Guana:  An Island Retreat
By Corinne & Max
Muskmellon Bay at Guana
From the moment we stepped foot on Guana Island, we knew we were in for something different.  From the dock at the very edge of a gorgeous white beach, we loaded onto the back of a customized safari pickup truck/jeep.  We sat in the back, arms through the black rope loops dangling from the shaded canopy, and hung on for dear life as the assistant manager drove us up the hill and around hairpin turns.  As we rode up the hillside, we looked out at the white sandy beach seeming to stretch for a mile along the coastline.  Further inland, we saw pink silhouettes of six Caribbean flamingos grazing in a large pond, and rising from that, two green peaks rising towards the azure blue sky.  
One of the guests later described Guana as a place that fosters your imagination.  Max and I both nodded our heads – our imaginations were definitely kindled at Guana.  At times, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear an 80 foot dinosaur rumble the volcanic rock of the island.  During hikes, as we scrambled over rocks, boulders, and through mountain gullies (or ghuts, as they were named on the Guana Island map), there were brief moments where it seemed we had lost track of time somewhere, and it seemed as if we had slipped from June 2003 to June 1903, or 1803, or even 1703.  

Guana Island has many elements that fuel the imagination.  There are the physical elements:  the breathtaking landscape, 850 acres of wilderness to hike and explore, miles of coral reefs, and brilliantly hung stars in the sky.  There are also pages and pages of writing about Guana.  Every room has a “Natural History Guide” with information about the flora and fauna of the island, but there is even more writing laying about the main house –  everything from a report on the archeology and history of the Sugar Mill that operated throughout the 18th and 19th century, to the history of the island, the biographies of people associated with Guana, and even very specific biological reports about the Caribbean flamingo population, the “molecular phylogeny” of coral reef sea cucumbers, even the ectoparasites that live on small tropical fish.  If you are not into reading on your vacation, the staff have a wealth of knowledge about the island (Dr. Liao, the island naturalist, gardener, and trail designer, was here 20 years) and other guests staying at Guana often share adventures and wildlife sightings over cocktails at 6:30.  

Resort or Retreat?  

Guana is most definitely not a typical resort, which is why in the beginning of our trip, we had a hard time putting words to our experiences here.  We think a better term for this magical place would be a retreat.  And not just any retreat, a retreat in many senses of the word –  
Guana is a physical retreat from the world.  The island sits on the northern edge of the BVI in a space that is somewhere between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic ocean.  Sitting on the verandah of our cottage, I look over to my right at Muskmelon Bay, “the Atlantic” side of the island, and I gaze over to the left side of our verandah and see White bay and the Caribbean Sea stretching over to nearby Tortola.  Besides the staff and guests, no one else lives on or even visits this island.  It’s as if you have been invited to a vacation home that belongs to a friend of your great aunt, and the home just happens to be on an 850 acre private island.  

Guana provides a mental retreat from the busy pace of the world.  While there is one phone and computer with an internet connection available to guests, there are no phones, no TV’s, not even newspapers on the island.  Unlike most resorts where there are busy schedules to follow (massage on Monday, trip to Virgin Gorda on Tuesday, snorkel trip on Wednesday, etc.) and structured routines you can count on, the Guana Island experience  is more freeform.  While we stayed here, the only scheduled events were meals and cocktail hours:  breakfast starts at 8:00, lunch begins at 1:00, cocktails at 6:30, and dinner at 7:30.  But even these mealtimes could accommodate our own pace if we needed them to.  We heard the phrase over and over again from the Guana Island staff, and even the dive-masters at UBS, “whatever you like, it’s up to you.”  What you do on your vacation here is really, “up to you.”  If you can dream it, the Guana Island staff will find a way to help you make your wish come true.  
Click on me for a bigger picture
Click for larger picture.
Guana island is also a fabulous retreat into the wilderness.  There are few islands in the world that harbor the diversity of the flora and fauna you can find here.  For nature lovers, there are 20 different hiking trails across the island, numerous beaches and rocky coves to snorkel, and even SCUBA diving if you like.  But to enjoy the wildlife, you don't need to venture far--  


Sitting on the verandah of my cottage writing this article, I am amazed by the wildlife that surround me.  As I write, I hear the low sounding rustling of a three foot iguana adjusting itself in the bushes to capture the warm morning sun.  An emerald green hummingbird feeds on the flowering bushes right off the porch railing and comes to rest on a branch just to the right of me. I see three types of butterflies, each with their own flight style.  A myriad of small white and yellow butterflies erratically flit from flower to flower, quickly beating their wings, and look as if any moment they might suddenly drop to the ground or get blown away by the wind.  The slightly larger, and less numerous black and orange butterflies beat their wings more slowly.  Every once in a while, a larger black butterfly gracefully glides in, almost never seeming to need to beat its wings to keep aloft.  I take a breath and look over to my left.  A kestrel, its belly speckled and with black vertical stripes masking its head, sits perched on a tree limb to my left, peering down the hillside.  For what I wonder?  Pondering dinner?  Taking a rest?  I'll have to continue watching to see.  

Our cottage had spectacular views of Muskmelon Bay, opening out into the Atlantic, and White Beach Bay on the Caribbean side of the island.   Our room was fairly spacious, with a large verandah, a sitting room with a little day bed nook just right for reading, a bedroom.  The bathroom was our favorite room in the cottage.  With a louvered door overlooking white bay, the room caught Caribbean breezes and the view ... well, it doesn’t get any better than this.  

Listening to the Island  

We said before that Guana doesn’t have a resort-type schedule to follow.  And officially, there are really only mealtimes that are scheduled for guests.  (The island can help you arrange day trips, cast away beach getaways, massages, and other adventures if you like).  However, as we spent more time on Guana Island, we began to realize that we were developing – or learning to develop -- a vacation schedule based upon the rhythms and patterns of the island itself.  Here are a few ways we learned to follow these rhythms.  

The Bat Caves  

Corinne:  “We thought we would hike to Long Point this afternoon,” I said casually to Dr. Liao, the island naturalist, at lunch.  “You hike to Long Point in the afternoon?”  He scrunched up his face, put his hand on his green hard-hat, and looked out towards the valley ravine near the orchard.  "Long point is a very nice hike, but much better in the morning when it is cool.  See,” he said holding his right hand still, as if it were Guana Island, and moving his left hand as if it were the sun.  “In the morning, the sun is not as hot, and rises over here.  Long Point has many dark rocks and is exposed to the sun.  It is not very hot in the morning, when the sun is over here, he said motioning with his hands, but as the sun moves, he moved his hand over the top of “the island” and over towards long point, the rocks get very hot.  Better to go there in the morning when it is still cool.”  He thought a minute, and looked back over to his orchard nestled in the cleavage of the two peaks toward the east.  “In the afternoon, it is better to stay in parts of the island that are much cooler.  Do you see over there, in the valley between the two mountains?  There is much water there, and there are many different kinds of trees, tall trees, and it stays cool there, even in the afternoon.”  

I looked over at the area he was talking about, and I saw a seam of brighter and taller green zigzagging up the valley between the two peaks.  As I thought about it, it made sense:  the runoff from the two peaks must provide more water to that spot than other parts of the island that seemed more arid and desert like.  

“Up there, there are bat caves, many levels, like floors of an apartment building.  First floor, second floor, third floor,” he said motioning with his hands, “but not exactly like an apartment building – the caves get higher and higher but they aren't always directly above one another.  If you like, I can take you there this afternoon.”  

Max:  A walk with Dr. Liao should not be underestimated.  We thought Dr. Liao would be slow given his age, and given the 20 years that he has spent on the island. We were wrong.  My wife and I are 33, and were completely humbled by this 73 year old man who didn’t really look a day over 50.  Starting from the orchard, we went up the trail to the bald rock halfway up Sugarloaf hill.  Here, Dr. Liao showed us the multiple bat caves found along the nooks and crannies of the rock. Rated as a medium trail, we scrambled up the path after Dr. Liao, who is as sure-footed as any mountain goat.  As we struggled behind him, he scampered up the trail pointing out the various tree species and fauna found on the island.   

Corinne:  Along the way, he helped us learn to identify trees by their bark and leaf shape.  The turpentine tree, for example, is reddish maroon with very thin white strips of bark peeling off the trunk.  “Some people call this a tourist tree!”  He said with a smile.  “Too much sun, and skin peels!”  I looked down at my very white skin – not completely red but peeling -- and laughed. We passed another tree with a smooth patchy white, cream, and tan bark.  “This is a guavaberry tree.  Very hard to grow down in the orchard.  It likes to grow wild up here.”  
At a point, two trails, marked by colored flags tied onto trees, crossed in front of us.  “I chose to cross these two trails here,” he said, “because I love these two trees so much.”  He pointed to one tree, large and stout with gigantic roots reaching up out of the soil and back down, and similar tree to the left of the trail.  They looked like two dinosaur legs walking up the mountain.  “I love these two trees, so I made the trail cross here.”   He pointed out another that resembled a giraffe.  
Throughout our hike, we would periodically stop to take in particular views, or to carefully pick our way up steep rock like steps.  “These not here before,” he said while kicking a stone, “I put them here to make the trail easier.”  Hearing about the care and thoughtfulness of Dr. Liao's construction of the trails gave me a particular eye and sensibility as Max and I walked other trails throughout the week.  I found myself noticing particular views, or an unusually shaped tree, or a cactus growing in a grotto on the side of a cliff.  

Max:  At various points along the trail, Dr. Liao would treat us to a poem or song inspired by the view or a particular tree.  When we got to the bat caves, Dr. Liao pointed out the unique features of each cave to the two of us. For two of the caves, Dr. Liao did not view our climbing skills to be sufficient to reach the cave.  He was right.  We would struggle with the branches used to reach some of the ledges.  I would miss a toehold along the rocks; Corinne would slip as we rappelled down one section.  Meanwhile Dr. Liao would jump ahead of us, politely pointing out tricky areas for the two of us.  At one point, Dr. Liao scrambled up a 25 foot vertical wall, only using tree limbs as hand holds.  All this to show us a beehive in one of the caves.  As we stared in amazement, he kindly replied that back in China, he had been a mountain climber.  To him, climbing was just a daily exercise.   

Dr. Liao in front of bat apartment #3.   
There are at least three kinds of bats on the island – insect eating bats, fruit eating bats, and fish eating bats.
 Corinne:  Max and I watched with amazement as Dr. Liao scaled a 25 foot wall -- seemingly effortless as he found toeholds simultaneously in the rock and in nearby flexible tree and vine branches.  “Be careful where you put your foot,” he said to us over and over on the hike, “choose your steps carefully.  Watch for loose rocks, jumping cactus.  Go slowly, slowly.  Take time to look at the tree, the flowers, the sky.”  It was as if he was letting us in on his secret to convening with the flora, the fauna, even the rocks of the island.  Pay attention to the small things.  Take your time.  Go slowly.  Find a way to remember these moments – write a song, take a picture, or meditate for a moment.  
Hike to Long Point.  
Corinne:  I have to say, our hike to Long Point was one of the highlights of our trip.  After breakfast, around 9:00, we checked in with the managers to arrange for a boat to come around to the point to pick us up around noon.  We set off, following little blue flags tied to trees.  At the first fork, we took Dr. Liao's advice and took the shadier left trail.  
As we hiked around towards the point, I could feel subtle climate changes in the temperature and vegetation.  The more barren places had arid dry soil, with numerous varieties of cactus and scrubby little trees covered with bromeliads.  The lusher forest had a taller and cooler canopy that housed more birds (we could tell by the chatter and bickering of the bananaquites and the calls of the thrushes, “mine, yours, mine, yours.”)  

I could tell that we were beginning to listen to the island – feeling, hearing, sensing these subtle changes in micro-climates.  Max and I were becoming more adept at noticing spider webs stretched across the path (and following Dr. Liao's lead by apologizing to the spider before moving the web aside with a stick).  

We found ourselves stopping periodically to admire little things – a small cactus growing deep in a rock grotto, an upturned root in the shape of a rabbit, the oddly linear shape, almost roof-like, of the top of a tree.  

At the second fork, we chose to go right to hike down to table rock.  As we broke through the forest, we had a view of the Atlantic – it seemed to stretch for miles and miles.  We scrambled over great black heaves of volcanic boulders and rocks that seemed casually tumbled and tossed at the edge of the island.  I felt the cool breeze and sensed the warming rock under my feet and was thankful we decided not to come out here in the afternoon.  It would have been like sizzling on an iron skillet.  

Table rock, looking like an antique copper platter, oxidized green with age, stretched smooth among the rougher tumbles of pumice.  At the end of table rock, we saw a great split in the rocks plunging into the sea.  I imagined what the reef – encrusted with sponges, fish darting in and out of the crevices, a shark sleeping under a ledge – looked like below.  

We continued on towards Chicken Rock.  As we walked along the rocky edge of the island, it seemed to me that we were walking along the edge of the world – the sea endlessly stretching to a flat horizon.   I toyed with images of falling off flat worlds, large sea monsters living at the edge, mouths open wide waiting for those who tread too far…but my imagination is running away with me again (a common occurrence for me at Guana).  

We reached a very steep and narrow bit of rock right on the edge of a cliff.  “Take off your backpack, Corinne,” Max said to me, his hand outstretched, “there’s no way you will make it under this under hang with the pack on your back.  Oh, and don't look down.”  Silly me, I looked down in time to see several loose pebbles tumble down the side of the cliff and into the Atlantic Ocean.  I closed my eyes, ducked under the rock and scurried up the side of the next rock.  Truly, we were on the edge of the world.  
We continued on, and finally made it to “the steps” – a set of concrete steps leading down and splitting into two – one stairway leading down into Muskmelon Bay, and the other leading to a group of black boulders leading towards the point.  
We chose the right path, carefully picking our way across the rocks and around the point to a series of small pools – three large ones, but several smaller ones.  Imagine a salt water oasis, or giant tidal pools reflecting cool shades of aquamarine, teal, azure blue.  We walked from pool to pool, deciding which one to swim in.  The furthest looked a bit dangerous – the swells heaved in over the rocks and we imagined a strong current in the water.  We chose two smaller pools closer to the point that were fed by the ocean surges.   Avoiding the bright orange fire coral, we slipped into the cool waters of the pool.  Schools of blue tang, and many different kinds of smaller fish fry darted in and out of the rocks.  Rolling on my back, I watched the pelicans hover and dive into the deeper waters of the Atlantic, just seven feet or so away beyond our protected little paradise.  


Lunch:  Max and I arrive, freshly showered from our morning hike to long point, but are exhausted and dehydrated.  I pour myself a cool lemonade and eye the dishes spread along the buffet table.  As I ponder what to eat, the a door swings open in the breeze, the faint harmonies and long notes of gospel music drift from the kitchen.  

For me, the food here at Guana stirred up memories of my grandmother Hattie Bell's home cooking.  Everything – the fish, the spices, the fruit – is fresh (much of the fruit is harvested from the organic orchard at the base of the Sugarloaf mountain such as the banana shown in the picture), and this makes a big difference in the quality of the food.  It’s hard to make a terrible meal when your fish swam in the ocean in the morning.  For those of you that haven't had the pleasure of eating at my grandmother's table, the food here is reminiscent of “the Junior League cookbook meets the Caribbean,” with lots of salads ranging from iceberg with tomato to “plantain salad,” “sweet potato salad with tumeric,” “fried squid salad,” and even “seaweed salad.”  Lunches often brought Caribbean inspired fare – fall off the bone tender barbecued chicken, spiced flank steak, eggplant-mushroom tureen with just a hint of truffle to deepen the flavor.  Dinner is a little more dressed up:  shrimp Creole, broiled redfish, pork tenderloins.  The best way to describe the food here is that it is simple, fresh, and magnificent, particularly with the complementary red and white wine that accompanies dinner each night.  

Evening Dining
Max:  Don't expect fancy “celebrity chef” cuisine at Guana Island.  The food here is uncomplicated and fresh.  My favorite lunch was the chicken roti – a tender curried chicken wrapped in a Caribbean flaky pastry.   
Listening to Guana  
The longer we stayed at Guana Island, the more we were around different people who lived or worked here -- Dr. Liao, our dive-masters, the managers -- the more we learned to take cues from the island about our daily schedules and plans.  Hike the arid parts of the island in the morning, and for long trips, ask for a boat ride back to the dock.  If you want to hike in the afternoon, choose to hike the cooler and shady ravines or “ghuts” as they are called on the map.  Dive the north and eastern sides of the island in the summer months (June-early October) when the Atlantic is tamer than the white capped winter months.  Take naps in the afternoon in the heat of the day.  White beach often has nice afternoon breezes in the late afternoon.  The sitting room where people often gather for 7:00 cocktails, with both doors open, one to the Atlantic and the other to the Caribbean Sea, captured cross winds and breezes much better than our cottage (there is a reason people gather in that room for cocktails at 7!).  
While these weren't hard and fast “rules,” they are patterns which we intuitively fell into as we experienced and learned more about the island.  The other guests, we noticed, found their own patterns and schedules that seemed to fit them and the island.  Talking with my parents, who have continued to return to Guana over the years, their schedule and experiences seem different from ours.  Guana Island is a place that provides a space for guests to capture and experience the power of their imaginations, if only for brief moments.  Each guest has their own imagination, and so each person's experience of the island is personalized and unique – a true Caribbean Retreat.  
sun set
Note: Dr. Liao is now retired and missed by all those who interacted with him.
Read Another Review of Guana Island
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Article and Photos Copyright July Corinne McKamey & Max Chang