You've just checked into the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, when the gentleman assigned to escort you to your room instead leads you to a balcony just off the lobby. He is orienting you to the layout of the 30-acre resort below, a mesmerizing mise en scène of lush gardens and lawns, white-sand beach and a dazzling blue-and-green sea bustling with sailboats and ferryboats, all set against a backdrop of headlands and offshore isles.
Smart people, these folks at the Ritz-Carlton. If first impressions count, few first impressions are likely to get a vacation off to a more promising start than this panorama of Great Bay and beyond.
When the resort opened about 12 years ago, it was known as the Grand Palazzo Hotel, a sort of Florentine palace with turrets and galleries, tapestries and chandeliers, and quiet courtyards with splashing fountains. The Mediterranean-style wings of guest rooms formed a three-story arc of terraces set above the gardens, every balcony in every room offering its own variation on The View. Some of those elements are intact, but the resort, which was acquired by Ritz-Carlton in the late 1990s, recently emerged from a two-year, $75 million overhaul. Additions include a Ritz-Carlton Spa; a villa of 24 rooms and 24 suites known as the Club Level; and a cluster of Med-style structures called the Residences at Ritz-Carlton.
The original 148 rooms and suites look snappier than ever-even the basic quarters are spacious enough to accommodate a king bed, a mahogany armoire with a TV, a desk/table, two chairs, an armchair and an ottoman. The dressing area incorporates a lighted walk-in closet, a digital safe, a mini-bar and a coffeemaker. The marble bathroom is fitted out with twin vanities and a separate head. The resort's Club Level rooms and suites also have 32-inch TVs and Bose DVD/CD players-all very grand, though some guests might find the wall-to-wall carpeting at odds with the tropical ambience.
One of the resort's most appealing features is its location, on the scalloped southeastern tip of the island. It is separated by several miles from the cruise-ship crush of Charlotte Amalie, the capital and chief port of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but is just around the headland from Red Hook, which boasts a marina and a selection of lively bars and restaurants. It's a location that brings an unintended boon to the resort.
Cruising clients relish the Ritz-Carlton's proper and efficient service. The staff-to-guest ratio is 1-to-1, which leaves plenty of hands for drawing specialty baths (a passion-fruit soak can be deliriously soothing after a day of planes and airports) or setting up tents and tables for private candlelight dinners on the beach.
The spa welcomes guests into a 6,200-square-foot marble oasis, where they can indulge in luxuries such as Warm Stone massages, VitaC Infusion facials and Aquaroma Rain therapies.
Despite the Ritz-Carlton's pampering, the resort is really designed for active people who want to be out and about. Granted, plenty of guests seem content to linger over brunch, but by then, others have already put in time with yoga classes, sessions in the fitness center or a few sets of tennis. With the resort's two swimming pools and half-mile of sandy beach, guests have their pick of water sports, too, including parasailing, kayaking, and sailing Hobie Cats and Sunfishes. Others simply enjoy strolling along the pathways that wind through 125 varieties of flowering plants.
For many visitors, though, the highlight of a stay at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas is a day spent cruising aboard the resort's sleek, blue-hull 53-foot catamaran, Lady Lynsey. Her ladyship's jovial captain, John Holmberg, has won multiple trophies. (Holmberg comes from a family of champions-his brother Peter, an Olympic medallist, crewed aboard Alinghi during the last America's Cup.)
"This is such a fine vessel, you can stand a flute of champagne upright even at 18 knots, Holmberg said. "And I'm happy to let guests do the sailing. Options include day trips to St. John and the British Virgin Islands' Jost Van Dyke (passport required), and sunset cruises around the offshore islets. Another touch of class: The goodies you nibble on board come fresh from the resort's kitchen.
Dining at the Ritz-Carlton is more varied than ever thanks to the opening of a fourth restaurant, the beachy, casual Coconut Cove Beach Bar & Grill, which echoes the atmosphere at Iguana's, on the adjoining cove. The Great Bay Grill, a high-ceiling salon with tall windows overlooking the bay, offers an innovative menu of American/Caribbean cuisine, with side dishes diners can mix and match. Of course, you also have the option of round-the-clock room service on your balcony, but you'll have to dine by candlelight-the resort de-bulbed the balcony lights to make life less confusing for the turtles that nest along the cove.
This only heightens the evening version of The View, with its flickering lights from St. John, twinkling stars above and magic all around.
Contact: The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, (800) 241-3333;