Though not the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is the most metropolitan, with a population of 51,000 on 31 sunny square miles. It's the abode of myriad upscale restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs, and for the American traveler, probably feels the most like home. Its capital, Charlotte Amalie, is the undisputed shopping hub of the West Indies. Fort Christian, an imposing red-brick fortress built by the Danes in 1672, is the oldest building in the U.S. Virgin Islands and home to the St.
Thomas Museum. Visually impressive from the outside, the fort has been closed for years for renovations.
Charlotte Amalie is a great place to burn through your $1,600 duty-free exemption at hundreds of clothiers and jewelers downtown and at the cruise port, but the charms of the shopping district are best kept at arm's length when cruise ships are in town. Many of the better hotels and inns -- scattered across the island rather than clustered together on a single beach -- are at least a couple of miles away from the city -- quiet enough that it feels like the Caribbean from the tourist brochures, but typically no more than 10 or 15 minutes from the action.
Examples include the Marriott Frenchman's Reef, the fun and friendly Bolongo Bay Beach Resort (home of Iggie's Beach Bar), and the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas.
And there is action: Water Island, a short ferry ride from Charlotte Amalie, has beach bars and restaurants on Honeymoon Beach, while Red Hook, on the east end of St. Thomas, has several hopping pubs and nightclubs, from Irish-themed bars to Caribbean fusion dance nights that cater to the tastes of both the comfortable and the cosmopolitan. If you want to extend your visit with a day trip to nearby St. John, Red Hook is where you can catch the short ferry ride over to Cruz Bay.
Havensight is where most cruise-ship passengers disembark, so there are plenty of shops and bars here. Neighboring Yacht Haven is home to the popular Fat Turtle nightclub and de Lime in de Coconut rum bar, while Frenchtown -- on the outskirts of Charlotte Amalie -- has several excellent restaurants. For pizza and beer, one of our favorite stops in town is Pie Whole in Frenchtown.
If you want a little adventure after lunch, join a Virgin Islands Ecotours trip over to nearby Hassel Island in the middle of Charlotte Amalie harbor, where you can see the historic remains of a marine railway once used to repair wooden ships and climb to the top of the island for a sweeping view of the harbor. Speaking of views, you can get spectacular vistas at Drake's Seat or Mountaintop -- just ask your cab driver to take you there.
When you're ready to hit the beach, St. Thomas boasts one of the best strands in the Caribbean in Magen's Bay, which in addition to great swimming and sunbathing also has bathhouses, cabanas, camping, coconut groves, and an arboretum to explore. For family fun with marine life, check out the Coral World park and its animal encounter programs. Up for some soft adventure? Tree Limin' Extreme has a zipline course that provides amazing ocean views as you slide along the line above the St. Peter Mountain rainforest.
This is not to say that Charlotte Amalie is just another American city, nor St. Thomas a mere extension of the mainland. In addition to the usual bevy of watersports, eco-tours, and excursions, the island boasts attractions that range from the fun (a sky ride to Paradise Point) to the kitschy (a tour of Blackbeard's castle) to the delightful (the botanical gardens at St. Peter Great House). If the hustle-and-bustle threatens to overwhelm, remember: St. Thomas is just a short boat ride from the bucolic island of St.
John, whose domain is two-thirds national forest.