We just returned from five days on St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. It was shoulder season and was part of a time-share promotion by Marriott so it was incredibly cheap, only $100 per day. Not per person, per day, for four of us. We stayed at the Marriott Frenchman’s Cove villa complex on the south shore, overlooking the harbor entrance, the town of Charlotte Amalie and the extraordinary sunsets. The villa apartment was really lovely and well maintained. We had two large bedrooms and baths, a kitchen, a dining area and a living room. Each bedroom had its own balcony. In high season it is my understanding that these accommodations cost $600+ per day. They are not worth that in my opinion but there are always deals to be had.
The villa complex is adjacent to the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Hotel and their Morningstar Resort. While nominally within walking distance, you really need to have Sherpa blood to hike between them. Take the hotel shuttle (when available) or better, rent a car. Each location has its own beach and the hotel and villa complexes have lovely fresh water pools. There is the usual set of hotel restaurants in the complex and the food is quite good as hotel food goes. The Havana Blue restaurant in the Morningstar location is something special, albeit a bit pricey even for the island. At happy hour drinks around the pools are 2-for-1 or free, courtesy of Cruzan Rum. Everything on the island except the automobiles seems to run on Cruzan Rum. Note that I said 2-for-1, not half price. When you order two of the island’s frou-frou drinks you get four.
Getting around the island from the hotel complex is difficult. Hiring a car is essential. Taxi fares are per-person and run about $15 one way to town and more to any other spot on the island. It is about a 10 minute ride to Charlotte Amalie when the traffic is not congested (as it is quite a bit of the time, particularly at cruise ship loading or unloading times). Driving is a bit problematical. They drive on the left (British style) but the steering wheels are on the left (US style) as well, which makes for unusual blind spots in merging traffic and for incorrect reactions when unexpected things occur while driving. Also, the island is all uphill. Very uphill. It is not unusual to find yourself climbing or descending what seems to be a 45 degree slope on an extraordinarily twisty road. You do not need a 4-wheel drive Jeep but you will spend a lot of time in low gear. Getting a discount car rental is difficult, despite the claims in the ads. The cheapest we found was the Thrifty/Dollar franchise at $45 per day (with all fees and taxes included but no insurance) for an economy car (a Toyota Yaris) which comfortably handled four people and our luggage and just sipped the island’s outrageously priced gasoline. The other problem is that the islanders have not yet discovered street signs. Navigation is by trial-and-error based on the very sketchy maps available in the island guides. Relax and enjoy the unexpected discoveries. You cannot go too wrong. It is, after all, a small island. You eventually run out of land and the natives speak English should you eventually have to ask for directions. The island displays the whole range of life-styles and housing, from the very wealthy yacht club and golf course crowd, largely at the west end, to simply appalling poverty in the areas around Charlotte Amalie where the service workers live. It is interesting island to drive around.
The island gets about 5 to 7 large cruise liners arriving and departing on most days, each with 3,000 to 5,000 passengers. They deposit those folks at about 8:00AM each morning and collect them at about 5:00PM in the afternoon. During the day there is a somewhat frantic display of “hunting and gathering” going on at the local shops and crafts malls where the usual choices of gold jewelry, diamonds, chic clothing and knock-offs are available, as well as the tee-shirts and grand-children outfits that every island has.
Things get a bit crowded during the day. The island empties in the evening. That makes getting lunch an issue but dinners presented no problems. Getting reservations was easy and just dropping in got us served everywhere. The dining recommendations in Fodor’s and Frommer’s guides are quite accurate. In Charlotte Amalie, Herve’s Restaurant (French), about two blocks uphill from the waterfront at Fort Christian, is excellent, both in terms of ambiance and food. It is a bit pricey, however, even for the island, which is generally expensive at all the best places. A three course dinner for two with a bottle of wine can run $150 or more. A charming place is Café Amalia (Spanish), just off the waterfront in Palm Passage. Well prepared and presented tapas or full meals on a delightful outdoor patio. Service was great and prices a bit more reasonable. The wine list is extensive with something for everyone, both in terms of variety and price. Grande Cru (Mediterranean) in the posh Yacht Club Mall is also outstanding. Sitting on their covered deck overlooking the wretched excess of the mega-yachts and pretending you might some day own one is fun and the cuisine is top-drawer. For a change of pace drive out to Bolongo Bay on the south shore to Iggie’s Beach Bar, a happenin’ place, with a great steel band and lots of beach dancing. Tuesdays they offer all-you-can-eat crab legs dinners for $30. Good lunch spots for sandwiches and drinks are Jen’s Gourmet Deli and The Greenhouse, just off the waterfront in town. Breakfasts are a bit more of a problem. The hotels serve buffets at about $25 but because the cruise liner passengers apparently eat on-board before discharging there seem to be few breakfast spots open in the morning. Jen’s is one good option but another recommendation we got, The Delly Deck in the Havensight Mall, was pretty poor.
If you are into scuba or snorkeling and do not want to spend the exorbitant fees requested by the sailboat rental outfits, the best place to go is Coki Beach on the east end of the island. The coral and rock promontory jutting out from the beach alongside Coral World Aquarium collects a nice school of colorful fish that you can swim among and feed. You can rent snorkeling masks there for just $5 so there is no need to buy one or to bring your own. The beach is small, probably a football field wide (as are the ones at Frenchman’s Cove, Frenchman’s Reef and the Morningstar Resort) but were not crowded. Chairs and umbrellas are also for rent and cocktails are available. A larger beach and bay on the north side of the island is Magens Beach, which we only saw from a distance from Drake’s Seat, a scenic overlook near the top of the mountain. Looked lovely. Another terrific scenic overlook is Paradise Point near the Havensight Mall, which you can take a tramway to for $21 per head or can drive up to via a twisty and steep road which begins off Route 32 just to the west of Al Cohen's Discount Liquor Store.
All-in-all St. Thomas is a very nice place for a short visit.
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