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The Other Virgin Islands Trunk Bay

By Mark Stevens 

Photographs by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

We’ve dropped the anchor in the northwest corner of Pillsbury Sound, hard by a channel bisecting two lush islands. Waters rush through the passage, lured by the beauty of St. John, an island that reclines in the afternoon sun like a Renaissance courtesan. 

Our skipper today, Captain Wilson, knows these islands like the back of his hand. He should – he’s boated here almost daily since 2008. “I will take you where you want to go,” he promises. “I will show you what you want to see.” 

I’ve cruised the British Virgin Islands numerous times but I’m just getting my feet wet here. Today’s the perfect introduction. 

I pummel Captain Wilson with questions. “Best anchorages? Must-do beaches? Navigational hazards to watch for?”

He’s a wellspring of information. I scribble notes furiously.

Our boat swings on its anchor line as we don our snorkel gear. The distant ridges of Tortola hover like mirages, painted campfire-smoke grey. 

But they aren’t waypoints on this float plan. 

We’re exploring the other Virgin Islands – the United States Virgin Islands.

Headline act is a tropical trio, though a multitude of islands and cays share these waters.  

St. Thomas is cruise ship landfall, the archipelago’s capital.

St. John is as different from St. Thomas as a sailor is from a landlubber. Two-thirds of the land is National Park; population is less than five thousand. 

St. Croix is laid-back and quiet – same population as St. Thomas but three times the landmass.

 

The Other Virgin Islands Magens BayAN ISLAND OF BEAUTY

In their book, Exploring the Virgin Islands, Joe Russell and Mark Bunzel describe St. John as “one of the most beautiful islands in all of the Caribbean.”

This may be an understatement.

Francis Bay, St. John. Early morning. The sun’s crested over Mary Point, spotlighting Whistling Cay, casting its rays on a blinding white beach. Waters further out are royal blue and shimmering. Here they are lime and turquoise. A tropical forest rises up behind your stern, a smattering of villas perched on the slopes like mountain goats. There is an unbroken expanse of vivid green behind Maho Point.

It is as beautiful as any BVI anchorage.

Now dive off the stern into crystal waters. Go ashore and take a hike. Take a lot of hikes: two-thirds of this island is protected national park. March through unbroken forests, turn a corner and discover a perfect beach or the ruins of a sugar plantation.

Lash the boat to a mooring ball at Leinster Bay, overnight near Coral Bay. “Do dinner ashore at ‘Skinny Legs’,” says Captain Wilson.

Snug down on the north side of Cruz Bay just outside the channel and visit one of my favourite Caribbean villages. It boasts a beach bar called Joe’s Rum Hut, pastel-painted shops with gingerbread trim, and a square replete with bandstand you share with roosters.  

Moor off Trunk Bay and snorkel along an underwater trail beside a beach that’s been rated among the world’s best.

Or slice through sapphire seas in fair winds. 

 

The Other Virgin Islands OndeckAN ISLAND OF BEAUTY (REPRISE)

Drop the hook off Great St. James Island in “Christmas Cove”.

Gaze through the lifelines at an undulating green promontory with rock formations that show like sculptures, cactus-studded hills. 

But it’s the underwater delights that earn Christmas Cove a place on the list of beauteous islands.

Sandy bottom. Perfect visibility. A sea turtle, mere metres from your snorkel mask, ascends gracefully from the sea floor. His snout breaks the surface; he floats suspended for a moment, then he dives. 

A cloud of sand is stirred up twenty feet below you: a stingray appears. Another ray rises up, flapping its wings like a bird in flight.

Now you cast off, headed for more islands of beauty. A spotted ray breaks the surface, glistening in the sun.

Beauty in motion.

Now you discover Lovango Island, snorkeling over prime specimens of star and brain and Elkhorn coral. 

You make for Hans Lollick Island, for an overnight anchorage and an early morning visit to Coconut Bay. “Amazing beach, hikes with great views,” says Captain Wilson pointing at it on the charts. “Best yet, it’s isolated.”

All well and good – unless you’re looking for nightlife. 

That’s where St. Thomas comes in.

 

The Other Virgin islands perfect watersA BEAM REACH FOR BUSTLE

Three years ago we visited the USVIs for the St. Thomas International Regatta, one of the Caribbean Circuit’s premier races.

One day we cut west out of St. Thomas Yacht Club in perfect easterlies. A few boats heeled behind us, more were dead ahead.

Our craft that day was a serious Farr 65, courtesy of OnDeck Sailing (available packages include race training, each race in the regatta and the option of either staying aboard or ashore).

I ground winches, back straining. I watched the scenery gliding by ever more quickly, but not quickly enough. We passed hotels reclining on the shore; we nosed through the lateral buoys marking Scorpion Rock and Rohde Bank, heading up and hardening the sheets.  

We were on a beam reach for bustle.

Three towering cruise ships lurked off our starboard beam, houses and buildings of Charlotte Amalie cast helter-skelter over green slopes dead ahead, past a mega-yacht marina and an explosion of shops, restaurants and bars housed in historic buildings. 

But we were not bound for shore. We were pointing at a race marker deep in the inner harbour. It was a race we were losing even as the crew tweaked sails. 

But that seems to matter less here than it does on Wednesday race nights back home. And St. Thomas Yacht Club, with its red tile roofs, is well stocked with Caribbean brews.

Besides, Charlotte Amalie (though invigorating) probably boasts too much bustle for the average boater.

Red Hook, in the east, is a great compromise. Still bustling, to be sure, but fewer people, if an impressive list of amenities; great restaurants, even greater bars, provisioning opportunities galore.  

And it’s located in Vessup Bay, a pretty if busy cove. Overnight at American Yacht Harbor and cast off first thing in the morning for some serious passage-making.

Discovering, at the end, another other Virgin Island.

 

The Other Virgin Islands Cruzan Rum DistilleryANOTHER OTHER VIRGIN ISLAND

St. Croix, the third member of this tropical triumvirate, is roughly thirty-five nautical miles from her siblings, almost always a beam reach. It’s either a fun romp or a lumpy ride in three-to-four -metre seas. 

You should only consider it on a ten-day or two-week charter.  “Allow a minimum of three days,” write Nancy and Simon Scott in their Cruising Guide to the Virgin Islands. “One to sail there, one day to sightsee and one to sail back.”

It’s that middle day that does it for me. 

Take a Cruzan Rum distillery tour, stroll Christiansted’s historical downtown with its fascinating eclectic array of architecture where Denmark meets the Caribbean by way of France, England and Holland; check out the mustard-coloured fort dominating a gorgeous harbour inside a nasty reef. Head west to a somnolent but equally historic village called Frederiksted, boasting its own fort – this one cherry-painted.

Visit the site where Columbus and Amerindians first clashed, climb towering hills through rainforests to discover views that will take your breath away. Stroll along beaches you can call your own.  

Watch a pig drink a beer.

Even if you choose not to make this passage you should still consider a visit to St. Croix.

If not now, then next time, when you choose to embark on yet another voyage.

Another voyage to the other Virgin Islands.

 

 

FLOAT PLAN

• For more information on visiting the other Virgin Islands go to www.visitusvi.com

• If you’re a cruiser of a different sort (or even more lubberly) but still want to hit the water, check out www.islandwilson.com for a fantastic day (or half-day)

• Go to www.cyoacharters.com for both skippered and bareboat charters originating in St. Thomas.

• Island Yachts – out of American Yacht Harbor –offers a fleet of Island Packets for skippered or bareboat options. www.iyc.vi 

• To book a berth for the St. Thomas International Regatta (March 27-29) go to www.ondecksailing.com 

 

Photos:

Photo 1 - One St. John ‘must-do’ is snorkeling at Trunk Bay, rated one of the world’s best beaches.

Photo 2 - Despite the bustle of St. Thomas, even there are lazy afternoons on beaches like this one at Magens Bay.

Photo 3 - On a beam reach for bustle. Racing on an OnDeck boat, headed for Charlotte Amalie.

Photo 4 - Perfect waters for sailing are found north of St. John.

Photo 5 - Every sailor who makes it to St. Croix has to visit the Cruzan Rum Distillery.