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. In Nusa Penida, it is the peninsula at Kelingking Beach. In St. John, USVI, 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; our alarms were set for early wake-up. 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. We did one pass of the bay with no luck. We parked and walked back down the beach, but we still couldn’t find any palms. We pulled up photos we had 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.
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.
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. Two hours and probably a 1,000 photos later, we declared that it was time 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 armed with the thought that maybe the palms were gone, we quickly located two small palm palm tree trunks and roots that lined up perfectly with the island background we had seen so many times on Instagram and Pinterest. 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 also gone. We saw it for ourselves the following day.
A wave of sadness floated over us as we realized that some of the things we had planned to document no longer existed. But then, just like that, we were free. Free again to create. The most famous spots on this list island of St. John were gone. 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. In essence our slate was wiped clean.
Over the next two days, we would venture, laugh, create the silliest videos and the funniest photos that will help us never forget the little moments and inside jokes we had on this trip. We would also capture beautiful editorial and travel shots that were uniquely ours because they brought to light our experience – not the ones we had seen previously from magazines or social media.
It isn’t those famous photographs or those perfectly organized experiences that define a destination. It doesn’t even begin to cover the heart and soul of a place. I’ve known this for years, as up until a year ago I had never taken a photo on a DSLR on manual, but it was something I had nearly forgotten. Something that now I continue to 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 about the lunch where the owner takes time to sit down with you and recount the rebuilding process, it is about the deep belly laughs you have with friends, it is about the support you can offer these islands, just by showing up. It is about being open and willing to hear the stories etched into the minds of locals and visit the places they recommend.
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.