Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Week: Tortola, British Virgin Islands

It gets better – Part One

Cane Garden Bay is mentioned in a Jimmy Buffet song: “I hear it gets better, that’s what they say, as soon as we sail into Cane Garden Bay.” – Manana He was right.

It was time for our biennial visit to St. John in the US Virgin Islands and we tacked on a few extra days to visit another island while we were there. Remembering the song, I looked up Cane Garden Bay on the Internet. CGB is part of the largest British Virgin Island of Tortola and because it’s British, we needed our passports to stay. But it would only be a short ferry ride from St. John and all the Virgin Islands, both US and British took US currency. The bright pink building in a website photo caught my eye. What reeled me in was the $80/night price tag. With tax it was around $100/night. You just don’t find those kinds of rates on a Caribbean island so I booked a few days.

We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived on Tortola. After a week on St. John in the very cushy Westin resort, we were a tad nervous about what $100/night would get us. The first thing we noticed about the island was how bad the roads were. We had rented a single scooter on St. John for the week and managed to tool around without killing ourselves (we had nicknamed the red UM the “Scooter of Death”). We had talked about renting a scooter, perhaps for the day, to explore Tortola, but the taxi ride from the ferry terminal revealed not only steeper and more narrow roads than St. John, but hairpin turns, pots holes, and giant ruts, which put an immediate end to our scooter idea. Without transportation we were stuck in the bay. Would there be food? Would we be bored? Would we drive each other crazy?

Our questions were answered as the taxi dropped us off at Rhymer’s Beach Hotel. The pink building stood out from all the tropical greenery surrounding it. In the small parking lot we saw the entrance to a convenience store and farther down was a sign for the hotel’s restaurant. Relived to know food and supplies were near, we entered. After checking in the desk attended led us to our room. We walked up a flight of stairs and down a long hall. A doorway at the end of the hall glowed in sunlight. Just like in that ghost movie we kept walking closer and closer to the light. The woman stopped at the last door in the hallway.

She opened the door for us with the room key. It was an actual key, bronze with a large plastic tag that had our room number on it. After using electronic card keys for a week this was quite a throwback. We entered the room. It was…underwhelming. The biggest shock was seeing two twin beds. My husband, Christian, was thrilled. “Woo hoo! I get my own bed!”

There was a small TV with cable on a dresser. There was a small kitchen nook with a sink, stove, cupboards and a mini-refrigerator. Next to that was the bathroom. Small also described the bathroom, but it was clean. No tub, just a shower. The shower had a window at the top that let light in from the outside. From it I could also hear the sounds of the bay. It wasn’t much, but it would do. We dropped our bags on the beds and walked out through the light that had blinded us earlier. Our jaws dropped.

We stood on a rooftop deck filled with all kinds of lounge chairs, tables and upright chairs all bright white plastic. Two giant palm trees shaded the south side. Before us was the beach that made up CGB and beyond that the bay itself. Jost van Dyke was so close I could swim to it. In the distance was the faint outline of St. Thomas. The brown sugar sand beach stretched for over a mile. Below us people relaxed in blue lounge chairs. We could hear reggae music coming from somewhere. Our tiny hotel room was next to this? Sweet!

We spent the afternoon wandering the beach, getting to know our new home. The three buildings to the south of us were all restaurants, some with mini-suites attached. After that were some souvenir shops. After that some private homes painted bright blues, yellows and greens. After the last house was a bit of a gap that led to a graveyard, creepy yet cool, and after that was a small lodge with a series of cabins. Our hotel was a long way away at this point, but we kept walking. Toward the end of the bay was another restaurant perched above the rocks with a wooden staircase that led to it. The sign said “Gone Fishin’.” Hungry we decided to stop. We saw no customers, but it was two in the afternoon, a bit late for lunch, too early for dinner. A tanned young man told us to sit anywhere we liked. We chose a place in the shade, but facing the water. The young man said that they still had some of the fish remaining that the owner had caught that morning if we wanted a sandwich.

“He catches his own fish?” my husband asked.

“Yes, almost everyday, depending on the weather. He doesn’t always catch anything, but today was a good day.” We couldn’t resist fresh caught fish. It was perfectly grilled, just a little crispy, with only some lettuce and mayo added to the bun. With all those Caribbean spices, it didn’t need anything else. Some potato salad finished off our hunger.

The long walk back to the hotel helped us burn off lunch. We chose to walk on the road so we could see what else CGB had to offer. After walking past the graveyard we were rewarded – with a grocery store! We were so excited to find a store we bought a week’s worth of food for a four day stay. We bought some melons and bananas, potato chips, some bagels and jam and, most importantly, two six-packs of Coke and a bottle of rum.

Just before sunset we again ventured along the beach wondering what to do for dinner. We could hear an electric guitar and people applauding ahead of us. The music was coming from a place called Myett’s that we had walked by earlier. Upon entering we were treated to the musical stylings of local Cap’ Eye. Cap’ Eye was an old white guy in a t-shirt and Khaki shorts strumming a guitar. He also had a keyboard/drum machine keeping the beat. We were surrounded by people as we walked up the steps and toward the bar. Christian ordered two bottles of beer and the waitress asked if we wanted Presidentes? He yelled over the music, “Why?”

“Because it’s happy hour and Presidente’s are two for one!” she answered. Well, that was a no-brainer. We managed to find two bar stools on the far end of the room. This was behind Cap' Eye’s make-shift stage, which was really just a small section of floor. No one else was behind him, but as soon we found some seats, a few other people followed us.

“Havin’ a good time?” a gentleman with white hair and beard asked us.
“Yes!” we shouted and tipped our bottles to his. For his finale, Cap' Eye broke into Brown Eyed Girl and the entire bar, including us, were shouting, “la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, tee da!” I was out of breath by the end of the song. Then happy hour was over.

“Cap' Eye is great!” the gentleman told us after he finished his set. “He sings here every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday” He then introduced us to his wife (of 30-some years) and asked if we had been on Tortola before. When we told him no, he went into a whirlwind of words telling us how wonderful the island was.

“We’ve been coming here for 19 years,” he said. He knew most of the crowd at Myett’s and introduced us to more people than I can remember. Most were retired or semi-retired people from the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, who saved just enough money to spend two to three months of the year in Cane Garden Bay. None were especially wealthy. They were brick layers, accountants, sales people, teachers, mail carriers and the occasional lawyer. They stayed in the mini-suites of Myett’s and Elm’s and the various other small hotels in CGB priced not much more than the Rhymer’s. They had potluck meals once a week and spent their days reading books, playing dominoes and singing at happy hour.

“You have to come back here for dinner in a few hours, about 8 o’clock,” he said. He told us that they had a fish grill every Saturday and that for $35 each we’d get our choice of fresh caught fish, plus steak or chicken and two sides and it was the best on the island.

“The host will give you a tour of the grill and you pick your meat and fish before you even sit down.”

Later that night when hungry for dinner, we wandered back down to Myett’s, but checked out all the other restaurants we had seen earlier in the day. Oddly, none were open. The fish and steak were everything the gentleman had said they would be and served with beans and rice. We enjoyed a steel drum player tapping out island tunes in the corner. After all the beer we drank earlier, we were fine with couple of cokes. The evening breeze gently blew through the restaurant and the waves could barely be heard above the music, a great end to the first day.

We spent the next morning snorkeling the coral reef that ran under CGB. The best access was the far west end of the beach, near the rocks. I was amazed to find such a large and beautiful reef full of fish in such a busy bay, another pleasant surprise. After a morning of swimming, we returned to Rhymer’s to lounge on the beach for the rest of the day. The only mentally challenging thing we had to do was find dinner.

On this particular evening, only Stanley’s next to Rhymer’s was open. Stanley’s was serving a fish and chicken buffet. Delicious, but it was our third straight meal of fish with a side of rice and beans. We asked our server why they were the only place open and he let us in on a secret. Each restaurant had its own special buffet night. Myett’s was Saturday. Stanley’s was tonight. That way each restaurant in the bay was guaranteed a full house at least once a week. Our server said that tomorrow night would be Elm’s turn.

We were looking for something to do the rest of the evening, but being a Sunday, there wasn’t much. We ventured over to Quito’s Gazebo because we could hear music. Quito Rymer was Tortola’s most famous reggae musician and the Gazebo was his nightclub. As we approached people spilled out of the doors onto the beach and crowded the second floor balcony. Reggae music blared from inside. Excited to see such a happening place, we approached expecting to do a little dancing. Unfortunately we neglected to notice how dressed up the patrons were; men in suits and ties and women in dresses and high heels. Turned out we had just missed a local island wedding. The floral wedding canopy was still in the sand in front of the building, ribbons blowing in the wind. Some gentlemen at the door turned us away saying the entire building was rented out for the reception. Disappointed we returned to Rhymer’s and drank rum and cokes on the balcony. Although we never made it in, we could still hear the music from Quito’s while we watched the stars.

End of Part 1

Useful Links:
Myett's Garden & Grill
Rhymer's Beach Hotel
Quito's Gazebo
Tortola, BVI