John. She was correct. St. John has a feel as if traveling back in time at least 30 years. (maybe more… but I am 43 and don’t want to make claims of bygone times that I have not experienced myself) No chain stores or restaurants. A somewhat haphazard infrastructure of roads, signs, and services is puzzling but not difficult to negotiate with a little patience. With two-thirds of the island protected as a National Park with the bays and reefs included, St. John has a quiet feel to it. The snorkeling was amazing. The abundance and variety of sea life goes well beyond my ability to describe. There are a couple of high-end resorts (Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay and the Westin are the two primary ones) but even they seem to be set up for quiet enjoyment rather than high paced tourism. You won’t see jetskis or motor boats zipping around and every business has its own personality. Want a quiet beach all to yourself? Just be willing to walk or drive a little further than everyone else and it is yours to be had.
Down side? – First and foremost is the garbage. St. John does not have curbside garbage pickup. There are large open dumpsters scattered around the island that everyone tosses their household trash into. Upon our arrival most of these were overflowing onto the road. Oddly enough a stand of shade trees across from the dump station near Coral Bay is touted in one tourism book as a favorite gathering spot for locals. In addition to the household garbage there are wrecked and parted out cars everywhere. Just about every house is surrounded by cars in various stages of disrepair. I am guessing that it is not cheep to get a car onto St. John and that once dead it is much cheaper to shove it into the brush and scavenge parts off it for the next few decades. St. John definitely has a bit of a garbage problem.
The people of St. John. The old saying, “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” has me wanting to bite my tongue a little on this topic. There is a noticeably dark mood permeating the people who inhabit St. John. You will be welcomed with what amounts to bored tolerance rather than open arms. There wasn’t anything that amounted to hostility and we were perfectly comfortable while visiting St. John but throughout our entire stay it became very obvious that the people of St. John are not a particularly happy lot. Making blanket statements about a place and the people who live there is difficult and I am perfectly aware that St. John has plenty of happy folk (we met several) but just as generally happy and welcoming as Kauai Hawaii is, St. John is not. Do not let it dissuade you from visiting St. John, just don’t expect to be surrounded by smiling folk who treat you like an old friend.
Driving on St. John –
Get ready for an adventure. St. John roads rival a roller coaster. I am no stranger to steep grades and twisting turns having traveled the Pacific Northwest back country all my life. St. John, however, is the only place I have ever encountered steep tire chirping grades that are paved and marked on maps as highways. We rented a Jeep for the week and put it to good use as we explored as much of the island as we could. Good luck finding a rental car (they are all 4×4’s of some type) that does not have at least one dented bumper or fender. It might be assumed that all the dents are the result of tourist having a hard time adjusting to driving on the left hand side of the road in a standard driver left car, but I do not think that is the case. It is not just the rentals that are dented. All cars on the island are dented and scraped. The tourist seemed to be the only ones who were content to follow the 10 – 20 mph speed limits. No doubt enjoying the many views and/or riding their brakes down steep unfamiliar grades and tight turns. The locals, however, maximize speed by driving right down the middle of the narrow roads. Be prepared to have them make last-minute swerves which will spare you from a collision by inches. (or not, judging from the abundance of the dented cars) One tourist guide-book we read was written by a local who claimed that tourist should be prepared to follow slowly along as locals, who are never in a hurry, made their way slowly across the island. Even be prepared for them to stop in the middle of the road and chat for a while he warned. Ha! No such luck. A beep of a horn meant “move over tourist… I am about to blow by you”. There is a public transit system on the island and all kinds of large trucks that have been converted into open air taxis. They too are covered in dents and scratches and I was on the brakes and headed to the shoulder of the road many times as they came careening around the corner at me. Personally, I was glad to be in control of my own vehicle. Control yourself, take your time, pull over, let them hurry on their way, and enjoy sticking to the 20mph speed limit. Be on the look out for goats, deer, chickens, and donkeys. They travel at speeds significantly less than the speed limit and are scattered all over the island.
Eating on St. John –
Maybe this should be the first section… since by many standards it is the most important. Our house at Kiddel Perch had an adequately equipped kitchen and a gas barbecue on the deck. We had intended to do more cooking/grilling but our first trip to the grocery store gave us a case of sticker shock and torpedoed that idea. We ended up making our breakfast every morning at the house, snacking for lunch, and then eating out for dinner. So groceries are prohibitively expensive and with our limited time on the island there was no point in stocking up the fridge and cupboards with food we would not use up. The up side to this was that we enjoyed some excellent food at the local restaurants.
St. John is free of any national chains. Local restaurants are everywhere. Roadside ‘shack stands’ or fine dining at the resorts. Take your pick. With only a week on the island it is unlikely that we even scratched the surface of the many places to eat. As it was we found several places and had great meals. Our two favorites (meaning we ate at each of them twice) were the Shipwreck and The Bistro. Both are located near Coral Bay. I would give top honors to The Bistro. Also worth a visit is The Tourist Trap. Supposedly known for their gourmet’ hot-dogs I just couldn’t see why anyone would travel all the way to the Virgin Islands and drive the roller-coaster roads across St. John all to have a hot-dog. I opted for the “Grouper Taco”…. it was excellent.
Photography on St. John Island USVI –
My equipment of choice for this trip was my Nikon D90, my daughter’s Olympus 850sw, and a Canon Vixia HFS100. All was packed neatly into a new Storm Case M2700 which proved to be worth every penny. (Purchased brand new for the trip the Storm Case looked like the baggage handlers had tried their best to kill it. My equipment made the trip without a problem. A great case!) The Nikon lived in RAW mode I used an assortment of lenses and with a 16g chip inserted I shot a wide variety of landscapes. (If you are interested in more the technical stuff about lenses I used etc… feel free to drop me a note. ) The Olympus was with us for every snorkel. I don’t know what it is rated for but the camera handled 20 ft. deep dives, hours and hours of time in the salt water, and all along it performed like a champ. I love this little Olympus camera! I am sure I would like $5000 worth of underwater camera equipment better, but a small camera strapped to my wrist while I snorkeled in the salty water of the Caribbean was great.
The Canon Vixia is a great video camera. Quick and easy to use with outstanding video quality it can also take 8 megapixel stills as well. The 3 second pre-record feature is possibly the best advancement I have experienced in digital media. For shooting wildlife or your kids soccer game… you will learn to love it. Sloan used the video camera as her primary camera throughout the trip while I used my Nikon. Switching quickly from video to stills she was able to get great shots of our adventures.
But I digress. I quickly learned that the biggest challenge to capturing images of the Virgin Islands crystal clear waters and pristine beaches was going to be the almost constant haze. Humidity and what I believe was an asphalt plant on the nearby island of Virgin Gorda that spews out a constant supply of black smoke (like I said, it is like a 30+ year trip back in time) meant that distant hills were often blurred. No worries… as with all photography… it is not about controlling the environment, it is about being persistent and learning how to work with and maximize the opportunities that present themselves. Waited for my opportunities and shifts in the wind to capture different shots that scoped out while we traveled the island. (Remember… I was on vacation… not a shooting assignment!)
Up early the first morning to capture the ‘best’ light I was disappointed to discover that in the morning light the blue waters of the Caribbean look just like the waters of just about anywhere else. I captured some nice shots of the Kiddel Bay shoreline and had fun shooting the Kamikaze dives of the pelicans. A nice morning, but not what I was hoping for. I discovered that the best light for capturing those amazing shots of the Caribbean bays and beaches was in the mid day sun. So often the informal siesta time for photographers the 11am-1pm turns out to be the ideal time to capture the incredible colors reflected from the Caribbean bays. The direct light of mid day penetrates to the sand and coral reefs below the surface and returns with the incredible blue and green hues, and patterns of reef and sand that these shallow bays are so famous for.
So if you want those shots, skip lunch and start shooting. The other thing to hope for is calm seas. While the winds were gentile during our visit they were pretty constant. Waves or even ripple from light wind will interfere with the shot. But that is what makes landscape photography fun.
Snorkeling on St. John… and at the Caves on Norman Island BVI.
It is all about the water on St. John. Well, all about the water and the wonderland that exist just below the surface. 70+ degree water meant hours and hours of comfortable snorkeling. Bay after bay Sloan and I explored the coral reefs. Fish in numbers and variety that boggle the mind. Sea life of every size, shape, and color. The fish did not seem to mind us much and holding still and just watching brought out even the ‘shy’ ones. With virtually no current/tides, swimming around the rocks and reefs was easy. Even when the surf picked up we were tossed up and down rather than side to side. At times it was surprising to look above the water and see that I was within a few feet of the waves crashing over the rocks of a cliff or an exposed bit of reef. Very relaxed and easy. (It may be worth noting that both Sloan and I are good swimmers. ‘Easy’ is relative I am sure) We purchased and then traveled with our own snorkel gear rather than chance inadequate equipment from a rental shop. Traveling thousands of miles to get to St. John we figured it was worth it. We did notice that the several dive shops on the island had equipment for rent and the purchase price for new gear on the island was not any higher than what we had paid in Bellingham WA.
The turtles get top billing in my book. We first came upon them at Waterlemon bay. Hanging out on the bottom in 15-20ft of water munching away at the grass. A bit like disinterested cows in a pasture, they would move away only when we dove down to take a closer look. They would at times come up for air and would swim very near us, not caring unless we moved to startle them. We often saw smaller turtles along the rocky shorelines and jagged reefs. (Not sure if it is a different type or not… I am not a turtle expert)
Our longest snorkel swim was about two miles long. We put in at Salt Pond beach and made our way south all the way to the tip of Ram Head point and back. It was excellent and worth the effort. (Click here to see a google map of the area of the Salt Pond beach to Ram Head snorkel) Francis Bay, Yawzi Point, and our own Kiddel Bay were my other favorites. I made the swim around Yawzi Point that divides Great Lameshur and Little Lameshur bays on our last evening on St. John. I was ‘alone’ on this one (Sloan had declared herself officially water-logged and she walked the trail above me as I snorkeled) and it was a late start so I did not have time to pause much. It was a quick swim but the cliffs and reefs below me as I swam were the best I had seen so far. The white sand beach of Little Lameshur bay may well be the most isolated on the island. If your time is limited and you want an incredible snorkel and time on a beach without crowds… skip the rest pack a lunch and just make the drive to Lameshur. (Click here to see the Lameshur / Yawzi Point area)
I would recommend purchasing a long sleeve SPF ‘water’ shirt. I was slathered in ‘waterproof’ sunscreen but hours and hours with my backside exposed to the sun and the wash of salt water meant sun burn. I bought a long sleeve SPF shirt on the second day. I am sure it saved me from a painful trip home. As it was the back of my legs and even my hands were burned. Next time a full body 1mil. suit!
We also took a day trip to Virgin Gorda and Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands. Our snorkel on that trip was at the Caves on Norman Island. Interesting history, beautiful cliffs, unique caves… worth the trip? Yes… but at the same time… a little crowded in the water at the caves.
Virgin Gorda – The Bath’s and Devils Bay
The Baths and Devils Bay may fall into that category of ‘at least once in a lifetime’ experiences. The small beach at The Baths and the somewhat larger one at Devil’s Bay were by far the brightest and the water the clearest that we saw on our trip to the Virgin Islands. The jumble of giant boulders give the area a surreal look. The trail between the two beaches, winding in and under and spaces between the rock is unique and fun. We purchased a spot on a charter boat run by Cruz Bay Water sports. A small breakfast and good lunch were included. It seemed like a good deal and saved us from having to coordinate our own venture onto the British side of the line. In the end it was worth it.