This is the fourth time Gail and I returned to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We had been there in 2010, 2011, and January of 2012. We decided to come back after only 10 months because the place where we stay on St. John, Maho Bay Campground, had lost its lease and was going to close in May 2013. During this visit we stayed nine days, from Tuesday, November 6, through Thursday, November 15.

The tent/cabin we were assigned to was A-30, located near the beach but seven flights of stairs below the bathrooms. Good exercise for our legs! We checked in at 7 p.m. That turned out to be too late for the restaurant, which was running on off-season hours, but we got some things to eat from the camp store. We also got beer at the store. Al really enjoyed his Blackbeard Ale. The Virgin Island Brewing Company really knows how to make a good beer; they contract it out. Blackbeard Ale is brewed in Monroe, Wisconsin!

During the past we've always come during January so we worried whether coming in November nearer to the end of the rainy season would mean that we would be rained out during much of our stay. That turned out not to be a problem. It did rain heavily during six of the nights of our stay, but not during the days. The daytime temperatures were in the mid 80s and at night it was maybe 10ºF cooler. The humidity really bothered Gail, but it did not matter once we got into the water. 100% humidity is better than 75% anytime.

On the other hand, we were tormented by no-see-ums during evenings, nights and mornings. Fortunately their bites did not itch after the fact.

On our first morning on St. John, we decided to snorkel from the beach right at the campground to check out our gear. It was a beautiful sunny day. Within a half hour of our going into the water, the display screen on Al's Canon PowerShot D10 camera went black. Oh, oh! Either the freshly charged battery was dead or the camera had leaked. It wasn't the battery. Al was disappointed for two reasons. First, he could not share with you the most interesting sights that we saw during our swims. Two reef squid performing a mating ‘dance’. A balloonfish. Transparent lavender moon jellies. A 5-foot long nurse shark. A small ‘garden’ of several dozen purple fanworms. An underwater seagrass field of conchs and sea stars.

Here are a sample of photos from the 5% of our snorkeling when the camera was working.

Gail floating over a small pillar coral

A smooth trunkfish with long-spined black urchins

A hawksbill turtle

Christmastree worms

Al was also disappointed in the camera's failure because it helps him to remember the fish we have seen. Every time we went into the water we saw new creatures. Seeing one he'd try to remember what it looked like to look it up in our guide book when we got back to the shore. But then he'd see another new fish in the next minute and forget the appearance of the previous one. Or he'd remember what the fins and body of the fish looked like but find that the guide book says he should have checked whether there were blue squiggles under the eye or some other detail. Or Al would remember that the fish was yellow and grey while Gail remembered it as being yellow and blue. Having photographs would have enabled us to sort out exactly what it was we saw.

Al brought his inoperative camera back to shore and then we started to swim to fringing reef on the far side of Francis Bay, a half mile away. Part way across, Gail found her snorkel was not working so once again we turned around and swam back to the beach.

Gail bought a new snorkel at the water sports shop, and we had an exciting snorkel to the far side of Francis Bay where we saw a balloonfish, a spotted scorpionfish, a green turtle with three remoras, sea cucumbers and a couple of sting rays as well as many of the fish we usually see.

On Thursday we rode Mr. Hamilton's taxi east to Haulover Bay where we saw rays leaping from the water before we even got into it. When we snorkeled, we saw a number of moon jellies as well as sand divers, trumpetfish, sea fans and lots of kinds of coral and other fish. Lunch was at Vie's Snack Shack where we had delicious garlic chicken and Caribbean rice and beans with meat sauce.

Mr. Hamilton's taxi

Vie's snack shack

Friday morning we went for a bird walk led by a National Park Service ranger. We saw 17 different species during our one-hour walk.

White-Cheeked Pintail at Francis Pond

Black-Necked Stilt at Francis Pond

High above Cinnamon Bay
After the bird walk, we decided to hike one of the park's trails, the Cinnamon Bay Trail. To get there we first walked the Goat Trail from camp to Maho Bay and highway 20 and we followed the highway 1 1/4 miles up and down a 200 foot high ridge to the trail head. The Cinnamon Bay trail itself is 1.2 miles long and climbs 900 feet from the ruins of an old sugar plantation to the Centerline road, highway 10. Except we went farther than that. We missed a right-angle turn of the trail across a stream bed and found ourselves wandering along what we later decided was a donkey trail. After about 200 yards we were clinging to trees and bushes, trying follow the trail on the side of a gully. When we finally turned around, we were surprised to find a young couple had made the same mistake and come up behind us. Once we got back to where the false trail started, Gail arranged some rocks as an arrow pointing the right way and Al piled brush across the donkey trail to make it harder to go wrong.

At the top of the Cinnamon Bay Trail, we followed the Centerline road a mile east. There we found the undocumented, but well used, Mariah Hope Trail which we followed back down to highway 20. When we got back to camp, it took two beers each to cool us down.

Maho Bay and Whistling Cay seen from the beach

A pretty flower

Our Sunday adventure was taking the 1-and-½ hour ferry ride to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. There we visited The Baths, a pile of large granite boulders left when the sea eroded the lava encasing them. The swell was heavy, as it had been since Saturday afternoon and would continue to be through Thursday, so we did not swim or snorkel there, but we had a great time exploring the tunnel and grottos to Devil's Bay.

Start of The Baths

Us in The Baths

Another watery grotto

Devil's Bay - the red flag means no swimming

The U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands are under two different governments, but have managed to share two important features: driving is on the left (although all vehicles have their steering wheels on the left), and the U.S. dollar is the currency in both.

We were concerned about how we'd keep our passports dry while we played in The Baths, but it was not a problem. There is a bar on the beach that rents lockers.

We snorkeled in Maho Bay, Francis Bay, Haulover Bay, Brown Bay, Waterlemon Bay, Hansen Bay and Salt Pond Bay. We saw new creatures each time we entered the water. Haulover Bay was the first place we saw the Moon Jellies. At Brown Bay, we saw an octopus, a large mutton snapper, and a field of seagrass filled with conchs and sea stars. The mating squid were at Waterlemon Bay as were the purple fanworms and a pair of grey angelfish. Our shark was in Salt Pond Bay where we also saw a banded butterflyfish. Along the north shore of Francis Bay we saw the balloonfish and a spotted scorpionfish. Between Maho Bay and Francis Bay we saw a large black margate and a small spotted moray eel. On the edge of Maho Bay we encountered a yellow stingray.

We swam more than we walked, but we did manage to hike the Brown Bay Trail, the Cinnamon Bay Trail, the Leinster Bay Trail and the Ram Head Trail. Carrying plenty of drinking water was a key to enjoying the hikes as was being able to go snorkeling during or after the hike.

We met people from all over during our stay, especially during our four outings on Mr. Hamilton's taxi. People from Vermont, Virginia, Minnesota, Connecticut, Rhode Island, a young French couple living in New York City, two Russians living in Boston, a woman from New Jersey who came even though a tree fell on her car the day before she left, and more. Many of the people we hung out with were campground volunteers who got their lodging for five weeks in return for 30 hours of work a week.

Panorama looking north from Ram Head, the southernmost point of St. John
The eastern end of St. John is on the right, Salt Pond Bay in the middle and the southern shore of the island on the left

Al on Ram Head taking his panorama photos
Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands is in the background

A Turk's Head Cactus on Ram Head with pink, tasty fruit

Peace Hill Trail head seen from Hamilton's Taxi
It was great! We had equipment failures, bruised and blistered toes, and pesky no-see-ums. But they did not prevent us from having fun. The end of our stay came too soon. We'll miss discovering new, to us, creatures underwater. We'll miss watching the brown pelicans dive into the sea after their meal. We'll even miss watching the schools of bar jacks hurrying one way and then shortly afterwards hurrying in the opposite direction.

Now that Maho Bay Campground is closing, where will we go? Will we ever visit Peace Hill and snorkel in Denis and Salomon Bays? Will we sample the food at Skinny Legs or Miss Lucy's? Or do we have to find a new island? Dominica? Vieques? Or really going afar, Maui in Hawaii? Where can we find a place that is not commercialized, that is low in crime, where we can hike and swim and enjoy the fish, birds and other wild life? Where we can afford to stay a week or two?