Perhaps you too dream of nights in the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps you too yearn to set sail for the islands, to bask in the warm sun, and sip coconut-sized umbrella drinks while topless native girls rub lotion on your back.
No? OK, maybe it’s just us. Ahem. Now, where were we?
Oh yes: the Caribbean, where the sea is always tantalizingly warm and it’s always tourist season. One of our favorite memories comes from the island of Barbados, on a white sand beach far from the crowds. At the base of a horseshoe-shaped bay, behind a grove of shady palms, the beach lay hidden from all but the local inhabitants. The ocean revealed five different shades of blue as the water stretched to the horizon. Beautiful. Exotic. Memorable.
That’s the thing about the Caribbean: everyone longs to go there, and everyone who’s been has a favorite memory.
On one particular trip, we reached the islands by cruise boat, a mode of travel we highly recommend. From what we can recall, life aboard ship is a non-stop series of half-drunk, half-naked days and nights. You can also play shuffleboard.
The only thing better than drinking on the boat is sunning on the beach. When we docked at St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, one of the more well-known and tourist-friendly isles, we donned our swimsuits and grabbed our towels. If we managed to fulfill a dream, so much the better.
We fell in line with the other disembarking passengers, expecting to end up with our feet in the water. Instead, the parade led us straight to the marketplace. Rather than swimming with dolphins, we were shopping with piranha.
Downtown St. Thomas is all about retail. Stores of all kinds lined the boulevards. Jewelry. Alcohol. Electronics. Art. Bargains heralded at every turn: New low prices! Will not be undersold! Duty-free! Customs-approved!
We stumbled from sale to sale, dazzled by it all. It was mesmerizing, hypnotizing, and revolting all in the same breath. Stores offered free beer, lemonade, and snacks just for browsing. In fact, they’d do almost anything to keep a shopper in their store. We witnessed vegetarians buy hard-packed salami to stand in front of the fan a little longer. Art connoisseurs bought silk-screened landscape prints just so they could have another beer. Credit cards changed hands as if Visa meant “How are you?” in St. Thomas-ese.
We couldn’t help but get caught up in the shopping spirit. So many goodies, so little time. The hunt ensued for the cheapest portable DVD player and the Caribbean Costco of precious gems. Words flowed from our mouths without first passing through our brains: “I’ve always wanted a battery-operated wine bottle opener.” Before we knew it, we’d jettisoned our suntan lotion to stuff our beach bags with kitchen appliances.
When we finally caught our breath, we realized it had happened again. The heartless reality of commerce intruded on our wet dreams like a cold shower. The vision we came to fulfill had become a nightmare we’ll be paying interest on for the next ten years.
Don’t get us wrong. St. Thomas is a pleasant place. The island has a lovely harbor, and its beaches do exist. If you stay longer than we did (mid-morning to late afternoon), you can do all those island things most people go there for: snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming with the fishes. St. Thomas is in the Caribbean, after all. But watch out for the Bermuda Triangle of the island’s commercial district. It’s the first thing you’ll see, and the last thing you thought you’d write home about.
Lessons Learned: You can get good deals on the island, and if you stay under your quota (check with the Customs people), you won’t have to pay tax or duty on any of your booty. But if you wanted bargains, you probably wouldn’t have traveled all that way when you can find an outlet mall much closer to home. Retail therapy has its place in the world, but shouldn’t it be far from an island in the middle of Paradise?
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 5
Fun Fraction: 2/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: St. Thomas Airport
Native Population: 120,000
Normal Attractions: Blackbeard’s Castle, golfing, sun, surf, sand, and … shopping.
Final Point of Interest: Magens Bay Beach is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world (but we never made it there).