Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
St. Thomas is the busiest cruise port of call in the world. Up to eight mega ships may visit in a single day. Don't expect an exotic island experience: one of the three U.S. Virgin Islands (with St. Croix and St. John), St. Thomas is as American as any place on the mainland, complete with McDonald's and HBO. The positive side of all this development is that there are more tours here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, and every year the excursions get better. Of course, shopping is the big draw in Charlotte Amalie.
St. Thomas's major burg is a hilly, overdeveloped shopping town. There are plenty of interesting historic sights, though, and much of the town is quite pretty-so while you're shopping, take the time to see at least a few. For a great view of the town and the harbor, begin at the Spanish-style Hotel 1829, on Government Hill. A few yards farther up the road to the east is the base of the 99 Steps, a staircase "street" built by the Danes in the 1700s.
Emancipation Garden. A bronze bust of a freed slave blowing a conch shell commemorates slavery's end, in 1848-the garden was built to mark emancipation's 150th anniversary, in 1998. The gazebo here is used for official ceremonies. Two other monuments show the island's Danish-American connection-a bust of Denmark's King Christian and a scaled-down model of the U.S. Liberty Bell. between Tolbod Gade and Ft. Christian, next to Vendor's Plaza, Charlotte Amalie.
Frederick Lutheran Church. This historic church has a massive mahogany altar, and its pews-each with its own door-were once rented to families of the congregation. Lutheranism is the state religion of Denmark, and when the territory was without a minister, the governor-who had his own elevated pew-filled in. 7 Norre Gade, across from Emancipation Garden and the Grand Hotel, Charlotte Amalie.
Government House. Built in 1867, this neoclassical white brick-and-wood structure houses the offices of the governor of the Virgin Islands. Inside, the staircases are of native mahogany, as are the plaques, hand-lettered in gold with the names of the governors appointed and, since 1970, elected. Government Hill, 21-22 Kongens Gade, across from the Emancipation Garden U.S. Post Office, Charlotte Amalie.
Legislature Building. Its pastoral-looking lime-green exterior conceals the vociferous political wrangling of the Virgin Islands Senate. Constructed originally by the Danish as a police barracks, the building was later used to billet U.S. Marines, and much later it housed a public school. Tip: You're welcome to sit in on sessions in the upstairs chambers. Waterfront Hwy. (a.k.a. Rte. 30), across from Ft. Christian, Charlotte Amalie.
Elsewhere on St. Thomas
Coral World Ocean Park. This interactive aquarium and water-sports center lets you experience a variety of sea life and other animals up close and personal. Coral World has an offshore underwater observatory, an 80,000-gallon coral reef exhibit, and 21 jewel aquariums displaying the Virgin Islands' coral reef habitats and unusual marine life. The park also has several outdoor pools where you can pet baby sharks, feed stingrays, touch starfish, and view endangered sea turtles. Coki Point north of Rte. 38, 6450 Estate Smith Bay, Estate Frydendal. Admission charged.
Drake's Seat. Sir Francis Drake was supposed to have kept watch over his fleet and looked for enemy ships from this vantage point. The panorama is especially breathtaking (and romantic) at dusk, and if you arrive late in the day, you can miss the hordes of day-trippers on taxi tours who stop here to take a picture. Rte. 40, Located 1/4 mile west of the intersection of Rte. 40 and 35, Estate Zufriedenheit.
St. Thomas Skyride. Fly skyward in a gondola to Paradise Point, an overlook with breathtaking views of Charlotte Amalie and the harbor. You'll find several shops, a bar, a restaurant, a wedding gazebo, and a Ferris wheel. A ¼-mile (½-km) hiking trail leads to spectacular views of St. Croix. Wear sturdy shoes, as the trail is steep and rocky. You can also skip the $21 gondola ride and taxi to the top for $4 per person from the Havensight Dock. Rte. 30, across from Havensight Mall, Havensight. Admission charged.
The prime shopping area in Charlotte Amalie is between Post Office and Market squares; it consists of two parallel streets that run east-west (Waterfront Highway and Main Street) and the alleyways that connect them. Particularly attractive are the historic A. H. Riise Alley, Royal Dane Mall, Palm Passage, and pastel-painted International Plaza.
Vendors Plaza. Here merchants sell everything from T-shirts to African attire to leather goods. Look for local art among the ever-changing selections at this busy market. There are even a group of hair-braiders here too. Waterfront, west of Ft. Christian, Charlotte Amalie.
Havensight Mall, next to the cruise-ship dock, may not be as charming as downtown Charlotte Amalie, but it does have more than 60 shops. It also has an excellent bookstore, a bank, a pharmacy, a gourmet grocery, and smaller branches of many downtown stores. The shops at Port of $ale, adjoining Havensight Mall (its buildings are pink instead of brown), sell discount goods. Next door to Port of $ale is the Yacht Haven Grande complex, with many upscale shops. At the Crown Bay cruise-ship pier, the Crown Bay Center, off the Harwood Highway in Sub Base about ½ mile (¾ km), has quite a few shops.
East of Charlotte Amalie on Route 38, Tillett Gardens is an oasis of artistic endeavor across from the Tutu Park Shopping Mall. The late Jim and Rhoda Tillett converted this Danish farm into an artists' retreat in 1959. Today you can watch artisans produce silk-screen fabrics, candles, pottery, and other handicrafts.
Diving. There are several interesting reefs within easy reach of Charlotte Amalie. Popular dive sites also include the wrecks of the Cartanser, Sr, and the General Rogers.
Fishing. Fishing here is synonymous with blue marlin angling. If you're not into marlin fishing, try hooking sailfish in the winter, dolphinfish come spring, and wahoo in the fall. To really find the trip that will best suit you, walk down the docks at either American Yacht Harbor or Sapphire Beach Marina in the late afternoon and chat with the captains and crews.
Golf. The Mahogany Run Golf Course attracts golfers for its spectacular view of the British Virgin Islands and the challenging three-hole Devil's Triangle. At this Tom and George Fazio-designed, par-70, 18-hole course, there's a fully stocked pro shop, snack bar, and open-air clubhouse. Greens fees and half-cart fees for 18 holes are $150. The course is open daily, and there are frequently informal weekend tournaments. It's the only course on St. Thomas. Rte. 42, Estate Lovenlund.
Coki Beach. Funky beach huts selling local foods such as pâtés (fried turnovers with a spicy ground-beef filling), quaint vendor kiosks, and a brigade of hair braiders and taxi men make this beach overlooking picturesque Thatch Cay feel like an amusement park. Major renovations in late 2011 added a new bathhouse and boardwalk. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; showers; restrooms; watersports. Best for: partiers; snorkeling. Rte. 388, next to Coral World Ocean Park, Estate Smith Bay.
Magens Bay. Deeded to the island as a public park, this heart-shape stretch of white sand is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The bottom of the bay is flat and sandy, so this is a place for sunning and swimming rather than snorkeling. On weekends and holidays the sounds of music from groups partying under the sheds fill the air. If you arrive between 8 am and 5 pm, you pay an entrance fee of $4 per person, $2 per vehicle; it's free for children under 12. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (fee); showers; restrooms; water sports. Best for: partiers; swimming; walking. Magens Bay, Rte. 35, at end of road on north side of island.
Sapphire Beach. A steady breeze makes this beach a boardsailor's paradise. The swimming is great, as is the snorkeling, especially at the reef near Pettyklip Point. Beach volleyball is big on the weekends. Sapphire Beach Resort and Marina has a snack shop, bar, and water-sports rentals. Amenities: food and drink; parking; restrooms; water sports. Best for: snorkeling; swimming; windsurfing. Rte. 38, 1/2 mile north of Red Hook, Sapphire Bay.