A taxi driver in Miami asked where we were going on the Norwegian Epic.
"St. Martin, St. Thomas and Nassau."
"When you get to St. Thomas," he said, "go to the top of the mountain. You can see everything from there and they say they have the best banana daiquiris. Who knows if they're the best? But that's what they say."
Taxi drivers are often good sources of information. At least that's how we justified our trip to the top of the mountain in St. Thomas, one of five members of the U.S. Virgin Islands. We didn't know we would get to the mountain top, but he assured us it wasn't difficult…and he hadn't even met Brenda Percell.
Brenda, a kindred spirit of the Miami taxi driver because while she doesn't drive a cab she does drive a tour bus that seats 12, greeted us as we disembarked from the Epic. As tour guides go, she was friendly without being aggressive, which can make her stand out in cruise ports. She wanted our business, of course, and she cleverly pointed out that riding the nearby tram up the side of a hill cost $42 (for two) and her two-hour tour that included the mountain top was only eight dollars more.
Brenda and her husband, Franko Pierre Louis, call their mom-and-pop business Fun Tours. This mom and pop, on the other hand, weren't necessarily looking for a fun tour…just the mountain top.
On the way up, Franko provided the commentary while Brenda drove. His history lesson included that the islands were bought from Denmark for $25 million in gold during World War I and kept from Germans, who wanted to take it in World War II because of its proximity to the Panama Canal. Franko pointed out real estate ranging from public housing for low-income residents to $5 million homes owned by the Sylvester Stallones of the world.
He gave us a population count — 52,00 for St. Thomas, 110,000 for the islands — and said there were two ways to St. John's, by ferry or by swimming. He showed us where Bill Clinton twice played golf (Mahogany Rock, losing both times) and introduced us to a man with a donkey named Monica at one of the stops along the way…there's either an infatuation with Clinton or he's a useful foil. Following a photo-op of Mavens Bay, where swimmers pay $4 to enjoy "one of the world's top ten beaches" came the mountain top.
Or the Mountain Top, using its proper capitalization.
It might be the souvenir mecca to top all souvenir meccas. Clearly, every tour bus in St. Thomas makes it a destination. it's huge, commercial but interesting, and worth the journey even if you don't buy anything. The views are spectacular, there's a souvenir for every imagination and, yes, there are banana daiquiris. They'll run you $8.95 and just the experience makes it a decent buy, even at 10:30 in the morning.
Tourists have less than half an hour to fit it all in, probably because parking spots for tour buses are at such a premium and the tour is all downhill after that, figuratively and literally, because anything else you're likely to want to see is in the capital, Charlotte Amalie — population of 19,000. In other words, tour buses not required.
The Fun Tour — and it was that — ends either in Charlotte Amalie or at the cruise ship terminal…your choice. We opted for the former, determined to climb the 99 steps to Blackbeard's Castle, another tourist attraction. The 99 steps are actually 102, not counting the 50 before you reach the starting point, and the 38 after you reach the base of the castle. It's one of two castles in the area (the other is Bluebeard's, apparently not much more than a hotel), and getting behind the gates of Blackbeard's costs $14. We're told the main reason for doing so is to take a photo looking down on St. Thomas, and we'd already had that opportunity from higher up, on the Mountain Top.
The Miami cab driver had it exactly right.
Holland America Volendam
April 15, 2013
Kobe, Tokyo, Hakodate, Kushiro, Kodiak, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, Inside Passage, Vancouver
Cost per day: $76