A Whole Big Island Out There! | Part 1

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

In mid-February, our family had the pleasure of spending a week in the warm Caribbean sunshine. T & I had visited quite a few of the islands on several occasions before we started our family, but had not been back since C's arrival in 2014 (our last visit was on a babymoon cruise in the southern Caribbean in early 2014). After barely surviving the month of February, and the bleak seemingly everlasting winter last year (we traveled to Marco Island in March), we knew that we wanted to go somewhere this year in February to have a break from the cold and have something to look forward to in the new year. We first started talking about potential travel destinations back in November when the temps started keeping us indoors more than we like, but after a couple months of deliberation (a.k.a. holidays and procrastinating), it ended up being mid-January before this trip came together. Our final destination decision was primarily based upon the fact that we knew our go-to vacation spot in Florida, Anna Maria Island, would not be warm enough for the things we wanted to do in February (like swimming in the ocean and pool), and the lack of valid passports for three of the members in our family (not me in case you're wondering!). Enter...the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. T & I traveled to St. Thomas on a cruise back in 2013, and loved our time on the island, and had also traveled relatively extensively in Puerto Rico, so we knew ahead of time that these locations would be excellent for a last minute, warm-weather vacation. The temps in February hover in the mid 80s, perfect! Also a HUGE plus, because they are all territories of the United States, no passports are required! Oh...and there are direct flights from Minneapolis on Sun Country (something that is 100% necessary when traveling with small children and all of the associated gear!). #triplethreat So, without further adieu, I give you Part 1 of our Caribbean adventures!

Friday, Feb. 10 
Our trip got off to a bit of a late start the day of our departure as T was gone most of the night before delivering a baby, and didn't get home until wee hours of the morning, needing to catch up on sleep before being able to set out for our big adventure. Of course, I had started packing Thursday (after writing out my extensive packing list earlier - packing for myself and two kiddos is no joke!), but was not completely ready to go until mid-afternoon Friday, so it all worked out just fine. For anyone who knows me, you know that packing for big trips seriously Stresses. Me. Out., so I was thankful for the extra time to check and double check that we had everything we needed. (Usually, I wouldn't worry quite so much, but traveling to an island where we weren't entirely sure what we would have available to us in terms of shopping, we packed pretty much everything but the kitchen sink to take with us). Unfortunately, this meant that we didn't get to Minneapolis until almost 7:30 p.m. after stopping to feed G along the way (a good three hour drive from our home), and we were already right at the boys' bedtime by the time we pulled into a parking spot at The Mall of America to stretch our legs and find some dinner. Ugh...missing bedtimes...my biggest pet peeve! Opting to not let it bother me too much, we walked around the mall briefly, then stopped at Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. We should have known better. The service was slow, and we were so far past both boys bedtimes that we nearly decided to leave before the food came and just scrap dinner. We did, in fact, end up eating, but it was after 9:30 p.m. by the time we got checked in to our hotel, the Hilton (a wonderful hotel by the way, and great for staying close to the airport/mall area with a park & fly option and reliable shuttle service), and was sometime around 11:30 p.m. by the time C finally fell asleep. Not exactly how we would have preferred to head into an early morning flight that we needed to be at the airport for by 6:30 a.m.! 

Saturday, Feb 11

We made it! Barely. The hotel shuttle to the airport worked great, and both C & G did surprisingly well running on limited sleep. We had a TON of stuff to haul (2 car seats, stroller, carry-on, 2 checked bags, diaper bag, and two personal items), so we opted for curbside check-in and got rid of a couple of our big bags right away, but still had to haul the rest, and then break everything down before boarding (both our car seat and stroller have travel bags we use for air travel, see here & here). I don't know what we would have done without our car seat travel cart! Seriously one of the best travel investments I've made, and proves itself over and over again. C stayed in his seat as we wheeled him around with the cart, and G also stayed in his car seat snapped into our stroller until we got to the gate. Really, traveling with all of the gear is a pretty difficult and impressive feat, but so worth it!

Since C is now over two, he was required to have his own seat, so we chose to bring his car seat on the flight with us rather than gate checking it. It worked out pretty slick, and he was relatively content until he fell asleep to nap, then did fine the rest of the 4.5 hr flight after waking up about 1.5 hrs later. He was particularly excited about some of the things I surprised him with on the flight, and enjoyed using his new kid-sized headphones to watch part of a movie, and loved playing this new cars, planes, and trains magnet game. G had no problem flying, and barely made a noise the entire time. He was a complete flirt with the flight attendants, and gave them the biggest smiles every time someone walked by. He did sleep for a short while on my lap...maybe an hour, but didn't fuss at all during the entire flight, which was a big relief. Contrary to what these pictures look like, we did not let G drink his own coffee! He tried everything he could to get it in his mouth though! By far the cutest memory from the flight was C, who would reach over and hold G's hand every time he was in my lap. Such a loving big brother!

Upon arrival in St. Thomas, C looked out his window and exclaimed 'Whole big island out there!'. So fun to go on a trip and see it through a child's eyes! After landing, we de-boarded our flight via a staircase onto the Tarmac (not especially convenient with all of the gear we were traveling with, but we survived nonetheless), and were instantly greeted with the refreshing warmth of a Caribbean breeze. While I figured out our rental car, the boys were entertained by a steel drum band playing in baggage claim. The St. Thomas airport is most definitely an 'island' airport, and the rental cars were on a separate level from the baggage claim (with no elevator...so again, super convenient for us with our 20 bags). Getting everyone picked up and loaded in the super tight pick-up space that was already congested with taxis and hotel shuttles was a complete hassle that I would not wish on anyone who is traveling with more than one bag!

After we finally got all of our stuff packed into our cozy Rav4 rental, we left the airport behind (driving on the left side and of the road - so strange!) and made our way into Charlottle Amalie, and to our resort, Frenchman's Reef and Morning Star Marriott Resort, about a  30 minute drive from the airport. We found our resort no problem, but the roads are super steep, curvy, and wind through the mountainous island, so I didn't get to take in the beautiful views since I was focused instead on staying on the road. We arrived at our resort around 4:30 p.m., and were all exhausted and ready to relax. l should probably mention that while we were getting checked in and waiting to get to our room, G had a blowout. Yep...all over his clothes and car seat. I was expecting it to happen at some point, so luckily, I had planned ahead and brought lots of spare clothes along with sink packets of laundry detergent. After getting cleaned up, we kept it simple our first night on St. Thomas, and  chose to stay close to home, hitting up one of the resort restaurants, CoCo Jo's, for a quick casual dinner on the beach before calling it a night.

On a side note: If you're thinking of planning a trip to St. Thomas, I'll be honest, there are very limited resort options available, most of them not chains. If you're wanting to stay in a vacation rental, there are lots of options, but for us, partly because of the geography of the island - super mountainous, and not a lot of property with immediate beach access, we preferred to stay at a resort with a beach. The fact that we were also traveling with our little people in tow and didn't want to bring a pack'n'play along also factored into our decision. That being said, there are quite a few great options on VRBO if you'd prefer to have your own space. The Marriott Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Resort could use some updating, but overall, we had a good stay, and would likely choose to stay here again just for the convenience of having the beach right out our door, and having access to all of the resort amenities (several pools, bars, and restaurants were on site, along with spectacular views). 

Sunday, Feb 12
Night one at our resort went about as well as can be expected. G had no problem sleeping, C settled down about 8:45pm Iowa time (there was a two hour time difference, so it was 10:45 p.m. St Thomas time - a serious advantage to traveling in the Caribbean with littles who like to keep to their schedules!), and slept until just after midnight when he woke up scared and had to sleep with mommy the rest of the night. Sunday morning, upon request from C, I brought G into bed with us when he woke up around 9:30ish (7:30 Iowa time) for some snuggles. C was being especially cute, and took G's hand in his own and said 'like Wall-E'. #heartmelted (Wall-E was the first movie C ever watched, and the little robot spends a good deal of his time trying to teach another robot about being friends and holding hands.)

Anyways, after all of the cuteness, we headed out in search of breakfast. We ended up trying out The Sand Bar restaurant and had the most delicious meal - I had banana pancakes, C had blueberry beignets (a.k.a. fancy donuts), I don't remember what T had, but he said it was good. After breakfast, T & G hung out in the room (a.k.a. G took a nap), and C & I went exploring. We walked through a couple of shops, went up to the Frenchman's Reef portion of the resort (a bit of a hike with 96 steps separating the two parts of the resort!), and saw a TON of iguanas...C was curious, but scared to walk around them, so I ended up carrying him the rest of the way up the stairs to Frenchman's Reef. #momlife 

That afternoon, we got all of our beach gear together and headed down to the beach. We stayed in a beachfront room on the second floor of the Morning Star side of the resort, so we had an excellent view of the Morning Star Beach from our balcony, and couldn't wait to get out and check it out. 

I had the foresight to order a pop-up beach tent for the boys to keep cool in the shade while we were at the beach, and we hadn't had it set up for more than 10 minutes before another guest with a baby came up and wanted to know all about it! T says I know how to pick'em! G enjoyed hanging out in the tent with his toys while big brother C immediately got to work with his bucket and shovel playing in the sand. C was very cautious of the ocean, which is probably a good thing since the waves on the beach at our resort were relatively big due to the location on the island. He did get super excited when one of the big cruise ships pulled out of port and went right by our beach, and told me he might like to go on it. I told him that we would talk about it, and maybe give it a try on our next vacation. 

After beach time, we hit up Aqua Terra Restaurant on the Frenchman's Reef part of the resort. We had an antipasti platter for an appetizer, and C loved it. The cheese, salami, olives, grapes and bread were perfect for a toddler appetite! C's usually not all about cold meats, but he loved the salami, and had probably three slices! G, meanwhile, enjoyed laying in the booth and chewing on his teethers. Aqua Terra sits at the top of the resort and looks out over Charlotte Amalie with floor to ceiling windows. The views of the city all lit up at night were absolutely stunning!

Monday, Feb 13
After spending the weekend at our resort, by Monday, we were ready to get out and explore the island. After breakfast, we packed our gear into the car on the search for Coral World Ocean Park, a marine park on the other side of the island. We quickly realized the roads were not marked very well, and ended up missing the turn twice, eventually taking a break to stop at the Margaritaville restaurant at the Wyndham...such a beautiful resort! It's timeshare, so not an option for us to stay, but was absolutely beautiful, and opened our eyes to thinking about the possibility of a timeshare in our future at some point. (I did find a studio unit available on VRBO here or AIRBNB here, and can attest that the pictures are truly what the resort looks like). I enjoyed a delicious grouper sandwich, C loved his grilled cheese, fresh fruit and strawberry smoothie, G stole the show kicking back with his feet on the table to enjoy his bottle while taking in the ocean views, and T enjoyed his 'cheeseburger in paradise'. C continued to talk about his trip to 'Marga-greet-a-ville' all day, and how 'very yummy' it was. The things that make impressions!

After lunch, we did eventually find Coral World, but by the time we arrived, it was too late to get tickets. Instead, we went to the Havensight shops near the cruise dock in Charlotte Amalie and walked around checking out potential souvenirs. We were mainly on the hunt for new Christmas ornament for our travel ornament collection (and to add to the boys' collection), but of course were sidetracked the minute C spotted diecast cars with surfboards and doors that opened (a current obsession). Of course, we caved and bought him a car after he played with it for almost 30 minutes. I'm pretty sure we hadn't even made it out of the shops before it had been dropped twice, the surfboard broke off, and the headlamp lost a piece. It makes no matter, C loved it all the same, and so as long as it brought joy and entertainment to him, we were happy and considered it money well spent. While we were there, we also got to see a cruise ship in port as it was getting ready to leave, and C was fascinated when it started honk hoooooonking as it departed. After first requesting to 'go on cruise ship', he exclaimed that it was the 'biggest boat ever seen!', it was a 'big heavy one', and 'Carcar can't pick it up, too heavy'...I mean...could this kid get any more cute?

Back at the resort, C & I snuck out to the beach to watch the cruise ships depart from the island and build a sand castle while T & G relaxed in the room. We tried tapas for dinner at the Sand Bar restaurant on our resort...C was not a huge fan and we ended up having to get him some yogurt and a granola bar at the market store to have back in our room. Little stinker! At least what we ordered him was delicious (plantains with a honey glaze), so T & I had no problem finishing them off! C's dislike aside, all of the tapas that we ordered were super yummy, so don't shy away if you are planning a visit! 

C was such a little trooper all day while we were out adventuring, going without any napping, and was full of hugs and kisses at every turn for little G & I. T was also the lucky recipient of a few smooches, and had the pleasure of a few quiet minutes of snuggling together with the boys back in the room after dinner before calling it a night. We did try to stick relatively close to the boys' regular bedtime (again - the two hour time difference was key), and while it meant that we didn't get out to enjoy any late-night fancy dinners, it did mean that T & I ended up going to bed earlier and enjoyed more rest than we typically get at home. T still ended up waking up earlier, but he enjoyed his time rambling around on his way to and from the resort coffee shop before the boys got up every morning.

Tuesday, Feb 14
Happy Valentines Day! Happy it was! After we got ready for the day, we packed up the car and headed out for some adventures. First up was a visit to Coral World Ocean Park. We weren't really sure what to expect, but it had good reviews online and by word of mouth, so we thought we'd give it a go. To sum it up, it's basically a small aquarium of sorts. There is a shark tank, stingray pool, large aquarium with lots of ocean fish, sea turtles, and a marine observatory tower that has two levels and goes underwater to view the actual ocean surroundings. C thought this was especially neat, and had to go up and down three times with T before we could tear him away. On our way out, we grabbed a bite to eat at the food hut inside Coral World. C had a slice of cheese pizza, and considered giving a bite to one of the friendly iguanas who had come to sit next to his chair on the deck, but T had a talk with him and told him that iguanas eat grass and leaves and flowers, but they don't eat pizza. The rest of the meal, after just about every bite, C was sure to tell us that 'guanas no eat pizza!' Meanwhile, G was hanging out in the stroller laughing and hamming it up with T. Such a little goof!

After lunch, we loaded back into the car and hit the road for Magen's Bay, considered by many to be one of the top beaches in the world. T & I had previously visited on a cruise several years ago before we had kids, and it was just as good as we remembered. We arrived at 3 pm (there is a $5/person fee for non-residents - kids under 12 are free - and $2 to park), and had the perfect amount of time to grab a tropical drink from the beach bar, set up our beach spot, and enjoy the afternoon before the beach closed at 5 p.m. (you can stay after 5 p.m., but the bar and restaurant are closed). After helping me to anchor down our pop-up beach tent with sand, C immediately went to work with his shovels and bucket building a sand castle. G was completely passed out napping in the stroller, so it was nice to have a little one-on-one time with C. 

After G woke up, he had a bottle with a view of the beach from inside our tent, and C came to join us for a picnic of wheat thins and a virgin pina colada in the 'fort'. After snack time, G got into his suit, and I took him in the water for his first encounter with the sand and ocean. He LOVED it! The water was the absolute perfect temperature, and felt like bath water. Because of the cove that Magen's Bay is in, the waves were nearly non-existent, and G loved to bounce up and down jumping in the shallow water, or with me holding him on my knee and kicking his legs in the deeper water. C, who had been timid of the ocean until seeng how much fun G was having, had a change of heart, and decided to join the fun. After 'taking the plunge' so to speak, he had an absolute blast. Such a fun day at the beach making memories! 

When five o'clock rolled around, we packed up our gear and headed back to Charlotte Amalie to find dinner. We ended up at the Havensight shopping area, and had dinner at The Smoking Rooster, a BBQ joint located right next to the harbor and docks where the cruise ships were just pulling out from. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day, and not only was the BBQ delicious, they had custom mac & cheese on the menu, so both C & I got to enjoy one of our favorite meals for Valentine's Day. Yum yum! Back at our resort, we got both of the boys showered, and had time to play and relax a bit before getting the boys to bed around 7:30 p.m. (Iowa time)...the perfect setup for T and I to enjoy a quiet glass of wine together and read a book before bed on Valentine's Day. One for the books for sure!

Wednesday, Feb 15
We were literally greeted by a rooster crowing 'cock-a-doodle-do' outside our room this morning. Don't worry, it wasn't too early! St. Thomas has many 'free-range' wild chickens/roosters rambling about...similar to how we might see pigeons or blackbirds in Iowa. Kind of a curious quirk, and something C enjoyed immensely as he would then walk around saying 'cock-a-doodle-do' every time he saw one.

Today was a day for BIG adventures. After tossing around the idea of tackling a whole new island the night before, we decided to pack up our rental car and head to Red Hook to catch the ferry to St John. We had vaguely talked about this before our trip, but logistically speaking, weren't entirely sure how it would work until we decided to just go for it. A sales clerk in St. Thomas the day before had indicated that a trip to St. John with little kids and all of their subsequent gear might not be entirely worth the trouble, so we had been tossing this idea back and forth all night before coming to a decision. I recently saw a quote that sums up our experience. "Never allow waiting to become a habit. Live your dreams and take risks. Life is happening now"...and along with that, "Take a risk. Don't always play it safe, or you'll die wondering". It's safe to say, we decided to go headfirst into the unknown. We don't know if we'll ever make it back to the US Virgin Islands (although we sincerely hope we will), and we chose adventure. Because really...in the end, what we'll regret most are the chances we never took.

The whole process was pretty simple really...it was about a 20min drive from our resort, there was a secure hourly parking lot located immediately across the street from the ferry terminal - or a cheap lot a little further away that had a shuttle (the ferry terminal is currently in the process of building their own parking lot right in front of their building), and after a minimal wait in line for tickets (I think about $30 round trip for the four of us), we were shown onto the ferry and off we went! Ferries between Red Hook, St. Thomas and Cruz Bay, St. John run every hour, on the hour, starting early and going until 12 a.m., so we were thankful not to have to worry too much about the logistics of timing our visit down to the minute just to make sure we could catch a ferry to bring us back to St Thomas! There is also a ferry that runs between Charlotte Amalie and Cruz Bay, but it only runs three times a day, and is about a 45 minute ride, but maybe an option to consider if you are planning to stay on St. John as it is much closer to the airport than Red Hook. 

On a side note: there are ferries that make trips to the surrounding British Virgin Islands as well, so bring your passport along, and you can see all kinds of fun places. Also, there is a car ferry, so check with your rental company ahead of time to see if they allow travel between islands. Our car rental was through Hertz, and they had a stipulation about taking your rental off the island, but I heard from some locals that Budget does let you use the car ferry - do your research if you are thinking of trying this! That being said, taxis were readily available near the ferry dock in St. John, and local car rental places on St. John were within easy walking distance of the ferry dock.

All in all, C thought the ferry was a pretty neat deal, and after learning that the rest of our family had likely never been on a ferry boat, was mostly interested in asking me about specific family members and their ferry boat history, and telling me that 'Gampa never been on dis ferry'. On a side note, we did opt to sit on the inside of the ferry rather than up top, but I imagine that would  have been a fun ride too (and felt more like a true boat ride) if we wouldn't have had a toddler and infant and all the gear with us! Overall, I would say the ferry probably had a capacity of around 200 people, and it was relatively full on both our trip over and our trip back from St. John. The ride was pretty smooth sailing, and after about ten minutes, we were pulling into Cruz Bay and exiting the ferry for the day's adventure.

After exclaiming about a 'whole ton of sailboats', our first adventure was a little exploring of Cruz Bay. Our first impression...aside from the general beauty of the place, was that the town of Cruz Bay appeared to be cleaner, and better maintained on a whole than Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. I would venture to say that the majority of the homes that we saw in Cruz Bay were likely vacation homes or condos...a.k.a. at least from an outward appearance, there seemed to be less locals, and a greater emphasis on tourism and vacation homes in St John. We enjoyed our time walking around various shops (Pig & Rooster was a favorite if you ever make it there, and the shops & restaurants at Mongoose Junction looked like they would be fun to check out as well - we opted for beach instead of shopping, so didn't get to explore these on our short visit, but did drive by on our way to the beach) and grabbing a quick lunch at High Tide Bar & Seafood Grill on the beach before packing into an open air cab for Trunk Bay. And by open air, I literally mean open air - no doors here! Bench seats and a sea breeze is what you get on the island! 

The route to Trunk Bay from Cruz Bay is approximately a 10-15 minute 'cab' ride, and $6/person. I say 'cab' ride, because it is really just a truck with a topper, and covered open air benches in the back. Not exactly ideal when traveling with little people, but it worked out fine, and I noticed that even the hotel shuttles on the island were the same. I promise, it's not as redneck as it sounds, and these taxis were specifically manufactured this way, not just some sort of random makeshift taxi. There were several places within walking distance of the ferry dock to rent a car if you'd rather drive, or there is always the car ferry option. While the roads seemed well maintained, if you are a first-timer to the island, I wouldn't recommend driving, as the shoulders are non-existent, the roads are up and down and very curvy, and the scenery is beautiful, which has serious potential to make it hard to keep your eyes on the road! 

Trunk Bay is within the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, and is operated and maintained by the National Park Service. There is a $5 entrance fee per person which includes use of restroom and shower facilities, along with a snack hut, beach bar, and gift shop of sorts. Trunk Bay operating hours are 8 a.m. - 4 p.m., but visitors can stay as long as they like after 4 p.m. without access to the restroom/shower/bar/gift shop/life guard/etc. The sand and views are absolutely spectacular, but the beach itself is maybe not the best to visit with little people. For us, it worked fine, because there was a great breeze, the boys were exhausted, and they just wanted to relax and play in the shade of our beach tent. I say not the best for kids because there isn't a huge expanse of sand between the tree line and the water, and what is there, has quite a steep slope, and the waves (at least the day we visited) were huge...like you could surf on them huge. There were plenty of adults swimming, so I wouldn't say it was so rough you couldn't swim, but definitely not a good place for beginning swimmers or little kids to take a dip. We stayed at the beach a couple of hours until it cleared out a bit (the shower and bathroom facilities close at 4:00 p.m., so most people visiting pack it up around then), then caught another open air taxi back to Cruz Bay and the ferry dock. G turned seven months old today, and I'd say it was a pretty special way to spend a milestone month! All in all, we all had a wonderful visit, and would love to come back.

After arriving back in Red Hook, we considered finding something for dinner, but as it was already getting dark and we weren't too familiar with the town or where to eat, so we decided to hit the road and head back to Charlotte Amalie to grab some takeout to bring back to the resort to have in our room. C got lucky and had Sbarro pizza, while T & I grabbed a burger to go from Tap & Still in Havensight. While we were waiting for our burgers, C couldn't stop talking about how much fun he had in St John, and told me over and over that 'Carcar want go back St. John someday', 'Gramma (or insert any other family member here) want come with to St John someday', 'Grampa never been on dat ferry'. Apparently, the day was a memorable one for C! I'm so glad that we took a chance on the ferry and did the day trip to St. John. If we ever return to the Virgin Islands, we'd love to spend more time on the St. John, and would probably even choose to stay there! Such a beautiful place!

Stay tuned for more on our adventures in Puerto Rico!

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