Destination St. Thomas: On the Ground
Pursuant to yesterday's St. Thomas: In the Air post, I now want to share our experiences on the ground. As I mentioned yesterday, I embarked on this journey with both 7-year-old Laurel and 9-month-old Violet in tow to really put the family friendliness of the island to a test. I also paid to bring my mother along, both to fulfill my life list goal of taking her on a vacation and also to have an extra set of eyes for the kids. Below I cover transport, activities, accommodations, and food, and also address questions my readers asked, regarding traveling with kids.
This was my first time visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands and I was immediately taken by the juxtaposition of beauty and grit in St. Thomas. Unlike some destinations, which try to cover up anything short of perfect, St. Thomas clearly includes beautiful beaches and historical attractions that make for an active tourism industry, and also real people simply living their lives. When I travel, I'm not drawn towards commercial districts (unless they include indie stores), given that I have no desire to shop chains that I can find at home when I'm away. Instead, in St. Thomas, I was fascinated by the winding roadways, architecture, meandering roosters and baby goats, and roadside vendors offering local produce, baked goods (guavaberry tarts!), and drinks. The only problem about driving my family around was that it made it impossible for me to take photos (most of the roadways lack shoulders) of all of this gritty yet natural beauty. And of course, when we were on the beach, the beauty seemed almost impossible. Here are the major travel components I observed during the trip.
Because I was traveling with my kids, the USVI DOT kindly arranged a rental car for me (other press trip members rode in a touring safari). I brought Laurel's clek olli booster (the compact size is perfect for travel) and reserved a car seat for Violet (utterly necessary...I truly would not have been able to carry one more thing). I became remarkably facile at driving on the left side of the road, helped no doubt by the fact that the steering wheel is still on the left side of the car. The only point of confusion was that cars (or at least the one I was driving) operate via a push button. You still have a car remote to lock/unlock the car but there is no key -- instead, press hard on the brake and push the button to start. Who knew?
When I return to the islands, my inclination would be to again rent a car so we have flexibility in getting around. Otherwise, the taxi network is huge in St. Thomas. I believe there are over 1,300 taxis on St. Thomas alone.
As I mentioned, my preference when traveling is to explore local cultural attractions. Coral World Ocean Park is a must see if you visit St. Thomas -- it's manageable in size yet with plenty to see. My Mom and Laurel went especially crazy over seeing iguanas roaming around and feeding the rainbow lorikeets. And even baby Violet loved the Marine Gardens -- these indoor tanks (built into the walls and illuminated in otherwise dark rooms) offered plenty of contrast for her to see (I'm super impressed with the fish photo I captured, below) -- she was actually laughing out loud and clapping watching the fish dart around. My only regret was that we missed our sea lion encounter.
We also enjoyed an island tour that included a crazy ride to the peak of St. Thomas -- all the roadways are narrow and going up the mountain there were hairpin turns that seemed impossible to navigate but were actually doable. The St. Thomas Skyride would have been wonderful to try, but was unfortunately closed.
However, and perhaps not surprisingly, what made St. Thomas so special for us was the water access. Typically when we hit the beaches in New England, it feels like polar bear diving, even in the summer. The ability to get in the water and be comfortable was amazing. And whether you decide to do something like the Virgin Islands Ecotours (they offer kayak, hike, and snorkeling tours of the St. Thomas Mangrove Lagoon Marine Sanctuary among other options) or take advantage of your hotel's beachfront access, it's pretty amazing. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton and also toured the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and water activities were front and center at both destinations. We spent more time at the Ritz-Carlton beach because it was, well, utterly perfect, and it was fantastic to be able to access kayaks, paddleboats, standing paddleboards, and even snorkels. Laurel and I snorkeled for the first time together, which was a truly spectacular experience.
After our family trip to California and this trip to St. Thomas, I have a new perspective on hotels. On the one hand, if you're out and about you mostly just sleep in your hotel. On the other hand, your hotel will be your home base and if you're traveling with kids there are amenities you will want and need. My default used to be to find the least expensive (yet not totally scummy) accommodation possible. However, when I booked our trip to Berkeley, Jon suggested we step it up a notch and get something we would be really happy and comfortable with. And it totally paid off, particularly in having elements like a café, pool, and family friendly service.
Staying at the Ritz-Carlton elevated that perspective to a different level. While no, I don't want to be completely insulated from the rest of the world at an all inclusive property such as the Ritz, after plenty of touring around in St. Thomas, it felt fantastic to spend the rest of the day soaking up the amenities and excellent service. Some of the highlights that made traveling with kids really fantastic:
So yes, I realize that the Ritz is a luxury property but the experience there was so phenomenal that I would totally go back. I think it's a matter of prioritizing and budgeting in advance, and perhaps taking advantage of cost-saving approaches such as traveling off peak. It also helps that most of the family travel we tend to do is by car so when we do embark on destination travel, I feel OK splurging.
That said, there are definitely other accommodation options on the island. The USVI DOT has a great accommodations guide, and while I was on the island, I did have a chance to tour Bolongo Bay Beach Resort. And while it's certainly not as fancy as the Ritz-Carlton, Bolongo is less expensive and offers immediate beachfront access, a small pool, restaurants, and water activities. I also like that this is a family owned property.
I was really happy with the food in St. Thomas. It was a great mix of local and standard fare to accommodate any appetite -- Laurel and my mother are both vegetarians and they didn't have any trouble finding tasty things to eat. Also excellent? Every single restaurant we went to -- whether at the hotel or downtown -- offered a kids menu or the staff was willing to make up something "not too crazy" (e.g., pasta with vegetables, no sauce) for Laurel. Not stressing about her finding something to eat was fantastic.
I queried on Twitter and Facebook in advance of this trip to find out top travel concerns from my readers. Below is the Q & A:
Q: Does the hotel have connecting rooms so adults don't have to go to bed at 8pm with the kids?
A: Suite options were an option at the Ritz (or our room definitely had connecting doors to the adjacent room) and I believe are also available at Bolongo. Definitely check with different hotels that fit your price range though!
Q: Is there a kids camp of kid-friendly activities?
A: Yes, at the Ritz. Again, you'd need to check your specific hotel.
Q: Are there "separate but equal" things for kids and adults?
A: I found that Coral World and the water activities in particular were fantastically fun for both kids and adults.
Q: Can kids eat in the main restaurant of the destination?
A: Kids were welcome everywhere we went, even at one really fancy restaurant (as evidenced by the fact that they had high chairs and were willing to make Laurel's dinner special).
Q: Is there a bar?
A: Yes, drinks were available at all the restaurants/hotels I saw.
Q: Is there a pool?
A: Yes, at both Ritz and Bolongo.
Q: Is there a place to put stuff up high so kids can't reach?
A: I found the closet to be the best place to keep things out of reach.
Q: Is there coffee in the room?
A: Yes, at Ritz.
Q: Is there babysitting?
A: Yes, at Ritz, though we didn't use.
Q: Are there kitchen facilities in the room?
A: Our room did not have a kitchenette, but even having a fridge (to store leftovers) was fantastic for cutting down on food waste/expense. Otherwise, check the USVI DOT accommodations guide for different options.
Q: Is there food my kids will eat?
A: Yes, as described above.
In short, we had an amazing time in St. Thomas. It was a beautiful place to explore, there was a remarkable friendliness and ease and affection among the locals (everyone called me and each other "sweetie"), and it was so meaningful for me to take my mother along with my girls. I am very eager to return to the islands -- I'd love to explore St. Croix and St. John and am not so secretly contemplating booking a trip for me and Jon to celebrate once I finish nursing Violet. I highly recommend visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands -- not surprisingly, peak season runs from Christmas until April so if you'd like to make the trip more budget friendly, travel outside of that time window. But whether on or off peak, the escape will be magical!
Many thanks again to the USVI Department of Tourism for inviting me on this press trip.