At this time of year, I am ready to stop shoveling snow and start shoveling sand.
I daydream about the see-through, 83-degree Caribbean water, the sound of my kids laughing on the beach, and how good a cold beer from the bottle tastes after a few hours in the sun.
But a Caribbean trip can be a tricky family vacation to plan, because the choices are usually one of two extremes: huge chain hotels or remote private villas; laid back or activity-packed days; a party central or peaceful vibe; and either swanky-and-expensive or basic-but-budget-friendly. I like a little of each.
So as an experiment, my family squeezed two totally different types of Caribbean vacations into one week last March. We spent four nights at a remote, high-end private villa in Tortola (in the British Virgin Islands) and three nights at a large, in-town chain hotel in St. Thomas (the U.S. Virgin Islands).
Do you already know which type of vacation you’d like better? You might be surprised. I was.
Let me preface all of this by saying, these are both fantastic family vacation choices. It just depends on your family’s personality. To get to Tortola from Chicago was a journey: three taxis, two plane rides, and one excrutiating hour-long ferry ride where we all, at some point, were hanging over the side of the boat. But once we got to our small cluster of newly renovated villas at Frenchmans resort, we instantly felt better.
The first thing we did was roam around our huge, newly renovated, tri-level villa and step out onto the balconies to soak up the views of the blue water and the island’s mountains. It was so quiet, we could hear the waves hitting the shore. Then we put away the food we brought in our fully-equipped kitchen (we like to cook on vacation, to save money and protect the kids from a chicken nuggets-and-fries diet).
Tired from our long day of travel, we all plunked down on what we fondly referred to as “The Chair,” which is a huge, circular chair on the balcony which we loved so much, I actually dedicated an entire blog to it.
Too tired to cook, we took a 15-minute walk down the traffic-free road and found a restaurant along the marina plus a decent-sized grocery store, where we bought some basics.
Even though Frenchmans dozen or so villas were all rented out, it felt like we were the only ones there — which was wonderful. We had the resort’s small pool and its rock-covered beach to ourselves (it was renovated last summer, so I bet it‘s even nicer now). While the kids collected shells, my husband and I took turns snorkeling off the shore and saw a decent assortment of fish.
The resort managers knew who we were, and chatted with us each morning as they served us a complimentary, all-you-can eat fresh fruit, breads, cereal and yogurt in the resort’s open-air restaurant.
During the day, if we wanted something to drink, we helped ourselves to something out of the refrigerator at the poolside bar and noted it on the honor system list. It doesn’t get more laid back than that. And you’re not going to find the honor system at a Sandals resort.
Our favorite family activities in Tortola were:
* Our day-trip to the neighboring island of Virgin Gorda, where we climbed through a beachside rock formation called “The Baths.”
* A quick stop at “Bomba Shack,“ which is literally a beachside shack bar with a sand floor that’s covered with license plates, graffiti and memorabilia around the world. Bras and panties hang from the rafters, and at night, you can have a beer with its festive, shoeless patrons.
* We rented a car (for only $25 a day!) and drove around curvy roads to the more developed part of the island and played on their gorgeous public beaches, which were for the most part, empty. Our favorites were in Cane Garden Bay, which had soft sand and calm shallow water that extended a long way into the sea.
Was there any downside to Tortola? The accommodations are much pricier than the chain hotel option (the villa cost roughly $500 a night, plus tax), and there’s not a whole lot to do each day. It’s up to you to make your own fun. We spent every night in our villa — cooking, watching movies or playing games.
At Frenchmans, maid service was only every other day, and one night my husband couldn’t sleep because of howling/barking dogs on a nearby farm. But it couldn’t have bothered him too much, because he’s already talked about going back there again.
After four days of peace and fun in Tortola, we took a ferry to St. Thomas and experienced something completely different.
A quick 10-minute cab ride from the port got us to the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef & Morningstar Resort in St. Thomas, USVI, and I had to wait in line to check-in. Our room wouldn’t be ready until 3 or 4 p.m. It was 11 a.m. But we were encouraged to go to the beach or pool. When our room was ready, the desk clerk called me on my cell phone.
We sorted through our luggage in the middle of the crowded lobby, grabbed our bathing suits, and started exploring the expansive, beautiful, newly renovated resort.
The place buzzed with activity and people. We walked past several restaurants, including fancy and sports bar-like ones, and perused the resort’s impressive “activity list” which had everything from early morning yoga classes on the beach to kids-only water activities.
My children screamed with excitement when they saw the Marriott’s giant pools and jumped right in. Some of the pools had features like a volleyball net, a waterfall, or a bridge, not to mention a foosball table nearby. We bought $5 swimming noodles to play with at a poolside shop.
All of the pools were surrounded by people on lounge chairs. You could order food and drinks and have them brought to you, poolside or beachside. Nice.
Like the pools, the long beach was packed with people — I never once saw an available chair. But I did see children and families happily playing together everywhere.
Our room was a typical hotel room but had a stunning view of the island and cruise ship port from the small balcony. We watched in awe as the largest cruise ship in the world — Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Sea which holds more than 6,300 passengers — pulled into port.
At night, we dressed up and dined at a white tablecloth restaurant where we ordered fresh lobster and enjoyed a beautiful night view with tiny lights covering St. Thomas’ mountains.
The Marriott Frenchmans cost us approx. $250 a night (half the price of our villa in Tortola — huge savings). But the resort’s restaurants ate up a lot of our savings (and our time), and there was no place to grab a loaf of bread or a hunk of cheese unless you went into town. My kids ate French fries twice a day, which they thought was awesome.
For the most part, we stayed at the resort since there was no reason to leave — it had everything we needed. We did walk around the town a little bit, but it was not very pedestrian-friendly. So we just bought an ice cream cone and a few souvenirs and headed back.
The services, conveniences and full-amenities at the Marriot in St. Thomas were great. When you’re traveling with kids, that makes the vacation so much easier. Everyone can get what they want.
Tortola, on the other hand, was more relaxing, laid back, and expensive. It required you to be more adventurous, and you were often on your own.
When I saw people carrying their cell phones and texting while at the beach in St. Thomas, I realized I’m more of a Tortola girl. But when I surveyed the kids, their favorite part of the vacation was “The huge pool in St. Thomas!”
So maybe the half-n-half Caribbean trip is the way to go.