Virgin Islands National Park: Getting There


Tuesday, March 5, Bethany flew to Chicago in the worst March snowstorm the region had seen in years. Miraculously, she made it, and her flight landed safely and early at O’Hare. That evening, we hung out and ate pizza while Sean finished packing.

Next morning, it was off to O’Hare and our flight to Miami and then, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. Phil and Adam were flying from Detroit through Atlanta to the island.

I snapped a photo of some American jets parked at O’Hare, maybe the last time I’ll see a whole row of tails with the old AA logo.
Unusual occurrence: a moth kept us company inside the plane on the flight to Miami. Image: Sean M. Santos
Image: Sean M. Santos

We flew over the Everglades as we approached Miami. Sean described it as looking like a “great snakeskin” with its varied textures of water and vegetation. The flight from Miami was thrilling as we launched out over the Atlantic, occasionally spotting islands in the Bahamian archipelago.

At last we made our descent and touched down at Cyril E. King Airport at the western end of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. The airstrip extends into Brewers Bay, and it thereby offers an exciting over-water approach.

We deplaned via staircase to the tarmac, declined the offered free rum shots, and collected our baggage. Once outside, I called our car rental company to pick us up. While we waited by the curb we watched passengers of various socio-economic status and ethnic heritage find ground transportation and continue on their way. We also watched a mini-van pull up, and while the passengers were unloading, the driver set up bar on the back bumper and began pouring rum drinks from a cooler.

The view of the airstrip from the car rental office. Image: Bethany Cara Bray

Discount Car Rental was across a main road and up a steep hill (which promised to be a motif) from the airport. Sean and I checked in with Dorette. At first she was uncomfortable since our insurance was through Sean’s credit card (because we don’t own a car). But soon she was helpfully tracing out on a map directions to the car barge at Red Hook and grilling us about the weather in Chicago. In no time, the Bethany, Sean, and I were loaded into a Jeep Liberty and ready to head back to the airport to collect Phil and Adam.

Beforehand, I had been stressing about many aspects of the trip, everything from whether the weather would be nice to problems with the car rental to the prospect of driving on the left side of the road. But now that we were on the ground, each of these stressors was vanishing.

Even though the US Virgin Islands are part of the United States, people drive on the left hand side. The trick though, is that the cars are North American, so the steering wheels are also on the left. DIscount Car Rental’s parking lot is halfway down a steep hill off a two-way street only wide enough for one vehicle. So it was do-or-die almost immediately for me, the trip’s designated driver. We made it up the hill only to find a huge iguana sitting in the middle of the road. Luckily he moved.

We decided to pull over (like other cars) near a park a half block from the terminal. Sean hopped out to go fetch the guys, and Bethany and I had a chance to look around and see our first “We’re here!” sight. The photo below I took from the driver’s seat of the Jeep while we were waiting for Sean to return. O’Hare it wasn’t:


Our flight had landed just before 4pm, and by 5pm we were all piled in the Jeep and headed to Red Hook on the eastern end of St. Thomas, about 45 minutes from Charlotte Amalie.

It didn’t take me long to acclimate to the left hand driving, in part because these were totally unknown roads. I think if Chicago suddenly switched to the other side of the road, I’d be in deep trouble.

Image: Adam Geffen

In keeping with our run of good travel luck, we made it to Red Hook in time to catch the 6pm car barge, a tug called Roanoke. There were only about a dozen cars ultimately on the boat. Some were clearly driven by tourists, and for some it seemed that this was just part of the evening commute.

Image: Adam Geffen
Image: Bethany Cara Bray

The voyage to St. John took about 25 minutes. You can see it below in the soft evening light. The sun was setting behind us over St. Thomas. The denser collection of buildings is Cruz Bay, the major town. To the right, the southwestern part of the island is where most of the major resorts are located. To the left, the buildings melt away. That’s the National Park.

Cruz Bay buildings seen from the car barge as we approached the dock.

Once we were safely onshore in Cruz Bay (see map), we headed to Starfish Market near the ferry dock to pick up some groceries. Everything but the alcohol was expensive, but that was to be expected on the island. The selection was pretty great, though. As a native Detroiter, I was amused they carried Vernor’s.

Adam called Concordia to check when the restaurant there closed, since it was already 7pm, and it would take us another 45 minutes to drive there. He learned that Cafe Concordia was closed on Wednesdays and that the registration desk was also closing, but that they’d leave the key to our tent for us in the night call box.

With that, we were off on the drive across the island. In the dark. I was hoping to take Route 10, Centerline Road, which ascends out of Cruz Bay and follows the ridge of the mountains in the middle of the island. Everything I’d read said it was less steep and winding then Route 20, North Shore Road, which is more scenic and passes the most famous beaches.

Unfortunately, we soon found ourselves ascending out of Cruz Bay on North Shore Road. The route varied between forest and would-be vistas, which we of course couldn’t see in the dark.

“Beyond Trunk Bay’s entrance,” National Geographic writes, “be prepared for the road to sharply steepen.” Indeed. Although this warning had been in the back of my mind and was a large part of the reason I’d preferred not to tackle this route in the dark, it was upon us before I realized it. Not only does it steepen, but it includes three blind curves. As the Jeep, weighted with passengers and luggage, struggled to the top, it felt for all of us like those common nightmares wherein your vehicle tumbles backward on a steep slope. My stomach was in my throat by the end.

The remainder of the drive was less eventful. And with Sean and Adam navigating, soon we were at Concordia (see map). Only then did I realize, ha!, the drive might probably have been easier had I put the car in 4-wheel drive.

We got our key, unloaded, and drove down the road to Miss Lucy’s, which had been recommended in one of Adam’s guides, for dinner. They were about to close, so we continued further on to Shipwreck Landing, where they squeezed us in before the kitchen closed.

Then it was back to our eco-tent for sleep.

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