Caribbean Gardens Worth a Visit

CHARLOTTE AMALIE -- Why go visit botanical gardens on a Caribbean vacation?

After all, most of the islands are themselves natural retreats, full of tropical blooms and foliage year-round.

I set out to answer that question on a recent visit to Estate St. Peter Greathouse & Botanical Gardens, 1,000 feet above Hull Bay and Magens Bay beach on St. Thomas' north coast.

The 11-acre garden spot was completely leveled by hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Marilyn in 1995. However, owners Howard de Wolfe and his wife, Sylvie, who bought the estate in 1987, replanted, rebuilt and reopened after both storms.

More than 200 species of labeled tropical plants and trees now flank the self-guided nature trails, waterfalls, fish ponds and aviaries of the meticulously landscaped site.

Calli Waselenchuk, director of sales and marketing, said that many of the botanicals are transplants from other regions, such as the umbrella plant from Madagascar, the tropical day lily from Asia, the cane orchid from China, the bird of paradise from South Africa and 20 different kinds of bananas from all over the world.

In addition to attracting hordes of cruise ship passengers, the estate is popular as a locale for corporate events and private parties.

Waselenchuk said that groups from 40 to 500 people can be accommodated in the separate dining pavilion that includes a gourmet catering kitchen, audiovisual equipment and an entertainment area.

The re-created great house is full of contemporary Caribbean furnishings and local artwork. The public rooms were roped off but I peeked in, not quite sure if I was intruding into someone's private living room or a villa rental.

No one actually lives in the great house, I found out.

I sipped a watery rum punch, included in the $8 per person admission price, as I toured the grounds. The latticed outdoor observation deck got my vote as the best part of the tour. More than 20 of the neighboring British Virgin Islands looked like emerald drops as far as my eye could see.

In the 1800s the estate was part of the 150-acre parcel of land called Plantation St. Peter. Frequented by several Indian tribes, the original owners were of French descent and claimed that the property had been used by pirates to bury treasures.

Stories of holes being dug in the night by bounty hunters have long been part of the estate's legend.

In 1938, the great house was sold to Lawrence Cramer, then governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.It was purchased in the 1960s by the trust of Johnson & Johnson Corp. for use as a corporate retreat.

The current owners also own and operate another of St. Thomas' top attractions, Mountain Top, an observation site, restaurant and boutique shopping area 547 feet above Estate St. Peter.

One of Mountain Top's claims to fame, along with its spectacular view, is that the banana daiquiri was invented in its bar.

The drink is $5.50 (some island sightseeing tours include the cost in the tour price).

It is available with or without alcohol and is de rigeur for every visitor.

Estate St. Peter Greathouse and Botanical Gardens

Phone: (340) 774-4999

Mountain Top

Phone: (340) 777-4707

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