A few times in your life, you have an experience which becomes the measuring stick against which all other similar experiences, past and present, are measured. Our trip to the British Virgin Islands in September of 1993 guaranteed that none of our past trips could ever hope to measure up, and that future trips will have a tough act to follow. A fortunate convergence of time, place, weather, and personalities ensured that our expectations of vacations will never be the same.
Rick and I had been planning a sailing vacation for many years, though I had been reluctant to commit an entire trip to sailing for various reasons. However, we found a package offered by The Moorings, which combined 4 days at Treasure Isle Hotel on Tortola with 4 days aboard a crewed 50 foot yacht in the British Virgin Islands. This seemed like the perfect compromise, giving us a few days to explore Tortola, and a few days to try out sailing.
Our friends Doug and Jodi, who would be joining us, flew from Cleveland to Baltimore the evening before embarked on our adventure. As usual, our trip would take us through San Juan airport, where we would change planes to get to Beef Island/Tortola. Of course, Doug and Jodi's presence ensured that this trip would be far from ordinary. As if there were any doubt that our trip would be unusual, Jodi started the trip by ordering drinks -- mind you, the San Juan flight starts before 8:00 in the morning. Soon, Rick and Jodi were flinging pretzels over their seat backs to each other and we were laughing -- perhaps a bit too loudly -- over various inside jokes (the possibility of Jimmy Buffett sightings, who gets stuck with the coconut Life Savers in the Tropical Fruit pack, Captain Mo-Ron, etc.). Naturally, none of the other passengers knew what was so funny, and I could feel nothing but pity for the poor man sitting next to Rick, who was starting his first journey to the Caribbean.
As we made our approach to San Juan, I viewed the now-familiar landscape of the Puerto Rican coast and high rise hotels near the airport, feeling some of the cares of everyday life slip away as we got closer to our destination. We landed in San Juan right on schedule, which meant that it was just about lunch time. Since we wouldn't get to our hotel until late afternoon, we needed to eat lunch at the airport. Four hot dogs, four Coronas and $28 later, we were far from satisfied, but at least it would tide us over until we got to Treasure Isle. This was no surprise, as past experience had proven that it is a challenge to find a decent meal at San Juan Airport.
After eating, we made our way through the empty main terminal of the airport to the American Eagle gate. Doug and Jodi checked in without any problems, but Rick and I encountered some difficulty. Evidently, although our airplane had 47 seats, weight restrictions limited the plane's passenger load to 41. At that point, there was no room for us or an Australian couple unless someone were willing to give up their seat for a meager $100. As we waited, we considered alternate arrangements -- the later Tortola flight, or perhaps a flight to St. Thomas and ferry from there to Tortola. Neither seemed appealing, and ultimately, alternatives were unnecessary because the weight restriction on the flight was waived at the last minute. We hurried through a steamy passageway onto a bus which delivered us to the plane and found ourselves empty seats.
The Beef Island airport was reminiscent of every other Caribbean airport through which we've passed, save the fact that the lines were shorter and there were no Lufthansa or British Airways jets-full of people arriving. We arrived in the warmth and humidity that normally follows a recent rain shower, climbed down the stairs, and walked across the tarmac to the terminal. There, immigration awaited us.
A friendly, if reserved, immigration officer stamped our passports and wished us a pleasant visit. We then waited to claim our bags, which were driven over in a teetering pile on a flatbed truck. My duffel was purple, and Rick's red, so they were easy to spot. After a cursory run through customs, we met the driver of the shuttle that would take us to the Moorings.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Moorings airport shuttle was an open-air bus, full of about 10 other like-minded passengers. One couple hopped on board with cold beers, which inspired Rick to run to the departures terminal to get the same for us. Fortified with cold Budweiser longnecks (that's all they had; otherwise, it would have been Carib!), we enjoyed the short ride across the one-lane Queen's bridge connecting Beef Island to Tortola and along the southern coast of Tortola on a steep, narrow road. We had to re-orient ourselves to driving on the "wrong" side of the road.
Soon, the bus turned into the semicircular drive of Treasure Isle Hotel, a series of white buildings scattered across a terraced hillside, surrounded by palm trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus, croton and other tropical foliage, and located just across the way from Road Harbour. We checked in, and noted our 5:30 p.m. "briefing" at poolside. Our rooms were an arduous climb up four more flights of outdoor stairs, and then down one. Our trek was accompanied by small lizards slithering in and out of our paths and the sound of tree frogs. Wearing our traveling clothes and hauling luggage, we were soon drenched with sweat. So, after a quick survey of our rooms (standard white-tiled rooms with tropical-printed accents and a wall of sliding glass doors affording a panoramic view of the harbour), we changed into our swimsuits and headed for the pool . . . and the BAR.
Rick and Doug went for margaritas, while Jodi and I had rum punches. We checked out the offerings of the gift shop, vowing to return. Doug's growling stomach led him to try to find something to eat. Even though the restaurant was closed, Florence, a good sport of a waitress wearing numerous pins on her blouse, dug up a ham and cheese sandwich and french fries to calm Doug's hunger. Meanwhile, we lolled about the pool, drinks perched conveniently at the edge. What more could we ask for?
Promptly at 5:30 (clearly not island time), Merle Hill summoned us for our "briefing." After the obligatory jokes about Merle being related to me and Rick, we ordered a round of drinks and settled in around a small table in the cocktail lounge while Merle told us about all of the activities available to us. We made arrangements to rent a jeep for the next day, and to take a day trip to St. Thomas on Monday, and kept our options open with regard to the windsurfing, scuba diving, etc. In his excitement, Rick jostled the tabletop, causing much of our drinks to spill and making Merle glad that we were going to be someone else's responsibility beginning on Tuesday. The unfortunates who were to be our captain and cook were named Russell and Elizabeth Pentz. Alas, our captain was not named Ron . . . .
Dinner at the Veranda, complete with many more drinks, followed. Saturday night was barbecue night, so we feasted on chicken and ribs, bewildered by the number of servers attending us: the maitre d', the waiter, the cocktail waiter. It was a good thing that the service charge was included in the price of our meals -- basic tipping could have been tricky!
Anticipating that we would want a further frolic in the pool, we all wore swimsuits under our dinner clothes. We left the restaurant, dropped our clothes, and jumped in. JWe did a few mocking synchronized swimming drills (made simple by the shallowness of one end of the pool), but soon tired of water sports. Night falls quickly in the islands, with only a brief period of twilight before the evening pitches into complete darkness. The early darkness made us sleepier that we might otherwise have been before 9:00 in the evening, so we retreated to our rooms, Rick and I to Room 401, complete with mosquitoes sneaking in with the breezes drifting through our open screen door. Because I hate to deprive myself of the comforting "jungle noises" of the "peeper" frogs and crickets or the balmy tropical air, I am willing to suffer the discomfort of mosquito bites.