Combine a great yacht, 'suggestive hospitality' and a classic destination. Shake and chill.
By Andrew Parkinson
"Would anyone care for a refreshment—perhaps some Champagne or a Caribbean gin and tonic?"
Beaming at us on the aft deck with a genuine smile that echoed the warm sun, chief stewardess Jacey Stornetta’s tempting query seemed uncannily timed. I had just slipped into a rare moment of zen—a deliverance of sorts, whereas in the previous 26 minutes, I had deplaned in St. Thomas, been plucked neatly from the clenched fists of the great concrete jungle and been transplanted on board the buoyant bastion that is 154-foot (46.9-meter) AdmiralRhino.
“A Caribbean gin and tonic sounds perfect,” I replied, not knowing—nor really caring—what made it so Caribbean. I’d been in St. Thomas for less than half an hour, and already I had adopted a mind-set that the only way I could even begin to capture the essence of the approximately 100 islands, islets and cays of white-sand beaches, turquoise seas and mossy green mountaintops that comprise the Virgin Islands was to let go of every mental stimulus and just go with the flow. Of course, when you have a crew of 10 tasked with catering to your every whim—including some you haven’t yet realized you have—this can be a rather relaxed and pleasurable proposition.
Admittedly, I had packed a few preconceived notions about this particular islands venue. I had concern, for one, about whether the once beautifully rugged haunt of rum-swigging pirate folk was now under siege by SPF-100-toting armies arriving by the pallet via jumbo jets and cruise ships. As it turns out, the intrinsic nature of this well-traveled West Indies archipelago perseveres as a pristine retreat for those thirsting for escape and adventure not far from the U.S. mainland.
With local-fare-inspired canapés and cocktails in hand while enjoying Rhino’s voluminous sundeck, our sunset cruise along the south shore of St. Thomas brought us to Turquoise Bay on the island’s east end. Generally well-protected from the prevailing trade winds, the bay makes a nice launch pad for exploring all points east, including St. John and the British Virgin Islands. Rough weather is rarely detrimental to Virgin Islands charter thanks to the local geography, with a bevy of protected bays and anchorages offering safe haven on a moment’s notice. The ability to juggle a charter itinerary on short order is key, and regardless of where you end up, there’s no dearth of charming excursions or waterborne experiences to be had here.
A charter-savvy owner purchased Rhino (ex-Ohana) in 2014 and funded upgrades including an interior refit and engine rebuilds. The yacht accommodates up to five couples in five staterooms and alternates between New England during summers and the Caribbean during winters. She sparkles from swim platform to sundeck. The flatware is Versace, the stemware is Waterford, and the cuisine is five-star. Our first dinner on board—a zesty, stuffed Caribbean lobster tail with truffle-foam-drizzled asparagus, masterminded by chef Brent Ryals and served alfresco on the aft deck—was a delectable foreshadowing of the tantalizing charter experience we were about to receive.
Seemingly the biggest problem for the Virgin Islands charterer is determining how to squeeze everything into a seven-day itinerary (or, in our case, a three-day sampler). Joining us at the table that evening, Capt. Shane Reid lent valuable insight on the must-dos we simply wouldn’t have time for on our short stay. He spoke of the well-known caves at the Baths and the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda; legendary watering holes such as the party yacht Willie T (where a topless and likely intoxicated plunge off the top deck wins you a one-of-a-kind shirt for bragging rights); and his favorite spot, two relatively untouched sand-spit islands north of Jost Van Dyke, proving there’s still plenty that’s “virgin” to enjoy here.
Well before dawn on day two, the only light on the bay emanated from the galley window of Rhino. Ryals was already on task, baking the day’s offering of fresh breads—a daily custom on board—which today happened to include his signature blueberry-cinnamon muffins. Sinful would normally be the word here, except they’re vegan and gluten-free. A few of the guests had expressed interest in taking the yacht’s 37-foot (11.2-meter) Intrepid on an early saunter around the bay to catch sunrise. I trundled down the steps to the swim platform, where second stewardess Jess Keevil greeted me with a coffee to go—made just as I like it, which by then I suppose I might have expected. The tender was stocked with everything we might possibly need: a to-go bag of sunscreens, fresh beach towels and a cooler with Champagne and the necessary stemware, just in case.
Sunrise set the shadowy backdrop of jagged terrain ablaze, casting light upon the dewy hull sides of Rhino and decorating the bay with flickers of diamond. The scene was nothing short of spectacular, painting a vivid portrait to which no tourist guide could ever begin to do justice. Returning to Rhino after having finally deciphered the meaning of life, our chief stewardess awaits on the swim platform with cool cucumber-water-infused towels and what I can only describe as the tastiest passion fruit refreshment I’ve ever had.
Who would ask questions at this point? I was obviously in good hands, and therein lies the separation point between luxury crewed charter and everything else. It’s the unmatched level of hospitality. It’s the difference between being asked, “Can I get you anything?” and being asked, “Would you care for a glass of Champagne or a Caribbean gin and tonic?” It’s suggestive hospitality, and the crew of Rhino has embraced and mastered it.
It’s a well-known verse in charter that “he with the most toys wins,” and by that decree, Rhino is as formidable a competitor as any, with an arsenal of wakeboards, water skis, a flotilla of fun floatables, snorkeling gear, a water slide, a water trampoline, four WaveRunners, two SeaBobs, paddleboards, kayaks—you name it. We were set free on the bay with all of Rhino’s tenders and toys at our disposal as the crew kept a shepherd’s watch, which aided everyone’s general comfort level. Under the reassuring supervision, I decided to properly survey the superstructure—with a plunge off the sundeck into the water fortysomething feet below. What fun. What freedom. What a jolt.
“If only I could reach that bottle of Veuve Clicquot we had earlier,” poked one of the guests who had resigned to a Funnoodle abaft the swim platform for the afternoon. It was a casual utterance just loud enough for bosun Rodd Keevil to intercept. He made a quick radio call to the on-deck stewardess, and moments later a plastic inflatable palm tree was lowered into the water with—as one might have guessed—two bubbly flutes of the Champagne.
“Heard you might be getting thirsty,” he said to the guest’s amazement. This had become a fun party—one I’d be thrilled to relive again and again. As the sun set on another sumptuous day in the Virgins on board Rhino, I couldn’t help but notice ashore the lights from a Ritz-Carlton in the distance. How many times in my life would I stare at a Ritz-Carlton and say with a straight face, “Boy am I glad I’m not there right now.”
Best of the Virgin Islands
Capt. Shane Reid and the Rhino crew weigh in on their top spots in the Virgin Islands.
Top 3 Beaches
- Magens Bay (St. Thomas)
- Any piece of shoreline on Anegada (BVI)
- Caneel Bay (St. John)
Top 3 Snorkel Spots
- Norman Island, the Indians (BVI)
- The Baths (Virgin Gorda)
- Trunk Bay (St. John)
Top 3 Dive Sites
- Cow and Calf Rocks (St. Thomas)
- Alice in Wonderland (Ginger Island, off Tortola)
- The Wreck of the RMS Rhone (Salt Island, BVI)
Top 3 Eats & Treats
- Mud pie at Pusser's Landing (Tortola)
- Conch fritters at Top of the Baths (Virgin Gorda)
- Legendary "Painkiller" at the Soggy Dollar Bar (Jost Van Dyke)
For more information: 954 761 3237, churchillyachts.com, rhinoyacht.com, or any charter broker