Posted by: ktzefr | December 7, 2010

Christmas in the Caribbean…

Today, when I started to head out on my morning walk, I decided to check the temperature.  It was 28 degrees!  I walked for less than a mile (I generally do two miles before breakfast and try to get the other three in during the day).  The wind was fierce, stripping the last leaves from the trees.  I wish I had put up the Christmas lights a few days ago when it was 60 degrees and sunny.

I started thinking about the islands, about Decembers past in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, and I rummaged around for my trip notes.  In some ways stuff was easier to find when I had written it in one of my notebooks, so long as I could remember which one.  The computer does make life easier, but it’s also savvy at hiding the one thing you’re looking for — but here it is.  December, two years ago.  On leaving the Virgins…

I have yet to discover a prettier place… (be sure to double click on photos to enlarge and use the back arrow to return to the blog post)

The Caribbean sun has barely slipped from the sea when I drop my luggage in the parlor and head to the porch for a final breakfast in paradise.  With the coffee brewing and banana muffins cooling on the bar, I watch the morning sky melt into ripe mango on blue like a giant watercolor painting.  In the distance the smoky whale-like image of St. Croix rises from the sea behind a string of smaller islands and cays that follow an invisible path across the glassy water.

At daybreak Christmas lights still burn along the steep hillside, strung through the tall palms and looped around the vanilla-ice-cream-white Government House.  Looking out to sea from this high perch, it occurs to me that of all the places I’ve traveled, these islands feel the most like home.  The rhythm of life here is familiar and fits like an old shoe.

I grew up in the hills of Eastern Kentucky hundreds of miles from the ocean, but something about the Virgins was recognizable the first time I stepped off a plane more than thirty years ago and walked through the old Navy hanger that served back then as the St. Thomas airport.  That feeling has intrigued me for years.  How could these minute dots in a world of water possibly remind me of the Kentucky hills?  It’s certainly not the white sand beaches or the waving palms or the water’s magical shades of blue.

But there is something that connects — the feeling of isolation, perhaps, whether it’s in a hollow, a valley, a small town, or on a dot in the middle of the sea.  People look after one another in out-of-the-way places; they hold onto traditions.   Some never leave the town — or island — where they were born.  Others leave and come back.  Like hill people, islanders are generous and friendly folk, but we also share a suspicion of strangers, having discovered from years of experience that visitors don’t always have our best interests at heart.  And they’re not always accepting or understanding of local customs.  Most folks come to the islands to float in the sea, drink exotic concoctions, and bake in the sun.  They pray it doesn’t rain — even though the tropics without rain would cease to be lush and green and…tropical.



I pour my coffee and enjoy the moment alone.  In the distance white sails flutter pink at sunrise beneath a cloudless sky.  Soon, the rest of my group will drag themselves bleary-eyed to the breakfast table and we’ll be on our way.    We always come here to Charlotte Amalie to shop and explore familiar places after spending a few days elsewhere, on this island or another, at the beach.  I never tire of gazing at this harbor; in some ways it’s like looking back in time.

The inn where we’ve been staying was once the barracks for the Danish governor’s troops.  We are a few steps down from Crown House, the former governor’s home, and a few steps up from the Frederick Lutheran Church, a congregation that’s been in existence since the late 1600s.  Buildings and houses are stacked practically on top of each other from the harbor to the top of the mountain with step streets climbing beside them up the hillside.  The historical 99 Steps (actually, more than 100) were built in the 1700s with brick ballast from the tall ships before their return to Europe laden with tons of sugar and exotic spices.  To walk these streets is to walk in the footsteps of famous pirates and French seamen and exiled Mexican heroes.

Blackbeard’s Castle on the hill above us once served as a lookout tower for the infamous pirate in the days when this early Spanish colony was a den of traders and thieves.  Later, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna fled to these islands and built a grand house across the ridge from here with money he’d stolen from the Mexican treasury.  The Villa Santana is now a tourist inn.  The historic Hotel 1829, built by a French sea merchant, still has its original Moroccan tiles, and the local post office boasts murals painted in 1936 by Saturday Evening Post artist Stevan Dohanos.  And there’s the second oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere just down the street near the boyhood home of Camille Pissaro, the famous French impressionist — a lot of history for a little island.  And a busy one, too.

Nights on this hillside are mostly quiet, though the town does have its share of yelping dogs and beeping horns, and the mornings are filled with birdsong and the gentle rustle and hiss of the palms as tradewinds sweep up from the sea.  On the back patio clumps of bougainvillea hang over the whitewashed wall where, late at night, you can sit on the terrace and watch the whole world sparkle to life — from the dancing lights on the boats at sea to the wide, starlit sky.

Yesterday afternoon a rain came suddenly, and the best part was sitting on the covered gallery porch with a cup of tea and watching it all unfold.  It was glorious!  I’m one of those weird visitors who loves rain in the tropics.  It comes and goes, one minute a downpour and the next the sun has slipped back out like magic, leaving the day washed clean.  That bright, “washed clean” look is everywhere — in the blossoms dripping from the night rains, in the way sunlight plays on the water, and in the friendly faces of the island people.

Another rain, another place on the island, another Christmas…

A few days ago we stopped by a favorite family-owned shop and the youngest daughter was sitting on a stool in back doing her homework.  I was struck by images of my own younger self, sitting with my books on a table stacked with White Lily flour in the back of my parents’ store in Kentucky.  In resort areas it’s all too easy to forget that real people live everyday lives here — working, going to school, and trying to make time for their families — while the outsiders play.  It seems there are connections, reminders for me, everywhere.  Growing up in Appalachia, I always dreamed of other places.  Now, in other places, I always discover pieces of home.

At six-thirty our friend Clover picks us up and we’re off to the airport.  She’s in a fine mood this morning and her laughter fills the car.  Last night she was up until one o’clock, she tells us, filling paper sacks with goodies for the children in her church school class.  We used to have those, I say.  Treat bags.  Apples, candy, oranges, and nuts.  It wouldn’t have been Christmas without them.

Clover drives and recites lines for a part she’s playing in a holiday play and I’m half listening and half watching the road almost disappear beneath us at every hairpin curve.  The musty odor of plants and trees and wet earth floats through the open window — that rich, loamy smell of the tropics…and the Appalachian woods.  I have to laugh.  It occurs to me that maybe the connections I’ve tried to make between people and places and times are not really that complex after all.  Maybe it’s simply the scent.  One deep breath is all it takes to unearth the familiar, to let me know that I’m home, whether it’s in the Virgin Islands or in the hills of Kentucky.

This morning, however, it’s home in DC with 28 degrees, a wind chill in single digits, and a hawk careening over my bird and squirrel feeders terrifying everyone in sight.  My “escape to the tropics” is short-lived.


At Home in the Tropics B&B Inn…a lovely in-town spot for shoppers and island hoppers.

A personalized tour with a lovely lady?  Email Clover at







  1. Before my son started school we would spend the entire winter in the Caribbean……those were the days.


    • We’ve never been able to stay that long, but I’d love to! We started taking our son to the islands when he was little and he, too, is smitten.

  2. Lovely pictures of those Caribbean sights. I came across your blog when browsing Raven’s posts. I see that you are a bird watcher. I have a blog about bird watching and photography. I will be checking your posts to see more of your nature photography. Most of my photos are of the avian variety, but I do some scenic work around west Texas.

    Bob Zeller

    • Thanks Bob. I do love to take photos, but I’m not a pro. I’m a writer. Most of my best photos were taken by my son who is much better at it. And, yes, I love birdwatching. I have several posts about birds; the Galapagos post has some of the best bird pics. I’ll check out your blog.

  3. I love the pictures of USVI. I can hardly wait to go someday. I got to see it from afar when in Puerto Rico and the view was amazing. Puerto Rico was very beautiful and some of my photos from there are absolutely breathtaking.

    • Thanks! Your PR photos are great, too.

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