Unwind in the USVI
The United States Virgin Islands are ready for a comeback after recovering from damages in the wake of two Category Five storms: Hurricane Irma and Maria in 2017.
“This is why you need a tour – how else would you know that the best pate is served in the ice cream shop?” notes local guide Gerard Sperry of St. Thomas Food Tours in front of an unassuming nook as he passes out pieces of deep-fried pastry dough stuffed with beef.
In between pitstops through historic downtown Charlotte Amalie, he regals travellers with tales of the United States Virgin Islands’ history, ranging from pirates like Blackbeard (who put gunpowder in his beard to scare off enemies and came to an untimely death at the ripe age of 37) and Bluebeard (a fictional character who didn’t actually exist despite the many legends).
“This place was known as the place to go and get drunk and hit up bordellos and pay off the governor,” he mused. “It was kind of the Wild West of the Caribbean for many years.”
Today, the three-island destination is a popular port of call for cruise ships with its beaches consistently ranking on lists of the best beaches in the world. Since recovering from hits by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the USVI should also be considered for clients looking for a warm escape for romantic retreats or girls’ getaways.
Along with sampling callaloo and fungi, popular dishes in the destination, the food tour Sperry leads gives insight into the resilience of the local community in the aftermath of the hurricanes.
Stops include the new location of Gladys’ Cafe by Gladys Jones, who notoriously gave away every morsel of food she had for free even though the restaurant was flooded in the wake of the hurricanes, and MBW Café and Bakery managed by Julius Jackson, a professional chef, boxer, author and 2008 Olympian. The café and bakery serves as a second training facility for My Brother’s Workshop, a non-profit organization working with at-risk youth of the island through on-the-job training, mentorship and counselling, and not only gave away free meals following the hurricanes but made deliveries to seniors homes and to various people who weren’t able to physically make it to the location.
“2017 was our centennial anniversary — we went from banquets and celebrations to finding the roof on your house after two Category 5 hurricanes in 10 days,” Sperry recalled. “I personally was out of electricity for four months.”
“2017 was our centennial anniversary — we went from banquets and celebrations to finding the roof on your house after two Category 5 hurricanes in 10 days,” Gerard Sperry of St. Thomas Food Tours recalled. “I personally was out of electricity for four months.”
Made up of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, travellers would be remiss not to island-hop in the US territory which was featured in feature films like The Shawshank Redemption, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
St. John is easily accessible from St. Thomas, the most tourism developed of the islands, via ferry, operating every hour from morning to night for US$16 round trip. Upon arrival clients can rent a car — so long as they are open to driving on the opposite side of the road — averaging from US$70-80 per day, mainly a colourful assortment of Jeeps.
From there they can discover the many beautiful beaches, snorkelling spots and ancient petroglyphs carved by the Taino Indians the island is known for as two-thirds of St. John is a national park.
While Trunk Bay is arguably the most popular beach, other surefire bets include Hawksnest Bay, Honeymoon Bay, Cinnamon Bay and Maho Bay, teeming with sea turtles and other marine life.
U.S. Virgin Islands Commissioner of Tourism Joe Boschulte
Another must for taco (and Instagram lovers) is Lime Out, a floating restaurant that made TIME Magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Places of 2019. The eco-friendly joint is 100% solar-powered and everything is served in recyclable, reusable or biodegradable containers. Those who aren’t visiting by boat can rent tandem kayaks or paddleboards for US$30 and navigate over.
One of the highlights of a recent trip to @USVItourism was visiting a floating taco restaurant surrounded by lots of fish. Lime Out is sustainable with a solar powered kitchen and everything is served in recyclable, reusable or biodegradable material. pic.twitter.com/zxkAOLIwRt
— Ann Ruppenstein (@AnnCTP) November 22, 2019
A final suggestion would be to stop in for a flight of beer at St. John Brewers, a brewery started by two former college classmates who grew tired of the 9-to-5 grind and quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and purchased one-way tickets to the Virgin Islands.
U.S. Virgin Islands Commissioner of Tourism Joe Boschulte said the destination is also focusing its marketing efforts on highlighting St. Croix as a new gem to be discovered.
“Right now most people know St. Thomas and St. John, particularly on the cruise side, but St. Croix we’re going to highlight it because what it’s really known for in the USVI is our people, first and foremost, our culture, which you see in abundance on St. Croix and most of all, what we feature as a highlight, is our food,” he said. “We have great restaurants, great chefs.”
Soak in the local flavours
Back in St. Thomas, some of the best views come from the top. Home of the banana daiquiri, Mountain Top is a hot spot to admire the nearby British Virgin Islands while sipping on the refreshing beverage where over 7 million daiquiris have been sold. Other places offering great vantage points are Drake’s Seat, Magens Bay Overlook and the SkyRide to Paradise Point.
Some of the most popular beaches on St. Thomas include Magens Bay Beach, which frequently ranks on “Best of” lists, and Coki Beach, where visitors will find Simply Delicious, a beachside hut serving made-to-order fare like jerk chicken and curry chicken platters.
One of the newest restaurants to try while in St. Thomas is Blue 11. Located in The Shops at Yacht Haven Grande, the fine dining restaurant offers four or seven-course tasting menus featuring local Caribbean cuisine, which can be paired with wine. The establishment has become a draw for visitors and locals alike.
Meanwhile, Parrotheads will want to head over to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville for a Cheeseburger in Paradise. The adjacent Wyndham Margaritaville St. Thomas also makes a great home base for island hopping with studio, one- and two-bedroom resort suites for two to six guests in 324 to 1,070 square feet accommodations. The suites come complete with kitchens, ideal for long-stays or guests looking to cook their own meals. The show-stopper is the infinity pool overlooking the eastern side of the island.
Another option to stay is The Ritz-Carlton, a high-end property that just reopened after undergoing $106 million in renovations following Hurricane Irma.