In 1733, the Danish government acquired the Virgin Islands from the Danish West India Company. The Danes did not find land suitable for agriculture, and St. Thomas became a bustling port instead through which the products from the rest of the West Indies were traded. It also became a center for transporting slaves.
The Virgin Islands remained under Danish rule until 1917, when the U.S., fearing German infiltration in the Caribbean during World War I, purchased the islands from Denmark. Today the U.S. Virgin Islands claims the highest per-capita income in the Caribbean, with some 50,000 settlers of varying ethnicity making their home in St. Thomas alone. The port is also the busiest cruise-ship harbor in the West Indies, outranking Puerto Rico.
Today you can see many vestiges of the island's history. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, with its white houses and bright red roofs glistening in the sun, is one of the most beautiful towns in the Caribbean. It's most famous for shopping, but the town is also filled with historic sights, like Fort Christian, an intriguing 17th-century building constructed by the Danes. The town's architecture reflects the island's culturally diverse past: You'll pass Dutch doors, Danish red-tile roofs, French iron grillwork, and Spanish-style patios.
Even with the crowds and shops, it is easy to see how the natural colors and charm of the Caribbean come to life in the waterfront town of Charlotte Amalie. The capital of St. Thomas once attracted seafarers from all over the globe, and pirates and sailors of the Confederacy used the port during the American Civil War. At one time, St. Thomas was the biggest slave market in the world. Today, the old warehouses, once used for storing stolen pirate goods, have been converted to shops. In fact, the main streets, called "gade" (a reflection of their Danish heritage), now coalesce into a virtual shopping mall, and are often packed. Sandwiched among these shops are a few historic buildings, most of which can be seen on foot in about 2 hours. Start your walking tour along the eastern harborfront at King's Wharf.
In the West
Route 30 (Veterans Dr.) will take you west of Charlotte Amalie to Frenchtown (turn left at the sign to the Admiral's Inn). Early French-speaking settlers arrived on St. Thomas from St. Bart's after they were uprooted by the Swedes. Many of today's island residents are the direct descendants of those long-ago immigrants, who were known for speaking a distinctive French patois. This colorful village contains a bevy of restaurants and taverns. Because Charlotte Amalie has become somewhat dangerous at night, Frenchtown has picked up its after-dark business and is the best spot for dancing, drinking, and other local entertainment.
Farther west, Harwood Highway (Rte. 308) will lead you to Crown Mountain Road, a scenic drive opening onto the best views of the hills, beaches, and crystal-clear waters around St. Thomas.
Especially for Kids
Coral World -- This is the place on St. Thomas to take your children. It's a hands-on experience -- kids can even shake hands with a starfish at the Touch Pond. Later, they can discover exotic Marine Gardens, where 20 aquariums showcase the Caribbean's incredible natural marine treasures.
Magens Bay Beach -- This beach is one of the finest in the world, with calm waters, white sand, and lots of facilities, including picnic tables.
Attractions Around the Island
A driving tour is the best way to see the island. Tropic Tours, 14AB the Guardian Building (tel. 800/524-4334 or 340/774-1855; www.tropictoursusvi.com), offers practically the same tour of St. Thomas, including Drake's Seat, the Estate St. Peter Greathouse, and Charlotte Amalie shopping. The cost is $45 per person, $36 for children 12 and under.
The Best Views in St. Thomas
The Paradise Point St. Thomas Skyride (tel. 340/774-9809; www.stthomasskyride.com) affords visitors a dramatic view of Charlotte Amalie's harbor, with a ride to a 700-foot peak. The tramway, similar to those used at ski resorts, operates six cars, each with an eight-person capacity, for the 15-minute round-trip ride. It transports customers from the Havensight area to Paradise Point, where you can disembark to visit shops and the popular restaurant and bar. The tramway runs daily 9am to 5pm. Reservations are required; the cost is $21 per adult round-trip, $11 round-trip for children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under.
For those who can afford it or who simply aren't satisfied with the view from Paradise Point, there's Air Center Helicopters, Waterfront, Charlotte Amalie (tel. 340/775-7335; www.aircenterhelicopters.com). The short but dramatic rides go over the U.S. Virgins. A four- to six-seater helicopter flies at a cost of $750 per half-hour. Day trips to St. John and St. Croix can also be arranged, as well as trips to San Juan and the B.V.I.