With its lush green hills, quintessential white sand beaches, bustling commercial center, and spectacular dining, St. Thomas packs a lot of paradise into 28 square miles. Which is why it is the busiest of the three United States Virgin Islands, and one of the most popular cruise ports in the Caribbean.
One of four islands that compose the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas was a Danish colony until the United States bought it in 1917. Today it's home to only 51,000 full-time residents, but sees almost a million visitors every year. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy, and many residents work in the industry, or at businesses that depend on it.
Golf and watersports such as sailing and scuba diving are some of the main draws of the island, and many independent operators (or cruise ship tour directors) can organize excursions for those who want a more active vacation. But there are also plenty of beaches to laze on, shopping - both duty free and local handicrafts - a vibrant international dining scene, and nightlife that's centered around Frenchtown.
The nerve center of the island is the picturesque but congested capital, Charlotte Amalie, with its top-notch duty-free shopping, boutique hotels and inns, and historical landmarks dating back to 1671. Radiating out in every direction from the capital are quieter areas and pockets of isolation for those who don't care for the buzz of the city. Luckily, no place in St. Thomas is more than an hour from the center by rental car, taxi, or bus, which makes it relatively easy to explore in a short amount of time.
In the remote but chic East End is a collection of elegant resorts, quaint towns and unspoiled beaches, such as Sapphire Beach, the enclave of Red Hook, and Fungi's bar. The ever-popular South Coast has gold-plated resorts and the rollicking nightlife of Frenchtown. And the charming North coast boasts the renowned Magens Bay Beach and the highly-rated Mahogany Run golf course. While traveling around the island, along the winding mountain roads, you'll be treated to incredible views at almost every turn. Drake's Seat, where Sir Francis Drake reportedly checked on his fleet, and the recently re-opened Mountain Top are especially popular viewpoints.
Non-cruise visitors usually arrive at Cyril E. King Airport, near the western end of the island. Cruise ship passengers arrive at the Havensight cruise ship dock, but a few ships also tie up in Crown Bay or anchor out in Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Since St. Thomas is known as one of the top sailing destinations in the world, many visitors also come in on their own boats, while others arrive via ferries from other islands.
There is a wide variety of accommodation on St.Thomas, which tends to be divided between the historic hotels, cozy inns and quaint guest houses tucked into Charlotte Amalie's hills and back streets, and the grand resorts and condominium complexes that line the beaches on the island's eastern end and southern coast. Vacation villas also pepper many exclusive residential neighborhoods.
While Charlotte Amalie is the main shopping area, several other shopping centers with tourist-oriented stores are now spread out all across the island. Havensight Mall has dozens of shops, including some branches of Charlotte Amalie stores.Other popular shopping spots include the American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook, plus Lockhart Gardens and the Tutu Park Mall near Charlotte Amalie. Most hotels also have a few shops for picking up resort wear and souvenirs.
Shopping in all the United States Virgin Islands is duty free, but it pays to check prices before you leave home to make sure you cannot buy items cheaper from your local discount store. Merchants tout deals on jewelry, liquor, electronic equipment, camera, linens, and more. United States residents may bring in USD $1,200 worth of goods. All items made in the Virgin Islands, including art, are exempt from the total.
If you decide to explore by rental car, bear in mind that street addresses in St. Thomas are a bit of a loose concept. Maps identify major roads by route numbers, but residents are not always aware of them. Furthermore, roads may change names several times along a numbered route, and some streets in Charlotte Amalie with Danish names are often called by their English names. So be prepared to ask for help with a smile, and to be directed to your destination using local landmarks.
Although it's a beautiful and hugely popular island paradise, one of the only drawbacks of the island is that it's not necessarily the friendliest or safest place in the Caribbean. Locals often seem to have little patience with the hordes of tourists, but a good attitude and a cheerful "good morning" or "good afternoon" will get you far. Precautions need to be taken against theft: cars and rooms should stay locked and valuables should be kept out of sight. It's not a great idea to walk around alone at night, especially on Back Street in Charlotte Amalie. Visitors may want to take taxis to and from restaurants in the evenings.
St. Thomas can also be over-developed and crowded at times (especially when a cruise ship is in port). But there's plenty of space to spread out beyond the capital in order to find a little piece of classic island paradise.
Route 42 (Mahogany Run Road)
(Near the Mahogany Run Golf Course)