Saturday, July 17, 2010

My Beach Babe

Last Tuesday, my little family left on vacation to St. John in the Virgin Islands. MacTroll and I have been to St. John six times in the last 15 years. It's not the easiest place to get to using award travel (i.e. American Airlines mileage). We had two connections and a 4 year old in tow, plus we had to pack a booster seat... In all of the prior years we'd been on vacation, we'd gotten off the plane with one backpack and one medium-sized duffle. Now we each had a small bag of clothes and a backpack of items (albeit, mine was full of family snack foods for the journey and two books that I didn't think I'd ever really get to pick up). Plus, there was the Extra Large duffle with my safe foods, the booster seat and the beach towels. Thank goodness that MacTroll got us business class all the way down there.

When our family travels, we always get seats shaped in an L. One of us sits next to X-man and the other sits in the seat in front of him, just in case he goes manic and can't stop kicking the seat. In all honesty, this hasn't happened since he was 12 months old and was in a car seat that raised his legs to the point where any leg movement jostled the back of the chair in front of him. But I know the moment we don't use this tactic will be the moment when he has an utter meltdown and we have someone who hates children sitting in front of us.

We flew from Champaign to Chicago to San Juan to St.Thomas. Then we took the 45-minute cab ride to Red Hook and got on a ferry to St. John. It's a LONG day of traveling for anyone, let alone a 4 year old. But since we've been there so many times, we knew immediately what to do. We got him off the boat, into his suit, ordered our dinners from a bar on the beach front and pointed him toward the water.

Twenty five minutes later, he came out when dinner hit the table. I wrapped him up in his Lightning McQueen towel and we ate dinner as a family before heading off to the grocery store for our goodies.

We knew something strange was going on the day before we left when MacTroll realized he'd forgotten to give the car rental place heads up that we were coming down... and they didn't have a car. Then after calling five more rental places, they didn't have cars either. And if they did get one back, they weren't keen on staying a moment past 5 p.m. (ferry was due in at 5:45 p.m.) to rent it to us... and we really needed a car.

The last three times on island, we've stayed at Estate Concordia. It's the eco-friendly sister to the very popular Maho Bay eco campgrounds. Instead of staying in one of the eco tents, we rent their villas. This was the first time we'd taken X-man with us, so we upgraded to a loft. Concordia is on the opposite side of the island from most of the popular National Park Beaches. The nearest town is Coral Bay, which my uncle likes to refer to as "A drinking community with a boating problem." It's the side of town where the wild donkeys, household dogs/cats, chickens and goats still wander around freely. In order to get to that side of the island without a rental car, we would have had to take a taxi at no small cost or take the bus, which would have been cheap, but also would have dropped us off a mile and a half past Concordia leaving us to either walk up the two-lane road with all our crap and a whiney 4 year old OR walk 15 minutes up a mosquito infested jungle on a narrow dirt path to check in. Neither sounded like much fun to me. But, if anything, I married a man who is STUPID lucky, and we got a car. Sure it was a car that had battery issues, so about 50 percent of the time the car would appear dead until MacTroll popped the hood and fussed with the connectors until I heard a "phizz" sound and turn the key, but it's the islands man, no worries!

The first night, X-man fell asleep while waiting for me to get the groceries. He slept through MacTroll carrying him to the villa, carrying him up two flights of stairs and laying him in the bed on the second floor. The crazy part about the loft, that I never noticed before, was that all the stairs are external. Ideally, so you could come with groups and come and go as you'd like. But with a child, it meant our kid was either going to have to go outside to walk up to us from the futon in the living room, or walk down to us from the bed upstairs. So, we spent the week with one of us sleeping with him upstairs and the other sleeping downstairs.

X-man totally dug the ocean view, eating breakfast out on the patio listening to the waves and he LOVED tossing his organic materials (like apple cores and extra grapes) over the railing to the Hermit crabs moving along the rocks below. We took him to Salt Pond Bay, the closest kid-friendly beach to our villa, where he got to learn about coral, build plenty of sandcastles and get buried in the sand. We played dolphin rescue in the water, tried out his snorkel and mask and read some books. Occasionally a dark cloud would show up, rain for 20 minutes or so and then pass by. X-man looked worried at first, and then I reminded him that as long as there was no thunder or lightning, we were fine. And as rains go,  they were gloriously warm and gentle. We just dug moats and played "Clutch Powers" from the new Lego movie.

After lunch and some quiet time, we headed down to the Concordia pool. X-man was thrilled that they provided rafts, a noodle and -- two squirt guns. When MacTroll and I made it clear we were done being the shooting range, along came Kent, one of the employees with his own little orange gun. He'd noticed X-man's excitement over the pistols, so in between traveling from one cabin to the office and back doing his work, he'd take time to sneak up and get in a shooting contest with X-man. This made X-man VERY happy.

We ate out once a day, and ate the other two meals from our villa kitchen. X-man declared the Shipwreck Landing his favorite restaurant because they had French fries and were only a 10-minute drive from the house. MacTroll and I like them because they have a much broader arrange of food options than just the usual island burgers and fries or fish and chips.

Every day we visited one beach, then ate lunch, took a nap or had quiet time and then visited the pool in the late afternoon before dinner. Every day, X-man was up at 6 a.m. Eastern, and every day, he was asleep by 7 p.m. Eastern, except the one day he took a 3-hour nap, then he made it to 9:30 p.m. :-)

I chose fish or shrimp at every meal that I didn't prepare myself. But I did have a couple of alcoholic drinks, which is out of the norm. But the Cruzan Black Cherry Rum in a Coke Zero was awesome at the end of the day as MacTroll and I got to spend an hour or two together before going to sleep.

We watched cruise ships pass by the island all lit up in the night time. We saw stars we hadn't seen in years and rolled our eyes at first-timers who felt the need to warn us that there were rays in the ocean near us. We were shocked when the road to Concordia was paved -- and widened -- the whole way. There were a zillion more houses up in the hills. And we thought, "The economy can't be too bad... the rich can still afford houses down here."

On the way home, we had to leave the island on Friday and spend one night on St. Thomas in order to get to the airport for our 8 a.m. flight. And, as usual, St. Thomas was the opposite experience to the quiet thoughtfulness of Concordia. We ended up staying at the Wyndam Resort near the Red Hook Ferry Dock. When I made the reservation in January, it was just the typical Wyndam Hotel. But apparently someone bought it and made it all-inclusive for folks who spend more than 4 days there, and after 5 hours there, I can't imagine ever having to say there for that long. It's not that it was boring, it was just -- non functional. You could tell the staff wasn't really enthused. In my opinion, I think they miss getting tips (because you don't tip in the all-inclusive environment). Even in our situation, we had to purchase meal vouchers at "guest experiences" in order to eat. $15 each for hamburgers and fries for the guys and a grilled chicken sandwich and fries for me. I can't imagine what eating at the buffet would have cost. And the Texans were everywhere... So, we swam in the pool, ate our greasy food and then paid $6 each to miniputt on the little miniputt course before retiring for the night, where strangely, the TBS movie matched the movie that the hotel planned on showing to kids that night while parents went to some Carnival evening next to the pool. Needless to say, since we had to get up at 4:30 a.m., we just went to bed early...

Overall, I really enjoyed being with my boys. We laughed a lot. X-man is really an amazing traveler. I keep thinking that if he made it through 14 hours and all these transfers, he'd rock at going across the Atlantic. But I also think he'd get more out of it if we waited until he was a bit older. Right now, I'm eyeing 2011 as the time we get to take a Disney vacation to Florida... or maybe a Disney Cruise. Let's see how this whole Gulf of Mexico thing turns out...

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