TRAVEL: Virgin IslandsMany travelers think they know St. Thomas from a cruise ship stop. That’s like ringing the doorbell and believing you’ve seen the house.
By: Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press
ST THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Many travelers think they know St. Thomas from a cruise ship stop.
That’s like ringing the doorbell and believing you’ve seen the house.
St. Thomas looks better now than it has in about 15 years. It struggled for a decade to recover from Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 and the downturn after 9-11. Now, it seems buoyant and in better shape than some places back home. Sister island St. John remains pristine, most of it a national park. I have not seen St.Croix, 40 miles to the south, but 21 years after Hurricane Hugo flattened it, it survives vibrantly.
Existing under the radar of most Americans, the U.S. Virgin Islands attracted only 600,000 overnight visitors last year as the U.S. mainland economy ailed.
The upside for tourists? The USVI suddenly is nearly as affordable as Florida. I paid $306 round-trip airfare from Detroit and rented a condo near the beach on St. Thomas for $165 a night.
It’s as if Nordstrom suddenly has Sears prices.
So without disparaging Florida’s many attractions, here are 12 reasons I recommend visiting the Virgin Islands this year.
1. The water and vistas. Did you ever buy Navajo turquoise jewelry? That’s the color of the water here. And the water temperature is 80 degrees in February. That’s not gonna happen anywhere else in the U.S. except Hawaii.
In the Virgin Islands, the hilly vistas rising out of the sea are what you dream about in winter. It’s your screensaver back home.
2. The weather. Unlike Florida, USVI temperatures rarely vary from daytimes in the 80s and nighttimes in the 70s. The air is clear. Your hair suddenly feels moist, and your skin looks good.
Steady trade winds from the east keep temperatures from sweltering. If it rains, the wet stuff generally yields quickly to blue skies.
3. Cheaper flights. Despite a decline in the number of visitors, there were more airplane seats last year, due to heavy lobbying by tourism officials. That means deals.
On busy holiday weeks, it might still cost $600 round-trip, but if you are flexible with dates or days, you can find round-trip airfare for half that.
I paid $306 round-trip, flew out of Detroit at 6:30 a.m. through Atlanta on Delta and was in St. Thomas by 1:30 p.m. Detroit time.
4. No passport or jet lag. It’s a U.S. territory, which means you need only a driver’s license and a birth certificate. And time here is only one hour ahead of Eastern time, so there’s no jet lag.
5. The beaches, snorkeling, sailing and scuba. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you can walk off the beach and snorkel amid schools of tropical fish. The diving is good, too. Beaches? My favorites on St. Thomas — Coki and Sapphire — are so pretty they seem like you’ve walked into a photograph. On St. John, Trunk Bay is shaped like a giant smile. Busy or empty, beaches are everywhere, all with fine white sand and velvety water — and no jellyfish.
6. Interesting side trips. Side trips? From an island? Florida may have Disney World, but the USVI is ferry distance from the stunning British Virgin Islands (Tortola is an hour from St. Thomas, Jost Van Dyke 45 minutes). Plus, St. Thomas and St. John are only 15 minutes apart on the ferry for just $6 each way.
Want traffic, stores, lots of people and dining? Choose St. Thomas. Want to see nobody? Choose a remote beach on St. John. Want a combination of the two? Try St. Croix. There’s also a lot of history on these former Danish islands that gives them a cultural richness beyond palm trees and pirates.
7. Hotels and rental units really, really want you. Many resorts have “buy two nights, get one free” promotions similar to the U.S. mainland. Also, look for travel packages that include airfare and lodging.
Meanwhile, do not be put off by high prices ($250-$600 a night) you see quoted on hotel booking sites. Go straight to the hotel/resort site for deals or scout out specials. Better yet, rent a condo or villa.
8. You can actually drive around. At many Caribbean and Mexican resorts, tourists are warned not to leave their resorts or drive. While the USVI has its share of crime (mostly drug-related), it is fine to drive around on your own on the islands, taking the same precautions you would at home. That gives you more freedom.
The tricky part? Driving an American-style car on the left-hand side of the narrow winding roads. It took me only five Virgin Islands visits to get good at it.
9. The Virgin Islanders. Personally, I very much like the strong personality of the people here. Talkative, opinionated and direct, they also represent a place where manners and “Good mornings” still count.
I also like the sailing crowd and the quirky wrinkly skinned U.S. transplants, who for their own mysterious reasons have gone native.
10. The exotic yet familiar atmosphere. Folks in the USVI speak English and use the dollar. You’ll find American TV stations in your hotel, and your cell phone will get a good signal. There’s even a K-mart on St. Thomas. Still, this is the Caribbean, and efficiency is a relative term.
“If you require speed and order, stick with Florida,” says David Bello, owner of Fair Wind Sailing School in Red Hook, St. Thomas. “This is the U.S., but it’s not the U.S.”
11. The shopping. St. Thomas is famed as the biggest tax-free, duty-free shopping hub in the Caribbean. And because it attracts lots of artists, “we have been trying to get us known as an art destination. We have 80 potters on the three islands and painters galore,” says Ruth Prager, owner of Gallery St. Thomas in Charlotte Amalie, which represents 27 artists.
I also recommend the Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative next to Vendor’s Plaza. Among the big shops, try AH Riise, which has everything from perfume to an official Rolex store (men’s Rolex blue Submariner Oyster watches are about $7,500).
Visitors are allowed to exit St. Thomas with $1,600 in duty-free goods — double that of most destinations.
12. Bragging rights. The Virgin Islands are simply more glamorous than Florida. It’s just a sexier vacation. And no, you don’t have to tell anyone how little you paid.
St. Thomas tidbits
It is one of the only places in the world where you drive American-style cars but with British rules of the road — on the left. Drivers are warned to “keep your shoulder to the shoulder” to prevent crashes.
St. Thomas’ tiny local paper, the Virgin Islands Daily Press, won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1995 for its series on police corruption, an amazing journalism achievement for such a small paper.
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’ biggest city and the seat for government and courts, was named after a Dutch queen from the late 1600s. People argue whether it is pronounced Charlotte “a-MAL-ye-a” or “a-ma-LEE,” but the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists both as correct.
Busy cruise ship days on St. Thomas are Sunday-Tuesday. Few ships arrive Wednesday-Saturday — so that’s when everyone actually staying on the island during high season visits area attractions and beaches. If you’re there on a Tuesday you can see the 5,400-passenger new Oasis of the Seas in port, looking as big as an aircraft carrier.
Ceramic artist Peggy Seiwert started Kilnworks Pottery in 1984 on St. Thomas and became well known for her signature pieces with the image of a lizard. She now has moved back to the States, so fans should snap up the last of the pottery at the still-open shop (now called Quick Pics) at 6029 Estate Smith Bay 4H on the island’s east end or in the gift shop at the St. Thomas airport.
If you go
LODGING: On St. Thomas, check hotel booking sites for deals on bigger resorts such as Wyndham Sugar Bay, Marriott Frenchman’s Reef, Bolongo Bay or the Ritz-Carlton. I prefer a rental with a kitchen so you can cook some meals. Many resorts here have privately owned condo units, so go either to the resort’s own Web site, to www.vrbo.com or www.vacationtimesharerentals.com where you can rent for less.
On St. Thomas, look for deals at spots such as Sapphire Village, Crystal Cove, Point Pleasant, Secret Harbor or Elysian. (You’ll also see lots of deals at Sapphire Beach Resort, which has fallen on hard times. If you don’t mind a boarded-up restaurant and rather forlorn amenities, the beach is spectacular and the location is good.)
Follow the same advice for St. John and St. Croix. St. John lodging is the costliest of the three islands.
TRANSPORTATION: In St. Thomas, rent a car at the airport or on the island’s east end — but if you are nervous about driving, taxis are plentiful, reasonable and will take you anywhere you’d like to go.
ID: No passport needed for entry from the U.S., but you do need a driver’s license and birth certificate or a passport. You must clear U.S. customs before leaving St. Thomas.
SHOPPING DEALS: Watches, jewels, cigarettes, liquor are duty-free and very cheap; bring back $1,600 in merchandise duty-free.
BEST ICE CREAM: Stop at the Udder Delite dairy bar at the St. Thomas Dairy near Magen’s Bay for sinfully delicious coconut ice cream.
FOR MORE: U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism: www.usvitourism.vi, 800-372-8784) or www.vinow.com