St. Thomas was the very first Caribbean island I ever visited and that was over fifty years ago. Over the next couple of years I had reason to go back often and even today I get back to St. Thomas every couple of years. I also frequently return to those times on St. Thomas in my daydreams.
Back in those days a fifth of Cruzan or Brugal rum sold for 85¢ and it seemed like duty free was really almost free. The waterfront was packed with small island freighters advertising for cargo to places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Barts, Montserrat and other exotic islands. The beach at Megan’s Bay was so beautiful and often almost empty and it seemed to cast a spell over locals and tourists alike. Even so my favorite spot was a sandy cove east of Charlotte Amalie around a point of land. The beach was Morning Star with a great patio bar, changing rooms with lockers and a half dozen rooms right on the sand. The reef itself was a moderate swim from the shore and I spent hours floating over its coral heads – it was my first encounter with snorkeling a coral reef and I have been enchanted by them ever since.
Back in the sixties Charlotte Amalie was a vibrant town with a good nightlife and included a great club called Lion In The Sun. There were a number of talented musicians that played there including The Mamas and Papas before they became famous. On the waterfront was a cafe bar called The Green House where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker titled In A Bar In Charlotte Amalie and it was a popular spot to sit and have a drink or two and watch people and boat traffic glide by. For a special evening we would end up at The Caribbean Hilton sitting high above town. I remember sitting out on the pool deck with a drink in hand and looking at the million lights of St. Thomas defining the shape of the island below. Off in the distance the few lights of St. John and the British Virgin Islands seemed to blend in the stars lighting up the night sky. Way off in the distance was the glow from the lights of Puerto Rico.
Much has changed since those days but a lot remains the same. Megans Bay is still one of the world’s best beaches. The Green House is still there but maybe a bit more refined. A massive complex has taken over Morning Star called Frenchman’s Reef Resort but the original beach and reef are still there. Blackbeard’s Castle Resort has become the new destination with its nearness to town with a cablecar riding up the hill from Havensight. No longer do island boats pick up freight on the waterfront and the duty free liquor and shopping aren’t exactly a steal anymore but they are still worthwhile. There is still much to recommend this island.
St. Croix is actually the largest Virgin island but it’s St. Thomas that attracts the crowds to the beach resorts, shopping and nightlife. In fact it is the central port for most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. The cruise ships visit and tie up at either Crown Bay east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Crown Bay, which used to be referred to as the Sub Base area, will require a taxi or one of the tourist buses unique to St. Thomas (currently $4 per person each way from either dock). There is a great walking trail along the water from the docks near Havensight, which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. Yacht Haven is an upscale marina with a number of designer shops along with cafes, bars and a good grocery store. It’s also from Havensight where you catch the cablecar up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and to take in the views.
In Charlotte Amalie the main downtown stretches about ten blocks east from the fort along the waterfront. The waterfront road is Veterens Highway and one block up is Kronprindsens Gade with dozens of alleys and streerts connecting the two. When in town take a walk down Creque’s Alley immortalized by the Mamas and Papas in their song by the same name. Stroll down the ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade for some good duty free shopping or visit the shops, cafes and galleries in the many alleys with names like Drakes Passage. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix still feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information here).
Take some time to get over to the far side of the island to visit Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named one of the world’s ten best beaches. My old favorite, Frenchman’s Reef beach is still a good choice and the reef is still there. The Frenchman’s Reef resort is also an excellent selection as a place to stay. We would also recommend a visit to the sea life park, Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you.
You can also take a ferry over to St. Johns for the day. St. Johns is the other US Virgin Island and is mostly preserved as a National Park. If you go, don’t forget your beach gear, mask and snorkel as St. John is famous for Trunk Bay with its beach and its laid out snorkeling trails. The shortest route is between Red Hook on St.Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John. That trip costs only $6.00 each way, takes approximately 20 minutes and runs hourly between 6:00 am and Midnight. A longer ferry route runs from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay on St. John.
Hurricane Update: We stopped in St. Thomas just this January and while on the surface the island seems to be ready for business and is enjoying the return of the cruise liners there is still much that needs to be done. Unfortunately if you are planning on traveling there for a visit you need to be cautious. Many of the hotels are still closed and many that are open are booked by people from FEMA and construction companies. Attractions like Coral World and some water excursions will also need more time to be ready for visitors. While there are plenty of jewelry stores and duty free shops offering special deals just to bring shoppers back, there are a number of shortages that become quickly apparent. St. Thomas has always been famous for its duty free liqueur prices and its extra duty free allowance from U.S. Custom, but as of January, a number of famous outlets are not yet open and prices may not offer any real advantage over stateside prices.