I haven’t been blogging because I am focused on writing “the Caitlin book,” but we are on our family’s beloved island of St. John right now, and it seems a good time to say hello.
In 2014 (4 years ago, how can that be??), we had a big trip to St. John planned. I had rented our favorite villa. It sat on a hilltop looking down over the Caneel Bay resort peninsula. These photos really do not do credit to the view.
Andrew and Katie and Alvaro would be joining us. We had “boat day,” our favorite day of vacation, all booked with our captain, John Brandi.
On Christmas Day, as Katie and I talked in our hyped-up, excited way about the trip plans, I remember reading Caitlin’s face. She knew, as she would later tell me, that things had changed irrevocably for her, that there was no way she was going to be able to go. I remained in desperate denial for a couple of weeks but at one point, I said to Katie, “She’s either going to get better, like she always has, or we are entering a whole new place with this disease.”
A year and a half later, I wrote:
We are still waiting. There is that hope that a year from now everything will be normal again, or better than normal. St. John seems like the paradise it’s always been, even more so now that it is out of reach.
Everyone knows how much we love St. John. The highlight of our trips are always our days on the water, zipping around the BVIs. Over the past decade, we always went with our favorite captain—the vivacious, enthusiastic, safe, and professional Captain John Brandi. John and his wife Sue had long dreamed of retiring to St. John, and when they moved down from Marblehead in 2005, they launched Palm Tree Boat Charters. Canceling “boat day” was without a doubt the most depressing part of canceling our annual trip two winters ago, when Caitlin first got sick. And then late last year, a startling post appeared on our Facebook feeds: a sudden announcement, by John, that “due to health issues,” he was selling his beloved boat.
It turned out that back pain that had been niggling at him all year was actually cancer; the world lost him last week. The outpouring of sorrow on St. John has been both wonderful to see and terribly heartbreaking. Everyone loved him, and of course, everyone’s memories of him are wrapped in their own memories of happy, happy days. As I’ve cried for him, I know I’ve also been crying for myself. Some days are just well and truly over, and there’s nothing to be done about that, except to say “onward,” and make these new days the best they can be.
Godspeed, Captain Brandi.
Last winter, Nick and I could not yet bear the thought of visiting St. John, but this past summer, we decided we would go in January. In early September, I began looking for a small villa for the two of us. I planned that we would spend part of the vacation in a villa and part at Caneel Bay. I’d only begun my research when the hurricane warnings started. Then Irma hit. And a week later, Maria. Two Cat 5 hurricanes that tore through these islands, sucking away every bit of vegetation.
That house I loved? Roof ripped off, the insides destroyed:
A couple of restaurants we’d been visiting since the 1990s? Flattened. Gone. Caneel Bay was closed, with no opening date in sight.
With such a huge recovery effort, there seemed no possibility of us going, so we didn’t plan to. But recently, friends who live here urged us to visit. “We are getting back on our feet. The beaches are still beautiful, restaurants are now open, there are places to stay! We need tourists/visitors/customers!”
So we are here. Our longtime island friends Delbert & Delrise are hosting us in their beautiful 8-unit vacation-rental condominium building on Turner Bay, Seashore Allure. I’m listening to the tranquilizing crash of the ocean as I write this.
Every single meal we’ve eaten has been extraordinarily good. Maybe because the chef/owners are actually cooking every night…. I don’t know. But La Tapa, Extra Virgin, The Longboard, The Terrace, Greengos, Cruz Bay Landing…all are consistently fantastic.
Our friends Ruth and Ron, who own the great little shop St. John Spice are back in business, resilient, like the rest of the locals who love this island. We had dinner with the lovely Karen, who gifted us with a beautiful piece of heart-shaped coral for the mausoleum. Her Treetops B&B sustained very little damage and is welcoming vacationers again.
Every morning, Nick and I have hiked the Lind Point trail into Honeymoon Beach and had it all to ourselves for at least an hour. It’s like being back in the 1990s, when we first started coming here, when Caitlin was little and we fell in love with this place.
Nick has been taking pictures of the beautiful island stonework as he prepares to build the mausoleum come spring. He returned from a walk near the island cemetery one morning, enthusiastic about a beautiful tomb he’d seen. The stone is the classic St. John stone and brick combination, and he pointed out the beautiful blue glass heart.
Being here has been strange, sad, surreal, lovely. It’s weird to see photos of us smiling, when two minutes earlier we were all choked up. But that’s how it goes. It’s also been really good. Just this morning, we talked about how last March, we were at a hotel in Vero Beach, Florida, and it seemed like we were surrounded by happy families with kids and grand-kids, and it was all a reminder of what we no longer had. Here, as in California last month, we are reminded that we are not the only ones who’ve borne hardships, and that honestly does make you feel better… sad to say.
We rather bravely decided to do our own quiet little “boat day,” with Cleve, the sweetest guy and a really good captain. Local Flavor is his boat. We got a water’s edge view of so much of the damage. Gorgeous Caneel Bay looks like a place abandoned after an apocalypse.
Word is it will likely won’t reopen until 2021.
We headed over to Jost van Dyke, where the damage was extensive. Here is a picture from ten years ago, when we had lunch at Foxy’s Taboo with Kitten and Katie and Kate’s parents, two of our oldest and dearest friends.
Foxy’s Taboo, now:
For those who know Jost: Sydney’s harbor is trashed. Disappeared houses in one spot, untouched houses right “next door.” People are living in tents.
On Great Harbor, the sandy Main Street looks so bright, so exposed. Very few trees left standing. The roof and windows of the pretty little church were blown out, but the congregation has erected a tent and set up chairs and a pulpit there.
Vendors are open, selling water and rum punch and painkillers and chicken roti and Johnny Cakes. Original Foxy’s is in good shape. And this survived there:
Foxy is some kind of Trump supporter (yikes/eek/#toomuchrum) and wearing a Trump hat and pin, but he’s still singing.
We ended boat day, as we always have, on White Bay. A photograph of the Soggy Dollar was one of the first photos I saw, post-Irma. STILL STANDING, they had posted.
We knew they were open but weren’t sure what to expect.
It’s rebuilt and a bit roomier for the workers and visitors, and it looks great! They’re planting 100+ palm trees all the way down the beach and into the other harbor.
Jess’s sister Carly’s friend Annie is a manager at the Soggy Dollar. Her parents own the place. After Caitlin’s service, Annie arranged an “organ donor awareness” day there, on New Year’s, 2017. They used a photo of Caitlin and Andrew, taken there in 2013.
While we were there, we suddenly remembered that Annie was probably on the property. Nick went to look for her.
Annie is one lovely person. So warm and kind. We learned that her family lost her beloved brother CJ six years ago.
Her parents live on St. John and we hoped we would run into them, and St. John, being such a small island…well, of course we ran into her dad and other brother a day or so later.
As talk progressed, we realized that the beautiful tomb that Nick had admired and photographed was CJ’s, the blue glass heart one of the favors at his island wedding. Another coincidence, one of many.
RIP, CJ O’Connell and Caitlin O’Hara.
10 thoughts on “FEBRUARY 8 — St. John Onward”
How to hold all the bitter and all the sweet at the same time? You just do. Thank you for this update. xx
What an amazing story woven with memories and the ironic twist of the beautiful tomb. Glad to learn of your travels and the rebuilding of your treasured island finding Caitlin along the way. Godspeed.
Lovely to read your post..Nick and Maryanne you are always in my prayers xx
You write the heart.
Onward. So bittersweet. I am so glad that you, as well as your beloved St. John, carve joy out of that which brought pain.
Thank you for writing to us.
Love this update! Thank you for sharing from your heart❤️
What a wonderful reflection of the island you love and the memories you cherish! Thank you for sharing St John and Captain John with me many years ago. We learned of his passing when we were there a few years ago.
Sending you love and prayers🙏❤️
Thank you so much! I am happy you came to love this place, too.
I am glad you are writing “the Caitlin book”. I have continued over the past year to read your postings of your thoughts, travels, pictures, people and memories of Caitlin. I do not know if you still remember me or not from Pittsburgh but I wish you and Nick well and Caitlin still has a place in my prayers.
“Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye, in every gesture, dignity and love.”
Be Well, Nanci