A while back, I received a message from “the queen of the beach read” and best selling author Elin Hilderbrand. She reached out to me via Instagram to ensure that I had seen the story about ABC’s possible option on her Paradise Trilogy. I asked the famed novelist if she wouldn’t mind sitting down with me when she was next on island. She told me she would be on St. John this month for her annual five week “Winter in Paradise” and, with a green light from Captain Teddy, I invited her to join us for an afternoon of conversation and sailing on Asante.
So, on March 18, Elin and her boyfriend, Tim, joined Teddy, Chewy and myself on the boat to celebrate their ninth anniversary and chat about the madness of 2020, Love City of past and present and some interesting parallels between the author’s home of Nantucket and her beloved winter “paradise,” St. John.
We picked Tim and Elin up via dinghy at the dock in front of High Tide on a simply perfect Mid-March afternoon. I’ll have to admit, being a writer, I was quite nervous to meet her…let alone interview her! But the day ended up being filled with easy laughter and non-stop conversation about one thing that everyone on the boat loves. Saint John.
We got everyone on board and settled with beverages before lifting the anchor and hoisting the sails as we made our way out of the creek near the National Park Dock. With a Diet Dr. Pepper in hand (her favorite), Elin chatted with me a bit about the wide traction that the previous post I wrote had received as we sailed across the sound towards Lovango Cay, the setting for the third and final (Sorry folks!) book in the Paradise Trilogy. I was delighted to hear that she had used the link to something I had written in her bio on Instagram and that friends far and wide had sent it to her. I may have been blushing quite a bit. Ha!
Once we got settled on the mooring I pulled out my recorder and our conversation led from her thoughts on News of St. John as something that is so important in a tourism driven destination to the fact that a friend of hers had started something similar in Nantucket.
As we spoke more about the small island that she calls home, I began to notice some parallels between St. John and Nantucket that Matt Snider of Lovango Resort + Beach Club had pointed out to me in the past.
“Ok, so there’s a bunch of similarities,” Elin told us in the shade of the cockpit. “First, there’s a ‘town’ that we call ‘town…’ And then like seven miles away on the East End of the island is Siasconset. It’s very similar to Cruz Bay and Coral Bay.”
She and Tim spoke about packing a cooler to make the “journey” to the other side of the very small island and the weird comparative snobbishness between the Sconset and “town” that also exists between Coral Bay and Cruz Bay. The laughable “I’m not going ALL THE WAY over there mentality” in regards to the steep grade and narrow winding roads of St. John lingers on the tongues of residents on both sides of the island. However, the seven mile road between the two “towns” on Nantucket is completely flat she told me with a laugh.
“But, there are no stop lights (on Nantucket). There are no chain stores. So it has that same like, very authentic feel. It attracts the same type of person, ” Elin thoughtfully quipped.
Equally comparative between St. John and Nantucket is the housing problem for people who live and work on the overly expensive, tourism driven destination islands. You see, on St. John, housing is ALWAYS an issue. Small businesses can’t hire enough staff during busy times because the industry has long outgrown accessibility of even semi-affordable housing for long term renters. Elin recalled that, about this time of year, she gets a plethora of calls from friends on Nantucket in search of housing for their staff for the bustling months of summer.
“We are friends with a ton of restaurant owners on Nantucket who consistently have problems. A lot of them have bought something that they can offer to a certain number of employees but everybody else is on their own.”
The fact that the owners of Lovango Resort + Beach Club came prepared with staff housing makes sense to me now. Given that one of their other hotels is based on an island with such similar issues.
Elin and Tim told us that they head over to Cape Cod for their “big box store” shopping…”And Chinese food!” Tim laughed. Although comparable to the St. Thomas car barge commute that St. John residents make to Kmart and Cost-U-Less to stock up on necessary, and less expensive, supplies, their boat ride is much longer, less convenient and more expensive.
A two hour barge or a one hour people ferry ride separate the island of Nantucket from the Cape. And it definitely isn’t as reliable as our comparative 14 minute people ferry or 40 minute barge ride. Elin and Tim wholeheartedly agreed that it’s far easier to get to St. Thomas from St. John than to their neighboring port city from Nantucket.
“If its blowing over 25, the people ferry doesn’t go,” said Tim. “I’ll bet you the ferry is cancelled a dozen times a month…I’ve been stuck on it in July!”
In 2020, Elin’s five week annual getaway turned into seven. She arrived on St. John on March 11…Just a few short weeks before the pandemic set in and the territory closed down to visitors. Like most of us here, Elin was a bit disconnected from what had been quickly escalating in the states.
They went to Cruz Bay Landing for dinner with friends on the evening of March 13 and then went to the Beach Bar. Elin recalled how much fun they had. There was a band playing and people dancing. She took a video and posted it to her Instagram account as she does very frequently while on island in an effort to promote local businesses.
The next day she started hearing from friends back home…Advising her to remove what they found to be a post that was insensitive to the situation in the states.
Bewildered, she asked “Why?”
“Uh, you might want to take those stories down…The ones of you dancing with all those people to the live band.”
“And then, sure enough, by Sunday, it was just OVER,” she said with a look of remembrance and concern on her face. “Tim came down on the 16th and my son was supposed to come down but his father puled the plug on that. And thank God, because then everything was closed!”
Because no new check ins were allowed, the Fish Bay villa they were staying in, Brezz di Mare, was able to accommodate their extended stay. Elin was able to “shelter in place” and finish the first draft of the final book in the Paradise Trilogy during that time as well.
The couple recalled ordering out a lot…Again in an effort to support the restaurants that were forced to close their dining rooms and revert to takeout only. They went to the beach, they tried hiking…Three attempts unsuccessfully.
When Tim asks his son what they learned on St. John last year, the kiddo responds, “Daddy doesn’t hike!” Ha!
“We tried hiking and got lost three times,” Elin laughed. “The Baobob tree, Reef Bay, Ram Head…That was the worst. We ended up going up the goat path and we went up too soon. We got all the way to the top and I was like, ‘This is obviously not it.’ It was terrible.”
Tim and Elin proclaimed their navigational challenges with whimsy and good spirit. But, Elin’s qualms with Mother Nature go way back when to her first visit to St. John in 1985. She has been coming to St. John regularly since the spring of 2012. But when she was fifteen, her mother brought the family to camp at the Maho Bay Campgrounds.
“I was not into camping AT ALL and my mother always made us camp!” she recalls. “Maho campground was very basic but it was better than Cinnamon at the time. I couldn’t believe we were doing it, but I do remember loving the island. I loved it!”
And thus began her love affair with St. John that, 25 years later, has resulted in a best selling series about this little island. By 2013, she had completed her trilogy of Christmas books based on Nantucket that put her on the map as an escapist fiction novelist. And she wanted to write a trilogy about St. John, but her publisher had other ideas.
“So, I had written three of the Christmas books and they asked if I would do a fourth. Which I didn’t want to do.,” she quipped. Elin told them, “I’ll do it…If you let me write a trilogy based on St. John.”
The publishers had their misgivings. She was a Nantucket writer and they weren’t sure if moving to the Caribbean was going to work. But, they really wanted that fourth Christmas book so they took the plunge. With a stipulation from the sales team. They wanted her characters to be based out of the Midwest.
She agreed and developed her main character out of Iowa City with her sons based out of Denver and Houston. The widening of that net, combined with the vast audience comprised of people who love St. John, made the series a huge hit.
“Those three locations mentioned throughout the three books made a huge difference.” she said and then turned to Teddy and myself. “And you guys know this because you have clients on the boat. They come from ALL across America!”
Combining a new location, frequented and loved by so many, with settings in towns outside of new England has made the Paradise series “far, far outperform the Christmas books.”
Elin and I kind of gazed over towards St. John from our nest in the cockpit of Asante and the conversation turned to Love City once again. I asked her about changes and developments she had witnessed over the years and the inquisitive writer turned from business to thoughtful…
“The Virgin Islands really sustained a one-two punch, you know?” she asked me. I nodded and she continued, “Other places didn’t Other places were just dealing with the pandemic. You guys had two hurricanes, then you had to rebuild, then you had what, like a year of normal? Like, 2019 felt okay, right?”
I responded yes. That 2019 had finally felt normal again and we were so busy. We had half a season to play catch up before the territory closed its doors in March of 2020.
She began to reflect on the immediate impact that Irma had on St. John. Being a relatively transient place, a lot of people and businesses come and go over the years. But Irma sped up that process with a lot of people, and places, dissolving from St. John almost immediately.
“I mean- I don’t know…I think back and its very specific. The things that I loved.” I nodded sympathetically as she spoke. I totally understood that. Many of the friends that they had grown to call family left. Many of the businesses they loved to frequent were either closed immediately due to damages or trickled into closing due to a lack of ability to cover overhead with tourist traffic at a stand still.
She fondly recalled breakfasts at Jake’s, stop offs at Chester’s Hideaway for fried chicken and cold beers, rum punches from Driftwood Dave’s, dinner and music at Barefoot Cowboy and romantic evenings spent at their villa cooking fish from the Fish Trap and enjoying Queen of Tarts in front of the TV.
“Oh, and Candi’s. That was the highlight. It was the best!” she exclaimed. Followed by an enthusiastic “CANDI’S!!!!” from myself and Tim.
I turned to Teddy, who had never had the opportunity to experience the little shack in the gut with the best BBQ ever to exist. “You would have eaten there at least once I week,” I told him.
“EVERY DAY,” Tim backed me up.
“It was like, you didn’t know it. See, that’s the thing…It was SO perfect,” Elin remembered. “But you didn’t appreciate it because you didn’t know it could just go up in smoke…”
But, fast forward to 2021 and a very, very busy St. John. We have overcome the hurricanes and the pandemic. And, even tho new development on an island like this always comes with its fair share of concerns, there have been a lot of new things popping up that Elin believes keeps with the organic nature of St. John business.
“I think its still super funky and homegrown,” Elin concluded with a smile and a request for some champagne to continue the celebration of their anniversary. I obliged and we turned our focus to sailing Asante towards Caneel for a better view of the sunset.
If you’re a fan of Elin Hilderbrand and you happen to be on St. John in the next little bit, Lovango Resort + Beach Club will be hosting a book signing on April 10. If you are interested in visiting with this lovely novelist and picking up a signed copy of her book on location, you can RSVP here to reserve your ferry ride!
I want to take a moment to thank Elin (and Tim!) for joining us for a lovely afternoon and sunset. And to Captain Teddy for putting up with me consistently asking him to be the “on the water” taxi service for my hair brained News of St. John story ideas!