St. Thomas is the busiest of the three United States Virgin Islands. With 28 square miles of lush green hills and sandy beaches, St. Thomas and the nearby island of St. John see nearly 1.7 million visitors a year, far more than their sister island of St. Croix.
The island's main town, Charlotte Amalie , bustles like any small city with vacationers shopping and residents heading off to work. Traffic can pile up along the waterfront Route 30, called Veterans Drive, and the city's main parking lot adjacent to Fort Christian is often filled. Despite the surface buzz, it is easy to find quiet pockets away from Charlotte Amalie and other busy areas.
The island, a Danish colony until the Unites States bought it in 1917, is home to just over 51,000 people. Many residents work in the tourism industry, at businesses dependent on the tourism industry or for the local government.
The accommodations options are many. Luxury hotels and condominium complexes line the beaches on the island's eastern end. Historic hotels and inns are tucked into Charlotte Amalie's back streets. Cozy guest houses dot the hills above Charlotte Amalie Harbor and vacation villas pepper many exclusive residential neighborhoods.
Hotel visitors and guests heading for a sailboat charter usually arrive at the modern Cyril E. King Airport, located at the western end of the island. Most cruise ship passengers arrive at the Havensight Cruise Ship Dock, but a few ships tie up in Crown Bay or anchor out in Charlotte Amalie Harbor. Intrepid sorts sail in on their own boats.
Shop till you drop is the motto for many visitors to St. Thomas. While shopping in all the United States Virgin Islands is duty free, 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 territory, including art, are exempt from the total.
While Charlotte Amalie is the main shopping area, several shopping areas with tourist-oriented shops are now spread out all across the island. Havensight Mall has dozens of shops, some branches of Charlotte Amalie stores. Most hotels also have a few shops perfect for picking up resort wear and souvenirs.
This island offers a vast variety of activities. Spend the day snorkeling, sunning or snoozing at a crystal clear cove ringed with a white sandy beach and palm trees, head down to the briny deep on a Scuba excursion, set sail to an offshore island, play a round at Mahogany Run Golf Course , or visit any of the historic sites in the main town of Charlotte Amalie and around the island.
Numerous tour and water-oriented excursions are popular with hotel guests as well as cruise ship passengers. Bookings may be made on board ship or at hotel excursion desks, but visitors often opt to go it alone.
A trip around the island with a taxi driver or in your rental car should include stops at the palm-fringed Magens Bay Beach , the island's most popular. You will find changing rooms, water sports rentals, and restaurants in addition to clear blue water and lovely white sand. As you travel around the island, you will see gorgeous views at nearly every turn in the road. Drake's Seat , where Sir Francis Drake reportedly checked on his fleet, and the busy Mountain Top are especially popular viewpoints.
Keep in mind that addresses here can best be described as a mish mash. Major roads have route numbers marked on the maps, but residents seldom know those numbers so you cannot depend on them for map-based directions. Instead, they may know the common name, which may or may not be the name used on the map, and may give you directions that tell you to turn left at the big tree. To add to the insanity, the road may also change names several times along a numbered route. Some streets in Charlotte Amalie still bear the old Danish names, but residents usually use their English names. Your best defense is a map, written directions and a smile when you ask for help.
The island's historic attractions should not be ignored. Its colorful history dates back at least several thousand years. The early Indians had disappeared by the time Denmark settled St. Thomas in 1666, but the Danes left their mark in many ways. In Charlotte Amalie, the island's main town and the seat of government, the narrow streets and alleyways are lined with centuries-old brick and stone buildings. Once warehouses filled with molasses, sugar and other goods awaiting export to Europe and shops with family quarters above, those buildings now house offices and shops.
One caveat: St. Thomas has a crime rate similar to other cities. Visitors should take normal precautions. Keep cars and rooms locked and do not walk around at night. Hotels encourage guests to take taxis to and from restaurants in the evenings.
There is no shortage of places to eat and drink on St. Thomas. While the major hotels have multiple restaurants that offer everything from burgers to bouillabaisse, most visitors like to venture out a time or two to sample some of the island's fare. Like the cultural stew that makes up St. Thomas, restaurant menus reflect a cross section of cuisines. While many of the dishes might be found on menus at home, others carry a Caribbean influence. Plantains, a banana-like vegetable, often come with your dinner and chutney is the de rigueur condiment. The island's ties to the United States have led many culinary school graduates to head here for stints at the most prestigious restaurants. They demand the best ingredients and create lovely presentations, a culinary aspect that trickles down to less-pricey restaurants.
Aside from fine restaurants, you will find dozens of other more casual dining options scattered around the island. They range from cozy seaside bistros to roadside stands featuring West Indian dishes. The hotels welcome you even if you are not a guest. The style and ambience of the dining and drinking scene varies widely, but by and large, expect things to be informal.
St. Thomas is among the more expensive places to dine out, but not any more so than a big city like New York or London. If you are used to more modest prices, the dinner tab can come as a shock. Since nearly everything is imported, shipping adds to the cost. A 15 to 20 percent tip is expected at the island's restaurants.
The island's main town serves as its culinary heart. Dozens of bistros welcome cruise ship passengers for lunch. At night, hotel guests and locals fill the tables.
At the upper end of the credit card bill and opposite ends of town, Virgilio's and Herve Restaurant & Wine Bar attract well-heeled customers for fine dining in lovely surroundings. Herve Restaurant & Wine Bar , on Kongen's Gade, provides lovely views and a fusion of French, Italian and Caribbean cuisine. Virgilio's , a local hot spot for in-town government officials and professionals, leans toward Northern Italian.
A tad less pricey are spots like the casual Cafe Amici in A.H. Riise Mall for burgers, salads and sandwiches or Lillian's Caribbean Grill to dine on West Indian fare like kallallo, a spicy okra stew, or local fish and fungi, made or cornmeal and okra.
For budget meals, try Texas Pit BBQ . This take-out stand has three locations in St. Thomas. Gladys's Cafe , in the alleyway shopping area called Royal Dane Mall, dishes up a mixed bag of American and Caribbean food to an equally eclectic clientele.
Hillsides outside Charlotte Amalie
Banana Tree Grille at Bluebeard's Castle Hotel is a hike up from Charlotte Amalie, so take a taxi if you are not staying there. The restaurant dishes up delicious contemporary fare along with its sumptuous view.
Mafolie Restaurant at the Mafolie Hotel is a hot spot for steak and seafood as well as gorgeous views of the Charlotte Amalie Harbor.
Havensight is home to numerous restaurants, most catering to the cruise ship crowd that throngs the area every day. Delly Deck in Havensight Mall is an island standby. Serving standard fare like burgers, reubens and fried chicken, it can be one busy place. Across the street at Al Cohen Mall sits Pizza Amore , home to pizza by the slice and huge submarine sandwiches for take out or eating in. For a little nicer ambience, try the Havensight Cafe in Havensight Mall. The food runs to sandwiches and specialties like bagels and lox.
Frenchtown, a small community near Charlotte Amalie, is a food connoisseur's paradise. Great restaurants sit cheek and jowl with casual bistros. Alexander's Cafe , open for lunch and dinner, sees a good smattering of visitors joining local business types for eclectic fare. The pates are especially good.
Between Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook
A string of hotel-based restaurants on both the north and south coasts serve a wide variety of cuisines in varying settings.
On the south shore and a few miles east of Charlotte Amalie and the Havensight area, the huge Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort and the adjacent Morning Star Beach Resort reign over the restaurant scene. Havana Blue , a lovely seaside restaurant serving Latin-fusion food, is the best of the lot.
In Estate Nazareth, on the south coast, Blue Moon Cafe at Secret Harbor Beach Resort conjures up contemporary cuisine with tropical flair in a lovely beachfront setting.
Visitors heading out of Charlotte Amalie towards Red Hook along the northern route should not miss Randy's Wine Bar & Bistro . Located in the Al Cohen's Plaza, along with a paint store, a bakery and a dentist, the restaurant with its American-style menu is a local favorite.
Located on the north coast at the Point Pleasant Resort, the Agave Terrace is one of the island's best restaurants. With several prestigious awards on its wall, the restaurant serves mostly seafood.
Bustling Red Hook is home to several restaurants. The casual Grateful Deli in the Red Hook Shopping Plaza serves up eclectic cuisine popular with locals. Since it is also a cyber-cafe, you can check your e-mail while you eat.