Adventures in Rock City, St. Thomas, USVI

As I mentioned yesterday, I drove down to Florida with the kids and Lucy for Spring Break while Clay is globetrotting in the name of the Army. As much as I love spending time at the beach with the kids, there isn’t much I love more than being on an island with Clay. While wiping sand off their little feet this afternoon, I was reminded of the trip that Clay and I took to USVI a few years ago. I already wrote about St. John so today seems as good as any to write about St. Thomas because I’m missing my guy – it’s tough cleaning sand off little toes by yourself!

St. Thomas is named Rock City for good reason – the island is largely mountainous with roads hugging rugged drop-offs that provide spectacular views. Our rental car had more dents that current consumer confidence (hi-oh!) and had a max speed of 20mph while chugging up the many hills. And we were convinced at least twice that we lost a hubcap or two thanks to the enormous potholes. But it got the job done and provided us with the freedom to explore on our terms. Driving on the left side of the road took a little getting used to but it did make driving up and down the winding roads a lot easier.

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After our first night, we woke up itching to explore the island. Based on the recommendation of family and friends, we ventured out to the famed Coki Beach but the crowded beach didn’t mesh with us. So we decided to go to Sapphire Beach instead, which ended up being our favorite beach on St. Thomas. The Sapphire Beach Resort appeared to be closed and undergoing major renovations so we practically had the beach to ourselves. What made Sapphire Beach special was the view when in the water – small islands dot the horizon. If it weren’t for our rumbling stomachs, we could have stayed all day.

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We stayed at the Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort and couldn’t have been more pleased with the amenities and price-point. Having experienced all-inclusive resorts in the past, we knew we wanted by-pass that scene this time around. We pretty much only had two non-negotiables when planning this trip – a private balcony overlooking the ocean and a working toilet (I’m happy to report that the Marriott went above and beyond in these regards, and others).

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The hotel was gorgeous – complete with multiple pools, including an infinity pool, tennis courts, private beach, and multiple restaurants and bars. Iguanas also roam the property so if you have an intense fear of herbivorous lizards, perhaps this isn’t the hotel for you.

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The capital of the USVI is Charlotte Amalie, a port city with Danish architecture and home to almost half of St. Thomas residents. The majority of shops and restaurants located in the harbor area of Charlotte Amalie cater to cruise ship visitors (cruise ships in the harbor will triple the island population during peak season), so it’s hard to walk 100 yards without seeing jewelry stores, knock-off designer purse emporiums, or cheap t-shirt shops complete with painted seashells. We found ourselves steering clear from this part of town with the exception of buying a few trinkets for the kids. The ‘tourist’ portion of Charlotte Amalie is no different than any other major cruise ship port and was easily our least favorite area of the island.

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One evening, we drove down to Frenchtown and found ourselves at Oceana, an open- air restaurant on Cay Bay overlooking Hassel Island and Water Island that is a bit difficult to find. We were seated right on the water and enjoyed fresh fish and amazing rum cocktails. Our waiter informed as that Hassel Island once served as a leper colony and had us convinced that we could swim there while holding a waterproof backpack over our heads. Which we’re totally going to do next visit.

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Since Clay and I try to kayak whenever we can, we went night kayaking in the bay near our hotel. We were in a double kayak with a clear bottom fitted with LED lights. We saw sea turtles, fish, and even a stingray.  Our only complaint is that we wish we were able to kayak beyond the bay (not really safe) and the excursion was longer (only about 1.5 hours).

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We spent a lot of time on the beach at our hotel. A casual restaurant, The Sand Bar, right on the beach had great food and drinks so we often took often of their happy hour special. We didn’t think to bring our own snorkeling gear (probably because we don’t own any) but have already purchased some for the next time we find ourselves in crystal clear water.

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The weather couldn’t have been more perfect during our visit to St. Thomas, especially since we technically planned our visit during hurricane season (we’re at the mercy of the Army when it comes to scheduling blocks of leave). On the morning we flew out, it poured buckets and from our understanding, hasn’t stopped yet thanks to Tropical Storm Cristobol. Luck certainly was on our side this trip.

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We had our last evening meal at Havanah Blue, an exquisite restaurant that thankfully was located just off of the private hotel beach. The caipirinha was quite possibly the best drink I’ve ever had and food was mind-blowing delicious and prepared incredibly well. While we definitely favored St. John (recap tomorrow), we throughly enjoyed our stay on St. Thomas and wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again – we’re already planning on taking the kids back to USVI within the next couple of years.

Our trip was the perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. We have no regrets about not going the all-inclusive route at another Caribbean island and much prefer this type of vacation. And the best part? I had five whole uninterrupted days with my husband. That alone was well-worth the price of the trip.

New York City (Why We Want a Redo)

It’s Spring Break (check out this Mental Floss article about how Spring Break got its start)! Clay left the country for a handful of days so the kids, Lucy, and I are making our way to Florida to join my parents at their beach place. It’s impossible to think of this time of year and not be reminded of our disastrous Spring Break vacation to New York City a few years ago. The 2400 mile trip we made over the course of 10 days in effort to escape middle America during our Fort Leavenworth, Kansas tenure was a journey that involved a gastro-intestinal virus so intense that clothes were incinerated, hotel parking lots eternally scarred, and a shared car-puke-bucket that became the sixth member of our road-trip family.

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The trip began innocently enough. As a family, we decided to go to Philadelphia and New York City for Spring Break and because Clay and I planned to vacation in Scotland later that year, we knew that driving to the East Coast was the only way we could afford to do both trips without forgoing IRA and 529 contributions. So whenever one of the children complained about being stuck in the car during the 1150 mile journey to the Philadelphia suburbs, we would just remind them that we were saving them from the frustration of having to begin their adult lives with student loan debt. And because they were six and two at the time, they seemed befuddled by our response and would then just ask for the iPad. Lucy (our elderly chocolate lab) also joined us on the journey, because you know what makes a multi-state road trip even more fun? A dog.

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By the time we reached Ohio, the children were slightly delirious and happily proclaimed this particular rest area “the best ever!” because we let them run up a hill and buy a candy bar from the vending machine. The bar was set low for this trip from the beginning, apparently.

img_1198.jpgWe were sure to eat at Skyline Chili before stopping for the night in West Virginia. Had we known that 3/4 of us would be channeling our inner-Regan McNeil’s later on, we would have settled on a more neutral dinner choice.

The following day, we arrived at my sister’s house in suburban Philadelphia and hung out, being sure to head to bed at a decent time because the four of us were going to leave for New York City in the morning while Lucy stayed behind at my sister’s.

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Despite Violet getting sick overnight a couple of times (we chalked it up to her stomach not agreeing with something she ate…spoiler alert….we were horrifically wrong), she woke up her normal rambunctious self so we continued on with our place to drive up I-95 toward New York City – Staten Island, to be exact. Because why stay in chic Manhattan when bargains can be found on Staten Island at The Navy Lodge (e.g. see comment above about IRAs and 529s)? After checking-in early, we drove down to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and parked the car in a municipal garage a couple of blocks away.

 

 

 

Now the ferry is nothing glamorous but it is free, fast, and great for spotting people who may have been extras on Law & Order SVU. Since this was our kid’s first trip to New York City, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t just expose them to the swanky parts of the city. And because we don’t have access to a time machine in order to show them 1970s-era Times Square, the Staten Island Ferry is a nice alternative. In case you were wondering – the Staten Island Ferry and the stomach flu make horrible bedmates but luckily, we wouldn’t discover that little factoid until the following day.

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Despite whatever feelings you may have toward the Staten Island Ferry, it does offer a nice view of the Statue of Liberty along the journey.

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And the financial district upon the approach to Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan.

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We spent our first afternoon and evening walking around Lower Manhattan.

 

 

We spent a lot of time at World Trade Center. The little guy was (and still currently) obsessed with architecture and world records for building height, so he was in awe to be in the presence of One World Trade Center. Weston has basic understanding of the events surrounding September 11th so while sitting near the memorial, he asked Clay some difficult questions about his deployments to Afghanistan and about the attacks themselves.

 

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We then took the kids to Wall Street – where Violet proceeded to puke right near the Stock Exchange, much to the horror of important people in expensive suits. It’s like they could sense we came over on the Staten Island Ferry.

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We used this as our cue that we should probably head back to the hotel. Once back on Staten Island, we ordered food to-go from a nearby Italian restaurant and went to bed, deciding that if Violet (or anyone else) woke up sick, we’d cut our losses and head back to Pennsylvania.

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Thankfully, we all woke up feeling okay so back to the ferry we went! We decided to take the subway uptown and then use the rest of the day to work our way back to Whitehall Terminal.

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Clay now admits that it was on this subway ride that he realized that the sickness had crept it’s way into his body but being the trooper (ha!) he is, he put on a brave face and didn’t let on that he wasn’t feeling 100%. It is also why this post is lacking my typical food/drink pictures because we really didn’t eat or drink anything of value during our time in the city.

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We spent time in Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and of course, the Empire State Building. We then took the kids to Times Square, which I absolutely loathe. And it was after Radio City Music Hall that things went south. Fast. I won’t go into detail what  happened at the restaurant during dinner to protect all parties involved but I was only one with dinner left in my stomach as we rode the subway during rush-hour back down to the Financial District, boarded a ferry (Weston spent the entire ride puking into a trash can…not one other passenger even batted an eye), and crawled our way back to the hotel.

 

 

 

 

I remained the only healthy one during the night, so I cared for my family (and cleaned up after them) in the Staten Island hotel room. In the morning, we waved the white flag and forwent the rest of our time in New York City. I drove back down to the Philadelphia area while the rest of my family shared a puke bucket…my sister’s house never looked better as we pulled into the driveway.

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Needless to say, we want a mulligan of our trip to New York City. Now that we’re stationed on the east coast again, we have plans for a redo – hopefully this summer. However, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, that trip was a not-so-gentle reminder of the G.K. Chesterton quote – “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” While getting sick wasn’t in our plans, it certainly added to our family-lore and honestly, the trip would have been less exciting if there wasn’t the added fear that one of us could throw up at any given time. Additionally, the trip only confirmed what I’ve known since I was 18-years-old…Clay is the peanut butter to my jelly. There is absolutely no one else I’d rather drive over 2400 miles, board ferries, ride subways and trains with over the span of 7 days than this guy – all with two kids in tow. I’d even hold his puke bucket. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is.

Our Trip to Anchorage, Alaska and Surrounding Areas

When Clay returned from his second deployment, we didn’t have time to squeeze in a trip before PCSing to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Well – I take that back. Him and I were able to take a four-day house-hunting trip to Lawton while the little guy stayed with my parents. The Caribbean has nothing on Lawton, Oklahoma when it comes to a romantic post-deployment vacation. So we pushed our big trip back to the summer. And by Memorial Day, we had plans to take our summer family vacation to Anchorage, Alaska and the surrounding areas. Our friends, Jackie and Aaron, from Fort Drum were stationed there at the time so we stayed with them in Eagle River. Unfortunately, Aaron ended up having a JRTC rotation during our visit so we didn’t get to see him. Such is the Army life.

Traveling 4000 miles with Weston went as smooth as buttah. We couldn’t be more thrilled with our little travel buddy. There was a meltdown here and there, but that is to be expected with an almost-two-year-old. We woke up at 5am on a Saturday morning to drive down to Dallas/Ft. Worth so we could fly to Chicago and then to Anchorage, with us finally arriving in Alaska at 10pm (1am Central Time). Despite that first day being a long day for the little guy (and us!), we were so excited to set foot in the only non-contiguous US state on the North America continent and couldn’t wait to soak it all in. Being in 55-60 degree temperatures didn’t hurt either.

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The Seward Highway has to offer one of the most breathtaking views in the world, running through the Kenai Peninsula and Turnagain Arm. We didn’t get to complete all 127 miles of the drive but we were able to see incredible scenery (mountains, water, and glaciers – oh my) on our drive from Anchorage to Girdwood.

St. John – The Crown Jewel of the Caribbean

The infamous DC snow hole struck again yesterday – place south of us got snow and places north of us got snow, but we just experienced dark skies and the threat of snow. Many local meteorologists were declaring this storm to be the last for the area before the promised spring-like weather.

Because yesterday was cold, gray, and damp – despite nothing falling from the sky – it made me think of some of our favorite trips to tropical destinations. St. John is definitely on the highlight reel – Clay and I went there, sans kids, in August 2014. The highlight of our vacation to the USVI was easily our time spent on St. John. When planning the trip, we ultimately decided to stay on St. Thomas because we managed to score a great rate at the Marriott. And we really did have a fantastic time on Rock City. But St. John is in a different league all together – we knew we would love the island but we didn’t expect to fall as hard as we did. St. John is known as the crown jewel of the Caribbean and I can’t think of a more deserving title for what just may be the most beautiful place we’ve been to yet (for inquiring minds – Alaska, Scotland, and St. John are the frontrunners but we still have so many more places to go).

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