the island of St. John, US Virgin Islands

St. Thomas: Gateway to the Virgin Islands

St Thomas overlooking Charlotte AmalieOverlooking Charlotte Amalie, capitol city of the US Virgin Islands.
For the more than one million cruise ship passengers and overnight guests who visit St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands each year, the island's prominence as one of the Caribbean's most renowned shopping meccas is one of its most alluring attractions. With duty-free shopping exemptions unrivaled by any other Caribbean destination, and fine dining and accommodations at an exceptional value, St. Thomas is indeed a treasure discovery for travelers. Stretched along the waterfront, restored 17th- and 18th-century warehouses - once used to hold molasses, rum, spices and other trade goods awaiting export - now house a variety of unique shops containing modern-day treasures. Yet after navigating through the narrow byways of downtown Charlotte Aalie's historic shopping district, visitors to St. Thomas still have much of the island's historical significance to explore.

Charlotte Amalie harbor is the perfect place for travelers to begin their journey through St. Thomas' history. Harborside since 1672, Fort Christian is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands. Now a U.S. national landmaark, this brick fortress was built to protect the town's harbor from raiding European armadas which sailed the Caribbean centuries ago. Having once served as St. Thomas' first Government House, a church and community government center, Fort Christian today is the home to the Virgin Islands Museum, where early island memorabilia and old maps trace the islands' history.

St Thomas Paradise TramThere are dozens of ways to enjoy life in St. Thomas.
High above Charlotte Amalie on nearby Government Hill looms the medieval-style Skytsborg, better known to today's visitors as Blackbeard's Castle. One of many structures erected as part of the Danish colonial government's attempt to protect the island, Blackbeard's Castle is the only 17th-century fortified tower in the Caribbean. While there is no evidence that pirates inhabited the tower, Skytsborg continues to hold special intrigue for legend-believers. Formerly used as a residence and an observatory, Blackbeard's Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places and today doubles as a popular restaurant and hotel.

While on Government Hill, travelers may also visit the former home of Peter von Scholten, who first was the harbor master of St. Thomas and later governor general of the Danish West Indies. Built in the 18th-century and now a private residence, Crown House is the stately, three-story West Indian structure von Scholten inhabited until 1822, when as governor he moved to Christiansted, St. Croix, then the capital of the Virgin Islands.

Also on Government Hill, Seven Arches Museum provides a glimpse into the 18th-century lifestyle of the island's Danish ancestors. Fully restored and furnished in Danish West Indian style, this once private home - with its Danish kitchen and slave quarters - reflects the life of leisure enjoyed by its former inhabitants.

Charlotte AmaliePretty Charlotte Amalie is the cultural center of St. Thomas.
Any vacationer intent on experiencing the history of St. Thomas will continue climbing along the island's winding hills, away from the heart of Charlotte Amalie to Government House, one of the most popular historic sites that dot the island's hillsides. Since its establishment in the mid-1860s, the stately white structure has continually represented the center of official life in St. Thomas. Visitors interested in getting a glimpse of local political life may tour the building's first two floors.

Still on the upward climb, vacationers may continue on to visit Drake's Seat overlooking Drake's Passage, the channel where Sir Francis Drake sailed among the islands in the late 1500s. From this vantage point, visitors are treated to a breathtaking view of the harbor, where countless boats and cruise ships alike dot the island's port waters.

While touring St. Thomas' higher elevations, visitors may also treat themselves to a taste of more recent island history by stopping at Mountain Top for a famed banana daiquiri. Since the 1960s, the site has offered this legendary concoction of local rum, cane sugar and bananas - a mixture that continues to win fans who come to enjoy the sensational sights at the top of St. Thomas.

After a full day's sightseeing of these various landmarks, there is still more for the tireless traveler to experience on the island. A stroll through St. Thomas' Market Square - though today a bustling produce marketplace - is reminiscent of a time when the site was one of the West Indies' busiest 18th-century slave markets. Visitors may also walk through Emancipation Garden, appropriately named in commemoration of Governor Peter von Scholten's emancipation of the slaves on July 3, 1848.

Visitors to the USVI have much to see and even more to do when vacationing on St. Thomas. Whether soaking up the sun on one of its many beautiful beaches, shopping along the downtown waterfront or touring historical sites spanning nearly three centuries, vacationers have much to fill their days on the island.