Category Archives: St. John Virgin Islands Memories

Baba Ram Das at Peace Hill

About fifteen years ago Baba Ram Das, who I remembered as Richard Alpert from the Timothy Leary, LSD and psychedelic mushroom days, gave a free talk at Peace Hill just before sunset. It was a clear blue-sky afternoon a light breeze out of the east, the sun low in the sky in the west

I would say about a hundred people were gathered on the hilltop, old hippies, young hippies, ex hippies, wannabe hippies, new agers of all stripes and colors, crunchy granolas, Woodies people and Peter Bay people. We were there to hear Baba Ram Das, the contemporary spiritual teacher, the guru, the icon of the sixties philosophy.

About fifteen or twenty minutes past his scheduled arrival time, he appeared, having walked up the trail to the scenic hilltop. He was accompanied by his entourage, ladies in white flowing robes, which to me looked like they may have been bed sheets in some previous incarnation. He made his way to a prepared platform bedecked with flowers as the flowing gown ladies tossed flowers onto his path. Baba Ram Das was ready to speak.

The crowd became silent. Ram Das looked up, his gaze surveying the scene. He took in that big breath, suggesting that he was about to speak, something important, something meaningful. But no words come out. He exhales. Seems he’s thinking about something else. Some moments pass. Ram Das raises his head again, gazes from one side to the other, takes in that breath again … but no words come out. He exhales.

“What’s going on,” I think.

Maybe others are starting to wonder also.

Ram Das picks up his head a third time looks from side to side, the big inhale again, no words, He exhales, looks out at the sea, turns again, inhales deeply once more, and then he blurts out something that obviously had nothing to do with his prepared or semi prepared talk.

And with a warm smile and a real sincerity in his voice he says:

Wow! It’s really beautiful here!”

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St. John Virgin Islands Memories: Albert 1974

Albert circa 1974 (photo by Hannele Koivumaki)
Albert circa 1974 (photo from Stephanie Johnson collection)

History of St. John Car Rental
by Lonnie Willis for the St. John Car Rental Website
The next morning we returned his car and told him we were going to think seriously about buying the car rental. Months later we wrote him, and made arrangements to move to the island, and become the new owners of his car rental.

Early on a cold morning, January 4, 1975, we packed up our two children Aaron, 10, and Robert, 7, our dog, Pooh-bear, and our cat, Ikie, and flew out of JFK airport in New York for the Harry S. Truman Airport (an old World War II hanger) in St. Thomas. Forest picked us up at the Cruz Bay dock and drove us to our house rental in Chocolate Hole. The children were enrolled in Julius E. Sprauve Elementary School that week, and Albert & I went to work as car rental owners. Forest was kind enough to give us an extensive period of training, which proved invaluable.

The car rental was originally located at the foot of the Cruz Bay dock, and our 14 cars, mostly VW “Things” and Mini-mokes were parked in the space in front of where the Dockside Pub and stores are today. The office was the old water barrel from Trunk Bay with an opening on the side, and coconut thatch on top. We had a telephone, no credit card machines (we didn’t take credit cards!), no fax (they hadn’t been invented yet), and no copy machine. All paper work was done by hand. In addition, all customers had to buy a Virgin Island temporary driver’s license, and leave a cash deposit. The one gas station on the island, Texaco, was often closed on Holidays, open only a half a day on Sunday, and was often just out-of-gas!

Hours of operation in those days were flexible. If someone needed help in the community, everyone would close his or her business, and go to the person’s rescue. Spotting whales in Sir Francis Drake passage, the downing of a seaplane in the harbor, or just a very rainy day could be the excuse for a total closing of the car rental and half the other businesses in town. Gradually, we got into the rhythm of the Island. (We got used to taking two hour lunches on the beach next to the car rental!) … read more

Forest Fisher
Forest Fisher (photo by Hannele Koivumaki)
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St John Virgin Islands Memories: Great Thatch Scorpion

Soon after coming to the Virgin Islands in 1969, I made two major purchases, a 1954 Mercedes Benz with running boards and a four speed shift on the steering column and a 16-foot fiberglass runabout with a 35-horsepower Johnson engine.

I have loved boats for as long as I can remember, which goes back to being about four years old, with my mom and dad, who had a small boat named after me, which they kept on City Island in the Bronx.

But now, I was in boat heaven, the Virgin Islands, venturing farther and farther from the home port, Charlotte Amalie Harbor on St. Thomas.

One day I met a nice young couple who suggested a camping trip to one of the many “deserted tropical islands,” which beckoned to be savored and explored. Sounded like a great idea to me!

Let me say, that although I had a great deal of experience with small boats, it was all on the American mainland. Tropical-island-wise and camping-wise, I was a complete novice. However, my new friends expressed a proficiency with camping out, needing only bare bones equipment and supplies, and we soon resolved to put together an overnight camp on a deserted tropical Virgin Island.

We headed out one morning not long afterward. For a reason that I can’t remember, probably no real reason at all, we chose the island of Great Thatch as our camping venue, ignorant of the fact that it was in the British and not the American Virgins, but in those days it hardly mattered.

We made it in to the beach through the shallow reef that extends the full length of the beach on the island’s south coast without incident (to this day I don’t know how) and set up a rudimentary camp, which consisted of a lean-to covered by a piece of canvas. We spent the day snorkeling, fishing, picnicking and walking around the beach, the interior of the island being for the most part inaccessible to us either because of the thick bush or the steep hillsides. At night we made a fire, cooked up a fish and some potatoes and retired for a night that I remember as being somewhat uncomfortable, due to lack of a soft mattress, the occasional rats that boldly approached wherever there was any food and the not so occasional mosquitoes and sand flies against which chemical warfare was declared.

On the positive side, the night sky on that moonless night, which in those days was almost completely unchallenged by the loom of electric lights from Tortola, St. John, or the east end of St. Thomas, provided us with a sky that contained more stars than I had ever seen before or have ever seen since.

Virgin Islands Scorpion
Virgin Islands Scorpion

I awoke early in the morning to a powerful stinging sensation on my leg. Looking down I saw that I had been stung by a rather large and evil-looking scorpion. I had never even seen a scorpion before and I was, shall we say, “concerned.”

I didn’t know what to do, if anything, and I woke up my new friends hoping that they would know something.

The guy was like me, clueless, but his girlfriend seemed to know something about scorpions.

“They’re poisonous,” she explained, “very poisonous!

“Are you sure?” I asked the girl.

“Absolutely,” she answered.

“Oh great,” I thought to myself. “This is one hell of a place to get stung by a poisonous scorpion.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“You need to get to a hospital right away or you’ll die,” she answered.

On the one hand, I don’t feel like I’m dying, but on the other, I’m staring to feel panicky.

“OK, lets go!” I say.

We loaded the boat and hastily head back to St. Thomas where supposedly, doctors would give me some rare anti venom and save my life. But by the time we reach Caneel Bay on the north shore of St. John, I’m feeling fine. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m not poisoned and “every little thing is gonna be all right.”

“Let’s stop on St. John,” I announce, “I really feel fine. I want to talk with someone there, someone who knows what to do.”

Well on St. John, I found out a bit about scorpions, which is that unlike some other varieties found in the desserts, Virgin Islands scorpions, do sting, (haa’d me son) but, unless you are allergic to them, don’t cause much harm, let alone kill you.

That was that. I was out of the woods. Nonetheless, even though it was still morning, I knocked down a shot of rum, to cool out.

We hung around Cruz Bay for the rest of the morning, had lunch at Eric’s Hilltop (now the Virgin Islands legislature offices) and returned to St. Thomas in the afternoon, my supposedly fatal scorpion sting reduced to a small red bump on my leg that maybe itched a little.

And so ended my first experience with camping out. All in all, good memories.

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St. John Virgin Islands Memories: 1976 Photo – Susan & Miles’s Wedding

Susan and Miles 1976 Wedding on St. John, Virgin Islands L to R: Cherie Cleland, Stephanie Johnson, Susan (Perkins) Stair. Photo by Craig Barrett from the Stephanie Johnson collection
Susan and Miles’ 1976 Wedding on St. John, Virgin Islands L to R: Cherie Cleland, Stephanie Johnson, Susan (Perkins) Stair. Photo by Craig Barrett from the Stephanie Johnson collection

This photo of three beautiful ladies was taken at the wedding of Susan Perkins & Miles Stair in 1976 by Craig Barrett. Susan and Miles are still on St. John and still look young and beautiful. Miles heads up Holiday Homes and Susan is the owner of the popular retail shops Bougainvillea and Island Fancy.

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St. John Virgin Islands Memories: Tuna Sandwich

As followers of my blog might already know, I used to fish commercially on St. John in the early 1970s along with my good friend, John Gibney. The following story is about what we had for dinner one night:

We left early in the morning to pull our traps and returned to the Cruz Bay dock around noon or so to sell our fish.

The morning’s haul was particularly nice, an assortment of good sized pot fish,  grouper, snappers, ol’ wifes, and even a couple of lobsters that we brought into the while they were hanging on to the outside of the fish trap.

As usual, people were gathered on the dock awaiting our arrival. Sales were brisk. we sold out in no time. Put the money in our pockets. Put the boat away and cooled out for the rest of the day.

In the late afternoon we thought about dinner.

“Let’s check out Miss Lilly’s,” I say and off we go to the little market where La Tapa Restaurant is now. St. John markets at that time were not a great place to find fresh vegetables, meats or fish or anything else  for that matter. It was hit or miss. Mary, a lady from Tortola, brought over fresh produce once a week and occasionally a boat from Puerto Rico brought a nice selection of stuff from that island. Otherwise, you grew it or you caught it or some neighbor turned you on to it,

So here we are at Miss Lilly’s, shopping  for what we can get with the money we earned that day, and we end up buying a couple of cans of tuna, some onions, some bread and make sandwiches. Not until we sit down to eat do we realize then the utter absurdity of our situation hit us. We had sold all our nice fresh fish and here we are eating tuna sandwiches on white bread.


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St. John Memories: Mom and Dad come to St. John

My mom and dad used to come to St. John to visit me from time to time. They stayed at Caneel Bay and usually traveled with their friends, Dolores and Bill Gallo. My father was a dentist, practicing in the Bronx and Bill was the sports cartoonist for the New York Daily News.

As they got to know people, my parents got involved with the rhythm and flow of daily life on St. John.

Rodney Varlack (photo by Hannele Koivumaki)
Rodney Varlack 1973 (photo by Hannele Koivumaki)
Dr. George Knight, David Knight, Stephanie Johnson (photo from Stephanie Johnson collection)
Dr. George Knight, David Knight, Stephanie Johnson 1974 (photo from Stephanie Johnson collection)

My dad befriended Rodney Varlack, who had the first, last and only Jeep dealership on St. John at the time. Dad would often bring down parts from America that Rodney, for reasons that I’m sure had something to do with operating a business out of St. John , was not able to get from ordinary sources.

He would also help out St. John’s dentist, Dr. Knight, at the clinic bringing supplies and at times tending to patients. My parents also brought down 16 mm films, which were shown at the church across from the Cruz Bay. I, of course, was supplied with all kinds of culinary stateside delights, fishing equipment and  clothing.

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Gallows Point Photos Late 1960s

When I first arrived on St. John in 1969, Gallows Point was the expat hangout the denizens of which tended to be a little older than myself, and whose drug of choice was alcohol often in copious quantities. The slightly younger hippies had their own vices.

Gallows Point bar and restaurant, rumored to be the actual sight of hangings on St. John, was run by one Duke Ellington, our own Duke Ellington, not the famous jazz musician. Today the restaurant at Gallows Point is named after him.

Duke Ellington at Gallows Point: St. John USVI
Duke Ellington at Gallows Point: St. John USVI

In the above photo Mr. Ellington stands behind the infamous “Rumor of the Day” blackboard.

Gallows Point St. John
Postcard from 1964

“That postcard is from around 1964.
Richard “Duke” Ellington, a mystery story writer from New York, bought Galge or Gallows Point from the VI Government in the early 50s and built a small “cottage colony” of rentals. The bar became the hang-out for what we used to call continentals–white people–and produced a lot of martinis throughout the 1960s. In the early 70s, “Duke” retired from behind the bar and a younger, hipper, and more diverse crowd took over. “Duke” is the older of the two men behind the bar in the picture.
The Ellingtons sold the property around 1980 and the present resort was built within a few years.”
From a post by Hugo in VI Now


eddie Johns bartending at Gallows Point
Eddie Johnson bar tending at Gallows Point

My friend, Eddie Johnson” (See St JohnVirgin Islands Memories: Voyage to Anegada) was once a bartender there as was  Charlie Deyalsingh (Trinidad Charlie).

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