– St. Thomas –
Two cruise ships were here today. Given how quiet the weekend was, we had no idea that it could get this crazy. Those cruise ships dump an extra several thousand people onto this tiny island, and it’s just wild. People everywhere. And they have slots for as many as 5 cruise ships at a time, from what I can tell. It’s supposed to be like that in the winter, when this place is in season. Right now is actually the peak of the low season.
Anyway, we did get up earlier to run this morning, at 5am, and it was much nicer. Some big, puffy rain clouds helped us out as well, so while our run was still hot, it was not sunny, and that made all the difference. The sun is not your friend out here. We were extra glad to make it back to our hotel room and cold water when we finished, even without the sun.
After our run, we rested for a bit, had breakfast, and showered. It was around 8:30 when we strolled out of our hotel room and headed for our rental car. Our plan today was to finally get to a beach. We picked the most popular beach on the island, Magen’s Bay Beach, which is on the opposite shore from our hotel. You can see it in the photos we took from the mountaintop and Drake’s Seat yesterday. It really is a pretty beach, with white sand, light blue water, and bright green trees.
The beach doesn’t actually open until 9am, so by the time we were there, it was just opening up for the day. It cost $12 to get in and to park: $5 per person and $2 for parking. Not bad, right? We parked way down at the end of the beach, away from the restaurant, bar, and beach rentals area, hoping to be left sort of alone, which we did manage to accomplish. It was already pretty hot, but we were prepared with our big sun hats and rash guards, so we didn’t have to worry too much.
We swam for a while, watching the pelicans all around us diving for fish. It was really cool. You can watch the schools of fish jumping up out of the water sometimes only a few feet from you, then a pelican will dive into the melee with his huge wing bones out beside him like shoulders and the rest of his wings curled back. They hit the water with their beak with terrific force, then they just bob their bodies back to the surface, usually swallowing as they come up. I wasn’t expecting to see the circle of life at the beach this morning, but I have to say, I was entertained.
After our first swim, we wandered down the beach to take a look at the bar and rentals area. While our end of the beach was still pretty empty, it was getting busier down at this end. The bar was already open and popular. Most everyone had a beer. It looked like most of the people down at this end were tourists. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were coming from the cruise ships, which start letting passengers out of the boat sometime around 8 or 9am.
Since we weren’t interested in any food or drink, we went back to our quiet beach area, where there were a few more locals. It was a little hot for the walk, and we were glad to get back in the water and do a little more swimming. I was actually surprised to see so many people out sunbathing. I kind of thought that sort of thing had died out recently, with all of the warnings about skin cancer and whatnot. It looked hot, too. To each their own, I suppose.
After our second swim, we dried off in the shade and rung out our rash guards and prepared to get back into the car. We decided to go rinse the salt water off of us back at the hotel before going out again. When ocean water dries, it can leave you feeling pretty sticky, I have to say. I guess most lake water just leaves you feeling generally dirty though, so I can’t really complain too much. On the drive back, we discovered that the beach was about to get even more popular than it was while we were there. There was a whole line of trucks hauling people waiting to go through the gate and pay the entrance fee, and we saw more of them on the road to the beach.
That was our first sign of the cruise ships, since we hadn’t seen many people when we left town much earlier in the morning. I guess I haven’t mentioned how buses and taxis seem to work here. Most of the vehicles you can hire as public transportation are regular pick-up trucks with a sort of bus-like attachment at the back. The truck bed is modified to include multiple rows of seats, a roof, and a couple of open doors, cut deeply down into the side of the truck. They don’t look safe, but I guess they might be. I wouldn’t want to ride in one. There are real taxis, too, in regular vehicles, but they are less common and more expensive. We’ve even seen one or two real buses, but they seem to mostly take people to work.
After our second shower of the day, we headed back down into Charlotte Amalie, which was much busier than before. One of the cruise ships was docked right alongside town, and the other was docked in the deep water port closer to the airport. It looks like 3 cruise ships can dock in town, and two more can dock at the deep water port. I wonder how they get everyone from over there back over to town? I wonder if the cruise line offers transportation, or if everyone sort of fends for themselves. In any event, people are typically off the cruise ships from 9-4, according to the proprietor of our hotel, which seems to be the same hours that most of the shops are open. Shocking, right?
Interestingly enough, there are also a ton of shops that do not bother to open at all unless a cruise ship is in town. There are no taxes in the virgin islands, and everything bought here is basically like buying duty free items at the airport. This means that there’s a ton of shops in Charlotte Amalie that sell expensive luxury goods, like rolex watches and gucci bags. It’s a little strange, venturing over to the areas where the cruise ships dock.
Most of Charlotte Amalie is old and a little run down, like the rest of the island, but the cruise ship areas are well-appointed and look more like a modern tourist trap. It’s a bit like the people on the cruise ships never really see what the island is like, because they are only shown a carefully crafted image of it. We went to a restaurant called the Tap and Still in that area for lunch.
At Tap and Still, we had our first veggie burgers of the trip, which is fine, but never ideal. The burgers were passable, but the fries (made from fresh potatoes) were divine. The food was cheap, but the beer was expensive. Mark had a local IPA that cost more than one of our meals: $8. Still, the total price was incredibly reasonable, which seems true of a lot of things here that aren’t groceries.
Traffic out on the road was terrible, and people were packed into the street with all of the expensive shops, out wandering around. Our next stop was at the Pirate Treasure Museum, which was opposite our restaurant, so we had to navigate the messy roads to get over there. So what you will about the cruise ship folks, but they don’t bring a ton of extra cars along with all of the people. Everyone is still on foot, so parking is usually okay. Traffic is a pill, as the buses and taxis are moving people around, but the parking lots aren’t packed and it isn’t too hard to find a spot to stick the tiny rental car.
After lunch, we did walk around just a little to look at the touristy area and take a quick photo or two of the cruise ship, but it was a little too hot for just wandering around. Once we were parked over by the Pirate Treasure Museum, we made our way inside. It looks like a tourist trap, and it is, but it is also a legitimate museum. I was impressed. Considering that the tickets cost $16 each, I was more than pleased to discover that it was actually really cool.
We started out on the first floor with a video about the famous pirate from this area, Jean Hamlin. His flagship, La Trompeuse, was sunk by the English in the harbor at St. Thomas. The ship was partially burned, and people claim to have found the wreckage in 1990, but according to Wikipedia, that claim is disputed.
The museum really ought to be outright called a shipwreck museum, which they’ve instead tacked on the end. The official name is: Pirates Treasure, a Shipwreck Museum. They don’t actually have too many historical items that are necessarily pirate-related, though they do have a ton of pirate-related decorations and attractions. I guess they thought the pirates would bring in the crowds.
Anyway, the first floor has a ton of good information, lots of bottles and coins found in shipwrecks, and a ton of other interesting artifacts rescued from the sea floor. I particularly enjoyed learning about sea navigation. Everyone’s heard of sextants, but did you know there were several precursors? Both the octant and the astrolabe predate the sextant. An astrolabe is used to measure the altitude of some object in the sky, usually a star. This value was basically used to triangulate a ship’s latitude. Pretty cool, huh?
The museum also included Zues, a remotely operated vehicle that is used to survey, salvage, and excavate shipwrecks and other things lost beneath the waves. The real thing weighs several tons, but the museum has a plastic replica to show visitors how the tool is used on actual shipwrecks. Given that is the real theme of the museum, I’m glad that they had it there.
While still on the first floor, I took a turn at trying to navigate a ship in rough water on their simulator game. I was woefully unprepared to be a ship captain. My boat sank pretty quickly. Mark also tried the hurricane machine, which was supposed to allow you to experience hurricane-force winds. It only went up to 75mph. I think his hair rustled a little. Upstairs, Mark tried to use a small ROV in virtual reality to explore a shipwreck, but he couldn’t wear his glasses under the goggles, so he unfortunately came away without any pirate booty.
The museum also had a really weird staff member dressed up as a pirate upstairs, which was a little cringey. Instead of doing their local pirate, this guy was doing an impression of Johnny Depp pretending to be a pirate, and Mark and I were embarrassed for him. Luckily he only approached us once, and the kids that came up after were much more receptive to the pirate, so he left us alone. I’m glad it made someone happy.
When we finished the pirate museum, the traffic had gotten even worse, and it was a slow drag the rest of the way back to our hotel. It was around 3pm, so we decided to hang out in the room until dinnertime, when we would venture back out to take some photos of Charlotte Amalie and get something to eat. Our original plan was to try the halal falafel place that wasn’t open Sunday.
That plan turned out not to work, as the stand was empty when we arrived. Oh, it was open, and it was clear that someone had been in there cooking at some point, but now that person was gone. We waited a few minutes, but since it was the second time we had tried the place and we were still having no luck, we gave it up as a lost cause and headed back over to take our photographs.
One of the most photographed historical landmarks in town is the 99 steps, which are a set of really old stone steps. Yep, that’s all it is. Still, it is actually pretty interesting. The steps have existed since the 1700s, and the stones for them were brought over by the Dutch. They named the street Store Taarne Gade, which means greater tower street. The 99 steps actually have 103 steps. Can you believe they’d mislead us this way? Those scoundrels.
Since our falafel was a fail, we stopped again at the grocery store for dinner. The other local vegan place was closed for kitchen repairs. We are now hoping it will be open again tomorrow, but we aren’t sure. I wonder if it will be open in the evening or not. I guess time will tell.
Tomorrow we have a couple of things planned out to do. It’s our last full day on St. Thomas, before we make our way over to St. John on the ferry and go see the Virgin Islands National Park. St. Thomas is much larger than St. John and has 10 times the population, so I think we will be all alone over there. It should be nice! No more cruise ships, at least.