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Tillett Gardens Hostel Lures Bargain Travelers

The latest arrival on St. Thomas’ tourism scene is more than a little unusual – not a complex of luxury hotel rooms and/or timeshare units, but a simple, inexpensive lodging with shared space and a reasonable price tag.

Eric Tillett credits his son with originating the idea after he stayed at a hostel in Europe.

“He said, ‘You should turn Grandma’s house into a hostel,” Tillett recalls.

Thus was born “Rhoda’s Guesthouse and Hostel,” named for the woman who turned what was once an old Danish farm into an oasis of green space in the midst of the commercial sprawl of Estate Tutu/Anna’s Retreat. Rhoda Tillett’s legacy includes establishing the long-running Concerts in the Garden series featuring international musicians and the Arts Alive arts and crafts fairs, both showcased at the site.

Today the complex contains two restaurants and a number of small shops, most offering locally made products, as well as the old family home, now converted.

There are two private rooms, each with a bath, as well as the shared hostel space – six bunk beds in the main house and eight bunk beds in an adjacent building, one of the oldest in the Gardens, featuring stone walls that are three-feet thick.

Abigail Jurick has been managing the guesthouse since it opened about six months ago. She studied business management in college and worked in the hospitality industry, including a brief stint at the Ritz Carlton on St. Thomas.

Jurick was back on the mainland when she saw Tillett’s “sweat equity” ad about getting into the hostel business and headed back to the Caribbean.

“It looked like a great opportunity to me,” she said, because she always wanted to operate a small hotel. “Isn’t that everybody’s dream?”

Tillett is sensitive to the notion that some people think the so-called “back-packing traveler” doesn’t contribute to the economy.

“But actually it’s the opposite,” he said. “These people are exploring the island on a daily basis.” They tend to be adventurous types who want to see a location and to meet other people, not retreat in an all-inclusive resort.

Most are young, of course, but Tillett said there has been a smattering of middle-aged visitors taking advantage of Rhoda’s.

The website, www.rhodasguesthouse.com, attracts a lot of international traffic, he said. Only 55 percent of visitors to the site are logging in from the U.S. A good 17 percent are from Norway and “we’ve got a lot from China.” Actual customers come from around the world, with some recent visitors hailing from Sweden, Ecuador and Poland.

Tillett and Jurick are looking forward to expanding the operation soon, probably in early 2014, by adding “urban camping.”

“There’s no place to camp on St. Thomas at all,” Tillett said. So he plans to devote some space at the back side of the gardens to tents. Thus tucked away, the future campsite may seem remote – though, like the guesthouse and hostel, it is actually smack in the middle of what may be the most populated area of the island.

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