Tuesday, November 10, 2015

More than just cruise ships

If you interested in reading the version that was published in the Caribbean newspaper Compass, please click here and download the PDF. It was published in the page 22 in May 2015.

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A visit (here I mean any kind of visit, by boat, airplane, etc... but can be changed to a visit by boat) to St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands, will never be complete without a stop in Charlotte Amalie, its capital and a major Caribbean cruise ships port. We were privileged to spend here about four months on two different occasions. The first time we stayed for one month and then, after a brief visit to British Virgin Islands and St Maarten, we stayed three months more.
Having stayed anchored in Charlotte Amalie Harbour, we had the opportunity to know the IGY Yacht Haven Grand marina without ever staying there. Our location in the harbour gave us also the full access to the city taking advantage of the public transport system which is very convenient.
The island of St Thomas, together with St Croix and St John's form the United StatesVirgin Islands, but it was ruled by the Danes since 1672, until they sold it to the Americans in 1917.


We, a family of three (two adults and 2 years old baby girl) and a dog, sailing since April 2014 in the Caribbean with our Gulfstar 45 Hirsch, had the chance to visit, by Safari (the name locals give to the public bus) other places in the island, specially Red Hook and Crown Bay, where there is another terminal for cruise ships, but also Honeymoon Bay and its beautiful beach, by boat where we anchored for several days, and Brewer's Bay, also known as the University beach (it's close to the University of the Virgin Islands) where one can enjoy the white sand and see the airplanes landing nearby in the airport. Both these beaches are poorly protected when strong winds blow but worth a visit for a few days or weeks, especially the Honeymoon Bay as it is the ideal place to explore the Water Island, famous for its turtles and breathtaking views. There are more beaches on the island but we mention only those that are less known and out of the more traditional routes.

In the city itself we highlight the entire area dedicated to the tourists from the cruise ships, which also has a lot to offer to the others visitors. The entire old town has been restored and converted into shopping area where all the big global brands are present and all Duty Free. The prices are affordable if you know where to look. Avoid places essentially dedicated to tourists and try to visit in days without cruise ships in the harbour. In the back streets near the shopping area we can find restaurants and bars with cheap and attractive prices. The only drawback is that they all close very early. We recommend a trip to the Italian restaurant Virgillio's. Not exactly cheap but worth for the quality of food and service.

What really can not be missed is a visit to the island that separates Charlotte Amalie Harbour from Crown Bay. The Hassel Island is the place where you can find one of the oldest sailmakers in the Caribbean. On the island there are also traces of other times worth checking out and that can be seen through trips arranged locally. Contacts can be found in all tourist brochures available throughout the city.

In Hassel Island, in a building that only have walls and a roof made of salvaged canvas from old sails, a German who fled the hardships in old Europe as a child, keeps giving life to sails and making new ones that last a lifetime. We went there following the advice of a friend who knew we needed to repair two sails and came back completely surprised by what we found and the quality of the service. Manfred Dittrich, 81 years old, who arrived in St Thomas in the early 60's, received us with a smile on his face and quickly told us that he will be doing everything to have our sails repaired in time for us to leave heading South. Initially we had in mind make a new sail but the old and experienced hands of Manfred told us that wouldn't be necessary because the material of our sails, although old, was still in good condition and could be repaired. After all, these days, not everything that is old is to throw away!

On your way back from Hassel Island make sure to visit the Frenchtown, a legacy from ancient times of St Thomas that the residents insist on not letting it disappear. Among several other activities and events they celebrate annually the French National Day. In this French corner there is a small marina, restaurants and lots of French culture and a small museum worth visiting in order to get some light on the French presence on this island.

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