Group travel sometimes gets a bad rap, but when the group is as fun and easy-going as the Parrot Heads, the travel is actually really fun and easy.
Every two years, local Lakes Area Parrot Heads join other club members from the Midwest region and beyond to take a trip together for some social time in the sun and sand. This year, their destination was St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, in the Caribbean.
The group spent a full week in that tropical paradise, enjoying consistently sunny days in the 80s while the folks back in Minnesota suffered through subzero temperatures. They returned on March 5, just in time for the big snow storm that dumped about 13 inches on Detroit Lakes.
On Tuesday, one of the travelers, Jim Brogren, joked that he was still sour about having to put close-toed shoes on in the mornings after spending a glorious week in flip-flops.
A former travel agent, Brogren has been the lead organizer behind the Parrot Head trips since 2013. He and the majority of the 28 other people who went to St. John this year are from the Lakes Area chapter, although there were Parrot Heads from other clubs around the country who joined them, including Minneapolis, Iowa, Florida, Washington, Arizona and Baltimore. Many already knew each other and had traveled together before, but there were a few new faces, too.
Lisa Flynn, one of those newbies, said the trip offered her the opportunity to get to know some new people.
"It's a nice community of like-minded people; they're just welcoming and gracious," she said. "And there was always someone there to do something with, if you wanted."
"Parrot Heads are very genuine, very giving," said Julie Herman, a member of the local club. "Our club is about raising money for nonprofits, but we also love to have fun."
Parrot Heads are big fans of Jimmy Buffet, both his music and his casual, beachy attitude. There are about 200 Parrot Heads clubs across the country, which raise funds for good causes in their communities. The Lakes Area club, for example, raises money for local nonprofits like the Marshmallow Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Becker County Food Pantry and several others. Just before the group left for St. John, in fact, the club completed its Welcome to Polaritaville event, raising $6,500 for the Lakes Area Imagination Library.
So the trips they take, Brogren explained, are "kind of like our reward, our special time to just get away and hang out together...and live the tropical lifestyle."
The theme of their trip this year was, "Cruz Bay Getaway 2019," inspired by the name of the town they stayed in, Cruz Bay. They booked the entire 15-room Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel for the duration of their stay, so it was easy for everybody to touch base and coordinate outings throughout the week.
Other than a couple of whole-group activities that were planned in advance - including a fun "Bikini Beach"-themed pub crawl - the travelers were free to hit the beaches, shop, island hop, take sunset cruises or other guided trips, go out to eat, wander, or just relax at the hotel as they pleased, either in small groups or pairs, or on their own.
"You could really do as much as you want, or as little as you want, it's totally up to you," said Flynn.
St. John is covered with untouched tropical parklands and its coasts are lined with pristine beaches. From snorkeling with sea turtles to hiking through the island countryside, dancing to live music on the beach to savoring fresh seafood, there's no shortage of things to do there.
There are also easy options for island-hopping between St. John and the other two U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix and St. Thomas, as well as to the nearby British Virgin Islands, for those with passports. Flynn was able to get a stamp on her passport - her first one ever - by taking a 2.5-hour ferry to one of these islands, marking an important item off her bucket list.
"It was just magical and beautiful," she said of the experience. "You really feel like you are in a whole different place."
"Just sitting on the beach and looking at the blues, the colors... I don't even know how to explain it," Herman said with a bit of awe, before adding with a laugh: "You see the blues and the turquoises and the different layers on the sea, and you just feel like, Calgon really has taken you away!"
This was the Parrot Heads' second trip to St. John; the group also traveled there two years ago. They knew it'd look different today, as the island was hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Marie in September of 2017, and is still recovering.
There are plenty of hotels, restaurants, shops and other tourist attractions open now, but the hurricanes took down entire resorts and developed beach areas, and some of those are still under reconstruction, or just remain closed indefinitely.
"There was a lot of devastation," said Brogren. "It was interesting to see how it's changed."
He added that progress continues to be made on the rebuilding efforts, however, with local islanders banding together to get the work done. They're trying to revive the tourism industry back to where it was pre-hurricane, which will help their local economy.
"They were so appreciative of us being there, so they can grow and get back together," said Brogren. "I'm so glad we went."
The Parrot Heads are already planning to return to St. John again for their next trip in 2021.
The Lakes Area Parrot Heads meet the second Saturday of every month at 7 p.m. at Zorbaz in Detroit Lakes. There are currently about 60 people in the group, and more are always welcome. For more information, visit lakesareaparrotheads.com.
This article originally appeared on the Detroit Lakes Tribune's monthly Travel page.