Travel

The Best Things to Do on the Island of St. Thomas

emperorcosar/shutterstock
emperorcosar/shutterstock
emperorcosar/shutterstock

The Virgin Islands might be the most beautiful part of the US that hasn’t been overrun by visitors. Or at least, it was. Last summer hit the USVI hard: Hurricane Irma ripped through and thwomped a lot of the scenery that made this place so special. The good news: the islands are well on the way to recovery, and while not everything is back up and running, it’s still a destination worth stopping on a cruise or building a whole trip around.

St. Thomas is the cosmopolitan hub of the USVI, a bustling city with far more than a day’s worth of things to do, beaches to hit, and restaurants to chow through. Here are the best ways to spend your time here.

Steve Heap/Shutterstock
Steve Heap/Shutterstock
Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Stroll through historic Charlotte Amalie

Yes, the shopping’s great, but when you want to dip into some of the island’s history, head out on a self-guided tour through the USVI’s capital. Walk through Fort Christian, a Dano-Norwegian fort that dates back to 1680, or Government House, a three-story classical white home from the 1860s that serves as the offices for the territorial governor.

Visit the Botanical Garden to see incredible tropical plants

St. Thomas’ newest attraction is the Phantasea Botanical Garden, home to more than 1,000 orchids, hundreds of bromeliads, heliconias and gingers, palms and other flora you don’t see back home. The park has taken 20 years to create and is now a serene place to escape the bustle of St. Thomas and an education in island botany.

Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock
Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock
Andrei Medvedev/Shutterstock

Climb the 99 Steps

Charlotte Amalie — the main city in St. Thomas, and home to the cruise port — is built on steep hills, kinda like a shorter, warmer San Francisco. But the Dutch who first built the city used stairs instead of streets to keep much of the city connected. The longest staircase is the 99 stairs (actually 103, but who’s counting?) that cut through Downtown, made of bricks used as ship ballast in the 1700s and flanked by flowers.

Cool off with some ice sculptures

Though land constraints make it hard to build an indoor ski slope like Dubai’s, St. Thomas has its own cold-climate wonder at Magic Ice. It’s one of the largest collections of ice sculptures in America, where 16 artists from all over the world display works made of ice and snow. And, yes, there is an ice bar.

BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock
BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock
BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

Ditch the crowds and lay out on a lesser-known beach

While Magens Bay is the beach of your tropical vacation dreams, you’re likely to run into everyone from your ship, as well as the other ships in port and maybe a few that left yesterday. Head over to Coki, Sapphire, or Morningstar Beaches for far fewer people.

Visit the second-oldest synagogue in the hemisphere

The Virgin Islands is associated with their historic Jewish community about as much as they’re associated with great alpine skiing, but believe it or not, it’s home to the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The sandy-floored synagogue dates to 1833, and was variously a home to Dutch, French, and Portuguese Jews forced out of Spain during the inquisition.

emperorcosar/shutterstock
emperorcosar/shutterstock
emperorcosar/shutterstock

Sip a daiquiri from a mountaintop

Although the famous Skyride to the top of Flag Hill hasn’t yet reopened, you can get great panoramic views if you know where to go. Head to the Mountain Top bar at the highest point on St. Thomas, order a banana daiquiri, then spend the afternoon on the observation deck looking out at the Virgin Islands.

Escape to the Fourth Virgin

Water Island is the newest formal member of the US Virgin Islands, having joined just over 20 years ago. At 491.5 acres it’s rarely mentioned with the big three islands, but that’s exactly why it’s the perfect place to escape during a stop in St. Thomas. Just a 10-minute ferry ride away, Water Island is rarely crowded, with remote beaches at Limestone and Honeymoon Bay.

George Burba/Shutterstock
George Burba/Shutterstock
George Burba/Shutterstock

Meet the pirates of St. Thomas

St. Thomas’ newest attraction is a museum dedicated to pirate history and the shipwrecks of the Caribbean. At the Pirates Treasure Shipwreck Museum, you’ll see rare coins, ancient weapons, and gold and silver bars, plus plenty of pirates for the obligatory photo ops. It’s also full of interactive exhibits where you can play with high-tech underwater exploration equipment.

Have lunch with a view of the water

On the south side of the island, you’ll find the Abi Beach Bar, a waterfront eatery that’s your best bet for a quick meal with a view of the Caribbean Sea. If you have time to rent a boat, it’s accessible by water and makes a good destination for a daylong boat trip.

fitzcrittle/Shutterstock.com
fitzcrittle/Shutterstock.com
fitzcrittle/Shutterstock.com

Revel in the view from Blackbeard’s Castle

The name “Blackbeard’s Castle” is a little misleading, since there’s no proof the famous pirate ever did anything with this place other than maybe look at it from his ship. It’s actually a cylindrical tower built by Danish soldiers in 1679, where a trip to the top rewards visitors with a 360-degree view of St. Thomas.

Elijah Lovkoff/Shutterstock.com
Elijah Lovkoff/Shutterstock.com
Elijah Lovkoff/Shutterstock.com

Shop like you’ve never shopped before

Main Street in Charlotte Amalie is like the world’s biggest duty-free shop, where alcohol, tobacco, crafts, and colognes are all available with a $1,600 duty-free allowance. For authentic, locally made items, stop by Zora of St. Thomas for a pair of custom-made sandals or head to Vendors’ Plaza for handmade crafts and artwork.

Paddle through mangroves

Even off the beaches, St. Thomas has some spectacular scenery worth exploring. The calm, soothing rhythm of a kayak or paddleboard tour is the best way to do it. Virgin Island EcoTours will take you through a marine sanctuary to paddle under mangrove canopies, scope out tropical fish and birdwatch.

illstudio/shutterstock
illstudio/shutterstock
illstudio/shutterstock

Explore the underwater world

Even those without scuba certification can experience the wonders of a coral reef at Coral World Ocean Park. The 5-acre park features a trek through an underwater coral reef, snuba tours, as well as shark, stingray, and sea turtle encounters.

Take an island food tour to sample the local flavors

Caribbean food, much like everything else in the region, varies widely from island to island. The best way to get a taste of St. Thomas’ specialties is to take a culinary tour, where you’ll try pates, fungi, and kallaloo while learning their historical context at notable sites around the island.

Costin Constantinescu/Shutterstock
Costin Constantinescu/Shutterstock
Costin Constantinescu/Shutterstock

Sail through the islands

A peaceful way to tour through the 80-plus islands of the US and British Virgin Islands is aboard a sailboat. If you’re not a burgeoning yachtsman, St. Thomas has plenty of tour operators who will take you out on the water for full and half-day sails.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer with Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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