by Gioia Chilton and Tabitha Chilton
Earlier this year, the the midst of the COVID pandemic, my dear friend Gioia came to me for help with a plan. And you know what they say about the best laid plans…. Gioia and her daughter Tabitha tell the story of their trip that almost wasn’t.
Sometimes the fantasy of travel is so much better than the reality. This semi-post pandemic trip was stressful and difficult and every damn thing went wrong…until it didn’t. Until it was better than advertised, better than the pictures you see in the movies. Sometimes you have to let the universe paint the picture.
After our collective nightmare of 2020-2021, everyone wanted to get away. I was dreaming of a perfect beach vacation. My husband’s not big on travel, so I decided to just take the girls, Tabitha, 21, and Annie, who just turned 19. We had all been through a lot the last 15 months and could really use a break. An unexpected tax refund appeared in my bank account — when does that ever happen?! —which made it possible, and I began talking with Paige about the perfect island getaway. Which Caribbean island would it be? Or should we just go to Florida? I grew up in Florida so didn’t think much of that idea. And, I only had a couple extra days to squeeze into a long weekend. Where could we go to be at the beach by noon via a direct flight from Dulles, VA?
The lovely and romantic Turks and Caicos, came to mind –it was perfect! After flying to Providenciales, we could stay at the hip Zenza hotel for a few days, walk to the beaches, and go kayaking on Saturday at the incredible Chalk Sound National Park. As I booked tickets and made a reservation with Paige’s help, I fantasized about this dream vacation I would be experiencing with my daughters, to build our tradition of traveling together, and hoped for a trip that they would remember for the rest of their lives.
But it’s still a pandemic. Though the rules might have changed July 1st, we had to prepare to be allowed into the country. While we were vaccinated, we still had to get COVID tested, via the PMR (laboratory) test and apparently, it cost about $150. Per test! But Paige mentioned that CVS was doing COVID testing for travel though insurance for free, so we were able to book our tests for Sunday (to be within the 5-day window of our trip). I grabbed our passport travel purse to load in the vaccination cards and let Tabitha drive to a local CVS drive-through. Waiting for the lady to pass us our “Q-tip up the nose” kits –my kids having been tested every 10 days at school for months were old pros at how to do it—I glanced through our passports, last used when we went to Melbourne, Australia in 2019. With dawning horror, I looked down at my own passport. Did it say what I thought it did?!! Was my passport expired, as of January 11, 2021??? Noooooooo!!!!!!
I quickly called Paige in hopes she could wave a magic wand and poof away my stupidity. Unfortunately, it was impossible. I called DMV offices and passport agencies, and, of course, no one answered as it was a Sunday. My daughters informed me that they had also learned that this was an impossible feat, based on every website in existence. Can you believe it? No one could renew my passport for travel in 4 days. The Turks and Caicos trip of my dreams was just not going to happen.
What could we do? Could we go somewhere else? What other options were there? Should I just stay home and send my daughters off on an adventure without me? Again, we wanted a direct flight, same travel dates, and that perfect beach. But it had to be somewhere we could go without a passport.
Well, what about St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands? After a painful amount of money spent, we were able to switch our United flight, which left and returned about the same time (leaving mid-morning on Thursday July 1, and returning in the afternoon on the 4th of July). Annie helped me find a new place to stay (at twice the cost) through AirB&B: a gorgeous resort timeshare called Margaritaville. We would make this vacation dream come true after all.
But between the stressful COVID testing, prepping to get away at work, and the passport mix-up, I decided to keep my expectations low. Most likely, it would not be as nice and the kids would argue a lot. We would not be going to the glamorous T&C, jewel of the Caribbean, but to, as I convinced myself, the grittier and crowded St. Thomas, perennially filled with cruise boat tourists. Only, were cruise boats still a thing, post-pandemic? Also, it looked to be overcast all weekend. But, I told myself, an overcast beach is still a beach, and it will be nice to bond with the girls.
Thursday came and we made sure we had filled out our travel forms and uploaded our test results to get our travel authorizations.
As we wheeled our carry-on bags to the gate, we were informed that, apparently, we were supposed to check these bags at check-in. Crud. The nice lady allowed us to check them as a courtesy, but reminded us we’d have to pay to get them home.
After about a 50-minute delay for weather? Late flight attendant? Who knows? We had a fairly uneventful (masked) flight. As the plane descended towards St. Thomas, the girls and I were convinced it was landing right into the ocean. Thankfully, a landing strip appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and we looked up, surrounded by a beautiful island which rose out of the water and stretched its beautiful peaks and hills to welcome us.
Getting off the plane, the girls marveled at the uncovered stairway to the tarmac. Shuffling through the lines, US service members in uniform ensured we showed our green COVID-free QR codes to the agents while another masked medic took our temperature. I thought to myself, these folks REALLY don’t want to get COVID on this island! Still, it was comforting knowing that precautions were being taken seriously.
Just when things seemed to be picking up, I got a text from the AirB&B host, who stated that their previous guests had COVID and they needed at least 24 hours to disinfect the room. Great. So much for keeping COVID off the island.
He then wrote that he could provide us with a room at the Wyndham Limetree Beach Resort. At this point, I just laughed. Now, we truly had no idea what we were walking into. Not even the pictures off of AirB&B that I figured had been photoshopped, with my luck. This is how the scam works, I thought. A vision of me and my girls wandering homeless in the St. Thomas streets occurred to me, while this “AirB&B host,” who was actually a mean internet scammer, laughed at us from his underground bunker in Kiev.
When I asked for tips on the best way to travel there, he texted “Uber.” The girls quickly informed me the according to Uber (and Lyft) there is no such thing in St. Thomas. Certain proof that we had been scammed: wouldn’t he know that, if it was really his place? But there was something old-fashioned called a “taxi” and after another line, the kind and loudly instructive St. Thomas tourist wranglers popped us into a taxi along with a few other families (all masked up, of course)
Then, we were deposited at the LimeTree:
Finding our room blissful, we turned to take in the view. This would do, this would do just fine.
Jumping into the pool, we swam up to the bartender and ordered a round of fruity drinks with wonderful biodegradable straws (to Annie’s delight, the drinking age is 18 in St. Thomas). As long as no one mentioned the words ‘hurricane on the way,’ I could begin to relax.
After one of the strongest Pina Coladas I’ve had in my life (not having much to compare to other than a failed attempt to make them from scratch in a college apartment), and a sickly sweet and strong lemonade vodka situation at the on-site restaurant, Lanai, I managed to tell my mom about the boy I had a crush on. I pledged then to drink less over the next few days of the trip. We retreated to the comforts of a split level room in which the bedroom was in a fun loft and fell asleep at 8:30 the first night. I was then rudely awakened by my mother at 8 AM and instructed to seize the day.
We spent some time at the pool and beach on the resort but wanted to venture out. Packing only an 8 ounce bottle of water, plastic bag for shells, and a $36 tube of sunscreen, we walked up the steep incline away from the resort, walked two blocks over, and proceeded to walk down a steep incline for another fifteen minutes until we reached Abi beach.
This was a small semi-deserted little beach which was vacant and but packed with interesting shells and coral which I rooted through for almost an hour. We hiked up a steep path thinking it was a shortcut home until we reached a lock gate with a no trespassing sign, and had to turn about to take the long way home.
Although this ordeal was exhausting and we were definitely dehydrated by the end of it, I had a lot of fun bickering with my mom and sister and making up stories to speed up the drudging walk home. It was also nice to immerse ourselves in the environment a little more and experience the landscape of the Virgin Islands up close, outside of a terrifyingly bumpy cab ride or the seemingly tourist-accommodated comforts of our resort.
On our last full day, we decided to take a taxi to a beach on the other side of the island called Magens Bay Beach. The taxi ride was forty five minutes of bumpy winding turns, honking horns, and picturesque ocean views off the side of the cliff we were nearly falling off of that made me think I was going to die.
When we arrived at the beach, the view had us all breathless. It was a crystal blue and turquoise bay which formed a crescent of sand around the beach and was encompassed by two house-sprinkled mountainsides on either edge, which led to an astonishing head-on view of the ocean in front of us, speckled with yachts and sailboats. My mom said she didn’t think water this blue and clear was real and we all agreed. We rented snorkels for twenty dollars and watched the blues, yellows, and oranges of fishes we hadn’t seen outside the animations of Nemo. We swam in the clear water, our backs turning pink from the sun and hair growing tangled from the salt and confines of snorkeling goggles.
Eventually, we headed back and took the rollercoaster taxi ‘home.’ Then, almost in the blink of an eye or as if it were playing on a TV show in a montage, we fell asleep, packed, took final glances at the blues of the oceans, said goodbyes to iguanas and chickens outside our room, spent $42 on prepackaged airport sandwiches, boarded the airplane off the stairs, and were on the phone fighting with my dad about where to pick us up within the maze of the Dulles airport parking structure.
Though there were a lot of times in which I complained and threw attitude at people who didn’t deserve it (like my sister) or insulted my mom’s parenting skills when it came to supplying water for a hike she knew was 27 minutes, I’m grateful to have a parent that cares so much about showing her children other parts of the world, bonding with them, and helping them to realize the importance of spending time with family, arguing or not.