This past week my 11-year old daughter and I embarked on a much needed mental health trip to St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands.
Along with the rest of the World, we’ve been through some tremendous emotional stress being house-bound for months on end and managing the world of online learning – not to mention the collision of other stresses an 11 year old girl goes through with social media, friends, and school pressures.
I definitely felt some guilt going, not being “part of the solution”, but we planned to take every necessary precaution, and be as responsible as possible to make travel sustainable during these times.
Physically healthy, but mentally struggling. We pulled the emergency rip-cord and headed off for what was a last ditch effort to get in an adventure before Fall hits and potentially more extended house-bound hours through the cold dark Winter months loom.
We live in New York, however I carry a Canadian Passport/Green Card so we focused on US destinations given our limited options and to curb plausible re-entry issues.
Due to the pandemic, there were no direct flights so we had to change planes in Atlanta. I wasn’t thrilled but with a quick layover, it was doable. Touch as few surfaces as possible, re-fuel on Southern Fried Chicken, sanitize as needed and carry on. Super easy, and in retrospect, this really felt safe, much more so than expected.
Flying Delta To St Thomas
We arrived at JFK after checking in online to reduce contact. It was seamless and relatively quiet through security to the gate. The gate however was busy and once we were onboard I understood why. Delta blocked off every other seat, which was great as we had a row to ourselves, however the flight was otherwise completely full.
Fewer flights, flying through Delta’s Hub in Atlanta, it made sense.
We wiped everything down before sitting and according to Delta, they also wiped everything down. This experience actually felt fairly safe. Everyone complied and wore their masks the entire time. Top marks to Delta here.
As to masks, take the time to research or invest in a good one. Particularly with any flight connections involved, you may be wearing them for up to 10 hours a day. The better the fit, comfort, etc the less you’ll touch it.
Safety And Arrival Into The US Virgin Islands
When we finally arrived in St Thomas after another surprisingly full, but middle seat blocked flight, we were carefully let off onto the tarmac and told to stay with our party. Separated 6’ apart, they took our temperatures and asked a few questions about any fevers and potential exposure.
From there we were lead to the baggage claim, filled out another quick health form – by the way, bring a pen – and then we met my pre-paid taxi driver easily outside. The hotel communicated in advance about transportation options.
The driver spritzed our hands with sanitizer, then sprayed the door handle and noted that he wiped down his cab between passengers. I was impressed, took his name and number and we used him throughout our week on the Island.
In covid-19 travel times, the fewer variables the better, and the Virgin Islands provided a fantastic welcome experience, with safety at the heart of everything. Bravo.
We booked 5-nights at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in St Thomas, with a mix of points and cash. It’s an expensive property, with rooms close to $1000 a night, even during these times when hardly anyone is traveling.
We selected a “Resort View” room, which turns out does have Ocean views, not mentioned on their site, so this was a pleasant surprise. It also had a huge balcony overlooking lush gardens, was situated on the first floor, (no elevator buttons to press), easy access to the pools and beach without any noise. I would choose this option every time.
On the way to our hotel I got the sense from our driver how dismal tourism had been on the Island. It’s all a bit sad and I know this echoes around the globe, for the many millions who rely on tourism in one way or another.
For the US Virgin Islands, tourism has been very slow to bounce back since it opened in June. No cruise ships, which of course I knew, but until we saw the empty harbour, it hadn’t really hit me just how dependent the islands are on these visitors.
No flea markets in the town square, sidewalks and restaurants were empty. This was my first time to this Island, but I could sense the lack of life and vibrancy this harbour town would yield during normal times.
Check-in at the hotel was lovely, but slow. Lovely because they gave us awesome drinks, complete perfection, and the décor is stunning. New and beautiful. I recognized all the brands they used, being an Interior Designer, and I can assure you not a dollar was spared in the decorating of The Ritz’s Carlton’s public spaces – or rooms. All stunning. Ten on ten throughout the entire property.
As for the actual check in process, The Ritz has strict cleaning protocols between guests and we waited longer than I would have liked for it to be “approved” by a supervisor.
I appreciated the extra work in sanitizing our rooms, just wished they managed to get it done by check-in time so we didn’t have to wait after such a long travel day, particularly with such low occupancy. Surely there was another room?
We did get in some fun people watching while we waited, which is something I forgot how much I’d missed during our four months being homebound.
I saw a newlywed with “BRIDE” written on her t-shirt. It reminded me we’re all in this together, we all have our story and reason for being here right now on this beautiful Island. I felt like I was doing my part in supporting the tourism in St Thomas. Tourism industry in general. I was starting to feel the relaxation of vacation kick-in.
The hotel was only at 60% capacity, by design, from my understanding. The best part hands down was not fighting for beach chairs! Lots of spacing between parties. Just a few people bobbing in the water at any given time. Heavenly. It truly felt like our own private stretch of beach.
The huge adult pool (kids are allowed with an adult, which was nice that I didn’t have to spend the entire week at the kids pool) often had just a handful of people in it.
The kids pool was also beautiful, two-tiered with an awesome slide and waterfall steps that I enjoyed sitting on to watch my daughter ride the slide. I got to soak up some much needed Vitamin D and not think about anything but which way she would be coming off the slide this time. Hands first, head first, feet first. It was perfect.
Our Snorkel trip on the Catamaran Lady Liberty, would normally host 80 passengers, but during Covid they can only fill it to half capacity. Score. The downside, you have to book it early, we were wait listed initially but luckily got a call the night before and got on. And I’m so glad we did, this excursion was the most memorable of our trip.
Swimming in the crystal clear blue-turquoise-emerald-green waters, snorkeling with my daughter, virtually alone in this beautiful sea was pure magic.
It made the experience so much more special and memorable. We saw Sting rays, colourful fish, purple coral and swam for hours in the most perfect jewel-tone waters. Pure joy, and probably worth the trip alone.
We also witnessed young love, two teens meeting on our boat trip, we saw them chatting most of the boat ride and then we saw them around the resort all week. Every time we turned around we saw them out on a Kayak, swimming in the pool, chatting on their lounge chairs, we were even there when they met up for a dinner date. Would we have noticed this heart-melting connection develop if the hotel was packed to capacity? The unexpected things that added up to make our trip so memorable.
The following day we swam with a Dolphin at a Dolphin Rehabilitation Center called Coral World, twelve minutes from the Ritz on Coki Beach. Instead of a larger group, we were only 5 people and my daughter and I were alone with the Dolphin when it was our turn. There were so few of us, this experience proved yet another sad, but lucky side effect of travel during covid-19. It was very intimate.
Ritz Delights And A Few Fails Too
The Ritz St Thomas property is immaculate. Beautiful garden lined pathways, very safe, well appointed entrances to the restaurants, and we never saw any garbage anywhere. Everything was perfect in this regard.
There was an awesome looking new coffee shop called South Winds which was not open. The lights were on and it looked like a completed renovation, beckoning to me every time I walked by, however it never opened unfortunately. This would have been the perfect grab and go in the mornings while I waited for my daughter to get up for breakfast. When this does open, it will make the Ritz experience that much Ritzier.
There was a second restaurant on property which was not open due to Covid. It would have been amazing if we had this additional option, but certainly one of the understandable negatives of travelling right now. Good to be aware before you go to help mitigate expectations. The Ritz Kids was also not open for obvious reasons.
There was a secondary restaurant, a 10 minute walk or short Golf Cart ride to the Ritz Residence’s called Coconut Cove. We enjoyed the walk and went there a handful of times. I enjoyed that menu a bit more for dinner, it was more casual and right next to the Beach. They lit torches at night and had a cool beach vibe to it, honing those swoon worthy feelings missed during months of lockdown.
The result of fewer restaurant options caused long wait times for food. We’re talking 12-18 minutes for Almond Milk Lattes in the morning – with no one ahead in line. At dinner it took 45 mins for our appetizers to arrive, then another 30 mins after that for our main course. By then we gave up on dessert. First world problems, sure, but at a Ritz Carlton not operating close to capacity, it’s hard to understand.
Prepare For Disposable Everything
By the middle of the week we started ordering up and taking food back to our balcony most mornings and one evening. Everything was served on disposable plates anyways, so having take-out didn’t seem such a far stretch, or loss of vibe.
The Ritz’s disposable plates are actually a wood square shaped product, a few cuts above paper plates for sure, but it definitely takes away from your $60 lobster dinner. There’s also just something amiss with drinking a crisp white wine out of a large plastic cup. For luxury brands, covid-19 brings challenges well beyond safety.
Don’t even go there.
I did absolutely look past this for the obvious reasons of health safety, but it is something to consider or prepare yourself for when you’re spending exorbitant amounts of money on a vacation, with expectations set out by the brand itself. Ritz is synonymous with glitz, and plastic cups and wine have rarely been either.
To this point, there is also no housekeeping during your stay unless you request it. We did not want anyone in our room so we were happy about this, however it would have been a nice touch to be offered fresh towels at your door with a top up of shampoos halfway through our stay, maybe a few bottles of water now and then. The usual things we would have received if we had daily housekeeping. None of this was offered.
There’s one last negative I’ll mention, and this is a big one.
The Ritz did not have any hand sanitizer stations set up anywhere. Additionally, they operated on the classic country club system, where you sign for everything.
I had to sign a bill the old fashioned way, touching the bill folder first, then the bill itself, and then use their pen. I did this three or four times a day. There was no hand sanitizer insight at any juncture. None offered. I couldn’t help but think “I’m sure I’ve contracted Covid by now”, which is not the ideal mood when paying for items.
Same situation at the lunch restaurant Sails, same at Coconut Cove. No hand sanitizer stations on the way in/out of any of the restaurants. And none at the gift shop either I might mention. The shop was lovely though, all my favourite beach brands, we found plenty to buy and we shopped. But no hand sanitizer after I signed my credit card bill.
In 2020, I’m still not sure why I need to sign credit card bills at all.
Maybe they think it would look institutional, and they would be right, it would completely detract from the sophisticated design of the hotel. But in these times, they need to offer this basic amenity, or go to greater efforts to approve or confirm charges without multiple points of physical contact.
Traveling Right Now: Was It Worth It?
All in all our trip was outstanding. My daughter and I had the trip of our lives.
We came back feeling happy, lighter, energized and as ready as we’ll ever be for this Winter ahead. We discovered a love of snorkeling, reclaimed our sense of adventure and fell in love with St Thomas. We’re rooting for that young couple, although we’ll never know what comes of them.
We needed this trip at almost any cost, and it made me value points more than ever.
Fear? Of course. At every turn the invisible virus could have been lurking. We had no idea. We did the best we could to wash our hands and not touch our faces, but there’s no way to sanitize every surface. If you travel, it’s a risk and you have to decide if it’s worth that risk. I was relieved to get our negative covid results this morning, making the trip that much more worth it for us.
We’ve already booked other US Islands for Thanksgiving and March Break for the whole family. We’re going to need it, we know it already. We’re bracing for many more months indoors, social distancing, and possibly online learning. But we’ll be dreaming of our time on St Thomas to carry us through.
If you have any questions about travel to the US Virgin islands, or the experience, reach out to the author, Jess Davidman Green on Instagram @deepdalehousellc