As regular visitors to the US Virgin Island of St. John, we had our share of favorite places. Then two hurricanes and a global pandemic kept us away for five years. Would things be as we remembered?
We pulled our rental Jeep into the dirt parking lot at Skinny Legs, an infamous Virgin Islands diner, for a burger and beer. Even before the hurricanes blew through, the place looked haggard, however, the promise of a cheeseburger-in-paradise usually meant the parking lot next to the brightly painted shacks that made up the place was full. We thought we got lucky. Some people lingering near a truck and trailer said otherwise.
“They’re not open,” a woman called out. “They’re closed on Sundays.” Our hunger tinged with disappointment; it was a lesson learned as we got reacquainted with St. John.
St. John was one of several Caribbean islands severely damaged when Hurricanes Irma and Maria crashed through in September 2017. The Westin St. John Resort, which we’ve been visiting for over a decade, was so badly damaged that it took two years to rebuild. When the resort – and most of the island – reopened in Christmas 2019, a deadly virus paused what should have been a joyful reunion. How did the island change?
Old Friends, New Purpose
After receiving the news about Skinny Legs, I noticed a logo on the group’s trailer – St. John Wildlife Rehabilitation – and asked the woman about it. A smile crossed her face as she said her name was Pam and along with her friend Phyllis and their husbands, they ran the island’s only wildlife rehabilitation organization. She said they had spent the morning corralling, tagging, and giving deworming medication to some of the island’s wild donkeys.
We loved seeing the wild donkeys around the island and were relieved they survived the storms. For years a landscaper at Caneel Bay Resort cared for them, but Pam said that resort didn’t rebuild, so he didn’t return. Both Pam and Phyllis had worked in wildlife rehabilitation separately for decades – Pam with small mammals and Phyllis with birds. When a friend expressed concerns about the donkeys, they combined their resources. Despite their experience, however, neither knew anything about equines, so they contacted a donkey rescue in Texas for help.
“This was our first time doing [deworming and tagging] on our own,” Pam said beaming.
Big Turtle, Bigger View
One morning we drove to the island’s less-visited East End to Hansen’s Bay Beach. Thalia, whose family has owned the beach since the 1700s, greeted us as we pulled into the parking area.
“It’s a $10 per person suggested donation,” she said while pointing to where we should park. I asked if she had paddleboard rentals. “Yes,” she replied. “Twenty dollars a day for a kayak and $15 a day for a paddle board.” Only $15 a DAY, I thought. Most places would charge $15 for 30 minutes.
After putting money in a big blue donation box, I hauled a bright green paddle board into the calm, clear water. Some kids swimming nearby started giggling and calling to their families on shore.
“There’s a turtle!”
I circled around the kids hoping to catch a glimpse. From previous visits, I knew St. John’s bays were filled with little green and brown loggerhead turtles and would often see a half dozen or so snacking on sea grass along the bottom. However, this turtle was a leatherback and it was massive with two large neon green eels hitched to its back. It surfaced between me and the kids taking two audible breaths before diving under. The kids (and me in my head) squealed in delight.
After a few hours of rotating between swimming, paddling, and relaxing in the provided lounge chairs, we packed up and returned the board to Thalia. We admired her outdoor “office,” which consisted of a set of cushion-covered lounge chairs under a canopy that she shared with her cousin and rescue dog Dee-o-gee. The hurricanes still haunted her.
“The hurricanes spawned tornadoes and took everything out. Debris blocking the road,” she said somberly. “It took three days before people with chainsaws came through.”
Driving back, we spotted a sign on Centerline Road advertising a new place called The Windmill Bar. Curious, we turned into a long driveway, passing the ruins of Susannaberg Plantation, one of St. John’s historic sugar mills. Perched on the hilltop known as Neptune’s Lookout, was a small pub connected to an expansive deck with spectacular views overlooking Hawksnest Bay, Lovango Cay, and the Windward Passage. The afternoon slowed to a crawl as we watched white boats maneuver on the deep blue water while we sipped cans of locally made Island Summer ale in between bites of mahi-mahi sandwiches. We’ll be adding this to our list of favorites.
All grown up
We hadn’t hiked Reef Bay Trail since our first visit in 2005. One of the island’s longer trails, it traverses a large swath of Virgin Islands National Park beginning near the top of Bordeaux Mountain and running over two miles downhill to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill ruins and beach. Unlike our first hike, which was drenched in rain, the day’s sunshine made this trip significantly hotter. Fortunately, the beautiful bay at the bottom provided cooling relief before the long slog back uphill. Near the trail’s halfway point we revisited a short spur leading to ancient petroglyphs. Carved by the Taino, the Caribbean’s indigenous people, they are believed to be between 700-1000 years old, hugging the edge of a small rainfall-fed pool. Unfortunately, the lack of rain dried up the pool’s tropical waterfall.
After the hike, we returned to Coral Bay for our long-awaited lunch at Skinny Legs. Sinking our teeth into juicy cheeseburgers, we reminisced about previous lunches. Our first was after a horseback ride up the Johnny Horn Trail on the hill that rises above the town. In 2010 we inhaled our burgers after running the 8 Tuff Miles race from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay. As we reminisced, I watched the cook as she flipped burgers on the griddle near the bar and it reminded me of another visit. The grade school next door had let out and several kids came in. The cook served them sodas. One young boy hopped up on a bar stool and while his friends went outside to play, he laid his head on the bar and fell asleep. Our server said it was the cook’s son and he looked so sweet that I took a photo. Realizing it was the same woman, I waved the cook over. Startled, she approached cautiously and I can’t imagine what she thought when I said I had a photo of her son from ten years ago.
“My son?” she asked. “Which one?” I said I didn’t know which one. Laughing she said my story was interesting because her boys were now 17 and 19. I promised to email her the photo when we returned home.
Another favorite watering hole is St. John Brewers in the island’s main port of Cruz Bay. We’ve been drinking their craft beers since they opened the Tap Room in 2006. After following their storm recovery online, I was thrilled to finally sip a Liquid Sunshine Belgian-style ale in person at their Mongoose Junction location while chatting with owner Kevin Chipman. Although the hurricanes were devastating, Kevin and his business partner Chirag Vyas used the recovery to make needed upgrades. Notably, moving their brewing equipment from a shipping container in the parking lot up to the building’s third floor. Kevin took us up a spiral staircase to show us how they did it.
“We cut a hole here,” he said pointing to a stone wall with a dark square seam. Then a forklift hoisted each piece of equipment to the opening. He said a new boil tank sustained some scratches, but they now have more capacity to brew more beer. While the hurricanes turned into an opportunity, COVID proved detrimental because their business depended on tourists like us. But like everyone we talked to on St. John, they made it work. He said it was about getting creative and helping your neighbors. He mentioned that after the hurricanes, they gave away beer on Friday nights to residents and first responders.
“There was no sense in letting it go to waste when we could be drinking it,” he laughed. While he didn’t miss destruction, he missed those gatherings, especially when COVID hit.
Sure, some things on St. John had changed. But hanging out with people over a few drinks, it was like we never left.
When temperatures drop on the mainland, things heat up on St. John. Getting back to normal means these events will be in full swing this winter.
Ugly Sweater Party at the Tap Room
The St. John All-island Holiday Party at Mongoose Junction
Old Year’s Eve at The Beach Bar
St. John Animal Care Center annual gala
Friends of Virgin Islands National Park annual gala
8 Tuff Miles Road race (this event is FREE)
Virgin Island Jam Fest, a three-day music festival at The Windmill Bar