Just got back from a great trip to the Caribbean on the US Virgin Islands. This was a joint birthday treat for my fiancé and I.
We flew a redeye Monday night via Washington arriving Tuesday lunchtime. The flight was long and I got ill on the first leg; the first time I have ever been not well on a flight and I’ve no idea what caused it. All was well be the time we arrived at St Thomas.
Unfortunately T-Mobile and Verizon have poor service on the island so we had to make do with Wifi whenever we could get it to avoid significant charges.
We had booked an AirBnB staying at Sea 280 Degrees and after picking up the hire car drove to the north of the island to settle in.
Driving in St Thomas is an interesting experience;
- You drive a US spec’d car but on the left (as in the UK).
- The roads are not in great condition; lots of potholes and bumps.
- It is very hilly so low gears get plenty of use
- Hairpin bends seem to be popular
- All of the above is even more fun when combined with taxi/minibuses darting around taking tourists this way and that – not to mention exotic wildlife….
Arrival – The accommodation
Often you find with these kinds of places that the photos and description make use of artistic licence and exaggeration – but we were pleased to find everything was as good as it had looked. The rooms were laid out as we thought and the pool really did have that view (as did the bedroom). The owners were very nice and made a point of making sure we settled in. They themselves were heading away on a trip so we were left to ourselves (they normally live on site in the main house above).
So we were settled in on out mountaintop hideaway and after relaxing in the pool for a hour with a gin and tonic we were ready to start exploring a little.
We wanted to check this place out first being as it was close by and the main city of the island so we could pick up provisions for the rest of our stay.
It’s an odd place really and you quickly realise this is a cruise-liner destination so the town is dominated by expensive jewelry and designer shops and bars. I don’t think we quite fit the demographic of these businesses per se and after a little wandering we spotted an odd little bar called the Beer Garden. The owner was standing outside and we accepted his invitation.
This is a great little island dive bar or hole-in-the-wall type place, full of character and away from the crowd (although I suspect some nights it gets pumping). We could imagine this place being the scene of a 007 fight or chase conclusion; it just needed a few local characters to set the scene. The owner chatted with us and shared stories whilst we relaxed over a couple of local beers (Check out Virgin Island Brewery).
We picked up some groceries in a local store and returned to our apartment before heading out for dinner at the nearby restaurant ‘Three Sheets‘. This is located in a small resort/condo place. It has a lovely poolside courtyard and the food was very nice. Easy and relaxed which was just what we needed on our first night.
Day – 2: Magens Bay and exploring the coast
Day 2 started on the beach. We had been warned that this beach was very popular and that 4 boats were expected so we made sure we got there early and left before it got crazy. It is a beautiful beach and well worth spending some time on. We were sure we spotted a turtle pop his head up close to the shore while we were swimming around.
After that we took the car east to explore. Lots of interesting places on the way, the island has a weird mix of opulent resort areas surrounded by rough looking tired neighborhoods with people probably close to the poverty line.
We stopped at a beach bar for a light snack and to admire yet another amazing view before continuing around the coast road. We stopped to do some shopping at a mall of sorts and picked up some clothes etc.
This was Birthday day for S and we had booked a table at The Old Stone Farmhouse which as it is described is and old stone farmhouse converted into a high end restaurant. It’s tucked away on top of the hill not far from where we were staying. The food was excellent, not cheap but we were treating ourselves. It was dark so not sure what the view would have been like in the daytime but our table was nicely located looking out onto the garden. Really enjoyed our little bit of luxury including sharing a little desert.
Day 3 – snorkeling and sailing
I had booked a snorkeling trip on New Horizons (booked through Viator.com) a lovely sailing boat for our third day. For some reason we arrived without a couple of important things (towel and my fiancés camera to name two) but there wasn’t time to go back and get them so we went without.
This was a well organised trip and all inclusive. Food and drink was available all day and served professionally whilst Captain Tommy steered us around locations. We stopped at two locations and had an hours snorkeling in each. The second location as a little busy due to a regatta event so we didn’t see any turtles whilst in the water (we did spot one on the way back though). We had our own equipment but the boat supplied good enough looking gear for those who didn’t.
I got to try my new-old Nikonos film camera in the water. It was a little scary at first as getting into the sea with a camera; it just seemed wrong. All appeared to go as hoped and there were no signs of leakage. Assuming they come out I will post pictures of what I took once they are developed and scanned. It’s my first time with an underwater camera, I hope I got some good pics in there.
Food was pretty good and the crew (Tommy and Kevin) were very friendly making sure we all enjoyed ourselves. The trip accommodates cruise passengers so it didn’t start early (10am) and finished before 3pm. This left time to explore more and pick up a few essentials (insect bite treatment).
We stopped at Iggies for a quick snack, service wasn’t great but it’s a really nice location and we got to chat with a guy in a dive shop about good snorkeling locations.
For dinner we wanted to try something more local and called in at a bar just down the road from our apartment called Brookes Bar. It’s little more than a shack on the side of the road but we had seen good reviews and recommendations. There’s no menu as such it’s either chicken, pork, beef or fish (Mahi Mahi I think). It is proper local fayre very good flavour and comes with rice and beans and all the typical accompaniments. If you are looking for some good local food on the island I can definitely recommend this place (pork was yummy) but bring cash as they don’t take cards; we both ate for under $40.
Day 4 – St John
We had planned to have a day on the other big island and after chatting with the guy in the dive shop the day before we had some sort of plan; start at Caneel bay then go to Waterlemon Cay.
There are regular ferries from St Thomas to St John; you can take a car ferry but be warned some heavy fines for taking some rental cars over to the other island so double check. Ours was like this so we took the pedestrian ferry. There wasn’t much in the way of parking either so make sure you check it out beforehand if you are planning similar.
Caneel Bay was a plantation and is now a upscale resort but the beach is open to the public. We planned on breakfast there and got there just in time to eat from their buffet. They almost turned us away but after a little pleading allowed us to sit and were very accommodating and friendly. The food was excellent. Too full to just straight in the ocean we took a short walk around and explored the old ruins (and the donkeys).
After that we were ready for a swim and snorkelling ourselves around the beach. We liked it so much we decided to stay for the afternoon rather than getting in a taxi to the other end of the island.
Later, tired from our swimming we hopped in a taxi back to the main port area. It’s worth noting that these taxis, which are more like little mini tour busses are easy to get as they run about all over the place and are also pretty cheap at $5 a go.
We got off a Mongoose Junction which is a great little shopping and restaurant area – check out the Tap Room for local beer. We wandered down towards the port checking out shops along the way and decided to stay to eat dinner in Cruz Bay before heading home. We stopped at Cruz Bay Landing which had live music and ate some good food.
Last day – packed and ready to leave
We got ourselves packed and ready quicker than expected and didn’t need the late checkout we had requested. I wanted to take some photos in Charlotte Amalie and S wanted to look for something in the shops. We breakfasted at a local restaurant (Bumpas) before heading our separate ways for an hour.
Then it was back to the airport to drop off our car and take the long journey home (via Houston). The airport was busy and little seating free. There’s not much there and you have to use steps to get on/off the planes.
It was a good trip overall, the US VI are very beautiful although not as nice as Hawaii in our opinion. St John seems like a nicer island than St Thomas; it is less developed, or at least the development is more subtle and in keeping with the landscape. St Thomas is very much about the cruise ships with prices hawked up when they are in. You can get better ‘bargains’ in Charlotte Amalie when there are no boats in the harbour. St Thomas has very extreme areas which exaggerates that differences between the tourists and locals; some areas are very run down indeed. It’s interesting though especially as a photographer and I would like to have had more time around the back streets and abandoned looking spaces.
The beaches are exceptional and the water blue. Weather can change and we saw everything from very hot to stormy rain. Watch out for biting insects (they love me for some reason) and take precautions as there are some nasty tropical diseases out there.