Scooting Around St John
- December 6th, 2011
- in Lifestyle
Story and photos by Dan O’Connor
As I walked toward the Scooter Rental hub in downtown Cruz Bay, I had an irking feeling that I should turn around. But it was too late.
“Ever ride one of these?” The scruffy man with a leathered tan asked from behind the tiny scooter stand.
“Yeah, sure,” I lied. “But it’s been a while.”
He pointed to a sign scrawled out on the side of his stand, which read four definitive qualifications: Experience required; valid credit card needed; no medical conditions; always wear a helmet. I had at least two out of four qualification nailed. This had all the makings of a bad idea. I think the scooter vendor could sense my reluctance.
“It’s within you—always within you,” he said with an Eastern European accent.
“What’s within me?” I asked.
“The answer,” he said stoically, remarking about the response to my internal conflict.
I stood watching the scooter salesman rattle off a brief tutorial before sending the confident clients on their way. Then it was my turn.
“You heard all that?” The weathered scooter man asked.
I reluctantly nodded.
“OK. It’s 125 CCs, so it’s got some power. You’ll want plenty of speed going around the switchbacks here, here and here,” he said, scribbling on a map. “But don’t go here. That’s where we’ve had some problems.”
“What kind of problems?” I shouldn’t have asked, but did.
“Some guys got really, really hurt,” he said. “Flipped over their bikes and really got hurt bad—not good.”
He slapped a retro, bowl-shaped helmet on my head and gave it a knock for good measure.
“Have fun!” he said, as I gave the acceleration handle a twist that sent me on a wobbling ascent up a hill off a narrow side street. I’d eventually straighten out, chill out, and began to get a grasp of things.
I clumsily weaved my way through Cruz Bay, around the roundabout in the center of town, and up Centerline Road—a route the scooter man claimed would make for a simple scoot.
While St Johnians may complain about the state of some of their roads, I find them heavenly, compared to the warzone roadways we navigate here on Tortola. The smooth pavement hummed under my tires as I whizzed along the road. With the warm, Virgin Islands air in my face and saturated blue and green hues filling my optics, I began to see the draw to open-air, unguarded transport.
The first subtle turns were a breeze. Then I hit my first switchback—literally. Unlike a bicycle, which responds well to a turn of the handlebars and weight displacement, scooters don’t abide by this standard practice. My attempt to mimic what I learned growing up on bikes took me heading straight on for the rocky embankment that bordered the sharp S-turn. I accelerated, as coached, and ended up pinned between the bike and the jagged wall. I couldn’t have been going more than 20 miles per hour, but the bone-bruising impact left me with road rash that extended along the left side of my body.
A woman walking her dog and a passing motorist stopped to make sure I was alright—a testament to Love City’s warm reputation. With a combination of shock and embarrassment, I laughed it off, waved, and cautiously motored on. I knew the scooter would have some damage, along with by body and my island credibility. But I wanted to push on and make it to a yogurt stand that the scooter man said would represent a mid-point to Coral Bay, the small boating community on the east side of the island.
Sure enough, the scooter was damaged, with jagged scratches ripping across much of its bright red base. And I was bleeding pretty significantly. I’d wash my wounds and cut my losses—and move on.
The descent to Coral Bay was exhilarating. The thick foliage guided me through the gradual pass; the fresh air was cool and refreshing along the smooth, canopied road. Most of the island remains a national US park, and its pristine preservation is ultimately apparent.
Coral Bay is tiny, but beautiful. Sand from its beachfronts spill over across the community and soften the roads. The steep, surrounding hillsides seem to deaden unnecessary noises from the outside world. I parked my scooter outside the famed Skinny Legs bar, and ventured in to see if I could find out what the community is all about. I took a seat at the bar and spoke to Heidi, who has bartended at Skinny Legs for six years. I told her I live in Tortola, where I most commonly am asked by visitors why and how I moved to the quirky little island that rarely registers on a map.
“For me,” she said, “I tell them this is paradise—really—Coral Bay is paradise. It’s a collective community where we don’t notice much change and we all get along in this beautiful place.”
The seemingly stock answer made sense. And it sounded genuine coming from Heidi. Interested, I asked what she thought of Tortola, to which she described as the “wild west” of the Virgin Islands. In the morning, she said, she’s reminded of her neighbours to the northeast when she smells burning plastics wafting over the quiet community from Tortola’s infamous incinerator.
“That’s one of those not-so-lovely things we get from Tortola,” she said.
I attempted to pay for my drink as I said my goodbye, but Heidi refused and wished me luck along my voyage. I putted around Coral Bay, which consists of a few shops, a couple dozen boats and a healthy handful of interesting characters, before making my trip back up the incline and on to North Shore Road.
Since my first spill and in the matter of only a couple hours, I felt completely confident on my scooter. I ventured along the coastline road, famous for its bordering trails and ruins, and allowed myself to become immersed in the national park’s natural beauty.
I’d make a pitstop at Annaberg Plantation, which was one of 25 active sugar producing factories on St John during the 1700s—times wrought with unimaginable hardships imposed upon African slaves. The fascinating sugar mill and surrounding ruins remain largely intact, and reminded me that Tortola similarly could preserve its historic sites with better legislative and protective measures in place.
From Annaberg I checked my watch and realized my short-lived stint with a scooter was almost at an end. I pushed on along North Shore Road, past the epic views overlooking Maho Bay and beyond the ruins at Cinnamon Bay. When I reached overlook of Trunk Bay, I stopped to admire the view and snap a few photos. I’ve photographed the view before, and was met by about a dozen others who undoubtedly traveled from miles away to capture the moment for themselves. But this time, I wanted to capture in the photo my silly scooter and a memory that would live on.
My feelings of elation would be fleeting as I headed through Cruz Bay and to the scooter shop. There, I’d meet the renter and come to claims with the damaged scooter. Maybe he wouldn’t notice the three-foot gash on the scooter’s side, or the succession of tiger stripe scratches toward its headlight. Fat chance. The charge, he said, would be $50 per every three inches of scratch. He began to figure the total astronomical cost for damages as I attempted to assure him the scratches were there when I first rented the scooter. That wouldn’t work. With quick thinking, I reminded the hardened salesman that I was a journalist doing a story about scootering around St John.
“Listen, I’ll be sure to plug your business,” I promised. “Most people pay top dollar for this type of publicity.”
I had him thinking. He paused and looked at me. I was sweating, dirty, bloodied and still looking like a class-a loon, strapped into my little black helmet.
“Journalist, eh?” he said, scratching his chin. “Ok. I’ll only charge you for one scratch—but it better be a good article.”
Fair enough. I cut my losses and paid the cunning businessman. I began my short walk to the ferry terminal, and thought about the old saying, “Any free press is good press.” Well, to the gentleman of eastern European decent wearing heavy, olive skin: I hope this article brings you both fortune and fame—and your future clients joy and health.