Written by: VALERIE SIMS
I have lived on rocks all my life. I love them so much I’ve read everything I can find about them. Call me the “rock researcher”, for there isn’t a rock in the Virgin Islands that I don’t know a little history about.
At one point in time, my family owned many rocks: Mingo Cay, Little Saint James, and 9 acres of Hassel Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as Prickly Pear, Norman Island, and 140 acres of Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands. Yes, even my ancestors loved rocks! It’s pretty cool to say you own a rock… until it’s time to pay the taxes! It’s also quite a chore to protect your rock by constantly chasing curious onlookers away. “No trespassing” signs simply don’t work, as folks love to explore uninhabited rocks.
BUILDING THE ROCK BAR
In 1996, I had a crazy idea: Instead of chasing all the trespassers away, why don’t we open up a rock bar and invite them all in?! My husband agreed and after a couple of years stuck in the paperwork process, our moment finally arrived. We hired a barge to ship all the major supplies from the main island to the out island, a distance of seven miles. However, all of the workmen and myself had to travel over each day via open dinghy. Though I didn’t accompany them every day during the construction phase, when I did, I was tossed about, splashed, and arrived in a salted heap with dripping wet hair.
Eventually, I wised up and designed my own sea-suit: a shower cap under hooded, waterproof overalls, goggles, and a life vest. Not exactly the glamorous island entrepreneur you’d expect, but when I got to the destination dock and disrobed, heads turned at my transformation! Uninhabited islands are beautiful, but when you have to pack, load, transport, unload, carry and stack everything you need AND survive the rough trip, they sure can loose their luster.
OPENING THE ROCK BAR
Just before the finishing touches were completed, we were bombarded by thirsty charter guests who wanted us to open the bar early. This was the moment we had waited for, but my first response was, “But we haven’t finished painting yet!”
“Oh, we don’t care about that”, they said. “We’ll draw some pictures for you and staple up a few bungees and t-shirts from our boat. How about that?”
And just like that, we opened for business. No time for fanfare or fussing for perfection.
The rock bar was an instant hit! It was everything you could dream a beach bar could be: super cool, specialty drinks made by fire-breathing, bottle-juggling, limbo-dancing bartenders who knew all the latest songs to play. On the smoky grill were sizzling burgers and fresh fish patties that we served with spicy, spiral-shaped fries. What else could anyone ask for?
My favorite part was sharing the history of the rock with curious travelers that came ashore, inquisitive about this new structure in their secluded watering hole.
“How long have you been here?” they asked with a smile.
“Nine days,” I answered casually.
They looked at me with big eyes in total disbelief, as if they found a $5.00 bill on the beach. Wow, look what we found! I knew, they knew – they had discovered a really cool place.
Almost immediately, they reached into their pockets and pulled out a lucky dollar or their business card from a past life.
“Do you have a marker and a staple gun?”
“Why strangely, yes we do!”
I ended up buying markers by the caseload because so many visitors wanted to sign their names on the ceiling.
Is that how you indoctrinate a new business? I had never heard of that before.
Pretty soon guests were mailing us markers and using them to create the most elaborate designs on our bar stools, chest freezers, bathroom walls… any area free of grainy sea salt was fair game. It seemed to be a rite of passage that allowed them entrance into a private club. Those who were the first to discover this rock restaurant in its early days knew they were special too.
THE FIRST PATRONS
I remember posing for a photograph with the very first patrons who came from Sweden and celebrating the realization of this dream with them. Not to open a rock bar for the revenue it might bring, but to establish a presence on our family’s property and to honor those that purchased it. As a family historian, having that connection fulfilled a dream for me like no other.
STAFFING THE ROCK BAR
My husband was in charge of staffing and hired a Jamaican chef, hoping she would bring more flavor and variety to our basic, beach bar menu. She was short in stature and deceivingly quiet-mannered with a hidden, explosive temper, which I later discovered. She came to work on this remote rock every day with her personal knife set tucked under her arm: butchers, cleavers, choppers, carvers, slicers… the kind of tools you’d need for a pig roast if you were also catching and butchering the pig, which we weren’t! She placed her canvas roll on the kitchen counter each day and slowly unraveled it, as if partaking in an ancient, ceremonial ritual. All who worked under her command knew the silent statement she as making: ….Don’t…mess…with…me!
One day, I DID mess with her. As I tried to mark my territory and establish myself as “rock royalty” in the kitchen, the volcanic chef exploded, spewing the most hurtful words at me. I ended up losing the battle I started. Visibly upset, I ran outside with tears streaming down my face as I searched for a secluded tree to huddle under. When I found one, I cried uncontrollably.
I sat in stillness a long time waiting for the redness in my eyes to clear and my nose to stop running before I dared to re-enter what was now, clearly established, as the chef’s domain.
Feeling sorry for myself, I casually picked away at a protruding nodule on one of the tree branches. When it refused to budge, I took a closer look. It was then that I realized my comforting friend was a Lignumvitae tree, known to produce one of the hardest, densest woods in the world. How funny it was that the smallest tree on the property was one of the strongest! As I realized the wisdom in what I was thinking, I burst into laughter and then more tears. I too felt small and weak in that moment, but in reality, was very strong. When I returned to the kitchen, I was once again ruler of the rock.
RUNNING THE ROCK BAR
Running a rock bar was very rewarding and also very stressful. Every day, I was disappointed about something, but every night, I danced. As a rookie restauranteur, I believed in following policies and procedures, but getting the staff to respect the rules was difficult – to say the least.
Late in the evening, when our staff boat returned to the main island, the overnighting bartenders would sneak over to a floating establishment to have a few drinks and rant about the new policies implemented. When I returned, I heard their reinvented name for the restaurant: VAL-CATRAZ. I laughed. What else could I do? It was a clever name. I was a stickler for rules, but unbeknownst to them, many times, I was the one that wanted to escape.
CLOSING THE ROCK BAR
The day I dreaded the most finally came. My family sold the rock. Just as it started, without fuss or fanfare, five years of fun ended.
I spent the last moments photographing all the marker-drawn memories on the ceiling and removed all the stapled souvenirs, t-shirts, calling cards, and currency from around the world.
I snapped a parting photo of the last patrons to visit our rock bar, regretting that I never had time to find out where they were from or to share a little island history with them.
As I left the bar for the last time, the chef filled my hands with salt and said, “Throw this over your shoulder and never look back!” I did, but I held on tightly to the memories, the laughter, the legacy, and all the lessons learned.