VI flagOur Trip to St. Thomas
May, 2009

By Jack Welsch

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Introduction

Linda has already taken 2 of the 4 grand kids to Disney World and this year was Noah's turn. Noah, however, has been there several times with his Mom & Dad so a different itinerary was in order. In the end, we chose St. Thomas and 5 of us went, Noah, Stephen, Krista, Lin and I. From conception to departure was only 2 weeks so not a ton of planning went in to this one. It was not a long trip but it made for a nice mid-winter break and we had a great time together. After doing a bit of research we decided on an all-inclusive deal at Bolongo Bay that included air fare from Philadelphia at a great price. I'll make some comments and recommendations about the resort in the recommendations that will appear after my diary.

Friday, March 6

Because our flight was early Saturday morning, we'd made park/fly reservations at the Sheraton Four Points at the Philadelphia airport. Immediately after work we packed the car and headed for PHL. After grabbing a quick dinner in Allentown we got to Sheraton Four Points at about 8:00 and found that the kids had checked in a couple hours earlier. We got to bed before 9 but didn't sleep well.

Saturday, March 7

View from our roomWe were up at 3:45 (yuck!) and on the shuttle bus at 4:35. Unfortunately US Airways check-in didn't start until 5. We were told when we booked that we did not have seat assignments but seats popped up when we checked in. Unfortunately, they sucked and there was no changing them other than amongst ourselves. In the end, Lin was alone in the second to last row, I was alone (but at least on an aisle) in 14, Krista was with Noah and Steve was alone in a center seat across the aisle from them. Though we took off a tad late, we arrived in Charlotte Amalie a bit early. The wind at the airport was gusting to 30 so the pilot was busy but he greased it in.

The Explorer we had reserved from Budget was not avail but after a LOT of grief we got a Jeep Wrangler and were off. Driving to the hotel via Charlotte Amalie was a real treat, especially since they drive on the left but use cars with the wheel also on the left.

We got checked in to the hotel by about 2:00 and had lunch at Iggy's. After lunch, Lin took a little nap while I sat on the beach. Later, we boarded the resort’s Sunset Sail53-foot “Heavenly Days” for the 2-hour “Catamaran Sunset Tour”. I naturally spent most of it talking to the captain, Peter. The wind was gusting to 25-30 and the seas were a bit rough so it was a great trip. The wind was fluky so, like the pilot, Peter was working damned hard! Having sailed since I was a kid, I usually ask for a trick at the wheel but with the wind conditions, I didn't want to even ask. Unfortunately, there was little color in the sunset but we still had a great time.

Pool deck at nightWe'd made 7:30 reservations at the Lobster Grill. Some of the reviews said the food at Bolongo Bay was terrible but I strongly disagree, at least as to the food at the Lobster Grille. OK, it's not Michelin quality but still very good; certainly much better than cruise food. I had tuna appetizer, Caribbean Caesar salad, Duck in mango sauce and "Bushwacker" crême brulée. All were great but the crême brulée was the best I've ever had. Service was friendly if very slow but hey, this is the islands! The only issue was that Noah was really fading fast; it had been a hard day for all of us but especially for him. We gt to bed around 10, I guess.

Sunday, March 8

3-WheelerI was up at 7 and read on the balcony 'til about 8:30 when Lin got up and we were off for breakfast. Steve and gang were already seated in the Lobster Grill so we joined them. Noah's mission after breakfast was a 3-wheeler ride so he and Steve did that while Krista and I took pictures. He then wanted to learn to snorkel so I grabbed my gear and went with Noah to the dive shack to get his. Though he’d never snorkeled before, he picked it up very quickly and off we went. Krista got gear and Steve used mine so while the three of them were snorkeling, I got a sea kayak and acted as a safety boat. Krista and Noah soon tired of it so Noah climbed on with me and we both went with Steve while he headed to the reef where he saw a big turtle.

Alley in Charlotte AmalieEventually we returned the gear, ate at Iggy's and headed for town. Warned about the lack of parking in town, I parked at the lot at Yacht Haven Grande and we started to walk to town. Unfortunately it was a long walk so when a cab/truck came along, we were delighted. I beat the woman down from $4 to $3 per person, then paid the original price anyway just because she was so nice. The bad news was that almost every store was closed or closing even though there were 2 ships in town.

From Paradise PeakAfter walking around a bit, we caught a cab to the sky ride to Paradise Peak. At the top, we had a drink and watched an absolutely incredible bird show before heading back to the car. It must be said that Yacht Haven Grande is a place you have to see. The "Mega Yachts" there are absolutely beyond comprehension.

Lin and I read by the pool for a while but eventually she went up to sleep while I read on. Dinner was again at the Lobster Grill. I had the same appetizer and salad but then Paradise Chicken. The appetizer was especially notable.

Monday, March 9

Coral WorldI got up at 7:30 but we didn’t get to breakfast until about 9:00. The kids had already eaten. I needed sunscreen and deodorant and that turned out to be fortunate since, though it was expensive it saved us a lot of money. The store clerk, Varnita, is also the "Vacation Manager". She asked where we were going and I said the Coral World aquarium. She gave us coupons that saved us $14 on admission and $33.00 on drinks!! I’d spent less then $21 in the store! Coral World Coral World was actually quite nice as well as educational and Noah had a good time. Leaving there, my GPS guided us to Magan's Bay, an absolutely stunning beach. Fortunately, there was no parking near the entrance and restaurant so we had to drive SW about 1/2 the length of the beach. I say fortunately since, in the end, we found both ample parking and uncrowded sand. We did walk to the restaurant for lunch and the adjacent section of beach was an absolute zoo! That’s obviously where the people from the cruise ships congregate.

Magan's BayAfter eating we retreated to our uncrowded area of absolutely perfect beach. The water was just a tad cool but refreshing and the sand was fine and smooth. We'd found a picnic table under the mangroves so Lin sat there while the rest of us laid on the sand. Eventually the cruise crowds headed for their ships and by 4:30, the beach was almost deserted.

Driving back was a real treat especially because we hit town at rush hour. By the time we arrived at the hotel, the weekly Manager’s Cocktail Party was in full swing. Honestly, it was disappointing. The appetizers were pretty lame; only spinach puffs, tortillas and guacamole. OK, the rum punch was free but we were on an all-inclusive deal so all drinks were always free!

We learned that the Lobster Grill would be closed for dinner for the rest of our visit so we had to eat at Iggy's, a distant second-best. Erin was a great waitress but the menu was limited, the food only fair and, by the time we left, the noise intolerable. I finally had to get out of there so Lin, Noah and I left while Steve and Krista stayed behind to sign the check.

Tuesday, March 10

St. JohnToday's plan was a visit to St. John so we agreed we'd get an early start. By prior arrangement Noah called at 7 to say they were up. We ate breakfast together and were at the car ferry dock at Red Hook by just after 9. Loading the ferry was a real fire drill as the "Mister B" appears to be a converted military landing craft so everyone has to back in. Consequently, the process took forever and it was after 10 when we got to Cruz Bay. Trunk BayWe were on our way to Trunk Bay which meant driving through the town of Cruz Bay itself. There had been a traffic accident in town so everything was jammed solid. Impatient as I am, I decided to turn right instead of left so we took the LONG way around. In that we had to negotiate innumerable hairpin turns over a mountain, the ride was pretty scary but we had some breathtaking views. It was about 11 by the time we reached Trunk Bay. The surf was a tad rough and the snorkeling visibility was only fair so we didn't snorkel. Waterfront BistroBy about 1 we left for Cruz Bay, parked and had a delightful lunch at the Waterfront Bistro. After shopping a bit we headed for the ferry dock in time for the 3:30 ferry. It was fortunate we were early as it pulled out at 3:20, right ahead of the 3:00 boat from the other company. This ferry, the "General II" was smaller than the "Mister B" and much less crowded. We were back at the hotel by 4:00 and headed for the pool. We met at 6:00 for dinner at Iggy's. The special was all-you-can-eat crabs legs so all 3 of "the kids" had that. Lin had skirt steak that she liked. I had cocoanut shrimp that was only OK. Noah wasn't feeling well and I really didn't want desert so he and I quit early and returned to our room where he watched TV while I read and wrote.

Wednesday, March 11

waterfrontLazy day. Lin and I had planned on going to town but the doorman, Simon, said there were 6 ships in town so we decided to just veg at the resort. After breakfast all but Lin took a Wave Runner tour. Lindsay, the guide, rode on the first machine, then Steve and Noah, then Krista, then me. At first I was wishing Lin had ridden with me but when we got outside the bay I was delighted she hadn't. The sea was rough and we were going 30-40 MPH. There were times my machine was totally out of the water. Wave Runner tripLinda would have been a basket case. We slowed down a bit in Charlotte Amalie harbor but not a whole lot. Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas plus Costa's Fortuna were at the dock and two Holland America ships were anchored in Crown Bay. I never did see the 6th ship. When we were almost back to the resort, Lindsay said we were a little early and invited us to just play around. I wish she'd done that on the way out because I'd have been a lot less apprehensive if I'd learned just how stable the machine was.

After lunch I decided to take a Sunfish out and that was a big mistake. McCoy, one of the beach attendants, checked me out quickly but even on the checkout trip, the sheet caught on my life jacket twice and I had trouble getting it unhooked. Noah went out with me and I didn't realize he had never sailed before. Consequently my warning that we were about to tack meant nothing and he got hit with the boom. Worse, the wind was gusty as hell. I got hit suddenly by a gust from the other side, my jacket hung on the sheet and over we went. I had it righted immediately and off we went again. The next time, though, the boat turtled on me and I could not right it. Lindsay came out with a Wave Runner, helped me right the boat and took Noah in. I was feeling a bit bad about my ineptitude; I haven't flipped a boat in decades. However, a woman next to us on the beach said her family has a Sunfish, a Hobie and a Hunter 22 on Lake Norman and her husband had flipped the Sunfish the day before. LimboLin went to take a nap, the kids moved to the pool and I read on the beach 'til almost 5:30.

Wednesday is Carnivale Night so we had the buffet at Iggy's and watched the show, which was actually quite good. Judy was the best server we had for any meal; she was fast, efficient and friendly.

Thursday, March 12

Yuck, beam me home, Scotty! We had breakfast and were in town before 10. There was only one ship in town so Simon had told me I'd have no problem parking in the municipal lot. He was wrong. After searching in vain for a spot, I told the gang I'd meet them at Bobby's, drove alone to the Yacht Haven Grande lot, and walked back. After a bit of shopping we took a cab to the car and the car to Havensight Mall to look around a bit, then headed for the airport.

The airport was a zoo and very confusing. Tickets, customs/immigration, drop off the checked luggage, security... ugh! Lines were horrible including the one for lunch but when I looked later, they had disappeared. We took off on schedule at 3:00. We had good seats on a 767 and the flight was not full so the flight home was at least bearable. At PHL, we had to walk a zillion miles to the baggage claim but the bags were coming off when we got there. We parted ways at the Sheraton and headed home. Lin and I stopped for dinner at P. F. Chang’s in Plymouth Meeting. The meal was excellent but we were too whipped to enjoy it. Got home at 11:00 and collapsed.

Recommendations

Bolongo Bay Resort

Bolongo BayWe did a fair bit of online research before selecting Bolongo Bay and, as with all things, there were conflicting reports. Certainly, this is not a fancy, upscale resort but neither do they claim to be. It was simple yet clean and well maintained. As reflected in many of the reviews, the employees were for the most part very friendly, some extremely so. I will acknowledge that one or two servers in the restaurants should probably find work they enjoy more but you'll find that about anywhere.

The resort is remote so the choices are to just hang out there, pay some pretty hefty taxi fares or rent a car. One distinct advantage of the seclusion is that it's peaceful even on days when the cruise ships disgorge their hordes. The beach isn't all that great but neither is it horrible. A woman sitting next to me on the plane said you simply could not swim there and that's just not true. You should take my comment, though, as coming from someone who grew up swimming in a lake with a rocky bottom and a bit of seaweed. IguanaThere are lots of iguanas around so if they creep you out, St. Thomas may not be the place for you. However, they didn't bother us one bit and were fun to watch.

The reviews we read differed widely about food and our own experience bore that out. Dinner at the Lobster Grille was great; dinner at Iggy's was disappointing at best. The fact that the Lobster Grille is closed 3 nights a week was a major disappointment and in fact is enough to assure that we don't return. Iggy'sIf you do eat at Iggy's and happen to have children with you, be sure to sit far from the bar; the loud, vulgar language there is more than offensive. OTOH, if you're one of the many people who like a loud, drunk crowd, this may be for you.

We took an all-inclusive package and I'm glad we did! Though neither food nor drinks were added to our bill, we did have to sign a check each time we ate or drink and the amounts were high.

Getting around

I like to be independent so I rented a car. For me, it was the right decision but it's not for the meek. They drive on the left in St. Thomas but the driver's side is not on the right as it us in the UK. Consequently, visibility of oncoming traffic is compromised and you don't have the constant reminder to drive on the left and to look right before pulling out. The roads are narrow (and sometimes poorly maintained), the terrain mountainous and taxi drivers in particular like to take their half of the road out of the middle so blood pressure tends to run a bit high. Parking in Charlotte Amalie is at a premium and if you read my diary you know we ended up taking a taxi from a remote parking lot. All in all, I'd still rent a car next time but not everyone should. Though they are a bit expensive, there are a lot of taxis and you don't have to look for them, they'll be calling to you as you walk along the street.

Car ferryWe took the car ferry to St. John rather than taking the people ferry and then a taxi to Trunk Bay. Especially with 5 of us traveling together that was the lower cost option but it generated more anxiety than I'd anticipated. Getting on and off was a pain and took a lot of time. The car ferries run less frequently and stop at running 6:00 PM so I felt a definite anxiety about being stranded overnight. One of the reasons I'd wanted my car in St. John is that I'd had some concern about the ability to get a return taxi from Trunk Bay but there again they were begging for passengers so that would not have been a problem. I think next time the car would stay in St. Thomas.

The Bottom Line

Though not our favorite island in the Caribbean, St. Thomas was very enjoyable. The island and its surrounding waters are magnificent and the people are almost universally friendly.

What really made this trip, though, was the fact that the kids were with us. We had a great time together.

If you want to see many more pictures of this trip along with a map showing the route followed, see my blog on TravBuddy.