Top St. Thomas Attractions: Charlotte Amalie
The duty-free shopping capital of the Caribbean features block after block (and alley after alley) of jewelry stores selling precious gems, watches, and more at bargain prices. You’ll also find the usual souvenir shops, and there’s a market along the waterfront with vendors selling jewelry, clothing, and knockoff designer handbags.
The island’s busiest road (Veteran’s Drive) separates downtown from the harbor, so this isn’t where you want to go for waterfront dining and drinking. However, the city’s narrow streets -- most with their original Danish names -- are home to a number of small, specialty restaurants, often housed in historic former warehouses and other buildings.
Historic sites include Fort Christian, which may or may not be open for tours (it’s currently undergoing renovations); the 99 Steps, built by the Danes in the mid-1700s using bricks transported as ships' ballast, and Blackbeard’s Castle. You can also catch a ferry from here to Cruz Bay, St. John, or a seaplane to St. Croix.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Red Hook
Located on the southeast coast of St. Thomas, Red Hook is known for its ferry to nearby St. John (20 minutes away, $6 each way for adults) and, increasingly, for its dining and nightlife scene. Steps from the ferry terminal are an array of restaurants and bars, some on the waterfront (Fish Tails, Big Bambooz, Molly Malone's), others in strip malls (the XO Bistro martini bar, Fat Boys, and the walk-up Taco Hell stand). One of the best, Duffy's Love Shack, sits in the middle of a parking lot but has a popular dance party and free well drinks for the ladies on Wednesday nights.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Frenchtown
This historic port community just west of Charlotte Amalie is home to the island’s fresh-fish market and a marina where you can charter a yacht or join a kayaking excursion to nearby Hassell Island. There’s also a cluster of good-to-great restaurants here, including the Hook, Line, and Sinker (facing the marina, seafood-heavy menu, obviously), Bella Blu (oddly, Austrian cuisine -- try the schnitzel!), Pie Whole (outstanding thin-crust pizza, bruschetta, and specialty beers from around the world), Looney Bien, a Mexican place for reasonably priced tacos and burritos and two varieties of homemade sangria, and Craig and Sally's, where the humble facade gives way to a pretty dining room and fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Havensight
If you come off a cruise ship docked in Charlotte Amalie, Havensight is the first thing you’ll see -- a purpose-built waterfront mall with all the usual souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and touristy bars like Hooters and Señor Frogs. There are a few standouts, however: the Pirates Chest sells genuine coins and other artifacts from shipwrecks around the world, many brought to the surface by store owner Sean Loughman. Mojo’s is one of the better watering holes you’ll find in a shopping center parking lot, with swings to sit on, decent drink specials at the big round bar, and rock music on the sound system.
The Shipwreck Tavern claims to have the island’s best burger: some dispute that, but their huge charcoal-grilled burgers are very good -- and big enough to split. Next door is the Al Cohen liquor store, which has an excellent selection of duty-free spirits, wine, and beer, including the local Cruzan rum for less than $8 a liter (K-Mart, also in Havensight, is another option for low-cost alcohol and other shopping).
The base of the Paradise Point sky ride also is in Havensight: cable cars take you from sea level to the 800-foot summit of Paradise Point for spectacular views (weather permitting, of course) of Charlotte Amalie, its harbor, Hassell Island, Water Island, and -- on a good day -- as far off as Puerto Rico. A ride on the ferris wheel at the summit is included in the price of your ticket, and there’s also a bar/restaurant on top that’s famous for its Bailey’s Bushwacker, a frozen drink made with Irish cream liqueur.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Yacht Haven
Yachts (and mega-yachts) dock here for port calls at Charlotte Amalie, disgorging their well-heeled passengers into Yacht Haven Grande, a warren of upscale shops selling designer goods from the likes of Bulgari, Coach, and Gucci. At nights, the blue dock lights lure visitors down to gawk at the yachts and imbibe at the Fat Turtle, where the drinks and dining are surprisingly affordable despite the tony address. The Friday night dance party here is one of the best on the island, and there’s also live music on many nights.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Water Island
Tiny (about 500 acres) Water Island has just 120 year-round residents and is very low-key, but this “fourth Virgin Island” is just 10 minutes away from St. Thomas by ferry ($3 one-way), so it’s a popular day-tripper’s destination. You can rent a bike or walk around the island, lay on a beach, kayak or snorkel, or explore the ruins of old military facilities. Stop at Joe's Beach Bar for a drink. If you want to stay overnight, your best option is to rent a tent-cottage at the island's campground, near Honeymoon Beach. The Water Island ferry is in the Crown Bay Marina, a short walk from St. Thomas' Crown Bay cruise-ship dock.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Hassell Island
Historic Hassell Island is tantalizingly close to Charlotte Amalie but for many years has been more-or-less inaccessible to visitors. However, the U.S. National Park Service is in the process of restoring a former boat-repair building, several forts, and the remnants of a leper’s hospital on the island. Eventually there will be ferry service to Hassell Island, but for now, you can visit by way of a kayak excursion that leaves from Frenchtown and includes a guided tour and hike plus snorkeling on the quiet, windward side of the island.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Magen’s Bay Beach
One of the most famous beaches in the Caribbean, Magen’s Bay is a fabulous stretch of sand on a U-shaped bay on St. Thomas’s north side. Like all beaches on the island, Magen’s Bay is public, but you’ll have to pay a fee to reach the shoreline -- as one resident put it, you’re basically paying to walk through the parking lot. Most visitors agree that it’s worth the small charge, however, as long as you don’t come when a bunch of cruise ships are in port, when this popular strand can get unbearably crowded. Better then to opt for another spot to spread out your beach towels, such as quiet Hull Bay, also on the island’s north side.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Coral World Ocean Park
Located between Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook on St. Thomas’ Route 38, Coral World Ocean Park is a stand-alone attraction focused on marine life. Basic admission includes access to the park’s Undersea Observatory and other exhibits; add-ons include Sea Trek, Snuba, shark, turtle, and sea-lion encounter programs, a boat tour aboard the M/V Nautilus, and parasailing. Packages are available from St. Thomas hotels and cruise ships and include transportation, or you can take a cab. Swimming and sunning at nearby Coki Beach is also an option.
Top St. Thomas Attractions: Buck Island Reef National Wildlife Refuge
Located two miles off the south coast of St. Thomas, the Buck Island Reef National Wildlife Refuge is home to the historic Buck Island Lighthouse, which presides over 45-acre Buck Island. There are hiking trails on the island, but the lighthouse is closed to the public, a large rat population keeps the seabirds away. The main attraction here isn't the island itself but the surrounding, wreck-strewn reefs, which are a popular destination for divers and snorkelers.