The Beauty of Francis Bay – Day 4 Friday, March 24

The Beauty of Francis Bay – Day 4 Friday, March 24

Welcome to Day 4 of our 2023 St. John, USVI Travel Study Trip. Today, we had the pleasure of experiencing the beauty of Francis Bay with a seashore walk and snorkel.

Despite the brisk breeze and swells, we made our way onto the limestone shelf rock where marine organisms shelter until they are big enough to live in deeper waters. Although the swells made it difficult to see into the water, we were lucky enough to spot brittle stars, which we all got to hold.

We then headed to the calmer waters of Maho Bay where we were able to see a variety of sea creatures, including blue tang, spiny-finned fish, sergeant majors, and parrot fish. Some of us were even able to spot sponges and brain coral. It was a truly magical experience, and we felt like a school of humans as we swam through a school of bar jacks.

As the sun set, a National Park Archaeologist shared the history of the early peoples of St. John. We learned about the spiritual significance of Cinnamon Bay for people traveling from South America and Puerto Rico, the colonial period when St. John was owned by several European countries, and the sugar plantations run by the Danes until slavery was abolished. We were fascinated by the artifacts from all periods, which helped tell her stories.

To end the day, we shared our favorite watercolor pages and gave each other compliments and suggestions. It was amazing to see the incredible artwork created by our Phoenix School’s EarlyAct Club. Our artists incorporated information about our experiences into their masterpieces like pros.

Join us for more adventures on our 2023 St. John, USVI Travel Study Trip!

Phoenix School’s EarlyAct Club is on the job today. Brown Bay Community Service Day 3: Thursday, March 23

Phoenix School’s EarlyAct Club is on the job today. Brown Bay Community Service Day 3: Thursday, March 23

Phoenix School’s EarlyAct Club is on the job today.  We join Taylor, a Friends of the Virgin Island volunteer, to give back to the National Park with a day of service.  We head out early for Brown Bay to help clean the environment there. After a mile hike up a rocky, “super steep incline” to the ridge and back down to the beach, we go to work.  At the beach, we sift through dirt and sand to find and separate trash; mostly plastic, rope, and bottle caps.  Liam finds a big bucket covered with a thousand ants. We leave the ants but remove the bucket.

Under a relentless, beating sun we work, thankful for our water bottles. Nearby we spy giant termite nests and wood with termite holes, but no visible termites. They are smart to hide away in their nests and tunnels from the intense sunlight. We spy thousands of wasps minding their own business, happy to be left alone. Everywhere there are flying bugs and more bugs trying to annoy us, but we try hard to ignore them. Taylor shows us false pineapple, starvation fruit, and other native plants. Hermit crabs and brown pelicans are treats for our eyes, but the highlight is spying a sting ray in the water close to shore.

We return to camp with a sense of accomplishment in helping our National Park community, ready to seek shade under our restaurant’s canopy.  It is a perfect time to relax and work on journal watercolor pages as we rehydrate and renew our strength for a late afternoon snorkel.

Cinnamon Bay waters welcome us back to its underwater world. As we swim, we encounter a range of marine life, from the stunning body of the Moon Jelly to the hard yellow shell of the Hawksbill turtle. We see the Sargent Major, the Conch sitting atop a coral throne, and the Trumpet fish with its shiny, grey skin and long snout.

Our day ends with the thundering surf beckoning us to bed after a day of sun, service, and swimming…in paradise! Stay tuned for more updates on our St. John, USVI Travel Study Trip with The Phoenix School.


Discovering Annaberg and Cinnamon Bay Snorkeling on our USVI Travel Study Trip – Day 2 Wednesday, March 22

Discovering Annaberg and Cinnamon Bay Snorkeling on our USVI Travel Study Trip – Day 2 Wednesday, March 22

We travel back in time today, walking in the footprints of Annaberg sugar plantation slaves.  From the moment we pass by the foundation ruins of slave huts, hovels too small to imagine anyone living there easily, we question history. We try to imagine hillsides covered with cane instead of dry tropical forest that we see today. Steep mountainsides rise above Annaberg windmill, with a horse mill at its base dominating the landscape. 

We conjure images of slaves cutting, stacking, and dragging heavy cane stalks down mountainside to the mill; backbreaking work 12 hours a day under burning sun. Slaves feed sugar cane through hungry rollers, sending juice along troughs to the boiling house where slaves stoke fires and skim boiling pots of cane juice until it is exactly right. From the last kettle to the drying rack, the process drains the life from the workers.  We try to understand WHY.  We know that intense labor is necessary for the plantation owners to profit, but as we look at history here at Annaberg from the slave’s perspective, it is difficult to understand being treated like an animal. We have deep discussions, sharing our questions and perspectives.  We even simulate being made to work the rollers on the horse mill by circling the center only 3 times, after which we are exhausted under the burning sun. It is unimaginable to think that slaves had to do just that, push a heavy pole around and around to turn the rollers for hours at a time.

To our delight, in the cook house, Miss Olivia is baking a traditional johnny cake and sharing her sorrel tea and mango juice. She is generous in making sure we all get to taste and drink to our heart’s content. Her little bake house even shelters us from the sporadic downpours that roll over from Tortola.

Mr. Charles invites us into his garden, gladly cracking coconuts for us to eat, cutting sugar cane to satisfy our sugar cravings, and letting us sample his horseradish.  Weldon, a Friends of the Virgin Islands volunteer, answers our questions about plantation working conditions and sugar production. History comes alive for us at Annaberg.

Our afternoon brings us our first snorkel.  If one were to ask Mike, Kyle, and Ella, they might say it is a bit like herding cats.  If one were to ask a Phoenix kid, exclamations of glee might be the most common response.  Some of us begin with mask and snorkel issues, fear of dying, being eaten by a marine critter, or drowning in deep water, but once we are in the groove, surrounded by flashing fish, curiosity and exhilaration of being in a coral reef world takes over. As we glide along like fish ourselves, we encounter a gracefully paddling Hawksbill sea turtle.  He meanders along, probably wondering what kind of school of creatures we are, underwater and shouting through our snorkels in our enthusiasm. It is surely a gift for us to see a sea turtle on our first snorkel adventure.

After a splash at the beach, just for fun, we head to dinner….grilled by our own Chef Kyle tonight.


Once it is totally dark, we join Ranger Naturalist, Mark, on our beach for a Sky Talk to learn about the stars above. The sky is brilliant tonight, twinkling its welcome and sending us to bed listening to the gentle surf as we drift off to sleep.


Discovering the Tropics: A Middle School Travel Study Program in St. John, USVI – Day 1: Tuesday, March 21

Discovering the Tropics: A Middle School Travel Study Program in St. John, USVI – Day 1: Tuesday, March 21

As we made maps to trace our journey from Boston to Atlanta and over the backbone of St. Thomas, we knew we were in for an adventure. We boarded the Redhook ferry, crossed rolling water with whitecaps waving at us all the way to Cruz Bay on St. John, and wound our way through switch-backing mountain roads to our final destination, Cinnamon Bay campground. But the true distance we covered today was even more incredible than we expected, and our long day left us feeling the tropical heat and basking in brilliant sunlight. Leaving cold Massachusetts behind was easy, and we’d been looking forward to this moment for weeks. Our journey was more than just a physical one; it was an educational travel experience that allowed us to explore different cultures and immerse ourselves in new environments.

“I buzz with excitement as I wait to start painting creatures, plants, and places flowing from my mind and onto the paper, the bright saturated colors warping and mixing as I go.  By the end of our tropic adventure, I will go home with the essence of St. John tucked in my backpack in a sketchbook.” – condensed from Aine’s journal


“After nine years of waiting, imagery floods my mind of Kindergarten me patiently listening to the 6-8’s experiences and memories made together and wondering, ‘When will it be my turn?’ Colored pencil portraits of VI marine life are seemingly jumping off my journal pages and into the water right before my eyes. I have a head full of knowledge from my research and a heart bubbling with anticipation. I feel more ready than ever to immerse myself in everything the VI has to offer.”  – condensed from Alice’s journal

“One clue after another, we get closer to finding our study trip destination. Finally, we guess St. John and, to our surprise, it’s confirmed. Instantly I am taken to a beach surrounded by stunning blue water with palm trees rustling in the wind mixed with the rhythmic crashing of waves creating soothing music on the shoreline.” – condensed from Arlo’s journal


“It’s going to be very enjoyable to be somewhere I have never been before. Snorkeling causes me to be scared of St. John’s wavy, blue ocean because I feel like the deep blue water will swallow me even though I have a life jacket on. This is going to be so exciting because it will introduce me to new things. I feel like I am going to explode.” – condensed from Aiden’s journal

“The adventures I might find in the Virgin Islands are unimaginable. Snorkeling excites me and as I see a sea turtle swim by me, I imagine that I’m touching its shell.” – condensed from Eziah’s journal


 “I assure myself my soul will be filled soon with St. John’s salty trade winds blowing wonder into my mind. I imagine splashing and flapping with flamboyant fish, encircled in their lively dance, a part of the Caribbean expanse.” – condensed from Karina D’s journal


“I’m incredibly excited for this trip.  It will be a whole new tropical experience; the views, refreshing trade winds, and a variety of small critters. Snorkeling will also be new. I’ve never been snorkeling before and I’m kind of nervous.  Fish are a little bit scary and I’ve only seen them from a distance. However, I am still excited for the trip. I made a lot of good memories last year, and I know there will be more memories that I make this year. – from Karina PZ’s journal

“As the plane bounces up and down, I can feel my anticipation building up.  I envision myself snorkeling in the crystal blue water of the VI, seeing the vibrant fish and plentiful corals, but something else tugs at my brain.  The scene shifts to the great house.  From the hill the view is magnificent. I want to stare at it all day.  With a sudden jolt, I am shattered back to the plane.  Now, just like the plane, I am bouncing up and down in my seat. I cannot wait.” – condensed from Max’s journal


“I’m feeling pretty worried about going to St. John because I never went on a plane before. I’m so pumped to see all the  colorful fish and birds, just watching the sunset, and writing about what I learned.” – condensed from Alfie’s journal


“My eyebrows raise, my lips grin with a giggly insecure feeling inside. I get to fly to tropical St. John. In my head I envision the smell of the beach, so salty, so exhilarating to dive in and enjoy the academic water experience. A proud feeling washes through my body as these patterned creatures prove my research correct, or maybe they’ll teach me I was wrong.” – condensed from Audrey’s journal

“Existing in the moment, I’ll notice the sound first, the sound of birds chirping and the ever warm water crawling onto the sand. A cool breeze flows against my face, whistling in my ears and through my ocean-curled hair. There’s so much more room for this island to grow in the garden that is my mind. It will be ever so rewarding to go.” – condensed from Fiona’s journal


“At the very thought of St. John’s rich and immersive history and ecosystem, I am filled with wonder. I can’t wait to see in person what I have spent so long researching, the sugar mill, coral, and animals alike. It is always terrifying to think about being away from home, but it is easily outweighed by my anticipation for the experiences to comes.” – condensed from Liam’s journal


Let the adventures begin!

Everglades Study Field Trip Day 2: Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Everglades Study Field Trip Day 2: Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Everglades Study Field Trip
Day 2: Tuesday, March 26, 2019

With a late sleep in after last night’s late adventure, we gladly devoured Kyle’s and Jim’s pancakes before heading back to see what bright sunshine would reveal that darkness hid from us only hours before. The slough was alive with sounds of the day. Birds argued, warning others to stay away. Giant anhinga chicks screeching in their nest demanding more and more food from their tireless parents overhead. Fish made their presence known as they surfaced and splashed everywhere. Silent alligators glided along the surface of the still pond, submerging silently as they searched for prey.

Too soon we had say, “Later, Gator,” as we headed for the Daniel Beard Research Center to meet Marine Ecologist, Christopher Kavanaugh. We were most privileged to be invited behind the scenes, where scientists work to ensure the health of the Everglades, now and into the future long after their work is done.

Christopher transported us back in history telling the story of the River of Grass from its very beginning. We began to understand why this place, unique in the world, is so important to preserve, and why both nature and humankind need to co-exist and thrive, keeping sacred this delicate balance. Ask us about elevation, salinity, drought, water depth, flora and fauna, and environmental issues. Thanks to Christopher’s patience in answering all of our questions and sharing his obvious passion, we leave with in-depth understanding and the resolve to make a difference for this dynamic and precious ecosystem.

A cooling dip in our little spring fed lagoon-pool back at the hostel refreshed us after our nearly 90-degree day. What a treat to have come from Massachusetts’ big chill to south Florida’s mid-summer-like heat. Kids splashed, breeched, glided underwater, and braved the waterfall gauntlet together before getting back to our journals.

In the fairy light studded gazebo, we broke out our watercolors to paint the Everglades night. How do we represent the feeling of being enclosed in darkness, hearing the music of the glades? It was a good problem to solve, stretching our talents and imaginations.

Everyone wanted to share their Night Walk writing, so before we retired for the night, we listened to the night through each others’ words.

Written by Barbara McFall, Founder of The Phoenix School

You can see all our photos here!