Our last tropical paradise was St. Thomas, the most popular of the Virgin Islands. Our ship docked on the south side of the island at the lovely port of Charlotte Amalie as the sun was rising over the volcanic mountains that bisected the island from east to west.
Our plan was to walk around the historic city and then catch a cab ride over to the north side of the island for some beach fun with Peter and Esther after lunch.
As soon as we came to the end of the long pier, it was pretty obvious that we were back in the United States. The Wendy's and Hooters were a dead giveaway.
Several cruise ships were in port and the place was rocking. Duty free shops lined the dock as far as the eye could see and waves of tourists hit the beach front like an invading army armed with credit cards.
St. Thomas has been the place to shop in the Caribbean since 1764 when the Danes made it a duty free port of call. And everywhere we looked there were fancy shops filled with diamonds, gold, silver, and booze.
We took an open-air trolley down to Kings Wharf and headed up Main Street where nattily-attired salespeople invited passersby into their stores for the bargain of a lifetime. It was all a bit overwhelming and only mildly amusing.
Inna and I are big fans of architecture and churches are always a welcome treat in that regard. The steeples of several lovely churches dotted the skyline of Charlotte Amalie, and we figured we would start on the west end of town with the Synagogue of Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim and then work our way back toward the ship. We found the lovely secluded synagogue nestled into a jungle hillside above the town. The floors of the synagogue were made of sand and a large iguana glowered at us from its home in a flowering bush by the front gate until a carpenter came by and fed him some wild berries.
Whenever we stopped to ask directions we were treated warmly, but warned not to walk through certain sections of town - not the easiest thing to do in a small and confusing place where streets petered out in dead ends and the stone and brick Colonial structures blocked most views.
Charlotte Amalie was definitely a bit edgy. Two Rasta boys zeroed in on Inna when we were walking through Emancipation Park until they noticed me coming toward them with my hiking stick at my side and a big smile. And for the first time on the trip, I noticed that a lot of the natives were scowling as they sized us up. I can't say the poverty was any better or worse than on any of the other islands we had visited, but this was definitely not a very happy place.
We made our way back to the waterfront, stopping at a local market filled with Caribbean trinkets and airy clothes by the city's most popular attraction, the red stone Fort Christian, dating back to 1761. The inviting masterpiece was topped with a clock tower of golden crowns. The doors and windows were curved in the Byzantine style with filigree flair and gold-colored stone accentuated the sturdy lines of the building, heralding the grand importance of this ginger bread fort overlooking St. Thomas Harbor.
There's a wide concrete promenade that runs the length of the harbor for more than a mile and we enjoyed the sweeping views of the town as we slowly made our way back to the ship that towered over the harbor town stores like a white pleasure palace. The trendiest shops lined the landscaped path - Pierre Cardin, Gouci, Coach - they were all there.
A sea plane took off in the narrow strait between St. Thomas and nearby Water Island where my mother used to vacation back in the 70s. Local tour boats glided by loaded with scuba gear and excited divers on their way out to the coral-covered pinnacles of Frenchcap.
After grabbing a quick lunch aboard the ship, we gathered our beach gear and headed back down to shopping world where we met Peter and Esther and grabbed a van over to Magens Bay.
There are 44 outstanding beaches on St. Thomas but Magen's Bay is considered to be one of the top ten beaches in the world. I don't know about that, but it sure is nice. We paid the $4 entrance fee to get into the park and our driver dropped us off on the north end of the beach where there were less people.
Magen's Bay is expansive, about a half-mile wide and over two miles long. Large groves of mature sea grape trees frame the white sand beach, providing welcome shade amidst a myriad of services. This is a very popular place and thousands of people come each day to swim and relax. But at the same time, it doesn't seem crowded. You can walk, swim, or sun and never feel the crunch. And unlike most ocean beaches, Magen's Bay is sheltered from wind and waves, so it's flat water.
I grabbed my goggles and immediately headed for the clear blue water where brown pelicans dropped out of the sky with their basket mouths filled with fish. Pelicans are my favorite bird, and for the first time in my life, I was able to swim over to a pelican in the water and get within about five feet before he flew away. They were fearless in their quest for fish.
I drifted with the current, slicing through schools of almost translucent fish that flashed silver when they moved in unison.
I noticed a dark shape swimming slowly along a rocky underwater outcrop of limestone to my right and swam over to see what it might be. It was a green turtle. He let me swim right up to him and then he turned and glided right by my head, checking me out the whole time. I was in heaven.
Our time at Magen's Bay was far too short, but a splendid end to our visit to St. Thomas and fairytale cruise of the southern Caribbean.
Our final dinner was a melancholy meal, but the lobsters lessened the sadness of the trip's end. We tipped our, by now, good friends who had served us, using the pre-addressed envelopes that had been left on our stateroom beds. There is a daily recommended tipping formula for the head waiter, table waiter, assistant waiter, and stateroom attendant. It came to about $90 for seven days, per person. This is not required and I was amazed to hear some people - mostly Europeans - say they had no intention of tipping. Some people's kids ...
Our time on the Serenade of the Seas was amazing. Playing miniature golf on the twelfth deck, at the top of the ship on a full moon night, drinking cocktails and getting moon burn. Watching countries glide by each day like wondrous fish on a Caribbean reef. And getting to meet and greet people from all over the globe - and then some.
All I'm saying is: Don't knock it unless you've tried it. After you've taken the ride then do or say what you please.
As far as the Caribbean goes, it's pretty obvious what’s wrong. The locals financial aid. Maybe funds have been allocated, but for whatever reason, the people still need help. And since the world has made it a winter playground, it is in our own self-interest to ensure that everybody's happy. I'm not talking about payoffs. I gather that's the current system.
EVERYBODY we talked to wanted to work. And many people of all ages are working their asses off. But they have not benefited in any tangible or collective way as a result of the tourist industry. And they are happy to bottom feed off it. But what I witnessed was simply wrong.
So, I offer a solution. Put someone like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, or whoever you want to, who is honest, and have them administer a $5 Caribbean Peoples Tax to every cruise ship passenger. And the cruise lines wouldn’t have jack to do with administering the program. They have enough on their plate already. This federal tax would be administered by a non-profit agency strictly for the Caribbean people, based on need, rather than corruption and politics.