Selena Sol in St. Croix

We got the usual unusual amount of sleep that night (anticipation or a fear of missing the flight, I never know). Little need for an alarm clock, Soy woke up every hour and I woke up at 4:30 AM. At 5:10, I showered, at 5:15 I was packed, and by 5:20 we were waiting for the electronic garage door to slide open.

Pre-dawn Northern Virginia slipped quietly behind us as we made our way towards Dulles, a smattering of seriously deranged commuters speeding their way into DC. I don't remember much of the flight really. Soy and I slept all the way to San Juan, woken by the pilot's tour guide debut, "On the left side of the aircraft you can see San Juan."

It was a grand view of course. From above the Caribbean is very beautiful. Islands floated underneath us one by one, blue shallow-water halos surrounding them and darker reef systems beyond that reaching into the deeper blue waters.

Before I knew it, we were landing at the airport in St. Croix and walking down the portable stairway into the oppressive island sun moderated by a constant moist breeze. Each of us had only carry on baggage so we made our way over to the "Traveler's Tours" stand to catch the shuttle to the hotel, "Chenay Bay Beach Resort".

Offered a complimentary rum and coke, Soy and I opted for straight, unadulterated fruit punch, the slushes we are and hung out by the shuttle bus till the other tourists straggled over. We shared the shuttle with two gay guys from Atlanta who were as excited as us as we made our way out of the bland industrialized airport district into the island interior on our way to Christiansted, the island's capital and location of their hotel.

The interior ecosystem seemed much like that of Santorini, low trees and bushes, and intently covering grasses. However, the scenery was dotted with the occasional palm tree and the one brilliant dash of red-orange that the cab driver noted was called the "Flamboyant Flower" (probably not the taxonomic name of course).

Most houses were low and wide and separated by a great deal of distance. I wondered what the best architecture was for hurricanes and thanked my karma for the bright blue above.

After thirty minutes (2:30 PM) we reached our hotel, settled all of the bureaucracy and zipped over to the beach down the small cobblestone path leading from out cottage.

The cottage was very comfortable and all I had hoped for. A single room with separate bathroom and kitchenette, basically an economy apartment. The air conditioner was powerful and cooking supplies were provided.

Snorkeling right off the beach was pretty pitiful. The water was extremely clear but the scenery was mainly sand and sea grass. (In retrospect, if you can spend a little bit more, I recommend the Cormorant Beach resort which has a fabulous live reef surrounding it) After about five minutes, I got out and went to the boat house to ask the workers what they suggested.

They thought that we should take a two-man kayak to the island off in the horizon. It looked to be about 2 miles off shore but they said that there would be enough time before dusk. (We just boarded the glass bottom boat for Buck island, so excuse my sloppy typing).

So we grabbed our stuff, hoped on the kayak and began rowing. (Fortunately, I tied everything to the boat).

Once we got out of the sheltered bay, the waves began to play a factor and we began to fight a little against the current and the pelting flows. About 200 yards off the island, we realized that the boat was becoming very unruly and hard to row (we attributed it wrongly to the current). About 100 yards off the island, we began taking on water "visibly" (we'd apparently been filling the interior of the boat the whole time through a hole in the bottom of the boat.

Soon after, the boat flipped, dumping us into the bright blue, crystal clear, 80 degree, but deep and all-surrounding water. After several attempts to get back on the boat (every time we flipped it over, it still seemed to sink) we gave up and began making our way to the island. Fearing the $500.00 loss of equipment fee, I dragged the boat behind me. Fortunately, Soy had a life vest and she had taken flippers which I wore to make dragging the boat easier.

About forty minutes later, haggard and weary, we beached the kayak as best we could and rested.

For the next twenty minutes, I tried to get the kayak on the beach but for some reason it was sooooooo heavy. I still had not realized that the interior was full of sea water so I strained and strained with the monster, falling on my butt several times and cutting my arm on a rock.

Finally, we flagged down a very nice older woman named Ulma who was out rowing. She came over and quickly analyzed the situation. She found the hole and we all tipped the kayak on its side while the water poured out. It poured, and poured and poured. maybe five minutes. Once it seemed empty, she told us to try to make it back, but this time Soy would cover the hole with her foot. Like that we paddled back.

When we got back, we found out that they actually knew about the hole, but forgot to tell us. I was too happy to be on the island to be pissed off and in the end we made it back with an excellent we just told them that they should take the boat off the beach and went back to the cottage.

We were pretty hungry by then so we walked over to a little dive called "Cheeseburgers in Paradise" where I had...a cheeseburger and we listened to cheesy lounge reggae. We met a lonely engineer who had been working at the Hess oil refinery for the last year. He told us about his exploits as an engineer which were very interesting. And when we were done, we called a cab and dropped by the local supermarket to pick up supplies. Then home and sleep. It had been an exhausting day.

Saturday started early. At 8:30 we'd arranged for a cab to pick us up and take us to Christiansted to meet the boat which went to Buck Island, an underwater natural preserve with snorkeling trails through a complex of branch-like coral.

The ride was about thirty minutes and the visibility was about one hundred feet so the sandy bottom was just visible far below. I looked for dolphins playing in our wake but never did see any. I guess that would be just too much.

After the short ride, we slowed and made our way through the buoy marked boat path through the reef surrounding Buck Island and settled into a cove. We'd already been given the snorkeling gear so we all jumped in. Three different groups went through the trail for about ten minutes and then we were left to ourselves for an hour and a half. Soy and I headed deeper into the reef on our own which was swarming with a fluorescent rainbow. Diving down, I swam in the middle of a huge (30 X 10 feet) school of blue angel fish. Surprisingly, they did not disperse, but swam with me so long as I didn't reach for them.

Trumpet fish schooled near the surface much shorter than those I saw in Hawaii, but a pleasant nostalgia nonetheless. Both red and purple California-style sea urchins dotted the walls on the outside of the reef which we decided not to explore further since it was not on the trail and a blue painted cinder block on the bottom pointed back the way we came.

After the time was up, and when we could see the crew waving at us, we swam back along the inside of the reef viewing the sandy bottom sea life. Someone said that they saw a ray, but we didn't :(

Then a quick jaunt over to the other side of the island where we dropped anchor off a salt-fine beach. We got another forty minutes to hike into the interior of the island or along the beach. Soy and I opted to stay on the beach and walk along the shore taking pictures and swimming (I'd carried the camera in one hand above the water from boat to shore).

I'd been conservative with the sunscreen earlier, so I also brought a T-Shirt (my computer room faded skin was feeling the effects of the previous day). After thirty minutes, we hiked back, swam to the boat and prepared to go. As it turned out, there were stragglers, but that was okay because it gave me time to dive off the boat for awhile and swim more. Finally though, it was time to return.

By the time we returned to Christiansted, we were both very hungry. I'd quizzed various locals about places they liked to eat earlier and the most common answer was "Harvey's" where they served Caribbean food. The decor was bar-like and reminded me of the restaurants in Morocco. It was obviously off the tourist-beaten path and was filled with a lot of locals lounging and hanging out.

Soy ordered Boiled King Fish with a side of Fungi, a strange local side order. I had extra spicy BBQ chicken. The spices on St. Croix are decent if you ask for a bottle of extra hot sauce. Enough to satiate my deadened nerves of course. The food was great though and we were both full enough to take large doggy bags.

After that we returned to the resort, took a rest and then grabbed a kayak to go around the point of Chenay Bay where there was supposed to be better snorkeling but was not as far as the island. Soy kept the hole in the boat covered and we paddled around the point quickly staying close to shore for a rock landing.

The snorkeling was okay, the coral was beautiful, but there were less fishes. Actually, the most exciting part of the expedition was landing the kayak on the rocky beach between jutting coral barriers without killing ourselves. Considering the waves, it was lucky we were as successful as we were. When we left, I had Soy walk by foot back to the protected bay and I did the exit on my own.

After that, it was time for dinner. The resort held an island roast out buffet with a wide assortment of island dishes from spit roasted boar , to seasoned rice with BBQ chicken, to various seafood dishes and some funky deserts. We had more virgin pina coladas (Soy) and strawberry Daiquiri (me) and relaxed to an excellent steel drum band.

The next day was another early start. I'd made reservations with "VI Divers" for a half day series of dives. Unfortunately, in filling out the paper work they asked to see my diving certification card which was in Virginia still. They absolutely refused to let me dive without the card.

Saddened and frustrated, I made my way back to the center of town to catch a cab back to Chenay Bay. Along the way though, I passed "Dive Experience" and there seemed to be a lot of activity. On the off chance that I might get lucky and that this store had different policies, I went in and told the receptionist my situation. Fortunately, their policy was less stringent and so long as I agreed to sign my life away, I could go with them for the day.

I signed away, grabbed some gear and took off for the waiting boat. It was an eight person expedition with three absolutely exceptional guides. With my memory, I decided not to put al the gear together myself and asked the main guide if he would do it for me. He complimented me on my lack of machismo in a diving situation.

The ride was bumpy but fun. I accidentally got in a conversation about the Internet with two brothers who live in D.C. But soon we were at the first dive site, greeted by a small sea turtle poking its head out of the water and looking at us quizzically.

The first dive was a cliff dive. We descended 100 feet and swam south easterly along one side of an undersea valley. Below us and in the open water, rays slipped by into the gloom. Visibility was mediocre for the area, maybe forty or fifty feet but it was clear enough for me to see the fishes and coral formations on the side of the wall. Unfortunately, my camera would not work. I found out later that it is only good up to twelve feet. After that the pressure seals the shutter shut.

It was great to be diving again and the lack of a wet suit was a nice experience.

The second dive was shallower. We explored a coral reef with sand fingers which shot through the reef. Though the density of life was not as stunning as Hanauma in Oahu or Buck Island, it was extravagant nonetheless.

While skimming the bottom, looking closely through the coral and going in and out of small caves, I brushed a strand of fire coral which still stings a day later. I rubbed sand on the spot and went on. I never saw a sea turtle while in the water, but oh well.

When I got back to port, I met Soy and our favorite cab driver "Cuthbert Lett" to go on a half day island tour. Lett was fantastic. He was a wealth of knowledge about the island's history and wildlife as well as those of the other Caribbean islands.

The highlight of the tour was a hike through the rain forest on the west en d of the island. Lett stayed in the van and Soy and I hacked our way through the dense thicket swarming with brightly colored insects, lizards and a chorus of birds above in the canopy. Lacking a machete, we just climbed through where possible.

Soy bought some mangoes from the roadside

I finished off the day by rowing out to the island at Chenay Bay on a single person kayak where I climbed up the rock wall on one side to check out the roosting pelicans. I could not get too close because they made such a racket that I thought they might attack me. I came back after some more wandering and met Soy who had been relaxing at the pool side watching the sun go down.

The next day, Lett drove us over to the Cormorant Resort which was supposed to have better snorkeling than Chenay Bay (which was actually a let down). In fact, the snorkeling was fantastic. There was about 25 feet visibility and a huge live reef teaming with all the fish I'd hoped to find as well as snow eels, squids, trumpet fish, etc.... The reef began outside of a semicircle of fine white sand which protected the beach for swimming and then extended further than I could swim out to sea, the depth gradually slopping away and communities of fishes changin at different depths. In fact, if I'd gone out a few miles, I would eventually reach the dive spot from the day before.

Soy and I swam out pretty far though, maybe to a depth of twenty-five feet (though the reef jutted upwards in many places so that it was not like swimming in open water far above the action). We took along a baggy of bread but unlike Hanauma Bay, the fish were not used to being fed so they were shy and waited out of our reach for the bread to float down.

Like an idiot, I forgot to cover the backs of my legs with suntan lotion so I got quite a burn, but not too much to be disabling. After snorkeling for four hours, we grabbed a cab back to our cottage at Chenay Bay and let the hanging fan above us lull us to sleep. A couple of hours later we woke up, took showers and grabbed a cab back into town to wander the shops.

Downtown Christiansted is not huge but there are some nice shops which sell item goods at reasonable prices. Soy picked up a clay diorama for her friend in Thailand and I spent ten minutes delicately packing it in tissue paper to protect in from the coming shipping.

Then we went to Gallows Bay to a restaurant called "No Bones Cafe" which Soy had picked from our tour book. It was a very cool Netty's-like establishment with a few rooms like a maze and a dozen parrots and island birds around, Charlie Parker painting the air and a very unique menu of exotic seafood dishes. I had a cheeseburger of course and Soy got Shrimp and Scallop Scampi over linguini. Actually the burger was one of the best I've ever eaten and came with grandma-style fried potatoes. The waiter and cook were nice too.

Soy and I talked the night away and later had Lett pick us up for the last cab ride. At home we watched TV until we fell asleep. Next morning we woke up pretty late and hung out at the beach while we waited for the shuttle to the airport. The cab driver was pretty late and was a poor driver. I recommend not using Traveler's Tours if possible.

And then, back home.

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