Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
We hadn’t intended to visit St Thomas but since we had to fly in and out of the larger of the US Virgin Islands it would have been churlish not to have given it a passing glance before ferrying over to the neighboring island of St John for a week.
Whilst it doesn’t compare in relaxed vibe nor natural beauty to St John, the culinary scene in St Thomas is on a par. The vacation started on a relative high with our first evening meal at Pangea Terra – a trendy open-air farm-to-table restaurant – slow and disorganized (bordering on chaotic) service – but great food with good cocktails and excellent desserts worth the extra inch on the waistline.
First full day and we were up with the larks ready to start ticking off the well-known sights.
No successful vacation day can commence without caffeine to kickstart us into life. The coffee (to say nothing of the almond croissants) at Stir it Up Coffee Shop in Port of Sale Mall was definitely worth waiting for. The line, which snaked out of the door onto the sidewalk, was packed with locals and tourists alike – it must be the most popular coffee shop on the island. As a result, Port of Sale became our daily port of call for all things sugary and caffeine-related.
Top of the list of bakeries from my extensive research was MBW Café and Bakery in a back street of Charlotte Amalie. I was determined to locate it even though I’d just eaten an entire day’s calories at Stir It Up. We circumnavigated the circuitous one-way system through the town no less than 4 times hunting for the elusive bakery and, then, once we’d found it, we continued circumnavigating in a frantic search for parking before we decided that no baked delicacy could possibly be worth the hassle. So we headed uphill out of town towards our first viewpoint.
The quintessential picture postcard view of St Thomas is from Drake’s Seat – a morning view if you want the sun in the right direction – towards the island’s most famous beach at Magens Bay. The beach looked pretty quiet from our elevated viewpoint at this early hour so we followed the road downhill, paid the $12 entry fee and were pleasantly surprised at how peaceful it was. Leaving an hour or so later around 10.30am, the line of cars queuing to pay at the entrance booth was backed up 30 deep on the main road. I’m pleased that we saw Magens Beach before the arrival of the masses with their colored floaties, beach balls and coolers since it is one of the most famous and popular beaches in the US Virgin Islands. Having said that, it is far from being the best beach on the island never mind in the US Virgin Islands’ chain.
Next stop – the undeniable best beach on the island! Lindquist Beach (part of the Smith Bay Beach Park for which there was another $12 fee). This is a protected marine park. The waters are truly crystal clear aquamarine and the sand is light cream with a soft pink tint at the water’s edge. There were only a few other like-minded people trying to escape the crowds who were sitting in the shade of the palm and sea grape trees. The views towards St John and the British Virgin Islands were breathtaking. No surprise that this became our favorite beach on St Thomas.
Still, the day was young and we had yet more to explore.
On to Sapphire Beach – a far cry from the hype it receives in various blogs – and certainly a far cry from Lindquist. We stopped for lunch at the Sapphire Beach Bar for tacos (good) and a couple of rum Painkillers which did absolutely nothing to ease the pain of sharing the narrow beach with 300 rowdy people from the onsite condos who clearly had been on the Painkillers since breakfast. Not quite what we had in mind for the rest of the afternoon.
A full day of exploration was rounded out by the excellent food at the upmarket Caribbean Fish Market (at the Club Wyndham Elysian Beach Resort). All of the obsequious service you could possibly desire for dinner at a hefty price tag in a lovely beachfront environment.
The following morning I suggested a quick stop in Charlotte Amalie after our obligatory visit to Stir It Up Coffee Shop but, having driven the irritating one-way system a couple of times, we were not sufficiently enthused to make the effort to park up and wander its streets. It is a typical generic cruise ship shopping destination town. There is some colorful architecture and a few attractive restored historic buildings but once you’ve seen one Diamonds International store you’ve seen them all … so we drove on through …
First stop – Coki beach – which showed all the signs of being a crazy, alcohol and drug-fueled party beach for the 20 somethings. 8.30am was peaceful enough but the wafts of marijuana emanating from a few shady characters hanging out at the beach bars waiting for the action to start certainly set the scene. So we hot-footed it to the inappropriately named Secret Harbor Beach which turned out to be another desperately over-populated beach with a restaurant, a beach bar and a resort hotel at the water’s edge. Lunch at Beach Bar at the Patio was better than expected given the somewhat dated appearance of the adjoining hotel and the total lack of interest from the servers. The water was, however, lovely and warm and very calm so it was worth a dip after lunch but, sad to say, it is not the spectacular beach one might expect from various bloggers’ hype.
Brewers Bay (which is located within the campus of the University of the Virgin Islands) is famous for its turtle population which grazes on the sea grasses in the bay. We were all geared up with masks, snorkels, fins and underwater camera like a couple of pros. We waded out and saw one solitary turtle – and he (or she) was far more interested in deep-diving for more delicious grasses than hanging out at the surface with us for a photo shoot. Geoff near froze trying to photograph the said single turtle. It was one of the rare occasions over the 11 days in the USVIs when he actually got his feet wet at all. The average temperature of the Virgin Islands water in early March just didn’t make it to the requisite 90F 😉
We had hoped to hike to Mermaids Chair in the far west of the island at Botany Bay. During low tide one can see “the Mermaids Chair” which is a strip of sand separating the waters of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. From the viewpoint you would (apparently) also be able to see the islands of Puerto Rico but since we would have to have been hiking at 3am to catch low tide we abandoned that plan – the tide just wasn’t playing ball during our 4 days.
The absolute highlight of St Thomas is undeniably Lindquist Bay Beach. Truly spectacular cerulean waters – every shade from ultramarine to transparent teal – and the beach is fringed with palm trees and sea grapes. What more could you want? We hung out there on our final day before heading to St John. I floated languidly watching silver fish flying through the transparent warm waters around me. We could see catamarans and super yachts navigating the choppy channels in the distance between St Thomas, St John and the BVIs. Geoff took full advantage of his lazy vacation day asleep on his sun lounger in the shade of a sea grape tree with a book and a cooler filled with rum and cokes 😉
The Sunset Grille restaurant at Secret Harbor Beach is (unsurprisingly given its name) renowned for its sunset views. In the absence of availability at either Pangea Terra or Caribbean Fish Market it was worth the effort on our last night.
Day 5 – we returned the rental car to L and J Jeep Rental in the back streets of Charlotte Amalie at 9.40am. We were anticipating having to catch a cab all the way back to the east of the island (from which we had just driven) to get to the Red Hook ferry terminal for our onward journey to St John. The staff at the rental company mentioned in passing that the main ferry from Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay (which had been out of commission for many years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria) had just reopened mere days earlier and was scheduled to run 3 times per day.
The morning ferry was due to leave at 10am. We had 17 minutes to get there, buy tickets and board the ferry before that particular boat sailed. The rental car check-in guy kindly offered to drive us the 2 miles to the ferry terminal. It might have been quicker, and certainly less stressful, if we had walked. In true unhurried Caribbean form he drove slower than a snail straight past the ticket office and, once he’d registered his mistake, continued around in a gigantic snail’s pace circle before finally dropping us at the ticket office we had driven past 10 minutes earlier, leaving seconds to spare to buy 2 tickets and run onto the ferry.
Still, we made it by the skin of our teeth and got to St John hours earlier than the Red Hook to Cruz Bay ferry route and that was all that mattered! Even better, although we had had to book an older model Jeep for the week (since Aqua Blu Car Rental were sold out of the nice shiny new ones when we made our booking 6 months earlier), as we had arrived earlier than planned – and crucially we offered to pay them more for our early arrival – they miraculously found a brand new, shiny white Jeep for us. A decision I’m pretty sure they now regret 😉
With unexpected Caribbean efficiency they were waiting at the dockside with our brand new, shiny white Jeep. With so much extra time on our hands we decided on an early lunch to kill time before checking in to our apartment at 3pm at Seagrape Vista in Cruz Bay.
We took a quick look at the touristy enclave of Mongoose Junction – the apparent centre of the universe for this tiny island – but nothing appealed for lunch. It was Monday – a day we would discover many restaurants are closed for both lunch and dinner. Truth be told many restaurants are frequently closed on a whim even when they are scheduled to be open. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t realize that until we’d driven to the very farthest nether regions of the island – to Coral Bay – otherwise we’d probably have made do with whatever was on offer at Mongoose Junction.
Our trusty google maps, however, confirmed that Aqua Bistro in Coral Bay would be open on Monday at midday. Since it was on my shortlist we headed out of town and found ourselves navigating treacherous, steep, winding switchbacks the entire length of Centreline Road across the island. I have no idea why Centreline is also known as Route 10. I’d be surprised if there are actually 9 other roads on the whole of St John. The island is only a mere 13 miles long and 6 miles wide but it certainly packs a punch when it comes to thrilling driving conditions. What was more disconcerting was that Centreline is THE main road across the island and you take your life in your hands every time you get onto it. The roads in St John are a white-knuckle ride for the bravest of hearts. In a week we only saw rental Jeeps on the road. They are the only vehicle which can safely handle the conditions the island throws at the uninitiated non-resident driver.
Having survived our first cross-island drive we pulled up outside Aqua to find that it was closed for the day and for the following day – for no apparent reason. Next stop – Miss Lucy’s on the waterfront – which was also, it transpired, closed on Mondays. The only option was a local’s joint serving up curried goat – and although it was highly rated it wasn’t much good for a couple of non-meat eaters. So we headed back towards Cruz Bay. In desperation we stopped at a roadside cafe halfway along Centreline – Colombo’s Smoothies – it was good enough to become our regular emergency lunch stop since all roads on the island (albeit there are only two of them) lead to Colombo’s 😉
Stuffed to the gunnels with bagels and smoothies we took the opportunity to drive the alternative road back to Cruz Bay – North Shore Road – which is surely one of the most scenic drives in the Caribbean. All of the famous and most spectacular beaches are on this road – on the north shore of the island. We passed Maho Bay which is the least appealing. Calm waters but the beach is incredibly narrow so it was very overcrowded – the water was people soup. Opposite the beach there are food trucks and bars and the vibe is definitely younger and more attractive for families. We drove on through. We passed Cinnamon Bay and glimpsed it through the trees from high up on the coast road and then the most famous and iconic view in the US Virgin Islands came into view. The view over Trunk Bay Beach. Save it for an afternoon photo shoot to get the best light and if you can catch it on a non-cruise ship day you’ll see it with less people than are on Maho! The bright teal waters are complemented perfectly by the verdant tropical hillsides and the pristine white sand. From the viewpoint over Trunk Bay you can see across the inlets and bays of St John and over to the British Virgin Islands. Absolutely fantastic. Next stop a brief paddle at Hawksnest Beach – by which time the beaches of St John had already stolen my heart.
Research had suggested that you have to arrive bright and early in the morning at any of these famous beaches if you want a (legal) car parking space never mind a shady location on the beach in which to park your beach chairs and cooler for the day. Between 8 and 8.15am we were all but the only people at any of the beaches and we always managed to bag the primo shady spaces under the trees. Cinnamon Beach became our absolute favorite – a larger scale version of Trunk Bay with equally incredible waters and expansive views dotted with rocky islands and emerald headlands – but without the same number of visitors as Trunk Bay Beach. Perfect!
Trunk Bay was as gorgeous as my day-dreams imagined but you need to do your homework and aim to visit on a day on which there are fewest cruise ships in St Thomas. It paid off for us. There is an underwater snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay which wasn’t as exciting as we had hoped although there were a few fish and some fan corals. As glorious as Trunk Bay Beach is – Cinnamon Bay Beach is even better.
We took a couple of hikes in between days of beach-bumming. The most famous for views is Ram Head Trail at the far southeastern peninsula of St John. The 2.5 mile trail starts at Salt Pond Beach and heads around past the beach and the yachts bobbing in the bay before heading uphill on a rocky trail. We clambered over Blue Cobblestone Beach – covered in blue-grey stones and rocks as its name suggests – and collapsed in the shade for a brief stop. It was only 9.30am but already warm and humid. The trail continues to weave uphill behind Blue Cobblestone Beach until it opens out completely to expansive views over the headland dotted with countless species of flowering cacti. A friend subsequently told us that we should have snacked upon the cactus fruit … since we didn’t have that useful knowledge ahead of time we’ll have to save that experience until next time.
By the time we had finished the hike and crawled back to the car gasping for AC and a colder drink than tepid bottled water it was 11.00am. It is not the distances nor the terrain which is particularly demanding when you are hiking in St John – it is simply the early morning humidity and the heat which knocks you off your feet.
We had passed Miss Lucy’s again on the way to the trailhead and the sign outside told us she would be open for lunch at 11. Naturally, this being St John where the notion of customer service is of little concern to the local restauranteurs, when we arrived they told us they weren’t opening until midday. Geoff begged for a beer and a seat in the shade – we were happy to wait quietly with a cold drink until noon – but apparently that was absolutely impossible.
Since we had to drive back through the enclave of Coral Bay we aimed for Aqua Bistro which we knew (prayed) would be open at noon. The bar tender was opening up the tiki bar out front and took pity on us. She let us hang out with her – served us a few beers and a couple of Painkillers -until the kitchen opened at midday. That’s customer service. Finally we got to eat at Aqua which was very good.
We wound our way back towards Cruz Bay again via North Shore Road so I could take a quick dip in the water at Maho – it seemed the easiest to access after a few Painkillers since it is all of about 4 steps from the car to the sand – and I was feeling lazy. It turned out to be the single most expensive swim I’ve even taken – we could have flown home and back to the Caribbean again for the same price as that quick dip. Parking was tight but there was one space in the dusty lot behind the beach. Since Geoff always likes to reverse into spaces for ease of exit he did what he always does. Whilst the nice, shiny brand new Jeep did come equipped with a reversing camera, he was so intent on watching the camera at bumper level that he completely failed to spot the large tree limb at roof level which he reversed into with quite a solid crunch. The repair estimate was double the $500 excess on our insurance policy so our brief 20 minute dip at Maho became the single most expensive swim in living history.
Whilst I’m touching on driving in St John. The locals joke “don’t drive on St John unless all your affairs in order”. That’s just referencing the hairy hairpins. Equally notably, nobody cares even one iota what damage they do to their own or anyone else’s car. Leaving Trunk Bay Beach one afternoon I spotted a commotion around a vehicle in the car park. It transpired that the holiday makers had just returned to their rental Jeep to find that someone had reversed into their car and caved in an entire rear side panel. I do hope they were suitably insured because no one had left an apologetic note under the windscreen wipers and no passer-by had seen a thing.
Back to hiking … From Cruz Bay town you can walk the Lind Point trail which starts behind the Visitor Centre at a wooden staircase. It quickly becomes rocky and weaves through knotted undergrowth. We were aiming for another of St John’s well-known beaches – Honeymoon Beach. It is a short two mile return trail passing Salomon Bay Beach before descending to Honeymoon. We knew as soon as we had arrived that it was another party beach – the sand and the water were typically fabulous and I took full advantage of swimming in its balmy waters to cool down – but it wouldn’t rank as a day trip destination for us. The beach was covered in huge cabanas which visitors could rent for the day and abandoned plastic chairs were scattered across the sand. I guess it is another cruise ship day-trip destination. It rained on us three times in an hour so we took it as a sign to head back for lunch in Cruz Bay.
Our final hike for the week incorporated snorkeling in Waterlemon Cay – an inexplicably lauded snorkeling spot reputedly the best on the island. Hurricanes Irma and Maria did a lot of truly terrible damage to these islands including, very obviously, to the coral at Waterlemon Bay which has to be 95% dead. If I’m honest, I’d give it another couple of decades before bothering to snorkel there. The access is rocky rather than sandy which presents its own practical issues when you’re kitted up with fins but the real hazards in the water are the hundreds of black spiny sea urchins which you really don’t want to inadvertently tread upon, put your hand on or brush into on a tidal wave. Whilst nothing much else lived in the bay, the urchins were positively thriving amongst the decimated corals. From the parking lot at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation, the walk along the Leinster Bay Trail to the snorkel access point was short, pretty and tranquil. If you can find the gap in the undergrowth which cuts uphill on a short spur to meet with the Johnny Horn Trail then you’re in for a greater treat than the snorkeling. The view across Waterlemon Cay to the Anna Point headland and across to the British Virgin Islands from Murphy Estate Great House ruins is one to rival the view over Trunk Bay. Wildflowers carpeted the ruins and the view was superb.
As far as restaurants and cafe’s go – don’t be surprised (as mentioned) to find some very confusing opening hours and it’s best to expect unexpected days when they are closed altogether 😉 Many of the places I wanted to try just weren’t open for lunch or were closed on the days we were passing. It is a crapshoot as to what you will find open from one day to the next.
St John Provisions in Cruz Bay is hands down the best coffee shop and bakery on either island. Closed at weekends – just when a local might like to provision his cooler for a day on the beach! Love City Cafe in Coral Bay was absolutely dreadful. It’s a rare thing when I have to throw away an emergency pre-hike coffee and cake but it was totally inedible. Bajo el Sol Cafe and Art store in Mongoose Junction served good coffee, tea and chocolate truffles. Columbo’s, as previously mentioned, was good for an emergency salad, bagel or peanut butter coconut milk smoothie.
Since we were staying in an apartment only a short walk into Cruz Bay we ate dinner at the restaurants in town. Out of desperation we tried Cruz Bay Landing which was better than anticipated given it was super touristy. 1864 is a well-known restaurant in Mongoose Junction. It was good but the absolute best on the island is Morgan’s Mango which is exactly the kind of place you want to hang out in the evening after a hard day of sunbathing and floating in the Caribbean. We ate at the bar twice and once in the main restaurant. The cocktails were exemplary and the food was fabulous. Having discovered it quite early on in the trip we took whatever openings they had for the rest of the week. Bookings were solid for all restaurants for the week so booking ahead is clearly de rigueur in St John. If that meant we absolutely had to be sipping rum-based cocktails and snacking on appetizers at 5.30pm in Morgan’s Mango then so be it … there are far worse ways to spend your evenings on vacation 😉
We loved St John. Sixty percent of the island is preserved by the US National Park Service and with the strong local commitment to keep it as pristine as it is, it is truly beautiful. We would go back in a heartbeat.