St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands - My Family Travels

FTF tells you how to kayak, snorkel, “snuba” and more on the beautiful beaches of St.Thomas.

Beauty is impossible to ignore on St. Thomas. Cleaner and somewhat more chic than many Caribbean capitals, Charlotte Amalie has its share of tacky shops, but also some unique archways, hidden walkways and small alleys that are colorful and often quite lovely. It’s a safe and pleasant town to explore by foot, with some rather good frosty tropical drink stands, West Indian food (more later) and good burgers. The flavor is decidedly Caribbean even though the streets still bear Danish names like Norre Gade (the main street) since Charlotte Amalie was Denmark’s Caribbean capital until 1917. A good place to start walking the town is Emancipation Park, the site of slavery’s end.

St. Thomas: Beaches & Beyond

There’s no doubt that most families, and certainly the kids, will be drawn to the spacious beaches and that dream-like water. Some beaches have outstanding snorkeling such as Secret Harbor, Coki Beach and Sapphire Beach, but all are spectacular. Views of the surrounding islands dot the sea, some near, some far, all lush and beckoning.

As part of its attempt to attract families, St. Thomas has a first-rate outdoor aquarium, Coral World (340/775-1555). Coral World offers three unique activities that yoiu won’t want to miss. The first, Sea Trek, is a space age helmeted trek along an underwater trail. All divers are given a brief but effective training, must be at least 80 pounds to participate, and wear a 70 lb helmet. Once you’re trained and ready to go, you’ll sink down 15 to 20 feet and walk along the ocean floor through the dazzling coral reef.

Coral World’s second featured attraction, an actual submarine ride, lets you dive up to 90 feet for a magnificent ride through the coral reef. The best thing about the submarine ride is that the vessel is completely battery operated and has virtually no impact on sea life! “We all live in a green submarine!” The third uber-cool activity is swimming with the sea lions. You and your kids can jump into a tank with Remo and Franco, two of the cuddliest sea creatures you’ll ever meet, and swim and frolic away! While swiming, you can give these guys a hug, grab hold of their back fins and go for a ride, play basketball, and be the lucky recipient of a tickly-whisker sea lion kiss. Much fun!

My favorite attraction, and easily that of many of the kids, was the Sea Horse exhibit. Dr. Donna Nemeth, a Harvard University-trained curator, surprised all of us with her tales of how male and female sea horses mate for life and greet each other every morning with a ritualized dance that apparently strengthens the bond between them. I wonder if she was making a point for the adults.

This is the kind of stuff you learn and see at Coral World. Oh, you can send a letter home from the underwater observatory and it’ll be postmarked, “Underwater Mail” by the post office.

Virgin Island Ecotours

An adventure in kayaking unlike most others is offered by Virgin Island Ecotours (340/779-2155). Knowledgeable and well-trained naturalists take small groups out in two person “sit on top” kayaks and combine an introduction to the history and life of a Mangrove lagoon with some very rewarding snorkeling.

In water never deeper than four feet, a guide glides with you through the deep silence of a mangrove lagoon, combining fascinating information with serene scenery. Did you know, for example, that the extensive root system of the mangrove filters the water making it safe and healthy for fish? Or that during a hurricane, boats tie up in a mangrove lagoon because the trees rise and fall with the water never creating tension on the ties?

After about an hour of easy kayaking and absorbing the information, the group pulls into a deserted coral reef where guests enter the water carefully so as not to disturb the coral. The snorkeling is the best, with stained-glass fish making fearless passes before your eyes. It’s a pure delight to be in shallow, warm water surrounded by silence and vivid flashes of color.

The company provides top-quality snorkeling and safety gear, bottled water, waterproof gear bag and instructions. At the end of the trip, there’s a real treat: a sun-warmed water bag for a welcomed shower.

Don’t miss the Paradise Point Tramway (340/774-9809). This tropical “ski lift” takes visitors right to the top of the highest point in glass-enclosed gondolas which kids love.

The open-air restaurant and bar at the end of the seven-minute journey are very attractive, with potted plants, bright, noisy parrots and happy flowers. The bar serves the best Bushwackers (for Mom and Dad) and kid drinks. Sit and drink in the panoramic view.

Maybe the tour de force is a visit to the Atlantis Submarine (340/776-2896). Kids have to be 36″ tall to do this, but it’s a ride out to the Atlantis submarine where you take a “spectacular journey aboard the high-tech submarine, Atlantis” for 50 minutes and see an enormous variety of undersea life. I’ve just learned that the submarine ride is closing on May 31, 2009 due to the poor economy on the island, so you have to act quickly. If you miss it, consider joining one of the company’s catamaran tours, which will continue to showcase the island’s beauty by sea.

Details, Details

The properties on the three islands are making an all-out effort to appeal to families not only with the various attractions, but with attractive on-site programs. We couldn’t visit them all, of course, but here are our best bets:

The Sapphire Beach Resort (800/874-7897) is at the east end of St. Thomas on a wide crescent of a beach with wonderful views of a half dozen islands, including the twinkling lights (at night) of Tortolla and St. John. No need to mention that the water’s so blue and clear as to appear transparent. Sapphire’s kids program is part of the well-respected, creative Fun Factory system and as such is well-established. I reviewed an actual lesson plan and saw they had activities like face painting, fishing, crab races, pool time, Hula Hoop contest, kite making and crafts.

Their children’s menu is fun and funny; kids 11-years-old and younger can order a three course meal including soup or salad, beverage main meal (try the Macaroni and Cheese) and desert.

Near Charlotte Amalie and eight miles from the airport, kids 11 and under stay free in attractive suites with ocean views. Non-motorized water sports are included in the package, and the snorkeling right off the beach is very good. Some nights there’s a steel drum concert by a local artist whose name escapes me, but it’s in the outdoor, palm-roofed bar and is wonderful.

Visit the Changes Travel Specialists website or call 800/330-8272 for more resort ideas in St. Thomas.

St. Thomas, a High-Profile Favorite

We’re always on the lookout when celebrities travel with kids because we’re curious about the private, secure, price-is-no-object resorts and destinations they choose. In 1998, President Clinton, his wife, daughter Chelsea, and puppy Buddy returned to St. Thomas to vacation at a private villa, the Sand Dollar (still very much in business today).

The first family spent four days sunning and swimming, dining at the super-posh Ritz Carlton St. Thomas and at Zorba’s Taverna in Charlotte Amalie, and golfing at Mahogany Run. Although it was Vice President Gore who first recommended St. Thomas to the Clintons, the press reported that “the President indicated that Chelsea was very influential in the family returning to St. Thomas for their New Year’s vacation.” And you were wondering who was the boss in your household?

– FTF Staff 

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