White sand beaches and sparkling turquoise waters have long drawn travelers (and pirates, and Christopher Columbus) to these islands, but it's the friendly locals and unexpected adventures that have kept so many coming back
Author GRANT STODDARD
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER FRANK EDWARDS
IT’S EASY TO IMAGINE that when the members of the Virginia Company stopped in 1607 on what is now St. Thomas, on their way to establish the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, their sublime surroundings would have sparked an impassioned debate about the merits of just staying put. It wouldn’t have been the first: Native American tribes and Christopher Columbus, among others, also figure in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history. Seven different flags have flown here, with the last changeover happening in 1917, when Denmark sold the trio of Caribbean islands to the United States for what was then a princely sum of almost $300 an acre. The acquisition turned out to be a masterful use of Treasury money: St. Thomas offers bustling streets and brisk commerce, and has done so ever since it was a favorite haunt of infamous pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd; St. John has rugged natural beauty (two-thirds of it is a U.S. national park) as well as culinary sophistication; and St. Croix, which is larger, flatter and, unlike its siblings, nonvolcanic, has laid-back ambience to spare. But what truly distinguishes these islands is the easy hospitality of the unique group of Americans who live there and who just might, in three short days, have you, too, debating the merits of sticking around.
DAY ONE | After you wake up in your luxurious suite at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas (1), you pad out to the balcony, take in the view of tranquil, turquoise Great Bay and breathe in the sea air. Feeling fully decompressed, you head to the hotel’s Bleuwater restaurant for a breakfast of lobster Benedict with spinach callaloo-style hollandaise sauce, and then get in your rental car to begin the day’s adventures.
Your first stop is the bustling little capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie. To explore it, you meet Simon Larsen, the Danish sailor who leads the Charlotte Amalie Historical Walking Tour (2), at Emancipation Gardens. Larsen gives a lively, humorous and often surprising account (telling you, for instance, that the Mamas and the Papas perfected their harmonies in the city’s alleys). A highlight of the tour is the lovely St. Thomas Synagogue, with its floor covered with fine white sand; some say the sand represents the Israelites’ journey through the desert, while others contend that it honors the conversos, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism but practiced their own religion in secret and floored their cellars with sand to muffle the sound of their prayers.
Following Larsen up the steep, winding streets that overlook the waterfront has earned you a hearty lunch. Within the labyrinth of alleys once teeming with cutthroats and buccaneers you find Gladys’ Café (3). Not long after you order the house specialties of conch fritters and curried goat, the eatery’s namesake owner (and bartender) belts out a song. Her singing voice and her lip-smacking arsenal of hot sauces are both legendary here — the former calls for a standing ovation; the latter calls for a cooling soursop colada.
You take Highway 35 up and over St. Thomas’ higher elevations to the sheltered, mile-long expanse of pristine white sand at Magens Bay (4), where you take a dip. The bay is on the island’s north shore, which means the 82-degree water you’re enjoying is technically the Atlantic, not the Caribbean. The peaceful surroundings have a profoundly soothing effect on you, but not everyone has been so easily lulled: It is said that Sir Francis Drake used the bay as an anchorage while lying in wait for Spanish ships to plunder.
After an hour spent drifting in and out of consciousness, you drive back to the hotel and board the Ritz’s elegant 53-foot catamaran, the Lady Lynsey, for a sunset sail. A crew member offers you an aptly named “Painkiller”: dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple juice and orange juice topped with fresh-grated nutmeg. You bring it topside to watch the sun disappear below the horizon with a Technicolor flourish.
You’re back at the dock with ample time to check out of the hotel and drive down to nearby Red Hook, where you catch the day’s last car barge to the island of St. John. You arrive in Cruz Bay and minutes later are seated at a sidewalk table at La Tapa (5), a contemporary Mediterranean spot that had celeb chef Mario Batali tweeting his enthusiasm for it last April. The atmosphere is as exuberant and sophisticated as you’d find in any southern European harborfront restaurant, enticing you to order appetizers — the seared foie gras with grape-gewürztraminer compote and the grilled langostinos with passion fruit-cilantro aioli — before tucking into a plate of grilled local yellowtail snapper Basquaise with squid ink orzo.
Batali was certainly onto something, as La Tapa is a gastronomic paradise. But two bays north lies yet another paradise: your hotel, Caneel Bay (6), where, full to bursting, you check in under cover of darkness.