Sometimes—even during a pandemic—a girl needs to immerse herself in a turquoise sea, feel powder-soft sand between her toes and have some crispy, deep-fried conch fritters for lunch.
And so I decided, with the Virgin Islands open to visitors, to plan a quick three-day getaway to St. Thomas—a mental health break that I hoped would erase the mind-numbing effects of five months sitting in my New York apartment watching Law & Order reruns, venturing out only for a daily walk in the park and visits to the local grocery store.
Not surprising, but there are excellent deals for those of us who wish to escape the monotony of pandemic lockdown. In my case, it is a $599 St. Thomas package that includes round trip airfare and three nights at The Emerald Beach Resort at Lindbergh Bay. I book the package for me and Sheree, a friend who is just as eager as I am to spread her wings. Her hopes, however, are dashed six days prior to departure when her employer advises that anyone who leaves the tri-state area will be fired. Looks like I’m going it alone.
JFK is eerily quiet when I arrive for the 8:00 a.m. flight that will take me to Miami and my connection to St. Thomas. Face coverings are required and removed only for the few seconds it takes for the airline representative to ask several health questions and for security to verify my identity against the photo on my passport. The flight to Miami feels like my own private jet—I have a row to myself and across the aisle that row, too, is empty. I tuck into the granola bar I brought from home since there’s no service aboard flights these days and a plastic baggie containing a tiny bottle of water (I use more to brush my teeth), a package of two small cookies and a sanitizing cloth is all that is offered. I’d be gnawing the sanitizing cloth had it not been for the granola bar.
The flight from Miami to St. Thomas is a different ball of wax. Aboard this flight, every seat is filled—yes, even the middle ones. I’m sandwiched between a very large man who is watching a documentary about Bayer Aspirin for the entire flight and a more compact guy who, I learn from surreptitiously reading the emails on his tablet, is an epidemiologist who is going for a job interview on July 29th. None of us speak to each other and our masks—along with those of all flight crew and passengers—remain in place.
Arrival in St. Thomas
It’s a scary sight: Deplaning at STT, I find the path to the terminal lined with masked military in camouflage, each holding what appears to be a gun. Of course, those “guns” are thermal scanners that record each traveler’s temperature as they make their way to the terminal where they’ll complete a health questionnaire and indicate the results of their COVID-19 test. (While the Virgin Islands only requires test results from those traveling from the United States’ COVID-19 “hot spots,” I was tested before traveling, just in case rules changed.) At the terminal, I keep my negative test result handy, but am not asked to provide it. Since my trip, a USVI travel screening portal has been launched and all visitors to the islands are required to register prior to their departure.
With accommodations at the all-balcony, all-oceanfront Emerald Beach Resort, I walk—yes, walk—to the property which, with only a carry on, is an easy 10 minutes, straight up the road that borders the airport. My room isn’t quite ready so I apply some of the hand sanitizer offered at the front desk while the clerk behind the glass partition stores my bag and provides a free drink coupon so I might while away the next hour or so at the now barstool-less beach bar.
I head to the beach bar and there it is: that calm and glistening turquoise blue water that lured me down here in the first place. The sun is sparkling on its surface like diamonds as I sip my drink. I remove my sandals to wade in—just for a minute—and return to the bar with my feet coated in powder-soft sand. Just the way I like them.
Headed to Town
“Molasses!” That’s what Glen, the taxi driver, exclaims when I ask how things have been on the island in terms of visitors. As we pull into Town, I can see what he means. The last time I was in Charlotte Amalie, nine cruise ships were in the harbor and the streets swarmed with people scurrying from shop to shop, scooping up duty-free purchases and souvenirs, boosting the island’s economy which is so reliant on tourism. Today, it is nearly a ghost town, with so many of the wooden arched doorways closed and shuttered and no sign of bright-patterned fabrics waving in the breeze from the outdoor market stalls. Even A. H. Riise Mall, one of my favorite St. Thomas shopping spots, is closed during the pandemic. Only a handful of businesses—Local Color, Cardow Jewelers, Fish Face, Okidanokh, and Caribana among them—are open and doing business. Well, “open,” at least.
Hungry for St. Thomas
It’s time for conch fritters!
I climb the wooden steps to The Green House on Front Street to find hand sanitizer at the entrance and tables bordering only the rim of this popular open-air establishment making it look like the bulk of the place is an enormous dance floor. If only.
Menus at The Green House no longer exist and, instead, a sign on each table explains how to access the full menu via cell phone. I give up after two tries—not a great problem since I know it’s the conch fritters that I want…that I need. That and a couple of glasses of wine.
Crispy, savory, studded with conch and served with both a spicy cocktail and creamy tartar sauce, the portion—even for one who has been lusting for the dish for months—is far too large to polish off and I leave one fritter behind knowing that later that night I’ll regret not having it—even cold.
While many shops may be shuttered, most dining spots in St. Thomas are bustling and, back at the hotel, I meet a friend at the beach and he and I decide to contribute to that bustle with dinner at Café Amalia, a high-end Spanish restaurant located in the cobblestoned Palm Passage. So, at 7:00 p.m. it’s back to Town for what is not only an extraordinary meal but an experience that probably feels more like the “old normal” than anything I’ve experienced since March.
With al fresco terraced seating at widely-spaced tables, Café Amalia boasts a lovely menu filled with Spanish favorites like paella Valencia and Zaruela de Mariscos. My gazpacho appetizer arrives in a martini glass, my rioja is served in crystal and our main courses arrive on elegant china—seemingly trivial details that become enormously impressive when each meal consumed since arrival has been served on disposable plates accompanied by plastic utensils; wine and cocktails presented in plastic glasses.
In June, the Virgin Islands implemented a mandate that required all dining venues to use disposable service items until inspections could be completed. As one of the most prestigious restaurants on St. Thomas, Café Amalia passed that inspection with flying colors, utilizing high-end commercial dishwashers that meet and exceed water temperature, cleaning and sanitizing requirements. The cost of these commercial dishwashers places them out of reach of smaller establishments which continue to conform to the mandate with disposable service items.
An Unwelcome Visitor
It is morning on the final full-day of my short 72-hour jaunt to St. Thomas. I go to my balcony and find not sun-filled skies over the sparkling beach, but clouds, gray and eerie. I turn on the TV to discover a potential tropical Cyclone 9 on a path towards us. While my tan certainly won’t be deepening, I meet some friends at the beach bar to watch the skies darken and the winds pick up. The storm, that would eventually morph into a tropical one named Isaias, isn’t wreaking havoc at Emerald Beach Resort no matter what The Weather Channel is reporting. Occasional rain and slightly waving palms are the only evidence that something is up. My only concern is travel disruptions on my trip home tomorrow and the fact that St. Thomas has implemented a curfew until noon which means that if my 12:28 p.m. flight isn’t cancelled, I’ll be breaking curfew just walking to the airport. A bartender tells me not to worry—I don’t look like a trouble-maker so I’ll be fine.
Leaving on a Jet Plane…Eventually
A fallen flower-laden branch is the only thing I find amiss as I head to breakfast before I’m off to the airport this morning. The sun is even peeking out from the clouds. My flight is on but if I believe what the Weather Channel is saying, I’m in for one hell of a day.
We board the 18-minute flight to San Juan in a light rain, hitting only a few bumps on take-off, and land at San Juan’s Luiz Munos Marin Airport on time. I shoot out emails and Facebook posts celebrating my stress-free travel experience even while weather reports are filled with predictions of doom. My flight to New York boards with middle seats unoccupied throughout and we begin taxiing…taxiing…taxiing…and then we stop. The pilot has some bad news: He’s exceeded the number of consecutive hours he is permitted to fly so we’ll be heading back to the terminal and they will be “looking for” another pilot.
I expected weather delays. I expected weather disruptions. But I never dreamed that my estimated 6:44 p.m. arrival at JFK would be delayed until after 1:00 a.m. because the pilot didn’t know how to fill out his time sheet.
Would You be Comfortable Traveling Right Now?
With so much emphasis on the pandemic, it seems ironic that the only negatives of my three-day getaway were an unanticipated storm and a truly aggravating flight home—two things that could have popped up just as easily in pre-pandemic times.
Whether you applaud my decision to travel right now or condemn it, for me, it was the right one. Seeing St. Thomas again reminded me of the beauty of the world and made me realize how much more I’ll appreciate it once the pandemic passes.
It will also—at least for a while–make sitting in my New York apartment watching Law & Order reruns that much more bearable.