Author Topic: AnonymousUser's US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas & St. John) TR (Jul-Aug 2015)  (Read 7221 times)

Offline AnonymousUser

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Planning

After reading so much about Hawaii, especially Dan's and Something Fishy's TRs, I had really wanted to go. My first step was to ask my LOR about spending Shabbos in Hawaii. He advised us not to be there over Shabbos, so as not to get into any issues. This meant we would be able to be there for a max of 4 days. After thinking about it, we decided that this would not be enough time, especially considering the long flight and the jetlag that we would need to recover from.

And so, the search began for somewhere comparable to Hawaii, without the dateline issues. Once I saw that Something Fishy had suggested STJ (St. John, US Virgin Islands), I was intrigued. The more I researched it, the more I liked it. The area is similar to Hawaii in many ways, and we would be able to go for a full week, spending Shabbos on the island. Since I had never done SCUBA or snorkeling before, and I'm not in shape to be able to do hike after hike, I planned on spending several days exploring STT (St. Thomas) first, since it's more touristy with more attractions, and then head over to STJ. Additionally, winter is peak season in USVI, whereas summer is much emptier, even though the weather is pretty much the same, 80 degrees year round with little humidity. A cruise ship docks every now and then, but overall itís much more quiet. There is a downside, in that many attractions are closed during the summer when there is no cruise ship in town, but we preferred the quiet. I brought it up to my wife, and she was really enthusiastic about this idea, so I started planning.

I looked into using points for both flights and lodging. However, at that point, it was more cost effective to purchase revenue tickets from Delta. The night before I booked, the price was $470 for a RT. I foolishly didn't book then, since I wasn't ready to pull the trigger, and I wasn't thinking about the 24 hour cancellation policy. By the next day, the price had gone up to $600. Without a choice, I booked at that price. I checked the next morning, and the price had dropped back to $540. I called Delta, and since it was still within 24 hours, they refunded the tickets and reissued them at the lower price. So in the end, we didn't lose as much as I thought we would have.

For hotels, the best for us would have been to stay at the Marriott, since I had a 7 day vacation voucher. Unfortunately, there was no availability for the dates we were going. The next option was the Westin on STJ, at 12k SPG per night. The Westin has regular hotel rooms and villas. I got the last villa available for one night, and a room for the remaining nights. After doing some research on VRBO, we decided to cancel those reservations and book apartments from VRBO. We found one on STT and another on STJ that looked nice and had good reviews. Price-wise, I think it came out cheaper than the Westin, with more room, and this way we had the flexibility of staying on both islands. Both hostesses were extremely helpful, answering all the questions I had.

For meals, after reading such great reviews from Dan and SF, we decided to order meals from Pomegranate. Their CS is great, and they were able to answer all my questions. The food was all delicious. However, we had several issues, most of which were not Pomegranate's fault at all. All the TRs make it sound like the portions are huge and are enough for 2 people. IME, they were the size of a large takeout meal, which is enough for maybe 1.5 people, but not really enough for 2. We paid a bit extra for them to package the food up for airline check-in. When we received the box, I realized what that meant. They put everything in a regular cardboard box with ice packs, and taped up the entire thing. Since the food only took up half the box, we opted to put them in one of our suitcases, so in the end, the extra taping was unnecessary. IMHO, if I had to do this again, I would order takeout from one of the local stores, and package it up myself. This way I can decide exactly how much food I want, and package it in the way that's most convenient for us.

For Shabbos food, we bought takeout from Yiddiís on the way out, and stuck it in the freezer overnight.

There is a Chabad shliach on STT (http://www.jewishvirginislands.com/). I called him about kosher food in USVI. He told me that you can generally get anything that you can find on the mainland (although itís more expensive!). They also make food at the Chabad House, similar to Pomegranate. I asked him about minyanim, and he said to call him when we get there. I never ended up getting back to him, since we werenít staying nearby.

The only cell provider that has infrastructure in the USVI is AT&T. Since I have PagePlus, I bought a used phone on eBay, and activated a plan with H2O (an AT&T MVNO). On STT the coverage was pretty good, however, on STJ it was much more spotty. Additionally, depending on where you are, your phone can pick up the cell towers in BVI, so if you don't have free roaming, you need to shut it off or put it in airplane mode.

For a rental car, SF had told me that you really need a Wrangler for the 4WD, and he was right. Hertz, Avis, and Budget have locations in the airport, as well as downtown. I priced them out, and decided Budget would be the cheapest.

I rarely take pictures, so I don't own a fancy camera. All the pics in this TR (besides of the accommodations) were taken with my LG G3. I meant to buy a waterproof bag so I would be able to take pictures underwater, but I forgot until it was too late, and I couldnít find any once we got there. Several of the panoramas were created automagically by Google Photos. The rest I created with https://www.dermandar.com/create/. They arenít perfect, but decent for not having Photoshop.

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 1: Thursday

We woke up early, and drove to the airport. We parked at Park Plus, which from my quick research had the cheapest rates for long-term parking. They dropped us off at T2; we checked in our luggage, and went through security. At this point we still hadn't davened, so we headed for the Delta lounge, which was right near our gate (B33). We davened and grabbed some fruit for breakfast. It took longer than I expected, so we ran down to the gate, and got there 15 minutes before departure. B"H we made it on. There was a slight delay while they checked the engine starters, and then again while we waited in line to take off, but finally we were in the air.

The flight took around 3:20. We landed at STT, and taxied towards the terminal. STT does not have jetways, so we used the airstairs, a first for me, and walked to the arrivals terminal. The airport is tiny compared to what Iím used to, but I guess that just shows I need to get out more. They served some sort of alcoholic beverage in shot glasses at the entrance to the terminal. Come to think of it, every supermarket or grocery store has a disproportionately large alcohol section.

I had originally reserved a Jeep at the downtown location of Budget so that we would not have to pay airport fees, and we had planned on taking a taxi from the airport to get there. However, when we actually arrived, we were worn out and not interested in doing that. I went to the Budget counter and was told it would only be an extra $60 to switch to the airport location, but it would take 20-30 minutes before it was ready. Unfortunately, I had left my SP in NY, so I relied on my Geico insurance to cover the rental. The wait stretched into 45 minutes, but finally she handed me the keys and told me where to find the lot. The lot is across the street, and there arenít any attendants helping you; the desk agent just tells you which spot your car is in and hands you the keys. This means that if you don't like the car, you need to shlep back to the terminal and speak to the desk agent.

We found the car, loaded our luggage, and set off for our apartment. Driving is on the left side of the road in USVI, which was disorienting at first, and took some time to get used to. Our lack of familiarity was also embarrassing, like when we came to a left on red and just sat there with the truck behind us honking, until a pedestrian called out to us to go.

No one has regular addresses in USVI; the addresses go by the lot numbers, which aren't in order. If you ask someone how to get somewhere, they'll give you directions based on landmarks. I put the approximate location into Google Maps in order to get directions. I quickly discovered that although it will give you turn-by-turn directions, it's just a list, but it doesn't follow you as you drive, making it really hard to follow along. Luckily, our host had provided us with detailed directions, and along with the map, we managed to get there. I later discovered that Waze does have regular directions in both STT and STJ. It also has many of the attractions and stores in the POI database. On Waze's map most of the roads look the same, but outside of town many of the roads can be smaller, and quite steep and have sharp turns.

We arrived at the house, and settled in. Just our luck, our hostess had just undergone a Reform "conversion", and was really proud of becoming a "Jew by choice". :o The apartment was nice, but smaller that I had envisioned it. B"H it had A/C.


STT kitchen


STT porch

When I opened the suitcase, I realized we had an issue. I had forgotten to seal the cholent, kugel, and kishe we had bought in Lakewood for Shabbos. Additionally, the TSA left a card in the suitcase saying it had been opened for inspection. I called our posek, and he told me it's still not a problem. Since the food had been cooked to a specific level, they would not have time to cook their own food to the same level and replace ours with it.

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 2: Friday

We first stopped at Cost U Less, which is similar to Costco without membership, to pick up a few things for Shabbos.

We then headed to the Paradise Point Tramway. This is basically a cable car system that goes from downtown up to a point on the mountain where there is a bar and a gift shop, and views of the harbor. When I entered the name of the attraction into Waze, it directed us up the mountain to the higher end. When we drove by the lower end we couldn't see the parking lot, so we just followed Waze up the steep road up the mountain, and parked outside the bar. The cable cars run every 5-7 minutes and the trip takes around the same amount of time. If there's a line, they'll put several other people with you in the car. The cost for round trip for me and my wife was $40, which is pretty overpriced, considering you can get basically the same view from the balcony of the bar.


Charlotte Amalie Harbor

Next, we headed to the Phantasea Tropical Botanical Gardens. Admission was $10 each. The garden was put together by the owner over a period of many years, and just opened in February. She warned us that the plants might seem droopy because of the drought. We decided to check it out anyway. The garden itself was underwhelming. However it is a serene, quiet place to spend some time away from the world. There is a gazebo with some pillows that you can lie down on.

Next we headed for Mermaid's Chair. This is at the westernmost point of STT, inside a gated community called The Preserve at Botany Bay. The way we found it was by putting into Waze a point on the road a far west as I could find, then following the directions until we came to the entrance to the community. You can't drive into it, but they allow you to park outside and trek down to the beach. The hike is 1-1.5 miles, and it's on an incline most of the time. It took us around a half hour. At the end is a secluded beach with some beach chairs. Next to it is a sandbar extending to the western tip of the island (West Point). Standing on the sandbar, the Caribbean Sea is on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The landscape and serenity were awesome.


Perseverance Bay and STT, on the way to Mermaid's Chair


Mermaid's Chair


West Point

We then went back to prepare for Shabbos. For the Friday night seudah we put one of the meals in the oven until right before Shabbos, and it stayed hot for the time it took us to daven. For the day seudah, we put the cholent on the blech over a low flame with some added water.


Atlantic Ocean

 

Day 3: Shabbos

Shabbos was pretty uneventful. The cholent was the perfect temperature when we were ready to eat the seudah. The terrain was too steep to go for a walk, so we mostly relaxed on the porch.

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 4: Sunday

We woke up early, hoping to be able to be able to find a secluded spot at Magen's Bay Beach before it became crowded. We got there at 8am, the opening time listed on the website, and it was already crowded. As if that wasnít enough, it started raining right when we got there. We decided to nix that, and instead headed back to eat breakfast and pack up. We drove down Skyline Drive and stopped at Drake's Seat to take some pictures of Magen's Bay and the surrounding area.


Magen's Bay, from Drake's Seat

After packing up, we headed to Coral World Ocean Park. From their website it looked like a decent aquarium with some hands-on attractions that I hadn't seen anywhere else. Once we got there, we realized that it was quite small; we easily finished all the exhibits in an hour. Some of the hands-on attractions were closed, since it was off-season and there was no cruise ship in port. There is a small free beach next door, but we didn't go, as it was crowded. There is also a place that rents jet skis across the street, but at that point I wasn't in the mood to do it then, and I figured I'd find a place on STJ. I later found out there are very few touristy attractions on STJ

We then drove to the ferry dock to take the car barge to STJ. There are 3 companies that run car ferries. However, only 2 of them cross-honor roundtrip tickets, so unless you know exactly which one you're going to take on the way back, it may be smarter to buy two one-ways. The 1:30pm ferry came at 2pm, and after loading (you need to back on to the barge, since it only has a ramp on one side), we were off on the half-hour trip to STJ. The boat ride itself was pretty nice. The ferry has a deck on top that you can go up to and look around.


Pillsbury Sound, on the car barge from STT to STJ

Arriving on STJ, we drove to the east side of the island where our apartment was. The scenery along the way is gorgeous, although since Waze took us through the middle of the island, there weren't any ocean views for most of the way. Some of the inclines and drops are positively scary to drive on, even with 4 wheel drive; they looked like they were at least 45 degree angles with really sharp turns.

The driveway up to the house was really steep, and required some maneuvering to get up safely. However, the apartment was very nice, with a porch that had an incredible view of the bay and surrounding islands.


STJ kitchen


STJ living room


STJ porch


Friis Bay, from our balcony

After unpacking a bit, we drove around the eastern shore and East End, getting a feel for the area. The landscape is simply incredible. One minute you can be just feet from the bay looking at the crystal-clear blue water; the next you can be driving up steep inclines and sharp turns with gorgeous views of the mountains and the bay from high up all around you. Of all the things we did, the driving was actually one of my wife's favorites. For me, the driver, it was nice, but definitely less so. ;) Along the way we passed some of the local wildlife, including mountain goats, chickens, and donkeys; all wild. The donkey and chickens will come right over to you if you stop nearby.


Goats roaming the streets


Goats roaming the streets


Chicken with 2 half grown chicks


Donkey roaming the roads

We stopped by several of the local food markets to see if they had any kosher food, and luckily they had some kosher snacks, including some Alprose white chocolate, surprisingly.

Our hosts lent us a book called St. John Off the Beaten Track. This is a must have for anyone who wants to explore STJ. It has a wealth of info about all the trails, beaches, and snorkeling spot on the island. It really helped us plan where to go each day.

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 5: Monday

We woke up early to watch the sunrise over the bay from our balcony, then went back to sleep for 2 hours.


Sunrise over Friis Bay

We decided to hike along Brown Bay Trail and snorkel at Brown Bay Beach. The trail is 0.8 miles, and goes from the road up over the ridge and then back down to the north side of the island. It can be a bit rocky at times, however, overall it's relatively easy. Along the trails you can see some views of the surrounding mountains and bays through the trees.

Upon arriving at Brown Bay, we discovered why it was called Brown Bay, and that Beach was a slight misnomer. The water was literally brown, and the beach was all rocks and some brown stuff (I have no idea what it was). So much for the beautiful snorkeling the guidebooks promised.


Brown Bay


Brown Bay

We decided to backtrack and snorkel at Haulover Bay instead. This is a bit further out on Rt 10, right off the road, and part of the beach is sandy. For our first time snorkeling, we had a lot of fun. I couldn't see very much without my glasses, but I was able to see some coral and fish. (The beaches arenít really L shaped; the way the panoramas were stitched together just makes them look that way).


Haulover Bay

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 6: Tuesday

We headed south, further down Rt 107, to explore Salt Pond and the surrounding area. We parked at the entrance to the Salt Pond trail. From there, it was an easy 0.3 mile hike to the beach at Salt Pond Bay. We got there at around 10:30am. There were already a handful of people, and it got progressively more crowded as it got later. Apparently, it's one of the most popular beaches in the area, so best is to go early.


Salt Pond Bay

Before going into the water, we followed the beach to the other side. There is a short path leading to Salt Pond, which is extremely salty, similar to the ים המלך. It has a brownish-reddish color, caused by the algae.


Salt Pond


Salt Pond

We followed the short trail counterclockwise around the pond and over a hill to Drunk Bay. There isn't much of a beach, and the surf is too strong to swim in, but the view is beautiful.


Drunk Bay

We headed back to the Salt Pond Bay beach and snorkeled for a while. This time I was able to see more coral and fish than the day before, even though my face mask kept leaking water. I realized afterwards that the seal probably wasn't so good, because of my mustache. We stayed mostly along the left side of the beach, where there are lots of rocks with coral on them.

We then headed further down Rt 107 to explore the rest of the area. The road ends not too far past Salt Pond Bay, and becomes a very bumpy dirt road. Great Lameshur Bay is 0.6 miles down the dirt road, and it has a cobblestone beach. This is apparently not as popular, as we saw only one family there in the middle of the day. 0.4 miles further down is Little Lameshur Bay. This one has a sandy beach and was almost as crowded as Salt Pond Bay. At this point we were exhausted, even though it was early afternoon, so we headed back.

Offline AnonymousUser

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Day 7: Wednesday

We first headed to Crabby's Watersports, and rented a kayak for 2 hours. Like I mentioned, I'm out of shape, so we just paddled out into Coral Bay without any destination.

After lunch, we headed for Great Lameshur Bay. When we got there, it was empty. We were able to relax, swim and snorkel by ourselves. The peacefulness was rudely shattered when my wife stepped on a sea urchin, and the tip of a spine got embedded in her toe. I had read that there were urchins in the area, but I had forgotten to be on the lookout for them. She described it as feeling similar to a bee sting, and we debated leaving to seek medical attention. However, right then a pair of experienced snorkeler arrived at the beach, and they told us there's nothing to do about it. The pain subsides after 15 minutes, and then eventually the body absorbs the spine that's embedded.


Great Lameshur Bay

 

Day 8: Thursday

We woke up early, packed up, and headed for the airport. It took at least an hour and a half to get there, since we had to drive to the other end of STJ, take the ferry to STT, then drive to the airport. We declined to prepay for gas, so I filled up right outside the airport. Budget told us we need to use premium, but BĒH the price wasnít too high. Over our entire trip we used less than 1 full tank.

We returned the car, checked in our luggage, and went to customs. We had nothing to declare, but the agent told us that you go through faster if you have your passport, even though all you need is a driverís license to go to USVI.

Then it was an uneventful flight back to JFK, and home.

Offline Yaalili

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With that view from your porch, I'm sure there were no complaints :) Great report.

Offline TimT

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Great TR. Thanks for taking the time

Offline Yaalili

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Awesome pictures throughout.

Offline Dr Moose

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looks awesome!
Hey there! I am using DansDeals Forums.

Offline Yehoshua

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Nice TR. Thanks for sharing!

Offline avromie7

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Sounds beautiful! Nice pics but i get the feeling they don't do justice
I wonder what people who type "u" instead of "you" do with all their free time.

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Very nice

Offline YMW

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Very nice TR, thanks for taking the time, it's much appreciated.

Offline Chapshnell

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Very nice, thanks for taking the time to write it up

Offline Fan of Dan

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Great TR! I just got back from an 8 day trip to St. John and I can relate to your experiences. We actually almost stayed in the villa you stayed in. I contacted the owner however in the end I didn't want to stay in Coral Bay. In retrospect I wouldn't have cared and I really enjoyed the day I spent in Coral Bay.m We stayed in the Westin villa for the first few nights and when it was no longer avail we switched to a house in Fish Bay - right up the road from the Westin. I also loved Salt Pond and enjoyed the snorkeling.

Sorry to hear about the sea urchin - those guys did look really nasty!

Did you make it to any of the north shore beaches? Funny story at Brown Bay I am happy I didn't try it! We also did Budget they really are the best option and they let you take the car over to STJ.

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Really enjoyed reading! Thanks!

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If u work for a living, why kill urself working?

Offline @Yehuda

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Great TR, pics and read! Glad you had a nice time!