U.S. Virgin Islands

Introducing a child to adventure on eco-friendly St. John

 
 
The ferry dock at Cruz Bay on St. John.
The ferry dock at Cruz Bay on St. John.
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism

The New York Times

On our second date, the man who later became my husband asked me to promise that I would never make him get on a boat. He was prone to seasickness so bad that he once became nauseated in a rowboat floating on a lake in Switzerland.

Compensation came in the form of our child. Two years after we married, we adopted Shan, a baby girl from China. The day after we collected her at an administrative building in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi province, we toted her to a local Wal-Mart to buy tiny diapers and shoes. She calmly drank in the chaos and showed her dimples. I knew then that she was made for adventure.

As soon as she could swim, Shan became my nautical companion. When Shan turned 7, I planned a mother-daughter trip to St. John, the little eco-friendly member of the U.S. Virgin Islands that has spots of luxury, to be sure, but is different from the all-inclusive Caribbean that families so love. Required transportation: two planes, three taxis and one boat (from neighboring St. Thomas).

That was how Shan and I found ourselves on the upper deck of a ferryboat in February last year, bumping over a stretch of Caribbean water. After arriving at the terminal in Cruz Bay, on St. John, we boarded one of the colorful open-air taxis that circulate the island like carnival rides and headed up the steep hills toward Cinnamon Bay. “This is an adventure,” I told Shan. “That means we’ll see new things and not everything will be perfect. We’ll get dirty and might even smell a little.”

By the time we checked in at the campground, the night was opaque. We struggled to find tent No. 4 in some scrubby woods near the beach. We eventually stumbled onto an unoccupied tent with fresh linens piled on bare cots. Surely this was ours, but no number was visible and Shan worried we had the wrong place. I suggested we pretend we were Goldilocks and make up the beds. The campground office was closed. No resident bears would be arriving that night.

Shan’s concern deepened. How did I know there weren’t real bears in the woods? I declared that bears were too furry for the Virgin Islands.

This satisfied her, but then the night breeze played with the Velcro fastening on the tent’s mosquito netting, making a crunchy noise. And then rain began pelting the roof. With each sound, Shan started and said, “What’s that?” And then she began to shiver. I tucked her under my down coat.

Cinnamon Bay’s beach was beautiful, with silky sand and water that morphed from ice green to cobalt. But after the rain, the surf came pounding in with alarming force, and I kissed the idea of renting a kayak goodbye.

Instead, Shan and I stood at the edge of the water and let the waves bury our feet in sand. “Where are your feet?” we demanded of each other in mock outrage, before lifting and wiggling toes that were like newly hatched turtles. When we became tired of this game we ventured farther into the water and were knocked flat by a wave. Ocean time was over. We engineered a sand castle with an inefficient drainage system.

Heading to Cruz Bay for lunch, we shared a taxi with a family of fellow campers. Austin, a 9-year-old member of the clan, told us he had spotted a nurse shark of some alarming size while snorkeling. “Not dangerous,” I quickly told Shan, worried that she would resolve never to return to the water. “Sweet as a kitten.”

Austin’s family recommended Maho Bay, an inlet down the coast they promised wouldn’t terrify or maim us. We went the next day and the water was as gentle as promised. Shan let the easy surf float her onto the shore while I looked enviously at people riding standup paddleboards. The boating conditions were perfect, but no vendors were around to rent equipment.

Instead we built another sand castle, this one based on the structural unit of the matzo ball.

That evening, as we ate a chicken-fingers picnic on the beach at Cinnamon Bay while watching a lone surfer ride the intimidating waves, I asked Shan whether she was having fun on our trip. She was, she said, but she missed her father and her dog.

If we could return home a day early, would she want to?

Yes, she said, with an alacrity that broke my heart.

Here we were, in these damp, ragged woods, serenaded by the roar of hostile surf, because I was determined to mold my child into the stoical adventure-seeker I aspired, and mostly failed, to be. I wanted Shan to appreciate that vexation and even nausea are part of travel. But just because my husband rejected this philosophy with a quiet conviction that many would regard as sanity, was I right to visit it on her?

I sat on the edge of the cot and smoothed her dirty hair. “Sweetie,” I whispered. “Don’t worry anymore. I’ll find us a hotel for tomorrow night with a hot bath.”

And then a miracle happened. A little voice piped up, saying: “That’s OK, Mommy. I like it here.”

The next morning, Shan’s homesickness had vanished and she was stalking hermit crabs. We gorged on hamburgers and fries and returned to Maho Bay for some serious splashing.

Shan still asks when we’ll return to St. John. We’re even working on a strategy to drug her father with Dramamine so he can enjoy it, too. Shan agrees that the Cinnamon Bay campground would be too rustic for him, but she would like the two of us to spend a night there for old times’ sake.

And maybe next trip, she suggested, we can upgrade to a cabin.

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