Thanksgiving evening, as the gathering of my family at the grill area of Bluebeard’s Beach Club on St. Thomas moved to another location, I snuck off to my room. I was tired of flailing away uselessly at the no-see-ums who thought my ankles were the buffet, and needed shelter. I turned on the TV for the first time all week, and happened upon a “throwback Thursday” film marathon and caught most of that classic 80s flick, Footloose, and in particular the song Almost Paradise. The song title neatly summed up my experience of a week on St. Thomas, an island not typically on my radar screen for various reasons. There are a lot of close-to-paradise features to a visit here, but they aren’t quite paradise for me.
Before diving into the trip, let me preface this post by saying that I am completely spoiled and I know it. I have a life that allows me to explore the Caribbean and to narrow my focus down to places that meet my wishes (and if I miss, I try again). I’m selfish (and an introvert) and don’t like to share my perfect places with very many people. And I also know that what I love about the islands is not necessarily what other people like; what might be minuses for me can be pluses for others. I’m always appreciative of a chance to visit the islands, and will make the most of every opportunity; and I’m especially grateful to have shared Thanksgiving week on St. Thomas with my husband’s family and being excused from my usual role of Thanksgiving hostess. So it’s all good!
There were a total of 15 of us gathering for a week at Bluebeard’s – a Wyndham vacation club, courtesy of my mother-in-law’s gazillion points — flying in from New York, California, Maryland and Virginia.
PLUS: Big jets make air travel less painful.
PLUS: Big jets spare us the sometimes-scary commuter planes we usually fly.
PLUS: It’s really cool to watch planes take off and land from the beach.
MINUS: All of those people!
Watching an American Airlines jet land from Brewer’s Bay.
Rick and I rented a 4-door Jeep from local company Amalie Car Rental, and were greeted by a representative as soon as we got off the plane. By the time I collected our bags, Rick was at the wheel of our pristine new Jeep.
PLUS: Amalie is awesome!
MINUS: The roads on St. Thomas don’t quite require a Jeep, but they can be quite scary with steep slopes, sketchy guardrails, and tight switchbacks. The roads are poorly-marked and you’re required to drive on the left.
PLUS: At least they are paved, for the most part.
Our first stop was the Pueblo supermarket at Havensight to pick up provisions. We are used to island grocery shopping, so our shopping list is nothing more than a wish list, only a percentage of which we’ll actually find.
PLUS: St. Thomas has fairly large supermarkets.
MINUS: Just because they’re big doesn’t mean you can get what’s on your shopping list. I mean, really, no limes? And only Florida avocados? And the wine selection? Abysmal.
PLUS: There’s rum.
We arrived at Bluebeard’s around the same time as others in our group. It’s a moderately-sized resort located just a few minutes outside of Charlotte Amalie on the south side of St. Thomas. It features a handful of low-rise buildings perched on a sloping parcel of nicely-landscaped property on a cove known as Limetree Beach.
A view of Bluebeard’s Beach Club from the check-in area.
Check in was slowed by a suggested visit with the “concierge,” who had “gifts” for us. But he was really a time share shill peddling “free” lunches and discounts that could only be redeemed with a visit (and captive presentation) at their under-development property on the east side of the island.
MINUS: Why are you wasting my vacation time? My mother-in-law has enough time share points to book these half dozen units during a holiday week in the Caribbean. Do you really think we need more?
PLUS: None of us are stupid. We didn’t bite. Vacation time is too precious.
Finally, we settled into our unit. Mine and Rick’s had a prime location close to the ice machine, so Dark and Stormies — made with the super-premium version of Gosling’s rum I bought at the duty free store at the airport – were soon in hand.
Whew! That drink couldn’t be poured fast enough. Too bad the weather matched the name of the drink.
Our unit, like all of the others, looked out over the sea. Our bedroom was in a loft overlooking the living space, which included a modest kitchenette.
PLUS: The room was clean and reasonably well-equipped.
MINUS: The room was generic, and could be anywhere from New York to New Caledonia.
MINUS: The room had windows, but no screens, so we couldn’t open our unit to the elements (like the sound of the sea or the tree frogs). Instead, we were stuck with AC that sounded like a leaf blower with a stutter.
MINUS: You have to pay for WiFi – over $30 for the week for the “better” version of it – and it is abysmally, embarrassingly slow and unreliable. To add insult to injury, Verizon coverage in the USVI is patchy at best, and they treat the islands as if they are a foreign country.
MINUS: Our unit had a 3-step tile staircase from the kitchen/bath area to the living area. This is an accident waiting to happen, as the steps have a sharp edge and are very slippery.
Everyone had arrived by Sunday evening, so we had a cocktail hour (or two) on a large terrace overlooking the resort. This was one of a handful of all-family gatherings – we were here together, but the reality is that herding 15 people for assorted outings and meals is a low-percentage ploy. So, with the exception of a few pre-arranged outings, no one was obliged to do anything with the group, which worked out nicely.
PLUS: Bluebeard’s had several spaces where we could all comfortably gather, including a grill area with a covered pavilion. Even when other families were using these areas, there was room for us.
We took advantage of this lack of agenda on our first full day in the islands, and ferried over to Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. For many years, the BVI were our go-to Caribbean destination. We’d chartered sailboats there on a half-dozen different occasions in the 90s and early 2000s. But our final trip there was disappointing on many levels – not least of which was the increasing crowds (not just “credit card sailors,” but the arrival of cruise ships that strained the islands’ resources) — that we found bluer seas elsewhere. More recently, though, I’ve had an urge to revisit.
The highlight of those past visits was visiting Jost Van Dyke, a tiny and sparsely-inhabited island blessed with one of my favorite beaches (White Bay) and beach bars (Soggy Dollar) in all of the West Indies. So while one might rightly say we took a 3-leg ferry trip and cleared customs and immigration twice in one day just to visit a beach bar, really, it was a fact-finding mission: I wanted to see if the magic was still there.
Finding the magic was going to take some effort, because the skies broke open – and would stay so for much of the day – as soon as we boarded the ferry that took us to Cruz Bay (STJ), West End (Tortola) and finally JVD. I’d rented a 4WD vehicle from Abe’s and Eunicy’s to ensure ease of movement, even though there are only about 3 miles of road on JVD. Eunicy met us at the ferry, and we rode along on an errand and took Eunicy’s cousin home before she turned over the keys.
The ferry stop at West End on Tortola, and the familiar view of Soper’s Hole. Not even the rainy weather can dull those colors.
As we made our way towards White Bay, I stopped and gazed on the beach from an overlook. Despite the grey skies, it was breathtakingly pretty.
Ahhhh … White Bay. This was the first time I’d ever approached it by land. In the early days of sailing in the BVI, it was off limits (on “de red-line”), but over the years as navigation aids improved, it became more accessible.
Next stop: the Soggy Dollar Bar. Bartender Shaneek greeted us with “Good Morning” and I told her I didn’t want to hear that as I was ordering my first drink of the day at 10:15 a.m. Other visitors slowly wandered in, by land and by sea, as we swam, drank, shopped and lunched. Due to the rain, the fact that the season had yet to begin, and the absence of cruise ships in Roadtown, it wasn’t too crowded. But when the sprinkles turned to downpours in the middle of lunch, everyone huddled under the few covered spots.
Soggy weather would not dampen our hours at the Soggy Dollar Bar. It did serve to cut back on the number of visitors.
Onward to Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, perhaps the most famous of the JVD beach bars. Great Harbour was largely empty, and so was Foxy’s. I invited the lonely bartender to “be creative,” and he made me a rainbow-colored nightmare of a rum drink.
A dummy of Foxy Callwood oversees the lack of action at eponymous Foxy’s.
From there, we went to Foxy’s Taboo on the east end of JVD, a place new to us. The rain was unrelenting, so a visit to the Bubbly Pool wasn’t in the offing; instead, we played Jenga, chatted with the bartenders, and knocked back a few libations. As we were leaving, we were cautioned to put the jeep in 4WD low – the road out, which has a slope of about 45%, had turned into a waterfall as the water draining from higher in the hills was cascading downhill. The rain finally let up in time for us to catch the ferry back to St. Thomas.
Heavy cloud cover over Jost Van Dyke (left), and Sandy Cay in the foreground, while Tortola is obscured by rain.
PLUS: The BVI still have some magic, at least in the off-season.
MINUS: No-see-ums don’t mind the rain, and they love me.
Tuesday’s weather was forecast to be only moderately less rainy, but we would be undaunted in our search for the best beaches of St. Thomas, which would continue through the week. As a practical matter, my perfect beach doesn’t exist. Certainly, the physical characteristics can be found in many places: soft sand (preferably white or pinkish), a bit of shade, clear water free of rocks or coral rubble, some wave action, and shells or sea glass to collect. It’s the human factors which are more difficult to pin down, because I want a beach to be both mostly (or completely) empty, but also to have a friendly beach bar – and these two elements are almost mutually exclusive. But the search nevertheless continues. Here is my rundown on the beaches on St. Thomas we visited over the course of the week.
Our first stop was Hull Bay, just west of much-touted Magen’s Bay. Hull Bay is considered a locals’ surfing spot, and doesn’t attract very many tourists.
Hull Bay wasn’t especially enticing on this fairly dark, cloudy day.
There is a surf break at this beach, the only reliable on in St. Thomas.
Hull Bay Hideaway is a textbook perfect Caribbean beach bar; as a bonus, the Ravens flag gave away the allegiances (and histories) of its co-owners.
PLUS: Hull Bay has Hull Bay Hideaway to recommend it, a mellow (at least before lunch) classic beach bar and a source of amazing fish tacos and fish sandwiches.
MINUS: The beach doesn’t invite swimming, with small boats moored very close to shore and dark, pebbly sand. But at least it doesn’t attract hordes.
Lindquist Beach is on the east end of St. Thomas, and is part of the Virgin Islands National Park system, with plentiful parking and clean restroom facilities. There is plenty of shade and picnic tables, as well as a lifeguard and a roped-off swimming area. We came here in the rain, so there weren’t very many visitors about.
PLUS: Objectively, the prettiest beach we visited on St. Thomas.
MINUS: Where’s the rum? You have to bring your own.
Limetree Beach was our “home” beach, and the masses of beach chairs and dive shop, as well many guests, attest to its status as a resort beach. The sand is fairly dark, and it has a rocky entrance. There were seas running from the south during Thanksgiving week, so we had some wave action to play in.
Limetree is a decent beach, but look at all of the chairs….
PLUS: Couldn’t get any more convenient than this beach, and we spent hours hanging out in the water, sipping from our “water” bottles.
MINUS: Lots of people around.
Coki Point Beach had the potential to be the prettiest beach we would visit. But, like on St. John, the best beaches are also the most popular, especially among cruise ship excursioneers, who tend to pack together like iron filings on a magnet. The traffic on this skinny peninsula was daunting enough, with parking a challenge as well. We got a glimpse of the blinding white sand and crystal water, but it wasn’t easy to do so because the shore was packed with bodies. Not for me; we turned tail.
PLUS: Could have been a contender.
Magen’s Bay is probably the most famous beach on St. Thomas. The heart-shaped bay has a lot to recommend it: plenty of shade, picnic tables, public restrooms, light sand, playful surf.
This view of Magen’s Bay is one of the iconic images of St. Thomas.
We hiked to the furthest west end of the beach and camped out for a while, finding the water delicious for swimming. Though the sand isn’t as white, Magen’s Bay reminded me a bit of Playa Flamenco on Culebra, except that on Flamenco, people spread out, so even if there is a lively buzz of visitors, you never feel crowded. On Magen’s, crowds pack in, their matching towels a clue to their origin. Around beer time, we were pelted with a heavy downpour, with the rain so cold that I escaped into the sea to get warm. Once the rain stopped, we gave up on getting beers from the concession stand because there were just too many people.
Early enough, and far enough away from the entrance, Magen’s Bay is beautiful and inviting.
PLUS: Pretty, and very nice for swimming.
Just as we did when visiting St. John earlier this year, we’d have to settle for less pretty beaches to escape the masses. Brewer’s Beach, though itself not especially developed, is adjacent to the University of the Virgin Islands campus, and has a view of the end of the runway at STT – so it has a slightly urban feel. The sand is white, though there are patches of sea grass in the water. There are shoals of small shells and sea glass to explore. We found a nice shady spot under a banyan tree to park. The beach appears to be a favorite of residents, and had a holiday vibe as families cooked out and swam in the calm waters. Though there are no beach bars, a few food trucks supply snacks and beers.
Brewer’s Bay offered one of the nicest beach experiences we had on St. Thomas.
PLUS: While slightly busy, this is the mellow sort of scene I don’t mind.
MINUS: A swarm of no-see-sums drove me away.
Our final beach was Lindbergh Beach, named after the famed aviator and fittingly located parallel to the airport’s runway. There are a couple of resorts along the ends of the beach, but the middle of the beach is undeveloped. Just park along the airport road, duck under the seagrapes, and drape your towel on the rocks. The sand and sea are lovely here, and a slight swell makes the swimming interesting. As well, watching the planes take off and land is fun; the jets especially seem so huge at eye level.
Paradise is where you find it….
PLUS: I could spend a lot of time here!
MINUS: Too bad it was the last beach we visited.
It wasn’t all beaches for us, though it wasn’t much more than just beaches. On Thanksgiving Day, we took a family snorkel trip aboard the Culebra Diver, which was booked through the dive shop at Bluebeard’s (the boat was docked at a marina near Red Hook).
The matching shirts helped keep us together.
We motored to St. Thomas’ Buck Island (just like there are many Mill Creeks in the Chesapeake, there seem to be many Buck Islands….) and moored in a lee cove for some turtle watching. (I admit to being too persnickety to wear borrowed snorkel equipment, so I just bobbed around in the water while everyone else snorkeled).
Underwater scenery at Buck Island.
Then the boat moored on the other side of Buck Island, where the nominal attraction is a sunken freighter, but the real attraction is yellowtail snappers with a voracious appetite for Frito Lay products.
Somebody must have a chip bag in hand.
The seas built to 4 feet, making for a boisterous trip back to the marina, but no one chummed the waters and a good amount of rum was poured.
PLUS: Aqua Marine runs an excellent adventure, and they managed to keep our entire group (mostly) in line.
MINUS: Every other excursion boat in St. Thomas goes to the same spots seemingly at the same time. I was convinced someone was going to be kicked in the face.
One of the great pleasures of island trips is eating local food. Though not known as one of the gastronomic capitals of the Caribbean, St. Thomas didn’t fail to satisfy. A combination of good advice from regular visitors, and simple luck, kept us from having a single bad meal. Of course, you’ll almost never find me ordering a burger or steak in the islands – though there is no shortage of US chains here – I always default to seafood or island specialties. We had meals at Mim’s (near Bolongo Bay, right on the water, with excellent snapper creole), Iggie’s (best fish tacos I’ve ever had), Da Coal Pot (sister restaurant to the one we ate at in St. John, in a strip center that took some looking for, but worth the effort for delicious goat roti and oxtail stew), and Molly Molone’s (eschewed the turkey buffet for a fish sandwich).
Uninvited lunch guests at Molly Molone’s.
Our last meal as a group, with some of our number peeling off afterwards, was in Frenchtown at Hook, Line and Sinker. I’d arranged for their private room to accommodate our large group, and it was terrific. The room – which opened out to the harbor — fit us perfectly, and the staff were friendly and efficient. Most importantly, the food was great – the best snapper creole I’ve ever had. Of course, with a group of our size, not everyone can be made happy; for better or worse, Ronald McDonald was my young nephews’ savior!
Of course, there’s a lot more to St. Thomas than my limited explorations revealed. But I’m not particularly interested in zip lines, aerial tramways, jewelry shopping, or any of the other activities that seem to attract large groups. More mellow pursuits, like visiting gardens and taking historical tours or hikes, might have been more appealing if the better part of our week hadn’t been rained out. All in all, it was fun to be together with the entire family, to skip the stress of Thanksgiving weekend, and to get in some quality beach time. I may never affirmatively seek to visit St. Thomas again, but I don’t regret having done it.
My version of Paradise it isn’t, but it’ll do.