Great history and awesome Caribbean beauty in St. Thomas, USVI
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS – Like anyplace else you choose to visit, the island of St. Thomas is what you make it.
You can step off your cruise ship or your airplane and head straight to the duty free shops on the main shopping drag and walk into air-conditioned shops (thank goodness on a day like Wednesday) and look for Swiss watches and six dollar bottles of local rum and French perfume and Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts (guilty as charged) and all sorts of goodies. You can dine at one of 1,314 Senor Frog’s restaurants in cruise port cities around the Caribbean. Or shop at the little stalls near the waterfront and load up on knock-off Coach purses and five dollar t-shirts and sandal-shaped key rings or Bob Marley towels.
Or, you can wander a block or two off the main street and find an entirely different city. You can wander down one of the quiet laneways and find yourself in the wonderful Gladys Café (see photo below), where they have local art work on the exposed stone walls and you can sip on freshly made passion fruit juice and fork out $18 for a lunch of curried goat, rice and peas, sweet plantains, sweet potatoes and a block of mac and cheese. Or sample the fungi, a polenta-like dish made from cornmeal, or jerked mahi-mahi topped, if you like, with one of the tremendous, homemade pepper sauces they sell for six bucks a pop.
If you choose to wind your way up, WAY UP, to Mountain Top you can pose outside with the pirate statues or wander into what’s billed as the Caribbean’s largest gift shop (some of the stuff isn’t bad, actually). Lots of folks stop for the alllegedly world's best banana daiquris, but that's not really my thing. There are all those touristy things available if that's your thing, and God bless you for it. Then again, if you like you can bypass the kitsch and go straight out to the deck and stare down in wonder at the lovely strand of sand at Magens Bay and gaze off to the east and take in St. John and the deep green British Virgin Islands of Jost Van Dyke and Tortola rising from the blue water of the Caribbean. It's a stunning sight, for sure (see photo below left).
We did a little bit of all of those things on Wednesday, and quite enjoyed ourselves.
The remarkably knowledgeable Felipe Ayala, a local institution, gave us a great tour of the Blackbeard’s Castle historical complex, a series of historical homes that rise up a hill just a few steps from downtown. It’s a complex sometimes called The Williamsburg of the Caribbean.
Ayala showed us the inside and outside of several old homes in the area. Villa Notman dates from 1861 and features acres of white wrought iron trim and railings brought in from New Orleans.
Haagensen House dates to 1822 and was built by a Danish banker and has Greek revival elements. Better for visitors are deep orange walls inside and a lovely balcony high over the harbour with excellent views (see photo below right) and cooling breezes. The period furniture in the dining room and bedroom are lovely, and they also have some Camille Pisarro prints as Pisarro was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. (Another famous St. Thomas celebrity, just fyi, is Kelsey Grammer of Cheers and Frasier fame).
At the top of the hill is the SkyTower or Skytsborgtarn in Danish, also known as Blackbeard’s Castle. It’s unlikely Blackbeard actually used it as the Danes were pretty good about keeping pirates at bay.
Still you can’t blame folks for the marketing angle. They also have a Blackbeard Ale made on the island that’s pretty good, and Bluebeard’s Castle is a popular hotel that houses the Room With a View restaurant I wrote about yesterday.
We finished the night with a good if not overwhelming meal at Amalia Cafe, a Spanish place with a nice, covered, outdoor patio on a quiet laneway (Charlotte Amalie is VERY quiet at night) and drinks at the bar at Hotel 1829, where Patrick entertained a small but enthusiastic group with tunes from The Beatles, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Jim Croce and more. It was the sort of casual, fun, sing-a-long, goofy night you'd almost certainly never get at a big resort, which is another great advantage of staying in town at a small hotel.
On today (in iffy-looking weather with big, dark clouds) to St. John, where I have a reservation at an eco-tent place called Concordia on the far eastern edge of the island and then, for something completely different, a night at The Westin resort.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @jimbyerstravel