The harbour at Charlotte Amalie capital of St Thomas and also of the entire USVI, still bustles with colour and excitement, although the harbour area can be a startling contrast for the visitor arriving by sea from the British Virgin Islands. As the Fort Christian Museum puts it, “Oversized, architecturally inappropriate buildings have marred the scenic beauty of the harbour. Harbour congestion has become a major problem.” One could add that by day the streets are congested too. At night visitors tend to stay within their resorts. But as the museum also says, there are still a number of historical buildings.
The town was built by the Danes, who named it after their King’s consort, but to most visitors it remains ‘St Thomas’. Beautiful old Danish houses painted in a variety of pastel colours are a reminder of the island’s history. One recently opened to the public is Haagensen House, the home of a former Danish banker, with a courtyard, gardens and antique furniture. T7749605. US$6, free shuttle service from Emancipation Garden. Daily 0900-1600. For a good view of the town and the surrounding area, take the Paradise Point Tramway, across the street from the cruise ship dock and Havensight Mall, actually a cable car which takes you on a seven-minute ride up 700ft to Paradise Point where there is an observation deck and a bar. You can see the harbour, cruise ships and other boats and lots of neighbouring islands. T7749809, F7749955. Daily 0900-1700. US$12 round trip.
There are also some picturesque churches and one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere (1833). Situated on Crystal Gade the synagogue is an airy, domed building, with a sand floor and hurricane-proof walls; it has books for sale in the office, iced springwater and visitors are given a 10 minute introduction for free. It is worth a visit. In 1996 the Hebrew Congregation of St Thomas celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding with lots of services and commemorative events. The Dutch Reformed Church is the oldest established church, having had a congregation since 1660 although the present building dates from 1846. The Frederick Lutheran Church dates from 1820 and its parish hall was once the residence of Jacob H S Lind (1806-27).
There are several old fortifications within the town. Bluebeard’s Castle Tower and Blackbeard’s Castle, the latter allegedly built in 1679 and lived in by the pirate and his 14 wives (there is no proof of this), is now an inn and restaurant. The Virgin Islands Museum is in the former dungeon at Fort Christian (1666-80). There are historical and natural history sections and an art gallery. T7764566 to check times. Free, but donations welcome as much restoration work remains to be done. Mon-Fri, 0830-1630. In contrast to the red-painted fort is the green Legislative Building, originally the Danish police barracks (1874), open Monday-Friday.
Government House, off Kongens Gade, was built in 1865-87. The Enid M Baa Library and Archive is on Main Street, it is another early 19th-century edifice. Two historical buildings which cannot be visited are the former Danish Consulate, on Denmark Hill and the house of the French painter, Camille Pissaro, on Main Street. The Dockside Bookshop in Havensight Mall (at the Cruise Ship Dock) has books and other publications on the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean in general. The Old Mill, up Crown Mountain Road from Sub Base traffic light is an old sugar mill open to the public. Estate St Peter Greathouse and Botanical Gardens has 500 varieties of plants, a stunning view and an art gallery for local artists.
Water Island, at the west end of St Thomas’ main harbour, is the smallest inhabited island. It was purchased from Denmark by the USA in 1944 to use as a military base during the Second World War. Fort Segarra was built as an underground fort and later the island was used to test weapons. It was transferred to the Department of the Interior from Defense in 1952. A year later a 40-year lease of the entire island was given to a developer for construction of a hotel and homes. The hotel closed after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The island’s ownership was turned over to the VI Government and private island homeowners in December 1996. While the marina and hotel property is to be torn down, the local government has constructed open-air buildings on the beach available for public use. Its name comes from the freshwater ponds, now salt ponds, once plentiful on the island. At weekends the beach is busy with local residents, charterboat guests and the anchorage is filled. During the week, the Kontiki floating booze cruise makes daily stops; other day-charter boats may also stop when weather is rough. Larry’s Ferry operates from Water Island to Crown Bay Marina, US$3 one way and special rates for islanders; moorings have been placed at the dock for use by people living on boats.
Hassel Island is part of US National Parks. There are ruins on the shore but no development has yet been carried out. Hire a boat or take your dinghy to the dilapidated dock; walk towards the ocean for a picnic and a great view of Frenchman’s Reef and watch the ships entering the harbour; then hike on a trail to an old building; climb the wall at the back of the building to get an outstanding view of the area from Frenchman’s Reef to Green Cay where you can see the surf breaking on three sets of rocks that are difficult to see from the water. Around the other end of the island is a small liveaboard boating community.