The sapphire waves of the Caribbean splash against St. Thomas harbour, with sloping mountains stretching above the shore. Spanning only 51 sq km, St. Thomas boasts one of the busiest and beautiful ports in the region. Nicknamed Rock City for its limestone hills, St. Thomas also seems to always rock with activity.
I arrived on a balmy afternoon and was quickly pulled in by the upbeat energy. Supplying more than the typical sand and sea Caribbean experience, the island offers a wide range of excursions like sailing, sampling local flavours, touring historic landmarks, and of course, lounging on pristine beaches.
Above: Yachts of all sizes and from all corners of the world drop anchor in St. Thomas.
My first stop was a visit to the USVI Charter Yacht show that sails into St. Thomas every year. Luxury yachts and smaller boats lined the Yacht Haven Grande marina, like jewels in a watery crown.
I climbed into several of the three-level vessels for tours given by gracious crews who served chef-crafted snacks and wine. The point of the show is to supply charter brokers (who are like travel agents for the sailing industry) with the chance to explore the ships that they will be selling to clients.
Even if you’re not interested in chartering a boat, it’s a fascinating experience to learn about the sailing industry and how St. Thomas plays a major role in it.
The Yacht Haven Grande marina has been named the best and most beautiful in the industry several times and just looking at the assortment of boats imbues a sense of adventure.
But the marina isn’t just for boats. A complex of shops, cafés, and restaurants surround the area for a lovely waterside mall.
Blue 11, an award-winning gourmet restaurant by local Chef David Benjamin is the most notable establishment and I quickly discovered why. Entering the intimate space, aquamarine ceiling tiles, coral-coloured chairs and photos of docks and beaches called up the feeling of being near the ocean. The long, polished bar was set up for laid-back enjoyment but there’s nothing quick or casual about the dining experience.
Above: Water Island and its Honeymoon Beach are great places to escape.
Blue 11 offers tasting menus of seven, nine or eleven courses. Benji supplies innovative interpretations of traditional Caribbean dishes and presents them so stylishly that they are not easily recognizable. The Blue 11 dining experience is about surprises, engaging the senses, and high-quality food. The first dish for my 11-course tasting menu was reconstructed kallaloo with seared scallops, steamed mussels, seared grouper and breadfruit. An emerald green sauce surrounded the fish and was placed on a pearly oval plate. I love the leafy texture and bitter, nutty flavour of kallaloo but I didn’t recognize it on my plate. One bite and the savoury flavour of the vegetable mixed with the fish and breadfruit exploded in my mouth.
Each of the servings was small but by the time the sixth arrived, I was almost bursting. An hour later, as I took a bite of the eleventh dish of a homemade donut with chocolate and caramel sauce with banana caramel ice cream, I felt like I had gone on a tasty culinary tour of St. Thomas.
Above: The food and culinary scene at places like Blue, right, are what makes St. Thomas so different.
The next morning, I head to the American Yacht Harbour on the east end of the island to hop aboard a catamaran to Water Island with Seas The Day Charters. Captains Ryan and Stephanie greeted me and my group with playful and friendly attitudes for the half-day cruise. Stephanie served rum punches as the cat skimmed over the smooth waves that seemed to showcase views of the mountains and colonial buildings of the bustling capital of Charlotte Amalie.
We stopped halfway to Water Island to snorkel among sea turtles, sting rays and boldly-coloured fish.
After climbing back onto the boat and lounging in the sun on the top deck, my swimsuit was almost dry when the pale sand and thick foliage of Water Island’s Honeymoon Beach appeared. We waded out onto the shore of the 500-acre island, which despite a beach bar and a handful of sunbathers, felt like it was secluded and a little deserted.
Indeed, with only about 200 permanent residents, Water Island is the smallest and least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are no hotels, taxis, stoplights, shops or gas stations and residents ride a water taxi to St. Thomas for shopping and mail. The main mode of transportation is by golf cart but there’s no need for one to visit the beach.
Above: St. Thomas' rich history is remembered at landmarks like Fort Christian.
I strolled through rows of palm trees and collected shells near the shore. The water was warm and clear and there were so few people that it was almost like enjoying a private beach. An unexpected rain shower sent me running for shelter and John, a kind local, offered to let me sit in his golf cart until it subsided. It was the only cart I saw near the beach and John explained that the community was “mad” at him for oil that had leaked from his boat into the water so he was staying near his vessel.
We sailed back to St. Thomas and explored the more earthly side of the island with a tour of historic landmarks. Valdemar A. Hill Drive Scenic Overlook is perched on a hillside and provides sublime views of the glistening ocean and glimpses of St. Croix, St. John and Puerto Rico, through high-powered telescopes. Gazing at the scene really feels like you’re looking at a postcard from paradise.
For a panoramic view of the island, we journeyed up to Mountain Top, the highest point on St. Thomas. The observation deck shows jaw-dropping scenes of Magens Bay and the British Virgin Islands. There’s also a large duty free shop and a bar that serves famously delicious banana daiquiris.
Further down on the island, Fort Christian unfolds above Charolotte Amalie Harbour with imposing layers of red brick. Built in 1672 by Danish colonialists to defend the island against invaders, it’s the oldest structure on St. Thomas and today houses a museum. Nearby, the Three Queens statue provides another side of USVI history. Perched on the side of a hill and overlooking the harbour, the striking bronze statue depicts the three rebel queens, Queen Mary, Queen Agnes and Queen Matilda, who led an insurrection on St. Croix against the Danish government for better working and living conditions in 1878.
Above: St. Thomas is a place that just keeps on giving.
For another taste of St.Thomas cuisine, Island Flavor restaurant serves up healthy portions of local favourites and casual hospitality. Located across from the cruise port, I expected it to be crammed with tourists but when I saw the line of locals queued up in front of the fresh buffet bar, I knew it was a good sign. I stood in line and perused honey glazed salmon, stewed oxtails, tropical glazed chicken wings, jerk chicken and a dizzying array of sides including garlic mash potatoes and fried plantains.
I ordered the tropical chicken with veggies and plantains and watched as servings big enough for two people were piled into a styrofoam box.
I grabbed fresh passionfruit juice and walked past the restaurant’s many wooden tables and chairs to the outdoor patio.
With a reggae soundtrack pumping from the eatery, ocean waves splashing in front of me and a family of iguanas crawling on the ground nearby, I nibbled the flavourful meal and felt like I was truly living the island life.