Caribbean: US Virgin Islands - St. Thomas
St. Thomas, located about 50 miles east of Puerto Rico, is the second-largest U.S. Virgin Island. While the island offers all that the Caribbean does best -- sun, sand, and surf -- this U.S. territory is also a major destination for shopping divas: When cruise ships slip into dock (up to 11 at a time!), the narrow streets look as though pillaging pirates have truly found where X marks the spot. (Don't worry: When frenzied spending starts to weigh heavy on your conscience, you can cleanse yourself in the quiet and regal natural beauty of nearby St. John, just a short ferry ride away.) Also ready for exploring are a variety of excellent restaurants, champagne-hued beaches, and colorful sightseeing beneath the sea.
In A Word: Buy!
Huddled cheek-to-jowl in the bustling but quaint capital of Charlotte Amalie, more than 400 shops and boutiques sell luxury goods at up to 40 percent less than stateside prices. Best of all, U.S. citizens can each cart home up to twice the standard allowance for other Caribbean islands -- without paying tax. Jewelry stores dominate the main shopping thoroughfares of Main Street and the Waterfront Highway, but you can find a quiet, calmer vibe on the side streets and in the warren of shops and cafes in the Royal Dane Mall. Fortify yourself with free samples of Foxy's Lager and Blackbeard Ale at Virgin Islands Brewing Company.
- Sugary beaches: Magens Bay, once named one of the world's most beautiful beaches by National Geographic, is the island's most famous stretch of sand. (Be sure to stop in at nearby Udder Delight, where you can buy a Cruzan rum-splashed milk shake.) Coki Beach, Sapphire Beach, and Morningstar Beach are also alluring escapes.
- Iguanas: Be forewarned that these super-size lizards may approach you from the bushes in search of food, but they're 100% harmless (as long as you don't try to pet their sharp spikes or feed them). Satisfy your lizard lust at a supervised iguana feeding --offered at many hotels daily -- of lettuce and other leafy veggies.
- Golf: The recently renovated, George and Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole Mahogany Run golf course boasts a distracting view of the islands and a tricky 3-hole "Devil's Triangle" in which you must clear a slice of Caribbean Sea that lies between the green and your tee. Call (800) 253-7103 to make reservations.
- Underwater eyefuls: Divers and non-divers alike will love the aquatic sights off St. Thomas. Those who prefer to stay dry can sightsee in the Undersea Observatory or at one of many aquariums and pools -- where you can also pet stingrays and sharks. Certified divers will revel in the island's many wrecks -- including the Cartanser Sr., a World War II cargo ship, and the The Major General Rogers, an intentionally sunk Coast Guard ship with a resident barracuda -- and reef-encrusted tunnels at Thatch, Grass, and Congo cays.
Pucker Up: Best Place to Smooch
Get jiggy with maubi, a foamy beverage made from bark and herbs reputed to enhance virility, and ride the Paradise Point Tramway 700 feet up to a lookout point and cafe. Go to watch the sunset and then gaze down at Charlotte Amalie sparkling like an open jewelry box below you.
When to Go: St. Thomas at its Best
- Best weather: February to August. Year-round temperatures range from 69 (winter evenings) to 84 degrees. Rainy season runs from September to January.
- Best prices: Mid-April to mid-December; exact dates vary by hotel. Hurricane season swirls from June to November (September is trickiest).
- Festival highlights: A three-week-long Carnival blowout follows Easter every year; the Rolex Cup Regatta is held in April; and artist colony Tillett Gardens hosts Arts Alive festivals in November, March, and August.
Photo: U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism