Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Night in the British Virgin Islands

ONE night in the BVI??? Yep, that's right, we spent only a single night in the beautiful British Virgins!  Once we left St. Thomas, we were on the move to travel to Sint Maarten for the annual Heineken Regatta beginning in early March 2014.  We had no time to spare. We were meeting our friends Rene and Stacy on Pipe muh Bligh and looking forward to meeting (and partying with!) new friends.  We were invited to crew on a sailboat during the race. Never having raced before, it was an opportunity to see what racing was all about and see the races up close.  And we had not seen Rene and Stacy since when we went in opposite directions in the Bahamas in May 2011.  We were ready for a reunion!

As we arrived in the BVI, there were sailboats of all sizes on the move everywhere! Here is a large sailing yacht motoring across the bay. Lovely!

And another big sailing yacht cruises by... it's size dwarfing the 40 ft charter boat heading (too) close by. 

The BVI is a popular place for bare boat sailboat chartering (no professional captain on board) and we were on the lookout for charter boat sailors (also known as "credit card captains").

Nothing against these sailors, but it is a known fact that many of them do not have a lot of experience anchoring and are likely to drag into you if there is a blow. Fortunately, most of the charter companies require them to take a mooring to minimize this possibility!

Photo credit: Alternate Latitude website

Hey guys, there's an easier way to do this! How about a charter with your own personal chef with our friends, Steve and Deb Schlosser on Alternate Latitude. Alternate Latitude, a Voyager 44 catamaran, offers 3 kinds of charters – Captain only, half-board or all-inclusive. Check out their website!

After a 6-hour sail from St. Thomas, we dropped the anchor on the east side of Prickly Pear Island near Eustacia Island at 3:30 p.m. 

Our anchorage was across from Necker Island, the famous home of Sir Richard Branson (of Virgin Records and Virgin Airways fame) and an ultra-luxurious private retreat for celebrities and CEO’s.  I’ll have to admit that I got the binoculars out to see if I could see some of the rich and famous prancing around on the sugar white beaches (naked, even!), but alas, there was nary a soul to be seen. There was a mega yacht anchored right off the shore and I saw some smaller boats running about, but not a rich or famous person in sight!

The story of how Richard Branson acquired the island is an interesting one.

Sir Richard Branson first became aware that some of the islands in the British Virgin Islands  were for sale in 1978. He was just twenty-eight years old. He promptly went to the British Virgin Islands for a holiday to investigate the prospective real estate. On first observing the islands, he envisioned using them to put up rock stars for his record label. Upon arrival to the BVI, he rented a luxury villa and travelled around islands for sale by helicopter. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The final island he saw was Necker Island, and after climbing the hill and being stunned by the view and wildlife, fell in love with the island. After making a lowball bid of $100,000 for the $6 million island (due to his relatively modest funds at that time in his career), he was turned down and evicted from the island. A while later, the owner, Lord Cobham, in need of short-term capital, eventually settled for $180,000 after Branson had offered his final price of $175,000 three months before the actual sale took place. However, the government imposed a relatively common restriction on foreign landholders: that the new owner had to develop a resort within five years or the island would revert to the state. Branson committed, determined to build a resort on his tropical dream island.  

Photo credit: Necker Island Website
When Branson bought the 74-acre island, it was uninhabited. He purchased the island at the age of 28, just six years after starting Virgin Group. It took 3 years and approximately $10 million to turn it into a private island retreat. Using local stone, Brazilian hardwoods, Asian antiques, Indian rugs, art pieces and fabrics and bamboo furniture from Bali, the architects and elite designers created a 10-bedroom Balinese-style villa crowning a hill above the beach. Each of the 10 bedrooms has open walls giving a 360-degree view and cooling winds from any direction in the house. The island has accommodation for 28 people and rents out at $62,000 a day, meaning, less labor costs, the entire island cost could be recouped in a mere 4 months. All that includes two "private" beaches, private pools, tennis courts, breathtaking views, a personal chef, a team of about 60 staff and a wide array of water sports equipment.

Photo credit: Necker Island Website 
The island is available for weddings, relaxation breaks, sports vacations, and even complete rentals for any purpose. One high profile guest, Larry Page, Google billionaire co-founder, married his girlfriend, Lucy Southworth, on the island in early December 2007. Larry Page rented a portion of Virgin Gorda as well, as Necker was far too small to fit his 600+ guest party.  Mariah Carey has been a frequent visitor, and Prince Harry vacationed on Necker Island before his partying down episode in Las Vegas. The list of megastars from Hollywood and the world of sport to have holidayed there includes Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Oprah Winfrey, the Rolling Stones and the likes of John McEnroe and Novak Djokovic. It has also been a haven to some of the biggest names in politics such as Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Tony Blair. 

In the early hours of August 22, 2011, The Great House, as it is called, burned down in a blaze believed to be caused by lightning from Tropical Storm Irene. The house was occupied at the time by as many as 20 guests, with Sir Richard Branson himself staying in a residence nearby. All 20 of the guests escaped unhurt from the burning house, which according to Sir Richard Branson was totally destroyed. Among the 20 occupants were actress Kate Winslet, along with Branson's 90-year-old mother Eve and his 29-year-old daughter Holly, when the fire broke out in the early hours of the morning. Kate Winslet saved Branson’s mother by carrying her out of the house.  The Great House has now been rebuilt with the Great Room expanded from but in a style strongly reminiscent of that lost to the fire.

Although the land on the island is entirely privately owned, under BVI law,  all beaches up to the high-water mark are Crown Land and are open to the public. In practice, the security personnel who accompany guests to Necker Island are known for making it difficult for ordinary members of the public to enjoy the beaches, particularly when high-profile guests are in residence.  We stayed on our boat and didn’t venture over.

The next afternoon, we departed our little anchorage at 5:00 p.m., heading to Simpson Bay, Sint Maarten.  We passed several large ships during the night and had a pleasant 14 hour 80 nautical mile sail.  We dropped the hook in the basin outside of Simpson Bay and waited for the Simpson Bay lift bridge on the Dutch side of the island to open.  

Wanting to surprise Stacy and Rene, I used the hailing alias "Wild Thang" to get through the bridge and we headed to Simpson Bay Lagoon on the French side of the island to anchor.  We dinghied over to knock on the hull of Pipe muh Bligh at 10:30 a.m. Rene came out and asked "Can I help you?" He was sleepy and it took him a few seconds to recognize us!  Stacy came hopping up from the inside of the boat and we had our big reunion.  Dave and Lisa from KeOla'Kai and John and Jolanda from JoHo dropped in to welcome us to Saint Martin.  

We were ready to party!  We made plans to meet at happy hour that afternoon at a local Greek restaurant, Barnacles.  Good fun, good friends, and new friends... What a welcome to the island of Saint Martin!

References:, Necker Island website.

Monday, February 17, 2014

St. Thomas... Relaxing, Sightseeing and Shopping!

Once we left the relative obscurity of the Puerto Rican outer islands, we were ready for some civilization... good ole USA style!  

We arrived on Valentine's Day... first stop: Crown Bay Marina for fuel, water, and a quick wash down of the boat. Not too romantic, but necessary!  
 LA dealt with the fuel part, I did the wash down. I washed and sprayed and washed and sprayed... Uh oh.. forgot that water was not FREE around here!  Water was 20 cents a gallon.... Spent $50 on water. Oops!  And fuel was $4.90/gallon! Expensive little stop... $225 for diesel, $35 for gas, and $50 for water... Welcome to the US Virgins!

Then, off to Charlotte Amalie, our home base for the next 8 days in St. Thomas. We anchored in the Yacht Haven Basin. Since we had already checked in the US territory of Puerto Rico, we did not have to check in again in St. Thomas.  It's always nice when you don't have to deal with customs officials and paperwork.  It's funny, though, because if you travel from the US Virgin Islands BACK to Puerto Rico, you have to check in with customs in Puerto Rico. Go figure....

Here's our girl Genesis anchored near the Yacht Haven Grande Marina.  You can see where we are if you look closely and find the word "Genesis" to the right of the center of the photo. We are anchored right under the "n" in Genesis.  As you can see, it's a huge anchorage with lots of boats coming and going, particularly cruise ships!  Check out the cruise ship at dock on the lower left of the photo. This was a slow day! Usually, there were at least three cruise ships at dock. 

When three cruise ships were at dock, the ships lined the dock all the way down to Yacht Haven Grande marina.  We had to go right past them to get to the dinghy dock. The passengers got a kick out of seeing us come by and would hang over the railing, yell hello and take our photo.  

Oh yes, the cruise ships!  Looking at them from the dingy... they are HUGE!  This cruise ship is Jewel of the Seas.

This only LOOKS like a close call! The catamaran is motoring to the dock just after the cruise ship departed. Personally, I think I would have waited a while to let the cruise ship get out to sea

Our first order of business was to contact our friend, Steve Schlosser.  We met Steve back in 2011 in the Bahamas when he was sailing his private yacht.  He has since met and married the love of his life, Deb, and we were eager to meet her.  They own and operate a yacht chartering business based out of St. Thomas and offer wonderful trips to the British Virgin Islands on their Voyager 44 catamaran, Alternate Latitude.   If you have ever thought of taking a sailing vacation in an easy to get to, but exotic, location, check out their Facebook page, Alternate Latitude or their rental website on VBRO: Alternate Latitude.  We caught them between charters (which is hard to do!) and had a lovely evening out at a local restaurant, the Twisted Cork. Wonderful meal and good company!  It was fun learning about what it is like to own a charter business. It is a lot of work but they love it.

Though only 32 square miles in size, St. Thomas has lots of things to do. Beautiful beaches, shopping, sightseeing, and good restaurants!  So many choices! 

Because the cruise ships bring lots of visitors to the island and the shopping is duty-free, we decided we would play tourist and do some shopping.  We visited popular shops near the Yacht Haven Grande.  Did a lot of window shopping, but not much buying.  Living on a boat, we don't have much use for expensive watches and designer purses. 

The grounds around the mall area were beautifully landscaped. It was good to get off the boat for a while and get some exercise.  

We walked along the boardwalk and admired the beautiful yachts. 

We walked to Main Street in the downtown area about a mile away. The main street area is a cruise ship shopping mecca. Shop after shop line the streets and when the cruise ships are in town, the main street area is jam packed.   Rolex, Tiffany, Prada, and other brand name stores enticed the tourists to spend lots of money.

We were surprised by the number of jewelry stores that specialized in high-end watches. Cruise ship visitors obviously spend a lot of money on jewelry and watches.  Cameras were a popular item, too.  I almost succumbed to the shopping frenzy. I looked at a GoPro camera, but finally talked myself out of an impulse buy. 

St. Thomas's history and culture alone are worth a visit to the island. Fort Christian, built in 1680 and a U.S. National Landmark, is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands and home to the Virgin Islands Museum, where early island memorabilia and old maps trace the islands' history. 

Market Square, now a bustling produce marketplace, was once one of the West Indies' busiest 18th-century slave markets.

Another attraction was the climb up the famous 99 Steps of Charlotte Amalie for an incomparable view of the Caribbean. We had dinner one night at the top with a beautiful view of the harbor below. 

The old Post Office, built in 1937, was another site of interest. 

The "high" point of our day was visiting Paradise Point Skyride.  Yes, it was touristy, and it cost $21 per person for a ride to the top, but it was worth it!

Italian cable cars took us up 700 feet to the top of a hill which provided views of the city, the harbor, and the nearby islands. 

It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles and miles.

At the top there was a restaurant with a rooftop terrace with gorgeous panoramic views. 

View of the city and the mega-yacht marina, Yacht Haven Grande.
Stunning view of the nearby islands.  The US Virgin Islands are truly America's island paradise!  We enjoyed our visit and hope to return again!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Puerto Rican Outer Islands... a well-kept secret!

The Puerto Rican Outer Islands , formerly called the Passage Islands, primarily consist of the islands of Vieques, Culebra and Culebrita.  They are part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and are located east of the main island of Puerto Rico. Many people have never even heard of these outer islands... thus, the well-kept secret.

Approaching our Vieques Anchorage
Vieques lies about 8 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and measures about 21 miles long by 4 miles wide. It is part of the United States Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but, like the rest of Puerto Rico, retains strong influences from 400 years of Spanish ownership. Vieques is best known internationally as the site of a series of protests against the United States Navy's use of the island as a bombing range and testing ground, which led to the navy's departure in 2003. Today the former navy land is a national wildlife refuge, with numerous beaches that still retain the names given by the navy, including Red Beach, Blue Beach, Green Beach and others. The beaches are commonly listed among the top beaches in the Caribbean for their azure-colored waters and white sands. 

We had a short stop-over in Vieques for the night. We anchored near Punta Arenas on the west shore called Green Beach. Although we didn't leave the boat, we had a visitor for the night. At sunset, a Brown Booby lighted on our dinghy for a rest.  

This was a big bird! He was about 30 inches long, and his wing span was almost 5 feet! He stayed there all night long. When we weighed anchor the next morning, he flew away. He was a klutz on his take-off! He had a trouble getting his big cumbersome body lifted off the dingy. But once he got in the air, he was quite graceful.

LuLu was fascinated as she watched the booby fly away. She kept a close eye out for birds after that!

As we departed Vieques to our next island destination, Culebra, we were greeted with a beautiful rainbow. Traveling on a boat is so much fun and so rewarding!

We arrived in Culebra four hours later, came into Ensenada Honda Bay, and anchored near the town of Dewey. We were excited to reach Culebra as we planned to stay for a few days, rest, and tour the island.  

Ensenada Honda is purported to be one of the safest hurricane harbors in the Caribbean. Many sailors stop here and never leave.  Our anchorage was charming, surrounded by local houses on hills, and was quiet and peaceful yet located next to town. 

A sleepy little island loved by sailors, beach lovers, eco-travelers, snorkelers, Culebra is a destination for those seeking the ultimate privacy.  The island may be small (only 7 miles long and 11.5 square miles) but it is blessed with miles of gorgeous coastline. Even today when most islands have been exploited by tourism in the Caribbean, Culebra Island remains undeveloped. The crime rate is low and there is a laid-back island vibe.  Because it is part of Puerto Rico, US residents do not have to have a passport to visit, which makes it an attractive, though remote, travel destination.

However, Culebra is a popular weekend tourist destination for Mainland Puerto Ricans, and residents of Vieques. They arrive on ferries and flood the small town, rent all the rental vehicles, and jam pack the restaurants during the high season in the winter. 

We rented a jeep for the day during the week and traveled around the island in relative obscurity. Most of the roads were in pretty good shape, but we did have to travel up and down some pretty steep embankments, so we were glad to have the 4-wheel drive.
Boats on moorings overlook Ensenada Honda Bay

Our road trip around the island was spectacular, with mountain roads that traveled to high points with great views. Because of the "arid" nature of the island there is no run-off from rivers or streams resulting in very clear waters around the island. The water, with so many shades of blues and greens, was a sight to behold.

Culebra has many beautiful beaches and we wanted to visit them all. Our first beach visit was Zoni Beach, located on the east side of the island. We met two older couples on the beach that were from New York.  This was their 20th year to visit Culebra! They told me not to write too much about the island...they said it needed to be kept secret and untouched by commercial tourism.

On the hillside overlooking Zoni Beach, we could see the nearby island of Culebrita. It is the island on the mid right of the photo below.  The island seen in the far right background is St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. The colors in the water constantly amaze us. Every time we think we have seen the most beautiful water we have ever seen, another spectacular view comes along!

On the north side of the island was the famous Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco), rated the third best beach in the world for 2014 by Trip Advisor. This is where most of the weekend tourists head when arriving on the island. The crescent shaped beach is a stunning mile-long stretch of sand embraced by tree covered rolling hills as a backdrop, so there is plenty of space for everyone.  

This is definitely a beach for beach lovers. We enjoyed a long walk along the beach and talked to several fellow travelers. This is a beach that we would have loved to stay for a while...break out the beach chairs and umbrella, ice down a few cold ones and spend the day.  But that wasn't in the plans for us on this day. We had a rented Jeep waiting for us and we were ready to explore!

But that didn't stop us from walking up and down the beach several trips. For some reason, LA didn't mind all the walking... Maybe it had something to do with the local scenery! LA declared her definitely "thong worthy".

I, on the other hand, was hungry! After finally dragging LA away from the "scenery", I was able to get his mind on food instead. We stopped at a little beach shack and had a delicious lunch of barbecued chicken, slaw, and rice (and cold beer). 

We walked right across the parking lot at Flamenco beach to visit our next beach stop, Tamarindo Beach. We knew this was a secluded beach on the west side of the island, but what we didn't know was how long the hike was going to be to get there!  We traveled up and down (and up and down... and up and down....) a longgggg path through the bushes to get there.  

We were so far back in the brush we walked right up on two deer standing right on the path. They just stood there looking at us and finally wandered off the trail. We saw a lot of birds on our walk but I couldn't get any pics! One of the oldest bird sanctuaries in United States territory was established in Culebra in 1909 by President Teddy Roosevelt.  

We finally made it to Tamarindo Beach... it was worth it! Unspoiled and pristine, the beach was deserted and the water was a clear turquoise.  The reef system looked healthy. We wished we had our snorkeling gear so we could explore! 

We enjoyed our visit to Culebra.  We a taste of the island and we wanted to see more. But, that will have to come on another visit.  We want to come back to this little island paradise. There are so many anchorages to explore!  Seeing the views of the islands to come, it was time to say goodbye to Culebra. After a five day stay, it was time to visit the next island on our journey, Culebrita. 

Isla Culebrita (little Culebra, little snake) is a small, uninhabited island off the eastern coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico and is part of the Puerto Rico Archipelago. It is a nature reserve and is part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. This tiny cay (pronounced "key")— located off the north-east corner of Culebra — is uninhabited, visited only by a few people every day, and holds many wonderful “secrets” waiting to be explored. You can only get there by boat, but it is totally worth the effort in order to experience this unspoiled island.

It only took one and one-half hours to reach Culebrita. Although there were several mooring balls available, we anchored close to the beach so we could have a little privacy.  There were 4 other boats there, but we didn't see anyone out and about on the beach. I was ready for some hiking! LA wanted to work on boat projects, so he dropped me off at the beach and off I went! The island was deserted.  In the photo above, a lighthouse can be seen at the top of the hill.  I was determined that I was going to see that view from the top! 


I found the trail on the beach leading up the hill.  Uh oh, here we go again...another trail through the middle of the brush! I hiked my way across the bottom of the hill a long way before the trail finally took a turn going up.

As the trail wound along, I heard some bird calls that sounded like a chittering noise.  I saw a pair of American Kestrels perched in a tree. I was so excited as I got my camera ready. Finally got a bird pic! American Kestrils, also known as sparrow hawks, are actually small falcons and are only about 8 inches long. They like open meadows with places to perch and hunt.

I continued along my way and came across an open grassy area. I heard a rustling in the nearby bushes and a bleating noise. It startled me...remember, I am hiking all by myself on a deserted island. I had visions of some sort of wild animal barreling out of the bushes in attack mode.

Imagine my surprise when I came around the bend and there was a huge wild mountain goat! I don't know who was startled more... him or me! He looked at me...I looked at him. We just stared at each other for a few seconds.  I was so glad I had my camera ready! After I got my shot, he took off down the hillside at full speed.

After my goat encounter, I headed straight up the hillside to the lighthouse. I kept thinking, it is getting late in the day and I am never going to make it. But, I was determined! I could only see the top of the lighthouse and the view was tantalizing me to push further.

Finally, I reached the top of the hill and there was a big "NO TRESPASSING" sign waiting for me...and when did that ever stop me?? I walked right around the fence and kept on going.

I'll have to say that it was quite spooky up there since I was alone. At least, I hoped I was alone. I kept thinking that a creepy, deserted-island ax murderer might be ready to leap out around every corner. I pushed those thoughts out of my head and checked out the lighthouse.

Now, a bit about the history of the Culebrita Lighthouse.  It is one of the oldest lighthouses in the Caribbean, is the only remaining Spanish-era structure in the Culebra archipelago (group of islands). Construction of the lighthouse began on September 25, 1882, and it was completed on February 25, 1886. The Spanish Crown built the lighthouse to help secure its claim over the main island of Culebra. It was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the Caribbean until 1975 when the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard finally closed the facility. The United States Coast Guard has replaced the lighthouse with a solar powered light beacon that is located on the side of the hilltop.  The beacon guides navigation through the Virgin Passage and the Vieques Sound connecting in the Puerto Rico Light System with the Cape San Juan Light. 

The Culebrita Lighthouse was registered on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on October 22, 1981; however, no work has been done to maintain the facility. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused extensive damage, and in 1995 the tower was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn. The Culebra Foundation, starting in 1994, has tried to attract local and federal attention to save the lighthouse, but they have had little success. Presently, the lighthouse is in danger of collapsing, hence the "No Trespassing" sign.

I walked all around the lighthouse, and went inside to explore the rooms on the ground floor.  The old bricks were different colors and had interesting brickwork around the windows and doors.

What interested me most was the winding old iron staircase up to the top of the lighthouse.  A climber since way back, I desparately wanted to climb up the rickety steel stairs.  I peered inside, but it was hard to see what was there. I envisioned a giant wasp nest... and realized just how dangerous it would be to climb up with no one else around. Common sense prevailed. If LA had been with me, I would have been up that staircase in a minute!

I walked out to the edge of the hilltop and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the island.

Genesis appeared as a tiny dot in the bay, all by herself anchored close to the island in beautiful clear blue water. This tranquil setting shows the beauty and solitude of our cruising life and is one of my favorite photographs. It was time to head back to the beach and get back to LA and the boat. We left the following morning to visit St. Thomas in the American Virgin Islands.