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Wiltz: A fun trip to the Virgin Islands

To paraphrase W.C. Fields, we went to the Virgin Islands and they were closed.

Over the Christmas holidays, Betsy and I, along with 15 family members, spent a week on St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most tourist-related activities were shutdown as a result of last September's devastating hurricanes, and some areas were still without electricity. The readily visible damage was heart-wrenching. Shorelines were littered with wrecked yachts and sailboats. Buildings were without roofs and walls and wreckage lined the curbs.

We stayed in a mountainside, oceanfront villa that had been spared storm damage. What I will call the central great room was perhaps 40-by-40-feet with 20-foot walls and a vaulted ceiling that rose to 30 feet. With the exception of the hardwood-floored bedrooms, all floors were stone.

East facing double-glass sliding doors opened to a floor-level swimming pool on the patio. The pool's east wall served as a dammed waterfall that flowed down to the shoreline. That same patio led to a private suite for Betsy and me. My mornings typically began with a dive into the pool. How my daughter LuAnn orchestrated the acquisition of this property was none of my business. I did learn that the surrounding property was worth $1.5 million per acre. The abundant iguanas are indigenous to the islands.

I see the U.S. Virgin Islands as an eastward extension of Cuba. The Atlantic Ocean lies on the north side of St. Thomas and St. John islands, and the Caribbean Sea lies on the south. Puerto Rico is a short half-hour flight to the west.

On two of the days, we took a ferry to St. John. Much of St. John is a national park, and its beaches are beautiful. We, myself included, did some snorkeling, and I was surprised and pleased to learn that in spite of my age and weight, I was quite buoyant in the salt water, and paddling around with my big feet made cruising over reefs and observing fish almost effortless. Don't ever be hesitant in trying snorkeling.

Now for the fishing! We booked a half-day four-hour fishing excursion with Ocean Surfari Charters. Bryan Macomson was our captain, and he did an excellent job. Our boat was a 37-foot Calypso with a single 440-horsepower diesel engine. The boat, only seven-feet wide, knifed through the rolling sea, making chances of getting seasick minimal. This was a personal concern, as I have a weak stomach and so does my grandson Sam. We took precautionary Dramamine and had no problems! As we boarded, tarpon swam about the sides of the boat ... certainly a good sign.

The cost was $600, and I treated Sam and my twin granddaughters Gaby and Grace, and Johannes, LuAnn's nephew, to the trip. We went due north about 7 to 8 miles and fished over a reef that dropped off to 2,000 feet. We began by trolling two rods out the stern, and two lines out each side on outriggers — a technique new to me. Sam told me that they decided I was to get the first strike, as I paid for the adventure. I liked their thinking! Captain Bryan told us to expect anything from blue marlin to shark.

The first strike didn't take long. I was already in the fighting chair, and I grabbed the rod. Minutes later, I had my first-ever toothy barracuda in my hands for pictures. I then tossed him back into the ocean. Sam was up next, and he was soon posing with a blackfin tuna, the smallest member of the tuna clan. Like my barracuda, the shimmering beauty of these ocean gems was striking.

Gaby was next to man the fighting chair. Minutes later she had a rainbow runner, a member of the jack family, halfway to the boat when an unidentified predator, most likely a shark or barracuda, bit off all but its head. It made for an interesting picture. Our fourth fish suffered the same fate, as it disappeared in its entirety. Grace then followed with a barracuda, followed by Johannes' awesome barracuda. When the trolling action all but came to a halt, we went to bait fishing over the side.

Using some scraps, including Gaby's fish head, Sam landed a hard-fighting reef shark that weighed an approximate 40 pounds. Like the previous fish, it was returned to the water after pictures. Gaby outfought a monster barracuda, Johannes cranked up a beautiful triggerfish, and I finally managed to hook a bait-stealing triggerfish. I also caught a strikingly beautiful and exotic remora shark sucker. The next time you watch some shark film footage, you might note some slender fish that swim alongside the sharks. These are remoras.

We had a great time! See you next week.

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