November 2006Bill Chittick
So, what does make St Thomas tick?... and what’s with the left-hand driving if it’s U.S.!
Good questions, both. To better understand, let’s turn the clock back to 1917 when international affairs were in a wee shambles, World War I notwithstanding. In the midst of the pageantry was miniscule Denmark, a spit of a country half the size of Maine, and half a world away. Through an accident of history, the tiny kingdom had owned St Thomas since 1748 as one of the spoils of a long-forgotten war.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, and we find Danish St Thomas, with the bustling port of Charlotte Amalie, lying in the direct path of international commerce routes between Europe & the Panama Canal, gateway to the vast Pacific trade. With the uncertainty of world political alliances over the outcome of the world war, the U.S. couldn’t afford to jeopardize control of the canal and the surrounding Caribbean gateway, so in 1917 purchased St Thomas, St John & St Croix from neutral Denmark as insurance.
Bill’s tip #1: Quaint Danish legacies aside, those of you unfamiliar with driving on the left may wish to follow my time-honored lead and practice for a week or two at home to get the hang of it before heading down to the U.S.V.I. – remember, safety first!
These days, St Thomas is still bustling & teeming with maritime harbor activity, but instead of freighters bound for the Orient, cruise ships by the dozen visit Charlotte Amalie 4 or 5 days a week, year ‘round. The sight of sparkling white luxury liners juxtaposed against the turquoise waters of the harbor is a sight to behold, made ever more exquisite as nightfall illumines with twinkling lights from both sky & ship. Some of the best duty-free shopping to be had in the Caribbean is in St Thomas – discover old Danish warehouses along tiny 18th century alleys with names like Trompeter Gade (Danish for ‘trumpeter’s lane’), with colonial architecture & lacy wrought-iron balconies jostling for space with boutiques, restaurants.& museums. The enclave known as Frenchtown bears testament to the multiethnic nature of Charlotte Amalie: originally settled by families from St Barts, Guadeloupe, and those Martiniquais seeking refuge in 1906 following the eruption of Mont Pelee, Frenchtown is populated even today by Gallic & Creole speakers. Some of St Thomas’s best restaurants are located here, including Craig & Sallie’s and Oceana.
For the first-timer, St Thomas is an especially ideal destination, as it offers ease of access (non-stop flights from many U.S. gateways), has every tourist amenity, and features villas for every budget and taste. Magens’ Bay, centerpiece of the island, was voted by National Geographic Magazine as one of the world’s 10 most beautiful beaches. St Thomas is also a jumping-off point for many of the other Virgin Islands (British & U.S.) so there is plenty of opportunity to explore neighboring destinations for the day. The iridescent waters surrounding St Thomas are also brimming with some of the most dazzling corals & fish to be found anywhere. In fact, Coral World, near Coki Beach, is one of the Western Hemisphere’s only “inside-out” underwater aquariums, where you can walk underwater to feed the barracuda (holding your breath? no need - scuba gear is provided!)
But St Thomas is also a haven for the sophisticate in search of seclusion, intimacy & fine dining. Concierge services offered on the island range from private chef service & in-villa massages, to making dinner reservations & arranging for watersports, including boat charters and day trips to nearby islands. And for golf aficionados, Mahogany Run on the north shore offers challenging links, especially the infamous Devil’s Triangle.
From the occasionally tedious perspective as international bon vivant, it’s nonetheless always a humbling pleasure to report on some meal highlights. These include the East End Café at Red Hook (Mahi-Mahi Piccata), Indigo at Magens Point (Sesame-crusted Chicken), Havana Blue, a totally phenomenal Cuban restaurant at Frenchman’s Reef (3-flight Ceviche & Miso Seabass, Mango & Blueberry Sorbets, Dulce di Lecche Ice Cream), & Craig & Sallie’s in Frenchtown (Crown Roast Pork, Eggplant Cheesecake, Mango-Citrus Crème Brulee).
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