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Exploring St. John Island in a Jeep

October 28, 1990|DOROTHY STEPHENS | Stephens is a free-lance writer living in Marblehead, Mass.

ST. JOHN, U.S. Virgin Islands — The sign hung from a tree on the easternmost tip of St. John: "Vie's Snack Shop--Two Hills Over!"

Our Jeep swooped up and down two more uninhabited hills and, sure enough, there it was across the road from the sea: A small, open-sided shack with three or four wooden picnic tables under a tamarind tree.

Vie stood behind the counter, long-handled spoon in hand, frying conch fritters, chicken and thick rounds of johnnycake. Grease spattered on the stove and a delicious smell filled the air.

My husband and I had visited St. John many times over the years. In a variety of rented or borrowed boats, and for a few years in our own 34-foot sloop, we had sailed the waters and anchored in the coves.

This time we had decided to spend a day touring the island by Jeep.

We had arrived from St. Thomas on the early ferry that morning. The captain had maneuvered carefully away from the dock at Red Hook through a harbor choked with dozens of yachts.

Twenty minutes after leaving Red Hook, we docked at Cruz Bay. We walked through the busy little tree-shaded square, past cafes and shops selling T-shirts, straw hats, souvenirs and film, and on up the hill to the Esso station where we picked up a map and the Jeep we'd reserved that morning by phone.

It's hard to get lost on St. John. There are few roads, most of them paved. All begin to climb as they leave Cruz Bay.

We headed out Centerline Road and were soon curving around mountains, descending into deep ravines, twisting and turning up each steep ridge. Between forested peaks we caught frequent glimpses of sunlit water.

Where the road dipped into the valleys, we plunged through tunnels of over-arching trees into cool green light. Wildflowers grew close to the road in scattered clumps of purple and orange and pink.

Almost three quarters of St. John is national park land--its beaches, coral reefs, mountains and historic ruins forever protected from development. We saw few houses until, from the top of a rise near the south coast, we glimpsed the village of Coral Bay, a cluster of tiny white buildings and red-tile roofs around a harbor at the foot of the mountains.

A rocky path sloped down the hillside for one-fifth of a mile and came out on the dazzling white beach at Salt Pond Bay. Like so much of the island, Salt Pond Bay is under the supervision of the National Park Service. The beach was immaculate. It was also uncrowded, with a handful of people scattered along its quarter-mile curve.

At the far end of the beach, a path threaded between the trees to a nearby salt pond. The trail skirted the pond and led to another bay, a 10-minute walk across a narrow peninsula.

On this arid side of St. John, the land and vegetation were in marked contrast to the green end of the island. Tall, gray-green cacti branched over our heads; others beside the path resembled giant spiny cucumbers with evil-looking flowers the size of apples growing at their tips like bristly red tumors.

Those younger (or more rugged) than we can climb the trail to Ram's Head, the high headland that guards the entrance to Salt Pond Bay. It is almost a mile to the top, some of it hard uphill work, scrabbling among loose stones and rocks on the path.

There is good snorkeling around the reef near the entrance to Salt Pond Bay, but you must either be a strong swimmer or have a dinghy to get there. Swarms of brilliant tropical fish, punctuated here and there by the gray, pencil-thin shapes of garfish, weave through the water, swaying back and forth with the current and moving warily away from the occasional dark shadow of a barracuda.

As we hiked back up to the Jeep, we could hear the wild donkeys of St. John thrashing away through the underbrush at our approach.

Originally brought to St. John to work on the big sugar plantations, the donkeys were long ago freed or escaped to run wild. Their numbers have increased over the years until they have become a nuisance, endangering traffic and eating the vegetation.

Back in the Jeep, we turned again toward Coral Bay. Just beyond the town, a windowless, tin-roofed, mud-and-wattle hut nestled against a hillside--one of the few remaining dwellings in which St. John slaves lived, though in the days of slavery the roof would have been thatch.

On an impulse, we turned off the main road to explore the less-traveled east end of the island. By now it was almost lunchtime and we were glad when we spotted Vie's sign.

When we had coasted down the final hill and parked near the tamarind tree, we sat on stools and visited with Vie while she cooked.

Bespectacled, with a thin face and pleasant smile, dressed in sandals and jeans and a clean striped blouse, she talked about her family--10 brothers and sisters, four children of her own--and about the food she serves.

"West Indian food only, and all homemade--except for the beer and sodas," Vie said. The fresh fruit drinks are made from the tamarind, soursop and passion fruits picked from trees on her family's land.

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