An island drama, but it's short.
Two Buffalonians stagger into a waterfront bar, Fungi's, in St. Thomas. It is early evening. They are tired from traveling and stand out like marble bas-reliefs with their glowing skin, white as the Buffalo snow against the lush tropical night. The two northerners look around. Palm trees circle the bar and the air is a shade under 80 degrees. It's a long way from Western New York.
Girl: Well, this looks different.
Guy: I think that's the Devils game.
Guy: Over there. On the TV. And do I smell -- chicken wings?
(A platter of wings, Buffalo-style and dripping with Frank's Red Hot, marches by.)
Girl: Oh no. It feels like --
Guy: Like the Anchor Bar.
Girl: All of a sudden I miss DoDo Green.
Guy: Do you suppose they have beef on weck?
An advisory to Buffalo travelers: Going to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is going away, but it's not going far.
Which means a couple of things. First of all, you'll find Buffalo wings on nearly every menu, from upscale dining to bar food. You'll run into island natives who have relatives in Western New York, or who have been to the area themselves. (The Buffalo-St. Thomas connection is oddly strong.) Hockey and football, in season, can easily be found on bar and restaurant TV sets -- just try doing that in Italy or England.
All of which makes for a low stress vacation experience for a heat-seeking Buffalonian.
Then again, there is something in each of us that yearns for the authentically anti-wing. The non-kummelweck. The anything-but-Bills.
Never fear, travelers. Truly escapist island experiences can be found on St. Thomas -- even more so if you take a quick ferry ride to nearby St. John. (That is, if you're not overly picky about chickens running through your sour cream. But you'll have to read on for that.)
With that, here is one guide for a getaway jaunt from Buffalo to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It's meant to be a plan that's practical, but not stifling. After all, the best part of traveling is discovering things for yourself.
Read this guide before you go -- but do go. You'll feel so curiously at home.
From Buffalo to Charlotte Amalie
Arriving in St. Thomas makes you feel like a movie star. And no, it's not the waving palm trees or the brighter-than-Los Angeles sunshine.
It's actually that little roll-away staircase you use to climb down from the plane -- like Carole Lombard arriving in Hollywood or Betty Grable on a USO tour, landing on an airfield somewhere. So very 1940s chic.
Cyril King Airport in Charlotte Amalie, the main city on St. Thomas, is largely an outdoor airfield -- which is fine, considering that island temperatures hover between the low 70s and the high 80s all year.
After you disembark, head straight for the taxi line. Many of the hotels and resorts are a 20-minute drive away, and fares average about $14 per person, one way, to the larger resorts. Just be sure to pick an air-conditioned cab.
Savvy travelers' note: We wanted to fly directly into St. Thomas, but we figured flying out of Toronto might be a lot cheaper than Buffalo. Wrong. Both cities offer prices that are in the same ballpark, on average, and when you calculate in pricey parking and transportation costs you're better off leaving from Buffalo and getting a few extra hours' sleep.
Your total flying time, by the way, will be about four and a half hours, not counting layovers.
Tickets start at about $500 roundtrip and go up from there; we shopped on-line at travelocity.com, which seemed to offer the best fares.
Brushes with death
On our first full day in the islands, we had one bad experience and two good ones.
The bad one came first: We decided to take a walk from our resort, the Renaissance Grand Beach, into Red Hook. Red Hook is the little port community which boasts the island's main ferry docks, including the St. John's ferry. The walk from our hotel looked to be about three miles -- nothing by Buffalo standards, right?
One: The roads in St. Thomas are narrow. Two: There are no shoulders or sidewalks. Three: The taxis -- which seem to comprise most of the vehicles on the island -- are driven very fast.
After a two-mile hike that included several brushes with death, we detoured into Sapphire Beach Resort, one of the island's most glamorous beaches. We trekked down to the beach, had hamburgers at the waterfront restaurant ($7 each), and got a taxi to take us back to our resort.
No more sightseeing walks on island roads for us.
But the day's good experiences more than made up for a bad start. After showers and a change of clothing, we ambled over to a local corner store near our resort (no dangerous roads to navigate), and picked up some snacks, souveniers and a bottle of Cruzan Rum. It's the trademark spirit of the Virgin Islands, distilled on St. Croix, and it's cheaper than a Genny six-pack in Buffalo -- $4 for the bottle.
Dinner was a highlight, too. A cab took us to Polli's (say it out loud -- the mascot is a parrot), a small outdoor Mexican restaurant which is a local favorite. A little theater is connected to the restaurant, making it a worthwhile place to keep in mind for entertainment on sultry island nights.
Footsteps of Blackbeard
Today we decided to explore Charlotte Amalie, the city and center of life on St. Thomas.
First, a traveler's warning: Get an early start on a day trip into Charlotte Amalie, because the shops and boutiques -- which are world famous -- tend to follow the schedule of the cruise ships. That means they close early, often at 5 p.m., and stay closed on Sundays.
A cab ride from the resort took us into the center of the city, where we spent several hours in the main shopping district. Specialties here include perfume boutiques, liquor outlets, big-name fashion houses (Hilfiger, Prada, Gucci), and jewelry shops (Rolex, Columbian Emeralds). There is also a large outdoor market area, where vendors sell island crafts, clothing, straw items, and trinkets.
Customs allowances are generous in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but we did find one thing we couldn't bring back: a bottle of Cruzan 151 Rum -- the 151 is the proof. The airlines won't let travelers take the stuff on the planes, we were told, because it's flammable.
For lunch we hit Cuzzin's, on Back Street, a local hangout known for good food that's native to the islands -- try the conch creole, Johnny cakes and West Indian-style fish.
Sightseeing followed lunch. Fort Christian, a National Historic Landmark reputed to be the island's oldest building, is a red-brick 1666 fortress open to tourists for voluntary donations. It has exhibits on the history of settlement in the Virgin Islands. The waterfront is convenient for strolling and gawking at the cruise ships, and Emancipation Park -- commemorating the abolition of slavery in 1848 -- is a nice place to rest.
We ended our tour at another must-see spot on the island -- the 99 Steps.
Island lore says that the 99 Steps -- OK, we actually counted 103 -- were built from the ballast of trading ships that sailed to the Caribbean in the 1600s. The historic, well-worn steps arc upward, into the hills above the city, and end at another piece of island history: Blackbeard's Tower.
Blackbeard's Tower is worth every bit of the haul it takes to get to, even in the hot sun. Although it's situated on the grounds of what is now a small hotel, you can walk in the iron gates and go right up into the tower -- which looks out over Charlotte Amalie and the ocean.
Legend has it that Blackbeard, the pirate whose real name was Edward Teach, built the Castle in 1679 as a lookout post.
If he did, you can certainly see why. The view is glorious.
A day at the beach
Beaches on St. Thomas vary a lot, so it's important to check out your hotel or resort thoroughly before you book. Some resorts have strips of glittering white sand that go on for miles -- and some have gritty little postage-stamp beaches that are (no joke) directly under the flight path of the airport.
The key is research -- on the Internet and, preferably, calling the hotel to double-check. For starters, two web sites to try are www.usvi.net and the "virtual Virgin Islands" guide at www. st-thomas.com.
Our resort, the Renaissance Grand Beach, had a good, although not spectacular, mile-long sand beach with a supervised area for swimming. It also had a little shark, which was busily patrolling a small section of beachfront while we were there, to the great interest of guests and the consternation of some resort staff. (Right before we left, discussions were under way about "relocating" said shark.) The hotel also had an enormous pool within yards of the ocean.
Most of the big resorts on the island also provide watersports and sailing tours at additional cost, for those so inclined. Volleyball tournaments and "snorkeling for booze" events are also popular.
A natural getaway
A day trip to St. John's is a good way to get an idea of what the Virgin Islands must have looked like hundreds of years ago -- say, in Edward Teach's heyday.
That's because the island is mostly pristine natural parkland -- more than half of St. John is maintained as a national park by the U.S. government.
To get there, we boarded one of the big island ferryboats in Red Hook ($3 each way; kids are less) and settled in for the ride, which takes about 20 minutes. That's enough time to figure out what to do about transportation once you reach St. John's -- where the beaches are so spread out that it's impossible to walk from one to the other.
Taxis are available and go to most of the major beaches, but we opted to rent a Jeep from one of the little shacks near the ferry docks in Cruz Bay. It was a good decision. For $50, we got the Jeep for a whole day -- which allowed us to hit more than a few of the world-famous beaches on the island. (Think: beach pictures you have seen in calendars.)
Here's our list of beaches that should not be missed on St. John's:
Hawksnest Bay, close to Cruz Bay, is generally overlooked in favor of the more well-known beaches, but it is gorgeous -- and can be quite private. White sand, good snorkeling, sapphire blue water and fabulous views. Need we say more?
Trunk Bay is probably the most famous beach in the Virgin Islands, so prepare yourself for crowds. But it's a classic -- the standard as far as white sand beaches go. Miles and miles of sand. There's also an underwater snorkeling trail.
Cinnamon Bay is cool because in addition to the perfect sand and great views of open sea, you sometimes get big rollers that break near shore -- fun for bodysurfing and generally goofing off in. While we were there, a newly married couple lost a wedding ring in the waves -- but other than that, it was fun.
Maho Bay is another underrated beach, and although it's smaller than the others it's worth a visit. For nature lovers.
After swimming and snorkeling, we headed back to Cruz Bay, where we hung out for a couple of hours at JJ's Texas Cafe, eating nachos and drinking Coronas while we watched the ferry boats come in.
Now, about the chicken.
Because St. John's is so parklike -- and because, let's face it, everyone on the island could care less -- there are tons of chickens running around Cruz Bay. No one owns them. They feed off the scraps left by tourists and restaurants, and they pretty much go wherever they want.
Which brings us to the plucky little chicken which decided to jump up on our table at JJ's and bolt right through our platter of nachos, scattering chips and coating itself in sour cream. It looked stunned by this fact, and rather pleased.
But on St. John's, of course, a chicken in the sour cream doesn't cause a fuss.
We got a new plate of nachos, and the chicken was shooed in the opposite direction.
Now that's something you won't find at the Anchor Bar.
St. John's Ferry: Leaves from Red Hook Docks. It's a $3 per person round-trip ferry ride.
99 Steps, Charlotte Amalie: This stairway was built in the mid-1700s by Danish engineers. The bricks used to construct the steps were originally brought from Denmark as ballast in the holds of ships. A walk to the top leads you to Blackbeard's Castle and affords visitors a great view of Charlotte Amalie and its harbour.
Fort Christian, Charlotte Amalie: This is the oldest building still in use on St. Thomas. The fort dates back to the 1670s when it was constructed by the Danes. There are several museum displays on site describing the life and times of the fort's original inhabitants and history of St. Thomas. Admission is free. There is a gift shop on site.
Coral World: Air-conditioned undersea observatory that takes you 100 feet out into the ocean and 15 feet beneath the sea surface. Marine animals swim around you in their natural habitat. Coral World is located on the edge of the ocean at Coki Point on the east end of St. Thomas; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; telephone, (340) 775-1555; Web, www.coralworldvi.com
Atlantis Submarine: Atlantis became the world's first passenger submarine fleet in 1984. The submarine dives up to 100 feet below the water's surface along a 1.5 mile journey that allows passengers to view Sea Turtles, Tropical Fish and other sea creatures in their natural habitat. There are hourly dives six days each week. The total tour time is about 2 hours. Telephone, (800) 253-0493; Web, www.GoAtlantis.com.
Blackbeard's Castle: The place named for the infamous pirate Blackbeard, who according to legend, holed up in a watchtower to get a clear view of the sea. It was originally constructed by the Danish colonial government when the islands were still under their rule and was a 17th century fort. The castle is near the top of the 99 Steps on the grounds of a hotel and was recently declared a National Historic Landmark by the federal government. Admission is free.