What it’s Like Underwater in the US Virgin Islands

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In honor of our first anniversary, which was on Sunday, I’m posting some special features on our honeymoon to St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Before our honeymoon, I felt rather apathetic towards snorkeling.  My only previous experience had been in the Florida Keys, where I was slapped in the face all afternoon by waves, gulped down so much salt water that my throat burned, and all the while seen nary a colorful fish or coral.

One of the perks of Caneel Bay, the resort where we spent the week of our honeymoon, was complimentary use of snorkeling equipment.

Our first attempt took place at the beautiful Hawk’s Nest bay on the first full day of our trip.

We donned our snorkel gear and awkwardly clambered down to the water’s edge, and I do mean awkwardly.

We started kicking our flippers as soon as we were in deep enough waters.  Should we hug the shore? Should we swim out in the middle? we asked ourselves, and we had no clue what we were doing. About 25 yards offshore, dipped our faces under the water for the first time.

We were swimming right next to–and I mean just a few feet from–three gigantic sea turtles.

We both lifted our heads above water, looked at each other, shouted “DID YOU SEE THAT?”, pointed down below, and returned to the water.

Just then, a large spotted sting ray darted through the water ten feet in front of us.

We grabbed each other’s arms, not wanting to take our heads above water but wanting to acknowledge this turn of events.

The sting ray’s sting ray was a good 30 inches long. Covering its cape-like back was black skin with splotchy white spots ranging from a dime to a quarter in size.

I had never seen an animal like this up close, much less by happenstance, before. Like most people, I grew up watching exotic animals from the opposite side of a pane of glass at the local zoo.

But this time, I was swimming in his waters. I was a visitor to his world.

As the awe sank in, a vision of Steve Erwin getting speared by a sting ray shot through my mind and I became glad the sting ray was swimming in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the sea turtles continued to bob their heads up with the waves and lazily waddle their fins through the crystal clear water in much the same way they propel along the sand. They were out for a swim, enjoying the sunny afternoon.

Once we were ashore, we tore off our snorkel gear, looked at each other, and shouted simultaneously, for the second time, “DID YOU SEE THAT??!!”

That evening we booked a snorkeling and sailing expedition, which proved to be just as fruitful.

Every bird, plant, and animal in the tropics boasts the most exquisite and delicate detail. Whether it’s the plumage of tailfeathers, the color patterns on the side of a fish, or the shape of a palm’s foliage, everything appears to have been individually designed by an artist.

The memory of swimming with such beautiful creatures is a lasting one. Had I made a bet on what I thought my favorite part of our vacation would be, I would not have chosen snorkeling.

Back in Austin, my thoughts occasionally float to that day and I imagine that right now, there’s a sea turtle bobbing around the shallow waters of Hawk’s Nest Bay.

The Trail to Do in the US Virgin Islands

In honor of our first anniversary on Sunday, I’m posting some special features on our honeymoon to St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Situated on the edge of the US Virgin Islands National Park, Caneel Bay Resort has the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. In daylight, they were the ultimate in peace and quiet, with nothing but the sound of waves returning to the shore. At night, they were front row seats to the starriest skies I’d ever seen.

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Naturally, we spent most of our vacation on the beach. When we weren’t looking out at the ocean, we’d look up to the high points of the island, Margaret Hill and Caneel Hill, which towered over us at 700+ feet.

I felt as if they were beckoning us to hike them.

Don’t you want to see what the view is like from up here? Don’t you need some exercise after the amount you ate at the breakfast buffet this morning? they seemed to be saying to me.

Yes, but I’m really comfortable right now. And I’m on vacation, so calories don’t count.

At some point, the first voice won out, and Brandon and I set off to tackle St. John’s hills.

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It was an unusual feeling to leave the openness of the beach and head down the narrow trail through the woods.

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The woods themselves consisted of thousands of skinny trees, each no more than an inch or two in diameter. The floor was covered in fallen leaves, and occasionally a palm tree, succulent, or fern would break up the monotony.

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I had expected a little more in the way of tropical plants, and was surprised to find that based on scenery alone, at that very moment, I could be in Appalachia, the Ozarks, or East Texas.

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It was plain old forest, and it seemed to go on forever.

I felt as the author Bill Bryson did when he wrote, “There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods.”

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But as the trail wound upwards, the monotony waned as we were treated to stunning views of the surrounding waters. Blue of the most brilliant shade glowed through the spaces between branches and palm fronds.

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Nothing is as brilliant of a blue as the ocean, am I right?

High up on the hill, we spotted a speck of red on the forest floor—easy to spot in the sea of greens and browns. I knelt down to find a little hermit crab making his way along the trail.

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Views of the ocean continued to greet us as we rose higher and higher. There were a few points where I thought the air was getting thin and that my beloved breakfast buffet was going to make a second appearance, but I was able to press on.

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Once we reached the summit of Margaret Hill, the toil and trouble was worth it.

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The view was spectacular. 36o degrees of the Caribbean Sea and its islands. A camera can’t capture the feeling of standing on that point.

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There’s Caneel Bay resort down there.

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The bay on the right side is Hawksnest Bay, where we swam with the sea turtles. The bay farthest from where I’m standing is Turtle bay, and the one on the left is Caneel Bay.

We made it!

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From the top of Margaret Hill, the trail led us across a forested ridge to Caneel Hill, and back down to the road connecting to the resort.

By the time we made it home, we were so hungry and pooped that all we wanted to do was order a cheeseburger at the café and look up at the “mountains” and say, We did that.

And that is exactly what we did. Lest all of those calories I just burned go to waste!

A Little Slice of Heaven in Caneel Bay, USVI

In honor of our first anniversary on Sunday, I’m posting some special features on our honeymoon to St. John, US Virgin Islands. 

I can’t go on blogging without telling you about the exquisite, unspoiled tropical paradise of the US Virgin Islands, where Brandon and I spent our honeymoon.

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We were on such a high from the wedding that I think we would have been happy staying in a hay barn, but we had booked a week at Caneel Bay resort, a 170-acre property on the island of St. John that boasts three private beaches, a hilltop lodge with panoramic views, and contemporary, unassuming accommodations.

Caneel Bay is the former private estate of Laurence Rockefeller, who was so captivated by St. John’s beauty that he convinced Congress to make it into a national park.

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God bless him for doing that. Other islands in the Caribbean are peppered with hillside beach houses and towering resorts, but St. John remains nearly untouched. With three-fifths of the island (about 15,000 acres) a national park, and an additional 5,000-acre marine  preserve of surrounding coral reefs and seas, it’s impossible not to look up into the verdant hills and imagine what it must have been like to be the first person to ever set foot on the island.

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The plant and wildlife diversity is rich, thanks to these conservation efforts. There is always a unique fern, palm, or other plant sprouting out of cracks in the sidewalk or even cracks in the bark of other trees. There were so many different types of palms that Brandon and I started a game where we had to guess how many leaves in each palm frond.

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This is what you think about when you’ve spent the last five months making seating arrangements and coordinating with a florist.

There was even a palm that looked like an old man’s beard! It gave me a peek into what my future holds when Brandon is an old man.

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One of the more well known aspects of the island is the donkeys. They are everywhere, and are pretty much given free reign.

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I guess they keep mowing costs down.

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Deer are as common as the donkeys and can be seen lounging about on the lawn.

Every day, afternoon tea is served from Turtle Bay estate house overlooking the water. It was right by our room, and we would indulge ourselves greatly in this event by extracting ourselves from our beach chairs and relocating here for tea and cookies.

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I could have done this every day.

It was a great place to watch the sun set.

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And once the sun set, the stars were absolutely incredible.

The rest of the week, we hiked the hills by our resort, went on a sailing and snorkeling expedition, and swam with the sea turtles in the bay.  It was nearly impossible to peel ourselves away and go home.

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I had started to settle into the rhythm of island life and was operating on island time. I wanted to stay. But fortunately, I had my whole married life in front of me, and I was ready to get home and start it.

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More to come on our sailing adventure, snorkeling, and hiking to the top of Caneel Hill.

7 of Our Favorite Outdoor Moments of 2014

Today has been devoted to packing up Christmas decorations, writing thank you notes, and watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.  For the first time in a month, I can see the flat surfaces in my house. It’s a Christmas miracle!

As I unwind lights from the tree, I’ve been making resolutions and reflecting on what a great year it’s been. I’ve made a mental note of all of the good experiences we’ve had this year.

Here are my Top 7 Outdoor Moments of 2014.

1. Snorkeling with sea turtles and sting rays in the US Virgin Islands.

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Caneel Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands, sits at the foot of a 7,000 acre national park, and the wildlife is abundant.

Snorkeling at Caneel Bay was one of the most real “one-with-nature” experiences I’ve ever had. One morning early in our stay, we headed out into the waves of Hawk’s Nest Bay with our snorkels. Twenty five yards out, we ducked our heads underwater. We were swimming next to three giant sea turtles, just hangin’ out in their home waters. Before I could process what I was seeing, a spotted sting ray darted by.  A few days later, I saw the same sting ray buried under the sand on the seafloor. His 3-foot stinger gave him away. It was so incredible to see this and I can’t tell you how beautiful each of those creatures was.

2. Watching the bats emerge from Bracken Cave.

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Every evening in the summer, fifteen million bats spiral out of Bracken Cave in the Texas Hill Country and spread out like a fan into the night sky in search of insects. Sitting underneath the cloud of their fluttering wings is a sight to behold.

3. Skiing Breckenridge with Brandon and my college friends.

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There’s nothing like snow-covered pine trees, a warm fire in a cozy mountain lodge, and the view from the mountains!

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It’s good for your soul. So is laughing with your best friend as a snowstorm blows in awhile you’re rushing out to the car.

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4. Waking up on the H. Yturria Ranch.

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One crisp fall evening this past October, I arrived with friends at this historic Texas ranch and was greeted at the gate by our host, who handed us each a glass of South African wine.

After a three mile drive to the hunting camp, we warmed up around the fire and chatted. I looked up in the light of the campfire I could see a huge white owl circling overhead. Hedwig!

The next morning, I rose early in search of coffee, and stepped outside of my cabin into a cool frosty South Texas morning. As I walkedacross the short grass lawn in front of my cabin, I could see dozens of little orange and black butterflies laying on their sides with their wings folded.  They were covered in frost.  I tip toed around them, not wanting to squash any, but assumed they were all dead but was told later that is how they sleep at night.

5. Hiking at Pedernales Falls State Park.

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My husband, Trooper and I spent a Saturday afternoon hiking across the falls. It was a great day trip only an hour and a half from Austin. We’re going back to camp this spring.

6. Taking Brandon on his first hunt

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Brandon had never hunted until this past October, but waited patiently one evening from a blind as deer trotted across the horizon line.  He harvested a buck, and since then, we’ve been eating venison almost every night for dinner.

A few mornings after our hunt, we were written up in the Goldthwaite Eagle. I told Brandon that not everyone gets written up in the paper for their first hunt!

7. Going to Albany, Texas for the Fandangle.

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Texas’ oldest outdoor musical, put on by the residents of Albany, Texas, takes place each summer on a prairie stage . It is fantastic. The musical tells the story of Texas, from the time of the Permian sea, through through the blooming of the prairie’s first wildflowers to the Native Americans to modern day. The most impressive part is when the State Longhorn Herd is driven onto the prairie stage.

(Read my post here.)

And that is something you will only see in Texas.

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Twenty fourteen has been real.

Back to the Housewives…and on to bigger and better things for 2015.