Westin Resort, St. John, USVI - November 12-17, 1999
All right, folks, this is our report from our trip of November 12 to 17, 1999, staying at the Westin St. John. The trip was somewhat unusual for us in several respects--first, it was a trip sponsored by the Virginia State Bar, which was supposed to include 9 hours of continuing education credit, second, it was our first time staying in St. John, and third, it was the first time we had ever had to be evacuated because of an approaching hurricane. Because of the unusual nature of the trip, this report will be divided up into several, fairly stand-alone reports. So, if you're not interested in a particular section of the report, skip on down to what does interest you, as I tried to keep the sections pretty insulated from each other.
THE WESTIN--We had zero choice in our accommodations for the stay, since they were a part of our package with the State Bar. The Westin is located on Great Cruz Bay, just to the side of Cruz Bay and a $5 cab ride (roundtrip) from downtown Cruz Bay. Having looked at the "rack rates" published on the internet for the hotel, I would say that I would never pay the standard rates for this hotel. Which is not to say that it's not a nice hotel, because it is. I personally would not spend $300 and up a night for an oceanview hotel room there. We have heard that they often run specials, especially during the summer, and my guess is that you could get a good price then and the resort would be a good value.
We had what was TECHNICALLY classified as an ocean view room in building 23. One could see the ocean, that was not a problem. The problem was that, smack dab in front of that ocean was a HUGE tent that the Westin had erected to conduct group activities under. When we went to the front desk to complain about our room, the lady at the front desk replied that it was TECHNICALLY an ocean view room and that my complaint was not the first that she had heard about that tent, so obviously the tent is a fairly constant thing. It also looked like they were in the process of pouring a foundation for a permanent building in that area, and somehow I doubt that they will change the designation of the rooms in building 23 even then.
So, say you want a room at the Westin, the first thing that you do is to have your travel agent put on your reservation that you will NOT accept any room in building 23. We raised a ruckus and still weren't able to get any satisfaction, primarily because we were booked with a group and the resort was fully booked. If an actual view of the water unimpeded by buildings is important to you, I would suggest that you accept ONLY the beachfront rooms, as, other than those, the views from almost all of the "oceanview" rooms is not optimal. Almost without exception, the oceanview rooms were obstructed, to some extent, by the beach restaurant. The standard rooms were nice, although nothing spectacular. The rooms featured huge (keyed) safes, mini-bars, and a nice large balcony with a couple of chairs. We didn't actually see any of them in the flesh, but based on the pictures on the Westin's web site, the rooms with the jacuzzi tubs are extremely nice.
The resort is the former HYATT and the grounds are quite nice. It's set up with the rooms in several different buildings scattered around the grounds, a huge swimming pool, the front desk and the fancy restaurant (Coccoloba) up the hill, the conference center further up the hill, and the Beach Cafe and Restaurant and Snorkels Bar and Restaurant on the beach. The pool was beautiful, with a nice waterfall, plus a couple of hot tubs. The hot tubs were large, but not particularly hot. The beach was only fair, not particularly pretty. There was some natural shade on the beach, with plenty of chairs there.
Floats were free for use, along with beach towels, which irritatingly enough, were supposed to be returned by 5 PM every day. One day we had our towels past 5 PM, but returned them the next morning without any problem. Around the pool, lounges included nice comfy chair pads. What was VERY nice was the free cooler that you could borrow. It was a nice small one, but still big enough to put a bottle of wine and a couple of other things in.
The resort offered sunset cruises as well as trips to some of the BVI's, plus all kinds of water toys for rent--small boats, jet-ski's, etc. Snorkeling equipment was available for rent at $7 per person for 24 hours, the same price as downtown, which was somewhat surprising.
There are technically three restaurants at the Westin, plus room service and the deli. So I won't keep repeating myself and making you crazy, just know if you eat at the Westin, it will be EXPENSIVE and generally not worth it. OK? OK! The beach restaurant was a nice sit-down restaurant, right on the water, with a nice view of the harbor. During our visit they served only breakfast and dinner there. I do not know whether they serve lunch there during high season or not. For breakfast, they serve a fairly extensive buffet, featuring omelettes to order, scrambled eggs, home fries, bacon and sausage, fresh fruit, and various breads and croissants. The buffet was good, all one could ask for. The breakfast was included in our package (which was apparently pretty standard procedure, as each morning the waitress asked us what group we were with). Which leads me to believe that, at least during low and shoulder seasons, that the vast majority of folks who stay at the Westin St. John are there for conventions. The beach restaurant served dinner, with entrees running around $20 per person, but we didn't eat there for dinner. On Saturday night, they had live music there, but otherwise I did not see any live music.
Snorkels Bar and Grill is the only place in the resort that serves lunch, or at least that served lunch during our stay. There were two problems with this--one, they served a very limited menu, consisting of a hamburger, hot dog, a cajun chicken sandwich, a couple of salads and not much else. The second problem was that, unless you sit at the bar, if the weather is bad, there is NO place that you can sit that is out of the rain. We found this out from personal experience. We had a hamburger with potato chips ($10 and quite tasty) and the cajun chicken sandwich and potato chips ($10 and merely OK).
Coccoloba is the main, expensive restaurant. They serve only dinner, at about $30 per entree. There was a nice view down the hill to the pool and to the water from there, but we didn't eat there either. We did get somewhat smashed at the bar there the first night, from a combination of no sleep, very little food and a fairly lethal combination of wine and Grand Marnier.
The room service menu was pretty extensive and exorbitantly expensive, which is fairly normal. The minibar was also well stocked and even more exorbitantly expensive. The deli was also expensive--$10 for deli sandwich and potato salad, the same for a chef salad.
Service in the restaurants, at the bar, and in our room was generally prompt and courteous and delivered with a smile. The only exception to this was the front desk personnel, who got quite snippy with me when I inquired about their freaking tent which was obstructing my view.
DINING OUT--We had breakfast every day at the Westin, as it was included in our package. The buffet was good, although not worth the $14.95 price-tag if one were paying for it. We ate lunch at the Westin twice, one, the first full day we were there, as we weren't really hungry and shared one burger between the two of us on the beach. It was a good burger, but not worth $10. Another day it was pouring rain and we decided to eat there, killing time hoping that the rain would stop, which it didn't. $10 each for a Cajun chicken sandwich. Anyway, our best lunch, by far, was the one that we ate on the beach at Hawksnest Beach. On Monday, we rented a jeep to travel around the island. We borrowed a cooler at the Westin and went to the Tropical Grocery (right by the Westin) and picked up some chicken, marinated and cooked with onions and peppers, some potato salad and gouda and crackers.. It was a lovely lunch. Saturday night we headed downtown for dinner without a reservation and decided on The Lime Inn. Let me first say that our normal Caribbean trips are to St. Martin, and we are quite proud to recite that in six trips to SXM, we have NEVER made a reservation for dinner. So, I guess we weren't going to start with St. John! G!! Anyway, the owner told us it would be a 45 minute wait, so we put our names on the list and walked down the hill to check on the Fish Trap. The wait was the same there, of course, so we went back to the Lime Inn. About an hour and fifteen minutes later, we got our table. We had an absolutely lovely meal, although we were so full, neither one of us was able to finish our entree, which was a crying shame. We split a bowl of french onion soup and split an order of crab imperial. Both were wonderful. For entree, I ordered the crab stuffed filet mignon and Eric had the blue cheese stuffed filet mignon. Both pieces of meat were fork tender and some of the best beef we have ever had in the Caribbean. The above, plus a bottle of wine, was $89, including tip.
We had originally intended to go to Chateau Bordeaux for dinner on Sunday night. However, upon arriving at our hotel, we had checked with the concierge, who informed us that CB was not open on Sunday nights. Therefore, on Sunday night we ended up at Cafe Roma. Neither one of us was exceptionally hungry, so we both just got an entree, plus a couple of glasses of wine apiece. Eric had seafood alfredo and I had the chicken gorgonzola with walnuts. My meal was absolutely fabulous, but I ended up leaving half of it on the plate, and wishing we were staying somewhere other than the Westin so that I could take the remainder home in a doggy bag and reheat it. The meal, with wine and tip, was $63. We ended up sitting at the bar there (so that we wouldn't have to wait for a table) and enjoyed some nice conversation with Sean, the bartender. It was while sitting at the bar that we first heard the name "Lenny", but we will come to that later on.
On Monday, we rented a jeep and drove around the island, stopping off at Chateau Bordeaux to admire the view. Based on the inflated prices I have been quoted for eating there, I was shocked to find a place with maybe five tables, which tables consisted of plastic tables and chairs. Now I'm going to assume (perhaps incorrectly) that they at least have tablecloths on the tables for dinner. Regardless, we weren't that impressed with the look of the place and the difficulty in getting there, so were somewhat happy we did not make a reservation.
Monday evening we went to Morgan's Mango for dinner. I'm not sure precisely what happened, but the hostess told us to sit at the bar and she would come get us in a couple of minutes. Well, about 45 minutes later, I had Eric go inquire as to when our table would be ready. The hostess apologized profusely and took our second round of drinks off the tab. Anyway, we got a table in the front, looking out over to St. Thomas. Eric had tuna and I had a salad with chicken strips, as I wanted to save room for dessert. As it turned out, that was a wise choice, as I got a fabulous chocolate cheesecake. Drinks, dinner and coffee was $51.
A couple of observations here with regard to dining out in St. John vs. St. Martin, which is our normal hang-out in the Caribbean. Compared to St. Martin, particularly Grand Case, we found the restaurants to not be nearly as fancy in ambiance, for want of a better word. No restaurant in Grand Case (other than the lolo's) would dare to serve dinner on anything but a linen tablecloth, usually on elaborately painted plates. Also, other than Asolare, Chateau Bordeaux and one other restaurant, the name of which escapes me at the moment, none of the restaurants in St. John that I saw had a great view of the water. Of course, I do not include Pusser's in the definition of a "restaurant", as on Sunday evening we thought we would watch the sunset and the ferries and have a couple of drinks and some appetizers at Pusser's. Stupidly, I had previously thought that it was impossible to screw up chicken wings. I now know better......Please take the above statements in the spirit in which they are intended--observations. Particularly at The Lime Inn, the food was wonderful, and the service was personable and first-rate. However, St. Martin will remain number one in our heart of hearts for dining out.
WHAT WE DID--This trip was to be sort of a junket for me, as it was arranged by the Virginia State Bar, of which I am a member. The original schedule was leaving Washington Dulles Friday morning the 12th, and returning on the 18th. Our flight down, changing planes in Miami, was relatively uneventful, except for arriving 1 ½ hours late in St. Thomas. Westin reps met us and took our bags. We boarded busses for a short trip over to the harbor, where the ferry took us directly to the Westin. We checked in down by the restaurant, and got our keys for our lovely tent-view room. The bar had arranged a cocktail party that evening, which had to be switched from Snorkels' Bar and Grill on the beach up to the main bar, since it was raining. (This would prove to be somewhat of a theme.) Saturday morning there was a seminar, but it was on personal injury law, so I passed. Eric and I took a taxi downtown to check out Cruz Bay. We just walked around, checking out where the various restaurants and stores were. Around noon, we headed back to the hotel and got a dab of lunch. As we were eating, the skies turned dark and threatening. We retreated to the room and ended up spending the afternoon on our balcony reading and watching the pouring rain. Fortunately, the skies cleared around 4 PM and we went on a sunset sail from the Westin. $40 each, and some of the best money we spent on the trip. The evening was lovely, enhanced by the open bar, light appetizers, guitar player and spectacular show of clouds. Afterwards, we headed downtown for dinner at The Lime Inn. Full and satisfied, we passed on the live music just across the street at Fred's.
Sunday morning I went to my seminar, while Eric laid on the beach and was able to actually get some sun. After my seminar, we headed back out to the beach. Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes, the dark clouds approached and started dripping. Hopeful that it was a short shower, we headed to the only place under cover where one could get lunch, the bar at Snorkels Bar and Grill. After eating our sandwiches, still hopeful that the weather would clear, we went back to the room to pass some time watching football. Inexplicably, the dish feed was from a station in Erie, Pennsylvania and showed the Pittsburgh game, in which we had no interest whatsoever. So passed the afternoon and as sunset approached, the skies cleared. We headed down to Cruz Bay, stopping at Pussers to watch the sunset and get some appetizers. Thereafter, we headed to Cafe Roma and had a wonderful meal, sitting at the bar and passing time with the bartender, and hearing our first of Lenny.
Monday the morning dawned cloudy and little drippy and we were afraid we were in for another bad weather day. We made somewhat contingent plans to head over to St. Thomas for the day. The weather brightened a little and we decided to go with our original plan, which was to rent a Jeep for the day. It turned out to be a wonderful decision. As Eric was arranging the vehicle, he heard the Westin folks talking to the Virginia State Bar people about taking us out of St. John on Tuesday. We got a Mitsubishi Montero for $65 for the day, arranged right at the Westin. It was a nice vehicle, actually, with automatic and a/c and lots of room. We packed up our bag with towels, reading material, suntan lotion, and our cooler with water, cokes, and a bottle of wine and we were off! We took off down Centerline Road, twisting and turning and obsessing on staying on the left side of the road. We stopped often for pictures, as tourists do, and enjoyed the views. Around noon or so, we took in the view at Chateau Bordeaux, but pressed on toward Coral Bay, on the opposite end of the island. We drove by Skinny Legs and Shipwreck Landing and watched as several sailboats fled the approach of Hurricane Lenny, for the relative safety of Hurricane Hole. Looking at the bay, surrounded by mountains, we saw how it got it's name.
Without a firm plan for lunch, fate played a hand, and on a rare impulse for us, we picked up a couple that was hitchhiking. It turned out that the couple lived on their sailboat, which was anchored now in Hurricane Hole, and they were on their way into Cruz Bay to pick up some supplies in anticipation of the advent of Lenny. It turned out that they had left Venezuela four days before, thinking that hurricane season was over. Since they needed to go to Cruz Bay and we really weren't that determined about where we were going, we headed on back to Cruz Bay, stopping in a couple of places to check out the view and determining that after we dropped them off, we would head back to Hawksnest Beach. It was interesting hearing about their life on the ocean. I would never have the chutzpah to do what they are doing, but it sounded quite liberating. They asked some rather pointed questions about the Westin. I realized afterwards that they may have been looking for someplace other than their boat to weather the storm. After dropping off our new friends at the ferry dock, we headed to the Tropical Grocery and picked up supplies for lunch and headed back to Hawksnest. Hawksnest wasn't nearly as crowded as Trunk, but had picnic tables, grills and toilets and a nice, long, lovely beach. We enjoyed a lovely lunch on the beach, took a swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean, and pondered how there could be a hurricane only a couple of hundred miles away.
Around 3, the weather clouded over, and we eventually packed up and headed back toward Cruz Bay. We stopped off at Mongoose Junction to do some shopping and ended up with a lovely signed and numbered print from Luca Palermo. Back to the hotel to drop off our stuff and take showers. Retrieving a message from the front desk, we learned that our farewell cocktail party for the State Bar had been moved up from Tuesday to Monday. This was somewhat expected, since at this point, we were certain that we would be leaving on Tuesday. The travel agents representing our group had re-booked our reservations so that we would all be heading out on Tuesday instead of Wednesday. We headed down to Cruz Bay and to Morgan's Mango for dinner. Again, as we dined and looked out toward the lights of St. Thomas, and admired the lovely night and the dead calm, we wondered what the next 24 to 48 hours would bring for this slice of paradise.
LENNY AND GOING HOME--We had first heard about Lenny on Sunday night while sitting at the bar at Cafe Roma. At first we thought that the name was a joke---"LENNY?" What kind of a name is that for a hurricane? We decided at the time that Leonardo would be a much more appropriate name for a hurricane. Sean, the bartender there, told us that they would most likely evacuate the Westin if a storm came, even though it was one of the safest buildings on St. John, as they always seemed to evacuate from there, usually to Frenchmen's Reef. We mused that we had always wanted to check out Frenchmen's Reef and that this was as good a time as any. We checked out the St. Thomas hotel books to see which hotels might have enough room to accommodate our group of 150 people. On Monday morning, Eric went down to the reception area to rent a jeep for the day and heard the State Bar travel agents talking to the Westin reps about their plans to get us out of St John on Tuesday, in anticipation of Lenny hitting on Wednesday. We mourned the loss of a day's vacation and I thought a little about missing the seminar which had been planned for Tuesday, which was the one that I had really wanted to go to, ahead of time. Ultimately, we knew it was better to get off St. John, which has no air service, as the ferry service would become dangerous and then non-existent as the weather grew worse.
The farewell cocktail party for our group was moved up to Monday evening, at which time we learned that the travel agents had been very busy, rebooking flights for 150 people. Our group was from all over Virginia, with flights originating in Richmond, Norfolk, Roanoke and Washington Dulles, so I'm sure it was quite a job for them. Our personal situation was somewhat different, as Eric had been flying on frequent flyer tickets and his original return flight was not on the same plane as mine. My original flight for Wednesday was STT to MIA to IAD. Eric's original flight was STT to SJU to IAD. As we arrived at the cocktail party, the travel agents asked us if we wanted them to attempt to rebook Eric and we said yes, of course. The agent stayed on the phone for about a half hour and finally was able to get him a reservation. The agent gave us a piece of paper on which our new flight arrangements were printed, which turned out to be only slightly incorrect. She printed that both of us were going through San Juan, which filled us with some trepidation. We knew that Lenny would hit San Juan before St. Thomas, so we would be flying directly into the storm, instead of away from it, and on separate planes.
Tuesday morning dawned cloudy and drippy, to match our mood. As we were leaving breakfast, a launch arrived, presumably from St. Thomas, with a huge amount of workers onboard. We surmised that some of them were extra folks brought in for hurricane preparations. We packed up the remainder of our stuff and hung around the room, as we were to check out by 11 AM, and to meet on the dock to leave at noon. The Westin sits in a kind of a gully, with many villas perched on the hillsides above. It was somewhat eerie to stand there in the relative silence and calm and hear the sounds of hammering as folks boarded up their windows and the metallic grating of hurricane shutters being rolled down.
We went to the reception area to check out, which I left to Eric to do while I eavesdropped on other people's conversations with the front desk. Despite our earlier conversations with some locals, the Westin was NOT going to be closing altogether, although they were evacuating the lower, beachfront buildings. I learned also that Tuesday lunch was the last meal that they planned to serve at the hotel, for who knows how long. I heard a couple of people checking IN, as they had been at Cinnamon Bay Campground, which had in fact been ordered evacuated. High overhead, a couple of workmen were diligently boarding up large glass windows way up in the top of the main building. Other workmen were using large sheets of plywood to board up the sides of the otherwise open air reception area.
As we waited to check out, I heard the single most asinine comment of the stay. One fellow, obviously planning on staying at the hotel for a while, was talking to a lady at the front desk. He asked "I'm staying in room number x. Should I board up my windows??" (I have this vision of this fellow hailing a cab down to the local hardware store and entering, stating he needed some plywood, a hammer and some nails. Then the fellow from the hardware store tells him they're all out. Or better yet, him actually succeeding in buying the stuff and going out to the cab and telling the taxi cab driver that he wanted to tie the plywood to the top of the cab!!) Anyway, the nice lady at the front desk told him, with an apparently straight face "No, sir, we will take care of that".
After checking out, we made a call to my office to let them know that, theoretically, we
were going to be coming home a day early due to the hurricane. However, it was possible that we were going to get stuck there, maybe for several days and would not be able to contact them further and that they would need to contact the court if I did not show up, to state that I was stuck somewhere n the Carribean. At first, my receptionist thought I was kidding, as they knew nothing about the hurricane. I found out, when we eventually made it home, that my paralegal had gone on the internet and checked the hurricane's projected path and saw that we were right in the bull's eye of the approaching storm and had had a cow. We knew that the travel agent had purportedly re-booked us out, but we were still concerned, as we were sure that the flights were over booked and Eric was on a different plane than I.
We waited first by the pool and ultimately by the bar at the beachside restaurant. As we watched, workers put up boards about three foot high on the steps going from the beach up to the pool area, and placed sandbags there and in front of the sliding glass doors on the beachfront buildings. I noted that the boards were marked as to where they went, so this process was obviously one for which they had a protocol. By the time we ultimately left around noon, all the chairs and tables on the beach had long since been carted off to storage and Snorkels Bar had been closed down and things stored away. Chairs around the pool were still in place, however. The part of our group that was leaving at the same time as us, was some 100 folks, so perhaps they were waiting till we left for that.
As our boat left the Westin, I looked back and said a little prayer for the folks still behind and hoped that St. John and it's people would be spared the worst of the storm. Arriving at Red Hook, we boarded our busses for what was to be the only really nasty part of going home. What should normally be a 30 minute bus ride turned into an hour and a half of creeping along, as it seemed that EVERYONE on St. Thomas was on the road going somewhere. But wherever they were going, they weren't going there very fast! Here, though, as at the Westin, there seemed to be no panic and far less horn honking and fist shaking than had the situation existed somewhere up north. Everyone was about their business in a rather matter of fact way. As we crept along, we spoke to school children out the window, who were just happy with the prospect that they got out of school early today and that there would be no school tomorrow.
We finally got to the airport and waited in the AA line for San Juan and found out ultimately that my flight was through Miami, not San Juan. As things would have it, I got confirmed seats all the way through to Dulles and they were unable to confirm seats for Eric from San Juan to Dulles. We both had visions of him spending two days sleeping on the floor of San Juan airport. As we arrived in the departure lounge, we saw a huge line of people at the counter for my Miami flight. We heard the AA personnel make an announcement that there were already 60 people on the waiting list for the flight and that if anyone else was trying to put their name on the list, not to bother. Despite that, we saw no panic, yelling and screaming, or disorder of any sort. We barely had time to grab a quick bite before my plane was boarding. We kissed goodbye, hoping to meet that evening at Dulles. Looking around in the plane from row 30, I noted that Irecognized most of the folks around me as being with our group, so I surmised that AA had substituted a bigger plane for this trip. As my plane sat on the runway and they were filling up the last few seats with standby's, I saw this huge black cloud approaching on the horizon. It grew nearer and nearer and then the rains and the winds came, buffeting the 757 around like a Piper Cherokee as it sat on the ground. We waited on the ground for another 10 minutes or so and the winds subsided enough for us to take off.
I knew that Eric's plane was due to take off about a half hour after mine and wondered whether he was getting soaked, just getting to the plane. I tried to look through the window and see Eric's plane, but it was just off to the side. Unbeknown to me, Eric made it out of the terminal just ahead of the storm, to sit in his FIRST CLASS seat for the short hop over to San Juan. Unfortunately for him, the free booze consisted solely of a mimosa, offered before the plane took off.
My flight to Miami was uneventful and since I had two hours before my flight to Dulles, I checked with the counter to see if Eric had made it onto the Dulles flight. The counter confirmedthat he was onboard, in seat 12C and my flight the rest of the way to Dulles was a lot less worried. Eric's flight (NOT in first class this time) arrived before mine and we headed on home, 24 hours early, happy to be home, but concerned over what Lenny might do to the region we love