Arguably the Caribbean's most popular cruise ship port--visitors can count nine or 10 ships in port on any given day--St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is often dubbed "the shopping center of the Caribbean." Its capital city, Charlotte Amalie, certainly lives up to the moniker, offering hundreds of shops along the waterfront housed in red-roofed buildings which were formerly Danish warehouses. The U.S. acquired St. Thomas and the other U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Croix from Denmark in 1917.
The shops sell all manner of merchandise, from local rum to imported watches, cameras, liquor, china, crystal, fashions and jewelry. Best of all, the duty-free exemption when U.S. travelers visit the U.S. Virgin Islands is $1,600 per person (including the possibility to bring back five liters of alcoholic beverages).
But St. Thomas' charms go far beyond the duty-free shopping. This is a tiny (32 square miles) but beautiful island. Just taking in the panorama of its harbor from a ship's railing convinces passengers of this--clear blue water, a backdrop of green hills, white buildings with red roofs, tropical foliage and flowers including bougainvillea and hibiscus.
The island's Magen's Bay Beach appears consistently on those lists of the world's top beaches. It is an idyll with crystalline aquamarine waters and arching white sands. Other top St. Thomas beaches include Sapphire Beach, Coki Beach and Morningstar Beach.
After a few hours at one of the beaches, independent travelers may wish to opt for the Skyride that takes visitors up 700 feet above Charlotte Amalie for panoramic views of the island and sea. Popular shore excursions sold aboard ships include island tours to visit such points of interest as the 17th century Fort Christian; Market Square, once a slave market; and Blackbeard's Castle, a fortified 17th century tower on Government Hill, which is now a popular restaurant and hotel.
Another highlight is Government House, the center of government since the 19th century and located on a hill overlooking Charlotte Amalie. It has 99 steps carved onto the hillside made of bricks brought to the island as ballast by Danish and British ships.
Many passengers, particularly families traveling with children, head either independently or via an organized tour, for Coral World Ocean Park on Coki Point, next to Coki Beach. The park offers aquaria, touch tanks, optional marine creature encounters, an aviary, optional programs including snuba, and an underwater observation tower that enables visitors to view the tropical reef without getting wet at a depth of 15 feet below the surface of the water.
Coral World features lockers, changing rooms and showers--convenient for those who wish to spend time at the adjacent beach. Other available shore excursion options include all-day expeditions to nearby St. John and half-day beach party boat tours for swimming and excursions for snorkeling and diving.
Passengers who would like to sample the local cuisine may wish to try the fresh fish and seafood, often prepared with a spicy Creole sauce made with tomatoes, onions and peppers.
Would-be cruise passengers who would like to visit St. Thomas have their pick from many lines who call at the island including Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Cunard, Disney, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea, and Windstar.
IF YOU GO: For information, visit www.usvitourism.viCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times