“We’re sailing right past it.”
“We’re skipping it altogether and going straight to the British Virgin Islands!”
These are just a few of the rumblings we have read from other cruisers about the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In their defense, the massive cruise ships and their crowds, the “manufactured” feel of the shopping district, and the crowded harbor are a world away from what cruisers consider the ideal anchorage. But to dismiss St. Thomas as an island unworthy of exploration for these reasons is to miss out on an amazing place full of friendly locals that live somewhere between island time and rush hour.
We have spent a couple of months here and in the surrounding islands, and have had an amazing time. First, St. Thomas is a major business and shipping hub. If you’re a boater, this means you can find those large marine stores that you possibly haven’t seen since the U.S. mainland. And if you can’t find it locally, you can have it shipped at standard U.S. postal rates in just a few days to the friendly and efficient staff at the local post office. There are also several large, well-stocked hardware stores to replenish all those tools you dropped overboard or you foolishly sold before you left the U.S. because you thought you would never need them on a boat.
Need something large delivered? No problem. We had a new generator shipped from the U.S. mainland in just a few days at minimal cost. Because St. Thomas is a large shipping hub, you have your choice of carriers with extremely helpful staffs that will even do all the paperwork for you to clear goods into the territory for a nominal fee.
The city of Charlotte Amalie also has a host of services that we had been seeking. We stocked up at a full-service fabric store with an ample supply of Sunbrella fabric. We had our watermaker serviced. We got help and advice with our refrigeration system. We even got permanent souvenirs of our visit. Since we were staying in the area for a couple of months, we were able to sit for the several sessions needed to get some large tattoos we had both been wanting for quite a while.
Adding to the practical side of St. Thomas are several large grocery stores within walking distance from the docks. The stores have an amazing selection and excellent prices. No $7 wilted heads of lettuce here! Did I mention you will be hard pressed to find more inexpensive liquor anywhere? St. Thomas is the place to refill your depleted liquor stores aboard without breaking the cruising kitty. There’s a reason cruise ship passengers buy liquor here: no taxes!!!!
But enough of the practical stuff, St. Thomas is also full of fun activities. Almost every Caribbean island of any size boasts a rum distillery. But have you been to the one and only vodka distillery in the Caribbean? The ARC Vodka Distillery in Charlotte Amalie is a unique, small batch, artisanal distillery dedicated to perfecting vodka flavored with the essence of Caribbean herbs and fruits. It is run by two brothers that love their craft and will share their products with you while inspiring you to learn more about island history. Everything but the bottles they use is locally sourced in the Caribbean from small farms. Don’t miss this tour!
Like beer, but are tired of the light pilsners that seem to be ubiquitous in the Caribbean? Stop over at the tiny Frenchtown Brewing Company for a free tasting of some truly delicious craft brews. They have several styles to please every palate; from a crisp summer ale to a powerful and hoppy IPA. The owners of the brewery will make you feel like you’re drinking a homebrew at your friend’s house – assuming your friend is a brew-master extraordinaire!
If you stay long enough you might be able to participate in a local fundraiser, like the Beer & Bacon Bacchanal we were lucky to attend, or be invited to a free wine and beef tasting at the local Yacht Chandler.
Remember all those friends I mentioned that just stop here for a day on the way to somewhere else? Well, if you stay in St. Thomas for a while, you’ll get to see them and catch up, even if it’s just for one afternoon of sundowners. During our stay, we will even be able to spend the day with family that are stopping over on a cruise ship. What an unexpected surprise!
All of the above can be accomplished without having to stay at anchor right next to downtown. From the big harbor, you are only minutes away from several palm-lined beaches, complete with open-air bars and restaurants, and fun water activities. While in St. Thomas, you are just a couple of hours’ sail away from some of the most beautiful and fun locations in the northern Caribbean. You can take day or weeklong trips to the gorgeous anchorages in St. James, St. John, Saba Rock, and even the British Virgin Islands, and be back in St. Thomas in just a few hours to take care of business. St. Thomas is truly the best of both worlds; stay awhile!