In our social media world, it is nearly impossible to travel to a place without stumbling across the famous travel photos that now define it. So many places around the world have become famous for their photo ops. In Cappadocia, it is breakfast on the rooftop in front of the rising hot air balloons, while in Nusa Penida, it is the peninsula at Kelingking Beach. For the island of St. John, it is the twin palms at Maho Bay, the tire swing a Oppenheimer Beach and the view of Trunk Bay.
Believe it or not in St. John, only one of those three images remains.
As I prepared to visit St. John with a photographer and a model in search of beautiful photographic moments and a first hand account of whether the island was back and ready for tourism, I took to my trusty Google, Pinterest and Instagram to get all the information. Using these three sources, plus some personal recommendations from friends, we nailed down our itinerary; naturally it consisted of the most famous spots to photograph on this small Caribbean Island.
After our first meal at Longboards in Cruz Bay on Friday night, we headed back to our Airbnb for some shut eye. We set out before first light in hopes of catching some morning glory at the Maho Bay. As we rounded the curve into the bay, I couldn’t help but notice that Maho seemed a little less green than the previous bays we had passed (Gibney, Trunk, Cinnamon). It definitely looked a little rough around the edges.
We drove slowly down the bay, eyes peeled for the famous palms, but we could not spot them. We parked and walked back down the beach, but we still couldn’t find any palms. Next, we pulled up photos we found on social media and tried to map out where we thought they could be based on the islands in the background. We went over another bay thinking that maybe they were hidden. Sometimes the best spots are the hardest to get to, but nothing. No palms.
So we continued on.
In our search, we came upon the Annaberg Ruins – a place that had not even made our list, let alone our schedule. Figuring we were losing light looking for the trees, we switched gears and decided to check out the ruins – we could always come back to Maho tomorrow morning.
As we hiked up to the ruins, we took a few shots here and there of a few deer we passed, grabbed a couple of photos prancing up the walkway, but before we knew it, we were lost in creating. Creation just for the pure joy of it. No deadlines, no expectation of “getting the shot”, no time constraints, no one else’s opinions or approval.
Exploring and Creating at the Annaberg Ruins, St. John, USVI
The three of us regularly work together shooting fashion for Anthony’s, but we had never had freedom to create just for the sake of creating. With the old stone walls, the greenery in every direction, the flowers in bloom and the turquoise expanse of sea just down the cliff, inspiration was everywhere and we were making the most of it.
After two hours and a 1,000 photos, we decided to go back to Maho in search of our elusive twin palms.
On the ride back to Maho we toyed with the idea that perhaps something happened to the trees during Hurricane Irma. As Florida natives, we were familiar with the wrath of hurricanes and knew this could have been a possibility, though we hadn’t heard any reports that made us believe they were gone.
We parked the car where we thought they might be and quickly located two small palm tree trunks and roots. They lined up perfectly with the island background we had seen so many times on Instagram and Pinterest. It was clear that the winds of Irma stole the tops of the Maho Bay trees. Upon discussing tourism with some locals at lunch just a few hours later, we confirmed that the tire swing and palm at Oppenheimer beach was gone.
Turquoise Views on St. John, USVI
At first we were sad that some of the things we had planned to document did not exist. But then, just like that, we were free. Free again to create. The most famous photographic spots on the island of St. John had disappeared. There was no example, no expectation, no comparison. No matter what we did, the work we created would never look like those that came before us, because our portfolio of St. John would not include two of the most popular photographs we had seen before. Our slate was clean.
Over the next two days, we ventured, laughed, and created the silliest videos and the funniest photos. They will forever remind us of the little moments and inside jokes we had on this trip. We also captured beautiful editorial and travel shots. The shots are uniquely ours because they brought to life our experience – not the ones we had seen previously.
Famous photographs do not define a destination.
It doesn’t even begin to cover the heart and soul of a place. For years I traveled without a camera. In fact, up until a year ago I had never taken a photo on a DSLR off of the automatic mode. But even still I was quick to forget that travel is more than just photography. Now I practice letting go of the “shot” to truly experience the place I am in.
Travel is and always will be about the wild and the unexpected. It is about the resilience and humanity that connects every person. It is the lunch where the owner takes time to sit down with you and recount the rebuilding process. Sometimes it is just about the deep belly laughs you have with friends. It is about the support you can offer these islands, just by showing up. Most importantly, it is about taking the time to hear the stories of the locals.
Do the research, make the plan and then throw it out the window and get ready for the ride. That is what travel is truly about. Freedom.