I never dreamed that anyone wanted cruising to return more than I do…until I spent five days in St. Thomas, USVI, over Thanksgiving. The local shopkeepers, restauranteurs, tour companies and taxi drivers are scared ship-less that the pandemic will continue to devastate the island’s economy which is so reliant on tourism, particularly the cruise industry.
“Sure, we have an airport,” one taxi driver exclaimed, “but this place is nothing—nothing!—without the cruise ships.” Another garrulous driver suddenly lapsed into contemplative silence when I mentioned the fact that several lines, including Holland America and Princess, have paused until November 2021 sailings longer than 7-days that call at any U.S. port.
And so, while many at home questioned my decision to travel from New York to St. Thomas (a decision triggered by my brother informing me that Andrew Cuomo didn’t want us to get together for Thanksgiving dinner), the people of St. Thomas enthusiastically applauded it.
Gone—at least for now—are the days when we could book a ticket, pack our bags and show up at the airport on time.
To travel to St. Thomas, a negative Covid test, with the test taken and results received within five days of arriving on the island, is required—a particular source of worry since Sanja and I booked our travel on November 17th for departure just five days later. New York’s mobile testing units came to the rescue, although we found ourselves traveling to a Brooklyn site since the more convenient Queens testing locations seemed to follow a hit-and-miss schedule of operation. We tested on November 18th and were rewarded with negative results just 24 hours later—an enormous relief considering the results of my first Covid test in July carried an 11-day turnaround time.
The next step was to complete the pre-visit questionnaire that appears on the U.S. Virgin Islands Travel Screening Portal (https://usvitravelportal.com/), and provide a copy of our negative test results–a maddening exercise that, over and over, appeared to go well until I hit the “submit” button. It was only when I completed the form using the Chrome browser that it was accepted and an authorization number issued.
By Sunday, we were off to JFK, armed with a printed copy of our test results and the travel portal’s confirming email. We boarded our non-stop Delta flight (middle seats unoccupied) and arrived ahead of schedule. Masks were required from the moment we set foot into the terminal at JFK through our arrival and the speedy process at Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas.
Over the years, I’ve stayed at Emerald Beach Resort at Lindbergh Bay when I traveled—non-cruise—to St. Thomas. Reasonable pricing, a casual atmosphere, convenient location (you can actually walk from the airport and the resort is a short $6 taxi ride from town), all rooms gloriously oceanfront and balconied and a spectacular beach are the resort’s greatest draws.
If you’re seeking high-end luxury, however, investigate alternate St. Thomas properties like The Ritz Carlton, Margaritaville Vacation Club or Secret Harbor Beach Resort.
While the beach at Emerald Beach Resort is five-star with an al fresco restaurant and beach bar (barstools removed during Covid and, from what I observed, no mingling between the small group of guests staying at the resort), its accommodations include some baffling quirks. During this stay we were assigned a room that had been renovated…or should I say is being renovated? The wall-mount hair dryer sat unsecured on the bathroom vanity, sliding closet doors were off their track and the bathroom door—another sliding one—had been installed on an incline making “open” its default position. Only by stuffing a hand towel between the wall and the door would the door remain closed.
The lamp between the two beds was to be our main source of lighting but when we flipped the switch, we discovered not a gentle flicker but blinding flashes reminiscent of an emergency scene (fortunately, a gooseneck lamp was available beside each bed and we used those until the main light was repaired). Gone was the dresser positioned beneath the mounted flat-screen TV in rooms during my previous stays, and in its place a single, small hidden shelf that was inadequate to store…well…anything.
Room make up was hit and miss. One day, not at all; another, the room was cleaned, the towels replaced but the beds were unmade. The AC, set at 77 degrees, was Arctic and two nights I found myself sleeping in the down jacket I wore en route to JFK. The air conditioner sprung a leak one afternoon creating a puddle on the floor, but that was quickly addressed when I discovered the resort’s handyman in a conversation with the housekeeper who was working the room adjacent to mine.
And yet to Sanja and me these were small inconveniences—some almost humorous—and more than compensated for by the resort’s beach, amenities and a lovely staff that takes the Covid threat seriously, wearing PPE at all times and strictly enforcing social distancing.
Upon our arrival into town, Charlotte Amalie’s Main Street called to mind a ghost town devoid of pedestrians or cars—a sobering sight compared to the pre-pandemic hustle and bustle of Charlotte Amalie’s shopping area when cruise ships dotted the harbor.
Today, the arched wooden doors of most jewelry and liquor stores are shut and padlocked. Easter signage at The Belgian Chocolate Factory poignantly marks the exact time when the entire world came to a screeching halt.
For the determined shopper seeking the decidedly different even during a pandemic, head to Palm Passage Retail Mall, a stretch of unique jewelry, art and new age shops like Okidanokh, Fish Face and Gallery St Thomas Art Shop—but don’t expect that large, circular bar that you had a few drinks at during your last cruise to be operating. Another shop, open and certainly worth a look is Eden Jewelers at Dronnigens Gade, a two-room retail space filled not only with high-end jewelry but whimsical art objects and colorful painted leather handbags and wallets. If booze is on your shopping list, try Caribana on Main Street. I purchased a one-liter bottle of Cointreau at Caribana–$32 in St. Thomas, while a smaller bottle retails for $50 at home. (Travelers can purchase up to 6 bottles of liquor duty free, so long as one bottle is a Virgin Islands product like Cruzan Rum. With the exception of Spirit, airlines will check boxes of spirits at no charge.)
At Harbor Front, The Green House beckoned, taking me back to the “old normal,” by looking much the same as it did when I first visited during a 1976 Carnival cruise. This colorful, open air structure is familiar to any cruise fan who sails into St. Thomas…and for good reason: Its quirky menu of reasonably-priced and delicious Caribbean-inspired dishes like crispy conch fritters, the delectable Bang Bang Shrimp Wrap and Jamaican Jerk (most served with a choice of two side dishes, including their sweet and luscious grilled plantains). On this Sunday, Sanja and I enjoyed the first lunch of our five-day visit and would return four more times during our stay, disinfecting our hands and having our temperatures taken prior to being seated at a table with a clear view of the beautiful harbor and accessing the menu digitally.
Turkey on Thanksgiving? Not when I have access to the supremely fresh seafood that’s available in St. Thomas! The holiday found us at the 6:00 p.m. sitting at Meson Amalia, an open-air Spanish restaurant located in the cobblestoned Palm Passage and ranked by Trip Advisor as the #3 best dining establishment in Charlotte Amalie. We kicked off the exquisite meal with Piquillos Rellenos, tender peppers stuffed with savory cod and swimming in a rich and heady tomato cream sauce that we sopped up with every selection in the breadbasket. Our very generously portioned main courses followed: a paella brimming with shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams and chicken atop saffron, pea-studded rice for me and zarzuela de mariscos, a seafood stew showcasing snapper, salmon, grouper in a slightly-spicy and pungent tomato sauce for Sanja. Our crème brulee dessert was large enough to share, a decadent creamy custard beneath a generous layer of brittle caramelized sugar that held its crackle even in the humidity of St. Thomas. Truly, a meal to give thanks for!
Closer to “home,” Emerald Beach’s Caribbean Fusion sustained us with full breakfasts or yogurt parfaits whipped up on site while fish tacos stuffed with the freshest mahi mahi and topped with a cool ginger lime sour cream was a superb luncheon choice before heading to the airport and our flight home.
Let’s face it. Whether you travel to St. Thomas aboard your favorite cruise ship or fly there for an extended stay, the real draw is the ocean—those endless stretches of palm-tree-studded powder-soft white sand beaches framing sparkling clear turquoise waters. I could have spent all five days simply lazing on those beaches, popping into the surf for a cooling break and keeping an eye out for the sea life that inhabit the waters around us.
During our stay, we were introduced to some of that sea life by Sven of St. Thomas Adventure Tours and his Kayak and Sea Turtle Snorkel with Beach Break half-day excursion. The tour began with German transplant Sven leading his group of three to Brewer’s Bay, a public beach that is brimming with green sea and hawksbill turtles. Even non-snorkelers can simply wade into the calm waters of this beach adjacent to the University of the Virgin Islands campus and catch a glimpse of these enchanting creatures as they pop their heads up for air. Look down, and you’ll likely see a few fish swimming around your ankles!
From Brewer’s Bay, we boarded Sven’s 4 x 4 for a bumpy off-road ride to the waters that would host the kayak portion of the tour. Along the way, Sven shared his seemingly endless knowledge of the island’s flora, fauna and history and added some unconventional twists to the concept of a kayak and snorkel tour, like “fishing” for tarantulas, letting us get up close and personal with the creature that lurks inside a conch shell (ew!!!!), and revealing the best way to find octopi when snorkeling (be very quiet and look for evidence of broken shells). Best of all, Sven photographs the experience along the way (both underwater and over water) and emails the shots to participants as terrific keepsakes when the tour concludes.
A noon check-out time meant Sanja and I could luxuriate on the beach for a few hours before checking out of Emerald Beach Resort and walking to the airport for our flight home.
The airport was particularly quiet this day after Thanksgiving with no sign of the crowds and chaos that is so often evident at Cyril E. King Airport. In no time, we were aboard our nonstop Delta flight which, once again, would arrive ahead of schedule.
Returning to New York brought with it its own set of rules, similar to those we followed before setting off for St. Thomas five days before. We had two options before returning home from our five-day visit: We could be tested in St. Thomas three days prior to our arrival in New York (approximate cost $100), quarantine for three days and test in New York on the fourth day after arrival; or agree to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving home.
We chose the latter.
Our Sunday arrival in St. Thomas meant that our test on the island would need to be completed by Tuesday to conform to the 72-hour requirement. With all medical information suggesting that inaccurate results are likely if a person is tested less than five days following exposure, for us, testing in St. Thomas would be meaningless.
In New York, our flight was greeted by military personnel who distributed forms to deplaning passengers and explained the quarantine requirement. I accepted the form but chose to complete it on-line from home the following morning.
So, here I sit, in quarantine. Which, to be honest, isn’t all that much different from what I was doing for most of the previous nine months.
But today, I am in a much, much better frame of mind, thanks to five relaxing days under the St. Thomas sun.
I hope that the next time I visit St. Thomas, I will be sailing there aboard one of my favorite cruise ships. And I’ve no doubt that the island’s shopkeepers, taxi drivers, restauranteurs and tour companies hope so too.
Cover photo: Emerald Beach Bar – The beach at Emerald Beach Resort from the deck of its Caribbean Fusion Restaurant. Photo Judi Cuervo