As an earnest liberal arts undergrad I studied “Race, Ethnicity, and Postcolonial Studies” as part of my degree. As a result, I thought of the Caribbean as a place with an enduring legacy of slavery, a proud history of anti-colonial struggle, and a place where identities, cultures, and ethnicities overlap and intermix to create “hybrid” identities (a favorite term in the 90’s, I hear its less in favor in the academy now). I saw the Caribbean as a multitude of nations of which people are immensely proud, immensely tied to the island they come from, and immensely skeptical, especially as demonstrated by the huge, and famous, West Indian Labor Day parade that takes place here in Brooklyn. All that to say that I really never saw the Caribbean as a place to go on vacation. However, last winter I had had it with the cold, snow and slush and decided that there had to be a better way than suffering through it all. So when the opportunity came this winter to go somewhere sunny for a 5-day getaway I thought, “Hmmm…”
SMH had some friends who lived on St. Thomas for several years who recommended a place on a beach on some island near there with an honor bar. That sounded promising. When we inquired further they told us about Ivan’s Stress Free Bar, which is part of Ivan’s Stress Free Resort on White Bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke, part of the British Virgin Islands. Jost Van Dyke is named for a Dutch pirate, and White Bay has been voted one of the top 10 beaches in the Caribbean by some travel magazine or another, and I believe it. Even better, cabins (really a sturdy plywood shack with pastel colors with a bed, mini fridge and window screens and perhaps a porch) were $75 a night in the high season, a price you would find hard to beat anywhere in the Caribbean. So I booked us a cabin at Ivan’s, figured out how to get to Jost Van Dyke, and decided to not plan any further.
Before I wax poetic about how much I loved it let me tell you: This is not the place to come if you want to go clubbing, indulge in luxury duty-free shopping, swim with dolphins, get a spa treatment or do yoga on the beach. This is not the place to come if you are upset by occasionally sharing space with (small) ants, or mind getting sand everywhere, or insist on a hot shower. However, if you are looking for a slice of paradise right here on earth with soft white sand, crystaline blue water, palm trees and a bar where you can order the perfect tropical cocktail with coconut, orange juice, pineapple juice, run and fresh nutmeg called the “Painkiller” from some of the nicest people you will meet, and not have to rub elbows with loads of offensive tourists, this place if for you.
After we called to make our reservation at Ivan’s (I highly recommend calling) we found out that it had been featured in an article by the (former) Frugal Traveler in the New York Times in 2006. Little has changed since then, although now Ivan’s usually employs a bartender (most evenings its Dorian, who is also a cricket player for the BVI’s team -amazing) instead of being fully a mix-it-yourself kind of place.
Despite our avoiding planning too heavily we found plenty to do, and struck a perfect balance between sitting on the beach and reading and exploring the island. This island is small. You can walk over the steep hills in to town, which had a sand main street, and go to Foxy’s, which might be the most famous bar in the British Virgin Islands. Jost Van Dyke is quiet island which is about 4 miles long and inhabited by more goats than people, which we encountered when we took a grueling, then revelatory, hike along the spine of the island. The hike, rumored to be among the best in the Caribbean, revealed glittering views of the the ocean and Tortola and St. John.
We ended our hike in the bubbly pool, which is like a natural hot tub refilled by crashing ocean waves and then a meal at Foxy’s Taboo, a bar and restaurant owned by Foxy (and named for his big black dog Taboo) on the far side of the island. We later met Foxy briefly on the main dock in town scaling freshly caught fish on his fishing boat and when we told him we lived in Brooklyn he smiled and said, “I gotta get up there to Play Mas sometime.”
We also took a day long snorkeling trip with BVI Eco Tours, where an amazingly nice group of Aussie and Californian surfer dudes served as our guides and captain. It was an incredible 6 hour long adventure for a very cheap price and included a stop for lunch at Pirate’s Bight on the otherwise uninhabited Norman island. On Norman island we also go to snorkel into caves that reportedly inspired Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. At the end of the day they mixed us up some rum punch on board our boat, which was the perfect way to end the day after swimming in the beautiful water. We also rented snorkel gear for 4 days from the same place, which was great.
Food is not cheap on the islands so we tried to minimize how much we ate out by cooking out own. We brought a bunch of dried, canned food, but what we quickly learned in the campground communal cookstove lacked the oomph we take for granted from our stove at home. In the future we will bring plenty of heat and serve food. However, on the night we arrived it was Ivan’s Thursday night barbeque. We splurged and at $25 each got heaping servings of rice, pasta, salad, barbeque ribs, fish, and chicken. That is a lot of money for food in the states, but keep in mind that everything has to boated in to the island.
As different of a setting as it is, Jost Van Dyke reminded me of the islands off the coast of Maine like North Haven and Monhegan where I used to go for a few days in the summer to visit friends. As a necessity you have to live lightly on the land there and you can’t take any resource for granted. The towns are small and after a few days everyone waves at you as you walk around. It was the same on Jost. Our waiter from Foxy’s Taboo, who also turned out to be the custom’s officer, remembered us while we were waiting at the ferry dock. On Jost, like the island in Maine, while it’s clear who’s an outsider and who’s a local no one is made to feel unwelcome if you are respectful of the place and the culture and don’t act like an invading horde.
Getting to Jost Van Dyke is simple, but not always quick. We flew into St. Thomas (in the USVI), took a ferry to West End in Tortola, where we cleared Her Majesty’s Customs and Immigration, and then took another ferry to Jost. All worked smoothly, but going back to St. Thomas a ferry that was supposed to take us to there via St. John was an hour late, which caused a bunch of fretting and nail biting on my part because I was worried we would miss our flight. We didn’t, but next time will take a cue from another couple who were headed home. They booked a night in a Best Western on St. Thomas near the airport (and right on the beach) so they had a day cushion and didn’t need to worry about how late the ferry was.
Writing this in Brooklyn it’s hard to imagine that perfect beach, balmy breeze, soft sand, azure water, and the sound of waves crashing on the beach as we slept in a pastel colored cabin were real, but it’s right down there, just a flight and two boat rides away, paradise attained, even for a skeptic like me.