St Thomas for you

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Whether you’re a foodie, an adventurer, a shopper or a hopeless romantic, the USVI’s main island has something to suit, reckons Alexis Lipsitz

Nonsense, I thought, as the taxi driver manoeuvred another swooping curve around mossy hills, showcasing one cinematic slice of tropical scenery after the next. That tired old rap on the US Virgin Islands – that they aren’t very virgin anymore – just didn’t add up.

True, the USVI’s most developed island, St Thomas, embraces a saucy entrepreneurial spirit, especially when some of the world’s biggest cruise ships arrive into Charlotte Amalie, disgorging thousands of passengers for a half-day immersion in paradise – not to mention easy access to duty-free bling. Even an epic battering by two of the worst hurricanes in the island’s history in 2017 failed to diminish the island’s derring-do. St Thomas today buzzes with industry and renewal.

But, as I soon discovered, St Thomas is no fast-paced pocket of industrial hustle. Chickens skitter along roadsides and tropical foliage devours the landscape. Frangipani blossoms perfume the air. Travel a few miles north, south or east of the capital to discover ivory crescents of unspoiled beach and sapphire seas. Head to the hills for an aria of birdsong, tangles of rainforest and heart-stopping views of the glittering seas below.

It’s quieter still higher up in the breezy farmlands of Estate Bordeaux. Here the soil is so extra-terrestrially rich that a 20-pound cauliflower was once plucked from the ground – beneath which was a 200-pound pumpkin. The tree of life, the moringa, grows like a weed in these hills; its powers as a tonic are legendary. Rastamen, the farmers of the Caribbean, tend the loam, enveloped in blue sky and cottony clouds.

There’s no disputing that St Thomas’s good looks draw gawkers by the millions yearly. But beyond the harbourside hurly-burly is a multifaceted beauty with a laidback Caribbean pulse and a sunny something for everyone, from shoppers to foodies to beach lovers.

In St Thomas, you can truly have it all…

St Thomas for… foodies
The array of global cuisine on offer ranges from haute French to Mexican to pan-Asian. Sleek spots such as Havana Blue, at Marriott’s Morning Star Beach Club, combine a sizzling scene with on-trend dishes (here, Brazilian caipirinhas and cutting-edge Latino/Pacific Rim cuisine). You can get your fast-food kick in the island’s sprinkling of American brands but if, like me, you crave the local and the home-grown, you’ll be happy to know that St Thomas has plenty of places where the vibe is island chill and the food fresh and distinctly regional.

One of my favourite restaurants is Cuzzin’s (www.cuzzinsvi.com), set in a former 18th-century stable in the downtown district, which serves West Indian standards such as conch fritters and fungi (cornmeal grits). Gladys’ Café (www.gladyscafe.com) is hidden in plain sight in duty-free heaven, the harbourfront Royal Dane Mall, but it’s a genuine locals’ restaurant, overseen by Gladys, purveyor of homemade hot sauce, fine curry chicken roti and callaloo soup. I also love the Petite Pump Room (www.petitepumproom.com), next to the St Thomas ferry terminal, where you can lunch on hot platters such as honey-dipped fried chicken with fungi and plantains while waiting to catch a ferry to a neighbouring island.

One of the newest ways to experience St Thomas’s multidimensional dining scene is a guided food tour with locally owned St Thomas Food Tours (www.stthomasfoodtours.com), which weaves history, architecture and island storytelling into the mix.

St Thomas for… adventurers
Like many other Caribbean islands, the swirling seas that surround St Thomas are an aquatic playground. The island’s rock-star beach, Magens Bay, is one long mile of pillowy sand stretched between green hills. The waters are calm and shallow, ideal for swimming, and if you follow the fringes of the bay with snorkel and mask, you may spot a sea turtle lunching on seagrass.

For more serious snorkelling, head to Coki Beach, Secret Harbour, Sapphire Beach or even the island’s mangrove lagoon. Virgin Island EcoTours (www.viecotours.com) offers trips of the lagoon, a wildlife sanctuary where you can kayak and snorkel coral reefs.

Take sailing lessons – from beginner to advanced to racing – at the St Thomas Sailing Center (stsc.styc.club). You could even charter a boat to race in the annual St Thomas International Regatta (March; www.stthomasinternationalregatta.com). Love surfing? Test the swells at Hull Bay on the north shore. Those big hills aren’t just for gazing at, either. Fly high above the rainforest on St Peter Mountain on a zipline tour with Tree Limin’ Extreme (www.ziplinestthomas.com).

St Thomas for… history buffs
Charlotte Amalie’s magnificent harbour has hosted explorers, pirates and traders for centuries – Columbus did a sail-by in 1493. Much of the capital’s historic architecture was built during the island’s colonial era by Danish settlers, who ruled St Thomas and its lucrative sugar plantations from 1672 until 1917, when the United States bought it, along with sister islands St John and St Croix, for US$25 million in gold. Charlotte Amalie grew up around the harbour and the terraced hills rising above it. The Danes cut nearly 50 frigangs ‘step streets’ into the hills, many of which survive today, the most famous of which is the 99 Steps. A climb up the 99 Steps (actually 103, if you’re counting) rewards with rhapsodic views of the harbour and the city’s jaunty red-tiled roofs.

For an entertaining introduction to the island’s history and architecture, take a downtown walking tour with the St Thomas Historical Trust (www.stthomashistoricaltrust.org). You’ll stroll to places like Market Square, where vendors sell food and crafts in the same spot slaves were sold before emancipation in 1848. Also on the tour is the St Thomas Synagogue, built in 1833 – one of the oldest synagogues on American soil. Its sand floors are a reminder of the dangers faced by Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, when sand was spread on the ground to muffle footsteps.

St Thomas for… explorers
St Thomas is also a gateway to the other Virgin Islands, both US and British. My favourite way to hop between them is by interisland public ferry. Some boats are fancier than others; some operate on their own ‘island time’. Also know that if you’re visiting the BVI from the US Virgins, you’ll need your passport and must pay a tax when you leave British soil (US$15 per passenger; US$10 for BVI residents). On the plus side, ferry-hopping these waters is a wonderful and efficient way to experience the Virgins, and the scenery is magnificent.

The easiest (and cheapest) ferry ride is the 15-minute jaunt from St Thomas to St John (USVI), with some of the region’s most beautiful beaches plus unspoiled forest and mountain terrain – the island is two-thirds national park. Or ride to Jost Van Dyke (BVI), famed for its barefoot beach bars, or lobster capital Anegada (BVI); its flat, sandy terrain is the antithesis of the USVI’s volcanic hills.

You can also charter from one of several day-sail outfitters in St Thomas for scuba-diving trips to some of the Caribbean’s best dive sites. These include the wreck of the RMS Rhone, a Royal Mail steamer that sank in 1867 and is now home to silvery predators, plus snorkelling sites such as Norman Island, a former pirates’ lair said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Coral-encrusted caves and fish in paintbox hues are the lure for modern-day explorers.

St Thomas for… shoppers
No sales tax, plus a hefty US$1,600 duty-free allowance per person – including kids – makes St Thomas catnip for shoppers. Some of the Caribbean’s most celebrated shopping is right on the colonial cobblestones of the harbourfront of Charlotte Amalie, the islands’ capital. If you’re on the hunt for luxury baubles, watches, perfumes and Caribbean rum, just take a stroll along Dronningens Gade (Main Street) and let the shop barkers lasso you in. Tiffany & Co is here, as is the Virgin Islands’ AH Riise mall, set in former pirate warehouses and filled with a trove of gold, silver and scents.

On the trail for something more local, I head to nearby Tropical Creations in the Royal Dane Mall, which sells regional artworks, handcrafted batik and calabash bowls.

I like to browse the daily outdoor market in Market Square for spices and crafts among the fresh fish and veggies. And at the top ofthe Skyride gondola, whooshing riders up over 200m to Paradise Point, is a vast storehouse of souvenir tchotchkes and an open-air bistro with world-class views.

St Thomas for… romantics
Spectacular views, the island’s buttery sunshine and balmy tradewinds add to the bewitching ambience for a romantic escape.

If you prefer your romantic vistas on the stratospheric side, rendezvous over a cocktail at Mafolie Restaurant (www.mafolie.com), high above Charlotte Amalie harbour – the twinkling lights of cruise ships below and the stars in the blue-black sky are a truly heart-stirring sight. On the beach, it’s hard to beat the views of bobbing boats and light-dappled seas of Secret Harbour during dinner at Sunset Grille (www.sunsetgrillevi.com).

The blooming orchids at Phantasea Tropical Botanical Gardens (www.stthomasbotanicalgarden.com) are a feast for the eyes, as are the high-altitude views and meandering peacocks. There’s another scenic vista at Drake’s Seat, one of the island’s most popular lookouts, where the panoramic views are worth the company.

For a more intimate experience, reserve a private day sail with Captain Max (www.sailwithcaptainmax.com) for a leisurely snorkel, swim and lunch aboard a classic sailboat, departing from Red Hook. Or enjoy an active evening on one of Virgin Island EcoTours’ night kayak visits to the mangrove lagoon. Equally atmospheric are night snorkels in Secret Harbour, bubbling about in the calm nocturnal seas with underwater lights, led by an instructor from the on-site Aqua Action Dive Center (www.aadivers.com).

Alexis Lipsitz is the author of Frommer’s EasyGuide to the Virgin Islands

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