Three things differentiate Charlotte Amalie from other port towns in the Caribbean. First, there are the Danish-style red roofs that dot buildings on the hillsides. The Danes planted their flag on what is now the U.S. Virgin Islands and their influence on architecture remains. Secondly, there’s the U.S. flag waving from public buildings and has been for nearly a century. Nowhere else except Puerto Rico will you see this in the region. Third, several cruise ships, charter yachts, megayachts, passenger ferries, cargo boats, container ships, U.S. Coast Guard vessels and more make Charlotte Amalie’s harbor one of the busiest in the world. It’s the harbor that first attracted settlers and it is the harbor as well as what Charlotte Amalie has to offer in the here and now that keeps a steady stream of people dropping anchor for a visit or to stay.
The Danes were the first Europeans to permanently plant their flag on St. Thomas in 1666. The rowdy bunch of seafarers that followed quickly earned the settlement its name: Taphus, meaning beer houses. Nearly three decades later, the growing town received its more dignified name, Amalienborg (or Charlotte Amalie in English), in honor of the queen consort of Danish King Christian V, the ruling monarch at the time. In the mid-1700s, Charlotte Amalie was declared a free port open to international shipping. Its neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars, robust sugar industry and deep water port made the town a major center of trade in the Caribbean. When sugar declined and there was a threat of Germany having a direct access to the Panama Canal during the First World War, the U.S. purchased St. Thomas as well as St. Croix and St. John in 1917 and named them the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Charlotte Amalie might seem small – just 1.5 miles along the harbor from the Havensight cruise ship docks to the east to the Frenchtown and Sub Base neighborhoods to the west – but there are lots of things to see and do.
First, there are many historic places in the heart of town that are within easy walking distance of each other. These include churches that date back to the 17th and 18th century such as Frederick Lutheran Church, the St. Thomas Reformed Church, the Memorial Moravian Church, All Saints Cathedral and the newly
renovated Saints Peter & Paul Cathedral. Three blocks from the harborfront is the St. Thomas Synagogue, the second oldest Hebrew temple in the U.S. and one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. On the secular side, Charlotte Amalie’s pirate heritage comes alive at Blackbeard’s Castle. Here there are life-size bronze statues of the famous buccaneer himself as well as an awesome view of the harbor. It’s easy to get here from Government Hill by walking up the ‘99 Steps’. The Danes built step streets out of ballast brick to easily navigate the hillsides and this is one of the most famous. Bluebeard’s Castle, on the hill to the east, is today the site of several restaurants, bars and a hotel. Before the swashbuckling monikers, these two towers were used by the Danes to keep a look out over the harbor for enemies.
Secondly, Charlotte Amalie is full of the here and now. Main Street is famous for its shopping. Upscale boutiques are housed in former warehouses that served as the chief offloading area for goods arriving by ship. These shops now sell name brand watches, jewelry, precious gems, china, linens, designer clothes and more. There are over 50 shops in Havensight Mall, plus next door at IGY’s Yacht Haven Marina and at the Crown Bay Center. Bars, restaurants and food trucks throughout town as well as two public squares – Roosevelt and Emancipation – make nice places to eat, drink and relax.
There are three dockage facilities in town: IGY’s Yacht Haven Grande, Frenchtown and Crown Bay Marina. Many megayachts dock right on the waterfront. In 2016, a huge enhancement project starts to get Charlotte Amalie ready for its Centennial Celebration. In the lead up to this, there will be many events such art shows, a food truck fete, jazz in the park and special shopping evenings with live bands throughout town. It’s a perfect time to visit the unique port town of Charlotte Amalie.
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.