Josh and Nicole’s Awesome Caribbean Adventure 2011: Day 2 St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands (USVI)
The alarm went off at 730AM as Nicole and I had decided to get up early to try and maximize our day. We were both excited like little school children. I had never been to any of the USVIs, so it was a first for me as well. This trip would have a lot of firsts for the both of us. First cruise for Nicole, first time in the Southern Caribbean (maybe Caribbean in general) and first time for me stepping foot on any of the islands we were scheduled to stop at (which was the main reason I picked this cruise, also for the diversity in islands we were scheduled to visit).
Today, as my mom vehemently suggested, we ordered an early breakfast via room service so we could nosh a little before heading down to the main dining room for breakfast just in case we wouldn’t be given enough food. Well ordering room service was more for show than anything. I don’t think we touched any of the things we ordered, but it was cool to know this service existed and that it came fairly promptly to the time we had put on the slip we left outside the door the night before (basically you hang a slip on your door the night before informing the service what you want and what time you want it delivered. Note: This was a continental style breakfast with a limited selection and the portions were very small).
After we packed up my backpack (which felt like it weighed a ton) we headed down to the Pacific dining room in hopes of getting some breakfast. Instead of sitting alone, we asked to be placed at a table with other people. We were put at a table of six, with two other older couples; one from Canada, one from Puerto Rico. The couple from Canada was a mixed couple, the man was from Canadia, the woman most likely from England; they were very annoying. The guy acted like he was the cruising legend, the know-it-all, done-it-all and nobody likes that guy, especially us. The other couple was a very pleasant couple from Puerto Rico who also had been on a ton of cruises (9 maybe) but didn’t really come off like the other couple did. Breakfast was decent, but the portions were very small, which seemed to be the theme within the main dining rooms. I should have figured as much because after I ordered the waiter looked at me and said “that’s it?” At that point I should have realized I was going to get a kids sized meal and not a man meal. I didn’t remember the portions being so darn small. I guess that isn’t such a bad thing considering how much food is available on the ship.
After breakfast, we quickly gathered our stuff, said goodbye to the couple at our table and headed down to the gangway to get off the ship. I had read in my Fodor’s Caribbean 2011 that St. Thomas had some amazing beaches, but the best beach to do off-the-beach snorkeling was Coki beach. I had read about some other beaches which sounded uber commercial and Coki beach just sounded like what I was looking for. We got a taxi near the cruise ship. We really did have the opportunity to negotiate a price as the price seemed fixed by the “government.” We rode in an open-aired truck with railings on the sides similar to that of a cattle car. Also reminded me briefly of the truck I rode in Botswana on our way to the Okavango Delta, except this time we weren’t facing sideways and weren’t freezing and/or as hung over as I was that dreadful morning.
The ride seemed to take about thirty minutes as we made our way across the island and to the Caribbean side of the island. We were also in a truck with a bunch of Puerto Ricans who were often loud and rowdy as we passed other trucks and taxis. An expression that is often used in sports immediately came to mind “act as if you have been there before,” which clearly they hadn’t and neither had been Nicole, and you didn’t see her screaming every time we passed something of note. Instead her eyes were glued to the outside scenery and all things passing by as this was the first time she had experienced a place like St. Thomas; a place where poverty was right in front of your face and unavoidable. I think everyone needs to experience this at least once in their life, if not more. For me, this was nothing. I had seen things most people only read about in books, magazines, exposes and the like. For her, this was her first taste and I think St. Thomas was a good precursor as to what could come in the islands we would visit in the coming days.
When we arrived at Coki beach, we were immediately greeted by a Jamaican, Rastafarian, expat, Bruce. Bruce had a shop on the beach and said he would take care of anything we needed. He had chairs, umbrellas, snorkeling gear, and a lady who could braid our hair and/or bring us drinks. I had a good read on him and figured he was someone we could trust so we said sure lets go and he brought us to his spot. I immediately became entranced by the crystal clear blue water, powdery white sand, and the tranquility that Coki beach immediately brought me. It is not often I get time to sit back relax and enjoy myself, and this was certainly the start of a week where that is all I was going to do. After getting some chairs, snorkel gear for Nicole and I, it was time to lotion up and chill. Well, after some time relaxing, the sun was beating down on us and I had to get into this water. What better to do so then with some snorkeling? I love snorkeling. I have snorkeled in some amazing places; Great Barrier Reef (three times in 2004), Fiji, some places in the USA and now St. Thomas, often heralded as the best island to snorkel at, at one of the best beaches for off-the-beach snorkeling. Well this beach did not disappoint. The reefs were abundant with small fish and some larger parrot, tang and other types of fish.
I think the best part of snorkeling was watching Nicole attempt to get into the water. The smallest ripple in the water would lead to her immediately saying “It’s too rough, the water looks dirty, I don’t want to go in.” It was so cute and I just kept pushing her to go further and further in. I mean the water was so shallow that you could walk pretty far out before the water would even reach your chest. After getting the snorkel mask on Nicole and explained to her how it works, I got mine on and started to explore what the world under the water had to offer. It was fantastic. The visibility for off-the-beach snorkeling was unmatched anywhere I had been. It was crystal clear down to the coral. Heck, I could see 10, 15, 20 feet down without a problem. Nicole wasn’t exploring as far as I was and it was hilarious watching her try to snorkel. She would dip her head down under the water, flop around for a few seconds like rush up like she was running out of air. It is almost like she didn’t trust that the breathing tube would work. She claimed that water was getting into her mouth and I tried to tell her that she had to keep herself flat over the water and let the tube stand out of the water. If she stood up and tried to look down under the water of course the tube would fill up with water. Hey, I give her credit for trying and I did manage to get her under the water for a few minutes here and there and she did try and she did see some cool fish including the fish she called “the rainbow looking fish,” which we all heard about for at least a day (“we” being anyone who would listen). The underwater camera was also a big success. I had used these Kodak underwater cameras going all the way back to 2004 during my time in Australia. It hadn’t worked that well then and were very expensive (about 35$ AUD in 2004, now they are roughly $5-12 depending on if you buy online or in stores).
When I was taking pictures of the fish and coral reefs, I had a good feeling they were going to come out well based on the visibility, how much sunlight was shining down and how clear the water was in general. We also tried to take some photos of each other snorkeling and hoped that they came out well. Trying to take a picture of Nicole was also hilarious. Again she would go down and it looked like she was trying to hold her breath, but hey at least she tried.
Throughout the morning we were approached by only a few vendors and as the day went by more and more people made their way to this fabulous beach. When we arrived we were one of the first to get there and got a prime spot. Anyway, throughout the morning women offering cocktails, beers, sodas, smoothies came by every 15 minutes or so as well as women offering massages and hair braiding. Nicole decided to get two braids in her hair (one braid first and then a second afterwards). She immediately regretted getting her second braid and wanted to take it out. I insisted that she at least keep it in for a little while and I managed to get her to keep them in. They looked cute and she was able to tie them back across her hair. We were also approached by a woman allegedly named Sasha. Sasha said she originally was from the Bronx and that she moved to St. Thomas years back. She was going to be our drink lady for the day. Unreliable at times, she made some amazing frosty beverages. I initially got a Corona and Nicole got a frozen mango drink with some smooth rum. Sasha offered three ways for her alcohol to be served, “sitting up, leaning back and stretched out.” She also had some very funny one-liners and was quite entertaining. And again she made some amazing frosty beverages which we enjoyed throughout the day.
I think one of the many highlights of the day had to be meeting the family who was sitting next to us on the beach. It was a relatively young husband and wife (early 40s) with two young girls (12 and 6 or 7 maybe). Immediately the woman, whose named we found out hours later to be Marie Claire, approached us and started chatting to us. She was basically giving us her life story. She was very vibrant, enthusiastic and we found out why pretty quickly. For the past year and a half or so, she had lived along with her husband and kids in Caracas, Venezuela. Her husband is a fairly big honcho for Chevron and he has been stationed there to develop oil programs for Chevron. From what she was telling me it was a little hard living there. They had to have security follow them everywhere they go, had a driver take them anywhere, and could not just go out on their own pretty much ever. I guess the risk of kidnappings of foreigners, especially people working for the oil companies was a major risk. I mean for those who don’t know Caracas was recently voted a top 5 most dangerous city in the world. Anyway, she was so excited to speak to Americans and people who spoke English it’s almost like she vomited her entire life to us. Well, it was entertaining to the say the least. Their stories were fascinating and really made me want to live abroad, if only for a year or two, even more so than I had wanted to previously. We shared some drinks, some stories, Nicole and she had girl time and I spoke with the husband about things. It was a lot of fun and the kind of experiences that makes traveling fun.
At around 1-130PM Nicole and I were toasty and ready to leave. We decided to get a cab with Marie Claire and her family back to town. They were heading to the downtown area of Charlotte Amalie (the capital of St. Thomas). We found the driver that had brought them to the beach. All of us hopped in another open-aired cattle car and headed back to town. The breeze was lovely and the weather was perfect. Half way down the mountain we stopped for a picturesque scenic view, snapped a few photos, ignored the overpriced market selling crap and told the driver to continue on our way.
Once we got to town, it was flooded with cruise shippers. St. Thomas had two big ships in, ours and Princess, the ship that the family was on. Man was that a big ship and looked brand spanking new. Anyway, we said our goodbyes and decided to look around. For days leading up to the cruise, Nicole had “heard” and had “read” that St. Thomas was the place to buy jewelry. I had to make sure she had ample time to explore the jewelry shops of St. Thomas. We had like three hours to possibly grab a bite to eat and check out the plethora of jewelry stores in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Ironically enough one of our first stops was a Belgian Chocolate shop that immediately grabbed my eye. I love Belgian Chocolate. I picked out a nice 8 piece box to stuff our faces with later and Nicole found a hidden gem in their refrigerator; Chocolate covered Banana. I had never really had one and if I had, I don’t remember it being the caliber of this one. It was amazing. The chocolate was hard and the banana was cold yet smooth and soft. It was delightful and in the blazing heat was like a gift from the heavens.
After the first two streets which ran parallel to the water near where the cruise ships were docked, the rest of downtown appeared to be residential, food and some monuments and places of interest, I wouldn’t know because we didn’t get past the jewelry shops. Nicole was like a kid in a candy store. She walked from store to store consisted repeating “I don’t even know what I am looking for, but I have to look and see what they have.” I kept telling her I didn’t mind looking in each store. First of all they were air-conditioned and secondly, it got me out of the sun. Let me tell you folks, if you want get some diamonds, watches or fancy jewelry St. Thomas is the place to go. Hop on a plane, boat whatever, get to St. Thomas and bring your checkbook, credit card or cold hard greenbacks. This place offers deep discounts on jewelry, the ability to haggle down the price immensely and all duty and tax free! We must have gone into 20 stores. After the first ten or so, I noticed that Nicole really wanted something. So, I decided to buy her a pair of diamond earrings. After going into one place, we haggled the price down, but left because Nicole became frustrated that the lady did not have matching backs for the earrings. We then went to another store, then a third store where they actually brought us down an alley, up to another branch of their store hidden above, but both the second and third stores didn’t have the same type of earring that Nicole liked from the first store. So, we dragged ourselves back to the first store (for the 3rd time), inquired about the earrings, found matching backings and I bought her a pair of very nice diamond earrings (details are unnecessary and yes they are real!).
After that, we walked around to several more stores, took a little look around the downtown and then decided that we were going to collect a shot glass and a little bottle of sand from every place we visit. Well I had taken care of the sand at Coki beach and we found a shop that sold shot glasses among other things. After shopping we headed back to the ship via taxi, got back on board and relaxed. Tomorrow was the day at sea so we didn’t have to wake up early and this gave us time to relax. Since our dining time was 815PM we had plenty of time to relax, put on aloe, lay out on the deck of the ship to soak up some more sun, have some drinks and the like all of which happened after our wonderful day in St. Thomas. Dinner was the only other real interesting thing of note that happened. We were put at a table that normally sits 4, but we were alone. It was awkward, not because Nicole and I were sitting alone, but because the rest of the table was empty. After we left dinner we made sure that wouldn’t happen again and decided to say something the next night and get ourselves to a table with some English speaking individuals.
We also did some gambling in the casino as it was a good thing to kill some time, have some fun and enjoy each other’s company. They didn’t have baccarat which Nicole loves if only to be able to scream “Monkey!” when a picture card a 10 is needed to win. Also, at dinner we were introduced to our main waiter, Nimesh, from India and our drink waiter, Pat (a much longer Thai name). Nicole immediately became interested in learning Thai. We asked Pat how to say a few things in Pat, and every time we saw another crew member who was from Thailand, Nicole would take her shot at saying hello, goodbye (have great memories) or the difficult “Thank you.” As I said, tomorrow was our day at sea and I was looking forward to just relaxing and not having to wake up early. After Nicole went to sleep, I really couldn’t sleep. I decided to head up to the 9th deck and watch the late night movie which Carnival shows every night. Since this is an older ship, it doesn’t have an inside movie theater like some of their newer ships have. They do have a movie screen outside on the 9th deck. I grabbed some froyo and a comfy lounge chair and watched about an hour of Iron Man 2. It was so pleasant; the warm breeze, stars, moon shining down, quiet, no kids running around. The perfect end to a perfect day.