Beyond Saint John: Day Trips to the British Virgin Islands & St. Thomas

Though we spent most of our week on St. John, we did want to check out some of the other islands, which are all relatively close. Below is a map of the Virgin Islands – in short, American property to the south-west, British property to the north-east.

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For our first trip, we decided to do a “highlights” tour of the British Virgin Islands via a group charter boat. Leaving St. John, it wasn’t long before the island chain began to look like the mountain range it really is…

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A few readers in fact suggested the Virgin Islands could only properly be explored by boat, and that we should charter a private boat for the week. Sadly, the $5,000 price tag put a bit of a dent in that idea, but I would’ve loved to have been able to explore small, uninhabited islands like this one off St. John…

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…which nevertheless has its own traces of past civilization:

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For our trip to the British Virgin Islands, we had five stops, the most offered by any of the various charter boat tours:

  • Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda – Shopping while we check in with customs
  • The Baths, Virgin Gorda – Explore “The Baths”
  • Cooper Island, British Virgin Islands – Lunch
  • Norman Island – Snorkel off The Indians
  • Jost Van Dyke – Drinks at the Soggy Dollar Bar

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The trip was not cheap, coming in at $145/person + $30 customs fee + $20 lunch + Whatever you spend at the Soggy Dollar Bar. But hey, when’s the next time we’ll be here again? The boat had an open bar, and I figured we’d learn a whole bunch about the British Virgin Islands.

I learned exactly three bits of history on the entire cruise.

One, this shot from the Gilligan’s Island theme song was staged on one of the Virgin Islands:

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Two, that Alan Alda used to own an entire island in the area, but sold it and now just owns a really big house:

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Three, one of the first Corona ads set on a beach was shot in the Virgin Islands:

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That’s it.

Look, I realize we’re all on vacation, and no one wants a dry historical lecture or anything, but we were literally in a different country! Maybe a sentence or two about how the British came into possession of the islands?? (the English captured Tortola from the Dutch in 1672 and annexed additional islands in the following years).

It didn’t take long to realize that we were essentially on a $200+ booze cruise, supplied by $11 bottles of Cruzan Rum.

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Now, this wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world…

Except, literally everyone else on the ship were newlyweds on their honeymoon. And as it turns out, newlyweds like to gab endlessly with other newlyweds about being newlyweds. A major discussion topic for the women was what to do with their rings when they went swimming; the guys just kept asking me when I was planning on having my balls cut off too. Needless to say, my girlfriend and I mostly stuck to ourselves.

But look – a rainbow showed up to cheer us up!

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A quick note about weather in the Virgin Islands: despite the fact that our weather forecast predicted rain every day of the trip, the weather was absolutely beautiful, averaging 85 degrees for the entire week. Oh sure, it did rain every day – but in the Virgin Islands, when it rains, it rains for about 10 – 20 minutes or so, and that’s that. When we set out for the British Virgin Islands that morning, the skies were cloudy; within 20 minutes, blue skies:

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Our first stop was to Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, to check in with customs and go shopping in town. Spanish Town was originally settled by Cornish miners, and ruins of their operations – including mineshafts going over 240 feet underground, below the sea – still exist today as a National Park:

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Unfortunately, there were only a couple of gift shops near the dock, all were closed, and we didn’t actually have time to go further into town for the advertised shopping. The bar was open though.

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We hopped on the boat, and took a quick cruise around to The Baths, which both my girlfriend and I had been really looking forward to.

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Evidence of the Virgin Island’s volcanic beginnings, The Baths consist of dozens of huge granite boulders that were strewn along the shore sometime after the last Ice Age, forming grottoes, arches, tidal pools, etc.

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We had to swim to shore, so I couldn’t bring my camera, but here’s a picture from Flickr user Ian Carvell:

The Baths, Virgin Gorda

Another, from Flickr user Ashley Aull:

The Baths

As we were swimming to shore from the charter boat, suddenly, someone yelled “I’m being bit!” Someone else cried out “Something’s stinging me,” and then we were all making a mad beeline to shore. Turns out, we’d swum through a big cloud of jellyfish. Yay! I didn’t have much of a visible reaction, but my girlfriend looked like she’d been hugged by an octopus:

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Our group of 20 finally made it to shore, and man did some of the newlyweds get hit hard. Now, here’s the thing – I certainly don’t blame the tour boat for this mishap – it’s the ocean, for God’s sake, and jellyfish do happen to live in it – but I did expect our guides to maybe reassure the group, especially the people who had never been stung by a jellyfish before. Maybe something like “OK, listen folks, I know that was painful, but jellyfish are harmless. We have amonia in the boat to help take the sting away, and if anyone has an allergic reaction, we are prepared to deal with it.”

Instead, we all just sort of stood around the beach in pain as our two guides looked clueless as to what to do next. Finally, they just led us on the absolute fastest tour imaginable through the Baths. We barely had any time to enjoy it, and had to keep dodging washed up jellyfish at our feet. We finally made it to another beach, and swam back to the boat. Eventually, a bottle of amonia was passed around, but about the only advice we got was, “Well, let’s get back on the boat and drink some more!”

Next up was Cooper Island for lunch…

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Cooper Island doesn’t seem to be known for anything historical. There are some resorts on the island, and that’s pretty much it – I’m not even sure there’s a main road. Below, the local island dog gets some sun:

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I believe we ate at the Cooper Island Beach Club, which was probably the first enjoyable stop on the trip – great food, even better views.

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The view – note the two kids jumping off the mooring:

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I love book exchanges at hotels, but there’s something special about one on a remote tropical island:

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After lunch, we boated our way over to Norman Island to visit The Indians, an archipelago of islets so-named because of their supposed resemblance to a Native American chief’s head dress.

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The Indians extend far underwater, offering some pretty great snorkeling. We spent about 20 minutes here, but were urged to not delay, as we had to get to our next stop: the legendary Soggy Dollar Bar.

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Located on Jost Van Dyke, the Soggy Dollar Bar is so-named because the only way to get to it is by anchoring off-shore and swimming to the beach (at least, this used to be the case; there is a road now on the island, but still no dock).

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I’d been wanting to visit the Soggy Dollar Bar since I first heard of it years ago. Of course, as our boat pulled in, the captain decided to interrupt the pleasant quietness by CRANKING Sweet Home Alabama – the Americans have arrived! The Newlyweds loved this and started yelling “PARRR-TAAAAAAY!!”

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The place was pretty packed, but it was still very charming. There’s just something about an isolated tropical bar that can’t be beat…

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The actual bar at the Soggy Dollar Bar…

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…with soggy twenties hung out to dry!

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Below is bartender Mic, who’s been there forever, mixing up Painkiller after Painkiller, a drink said to have originated at the Soggy Dollar:

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Mic has quite the array of tools for a bartender:

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The Soggy Dollar’s coffee table:

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After an hour and change, we started back to St. John, and it was about then that the crew began telling us that they only get paid in tips. This was the first we’d heard of this, and talking with the other folks on board, we soon learned that a $30-$60 tip would be adequate…which now meant our half-day trip was on its way to $250 a piece. I never, ever want to shortchange anyone when it comes to tipping, but SOME heads-up on the website would’ve been nice!

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In sum: 20 minutes at the Baths; an hour for lunch; 20 minutes of snorkeling; an hour and a half at the Soggy Dollar Bar. The rest of seven hour trip, spent surrounded by drunken newlyweds acting like drunken newlyweds. Not necessarily the best way to see the British Virgin Islands, but at the end of the day, I’m glad we went – the Virgin Islands is too beautiful for anything to be too disappointing, even when you’re attacked by jellyfish who hate newlyweds.

A few days later, we took the ferry over to St. Thomas, the territorial capital of the US Virgin Islands:

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A few hours walking around Charlotte Amalie was enough to make me glad we’d chosen to stay on St. John. It’s not that Charlotte Amalie isn’t beautiful, or lacks history – just check out their Fort Christian, the oldest standing structure on St. Thomas dating to the 1670’s:

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The problem is that Charlotte Amelie is the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean, with as many as eight cruise ships showing up per day, and is basically a duty-free wonderland. The entire downtown is filled with tax-free shops in this order: jewelry store; liquor store; luggage store; gift shop; repeat for about a mile. The shop owners all stand outside trying to sucker you in, and what could be one of the most charming places in the world just feels really, really tacky:

Main Street, Charlotte Amalie

St. Thomas, like St. John, is really steep, as evidenced by the famous “99 Steps,” which lead up over the town to a tower said to have once been used as a lookout by Blackbeard himself.

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The steps – actually 103 – were built by the Danes in the 1700’s; there’s absolutely no proof Blackbeard ever set foot here, though an entire hotel has been built around the legend.

We stopped by the beautiful Government House, built in 1867:

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Nearby, the Lieutenant Governor’s building had one of those seals that feels distinctly like the 1950’s:

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Another St. Thomas residence with a balcony; walking the less-trafficked streets of Charlotte Amalie, you definitely can feel like you’re in the old world Caribbean at times.

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Below is the former Grand Hotel, once of the premier hotel of St. Thomas.

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The Grand Hotel was built in 1839, and remained in business until 1975, then one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the world. Below, a picture taken in 1965:

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Originally, the hotel had a third floor, which was lost in 1896 most likely to hurricane damage:

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Today, it’s occupied by shops and offices. Below, a 1965 picture of the veranda, when it was a cafe:

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Just inside the veranda is the original ballroom:

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We also stopped by Charlotte Amalie’s Alvaro de Lugo post office, built in 1938. At the time, it was said to be “the first of its kind amidst the antiquated structures of the town…”

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Inside are a pair of really neat WPA paintings by artist Stevan Dohanos.

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The second:

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Enormous iguanas were running all over the place in town (though were a bit camera shy):

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A bit north of the iguana was the beautiful Hotel 1829 (founded, of course, in 1829). Unfortunately, to enter, you had to buy a group ticket to a bunch of other attractions, which I believe included entry to some sort of exhibit on amber or crystals or something on the ground floor.

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A very cool taxi dispatcher – I swear this picture could’ve been taken in the 1950’s:

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We enjoyed walking around St. Thomas – some of the buildings are absolutely gorgeous, and there’s a feeling of time-worn history everywhere:

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But I think it ultimately just made us appreciate the untouched feel of St. John even more. I obviously can’t speak for all of St. Thomas, but Charlotte Amalie certainly felt like a town that was trying to squeeze out every last tourist dollar possible, from pirate tours to overpriced grouped admissions to bland restaurants to the endless duty free shops to, er, amber museums. It’s not that the beauty wasn’t there – in fact, I only shot the prettier side of Charlotte Amelie, and from my pictures, you might think my criticisms are nuts.

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But with up to 8 cruise ships coming in every day, I guess you don’t have much of a choice but to mine it for all it’s worth, right? Comparing it to St. John is almost a cautionary tale of what stands to be lost at the hands of commerce.

On the way back, we passed nearby Water Island…

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…which of course had to tease me with yet more abandoned ruins…

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Sadly, these will have to wait for another vacation.

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Final Virgin Islands post coming Wednesday: what this all costs, and how to get there!

-SCOUT

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23 comments

  1. I understand the attraction of a tour to see as much as you can possibly see in a day, but did you not think that the BVI itinerary was WAAAAY too jam packed to see much of anything? Last time I was in St John, we did a day trip to Jost Van Dyk, which by itself was too short. I can’t imagine trying to pack in 5 stops. (BTW, I highly recommend the day trip to Jost – you can just get an inter-island ferry from Cruz Bay that docks in the little town on Jost.)

    Also, regarding St Thomas, I can’t imagine anyone goes to Charlotte Amalie for anything except shopping. Anyone staying on the island is surely staying somewhere away, probably at a beach resort.

    • Ha, you know, call me crazy, but I figured at least one of those cultural stops would be given more than 20 minutes! But lesson learned, and I’d love to go back with more time to Jost Van Dyk.

      As for St Thomas – my only exposure to the rest of the island was driving to the airport, and what we saw wasn’t all that pretty (but then, few airport drives are). Are there other small towns that are less overly commercial?

  2. St. Thomas is a filthy sewer full of people living in shanty towns constructed out of container ship containers and scrap metal, ala the slums of Brazil. It’s a pretty sad place that exists solely for duty free shopping…

    • Ha, well that answered my question, thank you Artie!

    • Well, that’s a *bit* of an exaggeration, Artie! No doubt St Thomas lacks the peace and quiet of St John, and gets ridiculously overcrowded on big cruise ship days. (Planning or setting limits on cruise arrivals has never really been taken up. Your conclusion about what can be lost to the hands of commerce is pretty much spot-on.)

      There’s poverty, yep, and sad to say far more crime than you might expect (some of it drug related as the island, like many Caribbean islands, is a transshipment point for coke coming north). I lived there for five years and I think I may have seen a couple of repurposed cruise ship containers – maybe – but certainly no Brazilian style shantytowns.

      Still, there are plenty of places of great beauty, especially on the northern side of the island; hard to believe but you can find undeveloped, isolated beaches on that island.

      Regardless, thanks for the post and the trip down memory lane! Great pictures and interesting perspective.

    • Artie,
      Why so bitter?
      While no place is truly paradise, and St Thomas does have it share of poor areas, to call it a filthy sewer is a bit extreme. St Thomas is a beautiful island and there are some wonderful people there. If you can’t say anything nice, why not just keep your thoughts to your self?

  3. looks like a great trip! i usually grab a few cheap disposable underwater cameras for trips like these (or anywhere where a digi might get wet)…. they have a great, grainy quality to them that i actually really like!

    i’ve used dozens of the fujifilm ones (to the point where it’s probably cheaper for me to just get a water kit for my camera) but i highly recommend them!

    http://www.amazon.com/Fujifilm-Quick-Waterproof-Single-Camera/dp/B00068H7J8/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1329159291&sr=8-5

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/theallisondavis/sets/72157624965573962/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/theallisondavis/sets/72157625986719185/

  4. I went on a sailing trip to the BVIs about 12 years ago which was a great trip. Your jelly fish experience reminded me that I, too, snorkeled through a school of these things also, I believe, at the baths. It was a tough night because nobody knew to stock ammonia on the boat and I was plagued by the stings all night long.

    One thing you may have missed on St. Thomas was a synagogue built in the 19th century. My parents took us there back in the ’70s and I marveling at the sandy floor.

    You have definitely piqued my interest to return to the Virgin Islands, St. John, in particular!

  5. Nick, you have piqued my interest in St. John with your posts. I need to spend some time there. You got suckered with your day trip, that is why I avoid tours at all costs. I spent quite a bit of time in Charlotte Amalie while I was in the Navy and I guess I have developed selective seeing but I always found it to be charming. Breakfast at the Green Room, lunch someplace else and dinner at some place about three or four streets up from the waterfront. I got to be a bit of a regular there and the owner always remembered me. I found a good Italian clothing store down a side street that always had good stuff and then there was the place with the Frederick McMonnies statue in front. And I gather from your post that you didn’t find the house with a plaque dedicated to Alexander Hamilton. You did however find a bunch of the good stuff including the murals in the Post Office.

  6. Wow you guys did a lot while you were there. My idea of vacation in the islands is quality beach time, several books, an attentive wait staff and peace & quiet. I have not taken an organized “day trip” in 24 years, having had the same experience you had or some other local “problem”. If I want to do something, I’ll go the private charter route. While I know your options are limited on St. John; in St. Thomas you and your girlfriend probably could have gotten a private boat w/captain for what you paid.

    A few years ago I was in Zanzibar and chartered a carved Dar boat for $60 and we went out sailing for 5 hours. We fished with spears and enjoyed being on the water. At the same time all of the Italian tourists, probably newlyweds were paying 100 Euros each for the 4 hour excursion on a crowded catamaran. As to tipping, they wanted any clothing I could part with; so I gave them some of my dirty laundry. Two days later, the guy who arranged the Dar boat came back with his cousin who had a jeep and for a tank of gas and a detour to his mother’s house for dinner, they took me to the full moon party on the North end. Once again, an activity a normal tour guide would never sell you.

  7. Thanks for reminding me about the great place I had my honeymoon.

    Now I don’t have to watch Weekend at Bernie’s II.

  8. That jellyfish story cracked me up! I was on Virgin Gorda for my honeymoon SEVEN years ago. At one point I was “aimlessly” snorkeling around The Baths and looked “up” (still underwater) and realized that I had swam right into the center of a huge cloud of pink jellyfish! I was surrounded by them and there was no way out except to swim deeper until I cleared them. I did not get stung, fortunately. So funny to hear that jelly gang is still terrorizing The Baths.

  9. I have been living in St Thomas for almost 40 years and there are many beautiful places to visit on the island and although some areas may look like ‘shantytowns’ to the average urban or suburban American it is very typical of the entire Caribbean to live a simpler and less manicured life -vernacular architecture included. Many visitors seem to feel the entire island should exude a vacation resort vibe – but real life imposes a different reality. St John and the National Park has an entirely different economic overlay – not having the commercial harbor that is a St Thomas focus point, St John remained very undeveloped until the Rockefeller family bought as much land as was possible and created the National Park – now the St John economy is dominated by almost 1000 luxury rental villas.
    Your articles are really a wonderful look at the Virgin Islands from your scout perspective and I enjoyed them – there are quite a few minor inaccuracies – one I would point out is the in pictures of what you report as Water Island on your ferry boat ride – That is Colwells Battery on Hassell Island which is the westside of STT Harbor.
    Thanks for the great read and come back again! There have been many films made here over the years – well beyond ‘Weekend at Bernies II”

  10. St. Thomas, while having its historic spots, is mostly about shopping, nightclubs, and resort accomodations. If that’s your cup of tea, then go there. Personally, I don’t care to do a lot of shopping or clubbing on vacation – I’m there to do things you can’t do at home.

    If you want a more serene, less crowded experience (relatively speaking), St. John is it. But Caneel Bay and the Westin St. John are the only “resorts” on the island for those who like to have “staff” to serve them. Other accomodations are very much a DIY experience. (Fine with me, I can cook my own food, mix my own drinks, and do my own laundry.)

    Remember to buy mosquito repellant and sunscreen at home and bring it with you – this stuff is like gold down there and priced accordingly.

  11. I’m so happy I came across this via Google search. I’m flying into Puerto Rico and wanted to island hop to St Thomas and BVI
    BVI I’m not so sure anymore

    Anyways I thought ferry to BVI was $55 rountrip??

  12. Thank you for your post. I will be spending two nights in St. Thomas before going on my charter. I have absolutely no interest in shopping. Now I will avoid that place altogether and go on a day trip to St. John instead.

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  14. PollybergHillStTT

    @Artie – to say that “St. Thomas is a filthy sewer” disrespects the residents who live there. You wouldn’t like it if you lived there, and someone described your environment as “a filthy sewer.”

    Scout – great pictures!

  15. I can’t believe how many complaints you have about this trip while still saying you are glad you went.

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  17. Fascinating posts, especially about the St John boat trips. I actually do boat trips on St John and I’m prowling the net to get a read on people’s experience. Our tour is a little different because we just sail to Jost Van Dyke and back. So it’s very mellow and not rushed. But if you want to get to the Baths and hit a bunch of spots the boat you went on is really the way to go. We rarely if ever have jellyfish so that’s why the crew was clueless on what to do. I agree that including history and natural history on a tour certainly enhances the experience. I would love to know where that Gilligan’s Island shot was taken? Also the first island you picture, with the stone house is Whistling Cay. The structure was an old customs house used to clear sailing ships into Danish waters (St John).

  18. Hi Scout, what an exciting sounding vacation! Which charter company did you use? We are going to STT next month and would like to do something similar. Thanks!

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