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St. Thomas : The liveliest U.S. Virgin Island, though known for its duty-free shopping, is also blessed with beautiful scenery and fine hotels

July 27, 1986|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Stars still shone in the new light of day, but already the old man was up.

He stood alone on a hillside overlooking Charlotte Amalie and a redding horizon. Sailboats nudged by trade winds moved gracefully through the bay to another island in the turquoise sea. In the harbor, inter-island steamers were unloading produce and huge cruise liners stood at anchor.

The old man blinked. His watery old eyes swept the hillside and the town he remembered from other days and other times. Quieter, more contented times. When he was a boy the Virgin Islands slumbered peacefully in the hot Caribbean sun. The tourist was still a stranger and on his island only three hotels welcomed guests: Bluebeard's, the Grand and Hotel 1829.

The old man swam in the harbor then, exactly where the cruise ships are at anchor this fine morning. Alton Adams, a black man in his 97th year, the descendant of slaves, allowed as to how life was deliciously uncomplicated when he was young. His people had little money but little was needed. No, you could get by on less than a dollar a day, so that there was a sense of well-being on his island.

Indeed, neighbor respected neighbor; there was a gentleness and the mind was free to explore and record the peacefulness that prevailed in the Virgin Islands. In a room over the Sears, Roebuck store on St. Thomas was born the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. Yes, it was a fine place to be born and to grow up, the old man recalled.

The town was awakening now and workers streamed toward the shops of Charlotte Amalie, black men walking together and laughing, hurrying off to their jobs.

Unmistakenly, this is a black man's land, these Virgin Islands. And so if you are white you are, of course, a minority. Still, Alton Adams insists that color creates no problem, that here blacks and whites live together harmoniously. Well, what of the taxi driver yesterday? Wasn't he surly? Yes, in fact, downright unfriendly? Well certainly, the old man admitted, but then so are cabbies in New York and Paris, right?

"No, there is no racial strife on my island, sir," the old man insisted.

Like other peaceful plots visited by the jet, the world of Alton Adams is in eclipse. Out of a struggle for the dollar an entire new world has evolved, a world crowded with fashionable resorts, modest guest houses, duty-free booze, smoky caves with steel bands, travel folder romance and expensive restaurants.

The island of Alton Adams is the launching pad to quieter, more sedate islands. St. Thomas is the swinging Virgin, and so those who seek the quiet life must turn to St. John or St. Croix. Or travel beyond Charlotte Amalie to the back country of St. Thomas.

From the airport it is a five-minute cab ride into Charlotte Amalie, the busiest town in the Caribbean, a town where Alton Adams walked barefoot as a boy and life was simple and no one hurried. Indeed, there was little reason to hurry. For Alton Adams there was only time to swim and laze in the warm Caribbean sun.

But all this was a long time ago. The old man shook his head. It is a stampede now. Year-round, St. Thomas is the busiest duty-free port in the entire Caribbean. Air shuttles run daylong between St. Thomas and San Juan, 40 miles away. Frequently shoppers arrive in the morning and are gone by afternoon. Others come by sea. Last year nearly 1,000 cruise ships visited St. Thomas and so the Virgin Islands Information Office calls Charlotte Amalie the cruise ship capital of the world.

With every jet, every ship, the old world of Alton Adams slips further away. Capt. Kidd and Bluebeard were an amusing couple of amateurs beside the modern shopper who bids for booty in the stalls along Main Street and a brand-new mall near Frenchman's Reef. It's a carnival of wealthy peddlers and eager buyers, shops stocked with dresses from Hong Kong, watches from Switzerland, perfumes from France, Italian gloves, Japanese cameras, Irish linens.

After ending their forays, the shoppers turn to the hotels and resorts of St. Thomas. On open terraces they sip daiquiris and watch clouds set aflame by a dying Caribbean sun.

A fine place to observe the activity of Charlotte Amalie is from the terrace of Hotel 1829 on Government Hill. Not only for the view but because Hotel 1829 possesses the character Alton Adams spoke of. Built by a French sea captain, it features ceiling fans, ancient guest rooms with four-posters and mosquito netting and louvered blinds to shut out the sunlight. Ballast carried by ships more than a century ago reinforce the thick walls.

Jacques Chiappini of Marseilles stood behind the bar with its 200-year-old Moroccan tiles and stone floor. Backgammon boards were set up at small tables and the recorded melody of a jazz saxophonist filled the room. It was late afternoon and a cat slept in the receptionist's chair next to the bar.

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