Bustling, crowded, and commercial, St. Thomas is the most accessible of the Virgin Islands. Historic Charlotte Amalie is the main attraction, although spectacular beaches like Magen’s Bay and Lindquist Bay provide an escape from the city. Duty-free shopping for watches, jewelry, and crystal is a major draw for the millions of cruise ship passengers who visit here annually.
St Thomas is home to one of the West Indies’ most picturesque cities, with layers of elegant town houses, narrow cobblestone walks, and handsome churches and businesses. The island’s crystal blue water is abuzz with cruise ships, ferries, fishing skiffs, mega-yachts, and seaplanes.
Magen’s Bay, broad, calm, and over a mile long, is the most majestic beach in the Virgin Islands. Coki Point attracts snorkelers and divers, and Lindquist Bay is an all-natural escape rivaling the unspoiled beaches of St. John and Tortola. You can also head off the beaten path to Water Island or the remote, unspoiled cays off the island’s East End.
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- St Thomas highlights
- Travel tips for visiting St Thomas
The capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, this harbor town is one of the loveliest in the region. The wide bay plays host to huge cruise ships, pleasure boats, luxury mega-yachts, and the small skiffs of traditional fishers. Long narrow warehouses, built to store hogsheads of sugar, line the waterfront and have been converted into one of the largest shopping districts in the Caribbean. Behind the shops, quiet side streets evoke the town’s long history.
The imposing redbrick Danish fortification known as Fort Christian, on the eastern end of the St. Thomas waterfront, is the oldest building in use on St. Thomas and a National Historic Landmark. Built between 1672 and 1680 by African laborers under the direction of Danish colonists and named for King Christian V of Denmark, the fort was the center of political and community life during the early years of Danish colonization of the Virgin Islands. The fort housed the governor’s residence, town hall, the court, and the jail, as well as the island’s first church. Fort Christian is currently closed for repairs.
Just down Norre Gade (Main Street) from the main post office is Frederik Lutheran Church, the earliest church still standing on St. Thomas. Work began on Frederik Lutheran Church in the 1780s, and it was dedicated in 1793. The original church was in the simple Georgian style. It was gutted by fire in 1825 and rebuilt, with the addition of some Gothic-style trim. An 1870 hurricane blew off the roof, which was rebuilt. Inside you will see a large mahogany altar and mahogany pews—each with its own door.
Take one of the narrow steep walks up to white-brick Government House, the fourth official residence of the Virgin Islands’ chief executive, now used only for offices. Built in 1867 by St. Croix carpenter Richard Bright, the house was designed by a local merchant, Otto Marstrand, and is notable for its covered balconies with slender fluted columns and ironwork rails. Inside is a handmade mahogany staircase. Ask at the security desk if you can come in for a look around.
Step-streets are one of Charlotte Amalie’s most distinctive features, and the most famous of these is 99 Steps, a narrow steep walkway originating between Hotel 1829 and the Lutheran Parsonage. The walk connects Government Hill with Trygborg, a Danish lookout tower that dates back to 1680 and is better known today as Blackbeard’s Castle. As you’ll discover if you care to count, the steps are wrongly named: There are more than 100.
One of Charlotte Amalie’s most fascinating historic buildings is the St. Thomas Synagogue more properly called the Synagogue Beracha veShalom uGemilut Hasadim (Blessing, Peace, and Loving Deeds). Built in 1833 to replace an older structure, this house of worship continues to serve St. Thomas’s small Jewish population. It is the oldest Hebrew congregation in the United States and the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The building, which underwent restoration in 2000, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The sand floor is believed to reflect a tradition of early Sephardic Orthodox congregants, who worshipped on this site beginning in 1796. Visitors are welcome as long as no service or other event is in progress. At the rear of the synagogue you will find historical displays recounting the history of the Jewish community of St. Thomas, including profiles of Jewish governors and the family of famous impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro. Outside the synagogue a small Judaica shop offers souvenirs and helps fund the congregation.
A mile-long white sand bay lined with coconut palms and sea grape trees and washed by calm turquoise waters, Magen’s Bay is St. Thomas’s best beach. The park attracts a diverse crowd of tourists and locals, and it can be a place for quiet relaxation or high-spirited fun.
The sand is packed and white, and the water almost always calm. There is plenty of shade beneath trees, and since the beach is so large, you are almost guaranteed to find a quiet patch of sand.
Lifeguards keep an eye on safety, and swimming buoys keep boats out. Picnic tables, large bathhouses, pavilions, a snack bar, and plenty of parking make this a comfortable place to spend the day. A small enterprise at the eastern end of the park rents kayaks, paddleboards, windsurfs, and other gear, but most people are content lolling around in the calm crystal water. The beachside shop has a large collection of swimwear and just about anything you might need to round out your day at the beach, from novels to sunscreen.
Magen’s Bay is owned by the territorial government and administered as a public park. A fee collection booth is open daily from about 7:30am-6pm.
Coral World Marine Park puts the wonder of underwater sealife within reach of everyone. An undersea observatory allows you to get eye-level with the coral reef, and jewel boxes display every imaginable marine habitat of the Virgin Islands; other exhibits showcase specific marine creatures, including green turtles and stingrays. You can swim with South American sea lions and snorkel with nurse, lemon, and blacktip sharks. There is even an exhibit showing the nighttime reef—including phosphorescent coral.
Feedings and public demonstrations are scheduled every 45 minutes during the day, so there is always something to watch, whether it’s fish feeding around the undersea observatory or a demonstration with the sea lions. A touch pool allow visitors young and old to feel sea stars, sea cucumbers, and a West Indian sea egg.
Through the Sea Trek offering guests can enjoy the experience of scuba diving without the fuss of a tank. In addition to the marine exhibits, Coral World has an aviary where you can meet tropical birds including lorikeets and a short nature trail featuring tropical plants, endangered tortoises, and lots of iguanas.
Coral World is an excellent destination for families, but just about everyone will delight in exploring its attractions. At first blush, Coral World may seem like a tourist trap—there are plenty of opportunities to spend money here—but the park is serious about its educational mission. Each year more than 5,000 local schoolchildren tour the park free of charge to learn about the marine environment that surrounds them.
Coral World tends to be busy, especially when many cruise ships are in port. If you have your heart set on one of the add-on activities, book ahead. To avoid the crowds, come early or late. Coral World cuts back its hours in the summer. Call ahead to confirm.
Another perk of Coral World is that lovely little Coki Beach is located just next-door. Neither too big nor too small, Coki has fluffy white sand and a moderate amount of shade. There is good snorkeling just offshore—the best on St. Thomas—and a dive shop rents gear and offers scuba lessons and rentals. An array of beach vendors sell snacks, trinkets, massages, and cold drinks. The beach gets crowded with residents on weekends and with tourists when a cruise ship is in town, and it can be boisterous and noisy.
East End Marine Sanctuary
The eastern shoreline of St. Thomas and several offshore cays have been declared wildlife sanctuaries by the local government. The waters around Great St. James and Little St. James Islands, Cas Cay, Cow and Calf Rocks, and Patricia Cay include important mangrove, salt pond, and sea grass habitats that help sustain the local fishery. Rules limit fishing, and internal combustion engines are banned in certain areas.
Since it is protected, the East End Marine Sanctuary offers excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing—the best on St. Thomas. A short hiking trail on tiny Cas Cay leads you to tidal pools that are home to sea urchins and make a dramatic setting for photographs when the tide is up.
Around Cas Cay you will find healthy sea grass beds; large schools of fish, stingrays, lobster, and conch; and a mangrove ecosystem that serves as the nursery of the ocean, protecting large numbers of juvenile fish from predators.
Unless you have your own boat and are familiar with local waters, the only way to access the sanctuary is with a tour. Virgin Islands Ecotours leads daily kayak, snorkel, and hiking tours in the sanctuary. All tours begin with a kayak around the mangrove lagoon and also include an outstanding snorkel tour of the sea grass bed, sandy flats, and mangrove ecosystem. You may choose to add on a half-mile hike around Cas Cay or include a stop at Patricia Cay and lunch for the full-day tour.
The larger of the two landmasses in Charlotte Amalie Harbor, 500-acre Water Island is sometimes called the last Virgin for it was only in 1944 that it was acquired by the United States. The island’s biggest draw is beautiful Honeymoon Beach, an easy day or half-day outing from St Thomas.
Also known as Druif Bay, Honeymoon is a protected, clean, and quiet beach along Water Island’s southwest shore. Coconut palms lean gracefully over the honey-white sand and crystal blue water invites visitors to come in and cool off.
There are plenty of beach chairs provided by the two beach bars on opposite ends of the beach, and the popularity of the beach gives Honeymoon a festive atmosphere. It’s a fun place to spend the day.
Get to Water Island on the Water Island Ferry, which offers 11 scheduled trips from Crown Bay Marina, on the western end of Charlotte Amalie. Honeymoon Beach is a 10-minute walk from the ferry.
Planning your time on St Thomas
You can see St. Thomas’s major sights in a few days, but plan to stay longer if you want to sample all the restaurants, attractions, and duty-free shopping, as well as have time for a day trip to one of the other Virgin Islands. St. Thomas enjoys the best air connections of all the Virgin Islands, with direct flights from a half-dozen major U.S. cities, making a long weekend here doable.
St. Thomas is one of the most popular cruise ship stops in the Caribbean—recent years have seen upwards of two million cruise ship passengers passing through annually, or 35 times the population of the island itself. If you have only a day on St. Thomas, choose one of the top-sights listed below and add on an open-air island tour for a great day.
Getting to St Thomas
The Cyril E. King International Airport (STT) is near Lindberg Bay, about four miles west of Charlotte Amalie. More direct flights from the mainland arrive in St. Thomas than on any other Virgin Island. Delta, American, Sprit and United are the main airlines serving St Thomas from North American cities including New York, Miami, Charlotte, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Newark, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. In addition, several commuter airlines provide daily service from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Getting around St Thomas
Taxis are readily available at the airport, around Charlotte Amalie, and at resorts and major attractions. Many are 6- to 12-passenger vans; others are open-air “safari” buses, ideal for sightseeing. Taxi rates are set by the government. The single-person rate from Charlotte Amalie to Red Hook is $15, to the airport is $7, and to Magen’s Bay is $9. For a complete list of current taxi rates, check St. Thomas This Week.
Renting a car is the best way to get around St. Thomas if you want to explore widely. The best rental rates are available from the major car rental chains, especially if you book in advance. Per-day rental rates for an economy car run $40 and up from most rental agencies; some quote rates as high as $60 a day. There is a $2.50 per day government tax on car rentals, and additional fees for those rented at the airport. Four-wheel drive is generally not necessary.
Where to stay on St Thomas
Most visitors to St. Thomas stay at the large chain resorts along the beaches of the eastern and southern coast, and if resort lifestyle and a beach setting are your priorities, this is a fine choice. But also consider historic Charlotte Amalie, where travelers will find a number of small, independent hotels, many with excellent views of Charlotte Amalie Harbor and all of them steeped in the city’s unique old-world ambience. St. Thomas has a robust villa and apartment rental market on sites such as VRBO.com, homeaway.com and Airbnb.com, and these options are especially relevant as many hotels remain closed for repairs following Hurricane Irma in 2017.
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