Flag of the United States Virgin Islands. The three arrows represent the Saints Thomas, Croix and John.
100 years ago on March 31, 1917, the United States got a whole lot closer to paradise when they bought three islands from Denmark. The three islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix were purchased for the sum of $25 million in gold and were incorporated as a US Territory. The USVI is comprised of 85,568 acres so that’s $292 per acre, a great deal considering that the 15-acre Estate at Spring Bay is currently priced at $10 million or $666,000 per acre.
Water Island, which sits just off the coast of Saint Thomas, wasn’t included in the purchase of the Saints because it was privately owned by the East Asiatic Company. The US didn’t acquire Water Island until 1944, but got it for just $10,000. The original idea was to use it as a massive fort and proving ground, but those plans we scrapped with the end of the second World War. The Department of Defense transferred ownership to the Department of the Interior which then leased it to a private citizen. The lease ran out in 1992 and the island was transferred to the USVI government making it the fourth US Virgin Island.
The 191 7 transfer went pretty smoothly, though residents were frustrated that they didn’t receive US citizenship immediately. The islands were also not granted a representative government, instead being run by naval administrators since the islands were purchased for strategic military value. The passage of the Organic Act in 1936 established the rule of an elected governor and granted American citizenship to the residents of the islands.
A map of the USVI
Our opinion is that the US citizens of the USVI should have voting rights in our democracy, as of now they have elected local government officials but their congressional representatives can’t vote and they can’t vote in the general election for president of the United States. We do know one thing, though, the US is better for having the Virgin Islands as part of our country, not just to be a mainlander’s playground but for the diversity they bring to our nation.
I remember back when I was a child gathering in my parents’ house around the color TV, still of the vacuum-tube variety and housed in a big wooden cabinet, to watch PBS’ The Planet Earth. The documentary opened my mind to the natural world and how it works with time-lapse video of flowers blooming in the desert and slow-motion photography of life and death struggles on the savannah. The documentary left a major impression on me, creating a lasting respect for the greater natural world. I’m sure if I rewatched the episodes of The Planet Earth today the video would seem grainy and blurry and the photography techniques would seem extremely simple.
The past several weekends we have been transfixed by the amazing photography and storytelling by the highly talented editing and photography crew of BBC’s Planet Earth II. We’ve tuned in each Saturday evening to be captivated by the audio visual wonder of our world. I am still intrigued by nature, and as someone who’s spent his life as a photographer I am continually impressed and in awe of the camera work. I am impressed by the technology that produces sharp images and interesting angles, and envious of the photographers and their opportunities to witness the glory of this planet.
The project took over three years to make, spanning 40 different countries, 117 filming trips and a total of 2,089 shooting days. Planet Earth II is an immersive exploration of the islands, mountains, jungles, grasslands, deserts and cities of the world. We can’t help but smile and sigh at the memories it triggers of our own adventures. The episode titled “Grasslands” told stories of the African savannah and took us back to our time getting up close and personal with the great migration. You might think with specials like this, why leave home? Well for us it just triggers our wanderlust and leaves us wanting to explore more and witness the majesty of our wild world in person.
I know we’ve mentioned more than once our love of the water and my particular love of sailing. I am mainly self taught and have never had any proper schooling. You don’t need a license to sail or own a boat in most jurisdictions. But if you want to rent or charter a boat you’ll often need to demonstrate competency or have some certifications before they’ll let you take the helm.
I’ve wanted to get my “bareboat” certificate from the American Sailing Association (ASA) for years. The ASA cert would allow me to charter a boat by myself almost anywhere. The dream of going somewhere and just sailing off into the sunset for a week would be easier to obtain. Yes, we have our own boat, but that boat may not be in the destination we’d like to explore. I’d also like to raise my competency levels, too. And, as a bonus, the ASA certification could help in insurance rates for our boat.
I want the training and Amanda wants a vacation. We began doing research and found several programs out there that take you from ASA 101 to ASA 104 (Bareboat Charter Certification) in a week. We both want the adventure but only one of us wants to take the classes. The problem with that is most of the concentrated courses that do the training in a week are liveaboard schools. We did find one or two that run day aboard, shore at night, but most of those were very expensive. If we were interested in spending up to $7,000 or more that would be an option, but it would also mean that Amanda and I would spend our days apart. We don’t really like that (but if it was affordable we’d do it).
We have our eyes focused on a school in the USVI out of Saint Thomas. It is a leisurely paced, liveaboard sail that allows spouses to accompany you at a discounted rate. The schedule is balanced so there is plenty of time for instruction and fun in the water and on land. The itinerary takes you to St. Thomas, St. John, Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Norman Island. The best part is we get to explore the islands, learn to sail (and get a paper to prove), it and spend our vacation together.
We haven’t committed to it (yet), but we will be certain to keep you updated as we move along in this process.
Hull Bay Beach
Hull Bay Beach is located on the north shore of the island of St. Thomas and is a wonderful place to get away from the crowds of places of Magens Bay or Coki Beach. If you decide to go to this out-of-the way beach you can’t count on a cheap trip via safari bus. You’ve got to have a car or a cab to reach this piece of isolated beauty.
The beach isn’t very long or wide and has a lot of large worn patches of coral that makes it easy to stub your toes in the water. But if you are looking to find a uncrowded beach, this hangout for locals is one of your best choices. Hull Bay’s isolation doesn’t mean it’s deserted, though.
You’ll find a small beach bar, Hull Bay Hideaway, just 50 feet from the boat ramp, serving as an outpost for its larger parent bar just about 100 yards farther back. You can easily find a number of rail drinks at a fair price. If you want some light bar fare just take a seat the the aforementioned parent bar. You’ll also find a small dive shop, St. Thomas Scuba and Snorkel Adventures, for gear rental and even a barber shop, though it’s only open on Saturdays. If you are looking for something out of the way and with a local flare, Hull Bay beach is a great choice.
The rocky shoreline of Hull Bay
The beach and a haircut, but only on Saturdays
The first time we walked down that dirt path eight years ago and found ourselves on that deserted strip of sand known as Lindquist Beach, we fell in love. We fell in love with the white sand and its crescent shape, as if it were gently holding the clear, calm water in the palm of its hand. We could sit on the sand and only hear the water, the birds, and the sound of the breeze gently rustling the fronds on the palm trees. It was a secluded paradise.
The Clear Water of Lindquist Beach
The years have brought changes. The beach is still there, the water is still clear, the palm trees still sway in the breeze… but the isolation is missing.
The dirt path has been replaced by a proper parking lot and a wide packed gravel road. A manned gate and attendant stand ready to collect your money, $5.00 per person as non-residents. You can walk or drive down the road toward the beach and a second parking lot that is just for dropping off and picking up beach gear and passengers. You can also find facilities, such as newly constructed showers and restrooms, just off the beach. A lifeguard provided by the park service even keeps watch. The beach that was our ideal of tropical seclusion is now far more popular and we have to share it with a combination of tourists and locals. We know civilization eventually catches up to everyone and everyplace. We still enjoyed our visit, soaking in the water and watching the fish swim around our legs or hiding from the sun on the beach. The privacy and the quiet were just gone.
Friendly fish in the crystal clear water
We eventually found out the reasons for the upgrades. The beach we loved had become very unsafe because of the very isolation we loved. The appearance of shall we call them “unsavory elements” harassing beach-goers and treating it as their own private kingdom. We were told that the beach had been closed at one point because of the problems. The solution was for the park service to take over the area and actively manage the beach. We were disappointed, but we understood.
We find places, like people, can change over time. Sometimes it’s for the better, sometimes for the worse. It’s up to you to decide how you treat them when they do.
The moment we stepped off the plane at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas the pressure of our daily lives began to dissolve and the anticipation began to build as we went to visit an old friend. We knew we could have taken the safari bus from the airport but settled for the expediency of a cab, and the cost of $20. The right turn from the left lane into the historic enclave of Frenchtown, at the far northern tip of Charlotte Amalie, simply made us smile. We bumped down a narrow street between ballfields and the shopping center until we rolled down the little road that meandered between the old 100,000-gallon cistern and the shoreline until the road ended. We gleefully hopped out of the taxi and up the stairs to the wooden deck and reception desk of the renovated and rejuvenated Olga’s Fancy.
The “Lobby” of Olga’s Fancy
A coat of blue paint and colorful embellishments on the underside of the awnings seemed to breathe new life into the hotel. Olga was still Olga though, with a main house on the ground floor, then up one level for a breakfast nook, then another to the pool deck and a completely renovated pool. The other sections of the hotel were still accessed by wooden stairs that ascend the side of the hill, branching off to three separate blocks of rooms, two with views of the pool and the harbor and a third, our favorite, with a view of the water and Hassel island.
One of the many spots of green and stone on the property.
A view of the pool
The rooms were still small and efficient, but with some major renovations since our last visit. The sink and vanity had been replaced with a much more modern fixtures; the bed, end tables, lighting fixtures and chairs were replaced and upgraded as well making the small room feel much more chic. Gone were the old bathtubs with mismatched fixtures (not that we minded the hot and cold knobs both saying cold and being from different decades), replaced with large tile showers. The water pressure and the hot water was not exactly what we’re used to with our gas-powered hot water heater, but did the trick to wash the sand off your body and out of your hair after a long day of swimming at the beach. The most important thing about the room hadn’t changed: the view. The view that amazed us on our first trip was still there. We were perched above the water, allowing us to watch the boats go by in the channel and the seaplanes buzz by as they landed. At night we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the water gently crashing against the rocks.
The view from our room.
Change can make you nervous. We’ve seen places we love change — and not always for the better — but this time the differences fit well with our memories. The changes made while resurrecting a place we so sorely missed leave us confident that Villa Olga, now Olga’s Fancy, will be there waiting for our return in the years to come.