Virgin Island Resurrection In-Progress at Easter
By Jeff McCord
Power has now been restored to all Virgin Islanders. Electricity enables the return of the visitors who provide our archipelago’s economic life-blood. So, it was noteworthy a few days ago when my son and I were enjoying St. John’s beautiful Hawksnest Beach and a friend pointed to a large group of happy visitors rehearsing a beach wedding. We all felt pride and relief.
Although business is still only about 30 percent of what it should be in March, everyone is thankful. A slow resurrection is underway just in time for Easter, a holiday that brings to mind a large, spear head shaped rock of volcanic origins towering over St. John’s North Shore Road.
Among the first to record in writing the story of this remarkable rock that dwarfs cars and touring safari taxis is Guy H. Benjamin, a Virgin Island patriarch who died at age 98 on St. John in 2012. In “Me and My Beloved Virgins,” he recalled being a high school student on St. Thomas trying to return to his remote Hansen Bay, St. John village in time for Easter.
After a six hour sail (due to contrary winds) on a wooden sloop bringing mail from Charlotte Amalie, he arrived at Cruz Bay in the middle of the night and started walking to Coral Bay by way of the unpaved cart trail that would later become North Shore Road. He planned to stop at his aunt’s house in the small village of Milan on Maho Bay.
On that Saturday night in the late 1920s, Guy Benjamin made it to his aunt’s Maho Bay house. The next morning, he and his aunt traversed Kings Hill to Emmaus Moravian Mission in Coral Bay to celebrate Easter. His aunt rode a donkey up the steep trails broken with switch backs while he walked behind holding the donkey’s tail.
The Emmaus sanctuary was decorated with “festoons of flowers and coconut palms” as well as the “flowers of the century plant.” Following the service, the congregation had a feast of bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, green and yellow papaya, okra, soup made from bonowiss (a bean that grows on running vines), tarts, sugar cakes and bread.
Easter Monday was a day for sailboat races starting in the waters off the stone Danish Dock in Coral Harbor that today can be found on a path through the mangroves behind Skinny Legs’ bar. Departing at 8 am, the fleet would race out into Coral Bay to Flanagan’s Island and back, usually returning by 2 pm.
Nearly 100 years later, in another sign of recovery, many sailboats have returned to their Coral Harbor moorings, although Emmaus Mission lost its roof in the storms and awaits repair. And, the ball field across from the Mission and adjacent to the closed Guy H. Benjamin elementary school is now a temporary collection and transfer station for metal and organic refuse from the category 5 hurricanes.
Clearly, natural fauna and flora are leading the Virgin Islands’ rebirth. Restoration of buildings and services (beyond electricity) are following more slowly. Many hotels – including St. John’s Westin and Caneel Bay resorts — remain closed for repairs. But, hundreds of vacation villas, smaller hotels and AirBnB apartments are open for business. Cruise ships have resumed service to St. Croix and St. Thomas with day trips to St. John.
Air travel has increased dramatically with more flights being added in May. Clean-up and restoration of services within the Virgin Islands National Park is on-schedule. World famous Trunk Bay beach with its showers and rest rooms is fully open.
At our own home, we see increasing numbers of hummingbirds, banana quits (the official Virgin Islands’ bird) and tree frogs. Trees and bushes in our yard are growing at a pace we’ve never seen before. I grew up in the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey where forest fires every 20 or so years are critical to the health of the forest. They clear the dead wood, thin the canopy so sun light can reach the ground and crack open pine cones so seeds can grow.
Similarly, periodic storms are healthy for Caribbean islands. Irma and Maria, though, were a bit extreme. Old-timers don’t expect to see their like again for years. Just in case, though, everyone is re-building stronger. Virgin Islanders’ spirits are high and hopeful. Our St. John St. Patrick’s Day parade is always sponsored by the Quiet Mon Pub. Its’ 2018 commemorative T-shirt displays this “Irish Blessing”:
“The cards you have been dealt may be wrong;
The road you have traveled may be long;
But, in the end we know this is where we belong,
Because we are V.I. strong!”
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.