4/6/13

St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands



Waking up to a glorious sunrise as our ship was sailing in slowly to port was a blissful treat. Our stateroom on starboard side glowed a brilliant gold. Peering through the window was enough to rouse me as if hit by cold water. I grabbed my camera (as if grabbing a life vest in an emergency) and quickly made it to our balcony where all of St. Thomas - our first port of call - was just waking up as well.

St. Thomas, along with its sister islands of St. John and St. Croix,  form part of what's known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Just like many of the islands in the West Indies, the island chain came through a tug-of-war between European invaders. So it's not surprising to see remnants of Dutch, French, Spanish and Danish influences on this little island. In 1917, Denmark - the last colonizer - eventually sold the islands to the US government for $25 million.

Private view: A good reason for getting a stateroom with balcony
While we inched closer to port, another cruise ship slowly follows in our wake
Carnival Valor docked at Havensight Pier

While it is blessed with stunning vistas, St. Thomas isn't as quiet a tropical retreat as one might hope. There's a steady stream of visitors to the island thanks to regular cruise ships visiting pretty much all year. Tourism is obviously its main draw so the local population of mostly Afro-Caribbean descent knows just how to keep the island in great shape - notwithstanding all the hurricanes it has endured - to keep visitors coming. And coming. Like we did.

It's half past 6 in the morning. Carnival Valor has kept its promise of a 7:00 AM arrival. Last night, while this big ship was mildly rocking and rolling off the Puerto Rican coast, all I could think of was "let me sleep without nausea". Many years have passed since my last Super Ferry ride in the Philippines where motion sickness have kept me glued to a plastic bag. Thankfully, all it took was melatonin last night to ease my journey to deep slumber.

St. Thomas is a great stop for homesick Pinoy seafarers
At the waterfront in Charlotte Amalie. Fort Christian,
a 17th-century building built by the Danes, is on the right.

Like any other cruise, our time at St. Thomas - and all subsequent ports of call on this cruise - is limited. We only have 10 hours to see and experience what the island has to offer. While it's certainly not the ideal way for many intrepid travelers (i.e backpackers), it seems the perfect compromise for a lot of North American vacationers who want to sample foreign sights without leaving their comfort zones.

So what were the options? If we were to go with Carnival's  pre-arranged tours, there were plenty. Its own "Fun Ashore" excursion brochure has 4 pages in all, ranging from sightseeing, snorkeling, scuba diving, golf, kayaking down to a plethora of beach tours. Local companies operate these activities which Carnival happily sell for a profit. For example, it's $90 for a 4-hour "Kayak, Hike & Snorkel tour", obviously expensive for what it is.

Panoramic view from Paradise Point (our ship is the bigger beast in the middle)
A rich man's retreat
Typical house painted in white with red roof
Another hill, another view (opposite Paradise Point)

After a hearty breakfast on Lido Deck, we all came down to Deck 0 where all disembarkation was to take place. I expected a human traffic jam. Despite more than 3000 passengers aboard, it was unbelievable to find a smooth process exiting the ship. There wasn't even a wait until mid-way at the gangplank where pictures of guests were taken alongside a costumed Carnival employee. It's not free of course - each photo cost $11.

Our first onshore activity was going up 700-feet high Paradise Point with its spectacular views of Charlotte Amalie and the pier. Access is via a tram car called the St. Thomas Skyride, the starting point of which is just a short walk away from the ship. Incredibly, tickets sold by Carnival came out cheaper at $19 (compared to regular price onsite at $21) so that was the only "excursion ticket" we ever bought from the ship.

Magen's Bay as seen from Mountain Top - the highest point in St. Thomas
At Magen's Bay Beach
A safari truck is a common mode of transport in the island

I decided to arrange a 6-hour tour with Godfrey Tours, a local company I found on Google search. Meeting point was just outside the pier security gate. For $30 per person (paid in cash on day of tour), we were driven by Godfrey himself on a safari truck around St. Thomas, visiting the island's capital Charlotte Amalie, up to its highest point at Mountain Top before heading down to busy Magen's Bay Beach where we spent a couple of hours swimming. It was an excursion both my parents found perfect since it didn't require any effort from them.

Godfrey drove us back to the pier at exactly 4 PM, a full hour before ship's departure. We took about half an hour walking around the pier's Havensight Mall (built with cruise passengers in mind) where my usual quest for fridge magnet souvenir was satisfied. Meanwhile, many other cruise passengers came back onboard with loads of shopping bags - a testament to St. Thomas' reputation for duty-free shopping in the Caribbean. With 3 cruise ships docked, it certainly was big business day as usual.

9 comments:

  1. This post highlights a very important thing in traveling: do your own research! Yes, there are guidebooks, and there are companies like the cruise ships who would want to tailor everything for you pre-made, but with a few clicks here and there, chances are you can have a better vacation, and cheaper nonetheless. Kudos to keeping the backpacker mentality even in a cruise!

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    1. As always for me (and surely for you as well), part of the fun is the planning stage of a trip so you can just imagine the amount of time I spent reading sites and reviews. It turns out the company we went with was quite good and we really saved money vis a vis Carnival's own tours.

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  2. we don't do any tour with the cruise lines, it's always indepent and sometimes we disembark and talk to someone on port to take us around. so far we've been very fortunate to find honest people to show us around ports.

    i must admit the cruise must have been a tough pill to swallow for a backpacker like you. i think we got hooked with cruising because when we go for a vacation it's always because we wanted some rest and relaxation from a busy and stressful work environment and the "no worry" atmosphere that the cruise offers is just what the doctor ordered. plus, it's a great way to do a lot of "day trips". i love day trips too :)

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    1. While friends have been coaxing me for so long, taking a cruise wouldn't have pushed through earlier than I thought (at least in my lifetime haha!) if not for my parents who are visiting me. The unusually prolonged cold winter made me feel sorry for them so my sister and I thought it best to test the waters, so to speak. In the end, it was worth it because they both had a great time! If I had to take a cruise again, I'd love to do one that involves either the Galapagos or Antartica (but only if I win the lottery lol!)

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  3. Stunning views, from that glorious fireball to every scene in this post!

    You took melatonin to sleep? Sana stilnox na, mas mahimbing, hehe! biro lang. :)

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    1. hahaha! Ambien's not for me...yet. Hangang melatonin lang ako, gamot ko usually sa jet lag.

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  4. Wow, that photo of Megan Bay from mountain top is stunning!
    You were smart to book your tour directly with local company. I understand from my cruiser friends how excusions offered by the cruise are exorbitantly priced.

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    1. Dealing with local companies are much easier now as more of them are setting up their own websites. And yes, by cutting the middle man out, we save money!

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  5. Anonymous9:23:00 AM

    Kabayan, thanks for posting. I'm going on a hometown date to StT

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