Charlotte Amalie harbor is the perfect place to begin a journey through St. Thomas’ colorful history. Along its historic waterfront – now a modern-day shopping district – are the restored 17th- and 18th-century warehouses that once held molasses, rum, spices and other trade goods awaiting export.
Equally prominent in the island’s capital is the imposing Fort Christian, built in 1672 and the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands. Now a U.S. national landmark, this brick fortress was built to protect the town’s harbor from raiding European armadas that sailed the Caribbean centuries ago. Having once served as St. Thomas’ first Government House, a church and community government center, Fort Christian today is home to the Virgin Islands Museum, where early island memorabilia and old maps trace the islands’ history.
Overlooking Charlotte Amalie on nearby Government Hill looms the medieval-style Skytsborg, better known to today’s visitors as Blackbeard’s Castle. One of many structures erected as part of the Danish colonial government’s attempt to protect the island, Blackbeard’s Caste is the only 17th-century fortified tower in the Caribbean (while there no evidence that pirates inhabited the tower, Skytsborg continues to hold special intrigue for legend-believers). Formerly used as a residence and an observatory, Blackbeard’s Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places and today doubles as a popular hotel and restaurant.
While on Government Hill, vacationers may also visit the former home of Peter von Scholten, who first was the harbormaster of St. Thomas, and later governor general of the Danish West Indies. Built in the 18th century and now a private residence, Crown House is the stately, three-story West Indian structure von Scholten inhabited until 1822, when as governor he moved to Christiansted, St. Croix, then the capital of the Virgin Islands.
Also on Government Hill, Seven Arches Museum provides a glimpse into the 18th-century lifestyle of the island’s Danish ancestors. Fully restored and furnished in Danish West Indian style, this once private home – with its Danish kitchen and slave quarters – reflects the life of leisure enjoyed by its former inhabitants.
To truly experience the history of St. Thomas, continue climbing along the island’s winding hills, away from the heart of Charlotte Amalie, to Government House.
Since its establishment in the mid-1960’s, the stately white structure has continually represented the center of official life in St. Thomas. Visitors interested in a glimpse of local political life may tour the building’s first two floors.
Still on an upward climb, continue on to visit Drake’s Seat overlooking Drake’s vantage point, where visitors are treated to a breathtaking view of the harbor and the countless boats and cruise ships dotting the island’s port waters.
While touring St. Thomas’ higher ground, visitors may also treat themselves to a taste of more recent island history by stopping at Mountain Top for a famed banana daiquiri. Since the 1960’s, the site has offered this legendary cocktail of local rum, cane sugar and bananas – a mixture that continues to win enthusiasts who come to enjoy the sensational sights at the top of St. Thomas.
After a full day’s sightseeing, there is still more for the tireless explorer to experience on the island. A stroll through St. Thomas’ Market Square – though today a bustling produce marketplace – is reminiscent of a time when the site was one of the West Indies’ busiest 18th-century slave markets. Visitors may also walk through Emancipation Garden, appropriately named in commemoration of Governor Peter von Scholten’s emancipation of the slaves on July 3, 1848.
Whether soaking up the sun on one of St. Thomas’ many beautiful beaches, shopping along the downtown waterfront, or touring historical sites spanning nearly three centuries, visitors find plenty to fill their days on the island.
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