Tiny Jewel

Well it is time to say goodbye to the Caribbean.  We have spent the last 2 seasons sailing down to Grenada and back up to Puerto Rico visiting as many islands as possible and returning to the ones we loved.  To rest on a cliché, we may have saved the best for last. The tiny island of Culebrita is a small uninhabited gem just east of Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands.

Culebrita Turtle

Sea turtles keep you company in the anchorage

We’d skipped it on the way down as the anchorage can be rolly when a north swell arrives, but this time we lucked out with calm seas that allowed us not one but two visits to this little slice of heaven.

Soft white sand beaches

Soft white sand beaches of Culebrita

The only way to get there is by boat.  So if you can swing it, go during the week when you may just have the place to yourself, apart from the sea turtles, goats and hermit crabs.

No Drone Zone

No Drone Zone

Pete in Culebrita

Goat skull

Goat Skull

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The white sand beaches are soft as baby powder and the snorkeling and hike to the abandoned 1880 light house would make for a complete visit.

1880s light house

Our pals on Nightingale Tune only made this place better

But in addition to those, do make the effort to scramble over the rocks in the northwestern corner of the bay where you’ll be rewarded with natural pools formed by the volcanic rock.  Nature has perfectly placed the rocks to allow the pools to flood but also to keep them calm enough for a soak, swim and snorkel.  It is like the Baths in the Virgin Islands but, like those NEVER are, here you can have these little gems to yourself.

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exploring the pools

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Taking the plunge

Wave selfie

Wave selfie

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Ah, you can’t rub your eyes with sunglasses on

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Culebrita is definitely on our top 10 list, maybe top 5!

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I could have stayed here forever

 

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Friends Afloat

We love sharing our somewhat strange lifestyle with friends.  While it’s clearly a vacation from their normal lives, it’s also a break from the cruising routine for us.  We were recently privileged to welcome Phil and Holly, our neighbors from Orient, NY aboard Neko.

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Orient comes to L’Orient

We had a lovely tour of St. Barths and a circumnavigation of St. Martin, experiencing both the Dutch and French sides of the island.  They were GENIUS to buy travel insurance because the week they first planned to visit we were pinned down in the lagoon due to extreme winds and squalls.  They were able to push their trip back a week and we were all blessed with clear sunny skies.  These two are the king and queen of chill, which makes them a pleasure to have as guests.  It was a joy to catch up with them and the goings on back east.

Next up were Dave and Eileen for a long weekend in the BVI’s.  Flexible travelers make the best cruising guests, and these two are masters at last minute bookings.  It was fantastic to give them a short respite from the long NYC winter and work grind.  We got in some spectacular snorkeling and sailing during their quick visit.  After 20+ years of knowing Dave we only  just learned about his obsession with coiling lines.  A trait that is always welcomed on Neko.  With both, it was of course always a party with great meals and good wine.

Along with the joy of land visitors we had reunions with long lost cruising pals.

We met Mike and Robin from s/v Mermaid back on the Pacific side of Mexico, we haven’t seen them since Panama 2014.  And of course our comrades Charlotte & James on m/y Pegasus can’t get rid of us 😉   What a treat to all be together again in St Martin.

And we were delighted to run into m/y Tropical Blend & s/v Symbiosis and spend a day exploring the island of Anegada together.

Our latest buddy boat is s/v Nightingale Tune. We’ve been together on and off all season and are so proud of them for adopting not 1 BUT 2 island dogs.  Fur friends are always welcome on Neko.

Finally, we were excited to catch up with Torben and Judy from s/v Tivoli.  They had just finished a transatlantic sail from the Canaries to the BVI’s and we were there to welcome them to their first landfall in three weeks.

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Tivoli arriving in Virgin Gorda looking fresh as daisies after 3 weeks transAtlantic crossing.

If you are a regular reader of our blog, you will see that Torben and Judy were with us for our first significant trip on Neko – sailing her from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  They taught us so much in that weeklong trip that we consider them our cruising godparents.  It was 4 years since we had last seen them, but the time melted away instantly into perfect camaraderie.

It is wonderful to catch up with friends old and new and to share our salt water life with them, even if it’s just for a short time.

Double Dutch

Saba and St. Eustatius, aka Statia, are two large rocks passing as islands in the Netherlands Antilles.  Sandwiched between St Martin & St. Kitts, many bypass these island because of their questionable and often times rolly anchorages, both of which have a decidedly “industrial” feel.  However, don’t judge a book by its cover should be the motto of these Dutch islands – and we would hate to see them not get their share of cruisers because of the marginal anchorages and homely surroundings that greet you. Sounds great doesn’t it 😉   But I (Mary) got a bee in my bonnet that we had to go to them because we’d read the scuba diving was some of the best in the Caribbean.   So we waited and waited and finally got calm weather to visit these Dutch delights and we are thankful we did.

oil barges Statia

oil barges Statia

The less than green side of Saba

The less than green side of Saba

OK landlubbers, the next couple paragraphs are for our fellow cruisers to help them enjoy a stop in these islands. You see, the anchorages are exposed to ocean swell that wraps around the island (remember they are essentially just rocks in the ocean) and can make boats at anchor or mooring roll gunwale to gunwale.  While we were at Statia we saw two monohulls come in only to spend one miserable night and leave at first light, not getting to explore the cute little island.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  We spent three days in Statia and another three in Saba and it was not bad at all.  You just have to RIG YOUR GROUND TACKLE TO PUT THE BOAT’S BOW INTO THE SWELL.

Neko the only cruising boat in the harbor

Neko the only cruising boat in Oranje Baai, Statia

There are two ways you can do this:  First, like us – put a bridle on your anchor.  It works just as well on the moorings in the harbor.  Put one line to the bow and another to the stern.  Adjust the lines so the wind catches you broadsides and the swell comes at your bow.  It makes for more windage but you should have ground tackle that can handle it.  The other method is to pick out a mooring and motor out in the direction the swell is coming from.  Drop your anchor and back down and the wind will push you seaward from the mooring.  Take a line from your stern to the mooring and adjust to hold your bow into the swell.  This method has the benefit of keeping you in this attitude even if the wind dies. But either way, COME ON PEOPLE, give it a try.  In Saba, you also have the option of going to another side of the island to avoid the swell.  It’s got anchorages and moorings on the west and south side, so you can pick the location with the least swell.

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statia-anchor

A little more work than just tossing the hook as we all are accustomed to, but it is worth it.  Both islands have excellent diving.  On Statia, we went on dives with Golden Rock Dive Center to two wreck sites.  One consisted of two trading ships that went down in the harbor in the 1700’s, leaving today only two giant anchors and a line of coral where the ships once lay.  The other could not have been more different.  The Chien Tong sunk in 2004 and is largely intact.  It was eery to swim in and around it and see how the ocean life is slowly taking it over.  We hiked up the picture perfect volcano cone – it looks like they could have filmed King Kong here.  We inspected the ruins of warehouses and offices and other dockside structures built in the 18th century when Statia was a leading trading island, hosting dozens of ships at a time in its rolly anchorage.  

On land, Statia offers a charming and sleepy town with historic fort, hikes and some of the most literate goats we’ve met.  These guys were hanging out on the steps to the library waiting for it to open.  

Goats waiting for the library to open. Reading or eating the books is the question.

To help you on your next appearance on Jeopardy (you’ll have to split your winnings with us), note that Statia’s was the first government to officially recognize the United States as an independent nation by firing a signal cannon to recognize a ship from the newly declared republic entering its harbor.  

Next stop Saba

Next stop Saba

The other nearby Dutch island is Saba.  We were there during one of the rare calm spells, so we didn’t have to employ any special anchoring techniques, but the diving on Saba was just as unique.  The water is clear as … well, water and the sea life abundant and not afraid of divers.  There were more living huge corals than we’d seen in a long time.  Ben and Kato at Saba Divers run a great shop, and are highly recommended.

Saba’s two main towns are called “Bottom” (its at the bottom of a hill) and “Windwardside” (its on the windward side of the island).  Saba’s pioneers were apparently very literal people, or perhaps they didn’t have time to dream up fanciful names for their towns.  But what the towns lack in naming creativity, they make up in abundance in cuteness.  Imagine winding little stone paths, with gingerbread cottages and knee high white picket fences.  There was even a tame neighborhood rabbit living in the well-tended cemetery.  The red roof ordinance was in effect here, as most of the buildings sported clean red roofs, lending the town an appealing uniformity.

Red roof ordinance

Red roof ordinance

Stone pathways lead you through the village.

Stone pathways lead you through the village.

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Luckily Sabans moved their customs house to the more easily accessible Fort Bay. Until the 1940s everyone and everything entered Saba up “The Ladder”.  Walking waist deep in the breaking waves, up 800 steep steps to the customs house perched high above the rough seas.  Royals, commoners, medicine, furniture, food, etc. all used this route.  Think about that next time you are complaining about the wait at customs and immigrations.

The Ladder consists of 800 steep stairs up to the old customs house. Until the 1940s everyone and everything entered Saba this way.

The Ladder consists of 800 steep stairs up to the old customs house.

The road up from the harbor is a twisty set of hair-raising switchbacks leaning over the cliff, with a tiny stone guard rail that wouldn’t stop a runaway ten speed.

The long and winding road.

The long and winding road.

Mrs. Lollipop, our cab driver said they were all safe drivers on the island, but when Mary pressed she would not confirm that no locals had a drink before setting out on the road.  Indeed, when she picked us up after our dinner, she popped out of a bar to hop in her car.  The drive down was safe and slow, though, as she told us about her kids all scattered across the islands and America.  It was just as well, because a big swell was due the next day which would make our location uncomfortable.  So we battened down the hatches and set off on a quick overnight trip to the British Virgin Islands, and our planned meetup with friends.

Going With The Pyroclastic Flow

Sometimes we have to remember to get off the boat for more than going to the grocery store or hunting boat parts. For me at least, if I don’t make the effort to find out what is unique about an island, time can just slip away obsessing over the boat “to do” list and waiting for weather windows.

Our recent stop in Montserrat was the perfect reminder of why we make the effort to travel at slow speeds to remote locations. You don’t go to Montserrat to idle away the time on your boat watching sunsets and fixing things – the anchorage is much too rolly for that. Perhaps it is old Neptune’s gentle kick in the ass to get off the boat and explore and meet the locals.

Our new pal who talked up a storm. We loved ever second.

Our new pal who talked up a storm. We loved ever second.

It’s a small island set off by itself with a marginal anchorage so it does not get a lot of boat traffic.  When we were there only a handful of other boats came and went.  But that is part of its charm.

Most of the islands in the Caribbean are volcanic in origin and several of them bear the scars of human suffering at the hands of the volcano. But none present the modern day tussle between man and mountain as does the beautiful green island of Montserrat.

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Perfect view of Soufrière from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory

The Soufrière Hills Volcano on Montserrat lurched back to life in 1995 after about 400 years of slumber, and continued to erupt on a periodic basis for the next 20 or so years.  It still rumbles and spews in its high redoubt.  No glowing basalt flowing down the sides like the dramatic ones in Hawaii, Soufrière brought showers of ash and pyroclastic flows of mud, rock and ash to the inhabitants of its capital town Plymouth.

Photo illustrating how high the ash and mud was. Just the top of St. Patrick’s church steeple peeking out with church buried below.

29 people are said to have died in the eruptions.  The volcano caused massive disruption among the populace, many of whom had to abandon their homes and take temporary shelter in schools, churches and wherever could be arranged.

All residents now live North of the red line.

“Temporary” stretched into years as the volcano refused to go back to sleep and the daily activity and commerce moved to Little Bay on the northern side of the island.  The island had 11,000 inhabitants before the eruption and only about 3,000 now.  Many fled the hardships of life on the island.

Local guide Joe Phillip

Joe Phillip is a lifelong resident of Montserrat.  He offers a tour of the areas devastated by the eruption accompanied by his story of surviving the aftermath.  Joe had a lovely house in the danger zone that he abandoned when the volcano erupted.  Realizing life in the shelters would be cheek by jowl with only a cot as personal space, he commandeered a classroom in an abandoned school and made it his home for two years.  He snuck back to his old home and brought back appliances to furnish his new quarters.

At a low point and about to leave the island, he made a commitment to his island home and decided to stay, despite perhaps disappointing his wife.  When he could he bought a small plot of land and built a new house.  Joe took us on an emotional tour through his old town and showed us his and his neighbors’ houses under a foot of ash and being reclaimed by the jungle.  It is only a matter of time before the jungle wipes this once-thriving little town completely away as if it never existed.

Soon the trees will completely cover these homes.

Soon the trees will completely cover these homes.

can you see the house in there?

can you see the house in there?

Sir George Martin's famous AIR recording studio. Once recording Paul McCartney, Rush, The Police, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath and many more is now almost completely covered by trees

Sir George Martin’s famous AIR recording studio. Once recording Paul McCartney, Rush, The Police, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath and many more is now almost completely covered by trees

We went into an abandoned condo on the outskirts of Plymouth to view the devastation of the capital city of Plymouth.  It is buried some 30 feet deep – not by ash as some think, but by the mud that washed down from the denuded hills after rains.  It is sealed off and no one is allowed in without government permission and a police accompaniment.  It is a stark, lifeless place that feels like a Planet of the Apes movie set.

But Montserratians are a happy bunch and have taken it all in stride, even making lemonade out of lemons or should I say cement out of rocks.  Realizing that volcanic sand makes for better cement than salty beach sand, Montserratians have started several businesses to mine, refine and ship the valuable black sand.

breaking up large volcanic rocks to produce and sell cement.

breaking up large volcanic rocks to produce and sell cement.

We were greeted by smiles and wishes that we enjoy their island everywhere we went.  The food and drink are great, and we especially enjoyed a big lunch at Pont’s Place, where he decorates his outdoor dining area with all sorts of things he finds on land and at the shore.  It’s a delightful spot overlooking the sea.

interior of Pont’s Point restaurant decorated with flotsam and jetsam

Pont's Point

There is a spring on the island where it is said if you drink from it you must return to Montserrat.  We gladly sipped some hoping its magic is real.

Season 4, Episode 1

We are back on the boat and traveling again.  It feels good to be home and doing what is familiar to us.  It’s a whole new season with new friends and new places to explore.  We are excited to be underway again.

We left Neko on the hard in Clarke’s Court to get her bottom done and a few other bits and bobs.   Terry O’Connell and his crew did a great job removing all the old bottom paint and applying new stuff. We were happy to become friendly with Terry and trusted his work ethic implicitly. We highly recommend Terry (terenceoconnell3@gmail.com) for anyone needing bottom work – just bring the paint with you as you can get it more cheaply in the duty free islands.  Neko was not much worse for wear after sitting in the scalding sun for 3 months. We had two LCD screens burn out from the heat alone and a couple minor leaks, but it could have been much worse.

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Neko heading back to the water with her slick new black bottom paint.

We left Grenada and started our way up the islands. Finally, we aren’t fighting our way east, but are off the wind using those tradewinds to do what Neko was meant to do, sail. Ideal conditions along with her new bottom paint have us consistently sailing at 9 and 10 knots, making great time between islands. Winds are steady and brisk in the right direction and the boat handles the decent sized seas like a champ. We almost always have one or more reefs in and might as well pack away the gennaker as we can’t foresee needing it for a while. We realize this is what VPLP designed the Switch 51 to do.

We returned to some old stomping grounds in the Grenadines and delighted in their clear water and laid back Rasta feel.

But after about a few weeks and just as we were running low on provisions in those lesser-inhabited islands, we set course for one of our favorite islands, Martinique.

Here we could bask in the glory of French culture in an island setting, having great coffee and baguettes every day all while having a few boat teething pains worked on. Le Marin in Martinique is a major stop for French cruisers needing boat parts or work, so what better place for the French-designed and built Neko to put in a stop. It was an added bonus that the harbor in Le Marin is supremely protected because we had a full week of squally, windy, rainy weather. Oh, did we say that it rained a bit? When we have a lot of rain, we catch it and save it to give our water maker a rest. In Le Marin we had more rain than we knew what to do with. We filled our tanks, spare water jugs, buckets, tea kettles and anything else we could think of.   It was just a reminder that in all our lives a little rain must fall.  So we just waited for the sun to come back and the next adventure to begin.

Ding Dong the Easting’s Done

We are celebrating reaching the farthest east we’ll get this season. There are generally two ways to get from the US east coast to the eastern Caribbean. One is to leave the US and sail straight east and then south to the islands. This avoids sailing directly into the trade winds, which down south blow from the east day and night and drag the waves with them. Leaving from the US allows you to skirt them. The other way is to go south through the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands, heading east in little jumps.

Eastward Ho

Eastward Ho

This is called the Thorny Path, because each step along the way is going into the prevailing winds and seas … and this is not fun for the cruising sailor. You end up using the motor a lot. The boat is often covered in salt and the bucking and bouncing will drive you to drink. So it is with a lot of relief that we’ve reached the lovely island of Martinique, after which our course is west of south all the way to Grenada, our destination this summer.

We left the US Virgin Islands and sailed directly to the oddly bifurcated island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten. It’s half French and half Dutch – actually the French side is a little

French wine, Dutch gin how about 2 Canadians and an American with a good ol' brew

French, Dutch, how about 2 Canadians and an American drinking Dominican beer.

bigger because they say it was divided by giving a Frenchman and a Dutchman a bottle of wine and gin respectively and setting them across the island to meet up in the middle. Because the Frenchman was able to hold his liquor better, he carved out more land for the French. Anyway it’s the perfect island for the boater.

St Martin beach (French side)

St Martin beach (French side)

The efficient Dutch have every boat part and service you might want on their side, all available duty free to promote the boating industry.   The French side, of course, makes available the things in life that no true French person will live without – good wine, cheese, baguettes and produce. What a treat to come home with a fresh baguette every day. As we would come to see and love, the French do not forego any of their customary pleasures merely because they are living on a tropical island instead of the motherland.  To see some more photos click here.  To top it all off, we caught up with old cruising pals and spent several weeks together celebrating Carnival, Mary’s birthday and anything else we could think of.  Even watching planes land.

Entertained by the landing planes just barely missing the beach goers.

Mary's birthday shot

Mary’s birthday shot

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After a month of boat jobs and island living, it was time to move on. Do you get the theme of these late season blogs – keep moving south to get out of the hurricane zone for the summer.  But first we needed to stop and restock our haute couture cruise wear because our next up was to be St. Barth’s, the playground of the rich and famous. Another cheese and baguette laden island with beautiful Europeans playing in the sun. For us, though, the anchorage was quite rolly and, since we had been there before, we only stayed a few days.

Reminding us that life is not just a wine and cheese party, St. Kitts and Nevis, two islands that are thriving under self rule, reintroduced us to the rasta way of life.  Here the Rastafarian influence starts to exert itself and the smell of ganga is everywhere on the streets and the chill One Love attitude prevails. Goat curry, rum punch and exotic fruits are the order of the day here.   Who needs Hamilton tickets for Broadway? We went to the source and visited his birthplace right here in Nevis.

Montserrat

Montserrat

After St. Kitts & Nevis, we couldn’t resist the call back to France by way of Guadeloupe and Îles des Saintes. We bypassed Montserrat, and its brooding volcano which we’ll visit on our way back. But it’s yellow smoke and sulfurous smell even 4 miles out was unmistakeable. Volcanoes are the name of the game down here.

We say some islands are dog islands and some are cat islands, but Guadeloupe delighted us by being a chicken and goat island.

The island’s charms did not stop with barnyard animals roaming the beach.  Guadeloupe and its sister islands of Îles des Saintes have a je ne sais quoi above and below the sea making it hard to resist, and why would you want to.

“Boat boys” are men who greet boaters as they arrive and offer all sorts of services, sometimes being too aggressive and sometimes even playing both sides of the security racket, if you get our meaning.

Our pal Providence.

Our pal Providence.

The guys on Dominica have done something unique, which we wholeheartedly support. The “boat boys” got together to organize and regularize their services. They stomped out crime against cruisers and offer moorings, ice, fuel, BBQs and other services, as well as land tours of the lush Dominican interior. They really are pleasant to deal with and make you feel quite welcome in Portsmouth, their main focus.

After getting muddy in Dominica, we returned to France by way of Martinique.  The quaint little town of St. Pierre is where the entire 30,000 person population, save two, was wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 1902. The only survivors were a prisoner in jail saved by the massively thick double walls of his cell and a cobbler high on a hill.

remains of the historic 800 seat theatre destroyed by the eruption.

remains of the historic 800 seat theatre destroyed by the eruption.

The prisioner and survivor Cyparis, saved by the thickness of his cell’s walls.

The prisioner and survivor Cyparis, saved by the thickness of his cell’s walls.

The little museum dedicated to the eruption is interesting, as are the many walls and ruins left in town from the old town. Apart from these few relics, every thing in this town was destroyed. The museum shows a stack of drinking glasses fused together and melted down into mush, a pile of nails from a hardware store that were forged into a single mass by the heat of the volcano and porcelain dishes, usually impervious to heat, that were melted by the blast. The 4,583 ft volcano is still there looming over the town as a constant reminder.  So what do you do when a volcano looms large?  You hike to the top of course.  Or high enough.   Mt Peleé was quite a trek up and up and up.   It was 90° and sunny at the bottom and 60°, foggy and windy by the time we reached the second refuge.  A tough one but well worth the effort for the experience, vista and opportunity to meet several locals doing the hike, one young girl climbing barefoot.  We all had to pull back on the complaining after seeing that.

Click here for more Martinique photos.

 

It may seem like we are romping through the Caribbean … because we are.  Its July when we are writing this, hurricane season is underway, and we need to be south to avoid any risk.  Next season we plan to visit the islands we skipped and return to the ones we loved.

Los Estados Unidos

From the Dominican Republic we transited the dreaded Mona Passage without incident and landed at Puerto Rico. 

Samana Sunset

A clear sunset for our departure.  (thanks for the photo, Bruce)

We loved Puerto Rico because it has that friendly, laid-back Latin culture that we have grown to love, but since it is part of the US, clearing in is easy (just a phone call with local boater option) and provisioning was a snap.    We would have stayed longer but because the season is getting late and we needed to get south we blew through the area with only enough stops to whet our appetites for a return trip next season.   We saw a bit of the mainland and some of the beautiful offshore islands – the Spanish Virgin Islands of Vieques and Culebra.  The Spanish Virgins are beautiful lush islands where the birds and iguanas far outnumber humans.  We can’t wait to return.

We did take a bit of time to explore, stopping at the El Yunque Cloud Forest and the lavish St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort and, of course, exploring the beautifully preserved Old San Juan.  

Sticking with the US, we jumped from the Spanish Virgins to the U.S. Virgin islands of St. Thomas and St. John.  St. Thomas is quite populous and we were able to catch up with our nephew Nick who was living there temporarily.  

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Nick sailing us over to Christmas Cove for a day of snorkeling.

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Pizza π boat in Christmas Cove anchorage. Just dinghy up to their pick up window.

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Sea plane runway right behind our boat.

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These cruise ships are huge

After a few days of loud, busy Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas, we were ready for a little solitude.  And its easily found not far away in St. John, of which over 60% is national park lad.  Anchorages are undeveloped, uncrowded and beautiful. The water is clear and full of life.  This is why we do this.  

But the season is wearing on and we had to continue our journey south and east, so we were soon off to the French and Dutch islands for a little European flair.