Although the city of Charlotte Amalie (“Am-ALL-yeh”) on the island of St. Thomas has a population of just under 20,000; it feels like a huge city after the small town, laid-back vibe in Culebra. Heading east on a sailboat in the Caribbean is always tricky, since the prevailing winds are almost always from that direction; but on a day with a rare wind that we could actually sail, we set out across the Virgin Passage to the U.S. Virgin Islands to anchor in St. Thomas Harbor right on the edge of downtown Charlotte Amalie. The passage is quite short, and we could actually see our destination before we even left the harbor in Culebra, but reaching a new territory was a symbolic and emotional milestone for us.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is the first place we ever went SCUBA diving. This is where we fell in love with the activity that would define almost every single vacation thereafter; an activity that lead us to years of training to become Divemasters; an activity that still thrills us and takes us to our happy underwater world every time we slip below the surface.
The USVI is a cruising milestone for another reason. As a fellow cruiser stated, this is the first “Saint Somewhere” we have encountered since leaving the U.S. It’s Jimmy Buffet’s infamously vague destination of a warm, tropical isle to escape the winter blues. Coincidentally, we arrived here just as friends back on the mainland U.S. are complaining of winter storms and temperatures that should only exist inside cryogenic chambers and frosty beverages.
We felt the culture shock from Culebra to Charlotte Amalie immediately. The anchorage was crowded, and we had to search for an open spot to drop the hook with enough room to swing without hitting other boats. We heard sounds from town that had become foreign to us: sirens, car horns, screeching brakes, loud truck engines, airplanes. We were definitely in the big city.
Fortunately, we had good friends waiting for us that have lived here for a few months and wanted to show us the town. On our first day here, Stacey and Jesse on s/v Smitty took us on a whirlwind tour of the island and its most important features for a cruiser – grocery stores. We also stopped at some classic watering holes and the requisite marine supplies store.
After a week here, we detected a distinct ebb and flow to the hustle and bustle of downtown Charlotte Amalie. If there are no cruise ships in town – or just a small one – town has a laid-back island feel of locals going about their business and cruisers and land tourists strolling the streets. But when several ships are in (we have seen as many as six at the same time) downtown is a busy place with merchants actively barking in the streets, taxi drivers offering rides to everyone who does not look local, and pale tourists from cold places frantically running around trying to see as much as they can during their usually short shore leave. Three loud blasts of a cruise ships’ horn indicates last call to get back aboard. That’s when you actually see people running in the streets, and taxi drivers smiling, knowing they will not have to discount their rates.
Charlotte Amalie was founded by the Danish in 1666 and originally named Taphus, meaning “beer houses” or “beer halls.” It was renamed in 1691 after the Queen Consort to King Christian V of Denmark, but we have chosen to honor its early history by seeking drinking establishments in which to consume cold beverages. Among other memorable locales, we found a tiny local brewery with an excellent selection of beers that offers free tastings; now that’s paying tribute to your history!
Despite all the city fun, we were eager for a little seclusion after a week in town and decided to do a quick trip to neighboring St. John to explore its pristine bays and national parks. St. John is the smallest of the three major islands that comprise the USVI, and much of its land is a protected reserve. This is readily evident at night as most of St. John, unlike its neighbors, is completely dark. We spent a week circumnavigating this jewel of the Caribbean while enjoying some solitude aboard Pura Vida, and hiking to ruins and small seaside towns.
A week was not long enough to explore all of St. John, but we will be back soon to spend more time above and below the water. This is the most amazing thing about the Virgin Islands; they are so close to one another you can keep going back and forth, and even do day trips from one island to the next. It’s even easy to go to the British Virgin Islands for a few days – which we plan to do soon – and come right back to the USVI. The only island that is “remote” is St. Croix, the largest of all USVI; and even that is only about twenty miles away.
We initially planned to spend about a month in the USVI before heading east, but it is now evident that we will be here longer. As a friend of ours put it: “so much to see, so little…never mind!”
We’re on island time!