I was floating for hours, the length of my body rising and falling with each passing wave. Limbs not feeling like my own, suspended in salt at the surface. I was my own vessel alone in the wide open ocean, no anchor, no sail, when a dark shadow passed below me. I couldn’t quite be sure what I saw, so I tried to keep calm. It was likely harmless or created by my imagination, a vision spawned by the thought of a friend who recently dove with ever-docile whale sharks. But I saw something, and it was swift. Maybe with stripes? Like a tiger. I panicked. Sea water sputtered from my mouth as I thrashed my arms and legs, a sitting duck thousands of years from land. The fear jolted me from my aquatic dream.
I wake up in a bed on the shore, the rising tide seeping through the mattress like a sponge. But the white sheets are dry around me, fluttering in the island breeze. Beside me is a love from a past life, like no time had escaped us and our legs had never untangled. And before us, an unfamiliar cove of the Caribbean, turquoise water so clear we can see the entire ocean floor and all the creatures who call it their home. A manta ray flaps its massive wings, swirling the blues together like oil paints. Another wave splashes my face, and my eyes open to find myself twisted up in the blankets of my own bed in a dark basement in Washington.
Dreams inside of dreams about the sea and its dwellers, and of sailboats and of swimming. Last month, a family of octopi waved their tentacles at me from under a wooden pier as a girl in a white dress said “I do” on a floating dock in the distance—witnesses. Two weeks ago, I dreamt it was Halloween. I was dressed as a scuba diver, but my fins were bigger and more awkward than usual. They proved especially cumbersome as I tried to climb the fence into the party, and neoprene isn’t the best for swinging your leg overhead either. Last weekend, I was queen of an isthmus castle, and two dolphins frolicked in and out of the water, racing each other as the sun sank below the horizon. Monday night, my tiny car was carried away in a tsunami with me inside, water rising too quickly to break the window. I am consumed by the ocean on a nightly basis.
It’s been exactly three months since I got back from my trip to the Virgin Islands, but my mind refuses to leave. My subconscious is rehashing and recreating life at sea level, trying to keep the memories fresh. I’m thankful. I don’t want those moments to fade into the abyss of bygones just yet for it’s deeper and darker than the Mariana Trench.
After spending two exceptional weeks there, the Caribbean does seem like a dreamworld inside our own, a modern-day Neverland where you’re as young as you want to be and you walk the plank only by choice; where a few sprinkles of nutmeg (on your drink) can even make you fly; where a mermaid named Hollyce tends bar at night and explores the depths by day. It’s a place where you can step outside to find your soul by the sea. That’s really where heaven is, isn’t it?
It’s a place where your travel companion becomes a lifelong friend. A short word on travel companions: they have the power to make or break an entire trip. They can cast shadows on the sunniest beach day or liven up a long, mundane flight. Often times, this isn’t something that reveals itself until it’s too late—until you’re already traveling. It’s a roll of the dice. I took this vacation with my friend Amy, and totally lucked out, on a Yahtzee-of-sixes level. She was also a dream, making breakfast every day, sporting her adventurous side, and laying the foundation for an unforgettable vacation, and more importantly, a long-lasting bond between the two of us. She brought the sunshine every day.
Beyond the people you surround yourself with, the greatest thing about an island vacation is its whimsy, where the place itself has some kind of languid allure. There’s a leisurely pace that’s unmatched in the real world, a planned pause between the tick and the tock. Minutes hardly matter, and guilt doesn’t tap you on your shoulder when you’re sitting still.
The most pressing decision of our days was which ferry to catch, or miss, as we hopped from island to island and beach to beach. With our backs in the sand, we stared skyward, watching the clouds blow by, identifying the shape-shifting creatures before they dissipated into the warm, Caribbean air. At home, we’re lucky if we have a few moments to check for clouds stagnating in the weather app. We took hours to enjoy our homemade breakfasts, savoring each sip of island coffee and every forkful of scrambled eggs. We argued with new friends about the pronunciation of “pina colada” by reciting the familiar chorus, “if you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain…” Why yes, we do. Please pour us another, with or without the eñe, and we’ll plan our escape… and try not to spill them in the pool.
St. Thomas was our launching pad, Point Pleasant, our home for eight nights. If white sand from world-famous Magen’s Bay was the only souvenir to make it home in our bags, we would have been content, but we found plenty of stowaways elsewhere. They’re still pouring out of bags onto my bedroom carpet.
We spent most nights in Red Hook, the same place the ferry departs every hour, not on the hour, to St. John. It’s a hub for tourists and locals alike, all coming together for food- and drink-fueled revery. XO Bistro serves the best plate in the islands; ladies drink free at Duffy’s every Wednesday night, a party not to be missed; and the bartenders at Tap & Still are only mildly annoyed when you try to slam dunk soggy coasters in the trash can behind the counter all night long, and the next night, too.
Spending Christmas in the Caribbean doesn’t mean you’re forgotten either. Santa Claus found time in his busy schedule to stop at Tap & Still on Christmas Eve. We sat on his lap and kissed his bearded cheeks. We begged him for a Heineken mini-keg and matching glassware, and that’s what he gave us—because we were really nice last year. Buddy the Elf was there, too (he knows Santa).
For us, St. John was a story of rescue. A taxi driver abandoned us at the Annaberg ruins. Fitting. We flipped and flopped back down the same jungly road we took to the deserted sugar plantation until we ran into a slow-to-warm Boston couple. Amy convinced them to let us squeeze into the backseat of their rental jeep and take us back toward Cruz Bay. They dropped us off at a random trailhead outside of town where we wandered down a web of hillside trails and spilled out onto Salomon Beach, the sand like sugar between our toes, the sea and sky mirroring each other’s blues. Neither could decide who was fairer.
We never should have left that beach. But when the rain started to fall, our new beach friend Sweaty McGillicuddy called his sailboat captain. It might be an island vacation, but cell phones still work. Again, we were rescued, this time in a dinghy, driven by a character ripped from the pages of a Dr. Suess book. We rode the waves all the way into Cruz Bay with Captain Cindy Loo Who, celebrating our survival at Joe’s Rum Hut and entire row of beach bars, where we watched other tourists foolishly swim in Cruz Bay, as if somehow we weren’t the worst offenders.
Christmas morning, we made the easy trip back to St. John after opening stockings on our patio. Santa did make time for St. Thomas, breakfast Heinekens included. Deprived of the typical holiday fare, we thought Cinnamon Bay sounded like a delicious way to spend our afternoon. Clouds rolled in and out like the waves, spilling rain on our already-wet hair. I want to wrap myself in a blanket of water every Christmas, wading in the tropical sea under a tropical shower.
And then I want to take a private sunset sail to a secluded cove where I can jump off the sailboat and touch my toes to the ocean floor. Because we did that, too. Maho Bay, our own Mermaid Lagoon. We were buoys in the twilight, the water warmer on our skin than the evening air.
Somehow, the days that followed Christmas were just as memorable. In the Virgin Islands, a trip from the U.S. to Britain is just a short boat ride across the pond, if you will. We hopped to the BVI twice. Coffee and croissants seemed appropriate for our breakfast in Tortola; laying out all day requires energy. The cab driver who brought us from our breakfast in Frenchman’s Cay to the beach at Cane Garden Bay was a heavy-set fellow, praising the island lifestyle and exclaiming gratitude for each breath he took, no matter how shallow: “People say they wish they didn’t have to go back to the real world. This is the real world. And every day above ground is a good one.” He pointed out the goats he and his brother own, roaming free in an unused baseball field. He shared stories of the world-famous Bomba Shack, where they throw riotous full moon parties and drink mushroom punch, the most hedonistic of all the beach fantasies. We didn’t get that wild, but I might have shown my butt cheeks and sipped on a rum punch a few miles from there.
Our second passport stamp came by way of Virgin Gorda. A trip to this part of the world is incomplete without seeing The Baths, a beach area where massive volcanic boulders form tunnels and tidal pools, or baths. The only other place of its kind are the Seychelles, which are out of reach for most of us. We ducked and crawled and waded through the rock formations. The main beach was packed with cruise ship passengers, so we wandered just one beach down and found ourselves alone. I climbed more, planting myself as close to the edge as possible. That’s one of those moments when it’s okay to stare at the sun, soaking it all the way in, corona versus cornea. The ferry ride back demands at least two bushwhackers and a handmade sandwich from Mad Dog, nevermind all the cruisers and the picked-over buffet at the crowded park restaurant.
Alone on an island 3,500 miles away from home, and I couldn’t feel more at home. “Do you live here?” people would ask. I can’t help but take that as a compliment. When I travel alone, I’ve learned that I become the best version of myself—the person we envision when we’re double-tapping those aspirational quotes on a Tuesday night. I am calm and content, comfortable in my own skin. Outgoing at moments, introspective at others. Fearless. Patient. Happy. And completely present.
I am required to rely on others for help, which involves being wary, but also open-minded, which then opens the door for some incredible human-to-human interactions. I spent an entire morning hiking on St. John’s Lind Point Trail, from Cruz Bay to Caneel Bay, stopping at each beach along the way. Soaking rays in at Salomon once again, I took a quick dip and shared a conversation with an Italian chef in broken Spanish—our linguistic bridge to common ground. He called me sirena, mermaid. I dream I am.
I passed hours simply collecting sea glass at Caneel Bay. Like gazing at cloud shapes, I was perfecting the art of doing nothing. I couldn’t help but feel accomplished: my masterpiece included worn shards of red, green, and brown, the remnants of yesteryear’s debauchery. Chest-high in water, I dodged sea urchins on the rocks below to get to other sections of the beach so I could trespass onto others. I’m working on my rule-breaking skills.
Greeting midnight with a giant high-five on Jost Van Dyke was my only plan for New Year’s Eve. No way to get there, no place to stay, I was planless and at complete mercy of the circumstances. The circumstances turned out to be a picture book NYC couple and their equally handsome friend, the same three Amy and I overheard in a heated discussion during our Christmas rain dance at Cinnamon Bay. They remembered me from my Baywatch-inspired one piece and Green Bay Packer santa hat. Who the hell wears socks on the beach? They had an extra spot on the boat out to Jost. I put my name on it.
I guess in my mind this boat was big, with sails and cocktails; I would tan as waves crashed over the trampoline netting, or we would just tack to Jost. It was not. The boat waiting for us at the dock in St. John was a 20 foot powerboat, a few seats in the bow, and two in the back, captained by a large man named Clackston. His only job was to get us to and from Jost, preferably alive. With a north swell in full effect, the trip over was choppy. Handsome friend and I sat in the back, hanging on to whatever we could, riding the waves like a mechanical bull. Drenched upon arrival, we rubbed the salt water from our eyes and filled out customs paperwork—another passport stamp from Great Britain.
Let the festivities begin. The New Year’s party on Jost is said to be one of the world’s biggest, and Foxy’s like “the Times Square of the Caribbean.” Hundreds of sailboats, thousands of people. I expected to be overwhelmed, but I was surprisingly comfortable. Painkillers from the Soggy Dollar and sunshine from heaven—we were day drunk into the night and into the New Year.
Clackston did return for us. The ride back was much different, smooth and fast. At two in the morning, we glided over the water, under the stars and waxing moon, on the Caribbean. Tropical moonlight, tropical starlight—basking. O Clackston! My captain! I never want this trip to end. Let me soak it in forever. Maybe this is why I dream of sleeping in the ocean?
New Year, new island. With time to spare before my flight to St. Croix, I struck up a lunch conversation with an older Italian-Brazilian gentleman who owned a rental car place across the street from where we were sitting. His accent was thick and his skin was tawny. After offering to share his nachos, he also offered to give me a lift to a beach near the airport where I could continue waiting for my departure. He secured my belongings to his scooter, and I hopped on. I watched planes take off and land from the comfort of a sandy beach lounger until it was time to go. I took down the last swig of my beer and walked the rest of the way to the airport.
The trailhead is tucked away the edge of the Carambola Resort grounds, beyond the tennis courts. I ran, walking only when the incline forced it. There was not a single soul on that jungle trail. Where is everyone, I wondered. I ran faster, fueled by the experience’s exclusivity. After a couple miles, the trail opened up to the rocky shore of Annaly Bay. The tide pools, my destination, sit at the far end of the beach.
I passed an empty jeep and its passengers, a group of timid college kids trying to climb the rocks out to the pools. I was on a mission. Off with my shoes, out of my hiking clothes and into the pools, I waited for big waves to breach the wall and shower me in salt. The group made it around the corner, and for twenty minutes there were nine of us at the Annaly Bay Tide Pools, including the Caribbean adventure guide along with his been-there-done-that attitude, his back to the sea. They all left.
Like my dream, I was alone with the ocean. Mesmerized by its power, I watched as the sets rolled in, crashing into the pools, still unsure how I was the only witness to beauty of this magnitude. My exit was reluctant. I crawled back along the rock wall to the beach. My mother would die if she knew I was alone somewhere a giant wave could pluck me from the earth and carry me out with the tide. But it’s where I like to be. A few more minutes of solitude on the shore, and a slower pace back, I made my way to the driver’s seat of the borrowed car.
Windows still down, I stopped at a roadside stand for a glass of soursop lemonade. It’s a local favorite. The vendor was old and friendly. He had probably been sitting there for hours, not bored, just patient. He greeted me with a gentle smile. Out of soursop, he said. But as an alternative, he hacked open a coconut with his machete, of which I took three big gulps, to make room for the gin that he poured so generously. He added a straw and showed off the skirt of palm leaves he’d made to wear at the carnival on the other side of the island that night, just waiting for the paint to dry now. We wished each other a happy new year and said our farewells. Boozy coconut in one hand, steering hand in the other—this was real life.
I flew home the next morning, away from the Lost Boys and back to the world of regimen and deadlines, where grown-ups live. I can’t stop dreamwriting about the Virgin Islands, and, sadly, the nutmeg on my coffee isn’t quite like pixie dust. But like our cab driver in Tortola said, “This is the real world.” So with open-ended invitations to return and couches to sleep on, maybe someday I’ll wake up from my aquatic dreams in a sailboat named Reality. Until then, at night, I fly toward the second star on the right, and straight on till morning.