Sunset off St JohnBy Mark Stevens

I was first seduced by the United States Virgin Islands during a ferry ride from St. Thomas to Tortola to begin one of our earliest British Virgin Islands charters nearly twenty years ago.

A perfect sunset off St. John with St. Thomas views for backdrop.

Clearing Pillsbury Sound, surrounded by voluptuous emerald mountains as the ferry sliced through royal blue waters, I was struck by the unspoiled ambiance of St. John, the island gliding past our starboard beam and the irresistible charm of a village called Cruz Bay visible from our quarter stern.

As we powered east along St. John’s north coast, we passed bays lounging in the lee of steep slopes clothed in dense foliage, decorated by occasional lonely villas sporting rainbow roofs, clinging nervously to those selfsame slopes.  We passed alabaster swathes of sand – one beach, Trunk Bay, rated among the Caribbean’s top ten, another beach hard by the ruins of a seventeenth-century plantation.

Then I saw Francis Bay.

francis bay 400Gazing out at this postcard-worthy horseshoe bay I made myself a promise.

Francis Bay is an overnight must-do.

One day I would overnight right there in Francis Bay.

One day I’d revisit the United States Virgin Islands, comprised of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, along with numerous smaller islands and cays just west of Tortola.

Despite my continued affection for the British Virgin Islands, one day I would sail the other Virgin Islands. 

 

FAST FORWARD

Fast forward nearly two decades. We’re here.

Last night, treated to a cloud-decorated sunset of lavender and bubble-gum pink, at long last we were overnighting at Francis Bay.

Along with my wife, my nephew Scott, Jay and his wife Elaine (experienced sailors from our home yacht club), and long-time friends, Jim and Leanne, I awoke this morning at the very spot of my dreams.

We’re bareboating “Galadriel”, a Bali 4.1 catamaran from Dream Yacht Charters out of St. Thomas.

Francis Bay shares a much bigger bay with Maho and Cinnamon. Maho is popular with tourists while history abounds at Cinnamon – go ashore and stroll a trail that skirts the ruins of a 17th-century sugar plantation.

pop up food festival 400Upon arrival at Francis yesterday afternoon (the second day of a weeklong United States Virgin Islands (USVI) charter), we’re instantly greeted by a big sea turtle who pops its head from the water a boat-length away. Ashore green mountains almost unpopulated by any sign of human habitation ascend several hundred feet, sun and clouds painting them ever-changing shades of green. Massive rock formations ashore reach skyward.

Some local flavour at Cruz Bay - a pop-up food festival

This morning the winds beckon but we are in no hurry. This is paradise.

For many years there was only one bareboat charterer out of the USVI and he never seemed to have a boat free when we were free.

Fast forward to the present: Dream Yacht Charter opened their St. Thomas base in January 2020. Moorings started up there early in 2021.

Nearly twenty years after that first sight of Francis I’m fulfilling my promise.

 

APPLES AND ORANGES

Late in the morning we finally clear out of Francis, rounding Whistling Cay. Now we see the humpbacked heights of Tortola, the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) most populous island.

Jay and Elaine have sailed the BVIs and Sharon and I have chartered there several times.

maho bay 400That’s why, making way east into twenty knots of consistent winds out of the north, our discussion ensues. USVIs or BVIs?

“Apples and oranges,” I say.

Then I reconsider.

Comparing the allure of BVIs and USVIs is less a comparison of apples and oranges and more a comparison between the winner and runner-up in a beauty contest.

Both island chains are indescribably beautiful.

Beaches like this stretch of sand at Maho Bay just add to the appeal for cruising boaters.

Passages tend to be shorter on the American side given the smaller number of islands and the fact most itineraries for USVI limit themselves to St. John circumnavigations and a taste of St. Thomas for good measure. With anchorages scattered across close to forty islands, the BVIs offer more variety from that standpoint.

But St. John provides more unspoiled options than most anchorages we’ve done in the BVIs and St. Thomas offers much to the crew off the boat.

Having given the most space in our own float plan to St. John itself, I was struck by a comment made by noted boating writer John Kretschmer. According to Kretschmer, “Even devotees of the BVI admit that St. John is the most beautiful of all the Virgin Islands.”

BVIs or USVIs? Apples and oranges?

More like lobster and filet mignon.

Today I’m happy to be sailing the other Virgin Islands.

 

anchorage in coral bay 400PASSAGES TO PARADISE

The passage we make that day out of Francis Bay is one reason, though hardly the only one.

We pass protected coves and islands clad in every shade of green, slicing diamond-studded waters boasting five or six-foot waves.

The next waypoint will be Coral Bay, one of only two settlements on St. John. Rhumbline isn’t big, but tack after tack once clear of St. John itself, impacts velocity made good.

A secret anchorage near Coral Bay.

But no one seems to care. A couple of crew lounge on the foredeck. The guys jockey for turns at the helm.

I relinquish control, going forward.  “Powerboaters are happy because they’re going somewhere special,” I holler over the howling winds. “We’re already there!”

Now we pass great stone cliffs hundreds of metres high, lonely beaches devoid of civilization, battered by pounding white surf.

On our next to last day, we traverse St. John’s south coast, sometimes clocking ten knots as we surf the waves. We cut through Pillsbury Sound and make for Magens Bay through the leeward passage, Hans Lollick Island to starboard and elegant St. Thomas villas to port.

Achieving that bay, we glance shoreward toward the most beautiful beach on St. Thomas, one that National Geographic’s reputedly rated among the world’s best.

The best part about passages through paradise?

They end in idyllic anchorages just like this one.

 

IDYLLIC ANCHORAGES

But Magens was hardly the only worthy waypoint, nor was it the most idyllic anchorage we visited.

The unspoiled character of St. John itself is due to great expanses of almost unbroken vegetation with relatively few signs of civilization.

One spot seemingly free of humanity is Lameshur Bay on St. John’s south coast.

lobster at morgans mango 400“One of my favourites,” assistant base manager Brent Gildea told me during our Dream Yacht Charter chart briefing.

Mine too. Guarded by some of the tallest mountains in the Virgin Islands, hard by an unoccupied amber beach, fringed by surreal rock formations and boasting some excellent snorkelling), Lameshur now replaces Francis as my favourite USVI anchorage. Might be one of my favourites in the whole wide world.

Don't forget to dine ashore - maybe on scrumptious lobster at Morgans Mango in Cruz Bay.

Tough spot to leave, but the crew wants shore-time, so we make for Reef Bay early next morning.

Ashore we climb a steep trail that falls way to a pristine beach hard by the ruins of a sugar mill. I explore the path further as Sharon and Scott take in some history at the mill. Deep in a lush forest, a deer crosses the path ten metres in front of me. She stares at me. I stare at her.

Much of this irresistible solitude is due to a bit of history.

Thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller family, Virgin Islands National Park was created in 1956. It occupies fully 60% of the island (including much of the shoreline and surrounding waters).

Net result: a cornucopia of idyllic anchorages.

 

THE OTHER OTHER VIRGIN ISLANDS

After Magens, there’s just one more must-do on our float plan.

Pizza pi takeout 400Lunch will be at Christmas Cove, just off St. Thomas. Pizza like you’ve never had it before.

Sharon and I take everyone’s order and dinghy to a yellow-and-teal painted motor-sailor swinging at anchor.

Perfect lunch stopat Pizza Pi in Christmas Cove - take-out pizza with a twist.

We pull up to a service window in the boat’s transom and partake of a local tradition – we pick up lunch from PizzaPi, a floating pizzeria.

Savouring one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, dining al fresco in the cockpit, I wax philosophical as I review the week’s highlights.

I remember another must-do lunch spot at Coral Bay, where a lime-painted barge is surrounded by a swim-up bar and floating lounge chairs. Welcome to Lime-Out, a floating taco stand.

Gazing at nearby St. Thomas, I feel some regret that we didn’t explore that island more fully.

We missed Druif Bay; we never achieved Botany Bay and Sandy Bay, despite Gildea’s recommendation during the Dream Yacht Charter chart briefing.

We never made the passage to St. Croix.

But my regret fades in the afternoon sun, even as I make yet one more promise to myself.

We shall return.

And next time we’ll further explore the other, other Virgin Islands.

 

FLOAT PLAN

  • Dream Yacht Charters ( dreamyachtcharter.com/us-virgin-islands ) offers 19 catamarans and 9 monohulls out of their Compass Point Marina base on St. Thomas. Options include bareboat, skippered and skipper-plus-crew.
  • For the 2023 season, Moorings ( moorings.com/destinations/caribbean/st-thomas-yacht-charters ) will have 8 cats available for bareboat along with a mixture of sail and powercats with captain or crew and captain.
  • For all things USVI, check out visitusvi.com . Worth noting: at present there are no COVID entry rules, requirements or restrictions.

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