St. Thomas resorts escape from stormy past

felt as if I were home again when I checked into the Wyndham Sugar Bay Beach Resort recently. This was the hotel that sheltered me when I arrived on St. Thomas two days after Hurricane Marilyn battered the island in September of 1995.

Things were a mess then (to put it mildly) but Rik Blyth, the manager then and now, pulled sandbags away from a guest room door and gave me shelter for the night.

And it was just for the night. I was ousted the next morning when two FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) agents showed up with suitcases in hand.

They had priority. I didn't.

Much has happened at the Wyndham since. For starters, it's now a full-service, inclusive property -- the only one on St. Thomas.

While its basic design has remained the same, the 300 rooms in three-story, hilltop buildings have been completely updated from bedspreads to bathrooms.

The three-pool water park with cascading waterfalls now features a water slide and a pool concierge center, complete with free e-mail access.

The Mangrove Cafe and Turtle Rock Bar have been redone, the beach replenished and widened.

Wyndham Sugar Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas will open a 6,000-square foot, full-service spa in December as the finishing touch on a multimillion-dollar renovation to its 300 rooms, two restaurants, pool and beach. Wyndham's lobby, gutted by hurricane winds in 1995, has been redesigned with a wide staircase leading to the mezzanine level, a formal restaurant, gift shops, conference rooms and function areas.

Noise and music from live entertainment each evening do not carry up the hill to the guest rooms, although I can't speak for the upcoming U.S. Virgin Islands Jazz Festival, June 22 to 24, during which Wyndham will host a series of lively jam sessions.

Environmentally, Wyndham scores high marks by generating its own electricity and purifying its water. Wastewater is stored in two ponds and used to irrigate the grounds.

A side benefit is that the ponds have become havens for fish, egrets, herons, turtles and a thriving colony of iguanas that live in and around the mangroves along the ponds' banks.

Wyndham's new 6,000-square-foot spa will debut in December "as the finishing touch to the $7.5 million renovation that has taken place here over the last 18 months," Blyth said.

The two-story spa, which will be located near the five-court tennis center at the resort's entrance, will include a separate Wyndham Kids Klub center, six therapy rooms, an aerobic salon, showers, lockers, dressing rooms, fitness and weight equipment.

Wyndham is taking the spa philosophy right into its kitchens, with a new spa cuisine that will debut when the spa opens.

Menu items will be offered at the resort's two restaurants. Guests will even be able to weigh their own portions of surf and turf using food scales on the tables.

A computer printout will analyze the caloric and cholesterol levels of all food items.

Groups are a big market at the Wyndham, Blyth said. Running neck and neck with that niche are families, couples and business types.

"This is a big enough property with plenty of activities so that all interests can be accommodated without infringing on anyone's space," he said.

I agree. I attended a symposium there, so I spent time in the meeting rooms, but chucked power suit for bathing suit whenever I could.

The resort was fully booked, but I easily found a chaise lounge, a spot on the beach and a stool at the bar.

I also checked out a second St. Thomas property that I hadn't seen in a while.

Sapphire Beach Resort & Marina, not far from the Wyndham and a short drive to Red Hook on the East End, was another property that offered me safe haven for a night on the same post-hurricane trip in 1995.

Randall Doty, director of sales and marketing, said he is very pleased with the resort's look these days, following a $2.8 million renovation to all 171 suites and villas.

The most visible change is the new, red metal roofs that top the two-story units clustered in six buildings offering beachfront or yacht harbor views.

What I like most about the Sapphire is its proximity to the water. Guests in the first-floor, beachfront units literally walk out onto the sand; those above have only a staircase to maneuver.

Each unit has a balcony or patio, a kitchen with a full-sized refrigerator, a four-burner stove, microwave and coffee maker.

With king-size beds and sleeper sofas, the suites can handle four guests and the two-story villas can sleep six.

"This is an ideal setup for families," Doty said.

He's right, and it probably explains why Sapphire is a favorite choice for that market.

Children under the age of 17 stay free of charge, kids under 12 get free meals with one paying adult and the supervised FunFactory is geared to the 4- to 12-year-old set.

Even with the audible presence of a lot of kids, Sapphire attracts a large wedding market.

Wedding ceremonies take place at Prettyklip Point, set 200 feet out into Smith Bay.

An on-site wedding consultant handles all the details, and agents get 10% commission on any wedding package booked.

The resort has a PADI dive center, two restaurants, pool and beach bars, a freshwater pool, water sports and lots of hammocks.

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