Photo courtesy of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
Sometimes, the stars align in your favor. While working for Jack Hargrave’s design studio years ago, three of my projects—a small, interisland cargo ship, a high-speed ferry and a 120-foot motoryacht—happened to coincide in place and time. The place was the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the time was during Carnival on St. Thomas. The situation had all the makings of the best business trip ever, but when a small “problem” arose, things got even better.
Because of the number of tourists who would be packing the islands for the festivities, all the hotels were booked. The yacht would be anchored near Red Hook, so her owner kindly suggested that I add a few days to my trip, bring my auburn-haired sweetheart along, and stay aboard as his guests. (Clients don’t get any better than that.)
Hargrave was an immensely talented designer; many of you own yachts that came to life on his drawing board. He could display a wicked sense of humor, too, but you didn’t necessarily want to be on the receiving end of a jab. When he learned of my travel plans, he scoffed, “You’re taking Joni to the islands during Carnival? That’s like taking a sandwich to a banquet.”
It was quite a while before she forgave him, but sandwich or not, she wasn’t going to miss the banquet, and what a banquet it was. The festivities were non-stop with parades, parties, steel-drum bands, street vendors and more, all accompanied by the dull roar of a crowd intent on making the most of the annual event. Our stateroom aboard the yacht was indeed a welcome respite at the end of the day.
Despite the obvious distractions, I managed to get my work done while Joni explored and enjoyed her free time aboard and ashore. The cargo ship was fairly straightforward work, and the yacht certainly had its benefits, but the most interesting project was the ferry: not so much because of the vessel itself, but because of the owner.
If St. John were a monarchy, then Rodney Varlack would have been the island’s king. He was the premier native son, having been born in the islands and struggled through an ignominious childhood to become St. John’s leading citizen, known affectionately as “Chief.” I joined him for the cruise from St. Thomas to St. John aboard his ferry, and when we got to Cruz Bay, I could see why he’d called for a bigger boat. Disembarking at his dock, I walked into a bustling “town square” full of tourist offerings: Rodney’s Tours, Rodney’s Taxi Service, Rodney’s Car Rental, Rodney’s Safari Bus, Rodney’s Bike Rental, Rodney’s Boat Charters—there were too many to remember them all.
Rodney, Joni and I had a great lunch that day at the Chief’s regular table at Laurance Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay resort, where locals, native and not, stopped by to pay their respects to him. In 2012, at age 81, Rodney was invited to serve as the Carnival parade’s grand marshal, and last year, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Cruz Bay, the local legislature erected a plaque honoring Rodney “for his visionary entrepreneurship over the decades.”
Sadly, Hurricanes Irma and Maria severely damaged much of the Chief’s beloved island, including the Caneel Bay resort, in September 2017. While restoration of the resort is not expected to be completed before the end of 2020, the lush, natural beauty of St. John’s national parkland, along with much of the island’s infrastructure, came back more quickly. The various branches of Varlack Ventures are once again available to serve your needs, so if your cruising plans for this winter are not yet finalized, consider the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. John in particular.
The residents, including Rodney and the many members of his extended family who support the tourist trade, and are supported by it, are waiting to make you feel more than welcome.