Most veteran cruisers consider St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands one of the best shopping ports in the region. If your gift list includes a bottle of fragrance for Aunt Minnie, a fifth of gin for Grandpa or a spectacular piece of jewelry for someone special, how serendipitous that you've sailed into St. Thomas!
Christopher Columbus sailed to the islands we now know as St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John in 1493. He dubbed the lovely and tranquil islands "Las Islas Virgenes." The islands had been home to various Amerindian tribes dating back to 1500 BC.
Like other popular real estate in the region, the islands changed hands frequently, and various European nations laid claim
to them. Pirates plundered the turquoise waters and Blackbeard, England's Edward Teach, is said to have made port here fairly often. The five-story tower named for him, Blackbeard's Tower, is now part of a hotel, but historians believe he never set foot in it.
In 1671, Denmark established an early outpost on St. Thomas, and in 1724 the Danes made the 32-square-mile island a free port. During World War I, worried that the islands could become a German base, the United States purchased them from Denmark for $25 million.
While nothing is free these days, St. Thomas is still a popular port of call: On some days, as many as 10 cruise ships sit at Havensight or Crown Bay Marina while passengers come ashore to do their thing. This island has not only superb shopping but also white sand beaches and sprawling green mountains, so there is something for everyone.
If you're not on one of the many ships' tours -- Carnival, for instance, offers 23 shore excursions in St Thomas, from shopping to history to "wild thing" -- think do-it-yourself. It's easy to do.
Budget (www.budgetstt.com, 340-776-5774) and Discount Car Rentals (http://www.discountcar.vi, 877-478-2833), as well as many local rental car outlets, are located on the island, and some offer free pickup. Many passengers hoof it through town, but taxis are readily available. Crown Bay Dock and Havensight are about a 15-minute walk from downtown Charlotte Amalie (pronounced Ah-MAHL-yah). Wear comfortable shoes.
Sample taxi rates: From Crown Bay Dock to Charlotte Amalie, $4 for one, $3.50 each for two or more passengers; from Havensight, $5 and $4; from Charlotte Amalie to Magen's Bay Beach, $8.50 and $6; to Mahogany Run Golf Course, $9 and $7.
Charlotte Amalie's Main Street is the Caribbean's busiest shopping venue. Liquor is one of the best buys; selection and prices are among the very best in the area. Fragrance and jewelry are also excellent values in St. Thomas. U. S. residents age 21 and older may bring back five fifths of liquor (AND a sixth if it is produced in the USVI; local rums are always a hit). U.S. residents can also bring home five cartons of cigarettes and 100 cigars from the USVI for a total of $1,200 worth of duty-free imports every 30 days. Family members can make a joint declaration.
Main Street is crowded with store after store, but take the time to sort out the shops and find what you are looking for. Many Main Street shops have sister shops in the Havensight Mall. For fragrance and liquor, jewelry and crystal, pearls and watches you can select from literally dozens of shops. Among the most popular are Cardow (www.cardow.com, 340-776-7440), Little Switzerland (www.littleswitzerland.com, 340-776-2010) and Diamonds International (www.diamondsinternational.net, 340-774-1516).
Many cruise passengers enjoy having lunch ashore. Popular restaurants that have survived many years on St. Thomas include The Green House (www.thegreenhouserestaurant.com, 340-774-6604) and Herve Restaurant and Wine Bar (www.herverestaurant.com, 340-777-9703, ext. 11).
Enjoy the undersea world with a trip in the Atlantis Submarine. Fees are $79 for adults and $39 for children (www.atlantisadventures.com, 340-776-5650). Or hike up to Paradise Point for a magnificent view of Charlotte Amalie and the Caribbean, then take the tramway back (www.paradisepointtramway.com, 340-774-9809). The tram is housed across from Havensight Mall and the dock. You might just want to take the day off and loaf at one of the prettiest crescent-shaped beaches you'll ever see, Magen's Bay, on St. Thomas' north shore at the end of Route 35. Magen's is always crowded, but the western end is more secluded. It's worth the $3 entry (25 cents per child under 12). The ride takes about 30-40 minutes halfway around the island. Refreshments are available and snorkeling and small boats are available on the beach. Tip: Go early! Another great sunning spot is Bluebeard's Beach -- the locals call it Limetree -- at the east end of Town on Bolongo Road. Refreshments and sports equipment are available.
Mountaintop (www.greathouse-mountaintop.com) offers views of St. John and the British Virgin Islands, a replicated mini-Caribbean village, a great array of souvenir items, and a reputation as the spot where banana daiquiris were invented more than three decades ago.
A Day in St. John
St. John, a short distance east of St. Thomas, is paradise. This island Eden offers unspoiled beaches, exciting water sports opportunities and a sense of serenity and tranquility combined with outstanding natural beauty. Consider taking a ferry for the three-mile ride from St. Thomas to the island. Once in St. John, head to any of several wonderful beaches. The Virgin Islands National Park (340-776-6201, ext. 238) has a dock at St John's Cruz Bay Harbor. The Park offers a variety of programs including a reef bay hike on Monday, Thursday and Friday. Take the 9 a.m. ferry from Charlotte Amalie or Red Hook and a taxi to Reef Bay trailhead for a three-mile downhill trail. Too ambitious? Enjoy a delightful beach, take a horseback ride at the Carolina corral (340-693-6778) or have a taxi drive you around the delightful island (866-693-7530, on island 340-693-7530). The Taxi Commission is at 340-774-3130.
From Red Hook, the ferry ride takes 15-20 minutes; check with Transportation Service (340-776-6282) or Varlack Ventures (340-886-6412). The fare is $3 one-way, children under 12 $1. From Charlotte Amalie it is a 45-minute ride, $7 one-way. The same numbers apply.
It's also the only course on the island, but the George and Tom Fazio-designed Mahogany Run (340-777-6006) rents shoes and clubs, and the views are amazing. Tee times are made 48 hours in advance: Phone, use the Internet or ask the ship to book. Nine-hole rates are available.
Recommended for Families
If the kids are with you, consider the Atlantis submarine or a day in St. John. Don't schlep the kids through stores -- breakables mixed with active youngsters are a volatile combination.
For More Information
For general information, go to www.usvitourism.vi. For water sports, check with www.powerboatrentalsvi.com; Delbert Hills Taxi & Tour Service, near the dock in St. John, (340-776-6637 or 340-693-8819); or Connections for all water sports (firstname.lastname@example.org, 340-776-6922).