The two botanical gardens that opened on St. Thomas last year both have five-star reviews on top travel sites, but they still face hurdles to becoming self-sustaining.
Owners worry about having adequate water and dealing with harmful pests, but their leading concern is just getting on the tourism industry’s radar.
Jackie Neuburger, owner of Plantation Crown and Hawk Botanical Garden, and Patsy Breunlin, owner of Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden, said that safari taxis whiz past their properties on a regular basis and visitors have been minimal.
Because both gardens just opened to the public last year, many of the taxi drivers don’t even know where they’re located and seem reluctant to find them, they said. The drivers end up taking tourists to the Historic St. Peter Greathouse and Botanical Gardens if they ask to come the other gardens.
“Taxi drivers prefer to point out the distressed house across the street that’s roof blew off during Marilyn instead of mentioning my tropical garden,” said Breunlin.
The tourism industry has long griped that it needs not only more activities for tourists but that it also wants a greater variety of them. Both Phantasea and Plantation Crown and Hawk are more than just gardens, and are marketing themselves accordingly. And, they both have dramatic overlooks for photo ops, making them an alternative to the crowded and commercialized Mountain Top.
“We’re calling the garden Crown Mountain Adventure, because we have a number of animals like turtles, rabbits and peacocks and we also have fruit trees, a waterfall, rustic trails, bush tea and local, handmade souvenirs – we’re not just a garden,” Neuburger said. “But it’s really a struggle to get everyone on board to take advantage of the attraction.”
Plantation Crown and Hawk is important to the island’s wedding tourism industry too, since ceremonies and receptions are commonly held there. Beautiful wedding venues like this one are crucial to having a vibrant destination wedding industry. Right now, the wedding business is sustaining the public garden.
A colorful banner full of photos hangs outside of the 2-acre Phantasea garden advertising it as a “new eco-attraction” with parrots, tortoises and peacocks, as well as over 1,000 orchids. Interpretive signs throughout the garden teach visitors about the function and history of the plants on display, making it an educational experience as well.
Neuburger and Breunlin explained that they need more support from the local tourism economy, including taxis, tour companies, cruise ships and the Department of Tourism. They’ve stashed flyers in hotels and businesses around the island, but so far they haven’t had much luck setting up connections with excursion operators to ensure regular visitors. Getting cruise ships tourists to come to the garden would be ideal they said.
The Department of Tourism hosted an event at Plantation Crown and Hawk last year. Officials from the department have visited Phantasea and are now marketing the garden on their website. But visitation hasn’t picked up yet.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of refreshing people’s memories that you’re here,” Neuburger said. “You have to keep marketing and reinforce relationships with hotels and tour operators.”
Neuburger said they’re working to build their online presence on social media with the help of her web-savvy daughter. She thinks a digital marketing push and an updated website that’s in the works are key to getting more visitors.
The gardens are passion projects for Neuberger and Breunlin, both of whom are tropical plant enthusiasts. Opening Plantation Crown and Hawk Botanical Garden to the public was the culmination of a 20-year project for the Neuberger family, though they’d been hosting weddings on the 1780s sugar plantation ruins for the last 18 years. The grounds served as a botanical garden for Denmark’s horticultural society in the 1840s.
Breunlin has been developing her garden for the last 15 years – and more years than that really if you count the plants she sent with her to the island in a refrigerated shipping container when she moved here almost 30 years ago. The garden sits below her home and is carved into the side of a hill with dramatic views of Magens Bay below. Tropical plants that Breunlin collected from around the world fill the terraced beds between native trees and shrubs.
Besides getting enough visitors, Neuburger and Breunlin worry about having enough water to keep everything green. If long periods of drought become the new normal, it’ll be hard to sustain water-hungry plants. It takes a lot of water to keep plants blooming and tourists are drawn to lush gardens full of exotic flowers.
Last year’s drought was a trying time for the gardens, as it was their first year open and they didn’t have a lushness to market. It was hard to get sensitive tropical plants to bloom. If droughts persist, Breunlin said she’d change the character of what she plants.
There’s also the threat of pests. Neuburger said there’s a soil-boring bug that eats the roots of plants, especially citrus trees, killing them. Black blight can also cover trees such as mangos with an unsightly fungus that has to be sprayed with costly chemicals to keep it under control.
Still, getting more visitors is Neurburger and Breunlin’s biggest concern. They want to share their passion for plants with tourists and locals alike, but to do so they need the tourism industry and the community to help spread the word.