Our next destination was Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands. Following a short, rough sail (as usual), we dropped anchor in the middle of the large harbor. Charlotte was quite a change from quaint Culebra. The first impression was a huge harbor filled with dozens of boats of all varieties: charter catamarans, cruising boats (some of them disused and rotting away on their mooring), “pirate” ships, enormous mega-yachts, and towering cruise ships. The others said that on the first trip, on the east end of the harbor there had been a run down hotel with disgusting showers. Unfortunately, it had cleaned up too well, being replaced with a marina too high class to allow non-guests in at all, though there was at least a dingy dock available for getting ashore.
Charlotte Amalie is the largest city in the Virgin Islands (US or British), but has more the feel of a cruise ship amusement park than a real city. Walking around we were surprised to find block after block of jewelry stores, watch shops, high end clothes and accessories, a Belgian chocolatier, and other luxury items, all cashing in on Charlotte’s status as a “free port,” meaning no sales tax (in fact, there is no sales tax in all of the USVI). It is like an airport duty-free shop spread out over a square mile. One evening we decided to go out for dinner, and found the downtown area shuttered up and deserted. Sometime around 4 or 5 in the afternoon the cruise passengers return to their ships, and the city shuts down. Despite the many restaurants lining the streets, by 6 pm we had a hard time finding anyplace open to eat.
However, there were a few non-shopping attractions in Charlotte Amalie that Danica and I found. The main thing was a St. Thomas historical walking tour, a sequence of oddball, vaguely historical attractions, including an amber waterfall, a one-room “museum” of fake prehistoric plants and a giant rubber t-rex head, two old houses, and Blackbeard’s Castle. Blackbeard’s castle is misleadingly named (on purpose). It is an old stone Danish watch tower where Blackbeard may have been imprisoned briefly. But being up on a hill, it did offer an excellent view of St. Thomas’ hilly landscape framing the boat-filled harbor below. We also swung by the US Virgin Islands governor’s house, and posed in the old Danish guard post out front. Possibly our favorite part of the whirlwind tour was our buffet lunch at Natural Livity Kulcha Shop & Juice Bar.
One fun thing about St. Thomas is the colorful open air jeepney / safari style buses and taxis, sort of like a large pickup truck with bench seats and a metal awning. We took the bus from one end of its route to the other, passing Frenchtown, the airport, the University of the Virgin Islands, before turning and climbing up the steep white-knuckle switch back and turns of St. Thomas’ mountainous roads. Considering that, in addition to the wild curving streets, they drive on the left side of the road here (for reasons that I have not been able to find an explanation for), we were all glad to have somebody else at the wheel. Eventually we reached Red Hook, a town on the east coast of the island, just across from St. John. It had been an interesting exploration of the island, and a good fact finding mission that would be useful later for meeting people at the airport, taking ferries, and getting groceries and supplies.
Around the corner from Charlotte Amalie and lying just off St. Thomas is Water Island, the fourth largest US Virgin Island. Apparently it was named Water Island because it was a source of fresh water for ships. It turns out that it is still put to that use to this day, because one of the reasons we went there was to make water, since the water in Charlotte Amalie’s harbor is too dirty and would clog the water maker filter. We also read that there was a nice beach there. To our surprise, the coast of Water Island was even more chock full of boats than St. Thomas. But, we managed to find a good spot in Druif Bay, home of Honeymoon Beach, and we were able to enjoy some swimming and burgers on the beach.
Nearby to Water Island, just across the channel on St. Thomas, is a place to get propane tanks refilled. Getting there was an interesting walk through an area of St. Thomas that definitely is not a cruise ship amusement park. A long semi-industrial expanse of scrap metal dealers, welding shops, construction material depots, and used tire vendors eventually dumped us at the place to get propane, right at the doorstep of a large power plant. We were amazed to see that the tanks were filled based on weight, using purely mechanical old cast iron beam balance scales, and that the operator haphazardly vented large amounts of propane all over the place.
Our next destination was St. John, but on the way we couldn’t resist stopping at Christmas Cove off of Great St. James Island… it was the night of December 24th, after all.