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St. Thomas is in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Even though it's only 31 square miles, St. Thomas does have a couple of official cities.
This is the islands, so naturally the locals are very laid back. You can count on speedy service especially in the areas where they are used to dealing with a lot of tourists though. Some decorum is still important; keep swimwear on the beach, and dress comfortably for other activities.
Say "good morning" "good afternoon" or "good night" when you enter a room, when you get in a taxi, or before you start talking to someone and they will be more friendly, this is the polite thing to do and shows that you aren't a complete tourist.
English is spoken throughout the island.
Once you've reached any area (e.g., "downtown", Havensight, Red Hook), walking becomes the preferred way to get around. However, the island in general is too expansive and hilly to explore totally on foot, especially if you are on a limited schedule, e.g., on a cruise ship.
By Bus Tour Several tour operators offer professional tours to popular locations by air-conditioned bus. You can make arrangements privately, or through your hotel concierge or cruise ship.
By Private Tour If you want to tour the island thoroughly, without the restrictions of a large bus tour by your hotel or cruise ship, consider hiring a cab/driver for a few hours. Many are amiable and well-qualified to show you places the buses can't or don't go, and where buses go, your driver can time your arrival to avoid the bus crowds. For 3-5 hours, a common rate is around $50 per hour, so four or more people can have a "private" tour for much less than all on a "bus" tour. Cab drivers are happy to oblige, so you should have no trouble hiring one at any resort, the cruise ship docks, downtown or in shopping areas.
There are plenty of rental car offices in the airport and around Charlotte Amalie. Traffic drives on the left side of the road, and all cars are US Specification left-hand drive cars. Outside of Charlotte Amalie, the roads are mostly narrow and quite dangerous if you go too fast. Obey the speed limits and take the curves with caution. Local drivers are rather aggressive, and they speed around the turns and honk liberally, although the horn is used more often to say "hello" or "thank you" than express displeasure.
Major routes are marked with two-digit route numbers (beginning with 3 and 4 on this island), and minor connectors get three-digit numbers. The sign of choice is black numbers on a white circle, the same as several states on the mainland. You generally should not stray off the numbered routes (except in Charlotte Amalie) unless you need to do so to go to your hotel or resort. Unlike St. John or St. Croix, all of St. Thomas' numbered routes are paved. However, the routes are not well signed on most of the southern half of the island, especially around Charlotte Amalie, and they are prone to suddenly turning off onto another road or changing numbers without notice.
If you are planning to go on a driving tour, bring a good map, then, if you want any hope of following the numbered routes. Most rental car offices hand out a map with a rental; if you didn't get one, the same map can be picked up at most stores. The one in the back of your guidebook is likely not detailed enough. However, even if you do have a map, you may still have to ask a local for directions. If you are in this situation, be aware that any question such as "How do I get to Route 30?" will be almost universally met with a blank stare. The route numbers are mostly for tourist convenience; locals do not know the numbers, or even the road names in most cases. Often you will get directions such as "Turn left at the fork in the road, then right at the gas station."
Ferries leave from Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook to other islands pretty much all day every couple of hours. There are information booths along the waterfront where you can get a schedule for the local ferries and a ferry terminal near French Town for the longer distances (BVI etc). For on-line schedules to plan your outing, try 5 for getting around the USVI, and 6 for reaching the British Virgin Islands. If you are going to St. John it is much cheaper and faster to go from Red Hook.
General note: Everyone in the city uses their horns liberally...short toots for "hello". They drive on the left side of the street and don't really follow the rules. They don't follow the rules about a lot of things, in fact they are very disorganized, but it can be charming.
The island is arguably the biggest shopping mecca in the Caribbean. Goods are imported to the island duty and excise free, and visitors do not directly pay any duty or tax on purchases (merchants do pay a Gross Receipts Tax of 5%.) Buyers may face Customs duty as they return home if they exceed their Customs exemption (see discussion below).
U.S. currency is used/accepted universally. ATMs can be found in numerous locations. As anywhere, major purchases should be made by credit card. (Credit cards issued by U.S. banks do not induce foreign-exchange fees, others may.) Most store-front establishments, resorts and restaurants accept credit cards and traveler checks. Few places accept personal checks. Sellers in open-air bazaars may not accept credit or debit cards.
You can shop many dozens of stores downtown (in Charlotte Amalie), and others in a few malls dotting the island, and near cruise ship docks, e.g.,:
You'll find numerous tent kiosks at Vendor's Plaza at the near southeast side of downtown...across the highway from the waterfront. There you'll see many colorful offerings in shirts, caftans, rainwear, etc., often marked with USVI scenes or logos, most manufactured elsewhere. Other stores in resorts, strip malls, etc., tend to serve locals and land vacationers; many of them open on Sundays whether cruise ships are visiting or not, e.g., K-Mart (one walkable from Havensight) & a larger store in Tutu Park.
In many stores, gems, jewelry, watches, liquor, cosmetics, perfumes, linens and (sometimes) cameras, optics, electronics and fine crystal and china can be good buys, but know the costs for the same/similar items back home. (Some cameras, optics and electronics may be obtained at home from aggressive discounters (e.g., on Internet) for equivalent or lower prices. But those savings can disappear if those sellers charge sales tax, shipping costs, or extra for US-importer warranties.) Price advantages for U.S. citizens may be helped by generous duty exemptions. These advantages can make the economics of buying in the USVI slightly better for U.S. citizens than elsewhere (e.g., St Martin) where prices may be similar, sometimes better. However, unique, appealing or well-priced items seen elsewhere should not be avoided because of feared duty costs...often modest even if you exceed your exemption. (see "Customs and Duty", this section below)
Bargaining is appropriate in open-air bazaars, and should be tried in stores but may be rebuffed in a few for some kinds of items. Here, ensure that items of interest that need any kind of (service) warranty have one in writing that is usable at home, e.g., for electronics, watches, cameras. You need to ask if any warranty is "grey-market", international or backed by the US-importer, and understand the consequences of what's offered. For valuable gems or jewelry, ensure the seller provides a written description and certified appraisal of each item's worth.
In exchange for very large fees paid buy some merchants, "port shopping advisers" on cruise ships tout those merchants as more reliable than others, with passenger satisfaction "guaranteed, except for negligence or buyer's regret". Ultimately, you pay those fees. But most stores are quite reputable, ready to rectify any problem that's truly their responsibility. Touted or not, smaller retailers such as Artistic Jewelry and Mr. Tablecloth offer quality fully-equivalent to such large and famous stores as Cardow or A.H. Riise. And they may offer items seen nowhere else. The best approach...always thoroughly inspect any high-cost item and obtain a written/signed description or appraisal before accepting it.
Per "Get in" discussion above, when many cruise ships are in port, the open-air bazaar and stores can be crowded...sometimes very crowded. That can compromise bargaining success and how well you are helped even in the best stores with fine staffs. Shopping early or late can help avoid some of the crowds. Stores downtown (Charlotte Amalie) usually open at 0930-1000 and close around 5:00 PM. Half-day, morning ship's tours (the most popular) end about noon back at the ship, and ship itineraries often call for departures at 4-6 PM (with all-aboard as much as an hour earlier). You might time your shopping accordingly.
On Sunday, early can be essential. A few stores (mostly in downtown Charlotte Amalie) don't open, more open only if at least one cruise ship is in port, and many of those stores close by early-mid afternoon. Occasionally, local holidays/festivals make shopping downtown problematic due to street and store closures, e.g., for parades. Most carnivals/celebrations are in late April & early May.
Especially if you must fly to get home, you may wish to have stores ship out-sized or heavy items home for you (liquor, perfumes and tobacco excluded). Costs for surface shipping can be modest, air a bit more but faster. (Your local Post Office, UPS or FEDEX store should be able to give you example costs. "Know Before You Go" noted below indicates the US Postal Service is more convenient for sending dutiable items.) Any method helps avoid the dangers of damage (or theft) by baggage handlers, greatly simplifies your return home, and allows you to refuse to accept (at/hear home) any shipment that appears damaged. There are requirements for documentation and customs labeling when shipping dutiable items. Retailers should help, and may even arrange everything. If significant customs duty will be involved, you may have to pay it at/near home as you receive the item(s). But ask the merchant if you can simply declare the item on your Customs form as you return home.
Several stores offer large and varied selections of quality and premium liquors (and other merchandise) at low prices rarely if ever seen in the U.S. For liquor, they include: A.H. Riise/Penha, Dynasty, Caribana and others downtown; many of the same names in Havensight, plus K-Mart, Pueblo Supermarket and Al Cohen's Warehouse near Havensight; A.H. Riise/Penha and Supreme Liquors at Crown Bay, with another Pueblo Supermarket nearby. As of Summer 2014, prices in most stores for popular brands were quite close except for scattered "specials". Prices for highly-premium brands may vary more. The airport has a store that may be used buy those arriving or departing. (See discussion under "Returning home" below). Most liquor comes in one liter bottles (some larger), some US-produced and many European liquors come in .75 liter ("fifths"), and liqueurs may be in still other sizes. So take care when calculating or comparing cost per ounce or liter.
Some of those stores will box your purchases and deliver them to your ship, hotel or airport the same day at no charge if you ask and purchase early enough. That way, you don't have to carry them with you the rest of the day. Others (e.g., K-Mart, Cohen's) usually have boxes available, and may box bottles for you to carry. (Boxes/boxing and delivery may be the major difference among sellers.) If you have a choice, smaller boxes (e.g., 2-4 bottles each) are easier to pack and pad in luggage. As discussed in "Returning Home" below, large purchases of liquor induce considerable logistics challenges, so plan ahead on what to buy and how to carry it back, especially if you must fly home. If you are on a cruise,:
The following discussion focuses on U.S. customs laws/procedures. Many of these basic processes are similar for travelers returning to other home countries.
You should always consult authoritative sources to obtain and understand consequences of customs limits and duty costs before making major purchases, e.g., for U.S. Customs, understand "Know Before You Visit", as introduced at 8. Otherwise,:
Don't pay duty on valuables you already own and take on your trip. See brief article at 9.
Best-effort recap of U.S. duty exemptions: The following summarizes your duty exemptions/allowances as you return home having visited the U.S. Virgin Islands (actually any part of any U.S. protectorate) on any part of your trip:
USGR/AGR You may find goods that were made in the U.S., e.g., some T-shirts, a few brands of jewelry. So ask the sellers. Such items are called "U.S./American Goods Returning" (USGR or AGR) and do not count against your duty exemptions. If so, ensure the seller provides proper/formal indication on or with a receipt so that the cost(s) will not count against your duty allowance. Similar policy may apply for products made in and returning to other countries.
All purchases (including USGR/AGR) and gifts you've received (except what you've consumed or given away before returning) must be itemized on your customs declaration; USGR/AGR and other exempted item costs should not be included in the dutiable sum of your purchases. Have receipts, certificates and merchandise for all listed purchases readily at hand as you pass through Customs. Be sure to list any food products by type.
As you return home (U.S. mainland or Puerto Rico)...
Other customs enforcement (e.g., for Canada or EC countries) depends on country limits and customs diligence.
(Emphasis U.S.; please expand):
If cruising, you'll probably go through customs processing at the port where your cruise ends. (See 10 to better understand the disembarkation process) If you then return home by land (e.g., drive), you'll be weight/size limited only by your vehicle and your ability to carry everything off the ship...at least just before you claim luggage in the terminal that has been carried ashore for you.
Flying. With airlines now charging for checked bags (plus heavy fees for overweight and too many bags), the economics and practicalities of flying with heavy or large purchases gets complicated. Bulky items may have to be checked, and bottles of liquids in luggage can greatly affect weight, e.g., six boxed, well-padded one liter glass bottles can weigh 30 pounds.
Purchases may be too numerous or heavy to be hand-carried on flights even if permitted. Compare luggage fees you'll encounter with the cost-savings you may see at purchase. Fees may considerably outstrip savings. (Yes, these realities have greatly affected merchants' business worldwide.) If you have weight or size challenges, consider shipping what you are allowed to. If you need to pack a fragile item in luggage, avoid placing it in the same bag with a heavy item.
Whether in checked or carry-on luggage, high-alcohol-content liquids (e.g., liquor over 140 proof, major quantities of perfume/cologne) are deemed a fire hazard and will be confiscated if found.
If you fly home from Saint Thomas:
Some returning travelers try to avoid TSA restrictions by purchasing items (e.g., perfumes, liquor) in shops inside airport secure areas immediately before boarding flights. That option is available at the Saint Thomas airport, but may only be usable if you are flying non-stop to your destination airport. Some shops may put the items in specially-sealed bags, and may deliver items to your flight gate for you to claim and carry on. Those bags have no "standing" if you leave the secure area of an enroute terminal, e.g., to change planes.
Wine/Liquor Packing Insights:
Boxes: Those offered by stores are usually strong enough to be used as "checked bags" if well-strapped with strong tape, e.g., nylon reinforced. (Note: Some airlines may not accept them as checkable, so know in-advance from the carrier before you count on it.) Two boxes of up to three bottles each can be strapped together, but be careful...dual box handles are clumsy and can only support so much weight and casual handling, your airline may have limits on numbers and weights of such boxes, internal padding alone may not be enough to avoid damage from mishandling (accidental or otherwise), and excess "checked luggage" costs can escalate rapidly
Securing box contents: Regardless of how to be transported, before you tape any box of bottles shut, check the arrangement of bottles (all-upright preferable). Then add internal padding all around each bottle to avoid breakage, e.g., crumpled newspaper on bottom and around necks, sides wrapped in newspaper...to eliminate any movement in box and complement internal box dividers. Then strap each box outside with strong tape, place a name tag on a handle and write similar information on the box. (Bring the materials with you or purchase them at a store such as K-Mart.)
Boxes/bottles in luggage: If your boxes must or should go in your checked luggage, pack them thoroughly while in your room/cabin.
In addition to offerings in resort complexes, a few independent restaurants include:
If you'd like to eat a fresh coconut, there is an old man who comes to the tent market in Charlotte Amalie most every day with a pickup truck full of coconuts and a machete and sells them for 2 or 3 dollars. You drink the milk and give it back and he gives it another crack or more so you can eat the "meat".
With bottled liquor so inexpensive, most "watering holes" are for visitors, yet offer attractive prices.
Most resorts and many restaurants have bars if not nightclubs. You'll also find a few nightclubs in or near shopping areas, as well as Frenchtown and Redhook.
As a pedestrian, take care with the often heavy traffic by looking both ways before crossing. Remember that they drive on the left side.
At night, officials recommend taxis to/from any location, and to avoid walking alone. Virtually all stores downtown (and after 8-9 PM, most other stores) will be closed and shuttered, with no display windows or other sights to enjoy.
Generally, tap water is potable everywhere, although most is reclaimed by desalination plants, so the water temperature may be warmer than expected.
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