Ever felt lost at a giant all-inclusive Caribbean resort? It’s not an unfamiliar feeling in a one-size-fits-all place with thousands of rooms and even more guests milling about where you’re a face in the crowd, a colored bracelet on your wrist.
Not so at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas. This super-cozy, 62-room resort has been run by the Doumeng family for more than 40 years, where they know your name the instant you arrive and use it every time they see you. The rooms here face a beach so close to your room, you’ll almost get your feet wet just by stepping out of bed. It was the first resort on St. Thomas to be all inclusive, and it’s a far cry from the norm. There’s no buffet dining, for one thing: Here you sit, facing the water, and order off a menu. And the booze is premium stuff, not the mundane well drinks at bigger places.
To say the Doumengs have fun running the place is like saying the water at the resort is warm and wet. Richard Doumeng is managing director, or “The Big Boss” according to the website, with brother Paul Doumeng the general manager, or “The Real Boss.” It goes right through to cousin Scott Nieboer, operations manager, who the site says “Could care less who the real boss is.”
Mikael Doumeng, son of Richard and Katarina (she does sales and marketing and, the site says, “Let’s Richard and Paul think they’re the real bosses”), mans the water sports shop when he’s around, but mostly these days lords over Give Tanks (www.give-tanks.com), a philanthropic endeavor he started with college mates to raise money for building schools in Nicaragua.
But lest you think it’s a loosely run resort, think again. They take care of everything in detail here, including raking the beach to keep it clean of seaweed or rocks, and revamping the menu at its main restaurant, The Lobster Grille, where Paul Doumeng, home chef, designs the food offerings.
At many Caribbean all-inclusive resorts, you lumber in line with a million other people waiting to get food at the buffet, which is a crapshoot, some of it good, some of it not so good.
That’s not the case at Bolongo Bay, which eschews the impersonal buffet for sit-down, off-the-menu dining at both of its eating entities, Iggie’s Beach Bar and Grill, a classic beachfront restaurant, and the multi-level Lobster Grill, by the resort’s swimming pool. Both have gorgeous views of the water and both serve exquisite food. And forget well drinks at most all inclusives, here you get premium booze, as much as you want (it’s OK, it’s a small resort, an easy stumble back to your room).
Breakfast is bountiful here, at the Lobster Grille, a multi-level dining experience, covered but open to the elements. You can go American if you want, the whole bacon-and-eggs thing, but c’mon, you’re in the Caribbean, give things like the “Bolongorito” a shot, three eggs scrambled with sausage, black beans and cheddar in a tortilla wrap with salsa, sour cream and breakfast potatoes, or the “Mama Mango Pancakes” filled with fresh mangos and topped with whipped cream.
Dinner at the Lobster Grille is immense, too. I usually opted for the Caribbean stuffed lobster, which can be overcooked and stringy if not done right. Here they do it beyond right, a moist, succulent dish with rice and veggies. The appetizer prosciutto-wrapped scallops are superb as well. The food is upscale here, in a setting that isn’t, but is cool and relaxing. The menu is designed by Paul Doumeng, a pretty good home chef who lends his deft culinary touch to the restaurant.
Downstairs, sit at the bar, which on the other side is the pool’s swim-up bar, is a blue-tiled affair, a great place to enjoy a cigar and a wonderfully heavy Painkiller drink, created by the mysteriously nicknamed barkeep, 007, who usually sings while he works.
Iggie’s is the place for lunch (also serving dinner), a thatched-roof beauty, open sided to allow cooling ocean breezes to waft over you as you devour things like a monster taco fiesta salad, huge amounts of shredded romaine topped with tomatoes, olives, chili, cheese and sour cream and salsa. Occasionally, a giant iguana will amble by, squat on a nearby picnic table and just sit, which augments a great view of the bay just beyond, bluffs framing it on either side.
Iggie’s is also the place for non-stop music, 365 nights a year and where you never know who you’ll see. A couple years ago, Stevie Wonder was eating there and a local band was playing “Living for the City,” a cover for one of Wonder’s songs. Don’t ya know, Stevie got up to join the band and played the harp to “House of the Rising Sun,” then sat back down and posed for photos with fans.
It gets better. Dave Mason stopped by, a guest at the resort and friend of the Doumengs, and he and Stevie did a blues jam. Though it’s dark, check out the video:
Swim with the Turtles
Swim, eat, breathe. Maybe it’s the turtle equivalent of “Eat, Pray, Love.” But it works for them.
I’ve seen tons of sea turtles. OK, mostly in documentaries or photos or somewhat up close in aquariums. But on a trip to St. Thomas, I took the “Swim with the Sea Turtles Half-Day Trip to Turtle Cove,” and saw a bunch of these most graceful, noble creatures, as up close and personal as they allow, in their native aquatic habitat.
The trips are run out of Bolongo Bay, aboard its roomy and comfy 53-foot catamaran, Heavenly Days, a quick, breezy jaunt across open water. Daniel Basic was our captain, and as we puttered over to Buck Island’s Turtle Cove on a gloriously hot, sunny day, he gave the about 30 of us aboard the spiel about the turtle, its habitat and how above all, we’d be in their world, guests in their home, and to act accordingly. Don’t get too close, he said, not that it matters. They’ll get away from you way quicker than you can ever think about getting close to them. When seeing one, he advised us to do the “dead man’s float,” just bob on your belly and wait. If they’re curious enough, they’ll check you out.
These marvelous beasts were in abundance this day (that’s not always the case), green sea turtles which eat sea grass on the bottom, holding their breath for amazing amounts of time, then drifting lazy to the surface, slowly pumping thick fins, to stick their snouts above water and get the next breath of air. You occasionally see these marvelous heads poking up, and that in itself is a neat sight to behold.
You’re outfitted with snorkels and fins, and can lazily drift in the water, looking down at all manner of aquatic life, which include the turtles but in more evidence things like bar jacks, cow fish, yellow tail snapper and ballyhoo, and the occasional hawksbill, all magically colorful creatures doing what they do – swim and feed – as voyeur snorkelers watch from above.
This day, there were turtles aplenty, with all of our party seeing at least one. You just have to relax, watch and wait. I no sooner got into the water than I spotted a turtle lolling on the bottom, head moving right and left, munching away. After five minutes or so he slowly ambled up right by a swimmer, easing to his right to avoid him, and bobbed his fat head into the air, snatching a breath, then more, and then slowly sunk to the bottom, completing his life’s routine: Swim, eat, breathe.
Basic was an amiable, informative young man, and talked animatedly about sea life, including eagle rays, telling a riddle that asks “What lives life in the water but gives birth in the air?” That would be the eagle ray. Sometimes when females give birth, Basic said, they jet themselves out of the water, spurt their young and fall back in, the youngsters all rolled up and then unfolding like a parachute.
“It’s amazing, and no one believes me when I tell them that,” Basic laughed, adding that he’s seen four such live births in his young career.
He told the story about a party of six he took out, telling a woman about the eagle ray, her disbelieving him, and how not four minutes later, one sprang into the air right next to the boat, popped her young and splashed back into the water.
“Her jaw dropped,” Basic said. “She asked me ‘Did you plan that?’”
Beach a Best Bet
There are many best parts of this place, most notably the 1,000-foot-long beach, skinny by the building itself, widening out to the right where there are picnic tables, palapas and palm trees, and over to Iggie’s. My room was steps away from the beach, about as close to the water as I’ve ever been at a Caribbean resort.
The rooms are adequate, but not spectacular, looking their age in spots, particularly with exposed plumbing in the bath vanity, but clean and well kept. One thing they’re addressing: No WiFi in the rooms, though you can get it in the small lobby, or on the patio near the pool and Lobster Grille. But that’s a plus in itself, forcing you to get out and enjoy the weather, rather than sit inside and do business.
It’s a place where you can be equally comfortable doing everything that comes with the price, or nothing at all. There’s free unlimited use of non-motorized water sports, including paddle boards (with lesson if you need one; I did, still couldn’t master it so I kayaked instead), Hobie Cats, windsurfers, aqua trikes, swim mats, snorkel gear and kayaks. There’s a cardio room, great swimming pool (with swim-up bar), workout room, and tennis, basketball and beach volleyball.
You can also get a Discover Scuba Diving pool lesson and there’s a weekly snorkel booze, where they plant pints of Cruzan rum in the water near the beach and what you find, you keep (one per snorkeler, meaning since I found none, the others in the group gave me one of theirs). For added charge, there are sailing trips on the resort’s 53-foot catamaran, Heavenly Days, scuba excursions, parasailing and Waverunners.
But there’s no pressure to do anything. At some big resorts, you can self-guilt yourself into partaking of as many activities as possible, just to feel like you got your money’s worth. You can do that here, too, but to really enjoy a beach this good, chill out. I did a bunch of stuff in and on the water, even took a trip over to nearby St. John’s, but also managed to log enough quiet beach time to read a book and enjoy beer with it over my three-day stay.
And that, for me, is the best part, the chill-or-not-to chill option. Best part of my day was wandering down to the Lobster Grille for superb breakfast, hanging on the beach, taking in a little kayaking, hugging the coast to take in the sights, and coming back for lunch and relaxing. Later at night, after dinner, I’d puff a cigar on my small porch, listening to the gentle surf lap the shore, or head to Iggie’s, where they have live music, every night of the year.
And here, you can also chat up any random Doumeng (with so many, the odds are you’ll find one around every corner), and talking about the rich family history: The Doumeng elders, Dick and Joyce, used to sail here, fell in love with St. Thomas, and bought this place in 1968 – with absolutely no hotel experience – and dragged their kids along, who now run it.
Bolongo Bay is not your typical all-inclusive resort. And that’s the best part of all.
Bolongo Bay Beach Resort
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, 00802