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.
In September 2017, the Virgin Islands -- along with many other islands in the Caribbean -- were rocked by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. While St. Thomas worked to quickly recovered its most popular tourist destinations, some have sadly closed their doors indefinitely -- including the SkyRide to Paradise Point. Beloved restaurants like Cuzzin's shut down. However, new restaurants and attractions have popped up in their place, solidifying the island's commitment to welcome visitors.
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 tenth trip, you're bound to find something fun to do, even if that just means discovering a new beach.
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.
Duty-free shopping in Charlotte Amalie is an easily walkable 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 -- 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.
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.) If you're interested in serious arts and crafts shopping, rent a car or hire a driver for the day -- or, consider visiting St. John, known for its art collectives.
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.
Rum cakes and rum balls made with Cruzan rum (produced on neighboring St. Croix) are popular edible treats that can be found in many souvenir shops.