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St. Thomas travel review, USVI, United States Virgin Islands, Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas review
by Wendy O'Dea

Ritz-Carlton resort, St. ThomasSt. Thomas has been a long time favorite escape for New Yorkers and other East Coast residents, but it's a long haul for a Californian. I was dreading the 11-hour flight but when I emerged from the plane, directly onto the tarmac and into a soupy August humidity, I was feeling surprisingly eager and fresh.

Although an avid traveler, I'd never ventured into the Caribbean. My pale Irish skin generally keeps me away from sun and sand destinations. But blue waters beckoned and I liked the fact that I could soak up an exotic destination with its own culture without leaving U.S. territory. It's like leaving and staying home at the same time: all the intrigue of foreign travel without any of the hassles.

I arrived at the tiny international airport well after 10 p.m. as the Caribbean sky reluctantly relinquished its last moments of twilight. I could see a silhouette of the hills of Charlotte Amalie, the main town, twinkling with the white lights of old colonial Dutch homes. The scene tripped some kind of internal relaxation switch and that, along with my fruit and rum welcome cocktail at the hotel, banished any remaining stress of chaotic Los Angeles.

Charlotte Amalie is located on the south side of St. Thomas but I stayed on the eastern tip, looking out toward St. John. These two islands, along with St. Croix, are the three largest of the 70 islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, acquired from the Dutch in 1917. St. Thomas, with a charming downtown brimming with high-end duty free shops, has since garnered a reputation as the shopping capital of the Caribbean.

Ritz-Carlton's White Sand BeachAlthough there are numerous resort properties throughout the island, including the Marriott and Wyndham resorts, the Ritz-Carlton was my resort of choice. They had just completed a $75 million renovation and I was looking forward to enjoying the fruits of their labor.

 

The main lobby is located in the grand Palazzo building, one of the original buildings on this site when it was developed as the Grand Palazzo Resort in the early 90s. The Ritz-Carlton took over management of the property in the late '90s but retained the Mediterranean-inspired design. This is both good and bad: the Palazzo building is a stunning open-air Italianate building with arched windows that frame views of swaying palm trees and an aqua blue sea; but the individual buildings housing guestrooms are a bit bland from the outside: pink stucco and repetitive. And some are a very long walk from the center, where much of the activity takes place.

I settled into a large room in the first of a line of buildings (all named after indigenous flowers) that are splayed out in a crescent shape along the shore. Nearly all 200 guestrooms have ocean views and 24 of them are brand new club-level rooms added during the renovation.

I've been lucky enough to stay in a few other Ritz properties in the U.S. and the rooms in St. Thomas were similar in design: spacious and sophisticated with top-notch accoutrements and service. This room, however, didn't feel quite as decadent as some of the others. The bathtubs were shallow and the beds lacked the cushy comfort I'd fallen into at Lake Las Vegas and Half Moon Bay. This was hardly cause for concern, though, as the room décor is fun - tropical but sophisticated - and each has a polished marble bathroom and private balcony with spectacular panoramic views.

Terrace Dining at the Ritz-Carlton resort, St. Thomas photoThe Ritz sits on 15 acres and includes two small but pristine white sand beaches (Coconut Cove and Iguana Beach), two pools, a new spa, fitness center and four restaurants. Most appealing, though, is the Ritz's 53-foot catamaran, The Lady Lynsey, which sails regularly to St. John.

"If you do only one thing at the Ritz," said Jamie Holmes, general manager, "sail on the Lady Lynsey."

I took his advice and sailed to St. John, only four miles in the distance, where I explored the funky shops and galleries before enjoying a catered lunch on the boat. We then sailed off to the shores of Caneel Bay to snorkel in the Caribbean's warm waters.

Anyone in the market for a private island can do some shopping during the sail. Tiny islands are scattered both near and far, some displaying large "FOR SALE" signs on hillsides inviting passing visitors to join the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle. A private island? Very tempting. If only I had a spare $50 million or so.

For a bit less than that (a mere $100,000-200,000), Ritz loyalists can now buy into the Ritz Carlton Club, a fractional ownership program. For this the buyer gets an apartment in one of the brand new ocean front buildings for up to four weeks per year at any Ritz Carlton Club, with access to all hotel services. There are currently clubs in St. Thomas, Bachelor Gulch, Colo., Jupiter, Fla. and Colorado's Aspen Highlands and they are going fast.

Tearing myself away from the Ritz property, I explored other areas of St. Thomas from the shops of Charlotte Amalie (I passed on the $17,000 necklace I coveted at H. Stern, despite the ten percent discount offer) to the stone fortress called Blackbeard's Castle. A historical landmark, the castle is actually a small watchtower and the oldest building on the island. It is believed that Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) hid out here after terrorizing and plundering merchant ships in the Caribbean Sea in the 1700s.

At one of the highest peaks on the island I stopped to photograph a Flamboyant tree, appropriately named for its brilliant red flowers and its branches that reach out toward the horizon. I imagined the sunset would be gorgeous from this vantage and then thought that maybe it's the sunrise I'd see from here. I was turned around but I knew I'd be able to see one if I stayed there long enough. The island is only 32 square miles and if I was patient enough and willing to reposition myself I could plan to see the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and set over the Caribbean Sea. St. Thomas touches one to the north and the other to the south.

Ritz-Carlton Resort Infinity PoolI settled into an easy pace of life on St. Thomas, reading under the royal blue Ritz umbrellas spread across the beach, dining on tropical fruit and rum cocktails at outdoor cafes where iguanas (yes, real iguanas) sunbathe at your feet, and swimming late at night in the infinity pool that rolled out toward the sea. Steel drums could be heard playing in the distance and honeymooners and families alike moved about the place as if they had no plans to return home. I'd occasionally venture "off campus" for some spicy island life, grabbing a drink at Duffy's Love Shack or soaking up the beauty of Magens Bay.

Magens Bay, noted by many well-known travel publications as one of the world's most beautiful beaches, is where paparazzi snagged the much-publicized photo of Bill and Hillary dancing on the beach during their 'marital problems.' In seeing the scene myself I started to believe that maybe they were in love in that photo. But was it with each other or with St. Thomas? (...BACK)

IF YOU GO...


St. Thomas Tourism
: www.usvitourism.vi

Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas
6900 Great Bay
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands 00802
(340) 775-3333 or (800) 241-3333
www.ritzcarlton.com

 

 

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