The second-largest of approximately 50 islands that are part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is the busiest cruise-ship harbor in the West Indies. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, is the shopping center of the Caribbean. However, the island's real attraction is its natural beauty.
Columbus discovered what are now the Virgin Islands on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Legend has it that he named them in honor of the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula who were martyred in the early days of the Christian Church.
History of St. ThomasEver since Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands, they have proved to be an irresistible lure for more foreign powers than any other nation. The flags of Spain, France, England, Holland, Denmark and the United States have flown over these islands. The first successful colonization attempt commenced officially in 1666, when the Danes took possession of St. Thomas.
Cultivating the land for farming was the first order of business for these hardy settlers, and plantations were immediately parceled out for agricultural use. Development of the harbor area was not on their list of priorities, and for a while Fort Christian was the only construction near the harbor.
But by 1674, it was apparent that St. Thomas' future lay in her port, and the then-governor issued licenses for the building of four houses-cum-taverns along the waterfront to the west of the Fort. These taverns were so popular with the early settlers and the rough-and-tumble seamen who called at St. Thomas that the tiny settlement became known as Tap Hus, or Beer Hall, a name that was to remain in use until 1691, when the town was renamed Charlotte Amalie (Ah-MAHL-yah) in honor of the wife of King Christian V.
Pirates & SlavesBy the time Charlotte Amalie became known as such, several incidents had transpired that set the stage for much of St. Thomas' later history. In 1685, the Danes, unable by themselves to take full advantage of the lucrative slave trade, signed a treaty with the Duchy of Brandenburg to allow the Brandenburg American Company to establish a slave trading post on the island. At about the same time, the brothers Nicolai and Adolph Esmit, early governors, gave their tacit approval to the use of St. Thomas as a pirate refuge and stronghold, knowing that the local merchants would benefit from the open sale or trade of pirate booty on the city streets.
During those same years that piracy influenced life on St. Thomas, the ever-growing slave trade brought gold into the island's coffers. But while piracy ceased to be a factor in the island's economy in the early 19th century, the slave trade continued until 1848.
The First Golden AgeFrom 1700 to 1750, when piracy was on the wane, legitimate trade was on the upswing and prosperous merchants replaced buccaneers on Dronnigens Gade (Main Street) in Charlotte Amalie.
Then in 1764, King Frederick V declared St. Thomas a free port. This action, combined with the Danes' nonaggressive, neutral stance - an important factor during the almost-constant European wars of the era - combined to make Charlotte Amalie one of the world's busiest ports and the trading center of the West Indies by 1800.
A New BeginningThe next few years, however, saw the island's fortunes decline because of a combination of natural and political troubles. Yet through it all, trade somehow continued and even flourished until 1848, when Governor-General Peter von Scholten granted freedom to the island's slaves. As might have been foreseen in a plantation/slave society, this caused an immediate decline in the island's economy. Around the same time, as humanity took another giant step forward with the switch from sail power to steam, the Virgin Islands, once so necessary as stopover points for sailing vessels, became a backwater.
Thus, the late 1800s and early 1900s were quiet and uneventful years for Charlotte Amalie and St. Thomas. Then in 1917, during World War I, the United States bought the Virgin Islands for a total of $25 million in gold. The reason? America was fearful that Denmark would fall to the Germans in the war, thus making the islands a German base in the Caribbean.
Initially, a governor was appointed by the President of the United States in consultation with the Senate of the Virgin Islands. Since 1970, a governor has been elected by the people of the Virgin Islands every four years. In addition, a delegate is sent to the U.S. House of Representatives; however, this official holds no vote. Nor do Virgin Islanders vote in national elections, though they are U.S. citizens. They do pay U.S. taxes, but all taxes paid in the U.S.V.I. remain there. Prosperity returned to the U.S.V.I. after World War II, primarily because of the islands' free-port status and the general increase in air and sea travel. In the late 1950s, when Cuba was closed as a port to American travelers, St. Thomas moved into a new position of importance as a preeminent tourist mecca.
TransportationSeeing all that St. Thomas has to offer is quite easy. You can rent transportation and enjoy the sights at your own pace, or you can use the services of a veritable army of tour professionals who will take you where you want to go quickly and relatively inexpensively.
Car RentalsSeveral agencies specialize in vehicle rentals. Rates vary with the season and the type of vehicle, but they are usually quite reasonable. Because the island's terrain is hilly, cars with automatic transmission are preferable, but if you're the adventurous type, by all means go for one with manual transmission.
Driving is the best way to see this little jewel of an island. Major roads are well-marked and the agencies will provide a free scenic route map. When you are ready to shop, there is a large municipal parking lot right in town.
A U.S. driver's license is valid here for up to 30 days. If you're from another country, a visitor's permit can be arranged at the rental agency's counter or at the Department of Public Safety in town.
If you decide to rent a car, a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a van, there are several important safety factors that you should keep in mind while you are touring St. Thomas.
Driving on unfamiliar roads through scenic areas can be exhilarating, but it is also potentially hazardous. You don't want to miss any of the panoramic views, yet at the same time, you want to assure yourself and your passengers of an incident-free journey. One suggestion: designate a passenger as the official navigator, so the driver only has to pay attention to the road itself. Having a good map on hand is of course a necessity; you can get one from the rental agent or at one of the hotels' front desk. Another hint: keep your eyes open for clear areas where you can park your vehicle. It's a lot safer to pull over to catch the view than to slow down and take your eyes off the road.
The biggest difficulty for American drivers on St. Thomas is getting used to driving on the left side of the road in an American or Japanese car, which has the steering wheel on the left side. With this arrangement, it's more difficult to gauge your vehicle's distance from the lane to your right; by paying careful attention, however, you'll quickly pick up the ability to do so.
Most rental agents will remind you to pass with care. In the States, it's easy to nudge your car out of its lane and look around the car in front of you. But driving an American or Japanese car in the left lane, you can't do that without getting into the oncoming lane. There is no trick to solve this problem; so it makes sense to be very cautious. The safest rule is don't be in a hurry. The speed limit in town is 20 mph; outside of Charlotte Amalie it is 35 mph.
Remember to wear your seat belt at all times; as in the rest of the United States, it's the law.
Commuter AirlinesThe fastest way to island-hop is via commuter air service. Prop planes take off from the airport. Among the local airlines that offer short-distance flights are Air St. Thomas (809-776-2722), Four Star Aviation (809-777-9900) and Bohlke International Airways (809-777-9177).
FerriesSeveral ferry lines offer service from St. Thomas to St. John, St. Croix and the British Virgin Islands. Remember to bring your passport or some proof of citizenship if you're planning to visit the British Virgin Islands.
TaxisThey're everywhere or seem to be. Drivers must post the rate sheets in their vehicles; round-trip fares are calculated at double the one-way fare, plus waiting charges. Radio calls are charged at one-third plus the basic fare.
Taxi Rates in St. Thomas
SightseeingAt every turn in this centuries-old city, you'll come face to face with the past. There are several historic sites here, including the commanding brick-red walls of Fort Christian, the simple but elegant Government House, the second-oldest Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and, at the top of the famed 99 Steps, a stone watchtower known as Blackbeard's Castle.
There's a lot more than idyllic tropical scenery on St. Thomas. Sure, this mountainous island is one of the most beautiful stretches of land in the Caribbean, but it's also steeped in exotic history, making it a fascinating place in which to sightsee. And because it's small, it can easily be explored in a day.
A Tour Of Charlotte AmalieWith its romantic castles and fortresses, Charlotte Amalie is one of the prettiest capital cities in the Caribbean region. Dazzling white and brilliant pastel buildings line its crowded Main Street. The waterfront is dramatically framed by three sloping hills on one side and the spectacular view of the harbor on the other. The harbor, a haven for ships since the 1600s, is flanked by warehouses where the fabled treasure of marauding pirates was furtively stashed centuries ago. Today they are the homes of the equally renowned duty-free shops.
To learn the story of the city, the island and its people, start at the Visitors' Bureau, which is located down the street from the main post office, close to the waterfront. Here you can get maps, brochures and helpful information. Do not forget to pick up a copy of "What to Do in St. Thomas."
Grand Hotel: Built in 1841, the Grand Hotel is an excellent example of 19th-century architecture. It has recently undergone a major renovation that includes restoration of many original features and expansion of the shopping area.
Fort Christian: This Danish-built edifice is immediately recognizable because of its imposing size and brick-red color. It's the oldest building still in use on St. Thomas. The fort, which dates back to the 17th century, has served as a jail, a courthouse, a police station, a church, a rectory and the governor's residence. Today it houses the Virgin Islands Museum, which includes a collection of Amerindian relics and some interesting displays depicting life in the former Dutch colony. The museum has recently undergone a $900,000 renovation, including the addition of several new exhibits.
Emancipation Garden: Located across from Fort Christian is a small plot that commemorates the 1848 proclamation that freed the slaves.
Legislature Building: The island's legislature is housed in this lime-green structure. The building's distinctive color and bright white shutters are typical of the graceful island architecture of a century ago. It was originally erected as a barracks for Danish troops; later, it served as housing for U.S. Marines and as a public school. One of the high points in the old building's history was its use in 1917 as the site of ceremonies transferring ownership of the Danish Virgin Islands to the United States.
Frederick Lutheran Church: On Norre Gade, you'll find the early-19th-century Frederick Lutheran Church. It occupies the site of two previous churches built in 1750 and 1789. Of special interest are the 19th-century plaques inscribed in memory of several Danish colonists.
Hotel 1829: This wonderful example of island architecture, constructed in the year that is now part of its name, was built as a town house for a French sea captain named Lavalette, whose initials can still be seen in the wrought-iron grillwork on the balcony above the main entrance. The Hotel 1829 restaurant is world-renowned.
99 Steps: The famed 99 Steps (actually there are 103) lead to the summit of Government Hill. This stairway and others on St. Thomas were built in the mid-1700s as a result of impractical planning by Danish engineers who had never set foot on the island. They decreed that the city be laid out in a neat, gridlike pattern, which meant building steps into nearly every hillside. The bricks used to construct the steps were originally brought from Denmark as ballast placed deep in the holds of sailing ships.
Blackbeard's Castle: Near the top of the 99 Steps lie the remnants of Fort Skytsborg, the 17th-century fort that today is known as Blackbeard's Castle, a hotel and gourmet restaurant. Recently declared a National Historic Landmark by the federal government, it was originally constructed by the Danish colonial government when the Virgin Islands were still under their rule. The structure was named after the pirate Edward Teach, known as the infamous Blackbeard, who allegedly frequented the island and used the tower as a lookout hundreds of years ago. Don't confuse this structure with Bluebeard's Castle on the eastern edge of town.
Government House: The offices of the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands was built in 1867 as a meeting place for the Danish Colonial Council. The neoclassical brick-and-wood structure commands a magnificent view of the town and harbor below. The building, which is stark white with a typical red roof, is a favorite subject for photographers. The structure was renovated in 1994.
Synagogue of Berecha V'Shalom V'Gemilath Chasidim: The synagogue's Hebrew name translates to "Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds." This is one of the most historically interesting and best-preserved buildings on St. Thomas. The Western Hemisphere's second-oldest synagogue (the oldest is on Curacao), this temple was constructed in 1833 by Sephardic Jews.
The original structure was built in 1796. Since some of the earliest Danish settlers were Jewish, the temple played an important role in the spiritual life of the colony. Fire destroyed the first synagogue in 1804, and the second was dismantled to make room for a larger third, which also burned. In keeping with the Sephardic tradition, the floor of the current structure is covered with sand, symbolizing the ancient flight of the Jewish people out of Egypt and across the desert.
Through June 1996, the Caribbean's oldest Jewish community is marking its 200-year history with a Bicentennial Celebration.
Market Square: African slaves were once sold to the highest bidder on Market Square. The auction blocks have been roofed, and now the square serves as an open-air market for produce. Saturdays are the busiest days, but just about any day has its share of local color and excitement. After your sightseeing tour, you can work your way back down to the many stores on Main Street or grab a bus to Red Hook Dock for the ferry ride to St. John. You might also consider hiring a cab or renting a car to tour the island.
Exploring the IslandShould you decide to take a trip around the island of St. Thomas, you will come across some of the loveliest beaches in the world. But there's much more to this tropical island than stretches of white sand, palm trees and warm breezes.
Bluebeard's Castle: On the grounds of Bluebeard's Castle Hotel, located on a hilltop east of downtown, stands a stone tower. According to legend, it was built by Bluebeard for his one true love, Mercedita. When the pirate discovered the fair lady had been unfaithful, the story goes, he killed her and sailed away, never to return. In the earliest days of the Danish settlement on St. Thomas, the castle was the center of military and government island life. In fact, the stone fortress was built as a watchtower to supplement the defenses of Fort Christian. It passed to private ownership in the early 1800s.
West Indian Company Dock: Just east of town is the West Indian Company Dock, where you can enjoy a view of the harbor and see the cruise ships up close. This is also the location of the Havensight Mall shopping area.
Paradise Point: This vantage point on Flag Hill just outside town offers stupendous views of Charlotte Amalie and the blue waters beyond. Considered one of the best spots to watch sunsets, Paradise Point has a bar and restaurant where you can enjoy drinks and dinner. Gift shops are also part of the complex.
The Paradise Point Tramway, located opposite the cruise-ship dock, offers pleasant tram rides to this scenic overlook.
Tillett Gardens: Located in Anna's Retreat, Tillett Gardens is a thriving center for local artists and performers. Once an old Danish farm, the grounds were transformed by Jim Tillett, an English silkscreen artist who arrived on the island in 1959, into what he calls "a peaceful sanctuary of creativity and wonderment." Two programs Arts Alive, a festival of visual arts, and Classics in the Gardens, a concert series are held at Tillett Gardens.
Drake's Seat: Overlooking more than 100 Virgin Islands sprawled out in a turquoise sea where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea is Drake's Seat. According to legend, British privateer Sir Francis Drake watched the ships passing through what is now called Drake's Passage from this point. Once, he even observed the Spanish Armada sail past; Drake's own fleet was secure in Magens Bay.
Mountain Top: The signs pointing the way to Mountain Top will lead you to the peak of St. Peter Mountain, where you'll find more sensational panoramas. Fifteen-hundred feet above sea level, MountainTop is a popular rest stop and shopping area and claims to be the original home of the banana daiquiri.
Fairchild Park: Below Mountain Top sits the beautiful Fairchild Park, a gift to the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands from philanthropist Arthur Fairchild. The park is home to some of the finest tropical foliage on the island.
Estate St. Peter Greathouse & Botanical Gardens: Nestled high in the volcanic peaks of St. Thomas is the lavish Estate St. Peter Greathouse & Botanical Gardens. Visitors can follow a self-guided tour through the contemporary estate and its magnificently landscaped grounds and view the local artwork on display. An observation deck, 1,000 feet above sea level, offers panoramic views of more than 20 Virgin Islands and provides picturesque photo opportunities. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The West End: The road to the western part of the island takes you past the airport and the University of the Virgin Islands to Brewer's Bay an ivory-sand beach popular with the locals. You'll also pass the Reichhold Center for the Arts, where a variety of entertainment events are regularly scheduled.
BeachesNot far from the bustle of downtown Charlotte Amalie are some of the most splendid beaches in the West Indies. From the soft, white sands of lively Magens Bay to the more secluded spots along the western shores, St. Thomas has a beach to suit every taste.
To help you decide where to go to enjoy the tropical bliss of St. Thomas' shores, whether you wish to snorkel, scuba dive, windsurf or just lounge in the sun, here is some information on the island's best beaches.
Bluebeard's BeachKnown for its excellent windsurfing, Bluebeard's is quiet and uncrowded. Sailboarders and snorkelers will find plenty to do here, although equipment must be rented elsewhere. The beach is shaded by coconut palms and affords views of St. John and sailboats making their way between the islands. Location: At the end of Bluebeard's Road (Route 322), which branches off Route 30 near Red Hook.
Coki BeachWith Thatch Key just across the Leeward Passage, Coki Beach offers some of the prettiest views on the island. Scuba and snorkeling are excellent in the calm, clear water here, and gear is available for rent. Other amenities include a bathhouse and rest rooms, as well as a nearby stand where you can pick up lunch. Location: On the northeast side of the island.
Hull BayThis is a quiet beach on the northern shore. The bay serves as an anchorage for local fishermen, and surfers enjoy the rougher waters along the bay's western tip. Along the shaded beach, however, the water is usually placid and pleasant. There is a nearby bar and restaurant where you can relax and refresh yourself. Local boat owners will take you on a tour of the bay featuring a commanding view of Hans Lollick Island and a ride into Magens Bay from Tropaco Point for just a few dollars. Location: On the north shore, just west of Magens Bay.
Limetree BeachThis picture-perfect beach runs along a natural cove. It is also a popular spot for iguana watching. Location: East of downtown, next to Morningstar Beach.
Magens BayDeeded to the island as a public park, this beach has been named one of the world's 10 most beautiful on many lists. Covered picnic tables, showers, dressing rooms, a boutique, a snack bar and snorkeling and small sailboat rentals are available. Admission is $1 per car, $1 per adult and $0.25 per child under 12. Location: At the end of tree-shaded Route 35 on St. Thomas' north shore.
Morningstar BeachMorningstar is not only one of the most attractive beaches in the Virgin Islands, it is also truly unique, providing everything you need for a comfortable, fun day. Hire a lounge chair and umbrella for the day and sit back with a cool drink from one of the two full-service bars. When the spirit moves you, rent some snorkeling gear and explore the reefs at either end of the beach. For a little more action, you can sharpen your skills on a Sunfish or learn to windsurf from a certified Mistral windsurfing instructor. Sailboard rentals are available. The beach also offers a vantage point from which to watch sailboats and cruise ships glide past the eastern point of St. Thomas Harbor. Location: The Frenchman's Reef Hotel.
Sapphire BeachThis glorious beach offers a stunning view of St. John and the British Virgin Islands. It is a good spot for windsurfing, and the reef areas just off the beach are great for snorkeling. Amenities include a marina, restaurants and a beachside dive shop that rents equipment. Location: On the east end of the island.
SportsSt. Thomas is a water-sports enthusiast's dream: the weather is usually flawless, the beaches are awe-inspiring and the water is warm and gentle. Boating, sailing, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving are all options. Boating is enjoyed for its own sake and as means for fishing and diving. From windsurfing to outboarding to catamaraning to yachting, the pleasures and challenges are many for the seasoned skipper as well as the novice seafarer.
Naturally, there's more to St. Thomas than aquatic adventures. If you're a landlubber, your options include a round of golf on one of the most demanding and beautiful courses in the world, Mahogany Run, and a set of tennis on any of a number of championship-quality courts.
BoatingThe U.S. Virgin Islands boasts the largest commercial charter fleet in the Caribbean, with both power and sailing vessels available for either crewed or bareboat charters. Visitors who want to explore the islands at their own pace can rent a private powerboat and design their own itinerary, visiting the islands of their choice to snorkel, picnic or sightsee. The range of scheduled trips by boat includes day sails to St. John, high-speed ferry rides to the British Virgins, sundown cruises and more. A favorite day sail is the full- or half-day excursion around the islands, with stops at beaches where you can lunch, snorkel, sunbathe and swim.
FishingBecause the islands are perched on the edge of the Puerto Rico Trench, a six-mile drop-off that's the deepest hole in the Atlantic Ocean, some of the most challenging sport fish in the world are found here, including white marlin, wahoo, Allison tuna, dolphin and kingfish. There are several operators at American Yacht Harbor in Red Hook who offer half-day deep-sea fishing expeditions and provide bait, tackle, ice and beer.
ParasailingThis high-flying sport is a great way to view the Caribbean. You can soar to heights of 500 feet above blue waters and experience the thrill of being suspended in midair. Parasailing is available at most waterfront hotels.
Windsurfing & SurfingWindsurfing gear is available at the major hotels, as well as at some of the public beaches. Brewer's Bay, Limetree Beach, Morningstar Beach, Sapphire Beach and Vessup Beach are some of the most popular spots for this sport. Surfers should head straight to Hull Bay for the best waves off St. Thomas.
TennisGuest fees at most hotel courts are quite reasonable, and some hotels offer lessons as well. Check at the pro shops for rates. St. Thomas also has two free public courts at the Sub Base. These courts are available exclusively on a first-come, first-served basis.
Diving and Snorkeling in St.Thomas & St. JohnHeralded by Skin Diver Magazine as one of "the most beautiful areas in the world," the reefs around St. Thomas and St. John offer endlessly fascinating underwater exploration for both expert divers and beginners. The crystal-clear waters surrounding the island teem with marine life and vividly colored tropical fish glide through canyons of spectacular coral and sponges, easily accessible to both snorkelers and scuba divers. Equipment is readily available throughout the island, as are classes, sail trips and water tours to all the dive sites around St. Thomas.
St. JohnTrunk Bay, part of the Virgin Islands National Park, is a great site for beginners. Its 225-yard, self-guided snorkeling trail is complete with underwater signs that describe the surrounding marine life. More advanced divers can head two miles out, where fantastic coral reefs bursting with sea creatures of all kinds await you.
At Carval Rock, schools of mackerel, tarpon and amberjack are common, and there are lovely coral formations in waters ranging from 20 to 70 feet. Be careful of currents on the north side: they can be quite strong during the tide change.
You can check out brightly colored angelfish, unusual puffer fish and even an occasional reef shark at Congo Bay. Depths range from 20 to 70 feet, making this a good spot for divers of varying abilities.
Off the coast of nearby Salt Island is the wreck of the Rhone, a Royal Mail packet ship that sank in 1867. Located in waters ranging in depth from 25 to 85 feet, it's now home to a dazzling array of beautiful fish.
St. ThomasAt Cow and Calf Rocks, you can explore caves, archways and cliff overhangs inhabited by horse-eye jacks, nurse sharks and glassy sweepers. The Pinnacle, also known as the French Cap, gets its name from the two imposing pillars that rise above a seamount at 45 feet; here you can see corals, eagle rays and a variety of reef fish.
Magens Bay, the largest along St. Thomas' northern coast, offers the convenience of nearby parking, lifeguards, equipment rental, changing rooms, restaurants and bars, along with underwater excitement accessible from the beach.
Thatch Cay, just north of St. Thomas, has beautiful rock formations and tunnels to explore beginning at 30 feet, as well as soft coral, intriguing sea turtles and a host of other wondrous creatures.
Coki Beach is one the most popular dive sights on St. Thomas as it offers something for everyone. This white-sand beach features a dive shop and, just offshore, lots of friendly fish that will eat from your hand.
Reef PreservationTo preserve the beauty of these underwater environs, there are a few things you need to know when diving or snorkeling. Be aware of your surroundings and take care not to touch anything, as there are many marine organisms that can inflict painful stings or injuries if provoked. Never stand on coral; if you are a beginner, try to swim to a sandy spot, to the side of the formation, where you can put your feet down if you must.
The removal of marine life, including coral, is strictly prohibited. Tempting as it might be, don't break off live coral - not even a little piece! - as a souvenir. The coral you take will die, lose its color, and give off a stench that's not at all pleasant, and the damage to the reef is immeasurable. If you take only the memory of its beauty with you, you and others can return again and again to enjoy it.
ShoppingDuty-free shops abound in this Caribbean port. One of the biggest savings is on liquor. Remember that U.S. residents are allowed a $1,200 duty-free allowance versus $400 in most other ports; shoppers can return to the U.S. with five liters of liquor if not more than one liter has been acquired outside a U.S. insular possession (which includes St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) and not more than four liters have been produced outside an insular possession. You can also take back 100 cigars and 5 cartons of cigarettes, duty-free. And you'll find merchandise including watches, jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, china, crystal, linens and electronics for a fraction of the Stateside price.
Most of the stores are located along Main Street and the Waterfront or in the alleys, malls and passageways that connect these streets. The majority are open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and, when cruise ships are in port, until noon on Sundays. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.
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