Island Time

Lively culture and tropical bliss beckon from sun-drenched St. Thomas.

It’s been 100 years since the Danish West Indies officially became the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1917, fearing that Germany might seize the islands, the U.S. paid Denmark $25 million for the three—St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. Today, the hilly islands draw millions of tourists from around the world each year. And while American visitors can enjoy conveniences like not having to pack a passport and using U.S. dollars as currency, this friendly paradise offers plenty of opportunities for an authentic taste of Caribbean—and international—culture.

The 32-square-mile island of St. Thomas has an especially lively modern culture. Those looking for America’s more recent influence on the island will find hints like a craft brewery run by two former Midwesterners in a small harbor side neighborhood. The brewery, though, is named after the neighborhood, Frenchtown, which garnered its title from the French immigrants who settled there during the 18th century. And the neighborhood’s bustling streets, which are filled with popular restaurants and bars, are just west of downtown Charlotte Amalie, which was named for a Danish queen. The past, it seems, is woven into everything on St. Thomas.

But St. Thomas also has a vibe that’s distinctly Caribbean. Turn on the radio and you’ll hear calypso, reggae, and steel drums. Peruse a local menu and you’ll find dishes like goat water (a spicy stew with goat meat) and fungi (a puree of cornmeal and okra). Venture to the island’s popular Mountain Top and the panoramic views are served alongside a famed banana daiquiri made with Cruzan Rum from nearby St. Croix.

It’s this island vibe that ultimately lures visitors to St. Thomas’ world-renowned beaches and colorful towns. Here, time slows down a bit. Whether you’re spending an afternoon snorkeling among sea turtles or enjoying an evening sipping a rum punch as you watch the sun sink over the harbor, St. Thomas is the perfect spot to unwind and indulge as you soak in the local charm.

Stay

There are few Caribbean destinations as eye-catching as the Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort. The sprawling 470-room hotel sits high on a palm-tree-studded cliff overlooking Charlotte Amalie harbor. With its numerous pools and waterfalls, the resort seems to spill down the bluff and into the blue sea. During the day, the sweeping views from its peninsula perch make you feel make you as if you’re on the helm of a ship surrounded by azure water below. After nightfall the sparkling lights in the hillsides across the harbor add a touch of magic to the evening.

With breezy and chic spaces, and balconies featuring stunning views of beaches, boats, and even St. John’s in the distance, it’s easy to instantly relax in your room. But you’ll want to explore this expansive resort where the soothing sounds of waves lapping against the rocks below is the backdrop to swaying palm trees, lush landscapes, and dramatic ocean views around every turn.

While you’ll be tempted to enjoy as many activities as possible on the island, be sure to save some sand-between-the-toes time at Frenchman’s Reef. Stretch out beneath one of the umbrellas near the waves on the powdery white Morning Star Beach at the bottom of the cliff. Or spend an afternoon lazing with a cool libation by one of the resort’s four luxurious pools. Be sure to snag a spot along the edge of the infinity pool for the best views as you swim.

Eat

With six restaurants on site at Frenchman’s Reef, ranging from posh dining with globally influenced fare to a swim-up pool bar, you can take your pick without ever stepping foot off the resort. Spend your first evening at the open-air—and aptly named—Sunset Grill where the sun dipping behind the mountains across the water pairs perfectly with the restaurant’s craft cocktails and fresh-caught fish.

Take a break from the beach one day for lunch at Coco Joe’s, the seaside restaurant on Morning Star Beach, where bathing suits and sandy feet are welcome. Order the signature fish tacos topped with fresh chipotle pineapple coleslaw and avocado pico de gallo to really soak in the tropical tastes. Or, for a more sophisticated dining experience, just down the beach you’ll find dinner destination Havana Blue, which mixes Latin American and Asian influences to create an exotic ambience and dishes. The restaurant’s concept is best executed in its signature dish, a miso lemongrass glazed sea bass. The plump fish is tender to the point of being buttery, and the lemongrass goes perfectly with the subtle sweetness of the miso.

Of course, you’ll want to venture out as well. Charlotte Amalie, just a five-minute drive or ferry ride away, is home to numerous restaurants. Sip a glass of chilled wine and share small plates like fresh burrata or tuna carpaccio on the candlelit patio of the elegant Grand Cru restaurant in the yacht-filled harbor. Or, for an authentic taste of St. Thomas, wander up the hill through Charlotte Amalie’s narrow streets to the unassuming Cuzzin’s restaurant where you can sample local fare like conch fritters, curried mutton, and fried plantains. Whatever you order in this small restaurant, you won’t leave hungry; dishes here come heaped high with food and flavor.


Beach Brews

Tucked into the bohemian Frenchtown village overlooking Charlotte Amalie harbor, Frenchtown Brewing Company is St. Thomas’ only craft nano-brewery. Stop by for a taste or to fill your growler for your stay.


 

Play

While it’s tempting—and certainly allowed—to simply lounge away your days poolside, St. Thomas is brimming with exciting options for the adventurous traveler. Stop by the Adventure Center in the Frenchman’s Reef lobby to sign up for activities like night kayaking in the bay or a sunset dinner sail.

Make plans to catch “The Cat” catamaran out of Charlotte Amalie harbor one morning. The boat sails around the tip of Frenchman’s Reef and across the water to the nearby island of St. John, where it anchors among reefs and crystal-clear water perfect for snorkeling. You’ll dive among turtles and brightly colored fish before sailing home—and toasting to your successful snorkeling with cold rum punch.


Mountaintop Moments

St. Thomas’ mountains make it the perfect spot for all your panoramic vacation photos. Catch a ride to the “World Famous Mountain Top,” the island’s highest point where you’ll find shopping, an observation deck, and potent banana daiquiris.


It’s easy, though, to be active without ever leaving the resort. The use of kayaks, paddleboats, and snorkels on Morning Star Beach are all complimentary with your stay, as well as fitness classes like yoga and aqua aerobics. And tennis lovers should save a little time for these breezy grass courts, which overlook the beach and water beyond.

After a day in the sun, soothe your sore muscles at the resort’s most serene spot. In addition to its secluded pool and private cabanas with ocean views, the Lazule Sea Spa offers treatments designed to nourish and renew. For the ultimate tropical indulgence, try the sugar glow exfoliation followed by a water massage and hydrating fragrant body butter. You’ll return home calm and relaxed—with a refreshed glow.


Getting There

American Airlines offers direct flights from Charlotte to St. Thomas. The flight is just under four hours. Then, it’s a quick 15-minute drive from the airport to Frenchman’s Reef.