When your last tropical vacation involved unimaginable horrors like low water pressure and plastic wine glasses and a boat nicknamed "The Divorcinator," the last thing you want on your next vacation is to rough it. On your next vacation, you want to be pampered. You want all of the high-end luxuries you missed on your last trip, like electricity and real silverware and hot water. And you most definitely want someone else to drive the boat.
We found all that and more on our recent trip to the British Virgin Islands.
Now, I know that most folks who frequent the BVIs are hardy souls who live aboard their sailboats and take quick Navy showers and don't own hair dryers. And to them I say, you have my utmost respect. I, too, have lived as one with nature -- on our last vacation, for example, there was a large spider in our house that made it impossible to get to the ironing board -- and I know that it takes a special kind of person to spend a week or two peeing in what amounts to a bouncing broom closet.
Our ten days of soaking up the modern conveniences sunshine began after a short direct flight from New York, when we arrived in St. Thomas, hopped the ferry over to Tortola, picked up our 4-wheel-drive, buckled ourselves in, and wedged our overstuffed luggage in place to serve as makeshift airbags.
That's because driving on Tortola is not for the faint of heart, or the fearful of heights, or the lover of life. Imagine that you're in the front car on a roller coaster. You approach the first steep incline and the coaster begins its ascent, inching its way up, up, up, until it's almost at the top, and then that dreaded clicking sound slows to a excruciating pace. Click . . . click . . . . . click . . . . . . And then comes that final lone click, and for one terrifying heartbeat there's complete silence.
The front car of the coaster peeks hesitantly over the edge of that first drop, and then, with an audible whoosh, the car suddenly plummets over the edge at breakneck speed, only to barrel full-tilt up the next incline, repeating the cycle until your eyes are watering, your stomach is flip-flopping, and your white knuckles have to be pried from the safety bar.
Now, throw in a dirt track studded with potholes and rocks; switchbacks set at absurdly steep angles; obstacles like goats, chickens, sinkholes, and hitchhikers; and a distracting postcard view around every turn, and you have a good idea of what it's like to drive on Tortola.
I realize this might sound daunting, but it's actually not all bad. For example, unlike on most other Caribbean islands, on Tortola you don't need to worry about remembering to drive on the left. That's because everyone drives straight down the middle of the road, swerving into their proper lane only at the last possible second, involving you in an unwitting game of chicken every time you leave the house.
And so it was with some trepidation that we double-checked our seat belts and followed the property manager up a one-lane burro path of rocks and rut and dizzying precipices to the house we'd rented for our stay, the charming Peach Cottage, which rewarded us with breathtaking views of St. John and the islands beyond.
The house also came with a sweet little cat named Bella. We quickly developed a mutually beneficial relationship, like those tiny birds that eat the bugs off hippos: I rubbed her belly and scratched her ears, and she kept the scarier tropical creatures that would have otherwise invaded our house at bay.
After getting acquainted with the house, we ran the route from the main road to the house one more time in the waning daylight to make sure we'd be able to find our way back at night -- left at the superette with the stray dogs outside; right at the crumbling yellow retaining wall; left at the house with the cow tied up in the front yard -- and then settled in to watch the sunset.
Soon we were hungry, and it was time to head out for some dinner. We'd driven on Tortola before, but our skills were rusty, so what better way to sharpen them up than with a first-night drive up and over the mountain . . . in the rain? Sure, that sounds stupid, but when Myett's BBQ ribs are at stake, you'd duct-tape yourself to a blind, three-legged mule to get there.
Angel has been teasing me for years about our last visit to Myett's, where I'd ordered the chicken because I liked the sound of their spiced-rum-and-tamarind BBQ sauce. Now, I am not a big fan of chicken. Not because it's dry (which it is), or because it's boring (which it is), but because it is often full of unpleasant surprises. Nobody ever finds a random vein or tendon in a bowl of spaghetti, but in a chicken breast? It's like a gristle-y pinata.
But that BBQ sauce at Myett's sounded so good that I ordered the chicken. A half-chicken, replete with bones and tendons and veins and those rubbery joint-socket things and god knows what else.
But oh, that sauce was good. It was so good that, like a crazed piranha, I proceeded to pick that poor little half-carcass completely clean, as Angel looked on in stunned silence. I'd never done anything remotely like that before, and I've certainly never picked a chicken clean since, all of which is a very long-winded way of explaining that Myett's serves some damn fine BBQ sauce.
And so we piled into the car and headed off to Cane Garden Bay. All was going fine until the we reached the last switchback, a hairpin turn set on an angle so steep that it's impossible to see the oncoming traffic, even at night. The only way to take the curve is by going wide, into the oncoming lane.
Me, I'd have closed my eyes and crossed my fingers and taken the turn wide. But Angel is a rule-follower. He always does the right thing, even when the right thing means almost certain death. And so he stayed in his own lane. But the angle of the switchback was just too steep; the turning radius too narrow. The car began to lose its grip on the road, and we began to slide back down the mountain . . . on our backs . . . in the rain . . . without a guard rail.
Even roller coasters don't usually do that.
Eventually we made it to Myett's, where we devoured tamarind ribs and coconut polenta and nerve-calming cocktails, and Angel inquired about a long-term rental so he wouldn't have to drive back up and over the mountain.
Of course we did make it back, and were greeted at the house by creatures great and small.
Obviously I'm getting the short end of the stick in this deal with the cat.
The next day we awoke to a glorious view.
And if we hadn't already planned a day trip to Virgin Gorda, we'd probably still be lazing around in that bed. But one of the things we like best about the BVIs is its generally efficient ferry system (even if most of the schedules do require you to get out of bed before noon). Some of the ferries are less, um, sea-worthy-looking than others, but for the most part they are fast, on-time, and inexpensive. Best of all, the ferry boats are typically operated by people who know how to drive them and dock them and avoid grounding them, which was a nice change for us. Ahem.
Upon arrival in Virgin Gorda we picked up the car we'd rented for the day, which came with an air freshener that probably doesn't sell too well north of the Mason-Dixon line.
It also came with a set of keys, which Angel proceeded to confuse with our other set of keys . . . for our rental vehicle back on Tortola. Now, I understand that normal people do stuff like this all the time. But in the nearly 20 years that I have known Angel, he has never so much as forgotten his keys, or temporarily misplaced them, or lost a pair of gloves, or left an umbrella behind at a restaurant. Do you know what it's like to live with someone who has never experienced a Senior Moment, ever???
It is maddening.
Thus it is with no small amount of glee that I tell you that Angel spent a good 15 minutes trying the (wrong) keys over and over and wondering how he'd locked himself out of a car that had been working fine when we picked it up just five minutes earlier. Eventually he gave up and used the phone at the Top of the Baths to call the rental company and inform them about the "faulty" keys; later, of course, he had to call them again once he figured out his mistake.
I am not ashamed to admit that watching him make that phone call was the highlight of this vacation, if not this year.
Once my 15 minutes of glory were up, our first stop was to re-visit the Baths. We hadn't been there in about six years, and back then Angel had to convince me that checking out a bunch of boulders was a worthwhile way to spend a day. I had been decidedly unimpressed by the time we reached the end of the path, not realizing that we hadn't even started yet, and that the "cave" is where the Baths really begin.
And so we slipped on our water shoes (the Baths are no place for any footwear that is not water-friendly and preferably equipped with suction cups on the soles) and took that same route this time around, following the narrow path down to the beach and the entrance to the cave.
The last time we were here, we didn't know much about the Baths, so we'd asked our elderly taxi driver, and his equally ancient buddy who'd come along for the ride, exactly how the boulders at the Baths had ended up there, expecting to hear something about volcanoes or landslides or shifting tectonic plates. Instead, both men had looked at each other, then replied with the exact same answer, at the exact same moment: "Creation." And the truth is, whether you believe in a higher power or not, it's easy to believe that the island's volcanic origins only partly explain how these massive granite boulders came to be strewn on the beach and balanced precariously on top of one another, as if tossed by the hand of a giant.
We spent the next two hours picking our way among the boulders, squeezing and shimmying and sliding our way along, all the while marveling at their immense size and ethereal beauty.
Occasionally it wasn't clear which way we should go, but there were a few hints.
Before our visit, I'd seen a review online which said that the Baths were no place for anyone over 40, which cracked me up. Then I climbed these 85 flights of stairs and cursed my own hubris.
The path ends at the beach, which on this overcast day lent an eerie grey tinge to the mossy, water-worn boulders.
After a short rest and a quick swim, it was time to head back.
Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves for not tearing our ACLs in the face of nearly insurmountable odds with a couple of frozen drinks at Top of the Baths.
Indeed, we were enjoying ourselves so much that it wasn't until 11:37 that I suddenly remembered that I'd made reservations for lunch at Little Dix Bay . . . at 11:30. This couldn't be happening! It was like one of those dreams where you show up for your final exam 3 hours late. You see, I am a planner with a capital P. I am organized and on time. I never miss an appointment (and never, ever miss a meal), and if I'm going to be late, I call. Things don't just slip my mind. And yet, the reservation at Little Dix had done just that, leaving me embarrassed and wondering if forgetting a lunch reservation is the first step toward forgetting that your pants should stop at your waist, not your ribcage, and that sandals should be worn sans socks.
And so I urged Angel to leadfoot it over to Little Dix, while he reminded me that we were on island time, and reassured me that they probably wouldn't notice if we were an entire hour late, let alone 10 minutes. He's probably right, I told myself. Heck, they probably never even put me in the reservation book . . . if they even have one, that is. We made a quick pit stop for directions to avoid the possibility of misreading our map, and were instructed to turn "at the gap," which (we eventually determined) refers not to the place where you buy khakis but to the place where you can next make a right or left turn.
Luckily the resort wasn't far, and in short order we found ourselves at the Little Dix security gate. We explained that we were here for lunch. And then the security guard uttered the most humiliating words I have ever heard.
"Oh," she said, eyeing a Log of Latecomers apparently inscribed with my name, social security number, and date of birth. "You're the 11:30 people."
"You're the 11:30 people"?!? I was mortified. I slunk down in my seat so she couldn't get a good look at me and mumbled something about island time and the Gap. She radioed ahead to the restaurant and repeated the damning words -- "The 11:30 people are here!" -- motioning us through the gate and making some kind of notation in the Log that I am sure will follow me around for the rest of my life, like a blacklist for lollygaggers.
We parked the car, raced down the winding path, and arrived sweaty and panting . . .
. . . to a completely empty restaurant.
That's right: They were expecting the 11:30 people . . . because we were the only people.
By this time I was so stressed out that despite the Beach Grill's lovely menu of grilled fish and salads and other island fare, I went straight for the pepperoni pizza. Nothing says "It's okay to be 12 minutes late" like extra cheese.
Once you make the decision to eat an entire pepperoni pizza for lunch, you might as well have a bowl of homemade potato chips and a Bailey's banana colada, too.
We also had a Planter's punch, a bowl of gazpacho, the grilled fish, and some of the best tuna tartare I have ever had. Which didn't work out too well for Angel, since he's the one who ordered it.
At least I think he was. You know what they say: Once you hit 40, no more climbing ladders for you, or remembering who ate what for lunch.
If you can even remember to show up, that is.
The next day was Christmas, and it was the worst one since that year I received a pink bottle labeled "toilet water" and realized that Santa really was keeping a list. Click here for Part 2, or click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know when a new post goes up!