Touring St Thomas on Our Own: Mountain Top, Magens Bay and Shopping in Charlotte Amalie
Before our last Eastern Caribbean sailing on the Disney Fantasy, we started to plan our day in St Thomas. On a previous cruise to St Thomas, we had booked the Disney Cruise Line Trunk Bay Port Adventure in St. John (more on that soon), but we decided to see more of St Thomas on this go around. We knew we wanted to see the amazing views at Mountain Top and spend some time at Magens Bay Beach, and then finish the day doing a little bit of shopping in Charlotte Amalie.
We looked and compared a few options; another Disney Cruise Line Port Adventure, a privately booked tour, and renting a car at the port.
Disney Cruise Port Adventure
There are two separate Port Adventures offered by Disney that would have taken us to Mountain Top, Magens Bay and Charlotte Amalie for some shopping, but we would not have been able to experience all three with Disney. We were left with a few options. We could book the Best of St Thomas Island Tour and Shopping tour which would take us to Mountain Top, the botanical gardens, and shopping then catching a taxi to Magens Bay for the remainder of the day since the tour does not include transportation back to the ship if you choose to go shopping. The other option through Disney is the Magens Bay Beach Break which would have given us more than ample time at the beach, but it would have cost our family $131 ($47 adult $37 children 3 to 9) and our time would be limited to arrange a taxi to Mountain Top and downtown to shop.
Renting a car at the port was the first option we considered after the not finding an excursion through Disney. The idea of being able to go and see whatever we wanted sounded great, but after doing a little bit of research (including contacting our auto insurance agent for details), the option was no longer that appealing. There were a few reasons we scuttled the option of renting a car in St Thomas. First, we do not know the area well enough and would need to rely on maps to get around the island. From our previous adventures in St Thomas, we knew traffic would be an issue especially on the day we would be in port with four other ships including the Oasis of the Seas. Surprisingly enough, driving on the left hand side of the road was not one of the reasons. Ultimately, it came down to not knowing the area well enough to efficiently get to all the places we wanted to visit, as well as the information given to us by our insurance agent.
Islander Taxi Service Shore and Stores Tour
About a week or so before we set sail on the Disney Fantasy, my wife contacted Islander Taxi Service to inquire more about their Shores & Stores Tour. She received an email reply from Alvin a few minutes later stating that the tours are for a minimum of 10 people. In less than a day, my wife managed to find 2 additional families to join us. After sending Alvin a list of names and ages, we received the quote which we were asked to pay via PayPal. Alvin confirmed to us that if the ship did not dock in St Thomas for any reason that we would receive a full refund. The Shores & Stores tour was $35 per adult and $20 per child (under 12).
We paid our portion via PayPal and emailed our PayPal transaction ID to Island Taxi Service. The last email from Alvin included instructions to look for an Island Taxi Service driver/guide on the pier holding a sign with our name at 8:45 AM.
This seems to be a good spot to stick in my disclaimer. It is really important for me to point out that Islander Taxi Service is NOT a Disney Port Adventure. You are on your own; if something happens and the ship must leave early or your excursion runs late, you risk being left behind.
When we disembarked in St Thomas and passed through the security gate, we spotted Alvin waiting for us with a sign in his hand with our group name. Once we were all gathered together (there were 11 in our party total), we walked down the pier to Alvin’s air conditioned van.
The tour began with a little bit of history as we drove through Charlotte Amalie. Alvin shared a few interesting details about St Thomas, which has a population around 55,000 and is predominately supported by tourism. The bricks used for the buildings on Main Street were originally used on Dutch ships as ballasts. The island has two separate cruise ports, Cyril E. King Airport, a desalinization plant providing fresh water, and a diesel power plant which provides power to both St Thomas and St John.
After making our way up the winding roads, we reached Mountain Top, which offers a spectacular view of Magens Bay. Mountain Top is the highest attraction on St Thomas at 2100 feet above sea level which consists of a large gift shop, a bar that features a world famous Banana Daiquiri, and an observation deck with stunning views.
There were clean, free restrooms available inside the gift shop near the bar. Thankfully, we were the first group to arrive so we had the observation deck to ourselves before other tours began arriving. As you can see from the photo below, views from Mountain Top are glorious. You can predominantly see Magens Bay as well.
On the way to Magens Bay Beach, we made a few stops at overlooks. During the drive, we made a slight adjustment to our schedule and decided to trim some additional time from our shopping portion to spend more time at the beach, and it was agreed upon by all three families.
Magens Bay Beach
We arrived at Magens Bay and Alvin paid for our entrance fee ($4 per person and $2 for parking) which was built in to the price of our tour. At first glance, Magens Bay Beach reminded me of Trunk Bay Beach over on St John, but the comparison ended there. With 5 ships in port , it felt more like arriving late to a crowded day at Typhoon Lagoon.
Most of the prime spots were already taken, but we managed to find a spot at the far end of the 1 mile white sand beach near the rocks.
The kids were first in the water, but it took me a bit to get in. Although it was March, the water was not as cold as I expected it to be, and much warmer than Castaway Cay. Just to put this into perspective, I have a hard time swimming in a pool that is not at least 85ºF. It was very different than swimming in the water at Trunk Bay Beach in June, though.
The waves at the beach were persistent, and resulted in a slight undertow near the shore. While we were able to share part of a picnic table under a tree at the far end of the beach, we found that the prime spot was in the middle where there were less rocks near the waterline. Normally, this would only be a problem when exiting and entering the water, but we had a number of children in our group who enjoyed jumping into the crashing waves.
Magens Bay Beach has a few pavilions with picnic tables as well as restrooms and showers. The one fact that is not mentioned is that unlike Trunk Bay, the showers use salt water. The showers are great for ridding excess sand from your body before getting back in the tour van, but do not aid in the fresh water rinse off that we prefer. The showers are also outside and uncovered. I decided to pass on the full shower, because I didn’t really see the point of taking one. The foot rinse was did an adequate job of cleaning the sand off my feet to prevent the tracking of sand into Alvin’s van.
If you asked me to pick between Magens Bay and Trunk Bay, I would easily say Trunk Bay. In fact, my wife spent the entire time wishing we were back at St. John instead.
Shopping in Charlotte Amalie
Our final stop for the day was Charlotte Amalie for about an hour of shopping. Alvin was kind enough to make an extra trip back to the pier for those who did not want to shop. With regard to shopping, I cannot say much. My wife and daughter primarily wanted to stop at DelSol, a place that sells nail polish and other items that change color in the sun.
That in fact was the one and only store we went into. On a previous visit to St Thomas, we did venture a little further into the shopping district nicknamed “Wall Street” by Alvin. All I can say is there are places to buy stuff and I’d check with the onboard shopping guides and the St Thomas Shopping Guide & Map.
Emancipation Square and Fort Christian
We still had some time before our rendezvous with Alvin. We headed over to Emancipation Park, which features a replica of the Liberty Bell to wait for Alvin. Across the street is the oldest fort in the Caribbean, Fort Christian.
Fort Christian was constructed in the late 17th century, and is the oldest remaining structure in the Virgin Islands. It was the focal point of early Danish settlement, housing Governors and Lutheran ministers, as well as providing protection for settlers.
As it currently stands, Fort Christian is a run down building that could use a fresh coat of paint. I have read that a restoration attempt began in 2005, but has stalled leaving Fort Christian closed. It is very sad to see the fort in this condition.
Hopefully the project will get back on track and the museum can reopen. Honestly, I am shocked that a prime tourist attraction has been neglected.
Alvin returned and we all loaded back into the van for the quick drive back to the pier. I say quick because Alvin used the buddy system to avoid some traffic, which if we were driving a rental car would have not been possible. We arrived back at 2PM and with more than enough time to spare before all aboard time of 5:30 PM.
While everyone else headed back aboard, I took the opportunity to photograph the bow of the Disney Fantasy. The Disney Fantasy was the first ship in port and you could literary stand under Sorcerer Mickey on the pier!
Overall, we had an enjoyable day and we were able to see way more then we would have if we tried to navigate a rental car around St Thomas. Even with the ability to use our iPhone in St Thomas for turn by turn navigation, there is no substitute for experience. The decision to forego renting a car was validated and we are already working on plans to use Alvin’s Islander Taxi Service to go to St John in the Spring.
Have you been to St Thomas? What is your on your list of must see or must do? Let us know if you have any questions, we may just have an answer. If, not I’ll make something up that sounds good…. Just kidding, or am I?