More often than not, you kick off your cruise vacation in a city port battling the kinds of stresses —traffic, pollution, sirens — that you’re on vacation to escape. Then there’s St. Thomas. As a U.S. Virgin Island, it’s got the ease of a domestic port — your cellphone works and everyone speaks English — with the allure of a foreign locale. So put your feet up, grab a rum punch, and watch your ship come in.
Splurge: At Home in the Tropics – This 200-year-old historic residence was converted in 2006 to a four-room home away from home. Owners Pam and Matt Eckstein welcome you with a bubbling wealth of information about the island and send you off in the morning with a hearty breakfast of stuffed French toast and fluffy omelets. Try to book room one or two, both of which have a private upper deck opening onto views of the palm-fringed hillside leading down to the sea. All rooms have their own poolside mini-fridge, free snacks, and water. Doubles from $245.
Steal: Frenchman’s Reef – Overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor, this 478-room Marriott hotel gives you a stunning preview of what’s to come with panoramic views of the turquoise Caribbean. A $48 million renovation completed in 2011 added modern elegance to guest rooms with herringbone carpets, hardwood headboards, and a tropical palette.
The resort is split into two: the main family-friendly Frenchman’s Reef and the more expensive, boutique-style Morning Star. Which should you choose? Though the rooms were more recently renovated at Frenchmen’s, we prefer Morning Star for its pristine beach and balconies. Added bonus? The hotel has its own dock for easy access to sailing and other water sports, as well as a ferry downtown, so there’s no need to rent a car. Doubles from $199.
Tip: Avoid the hassle of renting a car and navigating the heart-pounding curvy roads of St. Thomas by taking cabs. Rates are per person, per destination, so ask your hotel how much you should expect to pay, and establish the rate with the driver before leaving.
Breakfast: Gladys’ Café – Fuel up for a day of shopping at this locals-favorite café tucked within the stone walls of a historic alley off Charlotte Amalie’s main street. Go for the fried fish and grits, and (if you love it as much as we do), you’ll want to come back for a lunch of conch fritters or salt fish and dumplings.
Lunch: Fish Tails – Local fishermen deliver fresh catches daily to this new open-air dockside restaurant. The sprawling menu ranges from fish pastas to po’ boys, but our favorites are the whole fried fish with creole sauce and the Caribbean lobster, which you can wash down with a Virgin Islands Summer Ale (or three).
Dinner: Old Stone Farmhouse – If you’re looking for romance, book a table at the Old Stone Farmhouse, which is tucked within a converted 200-year-old stable on an old sugar plantation. On the menu? Shrimp ceviche, curried beef empanadas, and local mahi mahi with key lime buerre blanc.
Nightcap: Iggies Beach Bar – With palm trees lit by Christmas lights and frozen drinks in tiki mugs, Iggies is the quintessential Caribbean bar. Located 4 miles east of Charlotte Amalie, this rowdy roadhouse offers everything from beach volleyball to karaoke.
Tip: Dress codes in St. Thomas are flip-flop casual at all but the toniest dinner spots, so you can save your nicer outfits for the cruise.
For everyone: Charlotte Amalie – This capital city, once a pirate hideaway, is a rainbow of 17th-century Danish colonial buildings housing cafés, bars, and boutiques. Visit historic sites like Fort Christian — the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands — Emancipation Garden, and Market Square. Then pick up local souvenirs (picture straw baskets, calabash bowls, and hand-sewn dolls) in the warehouse-like Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative.
For everyone: Beaches – Don’t just spend the day at one beach — plan to see several. Start your day on the tucked-away Hull Bay, a stretch of sand on the north shore known for surfer-friendly waves. Two miles to the west sits the famous Magens Bay, a palm-shaded strip of sugary sand with shallow swimmer-friendly waters. (Arrive after 2 pm to avoid the crowds.) If you’re feeling frisky, walk down the short path to the clothing-optional Little Magens Bay, a favorite of President Bill Clinton, who opted to keep his trunks on. Or head to snorkeler fave Coki Beach and follow the rainbow-hued fish through the crystalline water.
For couples: Charter a boat –- Tribal Day Sails will rent you its 40-foot, high-performance boat for a just-the-two-of-us adventure. The skipper and his crew will spirit you away to private coves and secluded cays, or you can take it slower, dropping anchor for private swims and time in the boat’s hammocks.
For families: Coral World Ocean Park – Even the theme-park averse have to admit that Coral World is a tourist attraction that lives up to the hype. It features a three-story underwater observation tower 100 feet offshore, an 80,000-gallon coral reef exhibit, a 2-acre dolphin habitat, and pools for petting baby sharks, sting rays, and starfish. More adventurous kiddies (and parents) can swim with sea lions or sharks.
For the adventurous: Cas Cay Ecotour – Kayak through the red mangrove lagoons of Cas Cay, a wildlife preserve on the island’s southeast coast. Watch for pelicans, herons, and egrets above, and stingrays and multicolored fish below. Then hike along the coral-strewn beach, exploring the volcanic cliffs and critter-filled tidal pools.
Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for roadside treats. Some of the best treasures in St. Thomas sit in unlikely places. We love Udder Delite, a cute roadside milkshake shack near Magens Bay, and Duffy’s Love Shack, a tiki hut near Red Hook that serves drinks in fish bowls.