The last thing you’d expect to find on the menu of an Irish pub run by a Philly guy is conch chowder. But there it was. Now, this isn’t just any Irish pub; it’s ringed with palm trees, yachts and crystal blue water that’s so clear that the vivid colors of tropical fish are outlined against the harbor floor. And I should mention that this pub is a four hour direct flight from Philadelphia, in the Virgin Islands. More on that a little further down.
Now that we’ve gotten our first jolt of winter and crave a change to balmy breezes and sun drenched beaches, how about splurging on a getaway from Philadelphia to an island called St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands? You can stay there or island hop to an assortment of languid and dynamic places that fly both the American and British flags. Here’s what you’ll find in the Caribbean and how to find it. – Jay Lloyd
THINGS TO DO
The Virgin Islands are synonymous with lazing and lounging on coral beaches, tiki bars and warm weather, but for the more active traveler, water sports can be found as well.
Charter a yacht from Island Yachts on St. Thomas. If you have sailing skills, you can take the boat out on your own. If not, hire a captain. Either way, for a surprisingly low cost, you can cruise among eight main islands in the U.S. and British territories, all scattered along the easy to navigate Sir Francis Drake Channel. Between now and mid-December, you can charter a yacht that comfortably sleeps four adults for 10 days for around $2,600. A yacht that accommodates 6 goes for $3,875. The boats have showers and galleys and offer the freedom and adventure of a lifetime.
The islands are a utopia for scuba divers and snorkelers. St. John and its surrounding waters are just a short ferry ride from St. Thomas, and there you’ll find a vast National Park with areas that are specifically protected for divers. The undersea life here is amazing, and your vision seems limitless in the brilliant sunlit water. It’s Nemo’s world in real life, and you become a part of it.
Hemingway’s vivid portrayals of big game fishing can be replicated any day, in any season on the waters surrounding the Virgin Islands. Charter fishing boats go after big game, and you might even come face-to-face with the razor toothed barracuda or feel the arm wrenching tug of a fighting marlin. For more info, visit: www.vinow.com/stthomas/SandL/fishing.php
WHERE TO STAY
I have a soft spot for Sapphire Bay. When I lived in St. Thomas, it was a simple beach club with a modest clubhouse and restaurant. Today, it’s a condo, hotel and marina community with the same enchanting view of the not-so-distant islands and a protected cove for swimming, snorkeling and sailing. It’s on the more pristine eastern end of the island, away from the hectic cruise ship-dominated town of Charlotte Amalie and close to the ferry docks that serve as a portal to the neighboring islands. For rates and amenities, cruise over to: www.sapphirebeachresortcondos.com
Caneel Bay Resort is probably one of the most scenic and tranquil spots in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Part of the National Park, it was created to provide luxurious accommodations in an environmentally-protected setting. Stay a few days, and you’ll never want to leave. The resort is also an ideal stop while cruising in that chartered yacht previously mentioned. Just a few hours from St. Thomas under sail, you can catch a mooring off the beach, swim or dinghy in for an unrivaled lunch and an afternoon on the beach. Look it over at: www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/caneelbay
WHERE TO EAT
Now, about that Irish Pub. Remember Brittingham’s in Lafayette Hill? Frank Brittingham and his sons are now operating Molly Molone’s at Red Hook in St. Thomas. Here, you’ll find conch chowder blends with corned beef and cabbage or a wonderful Irish stew. You’ll also be surprised to find a Philly cheesesteak on the menu, and the last time I stopped by, Frank was flying in his steak rolls from Amoroso’s.
Take a ferry ride or sail over to Virgin Gorda, an island named by Columbus. A restaurant called the Top of the Baths sits on the summit of an ancient rocky outcropping and provides a spectacular view that opens a panoramic vista to encompass all eight islands. Island fare is on tap here, along with Cruzan Rum and Caribbean brews. By the way, there’s also a pool in the middle of the restaurant patio, in case you’re inspired to take a dip!
WHERE TO DRINK
If you go nowhere else, grab a ferry or sail to the island of Jost Van Dyke. Take a passport, because it, like Virgin Gorda, is British territory. On this small island, you’ll find the legendary Foxy’s Beach Bar. It’s the classic Caribbean tiki bar populated by sailors, their boats filling the harbor. Clearing immigration is easy, and the customs guy might be sitting at the bar. Expect to hear calypso, and if Foxy is around, he’ll ad lib some lyrics about you and your crew.
On St. John, head for Coral Bay and Skinny Legs, one of the most popular bars among locals and sailors — half the people in the joint look like they’ve stepped out of a Hemingway or Conrad novel. Great burgers and brews with a lot of sailing chatter make the mix here.
U.S. Airways offers a daily direct flight to St. Thomas. Flying time is under four hours, so you’ll be there in time for lunch.
A couple of notes: Restaurant food is expensive, but the drinks are rock bottom. It balances out. And if you’re a bartender, chef, experienced sailor or marina hand, you may come for a week…and end up staying.