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Best time to visit the Virgin Islands

by Severine Degnan and Michael Chisholm

Springtime arrived early in the Caribbean this year, and we’d heard that several of the resorts were flowering faster than the island hibiscus. Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda had a new spa and a new executive chef. Caneel Bay on St. John had added a Self Centre and Peter Island Resort had a nature tour we’d never taken. The St. Thomas’ Ritz Carlton had several new Club rooms, and we’d heard the Westin on St. John had a new “Heavenly” program. This we had to see.

Liquid Sunshine and the Rolling Surf

Virgin Islands

We flew from Providence to St. Thomas (with a smooth transfer in Philadelphia) and arrived in the tropics during a light spring rain. We’d planned to continue on to Virgin Gorda on an Air Sunshine evening flight, but a front was due to move into the area, and the airline had actually held the afternoon flight for us. We boarded the small plane a couple of hours ahead of our schedule and took off under gray skies. From the air the Virgin Islands lay strewn before us like gray-green boulders surrounded by blue foam. The nine-passenger plane made the hop to gorgeous Virgin Gorda in less than 20 minutes, and we cleared customs and immigration at the one-hut Virgin Gorda International Airport. Little Dix Resort has a booth located just outside of immigration, and several friendly staff members were on hand to greet us and complete our check in formalities, after which they escorted us to the resort. The light rain turned into a tropical downpour en route, and we were glad we’d caught the early flight. Once we arrived at Little Dix we were assigned identical ocean view rooms, yeah! The rain had taken the heat out of the day and we both turned off the air conditionings in our rooms and opened the windows to the gentle sound of rolling surf. When the showers stopped, we took a walk through the gardens down to the beach to watch the spring tide rolling in. Three small, uninhabited islands appeared to the north. The stretch of empty beach before us seemed to reflect these distance empty shores.

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By the time we finished our walk, the horizon had darkened with another approaching shower. Indeed, by dinnertime it was raining again. The Little Dix General Manager and his wife joined us at the Sugar Mill for cocktails, but the evening wind began to blow rain through the open room. We moved our party to the Pavilion Restaurant, where we both opted for fresh fish – Michael had the catch-of-the-day grilled Wahoo while Severine had a delicious Red Snapper. The meal was good enough to drive the rain away! Looking back, dinner the first night was a forecast of what was to come – the fresh grilled fish was the first of several absolutely outstanding meals at Little Dix. After the full day of travel and the excellent dinner, Michael fell asleep watching the ceiling fan revolve slowly overhead. Raindrops dancing on the roof woke him once during the night, but he drifted back to sleep listening to the peaceful sound of the waves.

Buffet Breakfast and the Not-So-Bitter End

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The next morning the rain had abated, and we met up for a short stroll on the beach before making our way to the Pavilion for a delicious buffet breakfast. The French baguettes dipped in batter and lightly toasted, then drizzled with syrup were extremely popular (and extremely delicious!). The buffet included a couple of signature items such as poached eggs with tomatoes, asparagus and spinach, original and also delicious. Michael was especially happy to discover traditional British breakfast sausages on the buffet. Exceptional in style and flavor, he said they were just like those from the “old country” and quite a find so far from home.

We took a tour of the resort after breakfast. The property is laid out around Little Dix Bay and takes full advantage of the natural curves of the inlet. From the beach it is hard to see how many rooms there are, nestled as they are in the thick foliage near the beach. Laurence Rockefeller bought the property around Little Dix Bay and built the resort in 1964. At the time he wanted to create a hide-away for family and friends. Today the resort is still a favorite of wealthy and influential clients who call the place home for some part of each year.

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After our tour we set out to explore the far corners of Virgin Gorda. We took a cab west across the island, followed by short ferry ride for a quick tour of Biras Creek, then hopped on another ferry for a short ride to the Bitter End Yacht Club. The Bitter End is a favorite gathering spot for sailors throughout the Caribbean, and a stop here is anything but bitter, although it might be the “end” because visitors seldom want to leave. The club has a light-hearted, laid-back atmosphere, with a mix of colorful characters and vacationing families. The only access to the resort is by boat, and half of the rooms do not have air-conditioning – the trade winds are so steady one might never need more than a fan. (AC is available for those who want it.)  The staff loves this place, and several have worked here for more than 30 years.

Virgin Islands

After an enjoyable light lunch at the Bitter End marina with one of our local reps, we returned to Little Dix for an afternoon massage. The spa at Little Dix is brand new and offers an entire menu of indulgent (or necessary, however you want to look at it!) treatments. The list includes all schools of massage, body wraps, manicures and pedicures. One can be exfoliated, moisturized and revitalized, or one can simply sink into a flower bath and relax. The spa is built high on the hillside just above the villas and has a sweeping view of Little Dix Bay.

Barefoot Dining and the Enchanting Baths

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Dinner that evening showcased another new addition at the resort – the new executive chef. After a round of cocktails on the dock, we strolled down to the beach where the staff had set a table for ten, barefoot dining in exquisite surroundings. Tiki torches lit up the sand and, as the tide crept in, the warm sea washed between our toes. We started with Caribbean tapas, followed by lobster, filet mignon and grilled kebabs. Our fellow diners were other travel professionals visiting Little Dix and the new chef was aiming to please – each course was better than the preceding one. We finished the meal with a pistachio crème brulee covered with a caramelized toffee-like topping. After this feast sleep came easy!

Severine rose early for a 6:30 a.m. session of yoga at the spa and, after breakfast with the same group of travel professionals, we took a boat to the fabled Virgin Gorda Baths. Ten-feet-high boulders lay piled along the white sand shoreline, creating an enchanting set of caves and caverns from which the sea gently washes in and out. Bathers can snorkel through the passageways or skip along the shoreline of this unique natural wonder. The brave-hearted can be seen leaping off one of the largest, smooth white slabs and splashing down in the crystal blue water.

Virgin Islands

After quenching our thirst with a cold Red Stripe beer followed by lunch back at the resort, we (regretfully!) packed and took the ferry to Tortola, then transferred to the Peter Island ferry. The rain had begun again in earnest, which was unusual in a place that is known for its dry weather and cactus-covered landscape. Aloe plants grow in abundance on Virgin Gorda, along with Turk’s Caps barrel cactus, prickly pears and agave, so we were surprised to experience so much liquid sunshine. It was the gala buffet night on Peter Island and, after the skies cleared, we enjoyed a delightful dinner at a table overlooking the Drake Channel while the lights of Tortola flickered in the distance.

The next morning we had an interesting Eco-tour of Peter Island. After lunch at the beach bar it was time to move on again. Destination: the Ritz Carlton St. Thomas, via Tortola, and St. John. We took the ferry transport to Road Town, Tortola, and asked our taxi driver to take us up the spine of the island (instead of the faster, direct route to the West End) so that Severine could get a better grasp of the island’s size and landscape. Sage Mountain rises 1,780 feet above sea level across the center of narrow Tortola, appearing like a thin green slice of lime shot from the blue water below. We took the ferry from West End to St. John, where we had to clear U.S. customs and immigration, and then continued on across Pillsbury Bay to the Red Hook ferry dock on St. Thomas. The Ritz is only minutes away from the ferry dock.

A Sugar-White-Beach and a Sister Resort

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The Ritz, as always, speaks for itself: luxury and then some. We had a chance to see the new Club rooms and the new apartments under construction – perfect for families who want their own kitchens and extra space along with all the amenities of the Ritz. We were able to enjoy lunch from lounge chairs on the beach, and then we drove into Charlotte Amalie for a little shopping. We stopped at a colorful street market and Michael found matching Hawaiian print shirts for him and his daughter while Severine bought a nice skirt. Next we drove up, up, up Skyline Drive for a fabulous view of the island and the blue waters below. Magen’s Bay appeared in the distance, an enchanting teardrop of emerald water. Severine had never had the chance to see Magen’s Beach, so we drove down to the shore for an all-too-short stroll on the sugar white sands of this gorgeous slice of heaven. As the sun was sinking we returned to the Ritz for cocktails with the management, followed by tasty sashimi and snails at a popular local spot, the Blue Moon Café.

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We were up at sunrise the next day and caught the morning ferry from Charlotte Amalie to Caneel Bay Resort on St. John. The ferry is the resort’s private boat, and we arrived on the property in less than an hour. Caneel Bay also originated as a Rockefeller dream and is a sister resort to Little Dix. The resort boasts a “beach for every day of the week,” with seven secluded curves of white sand sculpting the 170 acres of this lush property. Two thirds of the island is the protected Virgin Islands National Park, and the resort’s comfortable elegance gracefully reflects the pristine natural beauty of the park. The rooms are designed so that they are barely visible along the resort’s pathways and beaches, and “wake-up calls” are a simple knock on the door. We had some free time to enjoy snorkeling in the warm crystal water and then dried off for an interesting “class” at the resort’s Self Centre. The center unique classes include Drumming Circle, a Celebration of Life class, Imagery for Relaxation and Wellness, and Mindful Meditation. We enjoyed an hour and half session on relaxation and breathing, a class that included some yoga and some exercises one can do while in a car or on an airplane.

As our week in the islands drew to a close we had a chance to see the new “Heavenly” program at the Westin. The “Heavenly Bath” features extra thick, soft bath towels while the “Heavenly Bed” rooms have extra comfortable beds with feather cushion on the mattresses, high-thread count sheets and beautiful comforters. On our last morning in the islands we had time for one last stroll on the beach at Caneel Bay. We sunk our toes in the warm sand, gazed out at a ship slowly sailing past and agreed that feeling “heavenly” was one thing that wasn’t new this spring in the islands – feeling heavenly in the Virgins is eternal.

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