Scents and sensibility: A day on St. Thomas and St. Croix

On a jaunt to two of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers revisited old haunts, uncovered new ones and found a secret garden. Her report follows:

t was late afternoon when Sweeny Toussaint guided a group of us through St. George Village Botanical Gardens on St. Croix. I heard owls hoot deep in the trees bordering the trails. I saw crumbling plantation walls and stone remains of windmills.

I smelled medicinal herbs and read provocative plant names, such as catch-and-keep, the thorny vine that sticks to everything; touch-me-nots, with their prickly undersides; the sensitive plant, so named because its leaves close at the slightest whisper; and the monkey no climb tree, whose threatening spikes march up its trunk.

The jump-up-and-kiss-me has beguiling scarlet blossoms, the nothing-nut is just that -- good for nothing, and cock-a-locka, clashie melashie and jumbi cutlass are flower names that sound like nursery rhymes.

Earlier, I'd bought straw Christmas ornaments (although it was May) at Tesoro in Christiansted and lunched at a French bistro called Cafe Christine in the historical Apothecary Hall complex.

My day had started on another island. From the pink balcony of my room at Marriott Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Beach Resort on St. Thomas, I watched three megaliners pull into port at 7 a.m.

Two hours later, I navigated the crowded streets of Charlotte Amalie as waves of cruise passengers, hell-bent on racking up duty-free bargains, surged through the historical alleys. Perfume, jewels and rum were on their minds.

A harbor scene of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, with an indigenous flamboyant tree in the foreground. My goal was not the shops but the renovated and renamed Holiday Inn (formerly Windward Passage) at the edge of downtown, across the street from the ferry terminals and marinas where charter yachts were anchored.

H. Wein Dimetros, general manager, was upbeat, saying that despite a lackluster first quarter throughout the territory, her hotel did pretty well.

"We have a lot of business clients plus guests who use us as a staging area before and after a yacht vacation," she said.

Holiday Inn has spent some money upgrading its 140 rooms and 11 junior suites with data ports and minibars as well as adding a business center, an exercise room, a minispa and a dive operator. New room air-conditioning units come this summer.

Winter 2003 rates are already set, running from $185 per night for a standard double to $305 for an oceanview suite.

The next stop on St. Thomas was Wyndham Sugar Bay Beach Club & Resort. General manager Rik Blyth gave me a hard-hat tour of Journeys Spa, the capstone to the 300-room resort's $7 million, three-year renovation.

Its opening date has proven more difficult to nail down than the new shingles on the roof, but Blyth is confident that guests arriving after June 15 will experience marine algae body wraps, stone massages and coconut bath treatments.

After a quick look at Emancipation Park in downtown Charlotte Amalie, I headed for the Marine Terminal on the waterfront for my 30-minute seaplane flight to St. Croix.

Covering the 40 miles between St. Thomas and St. Croix is getting a lot easier as travel options expand. Visitors now have a choice of speedy ferries (a 90-minute, one-way trip), airlines such as Cape Air and American Eagle (a 20-minute flight) and Seaborne Airlines' "port to port with no airport" flight.

The day was clear, the view from my window superb and the seaplane landing at Christiansted's waterfront smooth.

In the next few hours, I checked out the Caribbean handicrafts in Tesoro, popped into the St. Croix Aquarium, dined on salad Nicoise at Cafe Christine and admired the new, pink-and-blue face-lift at the 1780 Danish town house, now the 12-room Pink Fancy Hotel in Christiansted.

Later, I taxied west on a section of St. Croix's 72-mile Heritage Trail, passing plantations and windmills in varying degrees of preservation.

My brief visit ended with a tour at the 17-acre Botanical Gardens, which opens a new visitors center next year.

Before falling into bed at Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino on St. Croix's east end, I lost $5 in the slot machines at its casino, but I found a perfect shell on its beach.

No time on this trip to visit St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgins, but it is next on my list.

See related story: U.S.V.I. adds agent perks.

Meals, deals and sights: U.S.V.I. By the Numbers

Tourism Contacts

U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism Bureau
Phone:
(800) 372-USVI
Web:www.usvitourism.vi

St. Croix Hotel & Tourism Association
Phone:
(800) 524-2026

St. Thomas/St. John Hotel & Tourism Association
Phone:
(340) 77HOTEL

Inter-island Transport

American Eagle
Phone:
(800) 433-7300
Web:www.aa.com

Cape Air
Phone:
(800) 352-0714
Web:www.flycapeair.com

Mermaid Fast Ferries
Phone:
(340) 719-2880
E-mail:[email protected]

Seaborne Airlines
Phone:
(866) 359-8784
Web:www.seaborneairlines.com

Virgin Islands Fast Ferry
Operates: November through May
Phone: (340) 719-0099
Web:www.virginislandsfastferry.com

Room Key: Marriott Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Beach Resort
Address: Estate Bakkeroe, P. O. Box 7100, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas 00801
Phone: (800) 223-6388 or (340) 776-8500
Fax: (340) 715-6193
Web:www.offshoreresorts.com
E-mail:[email protected]
Sample rates: Five-night or longer Sand Dollars Escape plan June 1 to Oct. 31 starts at $155 per room, per night, double with a per-room resort credit of $200 for restaurants and beverage outlets. Up to two kids under 12 are free in room with parents. Nightly rack rates start at $155, single or double, in main hotel and $175 at Morning Star.
Location: 15 minutes from the airport, on a bluff overlooking the harbor of Charlotte Amalie.
Number of rooms: 408 rooms at Frenchman's Reef, including 28 suites; 96 villa-style units at Morning Star.
Raves: Location is everything. Frenchman's waterview rooms offer scenes of cruise ships gliding in and out of port; Morning Star's rooms open right onto the beach. Shoppers' ferry shuttles guests from resort to town throughout the day. Clever room amenities include a pullout writing shelf on bedside table.
Rants: Small bathrooms in standard category hotel rooms. Luggage rack was AWOL.

Room Key: Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino
Address: 25 Estate Turner Hole, Christiansted, St. Croix 00820
Phone: (800) 823-9352 or (340) 773-9700
Fax: (340) 773-6802
Web:www.divicarina.com
E-mail: [email protected]
Sample rates: Through Dec. 14, rack rates range from $175 to $275 per room, per night, double. Wedding, honeymoon and sports packages are available.
Location: On Grapetree Beach on the southeast coast, 20+ minutes from the airport and Christiansted.
Number of rooms: 126 oceanfront rooms and two one-bedroom suites; 20 oceanview villas.
Raves: No room is more than a few steps from the beach, which is wide, soft and uncrowded. Resort decor is airy, light and predominantly blue and white.
Rants: Cab rides to town add up at $20 per trip one way. Unless the casino is of interest, the nightlife is pretty tame.

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