A colorful backdrop of powder-white beaches, turquoise waters, emerald-green mountain peaks, and red-roofed colonial architecture sets the scene for 32 square miles of historical landmarks, duty-free shopping, breathtaking vistas, duty-free shopping, underwater exploration, and even more duty-free shopping. The phrase “more bang for your buck” has never been as appropriate as it is on St. Thomas. The island boasts glorious, duty-free, tax-free shopping for everything from gemstones and jewelry to crystal and china to linens and fragrances, with prices up to 60 percent less than retail prices on the US mainland.
As one of the three major islands that make up the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas enjoys the warm weather, exquisite scenery, and the friendly vibe of a tropical paradise, but at the same time has all the conveniences of being a part of the United States: US dollars are accepted everywhere; no passport is required for US residents; US visitors usually don’t have to pay roaming charges for cell phone use; and English is spoken everywhere.
Christopher Columbus happened upon the Virgin Islands in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. Despite what many believe, the Virgin Islands are not called “virgin” because they were uninhabited upon the arrival of the Europeans. Instead, Columbus named the string of islands Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins) because the way they were scattered through the Caribbean Sea reminded him of the legend of Saint Ursula and her virgin followers.
It wasn’t until 1672 that the Danish West India Company, under the reign of King Christian V of Denmark, officially settled the island of St. Thomas. The Danes initially meant for it to be used for cultivating sugarcane; however, its vast resources and proximity to neighboring islands led it to become one of the Caribbean’s most important destinations for trade and commerce.
The Danish maintained control over St. Thomas for almost 250 years, until 1917, when it was purchased along with neighboring islands St. John and St. Croix by the United States. Although it’s been almost a century since the Danish ruled, evidence of their reign can still be seen in much of the island’s architecture and culture.
The West Indian Company Dock faces Havensight Mall, where giant mahogany trees shade the storefronts of more than 100 shops, including Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, and Milano Diamond Gallery.
Be sure to leave plenty of time to stroll along Main Street in downtown Charlotte Amalie, which is the hub, heart, and soul of St. Thomas shopping. On both sides of Main Street, it seems as if every store is a duty-free heaven, proffering leather, fragrances, linens, cosmetics, electronics, and, of course, fine watches and jewelry.
More shops line the small cobblestoned alleyways that connect the waterfront with Main Street. US residents enjoy a $1,600 duty-free allowance on St. Thomas—twice the limit of most other Caribbean islands. They can also take up to six bottles of liquor back home without incurring additional fees, as long as at least one is a local spirit.
To see the historical sites, head up to Government Hill by way of the legendary Ninety-Nine Steps, which begin at Government House. The Danish built these steps in the mid-1700s out of bricks that were once used as ballast on their ships.
Blackbeard’s Castle sits at the top of the hill. Also known as Skytsbord Tower, it is St. Thomas’ third National Historic Landmark. The fortified stone tower spans 20 feet in diameter at its base and reaches 31.5 feet in height. Aside from its floors, the tower remains unchanged from its original 1679 construction. How and when the tower was named for the infamous pirate Blackbeard remains a mystery, as there is little evidence to prove that he ever set foot on St. Thomas. However, the swashbuckler did roam the Caribbean waters in the early 18th century, and legend has it that he used the tower as a vantage point. Today, the castle’s grounds feature the world’s largest collection of life-sized pirate statues.
Also atop Government Hill is the Caribbean World Amber Museum, which takes guests on an exploration of the 300-million-year history of amber and gives a chance to view the shimmering Caribbean World Amber Waterfall, the largest of its kind in the world. Another Government Hill attraction is the Seven Arches Museum, where a specialized collection showcases the history of St. Thomas’ Danish ancestors.
Government Hill isn’t the island’s only lookout point. The rolling central mountain range offers an abundance of unmatched panoramic photo opportunities. Route 40, also known as Skyline Drive, provides a number of designated scenic stops, including the heralded Drake’s Seat.
Surrounded by lush botanical gardens, the post is named after 16th-century English pirate Sir Francis Drake who supposedly stationed a lookout point here to spot Spanish ships sailing back to Europe laden with gold and jewels from the New World. Today, Drake’s Seat serves as an observation platform to relish breathtaking views of St. Thomas’ northern coastline, the lauded heart-shaped Magens Bay beach, and neighboring islands.
To the west of Drake’s Seat along Skyline Drive, Mountain Top, the oldest and highest attraction on St. Thomas, reaches an elevation of 1,500 feet. A raging fire burned the former structure to the ground in 2009, and the new-and-improved Mountain Top reopened in 2011. Visitors should try the world-famous banana daiquiri, a refreshing drink made using a recipe that originated at the property in the 1950s.
Nestled within the hills nearby Mountain Top is St. Peter Great House and Botanical Gardens. The stunning grand estate is surrounded by flourishing gardens, streaming waterfalls, tropical-bird aviaries, fish ponds, and more than 400 species of Caribbean plants, fruits, and flowers. The picture-perfect setting has become a popular venue for special events and weddings.
Shifting gears from the highest heights to the deepest depths, there’s just as much (if not more) to see, do, and explore on St. Thomas below sea level. With abundant marine life, calm currents, average temperatures of 82 degrees, and underwater visibility over 100 feet, St. Thomas’ waters provide plenty of opportunities for swimming, kayaking, parasailing, and numerous other activities. Choose from a selection of sailing and snorkeling shore excursions that conveniently depart from the cruise ship dock or the Charlotte Amalie harbor.
Some of the top snorkeling sites within easy access of Charlotte Amalie harbor include Sapphire Beach and Christmas Cove on St. Thomas; Honeymoon Beach on nearby Water Island; and Turtle Cove and Shipwreck Cove, both just off the coast of Buck Island. Also of note is St. John’s world-famous Trunk Bay, a near-perfect white-sand beach that boasts a marked underwater trail maintained by the Virgin Islands National Park.
The best beach on St. Thomas is without a doubt Magens Bay beach. Located just a quick scenic ride from Charlotte Amalie on the northern coast of the island, the public beach is a one-mile stretch of sand surrounded by the calm, heart-shaped Magens Bay. Beach chairs and floating mats are available to rent and lifeguards are on duty every day. The beach and adjacent arboretum were gifted to the island by Arthur Fairchild in 1947 as a public park.
For guests who have always wanted to try scuba diving but never had the time or the opportunity to do so, St. Thomas is a good place to learn the basics. At St. Thomas’ scuba-diving facility, a certified PADI instructor leads guests on underwater explorations to depths of forty feet.
Power snorkeling is another fun water-sports option. Adventurers can glide through the underwater world with minimal effort using a specialized Seadoo handheld power scooter, which plows through the water at speeds up to two knots. Another option is to head to Coral World for Sea Trek helmet diving. An experienced guide outfits you with a specially designed helmet that provides a continuous air supply and keeps your head and shoulders dry.
For a real thrill, climb aboard the Screamin’ Eagle, a 650-horsepower, turbocharged jet boat that zips along the water during an adrenaline-pumping tour. On this wet-and-wild ride, an experienced captain maneuvers the vessel at exhilarating speeds through 180-degree spins, then slows to a halt to describe historical sites and local points of interest before whizzing the boat off again. All excursions on and under the water in the USVI are monitored and certified by the safety standards of the US Coast Guard.