Tranquilo Snorkel and Sail

As we planned and researched our trip to Aruba I actively looked for a sail that would get us out of the hotel and resort area. We love to Snorkel and have taken trips in St Thomas with Pat on the Independence Independence Day Sail and on St John with Busy Bee Busy Bee – Lap of St. John These excursions allow us to gain perspective on the island, learn from people that sail and know the best spots to snorkel. We like a small group versus the large catamaran “party” boats. We are there to learn about the island, enjoy the reef and we like to get to know the people on board and hear about their lives and vacation.

We found out about Tranquilo on Trip Advisor, visited their website and reached out via the on-line inquiry form about the “Famous South Side Lunch Cruise” – Tranquilo web site The response was quick and friendly from Captain Anthony. The price was very reasonable and included food (lunch) and drinks, the sail out to (insert name of reef) and two opportunities to snorkel. A close in snorkel and a drift snorkel. He did not require payment up front, held our spot and gave us great information on where to find the crew and boat on the day of the sail. As the vacation grew closer I needed to change our original sailing date. I emailed Captain Anthony and he responded quickly and offered the sail on Tuesday versus our original selected date of Thursday. We were so glad that there was availability! We got up early as we planned to take the bus in to Oranjestad and needed to be on the dock by 9:30am. We had noticed where the Tranquilo was docked earlier that week when we stayed at the Renaissance Marina. Guests at this hotel would just need to walk across the street to board and enjoy sailing and exploring areas of Aruba with this great crew.

We walked to the bus stop to try to catch the 7:40am bus, thinking that it would take about 40 minutes to reach the downtown area where we would grab a small breakfast and head over to the boat. About 10 minutes before the public bus was scheduled to arrive a small well used white van with windows wide open pulled up. A local woman walked toward the van – and we stood back waiting to see if this was a “private” ride – the driver asked us where we were headed and we told him downtown Oranjestad and asked how much. He told us $2.00 and we hopped in the back. He picked up 2 or 3 other couples along the way, dropping one person at the low rise area and another at Super Foods. The local music playing, wind blowing through the van and feeling the warm Aruban weather was a great way to start this day. We traveled on to the downtown bus drop off zone and departed the bus. The trip had taken a little more time due to the stops for the other passengers and we arrived about 8:40. The streets were just waking up with the stalls selling merchandise to the cruise ship passengers in town that day. There were 3 ships docked and because it was early the streets were not over-crowded yet.

We needed to eat a little breakfast and had planned to go to the Dutch Pancake House but due to being a bit short on time we decided to go to the restaurant in the Renaissance Marina hotel as we knew they had a buffet breakfast that would be quick. We paid a bit more for breakfast ($19per person) but it was quick and easy and gave us plenty of time to enjoy our coffee and walk across the street to the dock about 9:25. We were the first passengers to arrive and Captain Anthony and his 2 person crew were prepping for the day. The young lady that was sailing with us that day looked familiar and we finally asked where we may have seen her before – her ship-mate told us she worked at Moombas Beach Bar as a hostess and it finally clicked for us. As the trip went on we were able to spend some time talking with Rose and found her to be a delightful, interesting and focused young woman.

We waited on the dock and 3 other couples arrived, a young couple from Chicago, a middle aged couple from Boston that had sailed on Tranquilo before, and a couple in their 30’s from San Francisco. After greeting one another the crew invited us to get settled on Tranquilo. We stored our towels and bag – found a seat up front and were offered something to drink as the boat was pulling away from the dock.

As we pulled out a cute little four legged friend came up from below. He was friendly to all of us but he was fierce as he barked at the passing boats and gave us several giggles with his spirited personality. It was clear that Tranquilo was his boat and he would protect at any cost! We asked if he had ever gone in the water, and the crew said that is why he wears a doggie life jacket – he never missed a beat the day we were sailing though – he scampered from one side to the next barking at fish, boats and keeping watch.

The journey out to the the channel between the airport and Renaissance Island on owe noticed some huts that looked like they had been pieced together from spare lumber and tin for the roof. We asked Rose about these and she told us that these were spots that locals used for “camping”. No one owns the land or the hut – but the locals share these and use it as a getaway spot to disconnect and vacation on their own island. The ones who built them just ask that whomever uses it leaves it the way that they found it.

It took about an hour for us to reach what looked like the end of the channel and open water ahead. The crew told us that the big mountain up ahead was Venezuela, but we were stopping at the dock up ahead. Attached to the dock was a covered wood “patio” structure with benches built in around the covered interior perimeter. There was a ladder off the far side of the patio where we could enter the waist deep sandy area that was encircled by rocks and reef. It was peaceful, quiet and we could not wait to get in the water and see what wonders were below. We climbed down the ladder and into the water it was warm, calm and wonderful. We were told that we could snorkel this reef for about an hour and then if anyone was interested the crew would take people out to do a drift snorkel a bit further down.

We saw some beautiful coral reef and many fish in the water just off of the dock. There was a bit of a current, but it did not carry us away and it made the swim feel like a light workout which was good considering the rum punch calories we drank later. We swam back to Tranquilo and were the last 2 to climb aboard. No one else wanted to do the drift snorkel but after a brief conversation with Rose about her willingness to go my hubby said he would like to try it. A drift snorkel involves climbing in the small motorized dinghy that we pulled behind the boat on the way out and heading further out to a reef that is a bit deeper (30-40 feet) versus the 10-12 foot deep reef we had just swam through. The swimmers needed to climb back in the dinghy after the snorkel and to save myself the embarrassment of my butt in the air and my arms and legs flailing around I told hubby to go ahead – and have fun!

He said that the drift snorkel was really great, and watching Rose as she dove down really deep was interesting. She has a great love of the water, diving and hubby thought she must be part mermaid. Captain Anthony waited for them and they returned to the Tranquilo about 60 minutes later. The rest of us were enjoying rum punch and once Rose and hubby were back on the boat the crew started to pass the delicious Pea soup, sandwiches and goodies. We all were having great conversation with one another, enjoying stories about each other’s travels and homes. The couple from San Francisco mentioned that they had been on an excursion earlier in the week with a larger group. They said that they enjoyed this day so much more for a couple of reasons. The group was friendly and welcoming – and we all knew that this was a boat of “couples” and no one on Tranquilo treated them any different even though they were both females. It was a very nice compliment for the all on this excursion. It was a diverse group of adults. Older/Younger – Outgoing/Quiet – Gay/Straight- is did not matter we were all out to enjoy the day and our time together.

As we headed back the sails were raised and Captain Anthony was able to showcase his sailing skills. It was a smooth ride with cocktails flowing, great conversation and friendships being made. I have a standard question I usually ask a local – so I asked Rose – If someone asked you to do to dinner tonight – and you could pick ANYWHERE on the island – Where would you choose? She gave me the name of a restaurant that is considered to be very local, and told me the reasons why. After she described it to me I told hubby – Tomorrow is our exploration day – and we are going to this restaurant! (Read about it in my next post)

We arrived back at the dock about 3pm, said our goodbyes and thank you to the crew in the form of some good tips from all of the guest. We walked across to the Renaissance and hailed a cab from the bell stand. We rode back to the Ritz a bit tired but looking brown and toasty from our day in the sun and feeling like we had experienced the real Aruba.

Taking the ARUBUS – Visiting Super Foods – Breakfast Bargains – Boca Catalina

We are adventurous, and a little bit cheap. Our Monday started with a walk over to the Beach hut where Ritz guests can get snorkel masks and fins for no charge. We wanted to explore Boca Catalina today so getting our gear was a priority. Next we decided to walk and take the bus as we enjoy experiencing local culture and areas that can’t be explored through a taxi or tour bus window. Our next destination after picking up our snorkel equipment was the bus stop out in front of the Marriott – just beyond the round a bout off to the right of the hotel entrance. We had looked up the bus schedule and knew that the public bus would be arriving about 8:40am. A modern bus pulled up right on time and we boarded. The fare was $2.60 per person – and the driver was able to give us change.

The driver followed the frontage road through the high rise and in to the low rise area. When we came to the stop for SuperFoods he told us and we departed the bus. He told us to walk up the adjoining street past some condos and as we walked we noticed a sign with an arrow for SuperFoods that that pointed down a stone path. We looked around a bit and we could see that there was a fence ahead and no where to cross the four lane road that runs next to the grocery store. We took the path around and ended up at the stop light with a crossing lane for pedestrians.

The store was open (they open at 8am) and we had not had breakfast yet – thinking we would buy something to have there. When we walked in we noticed that there was a small cafeteria type restaurant called Jack’s Café (It resembled and IKEA type restaurant if you have ever been there). We were ready for some coffee and saw that there were omelets on the menu so we got in line and ordered. The veggie omelets were delicious, the side of bacon for each of us was huge (we could have gotten by with sharing) and the coffee was perfect. Our total for this meal was $16! We came back later in the week and shared one breakfast ($8) as it was plenty for both of us.

My heritage is Dutch – but have only experienced the culture through Grandparents and parents. I had asked our bartender at Que Pasa earlier in the week about Dutch bakeries on island. I wanted to try some of the goodies I had tasted growing up. He said Super Foods was a great place to see all the traditional Dutch foods and they had the best bakery on island.Banket!!

We shopped around Superfoods buying some traditional Dutch pastry called Banket, some packages of Ollie Bollen (another Dutch treat) and boxes of Kinder Eggs which were a big hit with the kiddos when we got home – evidently these are hard to find in the US. The meat and cheese counter is absolutely amazing offering a wonderful variety. We bought the most expensive bottle of Tito’s Vodka we have ever bought ($34) in an earlier post I had mentioned it but I’ll say it again, buy it at the duty free when you arrive where it is just $22. Some people have posted that wine is a good deal and it seemed to be well priced. We did not go upstairs but it looked like there was furniture and other “department” store items up there. There is also a separate section near the front that has Sunscreen, make-up and vitamins. I inquired about the availability of Retin A at this shop – but the salesperson directed me outside and to the right for a visit to the pharmacy. We stopped at the pharmacy and were able to buy prescription strength Retin A for $15 a tube. Since we had a couple heavy bags we grabbed a waiting cab from the stand outside of SuperFoods and headed back to our hotel. That ride cost us $8.

We put our goodies in our room, changed in to our swimsuits and shorts, grabbed our snorkel gear and headed out to grab a cab for the short ride to Boca Catalina. It was a short 15 minute ride north of our hotel, passing wind surfers and deserted beaches on the way. The driver stopped near a sandy spot between some rocky areas where it was easy to drop our bag and towels and head in to the water. Boca Catalina was not too crowdedBoca Catalina landscape next to the beachBoca Catalina Snorkel

Boca Catalina SnorkelBoca Catalina SnorkelA bit cloudy at the start - Boca Catalina Snorkel

We noticed 6 boats with snorkelers and swam in the direction of the bobbing heads. The first thing we noticed was lots of fish, and the water was a bit murky but the reef was mainly white. We are used to seeing vibrant colors and fan coral and that made this reef very different from our St. John snorkels. It made us a little sad to see some of the huge brain corals cracked off a their base or other coral cracked in half. It may be boats or people causing the damage, but seeing it and realizing it is not something that will repair itself is sad. We snorkeled along the entire beach and then floated back to where our things were on the beach – taking about 90 minutes in the water to just enjoy the variety of fish and the layout of the reef. As we got out of the water we could see that there was a storm approaching – so we started to look for where there might be some cover. There are palapa on the beach – but no restaurants or bars – so we walked up to the parking area near the road. The rain started and grew stronger. We noticed that there was a bus stop sign and saw another family headed that way so we walked over and found a bit of cover under a tree. About 5 minutes later the bus stopped. Our little group had grown to about 10 people so we all boarded and paid and were on our way. The bus filled up in 2 more stops and ours was the 3rd stop. We jumped off, made our way to the hotel and since it had stopped raining our walk back allowed us to dry off a bit.

By the time we got back to our room the sun had come back out so we did a quick rinse, changed clothes and headed to the pool for another hour. We ended the night by taking a short walk through the Marriott properties and over to Moomba Beach Bar where we enjoyed dinner, drinks and some live music. Little did we know that the hostess who sat us would be part of our crew the next day we head back to Oranjestad for our sailing adventure with the crew of Tranquilo – can’t wait!

The Three R’s of St John.  Relaxation- Recreation- Reconnection Island Vacation 2015

Writing this on March 13 – Vacation is about leaving all of your responsibilities, work and obligations behind- doing what you love or just chilling out without a care in the world.   There is a saying- “no good vacation goes un punished” and the late entry of this last installment of our STJ vacation is a testament to our hectic lives full of work, family and craziness.   But, our last three days were truly about the Three R’S of STJ and oh how I wish I could still be there!

After discovering the location of the Bordeaux Mountain trailhead on Day 8 – hubby and big brother decided to take that hike from up above 1100 ft elevation, down to sea level.  The hike ends at Little Lameshure, so the rest of us were going to pack up the jeep and head down to meet them and spend the day at the beach.  Dropped the guys off at the trailhead and got to have my first experience driving on the left- not sure if it counts since there were no other cars on the road.  Got back to the villa and the three of us gathered up the snorkel gear, towels, beach chairs, made lunch and jumped in the jeep in record time!   Little brother drove and it took us just about the same amount of time to get down to the road to where we said we would meet as it did for the guys to descend the mountain- morning  traffic and a couple of herds of goats and we were there!

The guys had made the hike in about 45 minutes so they had been wandering around for a bit.   They had seen an islander in the bay singing “In the Jungle” when they finished the hike.   There were not many people around.  Interestingly enough a post on Tripadvisor has surfaced after we returned home with people saying that they were harassed by this guy.  Check it out here and be the judge- http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g147409-i432-k8118903-Harassment_at_Little_Lameshur_Beach-St_John_U_S_Virgin_Islands.html. Big brother and Hubby did not experience this at all, so I’m sure that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

We set up under some shady trees and spent most of the rest of the day snorkeling, brothers did a little more hiking and just watching the world pass by.   There was one couple that showed up and they were happy to be away from what turned out to be the first of many snow storms Boston was experiencing.   They were friendly, but the guy turned out to be kind of a tool- saw him snorkel and pull a lobster out of its home in the rocks and then pull an anemone out and wave it around to show his wife, after he came out of the water he decided it would be a good idea to fly fish from shore into a bay full of snorkelers.   One local guy that was getting ready to paddle board asked him to stop or move to a safer location and Boston Boy just looked at him and his wife told the local guy to have a nice day.

We had planned to head to Cruz Bay to souvenir shop, but learned about a fire that had happened at Mongoose Junction.  The island had all of its fire departments report, so we decided that we did not need to add to the crowd and decided to head home.  After a stop at Miss Lucy’s where we split 2 grouper rueben sandwiches between the 5 of us and  wishing we had each ordered one, we headed to the grocery store.  We heard more about the fire there and it had taken out several businesses.  The reaction of the islanders reminded me of how a small town comes together I these situations.

We headed home for some filets and roasted sweet potatoes on the grill, a night of packing and relaxing and headed out on the car ferry the next morning.   We stayed at the Best Western Carib next to the airport and finished our trip up with dinner at Oceana in Frenchtown.  St John is about Relaxation in a pool- jacuzzi- or on the beach. Recreation like people watching, – hiking, snorkeling ,diving, swimming and boating.  Reconnection with human beings is the best reason to visit.  the kindness on this island is like no place else.  People are welcoming, helpful and accepting.  Go there to reconnect with nature- family – your partner or spouse but most of all with yourself. 

One of the best parts about an island vacation is the conscious decision to relax – sometimes it is on a beach, other times it is with a cocktail.  If you are staying in a beautiful location, a villa, a hotel or even a campground on St. John there are ample opportunities to be active, but also times when just “chilling” is the best way to truly enjoy the surroundings and your vacation.

We started this day with a wonderful breakfast of steak and eggs.  We have had some very good meals while on island – usually using our own kitchen in Eminence on High, the villa we rented from  https://seatopeakvillas.com/EminenceOnHigh/.  After breakfast we talked about the plan of the day and several options came up – but something about the cool pool, sunlit patio and some chilled island cocktails was calling, ” Vagablond….stay home!”  and so that is exactly what hubby and I did.

Floating in the pool
Floating in the pool

View of Coral Bay from patio

We lounged by the pool, we called hubby’s mom and dad in Florida to congratulate them on 68 years of marriage    and said a little prayer that we would be given that same time to be together. We celebrated our life, our family and the happiness we feel when we are able to just “be” together.
Later that afternoon we took a short drive through the roads near the villa. We found the trailhead for the Bordeaux Mountain Trail and decided that trail which starts 1150ft above sea level – and leads down to Little Lamshur may be a trek for another day.
That evening it was dinner with family at the villa – we had slow roasted a pork loin with pineapple mango salsa. It was at this meal we hooked little brother on sweet potatoes cut up and roasted on the barbeque grill. He found out that a food he thought he hated is actually pretty good. Only a couple days left and we are already sad to be leaving.

Tim from St. JohnA few islands ago, Hubby asked Vagablond to learn to scuba.  I agreed to try and I did go to the class, don the gear and get in the water ready to go.  Then I got about 6 feet under and kinda freaked out.  I told hubby to go ahead and I stayed back to snorkel the reef with my tushy popped up through the water and easy access to the air above me.

Since diving is not something we could do together and we both love to snorkel, it was one of the main activity drawing us to St. John as there are so many great sites that can easily be reached from the beach.  We love adventure and finding the off the beaten path sites was one goal we had.  We did a bit of research on the internet, studied the map of St. John and read about where there may be some cool things to see.  We knew that some spots were not going to be reached by a trail or beach so we would need to rent a dinghy or find a boat to take us.  We found a tour that takes just 6 people with a captain that is a local on St. John.  After a quick email and phone call we reserved spot for this all day snorkel trip around St. John Island.

We arrived at the dock about 8:30am, met our captain and the other members of our small 6 person party and we headed off to our first stop, Eagles Shoal.   It is quite a distance from the island by boat, and frankly I was a bit skeptical and nervous when we arrived.  Our captain gave us instructions on which way to swim, and when hubby put on a safety vest I thought – “if he is going in I’m not letting him go alone!”.  Well it was totally worth the brief fear and trepidation.

When I swam the 20 yards toward the reef all I could see is black below me.   Then the reef appeared and it was so beautiful.  Full of tiny bait fish, caverns, caves and coral.  It is a place that made me want to learn to scuba dive and explore.  It was peaceful with just 4 of us in the water – we had about a 30 minute snorkel here, and as I climbed back in to the boat I told our captain – You will have a hard time topping that!  He said – “Just wait! – there is more”.

We started on the next leg of our exploration and rode past Salt Pond, Lamshur, and Little Lamshur beaches, then curved around the end of Rams Head where we spotted hikers  up on the top taking in what must be a gorgeous view.  We  sped past the Cruz Bay area and the bustling ferry docks and U.S. Customs stop.  We slowed down and found a nice calm spot at Lovango Cay.  It is a small island with a few luxury homes, we learned that there is a homeowners association that runs the marine services, and the island has its own small power grid.  What a beautiful place to call home if you can afford it.  We snorkeled here for about an hour, it was a very pretty, clear and clean reef.

We headed north and toward Mary Point from here, we passed the custom house that sits on the edge of the water and heard a story about how it was used in the past.   We headed over to Waterlemon Cay as one of the passengers remembered snorkeling there 20 years ago.  Upon arrival we saw a repeat of our Day 6– Boats hooked to every mooring, people on the beach, in the water and on the Cay.  We decided that it was a bit crowded and not really something that any of the 6 of us would want to do so we turned on the power and headed out of there and around the island to the east.  Looking for a spot to have lunch and spend about 2 hours snorkeling was the next goal, and so we headed past the many remote bays facing the BVI.

We stopped at Newfound Bay a shallow reef with a narrow entry channel.  We were glad that our captain had knowledge of the layout as I found out just how shallow it was a bit later.  We moored the boat and listened to an overview of the area.  There is grassy area where turtles feed, a coral reef that is hundreds of years old, and new reef that is coming to life in the midst of all of it all.  We could not wait to get in the water and head over to see all that this reef held.  As I swam away, hubby swam up next to me and touched my leg making me jump about 10 feet thinking it was a  sea creature.  I pulled my my head out of the water and told him don’t do that!  He said he just wanted to tell me about a big fish he had seen.  It was about 4 feet long!   I just smiled and said “ok honey” – and put my snorkel back in and swam away thinking – “Sure…..you saw a 4 foot fish”.   I headed to the reef and let my self get lost in the beauty.

Every foot I swam revealed more and more to see.   If I just stayed still and floated I would see the whole reef come to life below me.  It was during one of these floats that I noticed the reef coming closer and closer, I was floating into a very shallow place that was sort of like a “bowl” of coral. I am very careful about never touching the reef and I started to get a bit panicked as I as I had lost direction and could not figure out how to move away without touching anything. As I did this my upper thigh hit a piece of coral, scraping my skin and stinging. I took a breath and my snorkel filled with water and then I realized that I needed to calm down. I turned on my back to float, breathe and think. After I calmed down I called out to our boat captain and told him that I needed to know which way to swim. He had been watching me and when he pointed I followed his direction and was out of there. I swam in to the bay to take a few minutes and catch my breath and thought floating above some sea grass to spot turtles might be the best thing for me at that point.

After a few minutes the group was coming in for lunch so I swam toward the boat and saw hubby coming from the other side of the bay. He was moving pretty fast, so I just thought he was hungry. As I get closer his head pops up and says – look behind him. I pop my mask in the water and there was a huge 4 foot long fish following him! I turned and asked our captain what kind of fish is that? He laughed and said- “That’s Tim – the barracuda”. I looked again and decided to climb in to the boat and encourage hubby to do the same. At that same time the couple we met on the boat swam up and were able to get a picture of “Tim” which is at the top of this post.  Our captain explained that barracuda are very curious and he has only seen a barracuda hurt someone one time in the six years he has lived on island.  That was when a guy put his finger to the fishes lips and tried to have the fish make “raspberries”.  The guy lost his finger.  We had no trouble with “Tim” and hubby seemed to make a new friend.  It was a little nerve wrecking – but cool none the less.  We ate lunch, watched for Tim and then had another brief snorkel before moving on to our last stop of the day – Flanagan Island.

We started our day at a remote water destination and ended the day the same way.  We pulled into Flanagan and anchored the boat, the captain explained where some of the better underwater sights would be and off we went.  This was a special and awesome experience too – the coral was colorful, the fish were plentiful and there were some pieces of coral that almost looked like boulders of coral that had dropped from the sky, round, full and shaped like huge bowling balls.  Wishing we could stay and knowing that an entire day could be spent here without seeing everything we climbed back in to the boat after about an hour.   What an amazing day!  We returned to the dock feeling like we had accomplished our goal of snorkeling at sites we would have never been able to see off the beach or by hiking to the spot.

I truly believe that finding a “local” to show and tell is still the best way to see a new place.  The young man that runs this tour does it just one day a week.  He is kind, knowledgeable, patient and building great memories for his passengers.   Talk to the locals, ask good questions and most importantly make friends.

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