Friday, February 22, 2013

Travel Book Review: Adventure Divas by Holly Morris

Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for Women Who Are Changing the World

by Holly Morris

The book’s overarching story is of a woman and her mom’s efforts to create a television show about divas - their definition of diva. And it has nothing to do with fashion and glamour or popularity contests. These are women that are changing the world, be it revolutionizing a jail in India or courageously pursuing art against her government’s dictates.

While Holly’s tale of struggles and triumphs is interesting and inspiring all on its own (I love the idea of quitting my job and traveling around the world in a quest to meet amazing people and earn money from the venture), it is the stories of the women Holly meets that really makes this book worth reading. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the tales and thoughts and words of wisdom from these women. Not only is their courage to change their lives and the lives of others inspiring for our grand ideals, but they also impart bits of advice we can use in our daily lives. I won’t spoil their messages for you. :)

After reading this, I began considering my higher purpose a little more. I was also left with the strong desire to hug little orphaned orangutans at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center in Borneo...

If you are looking to be inspired by what women of the world are doing these days to help society and the environment, this will be a good read for you.

If you read it, let me know what you think!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Planning your own Tropical Vacation to St. John - U.S.V.I Part 6

Below you will find information about St. John and St. Thomas, including ferries, car rental, accommodations, food, and beaches. I hope you find this information helpful when planning your own tropical vacation!!!

The ride from Red Hook, St. Thomas to Cruz Bay, St. John’s cost $6.00 per person and took about twenty minutes. (It cost $13.00 per person for a taxi from the airport to the Red Hook dock.)

The ride from Cruz Bay, St. John’s to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas cost $12 per person plus $2.50 for each piece of luggage (anything larger than a bag or backpack will be stored separately) and took about forty-five minutes.  

Travel Tip: If you plan to sit on the upper deck, you might consider applying sunscreen beforehand or having it available. It gets pretty bright and intense up there (and if you got sunburned the day before, it doesn’t feel too good).

Ferry Schedule: (I recommend checking at the docks or with your hotel, in case this information changes.)

We rented a Ford Focus from L&L Jeep Rental. There are plenty of rental agencies, so you might want to shop around for the best price. A Jeep is a good option if you want access to some of the beaches that are only reached by traveling a rough dirt road.

Parking Tip: It’s free to park in the National Park Visitor Center employee parking lot after 5:00pm.

Cinnamon Bay Campground (St. John’s) - This is the cheapest place to stay that we could find on the island. Rather than bring all our camping gear with us, we opted for a furnished tent, which cost us $93 per night plus taxes. We were assigned Site #21, which is extremely close to the beach, so I would suggest requesting this spot if you can. The tent was adequate, the showers were cold, and they’ll give you blankets at the front desk if you ask (our tent was only supplied with two thin sheets). Bring bug spray - there are gnats and mosquitoes at night. There is a small convenience store that sells ice for the provided cooler. Use the provided bin to store food - Nick left bread out one night, and a critter got at it. 

Galleon House Bed and Breakfast (St. Thomas) - The Galleon House is a short walk from the dock (just be aware that part of it is uphill). Our room was simple, and it had it’s own air-conditioning unit. We had a shared bathroom, but we never encountered who we were sharing with. The showers are hot. :)  A light breakfast is served in the morning - we were given the choice between three options. At the front desk, they keep a binder of restaurant menus, which I found helpful. Our room rate was $115.55 per night.

Dolphin Mart - The small grocery store is located in Cruz Bay, a short walk from the dock. It’s small, but will have any provisions you need for drinks, meals, and snacks. There is another market called Starfish, but I heard that it’s more run-down (I didn’t check).

Skinny Legs Bar and Grill - This is located near Coral Bay, just past the turn off for Salt Pond Bay. It’s got a nice, relaxed vibe and some good live music. The food, although typical American pub grub, is not half bad. The homemade vinaigrette makes my otherwise plain salad really good, and Nick’s burger is alright.

Vie’s Chicken Shack - I heard that this is a good, locally-owned place to grab lunch. It’s on the road on the way to East End. I didn’t get to try it, though, because it’s closed on Sunday (and Monday).

Rhumb Line - The pricer restaurant is in Cruz Bay, but it has good food. I also love the open air courtyard; it’s lovely with the sun shining and in the evening. We ate here for their Sunday brunch, which is a slightly different menu. I loved my mango gazpacho, and Nick really enjoyed the berry-filled French toast. We ended up coming back here one night for dinner, and we shared a variety of small plates of the tapas menu. Each tapas comes with two servings, such as two chicken skewers or two tiny pork rolls, so each plate is only a small amount of food. I thought the tapas were alright, but they definitely didn’t stand out. And my overpriced $12 mojito wasn’t very good, either. (All the drinks on the island are overpriced, but I think they should be pretty darn good for the price I’m paying.) We tried the oreo cake for dessert, but it ends up being an ice cream cake (maybe I didn’t hear correctly), which didn’t really interest me. 

Sweet Plantains - The pricier restaurant is located on the road to Salt Pond Bay, not too far past the turnoff. I had heard it was excellent, but unfortunately I didn’t get to eat here. Even though their website says it’s open on Sunday, it was most definitely closed when we arrived around 6:00pm. So, you might consider calling ahead.

Shipwreck’s Landing - When we discovered Sweet Plantains was closed, we drove a little further down the street to this popular restaurant. Both times when we’ve driven by, it’s been crowded. Warning: It’s difficult to find a parking spot (at least it was for us). We didn’t eat here because I wanted something a little nicer than burgers on my birthday, but based on its busy atmosphere, I’m guessing it serves pretty good food.

Morgan’s Mango - The pricier restaurant in the Mongoose Junction shopping center in Cruz Bay offers an interesting menu. I recommend a Hurricane Hugo as a wonderful way to begin. The Jerk Chicken quesadilla appetizer is also really good. The pork tenderloin with potatoes and vegetables tastes pretty standard, maybe even a little overcooked. We each get our own dessert - the chocolate mousse cake and blueberry bread pudding are both delicious.

Deli Grotto - This is a reasonably priced deli located in the Mongoose Junction shopping center in Cruz Bay. It seems like a nice place to grab breakfast or lunch, but I was only interested in their baked goods. :) The chocolate caramel bar was sooooo good.

Baked in the Sun Bakery - This is a cute little coffee shop not too far down one of the roads coming off the roundabout (I can’t remember which one) in Cruz Bay. We had coffee and couple pastries. The peanut butter ganache brownie and rugaluh were both really good.   

Glady’s Cafe - This Western Indian cuisine cafe is located in one of the alleys in Charlotte Amalie. We enjoy a tasty lunch of conch fritters (basically a local version of clam fritters), fresh homemade guacamole and chips, and a Jamaican Jerk chicken sandwich. Oh, and we try a soursop colada, made with a local fruit (it’s actually not sour at all and very tasty). West Indian is the local cuisine, but these restaurants close when the tourists return to their cruise ships (the locals don’t want to eat what they cook at home), so keep this in mind if you’re interested in tasting the local cuisine. 

Tavern on the Waterfront - There aren’t many dining options during the evening in Charlotte Amalie, so we chose this restaurant over a couple others because the menu sounded more interesting. We sit on a tiny patio only large enough for two small tables, and we have it to ourselves for most of the meal. Aside from the roaring buses passing by occasionally, it’s quite nice. My almond-crusted snapper is delicious, and I savor every bite of my chocolate lava cake. The Monkey Around Town frozen drink (banana, Baileys, Kahlua, rum) is good, too.

There are many beaches on St. John’s, and we didn’t see them all. The ones we did visit are on Cinnamon Bay, Trunk Bay, Francis Bay, Hawksnest Bay, Honeymoon Bay, and Salt Pond Bay. Cinnamon Bay was where we stayed, so we usually chilled on the beach for a little after returning from our excursions around the island. Our favorite was Trunk Bay, but it’s also the busiest and the only one that charges a fee (~ $4.00 per person). Get there early to enjoy time before the crowds and also so you have an easier time finding a parking spot. Francis Bay has some snorkeling, and supposedly there are turtles there sometimes, but we didn’t see any. Honeymoon Bay is only accessed by taking a short downhill hike, but this makes it less populated. Salt Pond Bay is a nice point from which to watch the sunset and not be on the more developed west side of the island (and probably the sunrise if you want to get up that early).

Swimming is really nice because it’s pretty calm surf and the water temperature isn’t that cold at all. Be careful, though, because if it does get choppy, the waves can knock you down - we watched a few people get knocked over because they were standing in the wrong spot. The snorkeling honestly isn’t that impressive after being to Hawaii. It was still fun, though, so bring or rent your snorkel gear.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Tropical Birthday Vacation!!! - U.S.V.I Part 5

January 22, 2013
We’re lucky enough to get seats on the upper deck of the ferry to Charlotte Amalie, so we’re treated to sunshine, a warm breeze, and a good view of St. Thomas’s coastline - rocky cliffs with multi-million dollar homes and resorts scattered across the hillside. As we approach the port, two looming cruise ships dominate the view, and it’s clear that this island is definitely more developed than St. John’s. It also has a much different vibe than St. John; it’s crowded with bustling cruise-trippers and barkers trying to entice you into their shops (at least in downtown). Charlotte Amalie is considered downtown, and it’s streets are full of stores. When we kept passing jewelry store after jewelry store, we began to wonder why, until we realized that St. Thomas is duty-free - a lot of money can be saved by not paying taxes on an expensive purchase. (I wasn’t in the market for any glittery, posh jewelry, so we didn't enter these shops, but I did find a nice pair of locally made metal earrings at the open market near the dock.) 

Merchants sailing to the islands for sugar cane would need weights in their boats for the journey. When they reached the islands, these weights would be unloaded to make space for the heavy sugar cane. Islanders used the rocks, shells, and coral to build walls. 

We seek out Blackbeard’s Castle, which includes climbing a flight of 99 stairs, but it’s really just a hotel. 

It’s late afternoon, so we decide against taking a taxi over to Magen’s Bay, even though I would have liked to see it. Instead, we relax on the patio of our hotel and wait for the sun to set over the islands in the distance.

Ahhh, to have a warm shower! Unfortunately, it’s still not enough to rinse all the sand from my hair. :(

Charlotte Amalie definitely quiets down after most of the tourists have returned to their cruise ships. Because of this, most of the shops and many restaurants are closed, too. We enjoy a pleasant dinner on a tiny patio that we have all to ourselves.

In bed, the nighttime sounds of waves and frogs and rain are replaced by the loud and constant hum of an air-conditioning unit. I appreciate the bed big enough for two and the shower with warm water, but I think I appreciate nature’s cacophony more.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My Tropical Birthday Vacation!!! - U.S.V.I. Part 4

January 21, 2013
This morning we got up early; actually, I always get up early when I’m camping. It’s something about the sun rising and being outdoors that really makes me want to start the day. And when your plans involve the most popular beach on the island, it’s an especially good idea. We arrived at Trunk Bay around 9:00 am, and we had it mostly to ourselves, which provided unobstructed views and a peaceful tranquility. (I think these are the best conditions for enjoying nature.) We were able to choose our “perfect” spot on the nearly empty beach, but our solitude didn't last long; as more and more people arrived, their towels and loud voices inevitably encroached. On beaches, you must relinquish the concept of personal space. All the beaches on St. John are beautiful, but in our opinion, this one is the nicest (except for the crowds). We spend hours basking in the sun, baking to a crispy pinkish hue, and regretting not applying sunscreen sooner.

We walk in the soft, white sand and swim in the sea. The waves are a little choppy today, making the visibility of the reef murky. There are plenty of colorful fish, but it’s mostly barren of living coral. 

I’m actually getting better at my cold shower routine - yay! - but the trickling stream has nowhere near enough pressure to rinse the sand out of my hair that I acquired when a wave knocked me down and dragged me through the sandy surf. I scratch my head all night, grit lodging beneath my fingernails and sandruff sprinkling onto my tank top.

We drive into Cruz Bay for the evening and meander around a bit, finding a good spot to watch the sunset, having a drink at St. John’s Brewery Tap Room - some of the best root beer I’ve ever had! At Gecko Gazebo, a tiny outdoor bar, I try the Chocolate Banana Bushwacker, a frozen concoction of seven liquors mixed with fresh banana and chocolate syrup. It’s yummy - and effective.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Tropical Birthday Vacation!!! - U.S.V.I Part 3

January 20, 2013
Happy birthday to me!!! When I get up in the middle of the night, Nick sings me Happy Birthday. :)

In the morning, a parade of soldier crabs traverses our campsite; you have to watch where you step. I think they are returning to the forest after their nightly foray to the ocean. 

It’s a short drive to Francis Bay, where we snorkel in the turquoise blue water with a blessedly mild-temperature. I fully expect to see turtles, based on someone else’s experience, but not a one. A small disappointment. The coral is mostly dead, but there are some large and small schools of fish swimming about, and some colorful, tropical fish, too. 

East End is just that - an end. No beach, no bay, no nothing except private drives and property, so we turn around. We keep driving across the island, down any road that’s paved. Eventually, we end up in Cruz Bay, and we decide to stop for lunch. Next up, is a short, downhill hike to Honeymoon Beach from the Biosphere Reserve parking lot, but we don’t stay long. And it’s a good thing because it starts to rain as we trek uphill back to the car. A small disappointment. We wait out the rain in our car and then spend some time laying out on Hawksnest Beach. It’s more cloud bathing than sunbathing. Today, the weather has been more of a dreary, drippy, overcast day, than a sunny, tropical beach vacation day. A small disappointment. We eventually give up and return to Cinnamon Bay, where we don’t find any sun, either. So, we give up on beach time and decide to just go start drinking instead.

I’ve come to a realization: Not only do I extremely dislike cold showers, but I don’t like tolerating them either. I would rather skip showering, but that’s hard to do when your hair is full of salt and sand. On my next beach vacation, I think I might splurge for an actual hotel room, so cleaning off is refreshing, rather than torture. But I survive, and it does feel good being clean.

The restaurant I chose for my birthday dinner is mysteriously closed (it’s normally open on Sunday). A small disappointment. There are a few other restaurants nearby, but nothing that captures our eye tonight. The only other option is to drive over to Cruz Bay, on the opposite end of the island. We take Centerline Road, which runs down the center of the island. We’re about a mile away from town when we turn a corner and traffic comes to an abrupt stop. There is a long line of red brake lights glaring back at us. We never get close enough to see what happened, but after about ten minutes, cars begin turning around, and we do the same. I guess the roads are so narrow that if an accident happens, it become impassable. So, we have to drive all the back to Coral Harbor where we can cross over to North Shore Road, which runs along the coast. And then we still have to drive the entire length of this road before we reach Cruz Bay. Yet another disappointment. My stomach is growling and grumbling and voicing all sorts of dissent by the time we park almost two hours later.

It’s during this third cross-island commute of the evening when all the little disappointments of the day swirl unbidden in my mind. The bay devoid of turtles and the dead coral. The overcast weather and rain. The closed restaurant. Too much time in a car. And it hits me: oh my god, I have the TRAVELER’S CURSE. Basically, the more you see and experience as you travel, the more you discover beautiful little bits and pieces of our world. The problem is, they’re never all in one place. So I find myself, on this beautiful tropical island vacation that every single person I know is envious of, comparing the dead reefs to the vibrant coral I snorkeled through in Hawaii; the yucky weather to the warm, sunny beach days I experienced in Costa Rica; the dingy cot and frigid shower to the big, comfy bed and warm shower I could escape to at the all-inclusive resort in Cancun. I’ve had so many incredible experiences that I can not simply enjoy a new one without comparison. Hmmm, this will have to change...

Dinner is lovely (and the two drinks definitely perk up my dampened spirits). As a birthday treat, I get to order my own dessert! Yay!! (Of course, I eat some of Nick’s, too.)

Sometime during the middle of the night, my eyes open and I’m wide awake. I silently step barefoot to the beach and sit in the sand, a starry sky above and the high tide almost reaching my toes. And I discover that I’m ready to cultivate an inner calm, a state without positive or negative. I’ve learned this, but I’ve resisted in the past, because I didn’t want to give up happiness. Who wants to let go of that high? But now I realize that happiness is a dangerous emotion. It’s difficult to perpetually sustain because if I honestly judge my circumstances and experiences, they don’t always evoke happiness. And when the door is open for this positive emotion, it provides space for negative emotions to fill the void when it’s missing. They are yin and yang; one can’t exist without the other. I wouldn’t understand the pleasure of happy if I never experienced the devastation of sad. Happiness is based on judgement, altered by expectations, founded on preconceived notions. I don’t want to live in a world of judgement and expectations anymore, where I can be disappointed as easily as I can be elated. Instead, I will strive to create an inner calm, a contentment with life, an acceptance of being as I am and as things are at that moment. I am grateful to this journey, to the cloudy skies, for helping me learn this lesson.

Friday, February 8, 2013

My Tropical Birthday Vacation!!! - U.S.V.I Part 2

January 19, 2013
We’ve arrived! The weather is warm and tropical, and the easy sound of an island accent floats in the air. The man working the taxi area officiously takes charge, informing me that there’s not enough time to catch the ferry from Charlotte Amalie, so we’ll have to go to Red Hook. Taxis are done differently here; instead of a meter charging you for the duration of the ride, each passenger pays a set price depending on your destination. So, taxis accommodate eight to ten passengers going to the same destination or somewhere along the way.

Cruzy Bay, the main port of St. John, is filled with shops and restaurants, but it’s a compact town and easily walkable. After picking up some food and drinks (we plan to fix our own breakfasts and lunches to save money as well as prevent interruption of our beach time) at the Dolphin Mart, we pick up our rented Ford Focus. It’s easy to drive around the island, since there are only a few main roads, as long as you remember to stay on the left side of the road. In case you forget, they’ve considerately painted arrows on the street every so often to help you remember.

And I would definitely recommend a car on this island; while not large, the towns and bays and beaches are separated by steep, twisty roads that makes everything not as close as it would seem if you’re just looking at the map. There are taxi services available, but if you are planning to spend more than a day here, I think you’ll appreciate the flexibility of deciding where and when you want to go.

Along the way to Cinnamon Bay Campground, we stop to walk the short distance to the top of Peace Hill, where we’re treated to a beautiful view, and to check out Hawksnest Bay, where we’re treated to a beautiful beach (you’ll begin to notice a theme soon, if you haven’t already). 

The amazing view from Peace Hill

Hawksnest Beach

We’ve rented a furnished tent for three nights (campsite # 21), and we’re delighted to discover its close proximity to the beach, a short path maybe twenty yards long. The tent is sparse, but it has the necessities: four cots (our biggest surprise, we laughed when we realized we wouldn’t be sharing a bed), a bin and a cooler for food storage, and sheets/towels. Outside, there is a picnic table, and a propane grill with a lantern attached. Cinnamon Bay has it’s own beautiful beach, of course, so we doze in the sun for an hour or so, feeling a little tired from our lack of sleep the night before.

It’s late afternoon when we drive out toward the east side of the island (Cruz Bay is on the western point). The road is crazy steep with hairpin turns and barely enough space for two vehicles to pass each other. Feral donkeys are moseying around and munching grass on the side of the road. We take the road to Salt Pond Bay and watch the sunset from the empty beach, the silhouettes of moored sailboats swaying in the sea, black against an orange horizon. 

Driving back to Cinnamon Bay later that night, the radio plays the electric slide, reggae-style. Laying on my tiny cot, the coqui frogs are singing in full force, and that’s when I realize that they’re actually singing, “coo-kie, coo-kie, coo-kie.” I  must have been one of these frogs in a past life; it explains why I like cookies so much. Another voice adds to the cacophony; it makes me think of a woodpecker banging against a steel drum - tink tink tink tink. The crashing waves lull me to sleep, but every now and again I’m jolted by a thunderous, booming wave.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My Tropical Birthday Vacation!!!...has a bumpy beginning - U.S.V.I Part 1

January 18, 2013
We’ve just boarded our fourth and final plane, on our way to Virgin Islands National Park. This park is located on St. John, an island in the Caribbean. Since it is my goal to visit every American National Park, I am obligated to include this park as well, located in U.S. territory. I could think of worse things than escaping to a tropical island in the middle of winter.... And I’m so excited! This is the first time I’ll have ever traveled on my birthday, which is on Sunday, not to mention the first time of actually being warm on my birthday. As someone that has definitely grown a strong distaste for chilly temperatures, this is a special treat. (Oh yeah, and I get to check a national park of my list.)
Settling into our seats, Nick comments how smoothly our travels have been, considering we’ve already taken three flights today (Austin to Dallas, Dallas to Houston, Houston, to Miami, and now Miami to St. Thomas). Fast forward not even five minutes. The captain makes an announcement that the airplane has a mechanical issue. Fast forward another hour. The captain makes an announcement that it’s now too late to fly to St. Thomas airport, and our entire flight is rescheduled for 6:00am the following morning. Mojitos, anyone?

Sad faces because we're stuck in Miami. :(

Instead of mojitos and a first-class Cuban meal, we’re treated to a shuttle to Comfort Inn (where we feel as if we’ve entered a time warp back to the seventies) and vouchers to their buffet. It was a sad, dismal looking buffet, and I never would have paid to eat there, but I was starving. So I ate my tilapia and chunks of pork, and it wasn’t half bad. (And the brownies were actually good. All two and a half of them. I probably would have eaten more, but I only brought two back to our room.) You need to find the bright spots in moments like these. Oh, and a travel tip: If you ever find yourself in this situation: ask about your hotel options. The next morning, we discovered they also provided vouchers to Double Tree, which is a much nicer hotel.