It’s exactly a month since Rob and I embarked on our big Caribbean vacation to USVI and I’m just now getting around to these posts – I had a lot of photos and memories to go through! Before heading out, we were attempting to Google the USVI dining and nightlife scene and I was surprised by the scarcity of quality, up-to-date travel/food blogs with USVI reviews and advice. I found the usual travel guides and tourism board materials (and VInow.com which is an incredibly helpful primer and resource for locals and visitors alike, highly recommended), but few personal anecdotes and travel tips. So I really hope this series comes in handy for anyone planning to trip to the USVI or BVI, especially St. Thomas or St. John! If you’re trip planning and have particular questions, please don’t hesitate to comment or email me.
So: USVI. We mainly stayed in St. Thomas but went to St. John for a few days, Water Island for one day, and also embarked on a boating excursion around the BVI: Virgin Gorda, The Baths, Cooper Island, Norman Island, and Jost Van Dyke. Do I recommend it? ABSOLUTELY. The Virgin Islands are the perfect mix of relaxation and activity, plus home to the best white sand beaches I’ve ever experienced. I would return in a heartbeat (and hope to soon!).
This post is all about…
I definitely encourage anyone our age (20s-30s) who is into restaurants and nightlife as well as gorgeous beaches to stay on St. Thomas’ East End, near Red Hook, which is the hub of locals and young fun people AND home to the ferry terminal between St. Thomas and St. John. East End is also easily navigable by Safari Taxi (basically a big pick-up truck that a local installs benches and a canopy on the back… you hop on at designated stops and it goes around the island in a big circle. Hit the button and pay $1-2 when you want to get off. Waaaay cheaper than a traditional cab, a bit slower but a great way to see the island as well!).
We used HomeAway to rent a condo (This condo! 100% recommend to everyone and Chuck was great) in Sapphire Village, right on Sapphire Beach, the closest beach to Red Hook. For us, HomeAway was an awesome choice over staying in a hotel or resort. We spent way less money, enjoyed complete freedom and privacy, had a full kitchen and living room, and got to pretend we lived in paradise for two weeks. Highly recommended for anyone who isn’t dependent on the traditional hotel experience. I loved our condo and its chill pool with adjoining pool bar and restaurant. Because sometimes you want to swim in the ocean then immediately swim in a pool. Best of both worlds.
The other town on St. Thomas is Charlotte Amalie, which was not my favorite place on the island. While it’s very pretty (see the photo below for a clear day with no ships in port!), it’s a huge cruise port so it gets very crowded when the ships are in port and it’s home to tons of duty-free shops, jewelry stores, designer bag sellers, etc… not really my scene. I generally hate all overly touristy activities, especially when the activity is spending tons of money on glossy souvenirs. But hey! If you love to shop you might dig it. I will also say that Charlotte Amalie is known to be a little shady at night. Where there are tourists, there are people who want to prey on tourists. So just keep an eye out. (Speaking as a person who got mugged by an old woman her second night in Spain… it happens to the best of us, y’all.)
So that’s my veeeeery general overview of St. Thomas, but let’s get specific about the FOOD.
And by “food” I mean “food and drinks, particularly RUM” because man, a river of rum runs though USVI, and it is cheap. Especially because Cruzan Rum and Captain Morgan are made on neighboring St. Croix. I’m certainly not complaining about it. The signature drink of the USVI is the ever-delicious Painkiller (rum, pineapple, cream of coconut, orange, and fresh grated nutmeg!), but you’ll also see plenty of Bushwhackers and Rum Punch. Please order all of them in abundance. Other things you should expect to drink? Lots of Presidente and Carib beer. Also St. John Brewers beer if you’re feeling slightly fancier.
First things first, let’s talk about Secret Harbor. It’s close to Red Hook, but on the other side, not the Sapphire Beach side. Secret Harbor is very special because it has amazingly gorgeous sunsets, a super fun beach bar, and OH YEAH it just happens to be the spot that Robdawg popped the ol’ Q.
For anyone who has talked to me in person or saw my Facebook post about this momentous occasion, you will know that Rob and I ate delicious ahi tuna nachos after we got engaged. If you go to St. Thomas, head to Secret Harbor’s Cruzan Beach Club for some ahi nachos and think about me the whole time! Just kidding, that’s creepy. Don’t think about me the whole time. You should go get the ahi nachos, though.
Now let’s go back to Charlotte Amalie for a moment. For the aforementioned reasons, we only spent one afternoon there, but we did enjoy a really good Caribbean lunch at Glady’s Cafe: conch fritters, conch chowder, chicken curry roti and a blackened mahi sandwich. Oh and clearly I had a frozen mango daiquiri with a dark rum floater. Authentic Caribbean drink? Unsure, but let’s go with… yes.
Conch is pretty ubiquitous in USVI and if you like clams you will like conch too. We are big fans. The fritters aren’t the most beautiful thing ever, but as the old saying goes, don’t judge a conch by its cover.
The other highlight of Charlotte Amalie was Bones Rum Shop. You pick out your flavor of virgin frozen daiquiri, then they HAND YOU A BOTTLE OF RUM and then you POUR YOUR OWN RUM INTO YOUR DRINK. When Bones made their business plan, they clearly never realized that Emily Teachout was coming to town. You do NOT give me that kind of power if you know what’s good for you.
And finally, RED HOOK! Home of most of our boozy adventures and more tasty island food than we were able to put into our bodies in the ten days we were there… although we did our best.
Fish Tails is one of the first restaurants you happen upon after entering Red Hook, right next to the ferry terminal. We ate brunch on our first day in St. Thomas and also our last full day. The breezy open air patio on the water is absolutely delightful, the seafood is fresh, and the mimosas & bloody marys are bottomless! ($10 per person.) I had crabcake benedict on our first visit then a lobster omelette with brie and champagne cream sauce (!!!) on our second. Mimosas both times, obviously. On weekends they even offer a very generous build-your-own drink bar. If Fish Tails were in Austin I’d be a regular, no question.
Duffy’s Love Shack is known for its loud dance music, extravagant drinks, and funky location (in the middle of a parking lot in Red Hook). It’s definitely tourist-friendly and could be considered slightly tacky, but when I’m on vacation I love a tacky tiki bar so it was great. The night Rob and I got engaged we stopped here after our Secret Harbor trip for some big frozen cocktails and a pupu platter with all the usual aspects: coconut shrimp, fried plantains, conch fritters, chicken satay, and some sort of sweet meat stuffed with cheese and fried. Not sure about that one, but we rolled with it.
The food is greasy and flavorful but the drink menu is where Duffy’s really shines. My favorite was their famous “Lime in De Coconut” which tastes like tropical coconut heaven. But Rob got the best garnish: a giant windsurfer!
As luck would have it, the best food truck ever just happened to be located in the entrance of Sapphire Village, right where we were staying. Off the Grid is a BBQ truck with a Caribbean twist. Pay $15 for all-you-can-eat wings, pork belly, brisket, ribs, and mussels. Yes, BBQ mussels, and they were amazing. Off the Grid also offers a bevy of drink options. I, of course, opted for the bottomless mimosas (mixed with a homemade tropical fruit blend instead of your average orange juice) while Rob sipped on margaritas. You might think two Austinites wouldn’t be able to find the novelty in eating (a) from a food truck and (b) BBQ on vacation, but this was worlds away from Texas BBQ. Plus, no food truck in Texas has this view.
Note: Off the Grid opens around 11am and closes when they run out of meat, often around 4-5pm. So plan on a big lunch/brunch here, not dinner.
Red Hook is no stranger to delicious bar food, either. One of our very favorite restaurants of the whole trip was the Tap & Still, a bourbon and burger joint with ridiculously good food, cheap Bulleit cocktails, and the nicest staff. The burgers here are big, greasy, and stuffed with as many toppings and accompaniments as you’d like, for no extra charge. Giant burger and a stiff drink for under $20? This is a vacation steal.
Here’s what I mean about the toppings. Rob really let ‘er rip.
Another place to visit for a quick bite between boozing is Island Time Pub, an open-air balcony bar known for their pizza. We had dinner here one night and the pizza was pretty legit (especially because I insisted on my favorite combo that nobody ever wants to share with me, ham and pineapple in the house!), but I’d say the drinks were my favorite part, particularly their guava painkiller.
One night, after we returned to the STT marina after a day of snorkeling around the BVIs, we ventured to Melt Gastropub. This really isn’t a gastropub in your average American sense, but more of a… regular sports bar. Still good though! Good because Melt serves allllll kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches. I treated myself to their banh mi melt and a couple Caribs and it was a very satisfying evening, especially after being out on the water all day.
Other places to check out in the Red Hook area when you want to go bar hopping: Fatty’s (good open air balcony), Caribbean Saloon (where we karaoke-d our hearts out with random vacation friends we met on the night we got engaged!), XO Bistro (never went but heard it’s good, seems “fancy” compared to other places in Red Hook, take that with a grain of salt since everywhere in Red Hook is SO laid back).
Now that I’ve traveled through my favorite dining and drinking experiences, let’s end this by gazing out upon the water. And yes, that is an actual photo of Rob snorkeling at Sapphire… the water in STT and the entire USVI is unreal. It runs the gamut from perfectly clear to neon teal and it’s so gorgeous it looks fake.
Next time: St. John! Stay tuned.