Discover St. Thomas’ treasures from duty-free shopping malls, white-sand beaches and historic attractions—but visit when the cruise ships aren’t there.
If there were a cruise ship capital of the world, it might be St. Thomas, an island where life revolves around the many thousands of cruise passengers that disembark in the picturesque harbor town of Charlotte Amalie each week. Stores open for cruise ships, locals plan errands around ships’ departures, and even the old synagogue schedules its staff around when passengers will visit. For duty-free shopping, entire malls have been created just to cater to cruise traffic.
But there’s another side to St. Thomas that goes far beyond a day’s sojourn off a cruise ship. St. Thomas is a beautiful, hilly island with powdery white beaches, fine resorts and numerous unique attractions that make it well worth a long visit. My advice is to do the bulk of your touring—you guessed it—when the cruise ships are not around!
St. Thomas had the dubious distinction of being a former slave trading center in the late 1600s and early 1700s, importing African slaves who were then dispensed to St. John and St. Croix, the other two main U.S. Virgin Islands, to support their plantation economies. Eventually, due to the naturally deep harbor of Charlotte Amalie, interests turned to more suitable forms of trade, and St. Thomas became a major commercial distribution center for the West Indies. Today, while tourism is the island’s main business, some former distribution warehouses serve as fancy duty-free boutiques in Charlotte Amalie. Trading on St. Thomas has come a long way. [Read more about the U.S. Virgin Islands in our feature article.]
Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a pretty town that can be easily explored on foot, and in fact, many walking tours are offered. The town primarily revolves around the rows of boutique-lined streets along the waterfront, at Royal Dane Mall and International Plaza. Those charming streets and alleys, however, are now “getting cut out of the action” as a local says, due to duty-free shopping centers at town’s edge, the latest being the $150 million Yacht Haven Grande complex that features upscale shopping with many fine European boutiques, expensive condos and a marina.
In the center of town is a colorful flea market with local crafts and souvenirs, and Fort Christian, a U.S. National Landmark originally built in 1680 for the island’s defense that now hosts a museum on Virgin Island history.
Up the hill from the Fort are the famous 99 Steps (though there’s actually 103) built by the Danes to maneuver the town’s steep incline. The old steps lead up to Governor’s Hill, which features Blackbeard’s Castle watchtower (the pirate rumored to have used the tower as a lookout), the Government House and the Seven Arches Museum, a restored historic house that tells the story of life in a bygone era.
A few blocks away is the St. Thomas Synagogue, the oldest continuously operating synagogue under the American flag, its sand-covered floors originally designed, it’s said, to muffle the sounds of prayer so worshipers could avoid religious persecution.
On the east end of town, near the cruise ship docks, is the St. Thomas Skyride, a tram that whisks visitors up to Paradise Point for stunning views of the harbor and surrounding islands ($21 adults; $10.50 ages 6 to 12; 5 and under free).
Directly adjacent to the cruise docks is the shopping at Havensight Mall and the newer Yacht Haven Grande. The two centers are magnets for duty-free shopping with prices as much as 60 percent lower than stateside; U.S. citizens, including children, are each permitted a $1,600 allowance in the U.S. Virgin Islands, double the $800 per person limit from other islands. Vendors are especially flocking to Yacht Haven Grande, which features everything from stalwarts such as Coach and Tommy Hilfiger to more luxurious brands like Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Salvatore Ferragamo.
Meanwhile, aside from buying gems, china, clothing and more, visitors to Havensight can also drive a submarine. Atlantis Adventures, which offers tourist rides around the reefs off St. Thomas, features an authentic submarine ride to a depth of 80 feet; $99 for adults, $49 for children 12 and under. The award-winning attraction is so popular, Atlantis opened up a mini-submarine attraction at Havensight Mall where shoppers can visit an authentic submarine pilot’s console and “drive” a submarine in between power shopping; the attraction is free.[Read more about boating in the U.S. Virgin Islands.]
To re-energize after such tough duty, head across the street to the Shipwreck Tavern with arguably the best hamburgers on St. Thomas.
Good restaurants abound on St. Thomas but some favorites include Banana Tree Grille for international cuisine, Bella Blu for Mediterranean dishes, Havana Blue at Frenchman’s Reef for Cuban fusion and Mahogany Run’s Grille for a good deal on steaks and seafood.
The east end Red Hook area of St. Thomas is restaurant central. Try the East End Café for great Italian, Caribbean Saloon for steaks and seafood, Off the Hook for seafood, Robert’s American Grille and Lotus Asian Grill.
The Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort is a great choice for excellent accommodations at a good price, and is particularly perfect for families. It’s close to Coral World (see below) and has fun bumper boats, mini golf, game arcade and iguana feeding—and the rooms and views are wonderful, too. The hotel gets rave reviews for its select eco-friendly CleanAir rooms, which use the Pure air treatment system to eliminate allergens, and PURE mattresses and pillows that are resistant to dust mites. The result: Parents say their kids sleep sounder, and parents are more at ease. Rates start at around $180 in low season, $280 in peak season. The Wyndham also has a Kids’ Camp. [Read more about the Wyndham’s Kids’ Camp and other kid-friendly resorts in the U.S. Virgin Islands.]
Another option is the Elysian Beach Resort, now managed by the Wyndham chain, which is a combination of hotel rooms and time shares that often get rented out. The exterior is a bit dated, but the rooms have been updated and some include partial kitchens. Rates start at $150 in the off-season, $240 for one-bedroom condos.
Save at the Elysian, then head next door to the ultra-chic Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas to indulge in their luxe spa and restaurants. If you prefer the full deal and opt to stay there, rates start at $499.
The Marriott Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Beach Resort is also popular for its gorgeous grounds and its close proximity to Charlotte Amalie, though some consider it “a conference hotel.” Rates start at $200.
All beaches on St. Thomas are open to the public, even though some are part of resort properties. Two of the most popular are Magens Bay Beach (the only beach on the island with a fee—$4 per person as of October 2008), with a one-mile stretch of sand with calm waters, and Coki Beach, which has clear waters good for snorkeling and diving and is located near Coral World Ocean Park. Be careful at both though as petty theft is common.
I prefer Sapphire Beach, located at Sapphire Beach Resort near Red Hook, which is the true gem and offers good snorkeling, plus it’s much less crowded.
One of my favorite family attractions on St. Thomas is to visit Coral World, a treat for any visitor but especially wonderful for families. ($21 for adults, $12 for children or $60 for a family pass for up to two adults and four children.) Just around the bend from the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, Coral World has marine touch tanks, baby shark petting, an undersea observatory, a turtle pool and the Sea Lion Splash.
It also has sea lions from a park in Thailand. After the 2004 tsunami, the government put them to good use, training them to rescue drowning victims. Eventually the sea lions made their way to St. Thomas where they now display those lifesaving skills. Visitors can actually “ride” one; my 5-year-old held on marvelously! ($85 per ride. Children must be 50 lbs. and accompanied by an adult.)
One day in town is enough, and then I’d recommend some island time touring the beautiful beaches and outer reaches of St. Thomas. Do rent a car, as the biggest downside to St. Thomas is unpleasant taxi experiences, an almost universal complaint from visitors and even the subject of local radio talk. (The airport taxi tried to charge for my 5-year-old daughter’s pink backpack as “luggage.”)
The best deal is to rent from E-Z Car Rental, which will deliver cars to East End hotels (Red Hook area) and provide a free tour to acclimate drivers to points of interest (tel. 800-524-2027). Additional tips:
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.