The sun, sand and surf can wait — it’s shopping that reigns as the No. 1 activity for cruise passengers touring the Caribbean. And although variety, quantity and quality ranges from one island to the next, two cruise ship ports particularly stand out, and not by accident.
St. Thomas possesses one of the loveliest harbors in the Caribbean, a naturally protected deep-water port. The tradition of commerce in Charlotte Amalie, the town that climbs into the steep surrounding mountains, stretches back three centuries. In the early 1700s island business was centered on plantations and slave trading. For years, legitimate trade was hampered by piracy — no one questioned the propriety of goods stocked in the town’s warehouses. Edward Teach, the notorious Blackbeard, built a castle atop a hill to monitor the goings-on in the harbor; Jean Hamlin, George Bond and Captain Kidd were other pirates who frequented St. Thomas.
In 1766 the island was declared a free port by the Danish King Frederik V and Charlotte Amalie blossomed into one of the Caribbean’s most prosperous trading centers. Success came and went with changing alliances, hurricanes and devastating fires — the latter lead to building codes in 1832 and produced “fire-proof” warehouses, the high-density commercial district of today.
The town is on the National Register of Historic Places, for its architecture and history. While mastering today’s mercantile maze, I take a moment to soak up the history, the evocative architecture and the cobblestone walkways made up of ballast stone that accompanied the European ships on their shopping expeditions.
Make no mistake. St. Thomas is serious about shopping: The industry generates more than $1.1 billion in sales annually for the island, most of it from cruise ship visitors stopping for just a day.
They have plenty of incentive to stay off the beach. Throughout the Caribbean, Americans can bring home $800 in merchandise duty free. But those returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands are allowed $1,600. Couples or families may pool their horde, $1,600 per person. (U.S. Customs and Border Control outlines the details at www.cbp.gov.)
“That’s precisely the most important difference for U.S. travelers,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at the website CruiseCritic.com, and a former St. Thomas resident. “The extra bonus of spending their money in a U.S.-affiliated port is significant.”
The primary disadvantage in Charlotte Amalie is that, on an average day, you’ll be competing for elbow room with some of the 2 million cruise ship passengers unloaded into the streets each year. Brown says the advantage is volume, and it allows major merchants like A.H. Riese to arrange with cruise lines to make free delivery directly to the ships for passengers.
No port of call avails more than Charlotte Amalie. But with more than 250 jewelry shops alone, it can be a little overwhelming.
“It’s an incredible place for duty-free shopping,” says Shelley Blyth of Shopportunities, a personal shopping consultant for guests of Ritz-Carlton, Caneel Bay and other high-end resorts. “But guests come in and they’re literally bombarded with merchants touting everything from $5 toe rings to million-dollar pieces of jewelry.”
Not everything in Charlotte Amalie is a bargain. It pays to familiarize yourself with prices at home, including sales tax (there is no tax in the U.S. Virgin Islands), so that you can make useful comparisons.
Good buys include crystal and china, perfume and cosmetics, and electronics — the island’s two main electronics stores are authorized dealers for everything they carry, meaning warranty issues are resolved direct with the manufacturer. Liquor, especially rum, is sold at rock-bottom prices here.
Some of the best bargains are in jewelry and watches. Generally, prices are negotiable, but to limit price wars a few name manufacturers establish a cap on the maximum discount retailers are allowed to offer. Still, on some jewelry reductions up to 30 percent or even 40 percent can be had. Regardless of the discount, the sheer variety of designers is awesome.
“Last year one store had a phenomenal pink diamond ring set in rose gold,” says Blyth. “It was a one-of-a-kind, and sold for $1.7 million.”
St. Thomas shopping is concentrated in Charlotte Amalie proper. Havensight Mall, located at the main cruise ship dock, has the personality of a stateside strip mall, and mostly duplicates lesser items found in town. But the $150 million Yacht Haven Grande complex that opened nearby in 2006 has a number of quality merchants.
Every bit as famous as St. Thomas for its free port, the dual-nation island of St. Maarten and St. Martin — Dutch and French, respectively — has merchants that collectively claim dozens of other nationalities.
In 1964, prompted by an expanded airport and cruise ship dock the Dutch side plunged head-first into tourism and has scarcely looked back. Today, true duty-free shopping is perhaps the island’s biggest lure.
“If you’re searching for value on electronics, St. Maarten is actually superior to St. Thomas,” says Brown. “The prices are cheap enough to make up for the duty you’d pay when buying cameras and such.”
Stores on the Dutch side are concentrated in Philipsburg, along Frontstreet, a mile-long passage between the beach and the largest salt pond, interspersed throughout with restaurants and casinos. You’ll find a few more stores one block inland, along Backstreet, including discounted clothing and shops carrying Asian imports.
Some stores in Philipsburg are also open to barter, especially on higher-priced purchases, or multiple items. This is especially true with jewelry, and as the day comes to a close merchants tend to be more flexible. Ask for a certified jeweler to provide an appraisal of any gemstones you are considering — most shops have one on staff. At some of the bigger stores the prices aren’t negotiable, but a 5 percent discount is availed for cash purchases.
As on St. Thomas, crystal, china, perfume and cosmetics are a good value on the Dutch side. Cuban cigars can be purchased on both sides of the island, though they cannot be brought back into the U.S. (a decent reason to invest in Dominican cigars, an excellent buy).
The island never made much in the way of rum, but guavaberry trees produce the unofficial liqueur, a gently bittersweet concoction available at many places.
The slightly more relaxed French side of St. Martin, where tourism in earnest started a little later, is ideal for Parisian and Italian haute couture. Marigot is the place to land if you find yourself short of an outfit for a cocktail party, which are a specialty of shops that ring Port la Royale. Designers like Versace, Gucci, Hermes, Lacroix, Cavalli, Gaultier and Armani are well represented. Unlike Philipsburg, the French side hasn’t made bartering a custom.
Near the Marigot waterfront is a lively outdoor market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, with vendors selling spices, shells and handicrafts.
The official currency of the French side is the euro, and with the U.S. dollar suffering in its wake, it pays to keep an eye out for shops offering a “one-to-one” exchange rate.
While St. Thomas and St. Maarten/St. Martin possess the greatest concentration of duty-free shops, if they’re not on your itinerary, don’t despair. Other islands with plentiful shopping opportunities include Grand Cayman, Aruba and Nassau in the Bahamas. But if you’re looking for more authenticity, you’ll want to steer away from the big port towns.