Faced with a few days off work and my son’s upcoming sixth birthday, my family and I decided to take a vacation.
“Manhattan for a Broadway show,” I suggested. (I love New York.) “Too cold and too expensive,” my husband said.
“Grandma’s, grandma’s,” cried my son, but with only four days off and a limited budget, California was an impractical choice.
St. Thomas Staycation (All I Ever Wanted)
How about St. Thomas? For my family, one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations is only a $6 (local’s discount) ferry ride away. You see, we live on St. John in the Virgin Islands. What reason did we have to go far when paradise was under our feet?
Living on a tropical island isn’t an exemption from sinking into routine. The breathtaking beauty that surrounds my sailboat home fades into the background when life gets busy. I find myself overextended at work and binge watching Netflix with a couple of G&T’s after 5 to unwind.
For eight of the past ten years I’ve lived on St. John, I visit our restaurants or get out on the water sailing when I have guests in town, and that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s life as usual – work, school, and keeping it all together.
Would a trip of 14 miles recapture the romance? I wondered, especially since many St. Johnians consider St. Thomas overwhelming and hard to navigate. (We are laid back to the extreme.) Any concerns proved unfounded as my family discovered the sparkling magic and rich history of our neighboring island.
The Bunker Hill Hotel
December 29th, my son’s birthday, was the target date for our St. Thomas vacation. Making last minute hotel reservations during one of the most popular travel weeks in the region was challenging. Every Airbnb and VRBO was booked. However, this ended up working to our advantage. I put out a call on Facebook for VI local’s secret places to stay. One of the suggested hotels had rooms – The Bunker Hill Hotel.
Located in the capital of St. Thomas, the Bunker Hill, family run for 35 years, is a hotel that will have us coming back again and again. So charmed we were by the location and staff, we plan to have a standing reservation for all my son’s birthdays to come.
The Bunker Hill is located on the winding streets behind Charlotte Amalie’s glamorous shopping district, about a four minute walk from the waterfront.
From the outside, the place looks like nothing – an overhang over a glass door and small painted sign on a white wall are the only indications that the place is a business at all. Inside, flights of red tiled stairs lead to multiple levels of balconies overlooking Hassel Island and the patchwork rooftops of Charlotte Amalie, two pool decks with small pools, and two restaurants – The Sugarcane Grille and a separate dining area where a wonderful complimentary breakfast with full wait service is served.
The clientele is as charming as the staff. You meet history buffs, aging hippies, business people in the know, and other odd assortments of folks. If the luxury of the Ritz is what you prefer, this isn’t your hotel. However, if you want emersion in the flow of Caribbean life, book the Bunker Hill.
With clean, simple rooms starting at $90!!, you can’t go wrong.
The highlight of our staycation was our meal at Enkai Sushi. In 1976, when I was six years old, one of the first sushi restaurants in America opened down the street from my home. It was love at first bite for my entire family. For every right of passage or celebration, Azuma Sushi was our destination.
Since sushi has been a tradition for every birthday of mine for 40 years, I wanted to find the perfect sushi bar for my son. We’ve tried most Japanese restaurants on St. Thomas and they are all good, but Enkai was one of the best sushi experiences of my life! (For those of you who love words like I do, an enkai is one of those Japanese work parties where men in business suits seated around a tatami table get crazy on sake and beer.)
Finding Enkai was an adventure in itself. We were on foot, and even though we had a map, the bizarre location had us doubting ourselves. We almost turned back. (We met several people at the hotel who had tried to find the place and had given up.) If walking, you cross over dusty lots behind Frenchtown until you get to a cluster of industrial warehouses overlooking Crown Marina and Water Island. Tucked between two warehouses and next to the Kon Tiki party barge, this little unassuming open air restaurant is a relaxing oasis.
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe the place – Buddha statues tucked into pocket gardens, the free standing bar in a separate pod, dinghies bumping on the dock next to the tables, and the colorful specials board featuring sushi rolls like the Long Dong.
The food is fantastic and the service, the best I’ve ever had in the Caribbean. Our server Adam found out it was my son’s birthday and took extra good care of us – talking to my son; checking in on us in a friendly, unassuming way; and treating us to deep fried ice cream and drinks on his dime. He even managed to find “ice cream sprinkles” when my son asked for them. (Adam had no idea that I was going to write about the restaurant, so that wasn’t a factor.)
My son had the Bento Box which featured one roll, a nigiri, one side, and miso soup for $16. I had The Bubb Roll with hamachi, jalapeño, cucumber, avocado, escolar, wasabi tobiko, and lime zest. The Bubb was a cool complement to a Moscow Mule of house-made jalapeño infused vodka, ginger beer, lime, and mint. My husband’s roll featured cajun seared tuna and bacon. Everything we tried was creative, balanced, and well executed.
The time between pool lounging and eating, we spent exploring the history filled streets behind the rows of shops and galleries filling Dronningens Gade. We wondered why, after all these years, we never took the time to really appreciate the 17th-century Fort Christian and the many historical houses and charming, staired streets including the famed 99 steps in the VI’s capital.
There was too much to see, we needed at least another day to get our fill, so we scheduled a walking tour for the following week. Blackbeard’s Castle had several options, but we booked the Downtown Walking Tour with the St. Thomas Historical Trust. The tour runs every Friday at 9 AM during regular season and takes approximately 1.5 hours. Reservations are required 24 hours in advance.
After checkout, my son wished everyone in Emancipation Park and the Market Square a happy birthday (he thought it was everyone’s birthday) on our walk to catch the dollar bus back to the ferry and home. Smiles and birthday greetings were returned by the friendly vendors and passersby. Going forward, my family will visit our neighboring island for more than bulk shopping. We’ll visit St. Thomas for culture and relaxation. The topping on our birthday cake was the total St. Thomas vacation bill including meals, hotel and transportation for a family of three came to just under $400.
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