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St. John, Virgin Islands – Following Caribbean Coordinates

Checking coordinates

Following Caribbean Coordinates with a Hi-Tech Teen

By Debi Lander

The path closes in, narrowing at each turn. Dampness collects on my skin as I plod through sultry, humid air. Above, huge termite nests hang from bay leaf trees while dozens of hermit crabs claw at the pebbly route. The constant need to scratch and swat at mosquitoes annoys me, yet I wind round and around this seldom-traveled trail on the island of St. John.

“What’s your reading?” I yell to my daughter.

She answers: “North 18° 21.038, West 63° 30.078.”

“Not too far now, we must reach West 64°,” I shout back, hoping I’m right.

We’re geocaching, a pirate-like outdoor treasure hunting game pronounced “geo-cashing”. Players use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to locate hidden containers in 222 countries. The hi-tech device grabs a satellite signal and reports precise longitude and latitude coordinates. GPS units, accurate to a 20-foot radius, cost $100 and up.

In this pastime, participants place caches wherever permitted, and then publish coordinates at sites like http://www.geocaching.com/ or http://www.terracaching.com/. Some insert Travel Bugs, special objects that players move from location to location, tracking their route online. Owners establish a separate website, requesting photos to show off globetrotting.

Many resorts, state parks, and convention and visitors bureaus are sponsoring geocaches as a way to lure and entertain guests. “It’s really a fantastic family activity,” says Kurt Johnson, a naturalist from Wyoming. “Kids are exceptionally good at this because they’re good with new technology, and they like scavenger hunts. And it brings out the kid in adults, too.”

Fun and family time is just what my husband Jay, Laura and I plan. We’re spending two days at St. John’s Caneel Bay Resort, originally part of a Danish West India Company sugar plantation. The upscale retreat, described as a haven for the newly wed or nearly dead, encourages family-friendly summer activities.

Fifty years ago, Laurance Rockefeller donated 6,000 acres on St. John, diva of the Virgin Islands, to the National Park Service. I’m sure he never imagined visitors navigating via satellite messages. Most tourists come to kick off their shoes on the talc-soft beaches, dip into water so clear it tempts drinking, or snorkel and scuba in the natural deep-sea aquarium. Now the eco-friendly sport of geocaching has arrived in this laid- back Caribbean corner.

Like most teenagers, my 15-year-old daughter Laura is comforted by gadgetry. Travel essentials include her DVD player, a supply of rental movies, her cell phone and iPod, even for short distances. I’ve learned the chances of keeping a solo teen happy grow exponentially when microchips are involved.

Room check-in provokes the question, “where’s the TV and phone?” from my shocked adolescent. Then she eyes the hotel brochure offering geocaching and is anxious to try. I agree to act as a Sherpa, toting bug spray, water, camera and whatever.

The GPS directs us much like a compass. “Arghhh, matey,” I cry-as we both fumble with geographical challenges. My husband commandeers the unit, captaining us toward hidden loot on the property. Written coordinates hint the box lies near secluded Honeymoon Beach.

I pray we don’t uncover lovers as my group tramples through squishy sand. We pass bougainvillea, full of papery iridescent orange blossoms, sharply contrasting the turquoise water. Laura unearths a Tupperware container tucked into a water-eroded tree. She withdraws a logbook and pen, and a tube of small plastic sea creatures, which her niece and nephew will love.

I expected a coupon from the resort, but now understand the rules. Get a gift, give a gift. Fortunately Jay has a few doubloons in his pocket.

Heading in search of our next prize, we fortuitously pass the hotel bar, where hubby and his gin and tonic abandon us. After swigging down a fruit punch (though I considered grog), we divert to the gift shop to purchase trinkets, booty for future hunters.

Scavenging this cache proves more difficult. The GPS reading indicates we’re close, but a dense tropical forest traps us. We’re forced to retrace our steps, circumventing all 11 tennis courts protected by the trees, and approach from a different angle.

Scores of lizards leap across this scrubby terrain, distracting us from the surreptitious attack of a large cactus, overgrowing the walkway. Removing a few needles, I carefully limp along, cursing my footwear choice–flip-flops.

Eventually Laura spies the waterproof bin. She unlatches it–but finds it muggled, a geocaching term borrowed from Harry Potter, meaning “empty.”

“Plundered, ” I cry, “those rakish rouges!” We feel truly disappointed by the cold cache.

Although the final navigational points appear nearby, without a map, I’m lost -I must follow my teen’s lead. We trek for miles, crossing a beach, looking like … out of place geeks: Dumb and Dumber, following a nerdy compass. But I don’t care.

The route again ascends through thorny undergrowth. We eye an iguana, basking in the sun, and pass immense boulders, created from volcanic eruptions that formed the island, millions of years ago.

In the rough
In the Rough

Pausing in the heat, I photograph flowering succulents. The frowns, blood red in the center, run full spectrum to a pinkish hue at the tip. Lovely, except my face color matches. I’m cranky and tired. I could be floating on a raft at one of Caneel’s seven beaches, for heaven’s sake.

We are playing a game of cache me if you can–and losing. After another ten minutes, we swagger toward a wooden bench at an overlook and rest. A thought occurs as if a coconut hit me on the head: I’m spending the afternoon with my daughter, on a languorous isle. Don’t worry, Mom–be happy.

The Bench
The Bench

We reminisce, recalling a snorkel sighting of a Hawksbill turtle, his shell a disguise, like a giraffe’s coat. Together we peer through variegated shades of the teal blue tide, even identifying a few colorful fish.

With fortified spirit and no more whining, we’re determined to finish. At long last the GPS declares the desired “waypoint.” Laura peeks between huge moss-encrusted rocks, big enough to dwarf an NBA player, and discovers the buried treasure.

“Dad will love these,” she says, displaying two new golf balls and tennis ball which, our ever faithful but loopy, golden retriever can chase.

Caneel Bay Resort sprawls over 170 acres, scattered with guest cottages and meandering footpaths. I believe we covered 150, the ones most guests miss. This escapade rewarded us with secret views of tiny islands and cays off the Sir Francis Drake Channel, intimate wildlife detail, and most importantly– time together.

Now, disgustingly hot and bedraggled, we’re about to cache-out. A cleaning staffer stops a motorized cart and we ride back to the bar. This time I order a hearty rum punch, followed by a “Painkiller”–a powerful Caribbean cocktail.

My daughter is often outspoken on her likes and dislikes, but to my amazement, she didn’t complain about wandering in the heat. “We did it Mom,” she proclaims, slapping a high five. I see a hint of pride and affection bubbling within. It’s not a champagne moment by any means– just one that soothes the psyche of a mother enduring the turbulent teen years.

When her dad asks, Laura rates the activity “good” meaning she truly enjoyed the experience.

Be it the lore of a pirate’s chest or wishful dreaming about hidden fortune, searching for “X marks the spot” is a swashbuckling good time. Grab your buccaneer and go geocaching.

If you go:

St. John ranks as the smallest of the three US Virgin Islands. Measuring nine miles long and five miles wide, the territory is largely unpopulated, mountainous and reaches a peak of 1,300 feet. The US National Park Service owns and maintains approximately two-thirds of the land.

Most tourists fly to St. Thomas and hop a ferry for a short ride to Cruz Bay. Cars are driven on the left hand side with challenging steep, sharp turns, but never a stoplight.

St. John boasts numerous white sand beaches running along the shores and some of the finest snorkeling in the Caribbean.

Lodging choices are limited: Caneel Bay and the Westin resorts, privately rented villas and condominiums or Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds.

Virgin Island National Park; Phone 340 776-6201
Caneel Bay Resort; Phone 340 776-6111
St. John Westin Resort; Phone 340 693-8000
Maho Bay Campgrounds ; Phone 800 392-9004
Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds; Phone 340 776-6330