Building an "Uncruise" Travel Experience

Trip Start Nov 04, 2012
Trip End Nov 18, 2012

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Flag of Virgin Islands US  , St. Thomas,
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We've spent the past couple of days in St. Thomas and St. John, two of the three main islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. Thomas, unfortunately, is my least favorite of the islands we’ve visited. This is the cruise ship capital of the Caribbean, and the island is somewhat geared around the massive volume of business that arrives daily during this season.

We did spend a couple hours on neighboring St. John this morning, and plan to spend several hours there tomorrow setting up some promising walking and beach time. St. John is quieter – most of the island is dedicated as a national park. We anticipate making some great Caribbean memories there.

St. Thomas, however, has been challenging. We did find some fascinating history and architecture in the main Danish historic town of Charlotte Amalie, and connected many of those sites with a quality walk.

The challenge is, in part, related to the cruise industry. Today, there were five ships in port, with a minimum of over 2000 people per ship. Two of today’s ships carry more than 5000 passengers. The largest carries a staggering 5500+ passengers with another 2500 crew members. The population of the entire islands is around 50,000, so on a day like today, that number is increased by 15 to 20,000 people. You can imagine what that does to traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian.

The cruise industry is the Walmart of the travel world. Their impact on a local economy is so important, their buying power is so great, that they dictate terms to many, if not most, of the destinations they visit, particularly these relatively small Caribbean port towns. The lives of a good percentage of islanders revolve around cruise ship schedules. Often, non-cruise visitors are impacted since cruise travelers’ needs always take top priority.

Yielding so much control to the industry is a problem in itself. The other issue that regularly surfaces, however, is the artificial nature of shore excursions developed for cruisers. Shopping is a mainstay of these visits since convincing cruisers to leave money ashore is a primary objective of cruise ports. Jewelry, liquor, and gambling seem to be the staples in this effort, though St. Thomas mercifully has no casino.

Tours are developed around a model of funneling as many bodies as possible through an attraction where money can be spent. Fleets of safari buses shuttle people from the docks to stops all around the island that are designed to provide goods and services for which to open their wallets. Some of these are obviously of higher value than others. Most, however, sacrifice authenticity and creativity for volume, banking on the hope that cruisers are a rather undiscriminating lot.

As we’ve planned our walks and activities, we’ve regularly crossed paths with the cruisers, mostly Americans. Our goal, however, whenever our programs intersect with cruise ships, is to be headed in the opposite direction. Today. in St Thomas, we found delightful, out-of-the-way streets devoid of jewelry and liquor stores, reflecting the history of the island in architecture both simple and sublime!

The highlight of the day, though, was a trip to Hassle Island, led by a local gentlemen who may become our partner in the US Virgin Islands. Hassle Island was used to service the shipping industry that has been the mainstay of St. Thomas’ economy for several centuries. As the only deep-water harbor in the Caribbean, as many as 2000 ships a year have cycled though St. Thomas going back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Dry docks and railbeds and barracks, and a host of other remnants of the past are littered throughout this small island, ghosts of a glorious maritime past that has since shifted these tasks to other parts of the harbor.

The national park service has designated the island a national park site, though most restoration and trail creation and maintenance is still accomplished using private funds and volunteers. The result is a delightful island trail blending the shipping history of St. Thomas with breathtaking views of the harbor and surroundings. Though we could hear the band of one of the cruise ships blaring away its departure review as it pulled away from its moorings, we were hiking through a completely different world.

Following a day like today, we’re delighted to reaffirm our commitment to find meaning in the destination, to uncover the story of the places we visit, to connect in some significant way with local culture, to discover authenticity and value.

Yes, travel can be a temporary escape from a sometimes tyrannical personal reality. This is cruising’s specialty, and it can serve a legitimate purpose. We believe, however, that travel can be so much more. We look forward to wrapping up this scouting trip on St. John tomorrow, then with two more days on St. Croix, largest of the US Virgin Islands. This Adventure is developing into a rich repository of relaxation and learning, of uncovering the history, culture, and scenery of the Caribbean in ways that have surprised us!
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Mamie B. on

I was delighted to see the synagogue pictures. The sand on the floor is in remembrance of the Jewish people killed in the Spanish Inquisition and there are 3 other synagogues in the Caribbean with the same remembrance, a fine sand on the floor. So said a member of the synagogue.

friesendm on

Thanks for the information, Mamie. Our guide did mention the Spanish situation, but I was thinking it had something to do with the Exodus too. Lots to learn about these islands!

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