Monday, February 28, 2022

St. Thomas and St. John, USVI

My husband and I first visited St. Thomas almost two decades ago, as a stop on a cruise vacation, and that brief port stay didn't really leave an impression on me one way or another. This time, we stayed at this beautiful tropical locale for almost a week and realized that the picture perfect beaches rival the best we've seen in the world, including in the Maldives and Turks & Caicos. 

During this trip, we also took the half-hour ferry over to St. John to spend time with friends who vacation there every winter  with good reason. St. John's got equally amazing beaches but is also fantastically lush and happens to be two-thirds national park. 

If you're considering the US Virgin Islands for vacation, it's good to know that St. Thomas has an airport but St. John does not, so you'd need to first fly into St. Thomas to take a ferry over to St. John. There's a third island, St. Croix, and a bunch of British Virgin Islands that are a ferry ride away as well. 

If you rent a car in the USVI, remember that you'll be driving on the opposite side of the road! It was my first time driving on the left side, and it was difficult for my brain to adjust. The narrow, winding, and hilly roads didn't help my transition. Despite some harrowing close calls, we did manage to get everywhere we were going in one piece!  

Where to Stay

For this trip, we decided to stay on St. Thomas because the few resorts on St. John (where our friends always stay) were all sold out. I was able to find an absolutely charming two-bedroom Airbnb in the Sapphire Beach Condo community that was perfect for my family. It was stylishly decorated, with a well-furnished kitchen, a dining table on the spacious balcony, and views of the harbor from the living room and master bedroom. The kids each had their own twin bed in the second bedroom, and we took full advantage of the washer-dryer, two full baths, and beach equipment. The condo was also steps from both Sapphire Beach and the community pool. Our stay was a bit pricy, but it really couldn't have been more perfect!

What to Do

The main reason to visit the USVI is to check out the beaches. There are so many of them, and one is more beautiful than the next. Picture soft, white sand, gently lapping, turquoise waters, mountains in the backdrop, and rainbows in the sky! My husband and I were joking that one beach lost points for the ocean being slightly less Gatorade blue than the previous beach we were at. We visited eight beaches in six days and every one was simply spectacular!  

Clockwise from top left: Sapphire, Salt Pond Bay, Coki, Trunk Bay, Hansen Bay, Magen's Bay, Lindquist, Maho Bay

On St. Thomas, we thought Coki Beach was the most beautiful and offered plentiful food options, but it had a bit of a party vibe, with a DJ blasting music; I would have been into it if I were visiting with my friends and we were all in our twenties. Sapphire Beach was quiet and secluded, and one of our favorites for all the shade provided by the sea grape trees. Magen's Bay is perhaps St. Thomas' most renowned beach  expansive and gorgeous. It can also get crowded due to its popularity, I'm told, although on the day we visited, it wasn't bad at all. We visited pristine Lindquist Beach on our last day, just before heading over to the airport, and it had great facilities for washing off. 

On St. John, we had our best beach day at Maho Bay, where we saw turtles and mantas while snorkeling (video above), ate gourmet burgers and did some shopping at the local stands, and rented a paddleboard for a couple of hours. That beach had it all. We visited the famous Trunk Bay after that, and it was also quite spectacular  similar to Magen's Bay, but with a calmer vibe. On our last full day, we drove much farther into St. John with our friends, who showed us Salt Pond Bay (more turtle sightings while snorkeling) and Hansen Bay, a privately owned beach where you pay a donation and can rent everything from paddleboards to giant blow-up platforms for the kids to dive off of.  

For a non-beach day, we spent some time at Coral World in St. Thomas, right next to Coki Beach. The small aquarium is a delight, with easily accessible exhibits and some fun activities that you can pay extra for, like swimming with dolphins, sea trek, and snuba. The animals seem well cared for. We spent one morning checking out the various exhibits, where my kids fell in love with a huge puffer fish and fed nectar to lorikeets. 

After a surprisingly tasty and fresh lunch at the cafe (where loose iguanas abound), we participated in Coral World's snuba experience, which is like scuba, but minus the heavy tanks. Instead, the air is dispensed from a tank that sits atop a raft, and we're all connected to it via breathing tubes. It's a great intro to scuba, particularly for kids who might not be able to handle cumbersome equipment. Our instructor Michelle clearly explained the whole process and made sure we were comfortable using the mouthpiece before taking us into the water. 

My kids are 12 and 10, and I was a bit worried that they wouldn't be able to handle this new experience, but they both took to it just fine. It was me that panicked a bit when I was told it was time to go under! But Michelle was very patient and understanding, offering options like hanging onto the raft or near the surface if I wanted to, and I calmed down quickly. The rest of my family adapted easily to the breathing and quickly dove down 20 feet into the ocean to swim among the colorful fish and get an up-close look at the coral.

I observed them from the surface for awhile, then worked up the courage to dive down, too, and it was truly an amazing, exhilarating experience! I highly recommend it for those who want to get a taste of what actual scuba diving feels like. You feel completely safe because you don't go so deep that you can't swim up to the surface easily.

Where to Eat

We spent most of our time on St. Thomas in the Red Hook area, which is close to many beaches and the ferry to St. John, but the island's main downtown area is situated in Charlotte Amalie, closer to the airport. The cruise ships dock there, and that's where you'll find plentiful shops, restaurants, and charming features such as cobblestone streets and Danish Colonial architecture. That's also where the island's famed 99 steps are located.

We rarely felt motivated to go out for a meal, instead opting to eat our lunches and dinners on the beach. But on the day we landed and the day we departed, we did eat at some fun places in Charlotte Amalie: Gringo's Caribbean Cantina, which serves tasty Mexican food (pictured above), and Gladys' Cafe, which features traditional Caribbean breakfast and lunch platters. Both are situated in historic Dutch buildings and can be found by wandering down a charming narrow alleyway. 

What's Nearby

As mentioned, if you're staying on St. Thomas, there's a ferry that will take you to nearby St. John. People who'd like to bring their vehicle over to these islands can take a car barge from Red Hook instead of the passenger ferry. It's a unique experience to sit in your car while it sits on a boat!

There are several companies that run these ferries, and you can save money by purchasing a roundtrip ticket instead of buying one way at a time. But make sure you show up on time for the return trip to catch your car barge  there's limited space, and we almost didn't make it onto the boat one evening! 

You may also like: