It was the idea of our old sailing buddies. Let's charter another boat in the Virgin Islands, and visit all the places we loved before -- and all the places we missed. No phones, no mail, just the sea and the wind, the sun and stars.
And this time, they said, let's take the kids.
My vision of paradise began slipping away, like grains of the whitest Caribbean sand. But if they were willing to pack along an 8-year-old boy, his parents could hardly object. Their part of the package was two college-age children, 19-year-old Lisa and 24-year-old Ernie Jr.
We were not at all worried about how our son Steve would take to sailing -- he'd been doing it, as he'd proudly tell you, since he was about 2. What concerned me more was how he would take to the sea, for he arrived in the Caribbean with an extreme fear of fish. He had already been informed that he would not be allowed to wear a Band-Aid over his nose, as he had done once before when others at the table ate the dreaded species. But I despaired that I would take a child to some of the world's most beautiful beaches and he would refuse to go snorkeling.
Try as we might, it was, of course, impossible to duplicate the best moments of our previous trip. But this trip turned out to have its own special mem- ories: fantasy islands and memorable characters and even a search for our own sunken treasure.
Our home for two weeks was a 46-foot yawl; each couple had a cabin and a head, or bathroom, with the children arrayed on bunks in between. August is considered off-season and the discounts for chartering then are substantial. Anchorages are less crowded and restaurants, when open, often can provide more individual attention. The trade-off is the threat of the hurricane season and slightly higher temperatures.
We learned our first lesson the first night; the children's sleeping area was much too hot, particularly when the hatches had to be closed for a passing shower. Thereafter the kids played musical beds, sleeping on deck, in the cockpit or whatever space they could carve out of their parents' cabins.
Steve was usually the first to wake up in the morning, an uncanny skill he generally displays only on Christmas, birthdays and weekends. After the first day or two, he came under strict orders from the captain to stay in his bunk until 7 a.m.
We find it virtually impossible to sleep late on a boat, and so it's easy to adapt to "children's time" -- young children, that is. We rose with the sun and were usually in bed a couple of hours after sunset, which seems to occur early for summertime, about 6:30. Our "young adults," however, had a tougher time with that schedule.
Steve wasn't prepared to join us for a swim in those fish-infested waters of the cove off St. Thomas where we anchored the first night. But ever since we read him "Tom Sawyer" and "Swiss Family Robinson," he has been fascinated with islands -- particularly with the idea of discovering and owning one of his own. He begged his father to row the dinghy over so he could explore the tiny island nearby. He came back, bursting with the news that he had discovered "three rivers" on the island -- actually passages between the rocks -- and reeled off the names he had chosen for them.
Later, when I studied the navigational chart, I smiled.
"You know what the real name of that island is, Steve?"
After a couple of days, we took pity on the older kids, stuck as they were with a bunch of old fogies, and headed for the "action" of Cruz Bay, the largest town on St. John. It's a funky little bustle of tourists and natives coming and going, a good place to sit under a shade tree licking a Popsicle or reading a newspaper.
Ernie Jr. rented a motor scooter and spent a few happy hours zooming up and down the forested hillsides of this prettiest of the U.S. Virgins while Lisa and Steve joined us in shopping. We were on the lookout for sodas and groceries to supplement our boat's provisions; Steve was in search of ways to dispose of the small amount of spending money he'd been given at the start of the trip.
He was impressed when a saleswoman allowed him to finger a $1,000 emerald necklace, but he'll also probably remember Sparky's, a waterfront emporium for souvenirs and liquor, where he filled out his T-shirt collection through a "four for $9.99" sale.
Just outside the harbor he found there actually was an island named Steven Cay. But there was nothing particularly redeeming about it, and Steve showed no interest in claiming it for his own.
It was on to Cinnamon Bay, one of the National Park Service's outposts on the island and one of the prettiest beaches in the Virgins. The Park Service maintains a small museum on island history there, and offers a regular schedule of snorkeling lessons, nature walks and lectures on the island's sugar plantation days. But for now we were happy just to delve into our vacation reading on a crescent of white sand, while Steve constructed a "hut" out of dead palm fronds.
Ernie Jr., who had windsurfed before, rented a board there for a week. (They can also be obtained through most chartering companies and B.V.I. Boardsailing at Trellis Bay on Beef Island in the British Virgins.) It's an ideal way for a young person to get away from his parents at the end of a day of sailing. But we found the board and sail can be difficult to load back onto a sailboat deck; so after Ernie Jr. left in midtrip, that's where the board stayed.
Cinnamon Bay gave us a lovely day, but it exacted its price. As we weighed anchor, one of our two anchor lines came up empty, the anchor presumably chopped off on an unseen coral head below.
We have come to expect a few "downers" on these trips, and the prospect already of losing our $500 security deposit on the boat was one of the biggest.
We motored then to Sopher's Hole, on the west end of Tortola. This is the main island in the British Virgins -- or as we told Steve, "your first foreign country." We tried to stress the excitement of going through customs, but he quickly saw through to the bureaucratic rigmarole that it was. It also hit his parents in their pocketbook; by arriving in late afternoon instead of the next morning, we had to pay $8 in overtime charges and an additional $28 ($4 for each of our seven-member crew) for each day we planned to cruise in the BVI.
That night, we took our dinghy across the anchorage to Pusser's Landing, a restaurant operated by the rum company of the same name. The menu was not geared to children (few are in the Virgins), but the restaurant was -- with a large live parrot, an aquarium built into the bar, an attractive, if overpriced, gift shop and lots of historical lore about the role of rum in the British Navy. (I had always thought that "splice the main brace" was salty talk for doing fancy things with ropes, rather than the captain's order to serve up the daily ration of grog.) Within days, Steve was ordering Virgin pina coladas -- or, as he called them, "Virgin pinas" -- along with our not-so-virginal ones.
The kids got another ship break in the capital city of Road Town, but the streets there in August seemed hot and dusty, and the heat particularly relentless to an 8-year-old who was desperate for a hamburger. Enforcing my "we don't travel to foreign countries to eat hamburgers" edict, we ushered him through town to a restaurant a friend had recommended. Naturally, it was closed, so we settled on a nearby cafe'. Guiltily, I ordered him ice cream and scones, the only thing on the menu of salads and cre~pes that I figured he'd eat.
Ernie Jr. headed ashore again later that day to check out the night life, but Steve was content with quieter pursuits, such as reading, playing cards or stargazing. He devoured a "How and Why Book" on oceanography, particularly the section on submarines, and started Arthur Ransome's "I Never Meant to Go to Sea," about a family of English children who get swept out to sea in a sailboat.
But I kicked myself that I had failed to bring a guide to the heavens, because we had never before seen so many stars so clearly. With a shock I realized that growing up in the Washington suburbs, Steve had never been able to see the Milky Way, a fixture of summer nights when I grew up in the Midwest.
After four days or so, Steve was actually willing to swim a little off the boat and propel himself to shore by using flippers and hanging onto the small inflatable boat we'd brought along. (It also served as an effective on-deck bathtub one day when Lisa got an overdose of sun.)
The harbor at Road Town, however, was not attractive for swimming, particularly after we spotted the first jellyfish of our trip. The big purple fellows, though, were easily avoided when snorkeling and seemed considerably more benign than their northern brethren.
We had been keeping attuned to the weather reports to try to pick a good day to go to the Baths, one of the British Virgin Islands' prime natural attractions. On our previous trip we had run out of time, and ended up there on a cool, overcast day.
This time, though, the day was perfect. The Baths, I explained to Steve, look as if God dropped his bag of marbles at the edge of the sea. I was surprised that he did not want to go explore the big black boulders, but instead chose to sit on the sand and search for "emeralds" -- broken pieces of old green bottles worn down by the waves.
The tourist brochures describe "a unique rock formation with dimly lighted ethereal sea caves" and ads often show an attractive couple locked in a clinch in one of these secluded grottoes. I'm sure they're there, but I still haven't found them. What I did find, off one of the points, was an underwater fantasyland of big coral castles and fish that looked as if they had been painted in day-glo colors.
I decided I had to try to get Steve to take a look. At first he wasn't interested, but I persisted, and eventually he put on his mask and flippers. We took his boat for support, and before long, he too was hooked. He laughed at the sensation of finding himself in the middle of a school of small silver fish and talked eagerly about the variety of colors.
Ernie Jr. and his father, meanwhile, had spotted something else on the bottom: a loose anchor, in apparently good condition. Hoping to salvage our security deposit, they hauled it up. It turned out to be broken, but it got our captain thinking: Why couldn't we go back and try to salvage the anchor we lost?
Two days later, we undertook what we began calling The Search for the Golden Anchor. We were in luck. A boat that had been anchored near us when we lost the anchor had not moved since then, so we had a good reference point. The men set out in the dinghy, then anchored it and began snorkeling away from it. A short time later, our captain called out that he had found it, only to realize, red-faced, that it was the anchor to his dinghy.
But persistence paid off, and within an hour the anchor was found and hoisted out of 20 feet of water. We had indeed found a $500 treasure.
The next day we headed for Jost Van Dyke, a hilly island that is home to about 130 people -- and assorted farm animals. We were ready for a meal ashore and chose Little Harbour, where, the cruising guides told us, there were three native-style restaurants from which to choose.
Because it was my birthday, I suggested to my husband and son that they go ashore to check out the restaurants. But instead, they came to us. As more and more boats swarmed into the anchorage, three dinghies came out to meet us, passing out menus and making a pitch for our business. One, whose dinghy bore the name "Traveling Salesman," hawked T-shirts from his boat.
It was pig roast night at Sidney's Peace and Love (it appeared from the menus that there was a special event at one restaurant every night), so we opted instead for Harriss' Place. There we stuffed ourselves on lobster, red snapper and conch stew, topped off by freshly baked bread and a coconut pie unlike anything I'd tasted before. Steve, however, stuck to his steak.
But our son was beginning to learn lessons he could have never learned at a resort hotel: lessons about conservation and a life style we never would encounter at home. One morning we took a long hike up a hillside, past goats and donkeys and men who were attending church by listening to radios on their doorsteps. In the evenings, we heard the loud hum of generators, turned on at sunset to provide restaurants with light. We created our own version of the infamous garbage barge as we wandered the islands, looking for a place to unload our Hefty bags -- for something less than the $2 a bag the Peter Island Yacht Club was going to charge us. We watched people collect their rainwater in cisterns, which didn't seem like such a bad idea when we misjudged our rate of freshwater consumption and ran out.
Finally, at the end of the first week, Steve found the island of his dreams. Unfortunately, Laurance Rockefeller had beaten him to it.
It was Sandy Cay, as apt a name as any, a daytime anchorage with a wide, white sandy beach. But of more interest was a trail that circles the island, providing a botanical tour from banyan trees and sea grapes to scrubby cactus at the exposed northern end of the island. We saw lizards scampering through the brush and what looked like a hermit crab, and I'd swear it's the one place I thought I spied a banana quit, the famed "yellow bird" of the song of the same name.
Steve and Lisa, by now having announced their "engagement," planned where to build their house and a house for each set of parents. Steve solemnly explained that they would eat coconuts, cactus juice and fruits, once they had planted the trees. What more did anyone need? He had also decided the island could use a doctor and an artist, and had picked out homesites for each. We knew he had really been observant, though, when he added that the island would have a restaurant and a beach bar.
We saved Norman Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," for one last adventure: exploring the caves where pirates had reportedly stashed their loot 300 years ago. We had rowed in before; this time, by snorkeling, we were once again treated to the sight of fish we'd never seen before. Steve floated in on his raft, making sure we stayed close by.
Norman Island is also uninhabited -- and for sale for about $7 million dollars. But you can get informal meals aboard the William Thornton, an old Baltic trader sailing vessel that is anchored in the Bight.
We gathered around hatch-top tables as the rain pummeled the canvas roof and listened to a 12-string guitar player move through a repertoire of folk songs. After he sang a song in which he left his little girl behind on "Jost Van Dyke" instead of "Kingston Town" and others about St. Thomas and Tortola, Steve wanted to know if he knew any songs about his island, Sandy Cay. The man launched into what I can only describe as a Virgin Island protest song, about how they used to go and watch the turtles mate on Sandy Cay and it supplied all the turtle meat for St. Thomas, but now progress is ruining the islands. Steve was enthralled.
Before we left, we went back to his island one more time, to take some pictures and let him point out where he was going to build our house. He had named some of the "streets" the first time, and named more this time. We also checked out nearby Sandy Spit and Green Cay to make sure our island was the very best. After two of us stepped on sharp spines on the beach, we concluded it was.
It was true that we had had fewer romantic moments this time, and fewer conversations in which we tried to solve the problems of our children and the world. But we had seen the islands through the eyes of an explorer and a dreamer, someone for whom they remained a great adventure. We had found new islands this time.
And yet, Steve's vacation needs were not that different from our own. On the way home, I asked him what he had liked best about the trip. Was it Sandy Cay, I wondered, or snorkeling or taking the helm?
"Happy hour," he replied. "Can we keep having them once we get home?"
And I realized that in the rush of school and work and soccer games and piano lessons, even kids can appreciate the simple pleasures of sitting around with friends in the cockpit of a boat, sipping a cold drink and watching the sun go down.