A HomeAwayer's Guide to St. Thomas
Cory's tour of St Thomas
Cory takes us to the beaches, open skies and winding roads of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands
The US Virgin Islands, St Thomas, St John, St Croix and a smattering of smaller islands, are located in the Caribbean approximately 40 miles east of Puerto Rico. They conjure up images of bright beaches, relaxation, fluorescently colored drinks that might make you a bit giddy if overconsumption ensues, snorkeling or, if you’re a child of the 90s, perhaps the Full House episode where Jesse and crew join the Beach Boys and sing Kokomo. Maybe not the Full House episode, but certainly beaches and beverages. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend a trip.
My wife and I had the opportunity to visit St Thomas for a destination wedding. We arrived a week and a half before and were able to explore the entire island.
I’ll take you through our trip – how we got there, how we got around, where we stayed, our favorite restaurants, beaches and points of interest, attempt to describe the nightly scene of a parking lot bar (yes…a bar in the middle of a parking lot) – and hope to sway you to take a trip to the shores of St Thomas.
A Brief Overview of St Thomas
Map courtesy of ShipDetective.com
Within the group of US Virgin Islands, St Thomas and St John sit next to each other with St Croix to the south. The capital of USVI is Charlotte Amalie and is located on St Thomas. Charlotte Amalie is on the southern coast of the island essentially equidistant from the eastern and western most points of the island.
Much of the hustle and bustle of the island occurs in Charlotte Amalie. It’s the first stop for most visitors, tourism is a significant share of the economy, with the airport a short cab ride to the west and Caribbean cruise liners pulling in to port in Charlotte Amalie’s Long Bay.
Main Street features a plethora of shopping options – from the mundane store full of destination trinkets to diamond dealers – and can be quite busy from what we heard. We made our trip after the summer rush of tourists, so did not have to deal with the crowds in narrow corridors (reminded me of Barcelona). Beware, you will be solicited for business from shop owners. It’s a bit pushy at times, but not terribly overbearing.
Walking the narrow passageways of Charlotte Amalie; Main Street, St Thomas
The eastern section of St Thomas features the town of Red Hook, which is where we stayed for our trip. This is also where you can take the ferry to St John, enjoy the parking lot bar, take a swim at Cowpet Bay and also enjoy a bit of fine dining at XO Bistro. It's much slower on this end of the island which allows you to get a better feel for the pace of life on St Thomas
The northern section of the island doesn’t have a “hub” town like the central and eastern portions, but does feature beach after glorious beach – Coki Bay, Magens Bay, Hull Bay.
The western section of St Thomas is significantly less touristy, if at all, compared to the other sections of the island. Looking at a Google Map, you’ll notice nothing but roads, but don’t be fooled – you’ll want to take a trip out west for the amazing Sandy Bay and Mermaids Chair.
How to Get There
The wife and I flew into St Thomas from Austin, TX via American Airlines which meant one stop too many…if you’re reading this and are from Austin you know you almost always have to stop in Dallas to get anywhere else. Our flight went:
Austin > Dallas > Miami > St Thomas
From our doorstep to the doorstep of the vacation rental, the trip took around 12 hours, so it’s not a simple hop, skip and jump away. Those wedding attendees flying in from NYC were much luckier with direct flights from JetBlue.
Unless you’re coming from a big city on the eastern seaboard be prepared to be in a plane for awhile – not that you can’t suspend your, potential, disdain of sitting around and waiting considering the destination.
One thing we missed out on during the flight in was the view of the island. Our plane landed around 9 PM, so it was too dark to take in the lush greens and vibrant blues of the island.
Getting Around St Thomas
Rent a Jeep. Not a car, at least of the 4-cyclinder variety, but a Jeep. The roads on St Thomas are very steep, narrow, feature switchbacks and hairpin turns - to add to that, you drive on the left side of the road.
There were a few hills on the eastern outskirts of Charlotte Amalie where I didn’t have enough momentum going in to them - I had the pedal to the floor - and managed to go 5 miles per hour. The tourist has his or her tail gated.
Be prepared to experience the joy of the rollercoaster; if you’re the passenger, throw your hands up; scream, yell; embrace it; you’ll eventually adapt and enjoy the up and down and back and forth. I promise.
Last words of advice: don’t return the tailgating favor. People and the open air taxis that circuit the island have a tendency to stop as they please, talk to friends, pickup patrons. It’s island life; you’re the guest; slow, relax, chill out bro.
Resources for getting around St Thomas:
Where to Stay
Now it won’t come as a surprise that I’m advocating using a vacation rental rather than a hotel, but I’m going to do that. There are a number of options across the island and we stayed in the Red Hook area with a view to die for. It took 30 minutes to get from our rental to Charlotte Amalie, but we were content to explore the Red Hook area and the rest of the island from the our home base in the east. It also made for an easy trip to St John with the ferry 7 minutes from our vacation rental.
Charlotte Amalie has significantly more hotels than Red Hook, but that’s to be expected with it serving as the hub of the island. As far as getting a real feel for the pace and lifestyle of the place, nothing beats staying in a vacation rental.
Here are a few shots of the view from our house rental. The views opened up to St John and Grass Cay in the distance.
View from our house rental:
Resources for places to stay in St Thomas:
First and foremost, get yourself to a beach. I could write an entire article on all of the beaches, but will stick to our favorites. PSA: Words won’t do them justice, but hopefully the images include will give you an idea of how pristine they are in person.
The primary difference between each beach is the number of people you’ll run in to while there. Some, like Magens Bay, are crowded – if it's well known, easier to get to and has services like food and restrooms then you'll engage in a skirmish or two for prime real estate.
Others, like Coki Beach, are less populated and more relaxing. Coki Beach this is the beach residents of the island frequent. It’s on the small side, but has great snorkeling, food, water equipment rentals and a steady stream of reggae music.
Others are even less populated like our favorite, Sandy Beach. We had our own private beach with no one other visitors the 5 hours we spent there. Walking out of the thicket of trees and onto the sandy beach (pun intended) was enough to me make cuss with amazement.
Our first glimpse of Magens Bay came from a scenic overlook (the island has its fair share of these) on our travails through the northern part of St Thomas.
This is one of the more popular beaches on the island with both tourists and locals setting up shop on the white sand. It’s also one of the beaches that charges a fee to get in. It’s not expensive, but something to note.
The beach features “campgrounds” where parties are held, bathrooms and concession stands in case you get hungry while lying around like a seal on the sand. The beach itself is also fairly long. It took us 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other.
View of Magens Bay from Drake’s Seat
Coki Beach, according to the locals we met on the island, was the beach to visit. We also heard this from the parents of the bride, who were living in St Thomas for a year. The beach is located on the northern part of the island, which can be a trek if you’re coming from Charlotte Amalie, for example. You turn off of the main road and appear to be heading to a residential area, but keep pushing forward. You’ll eventually reach the parking lot and beach itself. Also, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to purchase any number of products from local “vendors” that line the street on the way to the beach.
Easily the highlight of our trip and, I must confess, a mistake in reaching this beach.
A bit of background: we originally set off from our rental home with the intention of sitting in the Mermaids Chair – a sand bar, beach, tidal pool area that separates the Atlantic from the Caribbean. However, apparently we took a wrong turn and ended up on Sandy Beach – oh the horror.
Getting to Sandy Beach, or Mermaids Chair if you’re less adventurous, is a trip in and of itself. Red Hook is located on the eastern end of the island with Sandy Beach a fine 45-minute drive to the western end. We made our way through Charlotte Amalie, past the University of the Virgin Islands, through the rollercoaster hills of western St Thomas and finally the housing development of Botany Bay.
Sandy Beach is located at the end/base of a housing development that’s sprung up. It’s nowhere near fully developed, but makes you wonder at what point this gem of a beach will be locked behind a gated community – I digress.
You’ll need to sign-in with the guard, be sure to ask directions (I hear you can get lost), and make your way down, down the mountain. If you’re a guest at Botany Bay you can actually hop a ride in a golf cart otherwise you have a 30 – 35 minute walk down the road and a 45 – 50 walk back up. Keep in mind the walk back up is never in the mood for fun and games. Like the roads, it’s steep. And if you’re smart enough to take off your shirt for the trek back up without applying sun tan lotion, well, you might be a tourist from Austin, TX. Also, bring lots of water.
Speed limit: 12. A sign on the way down to Sandy Beach. Why 12, and not 10 or 13 for that matter, we’ll never know:
Resources for beaches to visit in St Thomas:
Points of Interest
We didn’t hit all of the major points of interest and touristic hot spots on our trip to St Thomas so for this section, like the beach section, I’m going to keep it simple and call out two of our favorites – Duffy’s Love Shack and St John.
Duffy’s is a bar located in the parking lot of a shopping center in Red Hook – it is also a bar with a leopard print background on its homepage – and St John is the island to the east of St Thomas that can be reached via a short, inexpensive ferry ride.
60% of St John is a national park; Duffy’s has a drink called Crazy Mike’s Jungle Juice that’s served in a coconut cup and a fuzzy parrot.
St John is covered with walking trails and astounding views of the ocean; Duffy’s will have you leading a trail of people through the bar in a conga line if you have one too many Shark Tanks – a 64 oz concoction of 5 rums and 3 tropical liqueurs for only $21.75.
In all seriousness, I enjoyed Duffy’s. We went with the mother and father of the bride our first day in St Thomas, that evening and then again with the entire wedding party two days before the wedding. It’s slow and relaxed during the day, with tourists and islanders alike patiently sipping on a syrupy sweet. It’s dance party US(VI)A at night. Visit for the people watching alone and, words of wisdom, do not forget to hydrate with water during your Duffy’s stay. Sure, that conga line is fun, and you’d hate to break the chain, but St Thomas is thick with humidity which means lots and lots and lots of sweating.
St John proved to be equally as fun. We managed to go twice, once by ourselves and once with some of the wedding guests. You hop on the ferry in Red Hook and ride the boat over to St John for a quick 30-minute jaunt.
On both trips we visited St John Brewers and walked the Lind Point Trail to Salomon Beach and Honeymoon Beach. The former fit well with the latter – after hiking a couple miles up, down, around and through the hills of St John their Liquid Sunshine Ale tasted divine.
The ride over to St John - you can see the vacation rental we stayed in, it's the house on the right in the cluster of three just below the villa on top of the mountain:
View of Cruz Bay, St John from Lind Point Trail:
A climb along the trail:
Beer reward after hiking:
Heading back home with the sun:
Resources for Points of Interest:
- Duffy’s Love Shack
- St John
- St John Brewers
- 99 Steps
- Beracha Veshalom Vegimulth Hasidim Synagogue
- Blackbeard’s Castle
Where to Eat
One of the unique benefits of staying in a vacation rental is your ability to buy groceries and cook breakfast, lunch or dinner of your rental. It’s often cheaper, and if you’re staying in a place with a view like we had, you might be less inclined to spend all of your time away from the vacation home. However, we did eat out a few nights there. Below are a few of our favorites.
The first stop we made after landing was to the local grocery store, Food Center. It’s not going to win any awards for best building exterior, but it fit our needs. Also, because it’s an island you’re going to pay a bit more than you normally would at home – unless you’re from NYC, LA, a big city.
This restaurant is located in Frenchtown Charlotte Amalie and is a bit difficult to find – we had to stop and ask for directions – but is worth the minimal hassle. It occupies the old Russian consulate great house and is located directly on the water.
We snagged an outside seat with the rest of the patrons and enjoyed the sound of the ocean while sipping beer and wine. I had the Chilean Sea Bass and my wife had the Pan Seared Diver Scallops. Both were tasty. It’s a it pricey, but worth the splurge.
Entrance to Oceana:
Oceana tended to the fancy side of dining in St Thomas and Glady’s humbly brought it back home. It’s located in downtown Charlotte Amalie, within the narrow passages of the city, in an old 17th century pump house. The stone walls are decorated with local art and pictures of family and friends. It all adds to the laid back, homey vibe of the place.
As for the food, we ordered conch fritters, jerk chicken and curried goat and they didn’t disappoint. I slathered my jerk chicken in one of the hot sauces they sell at this restaurant and managed to make my self sweat a bit from the heat – it was well worth it.
Entranceway to Glady's Cafe:
Jack’s is located within the Point Pleasant Resort, so you’ll have to stop at the gate, let them know you’re going to Jack’s, grab your pass and head to the restaurant. Jack’s won’t ever be confused with Gladys’, it’s combination of huevos rancheros, omelets, buffalo wings and conch fritters, but the food is agreeable. I’m not the pickiest of eaters so gladly helped the father of the bride down the massive order of buffalo wings he ordered with an appetizer of conch fritters and onion rings – healthier fare would be had back home in Austin.
The best part about Jack’s is the location. After entering the resort, you have climb and zig zag up another hill, park and then walk down the other side (it’s all paved) to the restaurant that’s literally on the water. We took 4 steps and were knee deep in crystal clear water.
The setting for Jack's Bight: