01 MAR 2012: You’ve heard it a thousand times before. “I want something new, somewhere where I don’t have long wait times between connecting flights, basically I want to be on the beach in five hours.”


I just got back from the US Virgin Islands and boy what a surprise.

Being a US territory I kinda was expecting the stars and stripes at every turn but what I encountered was a cool mix of Latin, European, African, and American influences that have mélanged into a destination which quite frankly has got it all.

Here’s why:

Scenic Landscape
An archipelago of volcanic islands grew from the ocean floor eons ago, leaving these islands in a stunning tapestry as viewed by the lush high mountains, among them Bordeaux in St. John; the white sand beaches around the three major islands (St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas); and of course the panoramic vistas from any peak (from which there are loads). No wonder there’s a look-out in Charlotte Amalie known as Paradise Point. You’ll understand what I mean once you reach this spot.

Rich History

Ever since the Tainos arrived over the centuries the forefathers to these tropical islands have had their own hey days cashing in on the once lucrative sugar industry.

Today, the USVI offers several experiential tours helping folks understand the early origins. The Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is conducting archaeological digs at various spots like Cinnamon Bay, in which a slave reburial (remains found earlier) is scheduled later this year.

Over by the historic Annaberg Sugar Mill and Plantation Ruins, considered one of the largest plantations on St. John, volunteer guides from the local preservation organization, field questions and take you on an eye-opening tour of what used to be. In addition the site is a popular backdrop for wedding photos.

Under the Sea

Locals are desperately trying to keep their beaches clean. And it’s working – this past December four beaches around the USVI have been designated Blue Flag Beaches (Lindbergh Bay at the Emerald Beach Resort; Great Bay at The Ritz Carlton on St. Thomas; Trunk Bay on St. John; and Pelican Cove at the Palms at Pelican Cove Beach Resort on St. Croix.).

The exclusive Blue Flag eco-label is awarded to beaches and marinas worldwide that meet the program’s 32 criteria. And the fruits are evident. Around Trunk Bay snorkelers submerge in a fabulous underwater trail showcasing coral reefs with abundant tropical fish.

Turtles are a huge success too. Several properties around USVI cater to turtle lovers so if you want to help give back look no further than the Ritz Carlton St. Thomas’s Give Back Getaways which will soon introduce an interesting sea turtle program. Over by Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, kids and families can view turtles that live along this sheltered bay. It’s a regular pastime to swim and spot them in the clear blue waters.

Culinary Delights:
Mmm, amazing how much tastier pineapples, papaya and mangoes taste when you are away.

You get a humungous assortment of fruits daily at breakfast if you so desire (all the properties I visited have a fantastic breakfast buffet which helps you load up for the entire day if you were interested).

Then you get your pick of island favourites, a little bit of Manhattan, and thoughts of Italy and France if you feel like. The variety of culinary offerings is huge. One of the favourites I came across is called Fatty Crab on St. John. This new casual eatery originates from that gourmet capital NYC, and the culinary explosion here is evident with its Malaysian inspired menu. Then there’s Asolare with its Asian fusion cuisine. Overlooking Cruz Bay you get amazing sunset shots from there.

But the best chicken roti hands down is at Lorelei Monsanto’s quaint resto known as Le Chateau Bordeaux. This piece of heaven set in the lush Bordeaux mountains (yes it’s true Bordeaux) overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel has the ultimate view, and quite frankly, a great menu selection of Caribbean and French cuisine that won’t disappoint. Even the signature cocktail known as the Dirty Monkey has bragging rights and is served in a hilarious custom-made glass.

The People

Lots of times, I get asked what were the people like? Well if you’re not into being accosted at every turn with someone asking you to buy trinkets they claimed to have made that morning just for you, then USVI is your place. The higher standard of living is evident, kids are in school uniforms, they had an election a couple of years ago, and tourism is their biggest industry, which means when you’re happy they’re happy. Friendly, courteous, and easy going so remember to leave any uptight sensibilities at home and get in on the island groove down there.

Wild Kingdom

Want to see marine life up close and personal? You can at the Coral World Ocean Park. Here trained guides explain the world of sharks, sting rays and sea lions with unique thrilling shows for each animal type. Afterwards you can actually pet a shark, feed a sting ray and watch a rehabilitated sea lion perform some cool antics. The park is big on animal rehab and is used as a medical facility for injured animals. They nurse them back to health then release them into the wild ocean surrounding the park. Definitely worth a visit!

Heavenly Pads
Like many destinations vying for your client’s hard earned vacation dollar, properties that I spotted around the USVI all realize they need to keep up with the Joneses, and have either a) had a renovation or b) are undergoing a renovation. I’m peeling the layers off this onion skin one layer at a time pointing out what I found interesting about each property (old or new):

Bolongo Bay Beach Resort
A cool independently owned property, this one has been in the same family for over 35 years so has plenty of repeat visitors who all enjoy that warm cozy huggy feel it has. Popular with families, there is an all-inclusive option available, free non-motorized activities, and a free scuba lesson in the pool. All meals are a la carte. Rooms are more lived in loved in but the location around Bolongo Bay makes it ideal for aquatic buffs and nature lovers. Turtle sightings are popular and snorkelling by the enclosed bay results in heavenly calm waters.

Windward Passage Hotel
Mostly for the business crowd but people interested in an urban hangout would appreciate this property too, since it’s a five minute walk from the bustling duty-free shops around Charlotte Amalie as well as the local island seaplane ferry service across the street.

The 150-room property formerly a Holiday Inn is currently undergoing a renovation so some suites have been upgraded to tones of muted natural tones with a cool window feature that opens up inside the bathroom bringing in the morning sunlight from your suite. Free wi-fi is in all rooms.

Sugar Bay Resort and Spa
Consistently rated as the number one property among Canadians, this 294-room resort sprawled on 32-acres, is considered St. Thomas’ biggest all-inclusive and continues to show surprises. Recently taken over by an Iranian-American multi-millionaire (it was formerly under the Wyndham brand), this hotel overlooks sumptuous Sugar Bay and is loaded with mega options. For nightlife, there’s a casino and disco. Fitness buffs can take advantage of an outdoor fitness trail. All non-motorized activities are included.

What sets this property apart from the others is the profusion of nature that is nicely balanced among the various services. For instance, the spa is located adjacent to a lush garden and manmade ponds laden with various cacti and iguanas that like to sun beneath the Mangrove trees.

Best Western Emerald Beach
Not just your average airport hotel, this one by Lindbergh Bay Beach adjacent to the airstrip for the St. Thomas Cyril King Airport has 90 oceanfront rooms, and the property comes with ample pools, complimentary shuttles to nearby Best Western Caribe Beach and even takes a bow to a new eco program called Clean the World whose roots originated in Orlando Florida. (Unused bathroom toiletries are collected and recycled and donated to impoverished communities). No worries on the above air traffic either, as the peak time for flights to this palm fringed isle is between 1pm-4pm. Guests will no doubt love splashing about this sandy beachfront as it was recently pegged a Blue Flag Beach.

Quick...er flight
Before you used to have to make connecting flights, now with a new route introduced by Air Canada, you can depart YYZ and nurse a poolside cocktail... in roughly five hours. Air Canada has direct non-stop service until April 7.

All the above properties are sold through Air Canada Vacations.

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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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