St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a popular destination for vacationers, cruise ships, and sailors. Normally packed with tourists, my visit to St. Thomas this past spring was, as one boat captain said, “reminiscent of the 1970’s, before anyone knew about the Virgin Islands.” After Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in the fall of 2017, the hardest hit lost homes, businesses, boats, and even people they loved. Despite these 2 category 5 storms hitting within weeks of each other, the people of St. Thomas continue to push forward and remain strong, as the island they call home slowly continues to heal.
In an effort to admire St. Thomas while helping the economy of the Virgin Islands, my family and I spent a week here in March. With the problems that arose from the hurricane’s lasting impact, there was a sliver of sweetness for us tourists. With fewer cruise ships docking, less vacationers, and no hotels open, there was more space on the beach, no waiting at restaurants, and less crowded roads. It was a bittersweet experience for my family, seeing the devastation, the buildings without roofs, and the people recovering, while trying to enjoy everything that this island has to offer. The following activities were my favorite things to do, while on St. Thomas Island:
(Please note, services and amenities may have changed since this writing. This describes my experience as of March 2018.)
1. Hit the Beach!
Obviously, when visiting islands, seeing the beach is a must. On St. Thomas, every beach we visited had beautiful turquoise waters. The beaches were well cared for and the water was usually clear. Here’s some information on the beaches we visited: Magen’s Bay Beach, Coki Point Beach, Honeymoon Beach (on St. John), and Cowpet Bay beach.
Magen’s Bay Beach
Despite being so well-known, Magen’s Bay Beach was not my favorite. The snorkeling wasn’t good and the water wasn’t as blue and clear as some other beaches. On the positive side, Magen’s Bay Beach does have restrooms, water sport rentals, and food/drink available at the northern end of the beach. This beach and its waters are suitable for small children. You’ll find this is also a popular place for those on cruise ships to spend their day. Expect to pay a small fee to enter the beach park and don’t leave anything of value in your car.
Cowpet Bay Beach
Cowpet Bay Beach is a quiet, small beach near the condo that we rented. Chairs were available for free on the beach; the beach was also raked and cleaned 1-2 times during our week there. The water is clean and clear and the bay water is suitable for small children. Snorkeling here was better than Magen’s Bay Beach, as we saw a sting ray, starfish, and various schools of fish.
As Coki Point Beach is smaller and not as popular, we weren’t sure where to park or if we were even in the right place. We found Coki Point Beach to be more of a local’s hangout, with damaged structures near the beach. Shops and cafes around the beach are not rebuilt or repaired yet, but locals are on the beach, selling food and beach services to stimulate their economy. The water of Coki Beach is incredibly beautiful and the snorkeling was much better here than Magen’s Bay. Keep in mind there is a harder wave break on the beach here than at Magen’s Bay and facilities are minimal. What remains of Coral World (after the hurricanes) is still at Coki Beach, and according to their website, is still open and operational (on certain days) despite the rebuilding efforts.
By far the most beautiful beach we saw was Honeymoon Beach on St. John Island (another of the US Virgin Islands, see below). The sand was smooth and white and the water was an incredible turquoise blue. Facilities are minimal here, but you can rent kayaks/chairs, get food and drink, find restrooms. However, you have to walk to reach this beach. We hiked a mile via the Lind Point Trail from the visitors center at Virgin Islands National Park. The mile hike wasn’t too bad, but there is a bit of elevation change to consider. The water at Honeymoon Beach was amazing, but the breaking waves were a bit rough on the day we visited. (too rough for young children)
If we had more time on the St. Thomas, I would have definitely visited Sapphire Beach. It’s deep blue and turquoise color was definitely enticing. Other well-known beaches include: Lindquist Beach; Lindbergh Bay Beach (next to the airport’s runway!); Secret Harbour Beach; and Morningstar Bay (Frenchman’s Reef) Beach.
2. Visit a Neighboring Island
St. Thomas is surrounded by small islands, but the nearest and largest inhabited island is St. John. More than half of St. John is a National Park because it was gifted from Laurance Rockefeller on the condition the land would be protected from developments. Simply take the Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie ferry from St. Thomas to St. John and spend the day at the quiet island. Be sure to stop by the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center that’s next to the docks. Here you can get information on getting around St. John, what to see, and all hiking trails.
You can also take in the sights at St. Croix, the third US Virgin Island. Note that this cruise is two hours and twenty minutes, where the ferry from St. Thomas (from Red Hook) to St. John is only 20 minutes. Visit national monuments, beaches, historical sites or find time to hike, kayak, and engage in Crucian culture. There is plenty to see and do.
If you have your passport, hop on a boat to the British Virgin Islands. Within this chain of islands (15 of which are inhabited), you can visit The Baths (on Virgin Gorda), Smuggler’s Cove (Tortola), or snorkel the caves of Norman Island. My family and I spent a day on a boat tour that took us to The Baths and the caves of Norman Island and had a fabulous time. If you’re into geology or natural wonders, take a look at my photos below of The Baths, a beach area with large boulders of granite piled in and out of the water.
Wherever you decide to go, just know that there are plenty of options for exploring different islands when you’re visiting St. Thomas.
3. Head Underwater
Unfortunately, it was not only the earth’s surface that got damaged after the hurricanes, but the underwater ecosystem as well. Locals explained to us that because the hurricanes wiped out a lot of the sea grass, the sea turtles that normally inhabit the waters around St. Thomas swam away. The coral reefs of the Virgin Islands were affected by the two hurricanes, some more than others. Our dive boat operators explained that the Staghead and Elkhorn coral were significantly damaged around St. Thomas; fortunately, these are fast growing corals and with the help of local coral transplanting efforts, outfitters expect the reefs to recover quickly.
When in St. Thomas, be sure to spend some time looking at the underwater beauty of the area. Take a snorkel or dive trip and find parrotfish, surgeonfish, starfish, lobsters, eels, stingrays, corals, and more. There is so much more to see under the water!
When in St. Thomas, the most popular place to shop is Havensight Mall and downtown Main Street in Charlotte Amalie (the territory’s capital). Havensight Mall is steps away from the cruise ship docks, so expect the shops to busy (but open) while the ships are docked. When we shopped at Havensight, there were no ships and only a few of the shops were open. On Main Street in downtown Charlotte Amalie, most of the shops were open, despite the lack of cruise ships. Not only were there plenty of souvenir stores but lots of fine jewelry stores as well. This is likely due to the Virgin Islands’ duty-free allowance of $1600, for US residents returning to the mainland. There is also shopping at Crown Bay Center, which is located near another cruise ship dock, about a 15 minute cab ride from downtown Charlotte Amalie. Since there are so many tourists that visit downtown, you will find shops at every corner. You can even find local merchants selling homemade gifts and other items at Vendor’s Plaza (at the intersection of Veteran’s Highway and Forte Strade).
5. Live Like a Local
Life on St. Thomas, as well as the other US Virgin Islands, is half American and half Caribbean. Most people living here have ancestors from the islands, so the majority of people are African, Hispanic, or European. Most of the locals we encountered were incredibly nice and grateful to see tourists coming back into their towns. Although the main language in St. Thomas is English, some people were a little hard to understand due to rapid speech or an accent. It is common to hear Spanish, old French, or Creole here.
Locals of St. Thomas spend a good portion of their days outside, and why not? The weather is beautiful! If you plan on renting a car, please note that in the US Virgin Islands, cars drive on the left side of the road. All cars are the traditional US cars with the steering wheel on the left as well, so it gets a little tricky driving on the left side of the car while on the left side of the road.
The people of the islands are not only friendly, but they are also resilient. Merchants and residents proudly fly “VI STRONG” flags (to learn more about the VI Strong charity, click here) and most will speak openly about their experiences during the 2 hurricanes. Getting the tourism industry up and running again is vital to many whose livelihood depends on it. The islands trudge on, facing challenges and hardships while they rebuild, slowly yet steadily.
Unfortunately, all of the recovery efforts in St. Thomas are slow. Being on an island does have its limitations, and with so many other islands affected by the hurricanes, rebuilding will take some time. There does not seem to be enough people nor resources to get the job done quickly. Fortunately, where we lodged at Cowpet Bay (at an Airbnb), residents had just been given the all clear that their tap drinking water was safe and power had been mostly restored (although we were warned about the possibility of outages). There are heaps of trash, vegetation, and metals that are growing, while officials figure out the best way to be rid of them. Also, most of the larger resort hotels will not be completely reopen until 2019, thus keeping the touring industry from growing as quickly as its residents want it to.
Despite the hurricanes, most of St. Thomas remains magnificent. My list of best activities doesn’t begin to show all of the amazing things this island has to offer! There is much more here to see and do like the Skyride that leads to Paradise Point (an aerial lift within a gondola, usually open when cruise ships are docked), the 99 steps which lead to Blackbeard’s Castle, as well as incredible sunsets, tropical gardens, and cathedrals to see. Obviously most of the beauty of St. Thomas can be found on its shores and underwater, but there is plenty of beauty to be found on the streets, in its history, and in the faces of those that live here.
Here are just a few websites where you can donate to the US Virgin Islands recovery efforts:
St. Thomas is ready and waiting for tourists. Don’t miss this opportunity to see this amazing island with fewer visitors.
sources: vinow.com, wikipedia.org