LOCATION: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
DURATION: 5 days
DATES: January 19th – January 24th, 2015
WHO: Rick, Angie & 10-month old son
St. Thomas is an amazing, quiet beach experience for families looking to get away from the typical scene in Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. As it is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands there is less to worry about in terms of water filtration, crime and cleanliness. The beaches are beautiful and it’s a predictable place to visit in that it feels safe and secure. You don’t encounter a lot of local entrepreneurs along the roads or beaches (trying to sell you things every 5 minute from the inside of a sweaty jacket pocket) and the shopping is divine – a ton of top designer shops and jewelry stores. It is a cruise ship destination as well so it’s intended for travelers. That said, it isn’t as developed as some main beach towns and the local culture is well-maintained.
Tips to make the most of St. Thomas:
1. Bring a car seat for children
Whether you’re traveling with an infant or a school-age child(ren) you’ll want to bring along your car seat. Take the time to pack it and check it at the airport. The roads are very windy, narrow and busy. We felt much more comfortable and secure while traveling from place to place with our son buckled in properly.
2. Rent a car
When you arrive at the airport cabs are available but there is a pretty hefty flat rate of approximately $100 to go to the hotels. This is standard as there aren’t a lot of options to choose from and you can’t walk to your hotel (unless you stay at the Best Western by the airport). We opted to rent a car the day before we left on our vacation and what a smart idea that turned out to be. From grocery shopping (to stalk up our hotel room) to day trips, it is much easier when you have a car waiting for you instead of having to cab everywhere. The cost is on par as well. Once you’ve gone to the airport and back in a cab, you’ve paid for the cost of an economy car for 4 days. Most people opt for 4-wheel drive jeeps. If you don’t have kids with you, go for it. Cabs charge per person so a simple outing can be pricy (a $10 ride is actually $20 if two people take a taxi)
3. Down size your stroller
Most areas in St. Thomas are NOT stroller friendly. Markets are typically narrow and busy and a lot of the streets leading to and from resorts do not have sidewalks. With cars zipping around on the left side of the road (opposite to North America) we actually never once ventured out with the stroller. If you want to bring one to get around your hotel etc. take an umbrella stroller. For those who don’t have access to one, the carrier works better than large strollers.
4. Rent a child-friendly home or large suite
Many (most) families seem to go to St. Thomas for weeks at a time as opposed to three or five day vacations. We were actually there on a very short trip by local standards. Most other travelers we met were there for a minimum of two weeks. I recommend renting a home via vacation websites like VRBO.com or airbnb.com that cater to families with children similar aged to your own. This way, the homes are already child-proofed and come equipped with high-chairs, cribs etc. Many of the hotels also offer long term stays so we were able to book a kitchen and two-bedroom hotel suite (at the Ritz-Carleton) that functioned like a home. We were able to put our baby to bed in his own room, cook all the meals etc. Although we took extra precautions and bought large bottled water from the grocery store we were assured everything is filtered.
5. Bring a travel high-chair
While resort restaurants prepare for families, many of the local restaurants in the towns aren’t equipped for small children. If you plan to eat out a lot I recommend bringing some sort of travel high chair.
6. Sun shirts for swimming
We packed swim shorts and bathing suits for our son but all of the kids there wore sunscreen tops – many long-sleeved. It is very warm and windy there and t-shirts and shorts don’t necessarily cut it. A lot of the pools aren’t in shady areas either so your kids are often in the blazing sun the entire time they’re swimming.
7. Bring food/baby supplies
Like many exotic destinations, St. Thomas grocery stores (we shopped at Moe’s Fresh Market in Red Hook but other people swear by the bulk style Cost-U-Less store) contain a ton of items you’re used to at home, but when it comes to kids’ items…not so much. There were some similar brands but many that weren’t known to us. It’s also quite expensive compared it items sold at home. Yes, luggage now casts $25 per bag or more. But when it comes to diapers, wipes, sun screen, organic snacks, baby crackers and so on, you don’t want to trial-and-error while on vacation. From food allergies to taste buds there are too many reasons why experimenting with baby supplies on trips just isn’t worth it. Check an extra bag with all you need.
8. Take advantage of babysitters or travel with one
My husband and I missed out on a lot that our hotel offered because we didn’t have an extra set of hands to care for him (catamaran trips, ferry rides to St. John’s, restaurants on private islands, snorkeling, wind surfing and so on). There is a ton to do so either bring along ‘grandma’ or book a local baby-sitter. Resorts and hotels offer a child-care service with highly recommended staff. We didn’t take advantage of this because I was too nervous but we ran into other families who did.
9. Shop Local
Most hotel rooms are equipped with some sort of kitchenette. Moe’s Fresh Market in Red Hook is loaded with organic fruit & veggies, liquor, breads, cereal etc. We honestly made more than half of our meals because it was easier than constantly tracking down a restaurant while traveling with a baby. We knew what our son was eating and felt comfortable and confident with food I prepared.
Overall, St. Thomas was an excellent vacation destination. The weather was perfect, it is relaxing and peaceful without being boring. There’s a ton for families to do while maintaining an atmosphere of elegance and romance. If we were to do it again, we would definitely rent a car, book a vacation home for a longer stay, and down-size our stroller and luggage.