We went to the all-inclusive Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa in St. Thomas (now Sugar Bay Resort and not affiliated with Wyndham) and the Westin St. John Resort in mid July 2005. Our main reason for traveling was to attend a friend’s wedding in St Thomas at the Wyndham, but we thought it would be nice to extend it for a few days. Beach Bum Vacations: I e-mailed Hayley after a recommendation from TheKnot.com before I became a travel agent myself! Hayley was so helpful, so nice, and had excellent communication with her clients. She automatically beat a price from Island Spree when asked, and when we moved to Arizona, she changed all of our flights for us without a change fee (we purchased the travel insurance-key to avoiding fees!) She even called us the day before we left to go over all the details.
Flights: We flew American Airlines since we are AAdvantage members and trying for those free first class tickets to Europe (almost there!). So, since we chose this carrier from Phoenix, we did a lot of bouncing around. Let’s just say that it was a less than pleasant experience from the get-go, but our flights to get to St. Thomas were better than the return. It started off badly because I had submitted for upgrades from Phoenix to Dallas (pre-paid for first class from Dallas on) and although there were seats available for purchase, my upgrades did not go through (I am a Gold AAdvantage member, so I have some priority, I’ll be platinum after our next flight, thankfully) so basically, Joe Schmo walked into the airport and got my seats the day-of. I was NOT happy. So, I reluctantly sucked it up for the 2 hour flight and it was the first time I had flown coach in quite some time. I was also in the one exit row that did not have reclining seat. Once we got to Dallas, things were fine, but we did have a VERY close call at our stop over in Miami. We made our flight by 10 minutes, since we decided to haul butt from one terminal to the next. Once on the plane in Miami, I enjoyed a nice meal and we watched Miss Congeniality 2 to pass the time.
Our return flights began off bad from the start. We arrived at the airport, soaking wet from sweating on the ferry. I get in the first class line, only to wait longer than coach, and when I finally get there, they inform us that our flight to San Juan was delayed by 2 hours. Well, months before our trip, they had changed flight times, which changed our itinerary, and left us with an illegal connection in San Juan. I called, complained, and they said that as long as the computer assigned it, they had to keep it. So, I knew that our illegal connection is what made this all fall apart. They said that we could stay the night in San Juan, stay the night in Miami, or get us home that evening by flying us to Houston instead of Dallas, and putting us on a Continental flight. I was all for spending the night in San Juan to do some exploring, but if we stayed overnight there or in Miami, they could not give us first class on the way home. I was NOT about to accept that, since we pre-paid for it for two legs on our flights and it was NOT cheap. So, I took the Continental option, hoping to get mileage credit once we returned home( and we did get it!). Our flight in St. Thomas finally took off 3 hours after we checked in, and once again, we were dashing through Miami International to make our flight. This time, we had 20 minutes. We made it, but our bags did not, as we later found out. No big deal- we got it back the next day. Anyway, we arrive in Houston and have NO clue where to go. We finally figure it all out and we come to find out we’re on a 50 seater commuter plane with two screaming babies. Mind you, this is an 11pm flight. So, sleeping on this flight proved to be very difficult and as I was about to say something to the negligent mother who let her baby cry for 2+ hours, someone beat me to the punch. Keep in mind, I do not like kids, nor do I plan on having any, so this just grated on my last nerve after a horrible day. We did get home safely, and I suppose that is all that matters in the end.
We did not wander much from our resort, but from what I did see, St. Thomas is a very lively island, with a variety of places to shop, tons of excellent restaurants, loads of history, and of course, some nightlife! Two of my friends went out every night to various clubs, which is great for those who seek that type of fun. There are also plenty of gorgeous beaches and quite a few resorts to choose from. St. Thomas is also a cruise port, and at one point, there were 3 ships in port all at the same time. So, St. Thomas is more or less a tourist haven and not the place to be if you seek something off the beaten path. I did, however, find most of the people to be very friendly and even if you don’t stay on St. Thomas, you’ll have to spend some time there since it’s where the airport is located!
The Wyndham is located along the northern part of the island and looks over toward St. John, near Red Hook. Also nearby is Sapphire Beach and the Ritz Carlton. The Wyndham is, at best, a 4 star resort, and does offer an all-inclusive package for those who would rather sit around and drink all day. My descriptions below may seem a bit negative, but we did have a wonderful time, mostly because we got to share it with our friends. Had we gone on our own, we would have chosen to stay at the Ritz, or skip St. Thomas altogether since we prefer low-key, quiet, secluded surroundings.
Accommodations: When we first walked into the resort, we saw the reception area which was very reminiscent of a Caribbean plantation. It was very pretty, with a dramatic staircase and a sitting area with bright, tropical colors. I was impressed and had hoped for something just as nice in the rooms. I was severely let down. I had requested an oceanview room, and we had one- if you bent over the balcony and looked around the building. The rooms were in need of a serious update, with old and discolored wallpaper, mismatched decor, and a comforter on the bed that I know I had seen at a Hampton Inn. The shower was small and the water would just stop running during any given shower. I know this happens all over the Caribbean, but the pressure would just decrease rather than stopping altogether at our other resort. Our view consisted of the tin roof of another building, but we did catch a glimpse of some condo homes on a cliff. The rest of the rooms appeared to have similar interiors, although my friend’s oceanview room had a commanding view. If you ever decide to travel here, do pay the extra money for the oceanview room because it more than makes up for the quality of the decor.
Grounds: The grounds seemed to be maintained well, but the resort flora had more of a natural look than a manicured look. The beach sand was nice and soft, but not very extensive, so the beach felt often crowded, even though there weren’t a ton of people around. The pool area consisted of three pools, but each pool seemed too small for the amount of chairs in the area. There were always too many people around to swim, and there were always people playing football or volleyball, so enjoying a quiet float was not possible. Around the pool were several options for food, which was nice to have within close proximity. However, the buildings were worn and needed some care. I did spend most of my time around the pool, and it was nice to sit and enjoy a frozen drink and then be able to slip right into the water to cool off.
The worst part of the hotel’s grounds was the walk between the rooms and the pool/beach area. It has been said there are some 100 steps down to the pool, and I totally believe it. I wish it had been the other way around- 100 steps UP, because by the end of the day, I was beat and did not look forward to that climb. The hotel had a shuttle that would pick you up at the pool and take you to the reception area, which provided an alternative to the cliff climbing, but the shuttle did not always run on a regular schedule. Overall, the grounds were clean and free from litter and debris, but the resort was definitely in need of a minor face lift. Service: Service was good, but not great. There were no pool or beach attendants, except the occasional woman who would walk around the pool with a tray of fresh cut fruit. At the sit down restaurants, the staff was friendly, but a bit slow in coming over to take your order. I don’t usually mind that, but this trip was centered around a wedding, so we always seemed to be on a time crunch to go to events or meet up with someone. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Wyndham offers an all-inclusive option, so therefore, noone really tips. As we all know, tipping is VERY accepted in the US, so it would be accepted in the USVIs, obviously.
Food and Beverage: I admit, we did the lazy thing and did the all-inclusive option. Had we not been attending my friend’s wedding, we would have opted against it (her reception was essentially free to her since everyone did the AI option, and anyone who did not do it, had to pay for their meal). Plus, everyone wanted to stick around the resort for wedding activities, so we felt we would do the same. As with most AIs, the food is slightly subpar. I found a few highlights, like the grilled chicken sandwiches at the pool grill, or the pancakes at breakfast. The buffet at the Mangrove, down by the pool, was okay- nothing to write home about, but did offer a lot of variety, from mozarella sticks to BBQ chicken to grilled tuna. The Manor House, which is the main restaurant for breakfast and dinner, had the best food, but my steak was no Ruth’s Chris filet. They also recently opened an Italian restaurant, Tuscany, but the AI option is not valid there (you only get a 50% discount). We felt that this would be a waste of our $75/person/day. We did get our money’s worth because we did not pay for Sunday’s meals due to our check out, but still had our breakfast and dinner there.
This is where I thought going to an all-inclusive would be beneficial. I was expecting free snorkel gear, plenty of towels, free kayaks, free floating rafts, etc. I was shocked to learn that in order to use a foam raft, it was $10 a day per raft! What a rip off! Then, in order to get towels, you had to have a towel card. Each card only allowed you one towel. You were supposed to get them at check in, but noone did. So, big surprise to everyone when they went to the pool the next day and didn’t know what a towel card was! Plus, if you failed to return the towel cards at check out, you were charged $25 a card to your room bill! Oddly enough, the snorkel gear and the kayaks were free of charge. You’d think they would charge for those activities, if they wanted to charge for a piece of blue floating foam!
For those who like schedules and conformity, the hotel handed out a list of activities, and their times and places, at check-in. These included beginning SCUBA lessons, a tour of the resort, and belly dancing lessons. You could also visit the tour desk in the reception area for activities outside of the resort.
St. John is what I had longed for since we arrived in St. Thomas. Even before we stepped foot onto the island, I could tell by afar (we passed by the island on boat on our way to Virgin Gorda) that it was peaceful and had spectacular stretches of beach and lovely bays. When we finally stepped ashore for our stay in Cruz Bay, I just loved the quaint downtown area, the cute shopping areas, and the variety in restaurants. What I loved even more is that once you left the downtown area of Cruz Bay, you were in the secluded national park, where development was sparse and the hidden gems of the island are still mostly untouched. With only two resorts (the Westin and Caneel Bay), St. John still had the charm of a tropical paradise without the major crowds (at least until a cruise came into port in St. Thomas).
We visited the often-photographed Trunk Bay and it was gorgeous, but happened to catch it on a day when the Carnival cruisers took the beach over with their poor snorkeling etiquette and bright yellow life jackets. I was saddened by this, but knew we’d be back to give it another go. I could have stayed another week just to explore some of the other beaches and bays and to take in the sights all around the island. I also would have loved more time to browse the local shops and catch a meal at the local eateries. We were lucky enough to catch a dinner at Morgan Mango’s in Mongoose Junction (adorable shopping area) and we highly recommend the voodoo snapper. I also now count myself lucky to have a week in St. John every year if we so choose- we now own a timeshare at the Westin through Starwood Vacation Ownership!
Westin St. John Resort: The Westin is the largest resort on the island, and while very upscale and expansive, it definitely lacks the intimacy that the rest of the island exudes. It does have quite a view of the bay, and you’ll find a few boats docked just off shore from the Westin’s beach. As I noted above, we really enjoyed our time at the Westin, and bought a timeshare there because of it, but we did think that the population of children at the resort was a tad overwhelming. I have a feeling that next time we go, we’ll be spending more time on island beaches outside of the resort. I should also mention that we chose the Westin for our stay over Caneel Bay because I need to be connected (I can’t help it- I need a TV!) and I’m an elite Starwood Preferred Guest member, so this stay got me a few points!
Accommodations: The Westin’s rooms are volumes better than the experience we had at the Wyndham, but as a Westin resort, I do feel that there was need for improvements. We had originally booked a gardenview room, but I knew we’d be upgraded because of my elite status with Starwood. We were given an oceanview room, that had a decent view of the bay. The interior decor was what I call modern tropical- it had a hint of tropical color and decor, but it didn’t have any cheesy bright patterns or prints. The bathroom could have used the most help since it didn’t seem to match at all with different tiles in the shower than on the floor. I admit that our timeshare model had a chinsy tropical flare, but we were told that our actual unit would be more modern like the larger model- which was REALLY nice.
Grounds: The grounds are extensive, but very well cared for. There were always gardeners running around trimming the palms and mowing the grass. I even walked a few times from our room to the reception area with bare feet and did not step on one pebble. Luckily, I did not have to walk all that often at all! At over 47 acres, the Westin has a shuttle system consisting of golf carts that run the brick paths of the resort (and villas) to help the guests tackle the long walks. I found this shuttle to be most helpful for us since our room was located on top of a very steep hill, which was exhausting to climb. The Westin also had taxis that sit on the property to take you where ever you please on the island, however, these are not complimentary (expect $3/person to get to Cruz Bay).
The beach area is pretty large, but has coarser sand than the island’s natural beaches. It is also packed with beach lounges. The ground maintenance crew was in the process of trimming palms along the beach during our stay, so that compacted the chairs and crowds even more. Also, the swimming area off of the beach is fairly large and runs almost the entire length of the beach, except for the portion that is roped off for the hotel ferry and the watersports launch area. The water, however, is not crystal clear and the snorkeling is poor, but it is still a gorgeous backdrop. If you think the pool will be a better place to swim, forget about it! The pool is HUGE, but it was twice as crowded as the beach. I’m hoping that it was due to the fact that school was not in session, otherwise you can deem the pool a child’s playground. Overall, I admit, the grounds did have that resort feel (not a secluded paradise by any means), but they were very pretty!
Service: There are always a few pieces of coal among the diamonds, but overall, the staff at the Westin was extremely friendly and very welcoming. The service was not as slow as the Wyndham, but the resort is not an all-inclusive, so there was more incentive to provide excellent service. There was one particular thing that stuck out in my mind: the beach chairs have little red flags on the top that you can stick up if you want a waiter or waitress to stop by. I thought this was ingenious, but the two times I stuck my flag up, noone ever came. I found this to be a HUGE waste of a brilliant idea. However, when I noticed the amount of people on the beach versus the number of staff on duty, there was no way that the staff could handle it.
Another excellent service idea that the Westin implemented was having TWO reception desks, as well as two vacation services desks. Guests can arrive at the resort via taxi (if they took the public ferry) or they can arrive by the hotel ferry. The hotel ferry docks at the beach, so they placed a reception desk right at the top of the dock for guests to just walk up and check-in upon arrival. This saved many guests a long ride to the main reception lobby to check in, and then most likely a ride back to their room (most rooms were in the vicinity of the pool and the beach). The vacation services desk at the dock was also great since the desk in the main lobby was ALWAYS too busy. I waited there twice to speak with someone for 5 minutes before walking away, but walked right up to the desk at the dock and got immediate attention.
Food and Beverage: We ate at every restaurant at the resort (Beach Bar, Snorkels Pool Grill, and Chloe and Bernards) and have absolutely no complaints. Drinks were surprisingly cheaper than expected at around $8/frozen drink. I had paid over $11/drink in Hawaii! So, that was an added bonus. Notable dishes include the breakfast buffet that includes everything under the sun and the chocolate torte at Chloe and Bernards. There is also a deli on the property that has a small sandwich selection, chips, drinks, and Uno pizza. Expect to pay $9.75 for a tuna sandwich.
Activities: The Westin did it right- free rafts, free kayaks, and free aqua bikes! I’m still a bit miffed about the $10 charge at the Wyndham. Anyway, the Westin had everything and anything having to do with water sports. There is an activities desk for excursions outside of the resort, including snorkeling trips and boat rentals, and there is a water sports shack down on the beach, where you can sign up for the kayaks and bikes and rent jet skis. Honestly, the activities desk always looked quiet and underutilized, but then a few excursion boats would pull up and people would pour out and a new set would shuffle on. So, they were busier than I thought! Next time we go, I’d like to go parasailing and rent another boat (see below) to head back to the BVIs. As a sidenote, the Westin has a kid’s club for the youngings. I can honestly say I will NEVER utilize their services.
British Virgin Islands
This boat trip was the highlight of our vacation. My friend, who got married, and her husband, invited a group of us (those who did not need to check out) to go on a boating excursion to Virgin Gorda for some snorkeling and lunch. They rented from Nauti Nymph, who does the majority of powerboat rentals on both St. Thomas and St. John. We rented a 27 ft. boat that held 8 people, packed a cooler full of beer and water, and hit the high seas. (NOTE: if you go to the BVIs after December 2005, you will need a passport to check in with customs). The ride was VERY rough since there was a bit of wind and it took a little over an hour to get to Virgin Gorda. Besides the bumps, the ride there was very scenic. We checked in with customs and headed to the world famous Baths. For those that don’t know about the Baths, it is a cove with many large boulders that form pools and grottos with gorgeous blue waters and some snorkeling opportunities. The water did NOT let me down. It was phenomenally clear and a wonderful shade of blue. I was, however, let down by the snorkeling. I did see some interesting sea life, such as a ray and what appeared to be a sturgeon, but there were no massive amounts of fish or coral. Perhaps I just misunderstood and thought The Baths were all about snorkeling. It was still beautiful, however, and something that is a must-see.
After our swim and snorkel at The Baths, we headed to Road Town Harbor for lunch. We docked at The Pub and ate lunch there. It was mediocre, but we were starving! We then made our way across the sea to Norman Island, to the caves. This site, famous for being the site of Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island, had some of the best snorkeling I saw in the Virgin Islands. The caves are great for exploration and the water is as blue as The Baths. The only place that rivaled Norman in marine beauty is Trunk Bay, but Trunk Bay’s snorkeling is staged (there is a marked trail indicating facts about marine life for snorkelers to follow). After a short snorkel at Norman, we had to head back to St. John to customs and return the boat in St. Thomas. It was a fun, unforgettable day and I count myself very fortunate to have had that experience.