Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Sailor's Cruising Guide to the US Virgin Islands

Long Bay, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Please note that this blog post was originally published in 2012 and several items may have changed.

Chris and I wrote this for our friends and fellow cruisers/sailors who are cruising to St. Thomas and the US Virgin Island by sail or power boat. If you are a first timer to the US Virgin Islands cruising grounds, like we were, then I hope you will find that this information answers many of your common questions. Like all cruisers, when we arrive in a new area we want to know: where can I dock my dinghy, take my garbage, buy my groceries, and do my laundry? I couldn't get all of this information from all of the cruising guides combined. We arrived in November 2011 and stayed in the area for three months visiting the islands of the USVI and the BVI while family visited from the states. Let us know if you have any questions, here it is:  

Grocery:  St. Thomas is definitely your place to provision while cruising the USVI and the BVI for ease of access, large quantities and fair prices (read: island prices in some cases). The Pueblo grocery stores are less than three blocks from either marina – Yacht Haven Grande (YHG) or Crown Bay (CB).  The Gourmet Gallery is also at both Crown Bay and near Yacht Have Grande (at Havensight Shopping Mall). Gourmet Gallery is pricey, but also the only source for some of the good stuff and finest produce. K-Mart is about five blocks away from YHG. If you want to go to Cost U Less & Home Depot (near each other), or the Plaza ExTra near the Tutu Park Mall, you will want to take the safari (see getting around, below).

Cost U Less is like shopping at Sam's Club (no membership needed though): bulk items, liquor, frozen foods, etc. If you are planning a stock up for the trip down island or back to the states, this may be the place to shop. Plaza ExTra has a large ethnic (Middle Eastern, Indian, Caribbean, etc.) food section, as well as bulk items found near the end of every aisle. Another food store, accessible by taxi or dinghy is the Food Center super market across from the Budget Marine. We discovered it when we took the dinghy to Budget Marine from Christmas Cove on Great St. James Island (I only recommend this trip in calm seas.)  We found all stores open 7 days a week. At Red Hook there is a small and nice grocery store where we found the best and freshest meats on the island.

Costs vary widely. If you have the time, shop around! We found canned goods varying from over $3/can to less than $1/can. Cruzan rum is around $8/liter in the tourist shops, we found 1.75L bottles at Cost U Less for $10. We typically bought beer at the Troop Store (military and retirees only), a case of Presidente Light there was $21.80, but in March found Pueblo had a sale reducing the price from almost $30/case to $22.90.

Marine supplies: Budget Marine in Benner Bay, and Island Marine Outfitters at Crown Bay; if you need some batteries (like we did) they can be purchased from Caribbean Battery and they will deliver to Crown Bay for free (for Red Hook they wanted $40). 


Dinghy docks can be very crowded.

Dinghy docking: we found four places, and consistently used three - The dinghy docks at Yacht Haven Grande (YHG) and Crown Bay (CB) are very crowded and very small (imagine Georgetown, if you've been there, with the dock cut in half but just as many dinghies).  Both, on most days we used them, required quite a bit of jungle gym antics to get even close to the floating dock (YHG) or the sea wall (CB). There is a sea wall you can tie up to downtown behind the breakwall at the Coast Guard station, that was easy and never crowded. We never heard that anyone had problems with theft or damage, but we do lock our dinghy at all times. Our recommendation, have a long painter (dinghy docking line). Expect that people may have to step into your dinghy, or you into theirs to actually reach the dock at YHG. The other place you can take your dinghy is French Town where you will find some nice local restaurants (Hook Line & Sinker, The Looney Bien, and McDonalds (if that's your thing)). The dinghy dock is at the CYOA charter docks and a sign says $5 for dinghy docking. I went to Erica's salon and she said as long as you are using the services you didn't need to pay the fee. Take your chances on that one. We walked to Erica's from the downtown dock. By the way, Erica’s is a nice place to get a haircut and has a pretty view of the harbor. I paid $35 – but keep in mind, I only get my hair cut twice a year, now.

Garbage: You can't dispose of garbage at YHG, and CB charges a fee ($2 bag, dumpsters in the parking lot near the laundromat). We found a dumpster behind Wendy's just outside of YHG, and often disposed of packaging from purchases at CB without the fee. Downtown there are garbage cans in the streets that we used for small bags of trash.

"Safari" taxi's are the cheapest way to see the island

Getting around: On St. Thomas you can wait at any bus stop – really anywhere along the route, as long as you’re on the correct side of the road, and pick up the $1 "safari" that the locals ride. Pay when you get off. If you ride across the island (say, airport to Red Hook) the fare is $2. Press the doorbell type buttons located on the ceiling of the safari bus to let your driver know you want to get off at the next stop. Otherwise, official taxi/van fares are published in guides.  On St. John, you will need to take a taxi and they are pricey. If you have stocked up at Home Depot or Cost U Less and are not looking forward to lugging it all on the safari, there are always locals who will offer you a ride back (negotiate your price in advance, we paid $15 to a local in a pickup for the same trip that others paid $40).

IGY at Red Hook is an ideal place to pick up guests

Where to meet your guests: If you have guests meeting you in St. Thomas, they can easily take a taxi/van from the airport to your location. Our guests met us at Red Hook ($11) and Yacht Haven Grande ($6). In addition there is a $2 per bag charge). We've met other cruisers who dropped the hook in Lindbergh Bay, tied their dinghies on shore and made the short walk to the airport from there to meet their guests. We dropped off our guests downtown (docking the dinghy at the sea wall by the Coast Guard station) which is also right next to a taxi pick up and on the left (correct) side of the street heading to the airport, less than a 20 minute ride.

Laundry: There are several places to do laundry if you don't do it on board. I used three of them, but I did hear of a fourth one located downtown a block north of the Post Office for $6.50/load drop off; I paid $1.50/lb at Crown Bay. I'll never do that again! Later, I did the laundry myself at Crown Bay. I liked the facilities, albeit small and busy. The staffs were friendly and helpful, they had change, laundry supplies and beverages for sale. One particularly hot day, the owner gave everyone in the laundromat a bottle of water! I also relished in the fact that they had a large screen TV so I could catch up on some reruns of TV shows I hadn't seen in two years! Outdoors was a book rack/exchange and covered patio tables and chairs. Laundry day became a chance to eat out because we would get deli sandwiches at Gourmet Gallery while waiting. At this laundromat and at the one near Lindbergh Bay/airport the machines are quadruple, triple and double loaders - something I did not notice at first. You can wash up to four loads of laundry at one shot in the quadruple loader (double cycle, too, for extra cleaning) for $9. Triple loaders were $6, and double loaders were $5.50. Be sure to bring enough laundry detergent. Drying was a quarter for five minutes.

Christmas Cove on Great St. James island is a
protected and peaceful anchorage

Anchorages: While in St. Thomas we dropped the hook in Long Bay/Charlotte Amalie harbor and Lindbergh Bay. The anchorage at Charlotte Amalie is rolly most of the time. It’s my least favorite anchorage only because of that, so I plan to be off the boat as much as possible while we are there.  But the city lights at night, the cruise ships arriving and departing, the ease of access to shopping and touring sometimes make up for it. Lindbergh Bay can get rolly with sustained winds out of the SE; as long as the winds were consistent we found a bridle worked well. The locals stated that the underwater cables marked on the charts for the E side of Lindbergh are old WWII cables, no longer present/used, but we didn’t “test” the local knowledge.


Little Lameshur Bay, St. John.

Where to pick up a ball: Our favorite mooring fields:
• Christmas Cove on Great St. James: free balls, but arrive before noon for the best chance to get one, nice snorkeling. Expect swells from the ferry traffic during the day, dies down at night.
• Francis Bay on St. John: $15 self pay per day, US Park Golden Eagles get half price. There are many balls, we had no problems getting one even late. Beautiful beaches, a short hike to Anneburg Sugar Mill Ruins, Maho Bay Camps is also in this bay where you can find a blown glass art museum, a restaurant and a nice beach. Maho Bay will take your recyclables; Francis Bay has trash receptacles on shore.
• Little Lameshur Bay on the South Side, also has trash receptacles, and hiking trails to the petroglyphs, and you can hike to the Tektite museum describing the underwater experiment by NASA that took place in this bay in the 70's.

All of these mooring fields are protected from the prevailing winds. There is anchoring outside the field in 40’-60’ of water if you prefer, the anchoring fee is the same as the mooring ball fee.
Water: We purchased water at Crown Bay and at IGY at Red Hook. IGY makes their own water. It tastes better than Crown Bay's city water, which tastes a little "chlorine-y". Either one is good and we haven't had any problems (although, I do think most cruisers prefer Red Hook for water at 16 cents per gallon.)

Getting fuel at Crown Bay Marina is easy, the staff are helpful,
hail them on VHF 16 when you want to go in
or you will get turned away; it can get busy.

Fuel: We purchased our diesel at Crown Bay ($4.25 Nov 2011 - $4.50 March 2012), we heard it was cheaper than Red Hook by $1 and it appears that many of the ferries fuel up at CB. The fuel dock is easy to access and protected from winds and swells. The staff are very helpful. Radio ahead to request space at the dock. The pump at the head of the dock (#6?) had the lowest flow rate, I found the center pump (#3?) to pump so quickly I often got a spurt out of the tank vent prior to the tank being full and soiling an absorbent pad.

Propane: We found propane at St Thomas Gas at the head of Krum Bay. We took the dinghy into this industrial area, past the WAPA plant, worked our way around the docks and tied up to the sea wall. It was a short walk to the propane dock, I dropped the tank on the dock, walked into the office and paid ($11.75 for 10 lb tank), and the tank was usually full by the time I got back with the receipt for the dock attendant.

St. Thomas is the place for provisioning when visiting the USVI and BVI
with everything you need relatively close to Charlotte Amalie.

What to do: There’s a lot to do within walking distance of docking your dinghy at either YHG or the Coast Guard sea wall. Pick up a guide, ask at the tourist booth downtown, the views in the hills are incredible. We enjoyed our tour of Blackbeard’s compliments of our friends, the Levine’s. At $14 per person, I didn't think the price was too outrageous for a few hours of fun and the view from the tower. For $25/person you can hire a taxi to take you on a tour to Mountain Top and see the view of the Atlantic and enjoy the one-stop tourist shop, the driver gives you a little local history and takes you to another view of the Caribbean side of Charlotte Amalie. The cheapest way to see St. Thomas is to get on the safari and just enjoy the ride as it travels from one end of the island to the other. We learned that there are price controls at all the duty free shops, so shop at any of the three locations: Havensight, downtown, and Crown Bay.

Where to eat: We liked Jen's cafe downtown for their roti and the fun atmosphere. We also liked the Looney Bien (French Town) and Amigo's (Red Hook) for the $2/$3 tacos at Happy Hour from 3-6 every day. And, we liked Hook, Line & Sinker in Frenchtown. (Frenchtown is a 15 minute walk from downtown.) We also liked buying a beer for $2.50 at a local store and wandering the streets with all the cruise ship tourists. If you want a lovely beach side atmosphere dine at the Beach Comber at sunset in Lindbergh Bay (island prices) great food.

We hope this “guide” was helpful and that you make the most of your cruise in the Virgin Islands!

5 comments:

  1. Great info! Thanks for taking the time to put all of this together. While we won't be visiting the Virgin Islands in our sailboat for a while, we will be staying on St. Thomas the end of April! We've never been to any of the Virgin Islands, so we're really excited. This guide will help as now, as well as later!

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  2. Thanks for all this info! We will be in the USVI and the BVI til the end of April so will check out some of your favourite spots.

    Pam and Glen
    SV Blue Pearl

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  3. Thanks for the great tips. Much more real useful stuff the Scotts totally ignore. John and Julia. S/V Mary Ann II

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  4. Wow, you are a lifesaver! Just got to Charlotte Amalie and have no guide book to help us out with this kind of thing (we're only here a week, so that's why we didn't purchase one), but it's so nice to find information on where to shop and how to get there. Thank you!!

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  5. Thanks, Jessica! I hope you enjoy Charlotte Amalie.

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