When we started planning our trip to the Caribbean I initially suggested that we spend our entire time on St. John. The husband, aware of how small the island is, was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough to do (read: enough to keep me entertained). We agreed to split our time between the two islands.
We don’t regret doing so. We needed to experience St. Thomas, or it would have remained the great unknown. However, we can say with confidence that, while we may return to St. John, we will not return to St. Thomas (except to get to St. John). St. Thomas is a fantastic island for those who like to shop (there is an entire street full of jewelry shops) and to lounge on beaches (believe me, we lounged on our fair share and they are beautiful). But, there isn’t a lot to do in our sense of things to do. Perhaps that’s because it’s a popular cruise ship port, so it naturally caters to those there for a limited amount of time. It’s hard to describe. Let’s just say that St. Thomas is not our island.
We were scheduled to catch the 4 pm ferry from St. John to St. Thomas on Wednesday, May 4th. We had yet to wander the streets of Cruz Bay, but given our open-air jeep we couldn’t very well go into town early and leave our suitcases in the back. So, on Wednesday morning we headed over the hill to Cruz Bay. The husband, by this time, was feeling somewhat more confident on the narrow, windy, hilly roads. We were beginning to interpret the liberal use of horns: go faster, go ahead, have a good day, you suck. It’s an entire language that we, from polite Washington where almost no one uses their horn, found both startling and mystifying.
We headed to town, holding our breath for the umpteenth time as we passed the massive dumpsters filled with garbage. There is no street side pickup on St. John. Dumpsters, parked here and there, are dumped on a semi-regular basis (though not regular enough in that humid climate). There always seemed to be a herd of goats gathered near the dumpsters (we were honked at if we slowed for goats. Apparently the locals hold to the theory that they’ll get out of the way if you barrel towards them without slowing. We didn’t test that theory.)
We arrived in Cruz Bay, found a lot to park in after some struggling, and headed towards the first coffee house the husband had seen for a number of days. It proved to be a further trek than anticipated, so we were dripping by the time we arrived (common, by day five) and selected iced beverages. We took a seat at one of three tables on their small patio and started chatting. Conversation turned towards our transition to St. Thomas and we wondered if the 4 pm ferry was our best choice. We wanted time to stop by the grocery store, do some laundry and get settled without feeling rushed. We pulled up the ferry schedule and decided a 2 pm departure time was very do-able. The plan to roam the streets of Cruz Bay was ditched as we darted into only a store or two (the husband is lucky I’m not much of a shopper) before heading back to our side of the island to pack up.
It was actually the best thing that we could have done. Leaving early allowed us time to do all of our chores and have time to enjoy the pool at the condo (we had to do something while the laundry churned).
Which brings us to rum…another aspect of the sugar plantations and part of the reason we wanted to get to St. Thomas earlier than planned (so we could enjoy a proper happy hour).
The still house was the heart of rum production on the sugar plantations. Remember Annaberg Plantation? During the height of production there were two 300 gallon and four 200 gallon fermentation tanks in its still house. These tanks (called “butts”) were filled with water, molasses and other sugar-rich waste products collected throughout the sugar-making process. Once fermented, the “mash” was put into a still chamber (there were two 250 gallon stills at Annaberg) and brought to a boil. The rising steam contained alcohol vapors, which were forced into coils of copper tubing that were submerged in cool water. As the hot alcohol vapors cooled they reverted to liquid in the form of rum. Raw rum exited the cisterns into the still house where it was barreled and stored. Every estate had its own methods for aging and curing its rum.
One final history lesson, as we leave St. John and approach St. Thomas. It’s actually, perhaps, the lesson I should have started with: how did St. John become such a huge producer of sugar?
The USVI (a unincorporated territory of the US, meaning that residents are citizens, but can’t vote. I’m sure they’re broken-hearted given the quality individuals running for President this year. Ahem…I digress…) was purchased by the US from Denmark in 1917. However, the Danes were rather late to the Caribbean; Denmark established its first colony on St. Thomas in 1672. By that time, all of the larger and more agriculturally productive islands of the Caribbean had long been occupied and claimed by other nations. It wasn’t long before the Danish settlers on St. Thomas sought to expand their colonial holdings. In March 1718 the Governor, accompanied by five soldiers, twenty planters and sixteen slaves landed in Coral Bay and claimed St. John in the name of the Danish Crown. As with all European colonies throughout the Eastern Caribbean, the heavy burden of establishing and manning plantations fell to thousands of slaves and their descendants, who rapidly came to represent the vast majority of the region’s population. It’s their history that resonates on the small island of St. John. And when you’re there, if you take the time to get off the beaten path and quiet yourself, you will hear the story of this island. We did. It’s not a story we’ll soon forget.