The discounted, duty-free shopping in the Virgin Islands makes St. Thomas a shopping mecca. It's possible to find well-known brand names here at savings of up to 60% off mainland prices. But be warned -- savings are not always good, so make sure you know the price of the item back home to determine if you are truly getting a good deal. Having sounded that warning, we'll mention some St. Thomas shops where we have indeed found really good buys. For more help, the local publications This Week in St. Thomas and Best Buys have updates on sales and shop openings.
Most shops are open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm. Some stores are open Sunday and holidays if a cruise ship is in port.
The Best Buys & Where to Find Them
The best buys on St. Thomas include china, crystal, perfumes, jewelry (especially emeralds), Haitian art, clothing, watches, and items made of wood. St. Thomas is also the best place in the Caribbean for discounts in porcelain, but remember that U.S. brands may often be purchased for 25% off the retail price on the mainland. Look for imported patterns for the biggest savings. Cameras and electronic items, based on our experience, are not the good buys they're reputed to be.
Nearly all the major shopping in St. Thomas is along the harbor of Charlotte Amalie. Cruise-ship passengers mainly shop at the Havensight Mall, at the eastern edge of Charlotte Amalie, where they disembark. The principal shopping street is Main Street or Dronningens Gade (the old Danish name). Some of the shops occupy former pirate warehouses. To the north is another merchandise-loaded street called Back Street or Vimmelskaft. Many shops are also spread along the Waterfront Highway (also called Kyst Vejen). Between these major streets is a series of side streets, walkways, and alleys -- each one filled with shops. Other shopping streets are Tolbod Gade, Raadets Gade, Royal Dane Mall, Palm Passage, Storetvaer Gade, and Strand Gade.
It is illegal for most street vendors (food vendors are about the only exception) to ply their trades outside of the designated area called Vendors Plaza, at the corner of Veterans Drive and Tolbod Gade. Hundreds of vendors converge here Monday through Saturday at 7:30am; they usually pack up around 5:30pm. (Very few hawk their wares on Sun, unless a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive.)
When you tire of French perfumes and Swiss watches, head for Market Square, as it's called locally, or more formally, Rothschild Francis Square. Here, on the site of a former slave market and under a Victorian tin roof, locals with machetes slice open fresh coconuts so you can drink the milk, and women sell ackee, cassava, and breadfruit.
Other noteworthy shopping districts include Tillett Gardens, a virtual oasis of arts and crafts -- pottery, silk-screened fabrics, candles, watercolors, jewelry, and more -- located on the highway across from Four Winds Shopping Center. The Jim Tillett Gallery here is a major island attraction in itself.
All the major stores in St. Thomas are located by number on an excellent map in the center of the publication St. Thomas This Week, distributed free to all arriving plane and boat passengers, and available at the visitor center. A lot of the stores on the island don't have street numbers or don't display them, so look for their signs instead.
Shopping Tip -- Friday is the biggest cruise-ship visiting day at Charlotte Amalie (one time we counted eight ships at once), so try to avoid shopping then.
Don't Be Shy About Bargaining -- Theoretically, bargaining is not the rule on the islands, but over the years we have found merchant after merchant willing to do so, particularly on expensive items such as jewelry and perfume. The slow late spring, summer, and fall seasons are the best times to try to make deals with local vendors.
Diamonds Are Forever -- Jewelry is the most common item for sale in St. Thomas. Look carefully over the selections of gold and gemstones (emeralds are traditionally considered the finest savings). Gold that is marked 24-karat in the United States and Canada is marked 999 (or 99.9% pure gold) on European items. Gold marked 18-karat in the United States and Canada has a European marking of 750 (or 75% pure), and 14-karat gold is marked 585 (or 58.5% pure).