Ships & shops, sun & sea: St. Thomas still splendid after all these years

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers revisited St. Thomas and discovered lots of new stuff. Here is her report:

t. Thomas was the first Caribbean island I visited on assignment in a real job. That was in ... well, let's just say typewriters, telexes and operator-assisted telephone calls were the technology then.

So, I've seen a lot of changes on this island.

Ships, shops, sun and sea were the big draw then and still are. However, St. Thomas these days offers far more than that.

Agents have many reasons and incentives to send clients to America's Paradise (St. Croix and St. John as well as St. Thomas): big resorts and boutique inns, heritage and history, museums and markets, cafes and calypso, catamarans and coral, forts and fishing, galleries and gourmet restaurants, to name but a few.

Here are my recommendations, and they work well both for repeat visitors who already know the beaches and bargains as well as first-timers:

  • Coral World Marine Park. When I last saw this attraction, it was still rebuilding after hurricane damage.
  • New this year is the Sea Trekkin' experience, a 30-minute, underwater walkabout where participants wear a bathing suit, booties, gloves and a space-age helmet that provides a continuous stream of air to breathe.

    A chain railing runs the entire length of the trail, and a marine guide and a scuba safety diver take seven people at a time around the coral beds on the trail.

    Coral World's Ruth Butler said that 60% of the park's 500-plus daily visitors are cruise ship passengers and the rest are land-based visitors and locals.

    Agents who prebook clients receive a commission on the booking. Their clients get a 15% discount on the park's admission fee.

    Seeing all of Coral World takes several hours, and it's a great outing for families.

    Kids love 5-foot-long Harry the Barracuda. Harry, who is 10 years old, is a she despite her name.

    Corky, the rescued hawksbill turtle that cannot dive, lives happily in the turtle pond where he is hand-fed twice a day.

    The Predator Tank, the shark exhibit, 6-foot-long green moray eels, the Caribbean Reef Encounter, Marine Gardens, West Indian whistling ducks and the fish feedings kept me engrossed for three hours.

  • Blackbeard's Castle. Legend has it that Edward Teach of England, d/b/a Blackbeard the Pirate, holed up in this watchtower sometime around 1679 to scan for other pirates.
  • While he watched, he sipped rum spiked with gunpowder. He went into battle drunk, crazed and armed to the teeth.

    I climbed to the watchtower, which is at the top of the 99 Steps (there are actually 103) high above Charlotte Amalie.

    I had lunch in the Inn at Blackbeard's Castle, admired the same view as Blackbeard did and sipped some rum. There the similarity ends.

    This small restaurant along with others like it on St. Thomas offers terrific dining options for visitors who want the flavor of local food in local settings.

    I also can recommend Lulu's on the north side of the island, which bills itself as an unpretentious neighborhood cafe; Marisol on Government Hill, serving Med/Carib cuisine, and Cuzzin's in downtown, which specializes in island food and drink.

    Before leaving the restaurant, I checked out the inn itself, a classic West Indian property of 15 rooms with four-poster and sleigh beds, crown moldings, air conditioning and charm.

    Rates start at $155 per junior suite, per night, double, including breakfast.

  • Green Iguana Hotel. A few steps down the hill from Blackbeard's, it opened a couple of years ago and is another of the boutique hotels that offer charm wrapped around a realistic room rate.
  • The eight-room Green Iguana pays 10% commission, charges from $79 to $109 per room, double, during the low season and offers room-service breakfast for an extra $5 per person.

    Guests can use the two pools at Blackbeard's.

    Others in this same league include the 12-room Admiral's Inn in town, the 23-room Mafolie Hotel high in the hills and the 15-room Island View Guest House.

  • Estate St. Peter Great-house & Botanical Gardens, in bloom high above the waters surrounding St. Thomas.
  • I had seen this three-acre estate before, but it has now added many species of flora and fauna.

    The view from the observation deck 1,000 feet above sea level gives new meaning to panorama.

    A free rum or virgin punch comes with the admission and self-guided tour.

    I did not have time to visit the new American-Caribbean Historical Museum in downtown, take a sunset ride on the Paradise Point Tramway, browse the reopened Blue Turtle Gallery on Government Hill or join the buffet line at Chickie's Place in Frenchtown.

    I have to return.

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