Pick your favorite word to describe the color blue. Aqua, turquoise, azure, cerulean, sapphire. They all apply to the Caribbean Sea, and yet none of them quite do justice to the cleanest, clearest, bluest waters I've ever seen.
The closest word might be ethereal -- defined by the dictionary as "extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world."
Yeah. That describes the Caribbean.
My husband and I took a trip to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, at the end of April to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.
Fortunately we have friends/cousins, Meg and Todd Ames, who have been to St. Thomas several times and helped plan our itinerary. We wanted to do and see as much as we could in a week's time.
But before we get into specifics, a few words about St. Thomas in general. It's a U.S. territory, but not as developed as resort areas in the states. Nor is the topography the same. Steep hills end at the water's edge on much of the islands' perimeters, although there are many beautiful, sandy beaches to enjoy.
The climate is not as humid as I expected. In fact, it's warm but kind of arid, with cactus growing up in the hills and palm trees closer to the water. Very pleasant. Take a sweater for the evenings if you tend to get chilly.
Driving on the left side of the road is an adventure in St. Thomas. The roads are steep with hairpin curves. If you do something dumb you will get honked at, but don't get flustered. If you don't want to drive or plan to drink there are plenty of taxis on the island.
If you do drive, consider renting a Jeep for those crazy roads. Oh, and don't worry about a little scratch or two on your rental vehicle. That's what the rental agent told us, and indeed, it seems as if every vehicle on the island has some kind of ding or scratch.
When deciding where to stay we again followed Meg and Todd's advice and rented a condo on Sapphire Bay. It's about a five-minute drive to an area called Red Hook, which has restaurants and shops and is where you catch a ferry to St. John and other islands. If you go to Red Hook eat at Duffy's Love Shack, which has good food and goofy, fruity alcoholic drinks.
Sapphire Beach has areas for swimming and snorkeling. And keep an eye out for the prehistoric looking iguanas that rest in trees or meander down the beach. They are not aggressive unless you feed them.
Now for some specific destinations:
*Magens Bay -- www.magensbayauthority.com -- is a 68-acre park with a gorgeous one-mile sandy beach on the north side of St. Thomas. There's a small entrance fee. We packed a lunch the day we went and nonalcoholic drinks, but Magens Bay has a restaurant on site and servers that will bring drinks and food right to your spot on the beach. We rented two lounge chairs and spent the day swimming, sunbathing and people-watching.
There were a lot of people to watch the day we were there. St. Thomas is a popular destination for cruise ships, and one of their excursions is to Magens Bay. There were lots of interesting people from the cruise ships and we chatted with a few. By late afternoon the cruise people were gone and the beach was quiet and more to my liking. I walked as far as I could and enjoyed the serenity.
We saw some furry critters at Magen's Bay scampering around in the wooded area. They were mongoose, which help keep down the snake population. Yay mongoose!
*St. John -- www.visitusvi.com/stjohn/homepage -- is another of the U.S. Virgin Islands just a short ferry ride from Red Hook. It's worth a day trip. You can take a people ferry, or, if you have a rental vehicle, take it over. The streets in Cruz Bay, where the ferry drops you off, are very narrow, but 60 percent of the island is a national park, and it's worth exploring with a vehicle.
There are plenty of options for shopping and dining in Cruz Bay, including Mongoose Junction, a new center mimicking old-world charm.
Head north out of Cruz Bay to Trunk Bay or Cinnamon Bay, both beautiful beaches where you can rent chairs and snorkeling equipment. If you snorkel, check out the 225-yard-long Underwater Trail of reefs at Trunk Bay. Cinnamon Bay has a restaurant and store, and you can rent a sail board, sea kayak or even try your hand at sailing.
We drove inland a little to the Cinnamon Bay sugar plantation ruins high up on a hill. It was quiet and peaceful, with expansive views of the Caribbean.
That was all we had time for that day on St. John. A word of warning if you drive: Look out for the wild donkeys. We stopped to get a picture of one and another donkey came right up to the window looking for a handout.
*Jost Van Dyke -- www.bvitourism.com/jost-van-dyke -- is one of the British Virgin Islands, so you'll need a passport to get there. Passports are expensive -- $135 each. But I've never had one, and I was determined to get one and use it.
We took a people ferry from Red Hook to St. John, then transferred ferries to get to Jost Van Dyke. It's not cheap -- I think we spent nearly $175 for the two of us, round trip. We left Red Hook at 8 a.m. and got to Jost Van Dyke by about 10 a.m., and that included transferring ferries.
Our specific destination at Jost Van Dyke -- recommended by Meg and Todd -- was the Soggy Dollar Bar -- www.soggydollar.com -- on White Bay. It's so named because there's no dock on the bay, so people have to anchor their boats and jump into the water to wade to shore. (I kept mistakenly referring to it as the Soggy Bottom Bar.) You can hire a water taxi to take you from Red Hook directly to White Bay. We opted for the ferry, which took us to Great Harbor on Jost Van Dyke, where we disembarked at a dock and got in a taxi to ride the short distance to the Soggy Dollar.
We got there in time for a late breakfast. Then we claimed two beach chairs under a palm tree and soaked up the fresh air and sunshine, jumping into the bay every now and then to cool off. Of course we had to order the Soggy Dollar's signature drink, the Painkiller, a rum concoction that goes down smooth.
Lots of boats anchor in the water in front of the Soggy Dollar, from water taxis to huge catamaran sailboats.
Late in the afternoon we walked down the beach to One Love, a lively open air restaurant with good food but slow service. Hey, were in the islands. No problem.
Our taxi driver back to the ferry dock correctly predicted our boat would be late. Island time, he said. He is one of about only 225 permanent residents on Jost Van Dyke.
Since we had time to kill we ordered drinks (rum, of course) from a woman selling drinks and food on the road opposite the ferry dock. We drank a lot of rum in the Virgin Islands.
*Charlotte Amalie/shopping -- Charlotte Amalie is the capital and largest city in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was never really sure where the city began and ended, but we did spend a day perusing shops in that area, as well as the huge shopping area, some of it open-air, near where the cruise ships dock.
We were told to shop on the days when there were no cruise ships in port, as the merchants would lower their prices. Either I'm a lousy bargainer or the merchants are onto that strategy, but my dreams of coming home with multiple pieces of jewelry dissolved quickly when a pushy salesperson tried to persuade my husband to buy a $1,000 ruby and diamond bracelet for me.
The jewelry stores also sell a lot of Tanzanite, a pretty purple/blue gemstone that comes from Tanzania. I did buy a simple ring for myself, but did a terrible job of talking down the price.
The other stone that is sold almost everywhere in the Virgin Islands is Larimar, a lovely blue stone that is fashioned into necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. It's much cheaper than Tanzanite and a great souvenir, as the colors evoke the beautiful blues of the Caribbean Sea.