By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I spent one week in January in three of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Water Island. We used Saint Thomas as our base for our travels. As a territory of the United States, U.S. citizens do not need a passport to travel to these islands and U.S. currency is used throughout these islands. With nonstop service from Washington Dulles on United Airlines, the flight only took about three- and one-half hours to Saint Thomas.
The Virgin Islands are on a different time zone (Atlantic), one hour later than the Eastern time zone. During our week on “island time”, we were able to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of these islands. The islands are fully of sites to see and amazing viewpoints.
Saint Thomas Sites and Attractions
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas (Congregation Blessing, Peace, and Loving Deeds)
In advance, we booked a tour of the historic synagogue. Heading into the town of Charlotte Amalie, we walked up Synagogue Hill to 2116 Crystal Gade. Contributions from visitors help maintain the synagogue which continues to hold Reform Jewish services on Friday night or holidays and Torah study on Saturday mornings with the Rabbi. We made the suggested Chai donation of $36. Others on our tour made purchases at the small Judaica gift shop. Current membership is around 100 families. Services have been held continuously for 220 years, making this the second oldest congregations in the Western Hemisphere. The congregation was founded in 1796 and the present building (a national landmark) in the Danish colonial style was dedicated in 1833. The current building was rebuilt on the site of two previous Jewish temples. Tours are held Mondays through Fridays of the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the U.S. Flag!
Our very informative tour was led by a volunteer docent (Agnes “Agi” Rampino). We learned on the tour that this sanctuary is one of the five remaining with sand on the floor. The real reason for the sand was to muffle the sound of the footsteps of the Sephardic Jewish families as they came together for worship in the 1790s. In remembering their roots on the Iberian Peninsula, they were thinking of the 1490s when Spain punished by death Jews who attempted to preserve their identity. Others say the sand is a reminder of the Jews’ exodos from Egypt.
Inside the sanctuary there is a beautiful eternal light, a Jewish star etched into the ceiling, wooden benches and seven Torah scrolls inside the ark. Three sides of benches face inward. A small museum of Jewish artifacts (the Weibel museum) adjoins the sanctuary, with a lovely painting of the sanctuary and a memorial board.
Paradise Point is reached by tramway (skyride) opposite Havensight Mall. The cable car rises slowly, taking about five minutes to reach the final stop 700 feet above the harbor and town of Charlotte Amalie. The views from the observation deck are amongst the best in Saint Thomas. You can see cruise ships, yachts and some of the other Virgin Islands. In addition to the gift shops at the top, there is an informal restaurant and bar. We relaxed and had drinks.
Paradise Point is opposite Bluebeard’s Hill and Castle, so the tramway experience provided us with a different scenic viewpoint. The price is currently $24.95 per adult. Advanced tickets are available to avoid the frequent lines.
Magen’s Bay Beach (on the Northside)
Magen’s Bay is consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the Caribbean. The view at the beach is stunning. The wide sandy beach is ringed with palm trees. There is a modest entrance fee of $5 per person. Rental of one beach chair and umbrella was $20. Although the beach was crowded, Magen’s Bay is so spread out that we did not feel uncomfortable at all.
The heart shaped bay is framed by mountain peaks. We saw fish swimming in the clear and calm blue green waters. The beach is considered part of the Virgin Islands Park system. There are plenty of restrooms, changing rooms and a large beach bar with drinks and food. We hung out at Magen’s Bay for the better part of one day and were not disappointed! An American publishing tycoon, Arthur Fairchild, gave the property to the Virgin Islands in 1946.
99 Steps to Blackbeard’s Castle
Saint Thomas has quite a few “step streets” which lead up hills from one street to another within the town. The step streets are on many hillsides because the Danish engineers who planned the town laid out the grid pattern unaware of the island’s hilly terrain.
The island’s most famed steps are alongside the currently closed Hotel 1829. There are 103 brick steps, not 99, some of which are in disrepair. The bricks are of several colors, as they were used as tall ships ballast. Most of the way there is no railing, so we walked up slowly.
At the top of the steps is the currently closed Blackbeard’s Castle, an historic landmark. This castle includes a 252-foot stone tower built in 1680 as an island fortification. It once was the centerpiece of a now defunct hotel. Supposedly Blackbeard the pirate spent time on Saint Thomas. You can peek through the boarded-up slats to see a statue of Blackbeard inside the hotel grounds. This castle is not to be confused with Bluebeard’s Castle, which is currently open as a resort.
Below the castle, the Three Queens Fountain honors the 1878 Fireburn Rebellion, a labor strike organized by the three women who are memorialized here. Queen Mary Thomas, Queen Agnes Salomon, and Queen Mathilda McBean were among the strike’s leaders. The fountain was unveiled in 2005. Here the three women wear clothing typical of the times, with long dresses, an apron and a long sleeved blouse. The sculpture was made by American artist Richard Hallier.
Downtown Walking Tour of Saint Thomas History
The three-hour tour led by Doc of the Saint Thomas Historical Trust was extremely informative. We began at the Society’s Museum and headquarters, 5532 Raadets Gade. The cost of $55.20 per adult goes directly to the society’s mission. Tours begin at 9 a.m.
We went through Emancipation Park which commemorates the Governor Von Scholten’s proclamation freeing the slaves on July 3, 1848 after a revolt. The southwest corner of the park contains a replica of the Liberty Bell given to the U.S. Virgin Islands by Virginia. The small park also contains a bandstand. The park also contains the Freedom Statue, which is a statute of a conch shell blower as a freed slave. Doc told us that identical statues sit on Saint Croix and Saint Thomas. Next to the park is the Vendor’s Plaza with many goods for sale within tented markets.
We walked by Fort Christian next, a red fortress with the year 1671 on its façade. The deep red three-tiered tower dominates the east end of Charlotte Amalie. The fort is an example of the gothic revival architecture. The oldest building continuously occupied in the U.S. Virgin Islands has served as the U.S. Virgin Islands police headquarters and home to the Governor. Tours were available.
The middle part of the walking tour included government sites. The two-story Virgin Islands legislature building occupies a stately lime green building just beyond King’s Wharf. The structure was built in 1828 to house the Danish police and still features the Danish coat of arms. Although the building was reconstructed, it is not open to the public, but we were allowed in for a bathroom stop! The stately building has lovely grounds. The legislature is the location where Virgin Islands ownership was transferred to the U.S. in 1917. Outside the building is the seal of the Legislature with the motto “United in Pride in Hope” on the ground.
We also walked up to Government House, a three-story white brick and wood building, with long balconies in wrought iron. The structure was built by the Danish in 1867 as a meeting place for the Danish Colonial Council and features ceremonial stairs. It’s now the non-official residence of the elected. Governor, who spends most of his time on Saint Croix. Again, this building is not open to the public to tour. Doc told us that Government House used to contain two paintings by Camille Pissarro which have been relocated elsewhere due to the hurricanes. There are two areas of interest outside government house – a fountain and an historic garden dedicated to the memory of Agatha Schuster-King, wife of Governor Cyril Emmanuel King, in recognition of her restoration and beautification of the territory. The colorful gardens were dedicated in February 2006.
We also walked by several striking churches. Founded in 1666, the Frederick Lutheran Church at 7 North Street is a Georgian-style church. On Sunday, I peeked in during services after heading up the wide sweeping staircase to see stained glass windows, the antique chandelier and the massive mahogany alter. The church is otherwise not open for tours. This is said to be the oldest church on Saint Thomas.
Doc explained that Saint Thomas is full of step streets, not just the 99 steps. We walked by the longest one, which consists of 143 steps.
The tour ended at the Alvardo de Lugo post office which contains two large murals in the lobby painted by Stevan Dohanos in 1941. These are the only two New Deal era Federal artwork in the Virgin Islands. “The Leisurely Native Tempo” is located at the west end of the lobby, and depicts a dock scene with bananas, fish, pots, and a full sack. Two persons with their backs turned and wearing straw hats stand in front of a sailboat. “The Outer World Significance,” located at the east end of the lobby, depicts an anchor, cannon and pyramid of cannonballs surrounded by conch shells. In the background is the tower of Fort Christian.
Day Trip to Water Island
We spent one day on Water Island which is only about two miles long! The fourth largest of the populated U.S. Virgin Islands became part of the territory in 1992. The 500-acre island is located off the south coast of Saint Thomas. Once a submarine base during World War II, it remained under control of the U.S. Army until 1952 and then was under the control of the Department of the Interior. It is now a great day trip from Saint Thomas.
The ferry leaves from Crown Bay Marina in Saint Thomas, near Tickles Dockside Restaurant. The ferry only takes about ten minutes and runs daily. There is no bathroom on the ferry boat, but there are public bathrooms in Crown Bay and at Honeymoon Beach. On the Saint Thomas side, the ferry runs on the hour on most days from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the Water Island side, the ferry runs 15 minutes past each hour most days from 8:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. The adult roundtrip price is $15, cash only.
From the ferry dock in Water Island at Phillips Landing, we took the short (but hilly) five-minute walk to Honeymoon Beach. A free shuttle is available to take you from the ferry dock to the beach if you do not want to walk.
At Honeymoon Beach, there are chair rentals and food is available. The cost for the rental of one chair and one umbrella was $10. Food and drinks are available at Dinghy’s Beach Bar and Grill which has tables and chairs for dine in service. The menu includes sandwiches, salads, and more. The beach is a small but perfect crescent of sand. It is secluded on the island’s west side. Most visitors head to Honeymoon beach to swim, snorkel, and sunbathe. During our time there, the beach was quiet and not crowded at all.
Day Trip to Saint John
The ferry from Crown Bay on Saint Thomas to Saint John Cruz Bay leaves twice per day on Inter Island Boat Services. The round-trip cost is $40 per adult. The 35-minute trip is very scenic. Although the ferry boat is larger than the Water Island ferry, there are no bathrooms, and the water was choppy. Heading back, the ferry was delayed one hour due to traffic.
Cruz Bay is the capital and hub of activity. Right by the ferry stop, there are taxis available for day tourists. The best way to see a good part of the island in one day was to join one of the taxi tours in Cruz Bay. We went with Charlie who was a very knowledgeable guide. The cost was $35 per adult, cash only, for the two- and one-half hour tour.
Charlie was a wealth of information on local plants, and he periodically stopped to point them out. We were impressed with the way he was able to make his way up the dramatic hilly roads with plenty of switchback turns and breathtaking views.
Our favorite stop was at the Annaberg sugar and rum factory ruins. The ruins included a 150-year-old windmill. There are also remnants of the slave quarters, the stone and brine coral sugar mill, the horse mill and rum equipment. This site was one of the island’s 100 sugar and cotton plantations, none of which still operate. Charlie explained that these factories were an important part of the economy in colonial times. Freedom of the slaves in 1848 made these industries unfeasible.
There are hundreds of goats on Saint John. Charlie made a stop so we could see one large white goat up close and personal.
We drove by several lovely beaches for very brief stops. On an island with memorable beaches, Trunk Bay with its emerald water is the loveliest.
Over half of Saint John is national parkland. The rest is small towns, shops, and homes. Although the park’s visitor center in Cruz Bay was closed when we were visiting, the rangers provided us with helpful information by phone.
Cruz Bay is full of shops. One particularly nice complex is at Mongoose Junction with craft shops and restaurants, only five minutes away from the ferry dock.
We spent some time with drinks at Bajo el Sol gallery, art bar and rum room. Located in Mongoose Junction, the hybrid space sells local art, as well as serving rum, coffee, tea, food, and other drinks. Books on sale focus on Caribbean themes. Fern and I found the store comfortable and intriguing.
Day Trip to Saint Croix – Cancelled
We planned to spend one day on Saint Croix. Unfortunately, 48 hours before we were scheduled to go by ferry from Saint Thomas, the Native Sun Ferry canceled its service because the vessel was not operational. Fern and I tried to book a flight instead, but there were no seats available on the seaplane or the commercial airlines. Later we learned that the ferry service between Saint Thomas and Saint Croix has been unreliable over the last few years.
Food and Restaurants – Saint Thomas
Twice we ate lunch at The Pressure Spot, 9a Norre Gade, an informal vegetarian and vegan restaurant. Prices were very reasonable; the menu was extensive, and the food was very tasty. Fern and I had vegetarian wraps. The smoothies were thick and cooling. We learned that the restaurant was owned by Pressure Busspipe, a local musician. The staff were very friendly.
We purchased food several times at the Pueblo Supermarkets. There are two locations – near Crown Bay Harbor and near Long Bay Harbor. Food prices are much higher than in the U.S. mainland. Fern and I were impressed by the wide selection of produce. These stores are substantially smaller than U.S. supermarkets and, as a result, have a limited selection of items.
We also bought food at one of the Moe’s Fresh Markets. There are three locations and the experience at Moe’s was very similar to Pueblo’s in terms of size, prices and selection.
We had drinks at Bumpa’s, which is open for breakfast and lunch. Fern and I sat at the table where John Grisham wrote The Pelican Brief. The menu focuses on sandwiches and brunch items. Bumpa’s has an outstanding view of Saint Thomas harbor from the second-level seats. The grumpy old man who served me was far from welcoming to me and others.
At Crown Bay Marina, Scoops and Brew is a cute little shop for ice cream, frozen desserts, drinks, and other dessert items. The store was opened in 2013. The staff was very helpful in helping us get a taxi back to Bluebeard’s Castle.
Getting around – Saint Thomas
We did not rent a car since driving is on the left side of the road, a relic left over from British owners and the Danish era. Except in Charlotte Amalie, the roads are generally narrow and hilly. When walking, we had to stay on alert because sidewalks were uncommon outside of the town. The pace is generally slow on Saint Thomas – except on the roads!
We relied heavily on taxis which were usually waiting at tourist attractions. Although there is a schedule of official rates, we were rarely quoted the same price twice for identical trips! I suggest you agree on a price before entering the taxi. Uber and Lyft are not available. Fares are based on the distance, the number of passengers and the amount of luggage being transported. No credit cards are accepted. There are numerous taxi companies available. Although we had heard about the dollar “safari” taxis used by locals to get around Charlotte Amalie, we never found one going by.
Main Street is full of shops. We tried to avoid this crowded street which seemed to be where the cruise ship passengers were heading to each day to buy jewelry! Off Main Street, the town of Charlotte Amalie has many narrow alleyways which were fun to walk through.
Where to stay – Bluebeard’s Castle Resort
We had a superb experience staying at the Castle, even though the stay was expensive. The resort was renovated after suffering hurricane damage in 2017. Rooms of various sizes are available through Airbnb or the hotel. Some of the pluses of staying at the Castle included:
An onsite well-equipped fitness center with cardio equipment, weights and mats; a safe location with a 24 hour security service; a large pool; rooms which included small kitchens; tremendous views of the Saint Thomas harbor; a small convenience store onsite called The Castle Café and Deli with drinks, some food items and a lovely outside courtyard; several entertainment shows during the week at the bar and restaurant (including a band night and a karaoke night); taxis are easily available; the staff was friendly; onsite washers and dryers are available (about $2.50 per load); and there is an onsite restaurant and bar called the Sunnyside Café offering three meals per day.
We ate dinner one night at the Sunnyside Café. Although the prices were reasonable and the service was good, the menu is limited. Fern and I were disappointed with our meal. However, we did enjoy the drinks offered at the Castle Café and Deli.
Bluebeard’s Castle is an historic property dating back to the 1600s. The resort occupies an entire hilltop with spectacular views overlooking the harbor and town of Charlotte Amalie. Its signature red rooftops are among the first sights for arriving cruise passengers.
The property contains a round stone tower of brick and rubble masonry built by the Danish government in 1689 as a coast defense installation. Additionally, cannons remain on the grounds. Although no official record of Bluebeard exists, according to local legend the pirate used this tower as a fortress, lookout, and lair. Bluebeards opened as a hotel in the 1930s and was visited by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 (as noted by a sign on the tower).
Closed due to 2017 Hurricane:
Both of our guidebooks were seriously outdated due to permanent closures from the 2017 hurricane damage. Nevertheless, the books US Virgin Islands Alive and Berlitz Travel Guide Virgin Islands were of some help for trip planning. We walked by several attractions that we thought were open but were closed. More current information is available on internet sites or by picking up local brochures. A planning packet of brochures is available from VI Now.
The Camille Pissarro Gallery on 14 Main Street is no longer open. There is signage that indicates that “the father of Impressionism” was born in this building.
The Hotel 1829 is closed and up for sale. This national historic site is right in the heart of Charlotte Amalie, across from the Post Office. Designed in Spanish style, the initials of the first owner, a French sea captain, are seen in the wrought-iron grillwork on the balcony above the main entrance. It is hard to miss the pink structure. We learned on our walking tour that the handcrafted fountain made of amber jewels survived the hurricane and remains inside.
Seven Arches Museum is not accessible either. Doc told us that the Museum contained seven arches that supported a “Welcoming Arms” staircase. We walked by the King Street location where access to the seven arches is now blocked off.
The Virgin Islands are now our favorite Caribbean Island experience. Fern and I expect to return, especially to see Saint Croix. Remember to take more cash than usual, as many of the attractions and means of transportation do not take credit cards in the U.S. Virgin Islands.