After a quick breakfast in my room thanks to the great room service available at the Ritz-Carlton, I walked to the lobby to meet our driver, Campbell Rey, for my ride into town for my historical walking tour. Although I’ve walked the downtown area on my own on prior trips, I had never had an official tour and thought this would be a great way to learn more about Charlotte Amalie. Our safari cab made its way through the constant traffic one finds in St. Thomas, past Havensight, and toward Emancipation Garden, which was built to commemorate the freeing of the slaves on July 3, 1848, ten years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It was here that I was to meet my tour guide, Simon Larsen. This area was filling up even at the early hour of 9 am with tourists as well as vendors preparing for “Miracle on Main Street,” the huge Christmas festivities that the city throws each year.
Set along the beautiful backdrop of historic buildings and palm trees was our meeting place, which was adorned with Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. I met Simon who was already with a group and learned that I would be joining them. As I adjusted my bag and readied my camera, I tried to listen in on what Simon was saying, but couldn’t quite figure out what he was saying. First I thought the music in the area was too loud or that I caught the end of a conversation, but then Simon informed me that he was with a group of Danish tourists and that the tour was going to be conducted entirely in Danish. Did I mention that I don’t speak Danish? Simon was extremely apologetic and although not the ideal situation, I tagged along anyway and tried to use my time as an opportunity to get great photographs.
The population within Charlotte Amalie (Ahh – muh – lee) is roughly 11,000 and this is a popular port of call for cruise ships for Eastern Caribbean itineraries. Of course, being near one of the two ports, this is Havensight and the other is Crown Bay, I had to take pics of the ships. In port that day from left to right were Celebrity Cruises “Summit,” Royal Caribbean “Serenade of the Seas,” and Royal Caribbean “Explorer of the Seas.”
Without going into a detailed history lesson, I will tell you that the history of St. Thomas and the US Virgin Islands is interesting and if you should want more information, go here. In the meantime, here are just a few fun facts and sites to visit:
Emancipation Park: Located on Tolbod Gade, Emancipation Park was named in commemoration of the July 3rd, 1848 emancipation of slaves in the Danish West Indies. Many of St. Thomas’ official ceremonies are held in the park, as well as several local events. Every U.S. state and territory has a copy of the Liberty Bell; the Virgin Islands’ reproduction is located in Emancipation Park.
99 Steps: Built in the mid 1700s by the Danes who found streets of steps to be the easiest way to climb up and down the steep hills of Charlotte Amalie. Some historians have said this stairway, along with many others that cut through nearly all the hills rising from the Charlotte Amalie harbor area, were actually a result of impractical planning on the part of Danish engineers who had never been to St. Thomas. The bricks used to construct the steps were originally brought from Denmark as ballast in the hulls of sailing ships. (The 99 steps are actually 103 steps.) Some people run up these steps while others walk, but either way the view at the top is worth the walk up.
St. Thomas Synagogue: The historic Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim (Blessing and Peace and Acts of Piety) Synagogue is the third oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, the second oldest in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere, and the longest in continuous use under the American flag. The congregation was founded in the year 1796 by Sephardic Jews. A small, but welcoming synagogue, Rabbi Shimon Moch was being interviewed by the local CBS affiliate while we were there and I videotaped the interview he gave detailing Hanukkah, but also the history of the synagogue and I’ll have that up on my YouTube channel soon.
Camille Pissarro Gallery: The father of French Impressionism, Camille Pissarro was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. His childhood home is now an art gallery featuring artwork from dozens of artists including Camille Pissarro himself. This otherwise nondescript building is located in a shopping area full of jewelry stores and I would have missed it entirely if it hadn’t been pointed out by Simon.
Blackbeard’s Castle: This watchtower, originally named Skytsborg (Sky Tower) by the Danes, was built in 1679. According to legend, the infamous pirate Edward Teach, nicknamed Blackbeard, used the tower to watch for ships entering the harbor. However, locals seemed annoyed by this and most will insist that this is more fiction than fact.
This is the Crystal Palace, the first building with glass sash windows and was built with Danish bricks, it is now a B&B and I believe Simon said there is also a Crystal Palace in Denmark. Taking this tour with a group from Denmark meant that besides the tour being conducted almost exclusively in Danish, it also had a focus on Danish history. What I didn’t realize is that there is a huge Danish history in St. Thomas and now I can completely understand why someone from Denmark would visit to learn more about their own history. For years the United States was interested in buying the Danish West Indies from Denmark, but during World War I especially, partly in order to prevent Germany from establishing a naval base there. A sales price of 25 million dollars in gold was offered in 1916 by the United States, and after a hectic public debate and referendum in Denmark, the treaty was ratified by the two parties. The transfer of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix from Denmark to the United States took place on 31st March 1917. Practically all Danes left the islands and went home to Denmark. For a great read on the Danish connection to St. Thomas, go here.
Whether you walk Charlotte Amalie on your own or take a guided tour, do try to see at least a few of the historic sights before diving into a day of shopping or the beach. Just think that after walking the 99 steps you can arrive to this incredible view and not only take in all of the beauty that St. Thomas has to offer, but its rich history as well.