In 2006 we went on our first cruise to the Caribbean on the Serenade of the Seas. And one of the ports-of-call then was the island of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (USVI).
This time around, our cruise ship the Allure of the Seas took us back to the USVI’s capital city, Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas. Hello again!
St. Thomas is particularly known as an idyllic vacation spot today. It is a world-renowned Caribbean island and home to amazing beaches, gorgeous sea and landscapes and unbelievable duty-free shopping. In fact it is often called the “duty-free shopping capital of the world.”
Its history though is not so peaceful. In the 18th century, the island was at the center of a bustling pirate culture, as swashbuckling pirates such as the notorious Blackbeard and Drake traded stolen wares in the port of Charlotte Amalie.
The last time we were here, we did not go on any excursion, rather, we walked around the port on our own. This time, we thought we’d do the same until hubby discovered that the “Jeep Tour” excursion offered by the ship might be interesting, so we signed up for that. The description read that we would drive our own 4-wheel drive in a convoy, staying in contact with each other on 2-way radios, on a scenic route around St Thomas and go up all the way to the summit of St Peter Mountain, a scenic overlook. Then there was a beach stop and later we would still have a chance to do some duty-free shopping. It sounded good.
But the wait for the jeep was far too long. And very disorganised. First we gathered and waited for others to arrive. Then a guy came and asked for drivers to sign up. Then he went off with 6 the designated drivers without a word to the rest of us. The organiser’s rep who stayed behind with the rest of us, mainly wives, didn’t have a clue what was happening. Later the other drivers went off and we still didn’t know what we were waiting for. When I asked her finally after almost an hour had passed, she said that the jeeps were rentals and they had all gone to Budget Rent-a-Car to collect the jeeps. Then they had to drive the jeeps back to the port area and THAT was what we were waiting for.
Thank God we were in the US Virgin Islands because that meant we had T-Mobile reception! So I got a call from hubby who told me that they were at Budget Rent-a-Car collecting the jeep and that they would be on their way soon. Then we waited and we waited and we waited…until someone came and told us we could go and board our jeeps.
There was some reshuffling and we had to give up our yellow jeep and climb into the one and only red jeep with an American couple. Hubby was happy to sit at the back with me because that meant he could take photos and videotape. And so we went. It was already getting warm and I feared we would burn in the open-top jeep!
It was very strange driving in St Thomas: the steering wheels were on the left side of vehicles, like American and European cars, but you drive on the left hand side of the road, like the British – not the right.
I didn’t realise it in the beginning.
The jeep had this sticker posted on the windshield with an arrow pointing left and the reminder to drive on the left! How strange. I couldn’t help wonder why. And after asking I think we were told that it was a mixed legacy. The US purchased St. Thomas (along with St. John & St. Croix) in 1917 from the Danish, who drove on the left to ‘limit losses of livestock’. When the US took the island over they continued that practice, however being a US territory, the majority of cars are imported from mainland US so the steering wheel is on the left of the car.
Anyway, our American team member who drove the jeep did it so skilfully. We were in good hands. Many steep and winding roads plus a few hairpin turns later (read all about driving in St Thomas here) we made it to Mountain Top, the highest point on St Thomas. 1542 feet above sea level, and also known as Signal Hill, it was used in the 1940s by the U.S. government as a strategic communications location. It is a scenic overlook that houses a wide array of shops selling souvenir items, a dining area and bar and of course a balcony for taking in the breathtaking view of Drake’s passage, the British Virgin Islands and beautiful Magens Bay. Mountain Top holds the title for having the original and best banana daiquiris on the island.
We were quite disappointed when the organiser told us that we had something like 20 minutes to look at the view, get a drink to quench our thirst and get our souvenirs. After all that waiting and the long drive…only 20 minutes? Everyone was ready and waiting at the designated spot and no sign of the tour organisers. They came maybe 15 minutes later and what a waste because we had just spent all that time just waiting for them.
I know what this was – island time! For them.
On with it…the next destination – a beach stop. Everyone bundled into their respective jeeps – it was easy to remember ours because we had the only red one! We were reminded to drive close to each other and don’t let anyone come in between. We had to stay in a convoy. So off we went. BUT just after we set off, this guy driving the jeep in front of us kept stopping to take photos and some taxi came in between us and the other jeeps. We followed religiously but the rest of the jeeps were getting further and further away. Everyone honked for the jeep in front of us to go faster and finally we overtook them. But we could no longer see the jeeps ahead of us. AND THEN we came to a fork. Hubby had been trying to radio the organiser in the first jeep but there was no reception. Maybe it was because we were too far away from them.
What to do? What to do? Everyone in our jeep screamed.
I remember I took a map of St Thomas when we came down from the ship so I pulled it out. But it was a very basic map of the island showing the main roads. It helped us to figure out where we were but not much help in terms of telling us where to go – BECAUSE WE DIDN’T KNOW!!! That’s what happens when you totally rely on the organiser and do not have much information. And you don’t anticipate getting left behind and 2-way radio not helping. We looked at the map and saw several beaches but which one are we supposed to go to?? We took the fork which according to the map would take us down to the beaches and trusted our intuition.
Then our driver’s wife remembered…the flyer said something about “Sapphire Beach”. But there was no such beach on the map. Hubby pulled out his iPhone to use Google maps and thankfully we had reception. By that time we had reached what looked like entry to a resort and asked the guy at the security gate about Sapphire Beach and he told us to go back up the road. Basically we had taken the wrong fork. We turned around and the jeeps behind us followed diligently. I hoped it was a case of the blind leading the blind.
Finally we got to the Sapphire Beach Resort and everyone else had just arrived. How chaotic had that been? I think we were just relieved to find them. I think we would have just had to try to find our way back to the ship if we hadn’t found them. Thanks to the simple map, hubby’s iPhone and Google maps… No thanks to the organiser for being so disorganised and inexperienced in organising a convoy excursion.
The first rule of thumb would have been to have a rep in the leader jeep and a rep in the last jeep. That way they would have been aware if anyone in between had gotten lost or been left behind. Anyway that was that. Never again with this tour operator. Allure of the Seas would have to hear about this.
It was way past noon and the heat was unbearable. They said one hour at the beach and then back to the Charlotte Amalie for a spot of shopping. But we decided no to island time and decided to take a quick look at the beach, take some photos then find our own way back to town by taxi. No more convoys thank you!
The beach was an amazing turquoise and people started changing to get into the sea. But we just snapped away to keep some memories of the place and then jumped into an air-conditioned cab to go to the city before we got burned.
Shopping in the duty-free capital of the world…hmmmm…I’ll remember this for our next trip to the Caribbean. They don’t tell you anywhere about this – not on the ship at least but we found out in our next destination – St Maarten – that the cheapest shopping is in St Thomas because there is absolutely no duty. Everywhere else in the Caribbean you pay the same price as the US mainland WITHOUT the sales tax. Just like on the ship. We can confirm that the stuff we bought was way cheaper compared to the US price AND Kuwait price. For example, we paid USD400 less for my Tag Heuer Formula 1 watch. So, on our next Caribbean cruise, we leave all the shopping for St Thomas!
I‘m wondering though, if Louis Vuitton in St Thomas was also duty-free. We never went to Louis Vuitton anyway because it was 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back..I made a mental note: next time, make time for Mr Louis.
We managed to get a few hours of shopping in Charlotte Amalie and still made good time. Public transport in St Thomas is by cab or the indigenous safari taxi which is like an open air minibus.
I think it could have taken up to 15 passengers but we were the only ones in Catherine’s safari taxi. It wasn’t a very long ride but we manage to see a bit of the town on the way.
Thanks to the shopping, our day in St Thomas was saved. So we said goodbye to St Thomas until the next shopping trip and next: we say hello to St Maarten, our final stop in this cruise.