One might argue, I suppose, that winter does have it's moments -- skiing, hot cocoa, hot buttered rum, for instance. But frigid sport thrills and brief warm encounters just aren't enough to get by on.
After years of study it's become obvious to me that the best way to deal with the Cruel Cold Winter is to take a Nice Warm Vacation. And the way I see it, that means a trip to the islands.
I have tried to "tough it out," slip-sliding my way through week after week of Washington's freezing weather. And I've shussed my way down scores of slushy slopes, too. But since discovering one very special Caribbean area some years ago, I haven't spent another winter feeling wet and cold and sorry for myself.
My annual vacation salvation usually starts just east of Puerto Rico in the U.S. Virgins (St. John, St Thomas, St. Croix) and extends about 75 miles further east into the British Virgins (Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and about 40 smaller islands). All of the Virgins are nestled quite comfortably between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, a convenient geography that combines simple tropic beauty and natural solitude.
"An island is an island," you say.
I say that these islands are different.
I've just taken my second trip to Virgin Gorda, the B.V.I's "Fat Virgin." It's a fabulous little island, not quite deserted but far enough from the madding crowd.
After I parked my car at the airport, a non-stop jet flight from Dulles to San Juan was followed by a 50-minute air ferry in a small twin-engine plane. I was picked up at Virgin Gorda's airport by a taxi provided by my hotel, Little Dix Bay, and began a 10-day sybaritic interlude.
Owned and operated by Rockresorts, the luxury hotel group that also manages Caneel Bay Plantation on St. John, Little Dix Bay is often cited as one of the finest Caribbean resorts. (Indeed, the B.V.I can boost several fine hotels, including Biras Creek, also in Virgin Gorda; Long Bay, in Tortola; and Peter Island Hotel and Yacht Harbor.)
I arrived late in the afternoon but still had time to test the waters and stroll along the white, crescent beach before sitting down to a terrific dinner: iced strawberry soup, flounder stuffed with crabmeat and a mimosa salad accompanied by a carafe of white wine.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the rates at Little Dix and after almost 30 meals my only complaints are too trivial to mention. The food was always fresh and well prepared -- no small feat since almost everything comes in from the mainland. (Alas, most seafood comes to the islands solidly frozen, but attentive preparations by the hotel's first-rate kitchen staff seems to make the best of it.)
My spacious room was spare but elegant, a hexagonal affair with a ceiling fan and a balcony. It overlooked the palm-rimmed bay from a hillside heavily planted with mimosa trees and hibiscus and bougainvillea.
And, as always in the Virgins, the sun and surf are unsurpassed.
But for me, the best part literally comes last: The memories. Images of Virgin Gorda will be with me all winter. And I think they'll get me through until spring.
Unfortunately, though, your chances of getting there this winter are slim. Tourism is booming throughout the Caribbean, and both the U.S.V.I and the B.V.I tourist offices report record-breaking reservations this season. More than 90 percent of the available accomodations are already booked solid right through mid-April.
There are always cancellations, of course, and last winter I sneaked by with a very-last-minute booking that worked out quite well. So if you're determined to go this year, and if your schedule is flexible, you might luck out by writing directly to two or three hotels and hoping for the best.
Also, call or write the U.S.V.I. and the B.V.I. tourist bureaus. Both offices maintain lists of assorted accomodations that may become available due to booking mistakes or cancellations. The U.S.V.I. Government Information Center (phone 202-833-9194) is located at 1050 17th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20036. The B.V.I. Tourist Office (212-371-6759) is at 515 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022.
But if you can't get a reservation this winter, at least you have a head start on making plans for later in the year, or even next winter. Whenever you get there, you'll think it was worth the wait.
There are , of course, other popular islands that are warm in winter: Jamaica; the Windward and the Leeward Islands; the Hawaiian Island, and lots of others.
The Virgins, though, are special to me. The weather and the beaches are nearly perfect nearly all the time; there's hardly any rain, and yearly temperatures hover between 75 and 85 degrees. Accommodations are varied and plentiful with prices ranging from $20 to $200 per couple per day. Food and drink, while not generally of four-star caliber, is usually tasty and satisfying. And getting there is easy and uncomplicated.
By air, the Virgins can be reached conveniently and economically via the gateway cities of Miami and San Juan. There are even some non-stop flights from Dulles and BWI Airports direct to St. Croix. And there are scores of inter-island flights (short rides on small planes) that make connections to even the smallest of the island's simple and pleasant.
From the Washington area, Eastern and American Airlines are the principal carriers to the Caribbean. Both airlines will make reservations and issue tickets for all your island travels; they'll also find you a hotel if you ask for the service (which is free).
There are actually about 100 islands of various shapes and sizes that comprise the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, though only a handful are inhabited. Christopher Columbus apparently sailed by them on his second westward voyage and dubbed them Las Virgenes.
The Arawak Indians were abandoning the islands by the time the area was colonized by France, Denmark and England, around 1650. Denmark later bought out the French but sold what was known as the Danish West Indies to the United States during World War I. Only the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack now fly over the islands, but many nationalities and backgrounds are represented.
The majority of the islanders are of African heritage; many of them are descended from slaves who were brought from their homeland to run the then-thriving sugar plantations. The Islands also served as a base for slave traders. When slavery was abolished in 1848, both the population and the economy began to dwindle.
Today, the visitors usually outnumber the natives in the Virgins, and tourism is the islands' principal industry. Lured by a warm sea breeze and scores of incomparable, secluded beaches, tourists, by the thousands descend upon the islands throughout the year -- but especially in January, February and March, the traditional boom season in the Caribbean.
In the U.S. Virgins, the well-heeled globe-trotter and the more budget-minded traveler alike are also atracted to the duty-free shops. tCameras, liquor, jewelry, watches and many other luxury items are taxed at a rate that can make bargain-hunting as attractive as a warm, sandy beach. (U.S. Customs Service regulations designed to encourage tourism to U.S. island possessions allow American residents returning to the mainland greater exemptions from duty and taxes than travelers to other destinations.)
But the shopper's paradise, while boosting the U.S.V.I. economy, has taken a heavy toll on some less tangible pleasures of tropical travel. It is unfortunate indeed that Charlotte Amalie, the capital town of the U.S. Virgins and the largest in St. Thomas, has sacrificed much of its historic charm to the commercial developers who are crowding the island with hotels and shopping arcades. (A half day is the longest I've ever been able to stand the shopping district.)
Clearly, St. Thomas is not for everyone, despite the fact that it does offer the widest selection of hotels and has become a major tourist center -- and perhaps that's my only real complaint. In fairness, the worst aspects of the shopping scene will seem less aggravating if you can avoid the arcades when the cruise ships are in port. But consider yourself warned.
Actually, it's a constant amazement to me that anyone would opt for accommodations in St. Thomas when St. John is but a short, cheap ferry-ride away. It takes only minutes to get from St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, the largest settlement in St. John, but to my mind the two islands are light-years apart.
For one thing, St. John is much less developed than St. Thomas, and thanks to a 6,000-acre national park donated to the American government by Laurence Rockefeller and maintained by the U.S. Park Service, much of the island will probably remain unchanged for decades to come.
There's a lot less activity in St. John's, and fewer hotels and restaurants to choose from, but if you make your reservations early, you can bed down quite cheaply (in a tent on Cinnamon Bay) or you can spend big bucks at Caneel Bay Plantation (a luxurious compound popular for its secluded elegance). Either way, you won't be disappointed. Of course, there are also mid-range rooms and meals in St. John, most of which have received good grades from veteran travelers.
Activities of St. John are of the do-it-yourself variety, with much of it centered around the beaches. It is often said that the island offers some of the finest snorkeling in the Caribbean, and even non-swimmers easily can master the technique in shallow, crystals pools close to shore.
As a group, the British Virgins offer more seclusion and even less activity than their American counterparts -- but, aside from an almost imperceptible English impression, It's hard to tell them apart. (American citizens will need a passport, a birth certificate or a voter registration card to travel to the B.V.I., but that's the only complication.)
U.S. currency is the coin of the realm in both the B.V.I. and the U.S.V.I., so be sure to pack your checkbook -- and have a good trip.