Monday, May 10, 2004

(Goin' to the Beach in St. Thomas)

Before I got into today's journal entry, I want to mention something that I forgot in yesterday's entry. I showed you a picture of an iguana. It was kind of small. The guide said that there are rarely large iguanas on the island because (even though it is illegal) the teen kids tend to catch them and eat them.

I noticed when I was in San Juan yesterday that there was a ship with a very unusual end. I took a picture from a ways away, but it ended up being parked right behind us this morning so I was able to get a better shot. You can't really tell from this angle, but the section that goes forward from the gigantic sky bridge is VERY long (if you look under the bridge you will see a lot of people, which should give you some idea of scale). Basically you walk up this long (and VERY wide) catwalk up a story or two directly into the disco. It is suspended about three or four floors above the deck of the ship by two pillars, which presumably have stairways or elevators in them. It is really impressive. A girl who was looking at it told me that it is their disco. This is a good design, because our disco is too near cabins and makes a lot of noise. However, I can't even imagine the extra cost that would go into this disco. The view from there must be incredible. It is a bigger ship than ours anyway, and considerably more luxurious. I wish that it was one that we owned, I would have loved to have taken a look inside. :(

Today I made a second (and much more successful) attempt at a shore tour in St. Thomas. This time I took a free one, and signed up earlier for it. It was still the only one left, but at least it looked like a decent one. It was called "The Ultimate Island Experience." How can you go wrong with that? I'm not sure it was the ultimate way to experience the island, but I liked it. There wasn't a whole lot to it, we all piled into modified pickup trucks, which are really common here. They take the bed off, and weld a long bed with steps coming off of the driver's side, and benches. There is a roof on it, but it is open on the sides (but with a canvas cover than can be pulled down in rain). They are used both to take out tours, and as a taxi. I AM glad that this tour was free for me. Not because I didn't like it, but because it costs $40 for guests, but you could do the exact same tour for $12 -$18 if you just chartered one as a taxi.

We headed out a very winding road up into the mountains. I don't know if you remember my description of being driven around in Barbados my first day, but it seems that the rules are about the same here. There are a couple of differences, however. The roads are a tiny bit wider, there are actual stop signs, and there are marked "no-passing" zones. However, the rules are still the same. EVERYTHING is considered a passing zone, no apparent speed limit, and driving on the left. The odd thing is that this has been U.S. owned since 1917, but they still drive on the other side. The cars were NOT left-hand drive cars, though. Since we were sightseeing, our driver was going pretty slow, which meant that we were getting passed like crazy. A cop even passed us, going uphill into a blind corner in a marked no-passing zone, and he didn't seem to be in a hurry or chasing anyone. Several people behind him did the same thing, even as they could see a car coming around the corner. Since it is accepted, though, it doesn't seem to upset anyone. The oncoming car slowed and moved over a bit, and everyone is very courteous about it.

For the "Experience" part of the tour, I think that the driving WAS the experience. We did stop at an overlook, where they were (as is required by tourism laws) selling crap out of tents. They also had a donkey with a towel that they also sold (the towel, not the donkey) on its back, and with those gigantic sunglasses on. They had named it Monica Lewinsky, which they seemed to find hilarious. The towels were kind of cool. They had a map of the islands, and a pouch at the end that could be turned inside-out to carry the towel. A guy was selling drinks out of a cooler, and the ice looked like it had been broken down from a very large block, the cubes were bigger than Rubik's cubes. The view was great from here. It was great all the way up, but I couldn't ever get a good picture because of trees and cars. In this picture you can see both the Destiny and the other one that I mentioned earlier parked in front of us (if you look closely at the ship, you'll notice that there is a lifeboat missing, it is about 2/3 of the way back in the water next to the ship). Even though these mountains aren't that big (compared with NC or TN), they come all the way from sea level and are very steep. In the U.S., most mountains are part of ranges that keep going higher the closer you get, so they don't have quite the visual impact.

As you can see in the harbor picture, there are lots of smaller islands around this one. The next big island (I am 95% sure it is St. Croix) was owned mostly by the Rockefellers. When the main member passed on, he gave the left 66% of it to the government to add on to a park. So while it is bigger than Aruba, it has less than half the people, and there are only buildings on a third of it (and all at one end). If you look closely at the picture you can actually see that there are only buildings on the right side.

Because (I am assuming) of the constant wind and the incredible number of islands and harbors, the number of sailboats is astounding. You can see some of the close smaller islands in this picture. When I zoom in, you can see that what looks like wake is just a ton of sailboats. If you look at either of the pictures of the cruise ships above, you will see a bunch of them around there also. Everywhere you look there are sailboats, some even sailing. I wish that I had mine here . . .

Our second and (unbeknownst to me) final stop was the beach. The water here is crystal-clear, and beautiful varying shades of green. From up high (he never slowed down enough to grab a picture), it just looks really colorful. The contrast between the white sand and the greens as the water deepens is amazing. There is an island right in the middle when you look out across the beach-lined bay. That is another cool thing, the beaches are often in bays, rather than right out on the edge. The sun isn't as harsh, there are trees everywhere, and the wind often isn't as bad. I decided to take a kayak out to go around part of the bay. There are sections of rocks, then several other beaches. It turns out that there is a valley that kind of leads to the beach here, so the wind does come down that. You can't feel it too much on the beach (although it does make for a nice breeze), but as soon as you get out in the water it is blowing quite a bit more. It kind of blows around the bay in a circle. I decided not to go as far out as I had planned, and tried to kind of follow the wind around. I got out pretty quickly, paddled across the bay, and then back. It took about an hour, but the last 40 minutes were only the last 25% of the distance. It was pretty tough paddling directly into the wind, so I kind of kept "tacking" back and forth. I missed my bus, which wasn't a big deal. My arms are pretty tired right now, but not sore. They may be sore tomorrow, though. 

The final stop was SUPPOSED to be a shopping area, which I wasn't interested in anyway. I stayed a bit longer on the beach, and hopped one of the other tour vehicles back. After they drop off their passengers, they come hang out at the beach, as there are always people who miss their car or want to stay longer. I would have needed to get a cab from the shopping area anyway, and it was only $6 to get it directly from the beach to the ship. I could have just paid one $6 to take me there, but to have stopped at the overlook I would have needed to get everyone to agree to stop. I am pretty sure that if I had just hired a personal cab it would have been a lot more expensive. If you had a group of agreeable passengers, we could have done all three stops for only $18, including the trip back to the ship. There probably wouldn't have been the commentary, though. :)

A word about cabs here, none of them have meters. If you are going to take one, ask how much it will be to take you where you want to go. They don't seem to be dishonest at all, but since I don't know how to get where we are going, it could be 2 miles or 10. In Barbados, it is only $6 to go to the Boatyard, which I thought was pretty cheap. It turns out that it is less than 5 miles, the traffic is just so bad that it seems farther. For the wine and cheese party I went to a couple of weeks ago, I went to a small store to get a bottle of wine. It didn't take long to get there, but it was on an un-crowded road, and was twice as far. The round-trip fare was $20, which was more than the wine. It was the only place that I could get it by the time I found out about the party, though, as it was a national holiday that day and almost everything was closed. With a few exceptions, the far is per person, not per trip.

To end this I wanted to say one other thing. Last week and this week I uploaded pages in St. Thomas as well as Aruba. I am not going to do this anymore. While it is nice, it isn't that necessary, and they charge nearly three times as much for web usage in St. Thomas. I think that it is because there isn't any competition, as there is only one that I can find there, but 6 within a block of the ship in Aruba. There's a good chance that high-speed access just costs more, too. The prices seem similar at first. $5 an hour in Aruba, $7 an hour in St. Thomas. However, when you start looking at crew prices and the way that they charge, it changes dramatically. Standard crew price in Aruba (slightly different from store to store) is between $1.50 and $3.00, depending on the deal. Some just have a standard cheaper rate (usually half-price), and others have bulk buying. The one I usually use is $1.50 if you buy it 20 hours at a time, cheaper if you buy more. I figured that $1.50 an hour is cheap enough. In St. Thomas, it is very confusing. As far as I can tell, it is more expensive for the first 15 minutes than for the remaining 15-minute blocks. So for cruise staff, it is $6 after you figure out the sliding scale for the first hour. Then they start it over again, so it is $6 for the second hour also. Neither of the employees seem to understand the system either, so I paid a different rate last week than this week. I decided to just give up. Last week it was a necessity to fix something, this week I was just off and had the time to kill. I also won't have every Monday off, just every other Monday. I can pretty much take every Friday morning off, though.

I am babbling, so I will let you go . . .