St. Thomas: American Bella Vista

December 5, 2006

I’d barely settled into my hillside B&B, The Bellavista, when 30 minutes later I’m reviewing with the proprietor, Wendy, my wish list while on St. Thomas: kayak in the mangroves, dive the WIT Shoal II and hike The Nature Conservancy trail to the sweeping beach at Magens Bay on the north coast of the island. Wendy’s face lights up in recognition. “I hike it at least twice a week,” she says and then tells me that the trailhead, located nearly dead center on this 13-mile-long by three-mile-wide island, is only a five-minute drive from her place.

“Would you like to join me tomorrow?” she asks.

Call it what you will – travel karma, good instincts, luck. I don’t mean to brag, but when it comes to St. Thomas, I possess it in spades. It’s because of locals like Wendy and the secrets they shared with me when I first came four years ago that I’ve returned to St. Thomas. My only disappointment during that first visit was that I ran out of time. Now, I’m armed with a list of St. Thomas’ hidden corners.


It’s a thigh-aching half-hour downhill trek along a well-tended trail. We walk through a cool green forest – a respite from the tropical heat – where the flora is labeled with both the Latin and local name. The birch-like “tourist tree” is so named because its red bark peels off the trunk. The “monkey no climb” is covered in sharp clove-shaped darts – clearly a deterrent not limited to monkeys. Hermit crabs scurry beneath the narrow boardwalk built over the final stretch of marsh that opens out to the busy picnic areas that line Magens Bay. There, we remove our shoes and stroll the beach.

We talk about taking risks and pursuing dreams. Wendy’s led her here from Pittsburgh in the ’90s with the dream of owning a B&B on the island with which she’d earlier fallen in love. She opened Bellavista – named for its panoramic view over the historic port city of Charlotte Amalie and the saturated Caribbean-blue beyond – in 2001, and though it sounds like every day she faces challenges, she hasn’t lost sight of the fact that it’s 3 p.m. and she’s standing knee-deep in the crystalline sea. My appetite for permanent escape has been ignited.

My cravings only intensify the next day on quiet Water Island, a ten-minute boat ride from Crown Bay Marina, just west of Charlotte Amalie. It’s early and it’s hot but I’ve been looking forward to joining a Water Island Adventures mountain biking tour since I met one of the owners, Agnes Rampino, during my last trip to St. Thomas. We’ve stayed in touch, and now I’m finally going to cycle around the largely undeveloped and quirky Water Island – population 160 – now considered the fourth U.S. Virgin, after St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. Its claim to fame, though, is as the inspiration for Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, a novel about a New York publicity agent’s trials while opening a hotel in the Caribbean.


This morning I join Agnes’ business partner Susan Miller and her husband Butch along with a handful of visitors. We start at the highest point on the island, riding through the underground bunkers that were once part of the defense base protecting the nearby sub station; then we ride like fiends downhill. It’s been close to 15 years since I navigated steep hills on off-road trails. I find myself riding again with conviction. It is pure exhilaration. Why did I ever stop riding? I try to remember.

The tour ends with a joyride down the paved road to Honeymoon Beach – possibly one of the prettiest beaches in the U.S. Virgins – where we finish off with a swim. I nearly fall asleep while floating.

Back on the beach, I ask Susan if much has changed around here, recalling that the last time I was here you couldn’t even buy a candy bar on the island. Now, she tells me, Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill, a mobile kitchen, serves a candle-lit gourmet dinner here on Saturday nights. That’s tonight. I immediately make plans to go.


Susan, Agnes and I arrive at the beach at dusk. There, we grab a thatch-covered wooden picnic table and I order a fillet of sole stuffed with shrimp and spinach in a champagne sauce served with roasted asparagus and rice. Agnes uncorks a bottle of chardonnay she’s brought from home.

We fill our wine glasses and chat like old friends. “We found our way here after the volcano blew on Montserrat in 1995,” Susan tells me as she sips her wine. After a planned move to St. Lucia fell through, Susan and Butch, along with their mountain-bike business, found their way to Water Island.

After dinner, we drive to Agnes’ house for a quick tour. I pause on the back porch, from where I can see the open sea and the lights of St. Thomas twinkling. Then we race to Philip’s Landing so I can catch the ferry. There, I peruse the open-air honor-system library/mailboxes/bulletin board area. A community. I imagine my family’s name on a mailbox. Could we do this? I wonder, as I return to St. Thomas on the last ferry at 9:15 p.m.


A few days later, I’m balanced on a sea kayak, stroking hard against the wind to reach the protected channels and inlets of the wildlife sanctuary and mangrove preserve off St. Thomas’ east end where my Rasta guide, Troy, of Virgin Islands Ecotours, is leading us. I’m exploring yet another of the island’s hidden corners, and it is proving worth the four-year wait. We pull off in a shallow inlet where Troy forces me to listen with my eyes. Yes, below us, the sea floor is pulsing.

Jellyfish, Troy explains. The jellies are upside down, exposing their symbiotic algae to the sun for nourishment, which the jellies will in turn absorb. I’m fascinated.

We paddle on. The sun warms my shoulders and the occasional splash from a sloppy stroke cools me off. I think of those jellies and algae using each other for nourishment and can’t help but feel that St. Thomas has nourished me. What kind of life could we – my husband and I – have here? Might there be a symbiotic relationship between us and St. Thomas?

Surely my husband could easily work as a photographer, and I could write my book while learning to be a new mother. I imagine us picnicking with the other families at the beach on Sundays, luxuriating in hour-long dives on the shallow marine-life-rich reef at Flat Key and listening to reggae bands at Coral World on Sunday nights where we’d cheer on a hermit crab at the bet-free races.

I admit this is a habit of mine, always trying on new places as though they were clothes. But St. Thomas feels like the real deal. And in the time since I’ve been home, its magic hasn’t yet worn off.


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