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St. Thomas Overview
Trendwatch: It's Tuesday in St. Thomas: Gridlock Alert?
St. Thomas is one of the world's most heavily trafficked cruise ports. Its lofty popularity is earned because St. Thomas offers something for just about everyone, and it's an island that can accommodate a huge, daily population influx. Plus, its duty-free shopping scene is relatively unparalleled. Other on-the-beaten-track sites include the world-famous beach at Magens Bay and a scenic tram ride to a mountaintop.
But it's also amazingly 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, Virgin Island), north shore beaches and fabulous restaurants in Frenchtown; it is also an easy jaunt via 20-minute ferry to tranquil St. John. Even Red Hook, which is traditionally thought of as nothing more than the jumping-off point for the far more stunning St. John, has local character (you'll see residents of St. Thomas engaged in everyday activities) that's a far cry from Charlotte Amalie's shopping mall vibe. Just taking local transportation to the eastern end of the island will give you a modicum of emotional distance from the hectic pier.
Virtually 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 Ft. Lauderdale or Miami serves as a port of embarkation or debarkation). It is not uncommon, particularly during the Caribbean's winter high season, to see six or more ships docked and/or anchored in a day -- and that can mean an extra 20,000 people infused into a population hovering in the mid-50,000's.
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Other Eastern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Freeport • Grand Turk • Jost Van Dyke • La Romana (Casa de Campo) • Labadee • Nassau • Princess Cays • San Juan • Santo Domingo • St. Croix • St. John (U.S.V.I.) • St. Maarten • St. Martin • St. Thomas • Tortola • Virgin Gorda
Alcoholic milkshakes at St. Thomas Dairies' 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)
And if you find yourself with an hour to kill in Red Hook before taking the ferry to St. John, the best cocktail for you may be Duffy's Love Shack's 64-ounce Shark Tank (five rums, three tropical liqueurs). There's no extra charge to, um, share it. Daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. (6500 Red Hook Plaza; 340-779-2080)
Cruzan-infused Caribbean Rum Balls from Martin Missen's shop at Havensight Mall. (Building 3, Havensight Mall; 340-775-6616)
English is the official language, but you may also hear French Creole or Spanish spoken, as well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Currency is the U.S. dollar and ATM's are readily available.
Where You're Docked
During particularly busy times (i.e. 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 5- 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.
Right at the dock at Havensight is, in essence, a mini-downtown. There are 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 is Dockside Bookshop, the island's only “complete” bookstore; A.H. Riise Liquors and Tobacco, with a free tasting bar; a post office; Bank of Nova Scotia and First Bank ATM's; and Havensight Pharmacy. There are plenty of pay phones for cruisers with calling cards who want to avoid costly on-ship phone calls.
Across the main drag running outside Havensight's facility are convenience stores, coffee shops and Internet cafes.
New -- and within walking distance from the Havensight Pier -- is the Yacht Haven Grande Marina; when you exit your ship, turn left and follow the dock around the harbor. It's the first genuinely upscale shopping and dining area to open in St. Thomas in years. Its restaurants and shops, such as Coach, bebe, Gucci and Chico's, are not duty-free, by the way.
Beyond the immediate facility, the best bargains on duty-free liquor can be found at K-Mart -- no lie! Walk up Long Bay Road to the Lockhart Gardens K-Mart (you'll notice a lot of crewmembers heading that way -- they're always a good tip-off as they visit often). On the way, a don't-miss hint: In the parking lot of the Pueblo supermarket, look for a green canvas umbrella where Dominican-transplant Martha Jolly sells gorgeous wicker stuff -- at remarkably modest prices. Highlights include a coconut-shell-shaped handbag and laundry hampers. She also sells gorgeous tropical flowers, from birds of paradise to ginger lily.
Crown Bay, a gorgeous port area opened in early 2007, complete with 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 here). Tickles is a charming waterside pub at the marina with nautical decor. But you'll need to head downtown for serious shopping and dining.
Editor's Note: If your ship calls at St. Thomas on Sunday beware that shops (and many attractions) in downtown Charlotte Amalie are open only from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.
By Taxi: Though they do exist, individual "cabs" are highly unusual. In most cases, you'll be shepherded to a van or safari truck that's heading in the vicinity of your destination -- and may 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 garrulous, but not required.
Editor's Note: Though this won't apply to most day-trippers, here's a helpful warning: 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 may have trouble finding a driver to take you (in that case we recommend you rent a car).
By Car: At the cruise ship dock, Avis (340-777-8888) and Budget (340-776-5774) have an outposts; advance reservations are highly recommended. In downtown Charlotte Amalie, try Dependable Car Rental, with free pick-up and drop-off services. (340-774-2253) 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. (340-776-4858)
Critical note: Drive on the left! We'll admit that it does take a little while to get the hang of it. Also, hand use of cell phones while driving is against the law.
Watch Out For
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 may discover that many of the shops are closed. Our advice? Head to the beach.
Charlotte Amalie is easily walkable and a 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 (and, often, quite interesting to talk to). While St. Thomas enjoys a reputation as a duty-free paradise, beware: It's not quite the bargain it used to be and it pays to comparison shop. In the market for a camera, we actually 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; 340-776-2303), 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 and/or produced foodstuffs, such as spices, out-of-this-world rum cakes, hot sauces and jams, in addition to regional crafts. Del Sol (43-46 Norra Gade; 340-715-2051) for T-shirts, hair clips, sunglasses and cosmetics, like 20 varieties of nail polish that transform into bursts of color when exposed to the sun. For a cold beer -- which you can consume in public -- and brand paraphernalia, stop at the Virgin Islands Brewing Co. (1-C-1 Royal Dane Mall; 340-777-8888), makers of the refreshing Blackbeard's Ale (which, alas, is no longer brewed here; it's now made in Minnesota).
Also check out elegant boutiques for apparel; Nicole Miller, Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph Lauren, White House/Black Market 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 Arts Gallery (Royal Dane Mall; 340-776-3557) for hand-painted silk scarves.
Otherwise, price-shop at so-called "bargain" shops like Perfume Palace (perfume), 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 back to the 17th century; you can climb the tower for great harbor views. 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. The St. Thomas Synagogue (Raadets Gade and Crystal Gade), which is the Western Hemisphere's second oldest (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.
Coral World is one of those well-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 -- the only way to see fish without getting wet. Daily 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (6450 Estate Smith Bay; 340-775-1555)
For a great island view and excellent photo opportunity, take the St. Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point, across from Havensight. It climbs 700 ft. to Paradise Point (there's a little shopping area with the obvious tourist trinkets at the apex). Another great viewpoint can be found at Mountain Top, the island's highest point -- 1,500 feet -- which also features tourist shops and is popular with the tour bus crowd. On the way, stop off at St. Peter Greathouse and Botanical Gardens, a tropical boutique near Mountain Top.
Been There, Done That
Arts and Crafts. The most interesting shops for quality art and crafts from regional artisans are located outside of downtown; must-visits for aficionados include Mango Tango (Al Cohen's Plaza, Raphune Hill), 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. The Color of Joy (Red Hook's American Yacht Harbor) showcases work by a range of artists, including Jane Clemo's mocko jumbie dolls, Sloop Jones' hand-painted clothing and Doreen Walsh's batiks. Kilnworks Pottery & Art Gallery (6029 Estate Smith Bay), the creation of ceramic artist Peggy Siewert, has a lot of lizard-themed art as well as more avant-garde pieces.
Editor's Note: 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. Per person cost includes green and cart fees (check your cruise line for special excursions). Tee times range from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. for 18 holes (you can also play 9), and you can rent golf clubs at the pro shop. There's a snack bar on the premises. Tee-time reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance by calling 800-253-7103 or 340-777-6006.
Take a day trip to St. John.
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.
Best Beach 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 casualwear and bathing suits. Small admission charged.
Best Beach for the Dedicated Beach Bum: Gotta go to St. John.
Best Beach for Active Types: Sapphire Beach, a resort on the island's East End, has the most stunning view as it faces St. John and the British Virgin Islands. Virtually every conceivable type of watersports equipment is available for rent, from kayaks to jet skis to Sunfish sail boats. Coki Beach, adjacent to Coral World, is a good destination for snorkeling and scuba diving (equipment can be rented there).
Best Secluded Beach: Water Island's Honeymoon Beach is the quintessential secret hideaway, particularly on weekdays (locals flock to it on weekends). While the beach itself is lovely -- a half-mile stretch of sand that's lined with coconut palms -- what's important about Water Island is what's not here. There's no gift shop, rowdy bar, restaurant or Jet Ski rental operator. There may or may not be a bathroom (sometimes it's open, sometimes not).
A water shuttle leaves from Crown Bay Marina at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. and returns from Water Island at 2:15 and 4:30 p.m. It's a good idea to double-check those times when you arrive as they are subject to change. Most major lines also offer a Water Island shore excursion that involves an easy downhill bike ride into the secluded beach area and a picnic lunch. Check with your cruise line for availability. Tip: Pick up a picnic at the Gourmet Gallery in Crown Bay before hopping on the water shuttle.
Casual, In-Town: Our newest discovery is Amalia Cafe (Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.; 24 Palm Passage; 340-714-7373); its owners -- a native St. Thomian who's traveled the world and his Austrian wife -- serve Mediterranean fare amidst a lovely historic ambience. Try the bouillabaisse. Other choices: Cuzzin's Caribbean Restaurant (Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.; 7 Wimmelskafts Gade/Back Street; 340-777-4711) for regional fare ... Cafe Amici (Daily 10:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.; A.H. Riise Mall; 340-714-7704) serves Mediterranean cuisine with local influences; the grilled tuna sandwich and salad nicoise are highlights ... Gladys' Cafe (Monday – Saturday 7 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.; 5600 Royal Dane Mall; 340-774-6604) offers Caribbean and American dishes such as lobster-stuffed avocados... The rollicking Greenhouse Restaurant (Daily from 11 a.m.; Waterfront; 340-774-7998) for basic burgers and frozen drinks, including a daily happy hour 4:30 – 7 p.m.
Gourmet In-Town: Virgilio's (Monday - Saturday from 11:30 a.m.; Dronnigen's Gade) is a fabulous Italian restaurant with eccentric decor (a large collection of paintings of women, some quite abstract), stone and Pepto Bismol-pink painted walls. If the paprika ravioli is on the menu, order it. If you're jonesing for sushi, check out Beni Iguana's Sushi Bar and Restaurant (Sunday - Thursday 10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m., Friday - Saturday until 10 p.m.; Havensight Mall; 340-777-8744).
If You're Waiting for a Ferry at Red Hook: Check out Lotus Thai Restaurant, a chic, sleek Asian fusion place (Monday – Friday 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., Saturday 2 – 9:30 p.m., Sunday 4-8 p.m.; 295 Talbot Street; 519-633-9966). Molly Malone's Irish Yacht Pub (Daily 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.; American Yacht Harbor; 340-775-1270) a faux Irish pub, has a menu that veers toward the British staples of shepherd's pie and fish and chips along with traditional American sandwiches. Duffy's Love Shack (Daily 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; 6500 Red Hook Plaza; 340-779-2080) is famous for its huge tropical drinks (see above); food is served as well.
In Havensight: The Yacht Haven Marina, a new upscale shopping, dining and docking complex located just around the corner from ships docked at Havensight, offers the new W!kked (Daily from 11 a.m.; 9100 Port of Sale; 340-775-8953), one of St. Thomas' few outdoor eateries. Try the elegantly presented -- and delicious -- French fries. However, we found it still is finding its rhythm, service wise. Fat Turtle, (Daily from noon; Yacht Haven Grande; 340-714-3566) in the same complex, also has waterfront seating; it's the place for more casual fare.
Editor's Note: On weekends in St. Thomas, few fine dining restaurants are open for lunch (W!kked is one exception; the restaurant features a day-long brunch menu).
While St. Thomas is not a major port of embarkation a la San Juan, it does serve as a starting (and ending point) for smaller vessels during the winter Caribbean season, mostly luxury ships from Seabourn, SeaDream and Windstar, among others. Our picks for pre- and post-stay hotels:
Stay a night or two at the best place to watch the ships come in: the relatively new At Home in the Tropics, a charming four-room bed and breakfast. It's in a great location -- just above the hills rising from downtown Charlotte Amalie and in the city's most lovely refurbished historic district. The inn itself once served as a barracks for the Danish army. Owners Pam and Matt Eckstein have completely overhauled with a loving but careful touch; their Maine roots are visible via the simply furnished, totally comfortable guest rooms (all with private baths; shower only and cable TV). There's an indoor living room, a fabulous covered porch with cozy furnishings, and a lovely pool on site. The views are breathtaking and even better, the rates are reasonable. (1680 Dronningens Gade, Kings Quarter; 340-777-9857)
The hermetically sealed Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas has gotten a refurbishment and it promises the usual upscale comforts, on-site dining, kids' program, pools and private beach. One caveat: It's quite a distance from both the airport and the cruise pier for those flying in the day before and staying just one night. (6900 Great Bay; 340-775-3333)
Our favorite choice for best splurge hotel -- if you have at least two extra nights to enjoy it -- is the historic Caneel Bay on St. John. This sprawling resort, dating back to the 1950's, is all about relaxation (no televisions, no phones and until recently no air conditioning). The grounds are lavish (and even lush when it rains here), there are four restaurants, and five beaches. Even better, the hotel sends private ferries to transport passengers to and from the airport as well as to the heart of Charlotte Amalie (from there it's an easy taxi ride to your ship). This is also a great spot for families; the resort offers programs for kids. (St. John; 888-767-3966)
Try the Water Island Adventures bike tour. It's three excursions in one: First, you take a guided ferry tour through St. Thomas Harbor, past Frenchtown, to Water Island, the smallest of the Virgin Islands. Then you take a bus up to the highest point of Water Island where you bike your way down the winding scenic roads before arriving at stunning Honeymoon Beach for phase three of the excursion -- beach bumming.(340-714-2186 or 340-775-5770)
For the certified diver who wants to check out what St. Thomas has to offer, try Coki Point Beach, located on the east end of the island; a valid C-card must be presented in order to participate in the dive.
The St. John & Trunk Bay excursion is a perfect way to get in some great beginner snorkeling -- and experience the beautiful nearby island of St. John. You'll get the chance to snorkel in some spots around the world-famous Trunk Bay before stopping in St. John, the much less busy, more beautiful sister-island to St. Thomas.
Ecotours combine kayaking, hiking and snorkeling for tours of the Inner Mangrove Lagoon Sanctuary on Cas Cay; historic Hassel Island, part of the Virgin Islands National Park (which is near the cruise docks); or Caneel Bay in St. John.
For More Information
On the Web: www.usvi.net/usvi/stthomas/index.htm
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Thomas/St. John
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Exchange
--Updated by Dan Askin, Senior Editor; Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; and Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.
Main image appears courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown; thumbnails appear courtesy of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.