The Secrets of St. John
By Peter Muilenburg
So why had we stayed on St. John? The question was still on my mind the next day as I joined the throng of taxi-buses meeting the ferry in Cruz Bay. I had offered to pick up a repaired computer and deliver it the 16 miles across the island, 9 as the crow flies, to a friend in East End, and I needed to find a birthday gift for Dorothy.
In 1968, virtually every car here was a Jeep or a VW bug and there weren't many of them. Now, we almost need a traffic light. Back then, shopping for supper you were lucky to find onions that hadn't sprouted. Today, kiwi fruit, artichokes, and Haagen-Dazs are readily available and you could eat at a different restaurant every night for a month.
My favorites? Hercules Pate Delight, where Hercules and Letitia, originally from St. Kitts and St. Lucia, serve a hearty lunch, West Indian style: Fish is always on the menu, as is curried chicken and stewed goat. It's authentic and delicious and comes with a smile from Letitia that lights up the room. Or ZoZos at Gallows Point. I remember an anniversary dinner there and how we watched the sun go down behind St. Thomas until its lights flickered on then turned to the formidable wine list and a menu full of succulent delights, such as veal chops with gorgonzola, pancetta, and sundried tomato caponata, and Chilean sea bass with porcini mushroom crust on an arugula and goat cheese salad.
Heading back I decided to take the North Shore Road, a longer but more scenic route than the Centerline Road that bisects the island. But first I had to stop at Mongoose Junction II for Dorothy's present. The Junction was noted Virginia architect T. A. Carter's gift to St. John. A part-time St. John resident, Carter constructed the public building out of stone, coral, and brick, with a wide sweeping staircase that leads to some of the best shops on the island. After browsing a bit, I went next door to Donald Schnell's Pottery Studio. Don came to St. John some 30 years ago and developed his own distinct style – a rich ocher stoneware with a brilliant aquamarine glaze.
Armed with one of Schnell's lovely wine goblets with seashells imprinted around the lip – I was back on the road and soon saw a familiar figure walking along the shoulder.
"Rastamon – you walking for your health or you want a ride?" I asked the tall, lean man with moderate dreads and a face weathered by the sea and sun. "Sure, take a load off these feet . . . don't worry, I won't take my boots off," said Hermon Smith, getting in. Smith has been a farmer, fisherman, and merchant – he used to hire me and my first boat to pick up a ton or two of bananas from Tortola's north side and sail them back to Cruz Bay, where he sold them at his produce stand.
Now Smith carves pendants out of lignum vitae, a hardwood that can be polished to an amazing luster. The faces he carves into the wood look pre-Columbian; they stare back out, accusatory and mournful, as if recalling the fate of native West Indians. But who were they? The Taino are now believed to be the ones who carved the petroglyphs in the rock formations at Reef Bay. They were followed by Arawaks and then Caribs, whom Columbus encountered when he landed here in 1493 and named the chain the Virgin Islands.
Smith showed me his latest piece. "Nice . . . where are you getting your lignum vitae, Hermon?" I asked, because I collect it myself – from old fallen limbs.
"Oh you know . . . walkin' in the bush you find stumps; people turn me on to it," he replied. Lignum vitae, or "tree of life," an exceedingly slow growth tree, used to be common, but became so valued for its density and resin during colonization that almost all trees were cut, leaving stumps on the hillsides.
We pass the entrance to Caneel Bay Resort, built on the ruins of an old sugar plantation. "For the newly wed and the nearly dead," Smith says waggishly. Well, you can't blame guests for staying at the retreat Laurance Rockefeller founded and frequented. Today it has dozens of cottages on a small peninsula studded with seven exquisite beaches.
Back during the 1733 slave revolt this beautiful corner of the island saw some fierce fighting as Danish sugar plantation owners and slave masters made a last ditch stand at the buildings here, barely managing to keep their toehold on St. John. The rest of the island was overrun by the rebels in a well-coordinated strike.
When we reached the Trunk Bay overlook I stopped the car for a minute. The north shore still takes my breath away every time I see it. The coast, scalloped with bays and inlaid with beach after beach of soft gold, is framed by falls of black rock, backed by green forest. Where in this world is there a beach more stunningly beautiful than Trunk Bay? Maybe nearby in the quieter Cinnamon Bay, or at Maho Bay, home to one of the first eco-tent sites, or farther on at Francis Bay . . . it would be tough to choose.
We took King's Hill Road inland toward Coral Bay and Smith got out at the Centerline Road junction.
"Thanks, mon. I'll tell you a secret . . . where there's some big 'lick' 'em whitey' trees." That's his nickname for lignum vitae. He smiled. "But you can't cut any."
"Oh, you mean at Ram's Head?" I asked.
"Eh! You know about them then. Next time . . " and he walked off toward Bordeaux Road.
Ram's Head, the precipitous and raw southernmost point of St. John, played a part in the 1733 uprising, too. Eventually the Danes, unable to subdue the rebels, brought in a large force of French soldiers. After a valiant struggle, the remaining insurgents knew they were doomed. Sick, hungry, and wounded, they gathered at Ram's Head. One of many legends has it that they sat in a circle underneath lignum vitae trees and each man shot the comrade next to him. Near the end of Ram's Head trail, almost at the top of the mountain, is a grove of lignum vitae trees. Two of them appear a thousand years old if they are a day.
The landmark that says you have reached Coral Bay is the Emmaus Moravian church, built in 1782. If the sanctuary is open, it is worth spending a few quiet moments inside taking in the elaborate rafters that support the lofty roof. According to those who know, the acoustics of this grand church are the best in the Virgin Islands.
Over the years, islanders have organized numerous fundraisers to give the church some well-needed repairs. At one party, several hundred of us sailed to Norman Island for a barbecue on the beach and dancing in the water. The Lashing Dogs, an amplified Tortolan scratch band, played from the deck of the Silver Cloud, a three-masted schooner moored close to shore. The sailors wanted to express their gratitude to the Emmaus Moravian church, the Coral Bay hurricane shelter.
But the people who are really good at throwing a fundraising party – or any party for that matter – are Doug Sica and Moe Chabuz, the owners of Skinny Legs, a "a pretty OK place," as they like to call it, down the road in Coral Bay.
Good food, reasonable prices, casual atmosphere. Tourists and locals flock there, especially on Saturday nights to hear gifted guitarist Chris Carsel and his stand-up bass player, "Mo," her serene brow bent intently on her fingering (daytime she's a CPA named Maureen). During the winter season they add drums, mandolin, and fiddle, all backing Chris' powerful vocals and wildfire guitar . . . and they are smokin'! There are nights when the wooden dance floor at Skinny's shakes so wildly, a moderate earthquake would never be noticed.
Leaving Coral Bay, I drove past Hurricane Hole, the most protected anchorage in the Virgins, and one of my all-time favorite places on St. John. So, I'm a sailor, it figures. How many times I've tucked my boat within the close encircling hills, and rode out the worst weather in safety! Often, while awaiting a storm's onslaught, we've gone snorkeling, peering into the shadowy roots of the mangroves to see tiny barracuda, baby grouper, and schools of gold striped French grunts.
It takes a minor leap of faith and good brakes to keep following the road to East End, as it appears to drop off a cliff. This is the steepest grade on the island, a white-knuckle descent toward a narrow neck of flat land squeezed between two blue water coves. From this isthmus starts the East End Peninsula. On its uninhabited windward side there is a beautiful cove behind a barrier reef, called Newfound Bay. I can sail Breath, my 42-foot gaff-rigged ketch, through a channel in the coral and anchor in a pristine pool. There's not another soul in sight, unless you count the turtles that come up for air. On a calm day, you can hear their distinct gasps as they surface. Actually, I'm sure they have souls.
As do donkeys. Young animals are cute, it's a given; but baby donkeys take it over the top with their big inquisitive eyes, exaggerated eyelashes, and outrageously fluffy baby fur. The East End road following the leeward coast is donkey country.
Vie's Snack Shack lies just past the tamarind tree growing in the middle of the road. It was past noon by now so I pulled over and ordered a bit of lunch. Vie, an attractive, articulate woman (Miss St. John in her day) was frying up her specialty, chicken and Johnny cake, for a sunburned couple sitting under a shade tree, fascinated by a pair of young goats butting heads.
"Vie, do you have any of your homemade juices?"
"Just the tamarind . . . the others finish," she replied. If the afternoon were more advanced I would have had it with a little rum – a marvelous concoction – but I'd need my own rum. Vie doesn't want people to get out of hand, and selling beer is already a stretch – but it goes so well with lunch.
"How about Lucinda's coconut tarts?"
"You're lucky . . . just one slice left. I had to stop Cleve from going with it," she laughs. Her sister, who lives just over the hill, is a marvelous baker, but competition is stiff for her goods and not much gets beyond her family.
Across the empty road on White Bay is, arguably, the best beach outside the north shore. Vie charges $2.50 per person for access across her property, along with a changing room, bathroom, and beach chairs. There's ample shade, and it's off the beaten track: plus, it stays nice and calm when the winter groundswells are crashing on the north shore.
Two coves down in Round Bay lies Sloop Jones' studio and gardens where I dropped off Terry McKoy's computer. McKoy's story in a nutshell: One cold and dreary day in Boston he asked Barbara, his new girlfriend, what she thought about moving to the Caribbean to paint clothes for a living.
"What have you got to lose?" she said. "You're already broke!" So he quit his job as a car salesman and they moved into a shack at the end of the road in East End. He took up the name Sloop Jones and set about changing St. John's style, one garment at a time.
Bursts of color as bright and brazen as a hyacinth macaw set McKoy's work apart. It took me awhile to get up the nerve to wear it, but tourists and locals snap it up. In fact, it's become somewhat of a cult. Living by the sea, McKoy immersed his work in its hues.
An old man in North Florida once saw me wearing a Sloop Jones shirt and a slow smile lit up his face. "What joy your shirt brings to the morning, sir – thank you!" He said it best.
So here I was in East End, where we had lived ten years – the best years of our lives – before building our house on Bordeaux Mountain. I had built my boat Breath here and moored it just a stone's throw from the shore where we inhabited an old rum shop. Dorothy had started her Pine Peace Preschool.
And we had raised our two boys here – or maybe East End raised them. Ours sons fit snugly into the age continuum of Vie's children and their cousins, and they all grew up together in this incredible playground with fruit trees to climb, reefs to snorkel, boats to row and sail, hills and forests to explore, fish to catch, and donkeys and bicycles to ride.
The adults were a varied lot, some retired, some who lived on East End part-time, some who had been born there, and others, like us, who gravitated there. Artists and boatbuilders mixed with captains of industry. For some years I took day-sail charters out of East End and frequently had as my crew Paul Knaplund, corporate Vice President of IBM in its heyday. The only time I ever saw him at a loss for words was when a guest tried to tip him with a C-note.
Standing on the gravel beach below Sloop Jones' studio, lost in memories, I noticed birds suddenly diving into the water near Pelican Rock. A closely packed cloud of silverside minnows brought the rest of the towering food chain crashing down upon them. Blue runners, Spanish mackerel, and tarpon, which had been cruising back and forth restively, suddenly struck, faster than the eye could see, into the shifting, quaking cloud of fry. The seabirds shrieked incessantly, the white terns dropping down and fluttering back up, the boobies diving sleep as bullets, mild mannered pelicans turning into swept-wing bombers as they plunged.
So why had I stayed? Did I miss the "art, plays, concerts. . . opportunities" that the charter guest had alluded to?
Not in this lifetime. No, I'll never get enough of St. John.