If you cruise regularly to the Caribbean, chances are you'll end up in St. Thomas. Its popularity as one of the world's most heavily trafficked cruise ports is well-earned. The island offers something for just about everyone and has the infrastructure that can accommodate a huge daily population influx. In addition to a duty-free shopping scene that's virtually unparalleled, other on-the-beaten-track sites include the world-famous beach at Magens Bay and a scenic tram ride to a mountaintop.
Nearly every ship sailing an Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes St. Thomas as a port of call, as do many Southern Caribbean voyages. You'll even see St. Thomas on Panama Canal and South American itineraries (when a Florida port such as Fort Lauderdale or Miami serves as a port of embarkation or debarkation). It's not uncommon, particularly during the Caribbean's winter high season, to see six ships or more docked or anchored in a day -- and that can mean an extra 20,000 people mixing into a population hovering in the mid-50,000s.
Believe it or not, it's easy to find some respite from the inevitable crowds by exploring St. Thomas' quieter, more undiscovered side -- a lovely historic district, trips to Water Island (the "fourth" and youngest, U.S. Virgin Island), beaches all over the island and fabulous restaurants in Frenchtown. It's also an easy jaunt via 20-minute ferry to tranquil St. John from the town of Red Hook. Even this town has local character (this is where expat residents of St. Thomas spend their time) that's a far cry from Charlotte Amalie's shopping mall vibe. Just taking transportation to the eastern end of the island will give you emotional distance from the hectic pier.
Even if it's your first time on St. Thomas, don't be afraid to explore. Although locals drive on the left side of the road, the island has an American familiarity that makes it a perfect introduction to the Caribbean style of life. Attractions, beaches, shopping, golf, water sports -- the island offers a wide variety of activities, with new ones added every year. Even if it's your 10th trip, you're bound to find something fun to do, even if that just means discovering a new beach.
The dock at Havensight, in essence, is a mini-downtown. You'll find more than 50 shops, many of which are outposts of Charlotte Amalie's better-known boutiques, such as A.H. Riise, H. Stern and Royal Caribbean (the electronics store, not the cruise line). Also within the expansive Havensight Mall, you'll find a post office, ATMs for Bank of Nova Scotia and First Bank and Havensight Pharmacy. Depending on your plan, your American cellphone might work in St. Thomas without roaming charges.
Across the main drag running outside Havensight's facility are convenience stores, coffee shops and Internet cafes. The Yacht Haven Grande Marina also is within walking distance of the Havensight Pier. When you exit your ship, turn left and follow the dock around the harbor. It's the first genuinely upscale shopping and dining area, featuring restaurants and shops, such as Coach, bebe, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. (Note: These are not duty-free.)
Beyond the immediate facility, the best bargains on duty-free liquor can be found at Kmart -- no lie! Walk up Long Bay Road to the Lockhart Gardens Kmart (you'll notice a lot of crewmembers heading that way -- a good sign, as they often know where to find the best bargains).
Opened in early 2007, Crown Bay features a recreated stone sugar mill in honor of the island's plantation era. Crown Bay Center businesses include jewelry, clothing and liquor stores, Passengers whose ships are docked in Crown Bay have more limited options nearby than those docked at Havensight. The Crown Bay Marina has a branch of Gourmet Gallery (and the ferry to Water Island leaves from there). Tickles is a charming waterside pub at the marina with nautical decor (open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily).
You'll need to head downtown for serious shopping and dining.
Charlotte Amalie is an easily walkable duty-free shopping mecca. Stores are primarily located on Veterans Drive and, running parallel behind it, Main Street. Barkers occasionally attempt to beckon you into shops (they're paid each day based on the store's sales), but are generally less intrusive than in other Caribbean ports. While St. Thomas enjoys a reputation as a duty-free paradise, it's not quite the bargain it used to be. So, it pays to comparison shop. In the market for a camera, we found the prices to be comparable to those found at Best Buy and more expensive than on Amazon.com -- with no room for haggling.
Highlights include A.H. Riise (37 Main Street; 800-524-2037), a variety of boutiques selling high-end perfumes, jewelry, antique maps and liquor (they'll deliver your bottles to your ship on request) -- all in an elegant setting. Down Island Traders (Veterans Drive; 340-776-4641) specializes in Caribbean-made or produced foodstuffs, such as spices, out-of-this-world rum cakes, hot sauces and jams, in addition to regional crafts. Del Sol (44 Norre Gade; 340-715-2051) offers T-shirts, hair clips, sunglasses and cosmetics, such as 20 varieties of nail polish that transform into bursts of color when exposed to the sun.
Also, check out elegant boutiques for apparel; Nicole Miller and Tommy Hilfiger are among the well-known names with shops downtown. Other fashion finds include Local Color (Veterans Drive; 340-774-2280) for great casual cotton dresses and the Bambini Art Gallery (Back Street; 340-775-4766) for all kinds of pop art.
Otherwise, price shop at so-called "bargain" shops like Perfume Palace, Royal Caribbean (electronics and jewelry), Diamonds International (jewelry) and Little Switzerland (imported china, crystal and jewelry). At Vendors' Plaza, locals hawk straw hats, tropical-print sundresses and T-shirts.
Beyond shopping, a walking tour of Charlotte Amalie should include a visit to Fort Christian (on the waterfront, across from Vendor's Plaza), a national historic landmark that dates to the 17th century; you can climb the tower for great harbor views (340-776-4566; open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday). Climb the 99 Steps (Kongens Gade/Government Hill, next to Hotel 1829) -- though there are actually 103 -- to experience historic downtown's finest neighborhood with lovely 19th-century plantation homes. Adjacent to the steps is a worthy pit stop: Haagensen House, an 1820s townhouse that's a museum and garden with a great gift shop selling antiques. You can tour it, as well as other historic homes, on the Blackbeard's Castle tour (800-524-2002; walks take place 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday in winter months, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday after April 15; $10). The St. Thomas Synagogue is the Western Hemisphere's second-oldest synagogue (the oldest is located in Curacao). It was built in 1833 by Sephardic Jews and is open for tours. The floor is covered with sand symbolizing the flight of the Jews out of Egypt and across the desert (Raadets Gade and Crystal Gade; 340-774-4312; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday).
Coral World is one of those hyped tourist attractions that actually lives up to expectations. Located at Coki Beach (cab ride required), it's a 4.5-acre marine park whose highlight is an underwater observatory with 360-degree views of fish and other sea creatures; it's the only way to see fish without getting wet. (6450 Estate Smith Bay; 888-695-2073; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily November to April; closed Fridays and Saturdays from May 1 to September 30; $19 adults and $10 children 3 to 12, $27 adults and $14 children 3 to 12 for Coral World and Butterfly Garden combo ticket, family day passes available, younger than 3 free)
For a great island view and excellent photo opportunities, take the Paradise Point Tramway, a skyride that leads to Paradise Point, across from Havensight. It climbs 700 feet to Paradise Point -- there's a little shopping area with the obvious tourist trinkets at the apex (9617 Estate Thomas; 340-774-9809; open from 9 a.m. daily; $21 adults and children 13 and older, $10.50 children 12 and younger). Another great viewpoint can be found at Mountain Top, the island's highest point at 1,500 feet, which also features tourist shops and is popular with the tour bus crowd (3A-18 St. Peter Mountain Road; 340-774-2400; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, free). On the way, stop off at St. Peter Greathouse and Botanical Gardens, a tropical boutique near Mountain Top (340-774-4999; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; $8).
St. Thomas is always adding attractions to give veteran cruisers more entertainment options. A few that we've tried: Magic Ice is an 8,000 square foot "gallery" of ice statues and sculptures. You don a parka to get in and walk through the chilly atmosphere (the walls are made of ice, too). A shot of rum is included in adult admission. Sure, it's a little gimmicky, but a stop there cools you off on a hot day, and it's fun to watch adults skid down the ice slide. (Waterfront; 340-422-6000; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $22 adults, $12 children)
Zip-lining has come to St. Thomas, and the island's version, on St. Peter Mountain, is about the best introduction to this activity that we've seen. Safety comes first at Tree Limin' Extreme, and the wise-cracking employees do their best to make even the most nervous customers comfortable. The course comprises six lines, including one that is considered a "yo-yo," (where you swing back and forth until you stop) and two canopy bridges. Age and weight limits apply. (2C St. Peter Mountain Road; 340-777-9477; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $109 adults 18 and older, $99 children 8 to 17)
Flyboarding and jet-packing have joined the armada of water activities available on the island; both involve shooting up high above the water. Of the two, flyboarding -- introduced by St. Thomas Flyboarding -- requires the most effort. Essentially, you strap your feet into boots anchored onto a board outfitted with water jets. It takes coordination to maneuver yourself into standing position, and you need a sense of balance to avoid flopping back in the water. Once you master the moves, though, you can reach heights of 10 feet or more, where you're rewarded with the sensation of floating. Age and weight limits apply. (Island Beachcomber Hotel at Lindbergh Beach; 340-514-8654; tours 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, reservations are essential, $125)
Jet-packing offers the same experience, although the water flows through jet packs that are strapped to your back. St. Thomas Jet Riders operates on the beach near the Frenchman's Reef and Morningstar Marriott Beach Resort. Age and weight limits apply. (340-626-8500; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $149 for 20 minutes flight time, $199 for 30 minutes flight time)
The most interesting shops for quality art and crafts are located outside downtown. Must-visits for aficionados include Mango Tango, which has the island's best selection of original art as well as gorgeous teakwood furnishings -- and a humidor with a wide variety of cigars. (Al Cohen's Plaza, Raphune Hill; 340-777-3060; open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday.) The Color of Joy showcases work by a range of artists, including Jane Clemo's mocko jumbie dolls, Sloop Jones' hand-painted clothing and Doreen Walsh's batiks. (On Route 322 before Ritz-Carlton; 340-775-4020; open 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday.) If you're interested in serious arts and crafts shopping, rent a car or hire a driver for the day.
At Mahogany Run Golf Course, not only do you get to play golf but you also get to spend time in one of the island's most gorgeous settings. The highlight? The 13th, 14th and 15th holes in "Devil's Triangle" border cliffs that overlook the Atlantic. There's a snack bar on the premises, and a dress code applies. Tee-time reservations, for both 18 and nine holes, can be made up to 48 hours in advance by calling 800-253-7103 or 340-777-6006. Per-person cost includes green and cart fees (check your cruise line for special excursions) and range from $115 to $165 from December to May, $85 to $125 May to September and $100 to $150 from September to December. Golf clubs can be rented at the pro shop.
Go for a stroll -- before indulging in a gourmet lunch (see in-town restaurants) -- through Frenchtown (opposite the harbor from Havensight). This eclectic neighborhood was settled in the 18th century by French Huguenots from St. Barth's and is now a neighborhood of fishermen. It is still home to some original descendants, and you can occasionally hear locals conversing in French.
For repeat visitors, nothing beats a day trip to St. John. Check out our St. John port profile for more details.
By Taxi: Though they exist, individual "cabs" are unusual. In most cases, you'll be shepherded to a van or safari truck that's heading to the vicinity of your destination -- and might make multiple stops on the way as locals ask the driver to let them off. You'll pay a set price per person. Tipping is recommended when a driver is particularly helpful or knowledgeable but is not required.
Editor's Note: Taxi drivers like to load up as many people as possible and travel to on-the-beaten-path tourist sites. If you want to veer off that path, you might have trouble finding a driver to take you. If this is an issue, we recommend you rent a car.
By Car: At the cruise ship dock, Avis (340-777-8888) and Budget (340-776-5774) have outposts; reservations are recommended. In downtown Charlotte Amalie, try Dependable Car Rental, with free pick-up and drop-off services (800-522-3076). From Crown Bay, the nearest car rental offices are at the airport (a five-minute taxi ride); Hertz (340-774-1879), Avis and Budget have desks there. Discount Car Rental is next to the airport (877-478-2833).
Remember, drive on the left. It takes a little while to get the hang of it. Also, hand use of cellphones while driving is against the law.
Best for a Half-Day Visit: Magens Bay, St. Thomas' (and some would say the world's) most gorgeous -- and calmest -- beach, is a 20-minute taxi ride. The facility includes a bar, a cafeteria-style eatery and one of the island's best shops for casual wear and bathing suits. A small admission is charged. The fewer ships in town during your visit, the more enjoyable your visit.
Best for Active Types: Coki Beach, adjacent to Coral World, is a well-known -- and crowded -- destination for snorkeling and scuba diving (equipment can be rented there). For fewer lines and a better atmosphere, try Secret Harbour, which also has a water equipment rental shop and a nice -- though pricy -- beach bar (Note: Sapphire Beach, a perennial favorite because of its views of St. John and the British Virgin Islands, has closed its rental facilities, and taxis are discouraged from parking there).
Best on Water Island: If you're looking to add another island to your list, it's hard to beat Honeymoon Beach on Water Island, the "fourth" Virgin Island. Once fairly secluded, it's become busier with ships docking at Crown Bay Marina, as the water shuttle leaves from the same area. Times for the water shuttle are subject to change, but it generally leaves the marina on the hour, Monday to Saturday, until 9 p.m. On Sundays, ferries leave Crown Bay at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 1:15 p.m., 3:15 pm and 5:15 p.m. and costs $10 roundtrip. Tip: The burgers at Heidi's Honeymoon Grill receive raves.
Best Secluded Beach: On those days when you really want to get away from it, head down to Brewers Beach, which is past the airport close to the University of the Virgin Islands. While you won't find rental facilities (there is a restroom), the beach is a lovely place to lie out with a towel; you can also watch the planes come and go at the nearby airport. Food trucks set up nearby daily.
St. Thomas features a wide variety of restaurants and beach bars. Most cater to American tastes, but you can find one or two spots that have a more authentic Caribbean flavor, such as Cuzzin's and Gladys'. As in St. John, fine dining can be a little hard to come by at lunch during weekends.
At Amalia Cafe, the owners -- a native St. Thomian who's traveled the world and his Austrian wife -- serve Mediterranean fare amid a historic ambience. Try the bouillabaisse. (24 Palm Passage; 340-714-7373; open 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Cuzzin's Caribbean Restaurant has a well-deserved reputation for regional fare. (7 Wimmelskafts Gade/Back Street; 340-777-4711; open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Cafe Amici serves Mediterranean cuisine with local influences; the grilled tuna sandwich and salad nicoise are highlights, and everyone seems to love the pizzas. (A.H. Riise Mall; 340-714-7874; open 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays, open later on cruise ship days)
Gladys' Cafe offers Caribbean and American dishes such as lobster-stuffed avocados. (5600 Royal Dane Mall; 340-774-6604; open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
The rollicking Greenhouse Restaurant is a nice stop for basic burgers and frozen drinks, including a daily happy hour 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. (Waterfront; 340-774-7998; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily)
Virgilio's is a fabulous Italian restaurant with eccentric decor -- a large collection of paintings of women and other subjects, some quite abstract, cover the high walls. If the paprika ravioli is on the menu, order it. (Dronnigens Gade; 340-776-4920; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
If you're craving sushi, check out Beni Iguana's Sushi Bar and Restaurant. (Havensight Mall; 340-777-8744; open 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily)
The Yacht Haven Marina, an upscale shopping, dining and docking complex located just around the corner from ships docked at Havensight, offers W!kked, one of St. Thomas' few outdoor eateries. Try the elegantly presented -- and delicious -- french fries. (340-775-8953; open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
Fat Turtle, in the same complex, also has waterfront seating; it's the place for more casual fare. (Yacht Haven Grande; 340-775-8328; open noon to 10 p.m. daily)
Waiting for a Ferry at Red Hook:
Check out Lotus Thai Restaurant, sleek Asian fusion place. (295 Talbot Street; 519-633-9966; open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday)
Duffy's Love Shack is an expat hotspot famous for its huge tropical drinks, though food is served as well. (6500 Red Hook Plaza; 340-779-2080; open 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily)
During particularly busy times (January through March), your ship will dock at Havensight Pier, the primary dock for cruise ships, or Crown Bay, which opened in 2007. Each is about a five- to 10-minute taxi ride to downtown Charlotte Amalie. If more than six ships call on St. Thomas in one day, your ship could be anchored in the harbor; the tenders will drop you in the heart of Charlotte Amalie.
See photos of St. Thomas from a Norwegian Getaway cruise.
See photos of St. Thomas from a Holland America Line cruise on Eurodam
See photos of St. Thomas from a Regal Princess cruise.
Adventurous types should be hesitant when wandering off the beaten path in Charlotte Amalie; crime can be an issue. Also, though most ships will dock mid-week -- with Wednesdays in high season accommodating up to six ships in port at the same time -- if you find yourself in St. Thomas on a Sunday, you might discover that many of the shops are closed. Our advice? Head to the beach.
Currency is the U.S. dollar, and ATMs are readily available.
English is the official language, but you might hear French Creole or Spanish spoken, as well.
Rum cakes and rum balls made with Cruzan rum are popular edible treats that can be found in many souvenir shops.
Alcoholic milkshakes at Famous Delite (formerly Udder Delite Dairy Bar). Try Rumrunner, with rum raisin ice cream and creme de menthe, or Jacoco, with chocolate and coconut ice cream and Kahlua, or -- if you can stand more -- Udder Delite, which is almond crunch and amaretto. (Route 35/Magens Bay Road; 340-777-6050; open 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday, 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday)
If you find yourself with an hour to kill in Red Hook before taking the ferry to St. John, the best cocktail for you might be Duffy's Love Shack's 64-ounce Shark Tank (five rums, three tropical liqueurs). There's no extra charge to share it. (6500 Red Hook Plaza; 340-779-2080; open 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily)