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June 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Golden Rock Dive Center, St. Eustatius

time travel to the old Caribbean

from the June, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

St. Eustatius is stuck in time. Our pilot landed his single-prop Piper on a deserted runway. No one appeared. He then took off. We rolled our gear to the small arrivals building. The immigration agent looked at our dive bags and luggage and asked, "Just here for the day?" Somewhere we could hear Rod Serling's voice: "Picture an island with no big hotels, no dining destinations, no casinos, no shopping, no traffic, no noise, little crime and no animus from the 3,400 residents. Two divers have arrived for what they hope will be a week of relaxation. Little do they suspect they are diving into the Twilight Zone."

Take away the late-model vehicles and WiFi, and you are in the late 1950's. What you will find: smiling faces, friendly greetings and surprisingly good Caribbean diving.

Golden Rock Dive Center's E-Z Goin

Golden Rock Dive Center's E-Z Goin

With freshly-stamped Statian visas in our passports, we waited outside the tiny building for 10 minutes until Robbie, the cab driver, arrived and heaved our bags into his van for the short ride to the Old Gin House. We had expected an ocean-view room in the newer section on the water, across the street from the little hotel, but our reservation had mistakenly been made for a month later and a Dutch wedding party had taken the better rooms. While my buddy worked with the hotel, I strolled along the Lower Town waterfront past ruins of 18th century storehouses to the Golden Rock Dive Center, where divemaster Matt Wilson listened to my tale of woe and called shop manager Michelle Faires, who then called the Gin House, got us a room and an upgrade to an ocean-view suite once the Dutch had departed. The upgrade was appreciated, as the standard residence had the tropical mustiness of hotel rooms where windows have no screens and thus simultaneously exclude mosquitoes and fresh air. The mattress on the king-size bed distressed my middle-aged back. The wide-screen TV offered Showtime, CNN and ESPN, but we had to go to the lobby to surf an excruciatingly slow WiFi connection. Once ensconced in the Ocean View Suite, we had a great mattress, a living room and kitchenette with a fridge we stocked with wine from the nearby Mazinga gift shop, where prices were lower than duty-free in St. Maarten.

Golden Rock Dive Center, St. EustatiusOn Sunday morning, Michelle's husband, Glenn, drove our gear a short way to the shop, checked our certification cards, and reviewed the operation. Every morning at 8:30, we tossed our gear bags onto a small trailer already laden with aluminum 80s. Matt hitched an ATV to the trailer and pushed it down the dock, where deckhands loaded everything aboard the E-Z Goin, a 32-foot flat-top catamaran with plenty of shade, a first-aid kit, oxygen and radio. The Gin House provided pool towels for the divers. We set up our own rigs, analyzed our nitrox and checked the fills, which were never below 3,000 psi. Then we headed out for the 10- to 20-minute trips to nearby sites.

Our first giant stride from the catamaran into the 81-degree water took us to Hangover, named for the ledges that descend from the reef top to the sand. Created by a 40,000-year-old lava flow from The Quill, one of the island's dormant volcanos, the spur and groove formation was well populated. An eagle ray swept past as I followed the mooring line to the 60-foot bottom. Rock beauties nibbled here and there, while stoplight parrotfish munched on star coral. Small tiger groupers meandered through the sea whips. A baby hawksbill turtle emerged from under a ledge to feed on a netted barrel sponge. At the edge of the 100-foot visibility, a small Caribbean reef shark took a wide arc around us. Exiting the water, I handed up fins and weight belts, and climbed the wide, padded steps at the stern. Glenn told me he had been through several ladders before he found these. This is typical of his attention to detail.

Golden Rock Dive Center, St. EustatiusLater while he was fixing my fizzing pressure gauge, Glenn said, "Every diver is important to me. I want them to understand the reefs, ecology, the fish and everything about this place. We're not like the big dive shops. People only hear about us by word of mouth. I try to give people what they want. We've got groups that come here from Bonaire and ask to see sharks. So I try to show 'em sharks." Indeed. The following day at Nursing Station with just the two of us, he searched the ledges until a six-foot nurse shark emerged and moved unhurriedly away.

Between dives, we returned to the shop for surface intervals that lasted too long -- an hour or more beyond the scheduled 11 a.m. departures. By the time we got back and hosed off our gear, it was past 2 p.m. and the nearby, excellent Blue Bead Restaurant was closed. (I mentioned this to Glenn and he tried to get the boats underway at 8:30 a.m. so we'd get back earlier). So many days, we climbed the stone pathway to Upper Town in search of mid-afternoon lunches. The Chinese eateries stay open all day, and at Sunny's Cantonese, we had excellent fried squid with chili sauce and stir-fried rice. All food on the island is shipped in, even the lobster and squid, so at $20 each, plus a few $3 Coors Lights, lunch easily set us back $60. While the Old Gin House once sported one of the top chefs in the Caribbean, it now serves breakfast only: pancakes, omelets, cereal, bagels and lox, or a continental breakfast including sliced cheese and ham. When we spotted fishermen offloading at the docks, we asked where they might be selling their catch. Advised to ignore the menus and ask the cooks for specials, we had superb curried conch for dinner at Willy's. Close by, Cool Corner had a cozy bar scene and brilliant garlic shrimp. Twenty bucks seemed to be the going price for fresh seafood in Upper Town. At the seaside Blue Bead, pizzas averaged $19, and the excellent entrees like salmon or steak were as high as $28. The restaurant is owned by Swiss migr Ronald Mettraux and his wife, who also served as the chef. They were happy to add broccoli to our pizza; this was one of the few places where I found fresh veggies.

Golden Rock Dive Center

Golden Rock Dive Center

After the second dive, I liked to hang by the small, deep pool at the hotel, shaded by a magnificent cherry-red bougainvillea. Other times, I walked up the hill to Oranjestad and wandered the narrow streets past pastel-colored clapboard houses. I explored the fort, church, and synagogue completely on my own. Hike the Quill in the morning; afternoons were too warm. After paying $3 for an entry tag, you can start in Lower Town and follow the signs, or ask Robbie to drive you to the end of the road that ascends its lower slope.

Besides reefs, St. Eustatius has a few wrecks. A decommissioned cable layer deliberately sunk in 2003, the Charles L. Brown rests on its starboard side at 98 feet. With visibility well over 100 feet, it seemed as if I could see from one end of the 320-foot wreck to the other. Cautioned to avoid side compartments, I navigated the central passageway, emerging at the stern before dropping down to pose by the props. Two heavy-bodied great barracuda hung out at the wreck, while a school of 200 horse-eye jacks spiraled in the distance.

What looks like a boring sand flat at Double Wreck is actually as good a critter dive as Champagne in Dominica. Glenn set up make-up mirrors in the sand, and we watched pike blennies and sailfin blennies battle their reflections. Rays hid everywhere in the sand, as did a sharp-tailed sand eel. I spotted a fringed filefish hiding in the soft coral. While I watched a lone reef squid go though its psychedelic color changes, a school of 200 goatfish grazed their way through the sand.

There were so many southern rays embedded in the sand at Wreck Alley that I had to check my landing spots when I settled in to look for yellow-headed jawfish or gobies. The wrecks are an upright barge with several open, empty compartments, and a small tug, completely covered with gold, green, and blue encrusting corals and violet sea whips. When a new group asked to dive the "Charley Brown" two days later, Glenn asked us several times if we didn't mind repeating a dive. It's a great dive and Glenn left us to explore the exterior of the wreck on our own.

I requested a deep reef dive for the following morning, our last. Glenn fixed me up with a 100 cu-ft. tank of 32-percent Nitrox at no extra cost, and we jumped into choppy seas at West Drop Off. Great visibility again as I descended to pristine canyons of coral and rock at 110 feet, with inviting overhangs and swimthroughs located below nitrox depth. Great barrel sponges, gorgonians and black coral created a deep forest. I would have happily stayed there and dived a square profile, but we ascended to 70 feet through a barren reef, then to a healthy spur and groove reef at 45 feet, where a curious green turtle swam with us and posed for pictures.

Our last dive had us making our way slowly through the petroleum terminal to Aquarium, an isolated set of rock bommies in sand on the north end of the island. Lots of tropicals, lobsters, a school of southern sennet, spotted morays, porcupine fish and snappers, several of which were caught in the subsistence fish traps left by local fishermen.

As you can gather, St. Eustatius is quiet, unassuming, one of the few remaining islands of the Caribbean of yesteryear. While most of the big fish were caught long ago, the diving is clearly better than average and the entire experience ... well, a journey back to the 1950s, if not the Twilight Zone.

-- V.D.

Golden Rock Dive Center, St. EustatiusDivers Compass: Mid-June departures from JFK to St. Maarten were as low as $639 on American Airlines, and December departures start at $789; from LAX, you can fly for as low as $800 . . . Winair (www.fly-winair.com) flies from St. Maarten to St. Eustatius, and round-trips will run between $172 to $333; Premium Class tickets do not mean you get a better seat, they mean you have a better chance of getting on the plane . . . If you want to go the private plane route, Ronald Mettraux can be reached at 011-599-318-1900; you will be met at the departure tax window in St. Maarten, whisked through emigration, and be on St. Eustatius less than an hour after deplaning your international flight . . . At Golden Rock Dive Center, two-tank dives with gear are $95, nitrox is $10 a tank, extra dives beyond the 10-dive package are $40, and they rent Scubapro BCs and Sherwood regs at $10 per dive . . . There is no tip jar but if you wish to tip, Glenn will divvy it up among the staff . . . Rates at the Old Gin House are $155 per night for the Garden View rooms to a pricey $330 for the Ocean View Suite, double occupancy; book through Golden Rock (with our "upgrade," we got seven nights in an ocean-view room and 10 dives each for $2,284) . . . You may wish to check with Vacation Rentals by Owner (www.vrbo.com), they list three houses on St. Eustatius that start at $1,000 per week . . . If you rent, you'll need a car or scooter, so check out Reddy Car Rental by calling 011-599-318-5453 or e-mail reddyrentals@yahoo.com. . . . Websites: Old Gin House - www.oldginhouse.com; Golden Rock Dive Center - www.goldenrockdive.com

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