St. Thomas, the cosmopolitan hub of the Caribbean, is for New Yorkers who want to get away — but not from it all. In a region of sleepy cays and solitary beaches, St. Thomas bustles with commerce, nightlife and the Caribbean’s liveliest dining scene.
The peaceful bays and pristine beaches are there, too, for those who want them. But in this duty-free outpost of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where people drive on the left, there’s plenty to do even on a rainy day — including visits to a spectacular aquarium and one of the oldest synagogues in the Americas.
The diversity of offerings on St. Thomas makes it an excellent choice for those on a budget; unlike the more secluded, more precious Caribbean resorts, St. Thomas has plenty of affordable lodgings. And dining options are varied enough to ensure you won’t break the bank for dinner and cocktails — or get bored wandering the same strip night after night.
Charlotte Amalie, the only real city, is perched right at mid-island, overlooking the steady bustle of ships in and out of St. Thomas Harbor. Not just another port town, the island capital offers a tableau of graceful white 19th-century buildings set against dark-green hills, with views of sailboats in the bay.
Main Street is a true shopper’s paradise: there are boutiques full of pareos and sun hats, vast liquor emporiums with eye-popping discounts, and glittering windows full of wholesale diamonds and emeralds. The merchants know you’re on vacation, and they make it as easy as possible to part with your cash, boxing up rum and hot sauce for shipping and setting diamonds on the spot. You can find everything from high fashion to rustic handcrafts and local delicacies in the shops on and around Main, including several open-air market stalls.
Those who can tear themselves away from the cash register discover that Charlotte Amalie is charming in its own right, and easy to explore on foot. Past landmark churches and pastel villas, you’ll find one of the most memorable streets east of San Francisco’s Lombard: the so-called 99 Steps. The strong-of-knee enjoy counting the steps way up this climbing alleyway, built by the Danes nearly 300 years ago; at the top, the reward is a stunning view over the harbor.
It’s just a short walk from Main Street up “Synagogue Hill” to the historic St. Thomas Synagogue. Sephardic Jews founded the temple in the late 1700s, more than a century after the first Jews arrived during the religiously tolerant Danish reign.
Cast out of Iberia, they found a welcoming home in the New World. (One of them was St. Thomas’ most famous native son: the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, whose father was a Jew of Portuguese descent). Jewish merchants were integral to the development of Caribbean industry, including the flourishing trades of sugar, rum and mahogany.
The current synagogue building dates to 1833; it was built after a series of fires destroyed its predecessors. It is unmistakably Sephardic, with pastel Moorish archways, gleaming white columns and leafy palmettos. Inside, the light-filled space is arranged so that worshippers face each other; the sandy floor alludes to the congregants’ Caribbean home as well as the noise precautions of their Marrano ancestors, who aimed for maximum discretion.
The congregation — about 100 families, plus seasonal worshippers — welcomes visitors to its weekly Reform services, as well as to the historic Jewish cemeteries with stones dating back hundreds of years, that it oversees.
A more recent St. Thomas attraction is the Coral World Ocean Park, a sea life complex for which the term aquarium is insufficient. After all, few aquariums boast an observation tower 100 feet offshore in the blue Caribbean, where visitors descend several air-conditioned stories to witness the ocean depths through glass. There are also shark tanks, a hands-on turtle pool and a 20-aquarium gallery showcasing everything from moray eels to barracudas.
Eventually, though, everyone heads to the beach. Magens Bay, a wide, gorgeous expanse on the northwest coast, might be the quintessential Caribbean beach; it’s certainly among the region’s most popular. With stunning, wraparound views of green mountains, this 68-acre public park has walking trails that wend through coconut groves, campgrounds, beach bars and a lush tropical arboretum.
For a quieter beach, the less-developed eastern shore features myriad pristine bays within a kayak’s reach of tiny, lush islands. Amid these turquoise bays, with only the cry of seagulls breaking the quiet, civilization seems far, far away.
But that’s the beauty of St. Thomas: it never really is.