It’s been over two years of cruising in some very cool and interesting places like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia but other than a few islands in the Sea of Cortez and off the coast of Panama we have essentially been coastal sailing off North, Central and South America.
Well, it’s a whole new ball game as we’re in the heart of the Caribbean and will be spending the remainder of our adventure island hopping around the Leeward Islands before heading back to “civilization” ahead the next hurricane season. In a way, the island hopping began when we left Colombia for Aruba but since we were parked there for this year’s hurricane season, in our minds, we didn’t start “hopping” till we left Aruba.
So, where are we, how did we get here, and where are we going? Yeah, yeah…it’s been a while since we gave a full update so here’s the skinny:
We left Aruba in October after three months in the awesome Renaissance Marina in downtown Oranjestad. We’ve mentioned this in previous posts but the marina was part of the Renaissance Resort complex which includes 2 hotels, 3 swimming pools, 2 casinos, a beach club, fitness center and numerous restaurants and bars. Needless to say, if you have to be somewhere outside the hurricane zone, we can’t think of a better place than Aruba.
But all good things must come to an end and since we wanted to spend a few weeks (or more) in Bonaire, by mid-October it was time to move on. However, before hitting the high seas, we needed to make sure our boat gear was working after being parked for so long so we left the marina and anchored in the same small bay where we had arrived 3 months earlier. And, it’s a good thing we did. First, we needed to ensure our new windlass was working properly – which thank goodness it did. But, after that, we discovered the outboard engine for the dinghy was not working. Then we ran out of propane. Nothing major but we’re glad we discovered the issues and had them resolved before we left.
Our first “hop” was a relatively short 120-mile overnight sail from Aruba past Curacao to Bonaire. But, before we talk about Bonaire, I do have to explain why we by-passed Curacao since I have family there and it was definitely on our list of places to stop.
First, we had already done a quick overnight trip — by plane — to Curacao and had seen some of the highlights. Second, we had been told by a number boaters that it was not that conducive to short stops. Apparently it’s a hassle to check-in and out with Customs and Immigration. Third, even though it is a relatively short distance, due to strong winds and currents, it would be an overnight sail to Curacao then we would still have another long sail to Bonaire. In the end, although we would have loved to spend some time in Curacao and I really feel terrible, it just made more sense to go directly to Bonaire because we could do it in one shot while we had good weather.
You know those pictures you see of perfect places with crystal clear water that looks too good to be true? Most of the time they’re photoshopped but if you see pictures of Bonaire, let us assure you that they are not. Of all the places we’ve been to (and there have been a lot!!!) we’ve always told people we’d never seen crystal clear water like we did during our previous sabbatical in the Bahamas. Well, we stand corrected because the waters surrounding Bonaire were as clear, if not clearer, than the Bahamas AND we were moored (no anchoring is allowed anywhere in Bonaire) in 30+ feet of water just 100 feet from shore in the main town!!! You can just imagine how clear the waters around the reefs would be. As a matter of fact, we were moored right off one of the many dive centers and the water was so clear the divers just jumped in the water off the dock and we often had them scuba diving under our boat
Besides the crystal clear waters, abundant marine life and spectacular diving that Bonaire is famous for, the town of Kralendijk had a quaint downtown with lots of waterfront shops, restaurants and bars, and a number of small inns and villas as there are no major hotels on the island.
Sounds ideal right? Yeah, the plan was the stay for up to a month, take a full PADI diving course, get back to kayaking, snorkeling, swimming and enjoying life on the water again. Sweet…except we still had 400+ tough miles of northeast sailing to do and, along with favorable winds for the next week or so, we had a full moon to guide us through 4 nights of bashing upwind. So, you guessed it, we left beautiful Bonaire after just 5 days to head for the Virgin Islands before the infamous Caribbean Christmas Winds, which start in December, socked us in Bonaire — which may not have been a bad thing except we promised our mothers (plural) we’d be in St. Kitts for Christmas (more on this later).
Now don’t get us wrong Bonaire was memorable but, in hindsight, we made the right decision to leave when we did. The 4 days and nights of sailing/motor-sailing northeast from Bonaire to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands were not exactly “island hopping” but they were leaps and bounds better than the beating we took sailing from Colombia to Aruba. We actually sailed about half the time and found the nights calm enough to eat a cooked meal and even sleep for a few hours at a time. Dare I say that it was almost enjoyable — except for the rotating 2-hour night shifts and the scary lightening storm that hit just south of Puerto Rico. The icing on the cake is the Virgin Islands are a measly 120-miles (upwind) from St. Kitts, which means we can take our time and do some real island hopping before we have to be there.
Our first stop in the USVI was St. Croix, the largest and most “remote” in the chain as it is a whopping 35 miles away from the more popular St. Thomas and St. John, and relatively speaking it does not get a lot of tourists. But, to us, it was an oasis after 4 days and nights at sea. We anchored in Gallow’s Bay, just off the main town of Christiansted, which meant it was close to everything, including US Customs and Immigration (a very easy check-in), all the restaurants and bars on the boardwalk, a great gourmet grocery store, and the marina. Plus, we rented a small car for the day and were able to see most of the attractions the island has to offer, including the Yacht Club and Point Udall, the most eastern point of the United States.
Our next “hop” was a picturesque 35-mile sail (yes, we sailed the whole way) to Charlotte Amalie, the main city on St. Thomas, as we needed to check-out the marine facilities and do some duty-free shopping, which is what the island is famous for, right? Can you believe that a 1-liter bottle of Stoli Vodka is only $9 at the grocery store? Plus, the other lesser known brands for $3 a liter!!! Damn, we thought we were in danger of becoming alcoholics in Mexico with its cheap beer and tequila but I see we are going to need massive discipline here. Who says the Caribbean is expensive? Oops, seems I went off on a tangent with the vodka. Anyway, since we knew we were returning to St. Thomas, we left after a few days for a quick hop over to St. John, the jewel of the USVI.
St. John is the jewel of the USVI because most of the island and surrounding water is a national park (donated to the US government by Laurence Rockefeller) and as such there is limited development and, except in a few specific locations, boats are not allowed to anchor – they must use park moorings. In addition, there are only a handful of major hotels as many tourists stay in villas that range from small huts to multi-million dollar mansions.
We headed straight for Coral Bay as it is one of the few places on St. John where you can anchor (i.e. it’s free) and because our cruising and tourist guides described it as a hip, artsy community with a few stores, galleries and some eclectic restaurants. Now, we didn’t expect San Francisco but we think they oversold it. It has tons of boats at anchor, many of which look derelict, a couple of small grocery stores, 3-4 interesting looking restaurants and a cool floating bar. But, it seems to meet its purpose and we were able to grab a bus from there to the main town/village of Cruz Bay, which has significantly more restaurants and shops, and is where the ferries from St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands land. It’s also where the national park HQ is located.
After a couple of nights in Coral Bay we sailed around the island to gorgeous Francis Bay on the north side of the island. And, after the underwhelming experience of Coral Bay, we have to say that we now understood why people rave about St. John. Francis Bay is a very large, well protected bay with clear water, white sandy beaches, good snorkeling and secure, inexpensive moorings ($15/night). Plus, even though it’s only a few short miles from the crowded anchorages of the BVI’s (the most popular charter boat destination in the world), there were lots of moorings available. Regretfully, since this was just an exploratory visit and we knew we’d be back, we only spent a couple of nights here but we could have stayed for two weeks and been perfectly content.
But, island hopping was the mission so we sailed 14 miles back to St. Thomas and dropped the hook in Megan’s Bay. We’d seen pictures of this beautiful bay, which has a mile-long white, sandy beach and, though we’d been warned that it gets really busy when cruise ships are in, knew we needed to check it out for ourselves. Well, we’re not sure if it was too early in the season or we were just lucky but it was a great spot as there were no other cruising boats (just a few local boats on private moorings) and even when the cruise ship tourists arrived they tended to cluster around the bar/restaurant leaving the more remote parts of beach free for wandering. And, once 4 pm rolled around they headed back to their ships. In short, Megan’s Bay is definitely on the list of places the revisit but we had one more stop to make before returning to Charlotte Amalie for a while.
We had met cruising friends from the Netherlands while we were in Panama who told us we have to stop in Christmas Cove on Great St. James Island (yes, very appropriate) and we’re so glad we did. It’s a small bay that is a less than a mile from St. Thomas but it’s got clear water, a good reef for snorkeling, free moorings and, if you didn’t look at all the lights from St. Thomas, you’d never know it was so close. Definitely another stop worth a revisit.
We’re now back in Charlotte Amalie where we plan to enjoy Thanksgiving and hang out for a while before hopping back to St. John then embarking on our next major “hop” 120 miles south east to St. Kitts for Christmas with our mothers. For those of you who don’t already know it, my family is from St. Kitts and my mother lives on the island. Audrey’s mother, as well as her brother (Jerry), his wife (Mary)and daughter (Carolyn) are all flying to St. Kitts to spend the holidays with us. As you can imagine, we can’t wait to island hop down to St. Kitts and see the family as well as all the development that has apparently happened since my last visit, including a mega-yacht marina that is selling 100-foot + boat slips starting $2 million each!