CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — Bargain-hunting among cruise passengers in Caribbean duty-free ports has become so popular that many vacationers are designing their itineraries around shopping, with St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands leading the lineup.
St. Thomas, about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, is easily accessible by airplane and cruise ship. The island's capital, Charlotte Amalie, is one of the Caribbean's busiest ports and a center of commerce. The town, with hundreds of chic and well-stocked shops, is a bargain-hunter's paradise.
Prices on liquor, perfume, sweaters, woolens, famous-maker clothing, accessories, jewelry, china, crystal, linens and other luxury goods are usually at least 20% below mainland retail.
Although prices are standardized throughout the island, some shops have bigger selections or different brands, and, since shops are constantly competing against each other, they frequently feature unadvertised sales that cut already discounted prices by up to 50%.
U.S. citizens who have been abroad at least 48 hours may bring home up to $800 worth of duty-free purchases from the Virgin Islands (including St. Croix and St. John, as well as St. Thomas), including one gallon of alcoholic beverage, plus one extra fifth of an alcoholic beverage produced in the Virgin Islands. That's double the duty-free limit (and more than double the amount of liquor) allowed from other foreign destinations.
The Virgin Islands is a U.S. protectorate (bought in 1917 as guard posts for protection of the Panama Canal), hence the larger duty-free allowance. The islands, discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and taken over by Denmark in 1666, have had several cultural influences.
Charlotte Amalie, so named by the Danes in 1691, still has its colonial ambience. Warehouses that centuries ago stored the booty of Capt. Kidd, Blackbeard and other pirates, now house fashionable shops.
About 400 general stores and specialty boutiques are clustered among Charlotte Amalie's historic buildings along Main Street (or Dronnings Gade, which is Danish for Queen's Street), Waterfront Highway and Back Street (or Wimmelskaft Gade), between the post office and market square. Browsing through town yields a pleasant blend of bargains and background.
Brochures about shopping, as well as maps, bulletins on promotions and discount cards for some shops, are given free at the airport or by cruise directors.
On Main Street, head first for A.H. Riise, the island's finest general store. Top luxury labels include Bing & Grondahl and Wedgwood for porcelain, A.C. Bang furs, Hilda Icelandic woolen sweaters, Liberty of London scarfs and ties, Crabtree & Evelyn soaps, ilias LALAoUNIS jewelry and many more designer giants, all sold at about 20% off mainland retail prices.
Riise's liquor department has everything from expensive imports to cheap unknown labels of whiskey (from $2 per fifth), Scotch (from $3 per fifth), vodka (from $3 per fifth), brandy (from $4 per fifth) and more.
If you're taking advantage of your full liquor allowance at Riise's or other shops, have purchases delivered directly to your ship or flight. Most shops offer this service free. Six fifths of liquor are heavy, and you don't want to lug them around all day.
A. H. Riise Gift Shop Alley, just off Main Street, features Riise's less expensive gift and souvenir items. The alley also has many small specialty shops, including Lion in the Sun, a terrific big-name boutique with exceptional prices on attire by Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Kenzo, Yohji Yamamoto and other designers, plus superb hand-silkscreened T-shirts. Designer dresses cost $50 and up.
Bolero and Sparky's, both well-stocked Main Street general stores, issue discount cards (at airports, from cruise directors or by writing to the stores with the date you'll be in port) for 10% off all merchandise, including already low-priced liquor and special sale items.
Bolero's specializes in inexpensive prepackaged rum selections ($26 for five fifths). Sparky's, known for inexpensive liquor, also sells discounted cameras and photo equipment, but before buying them, do some comparison shopping at Royal Caribbean (the Main Street shop, not the cruise line), which has a bigger selection usually priced about $10 less per item.
Little Switzerland, the famous chain of general stores with branches throughout the Caribbean, has three outlets on Main Street. Its stock includes a little bit of everything made by name designers, including Orrefors and Lalique crystal, Aynsley, Villeroy & Boch, Wedgwood and Royal Doulton china, plus fine jewelry, watches and other luxuries, all sold for at least 20% less than mainland prices.
Main Street boutiques include Riviera with Diane Freis dresses (for about $300, 40% below mainland retail), Pringle cashmere sweaters, English woolens, Missoni and Hermes silk ties, Ted Lapidus shawls and more.
Gucci and Louis Vuitton have Main Street boutiques. The Leather Shop sells Bottega Veneta and Fendi leather goods. Prices are 20% to 30% less than mainland retail.
Tropicana Perfume Shop's two Main Street outlets have the island's biggest selection of fragrances, including American-made scents, at duty-free prices.
Main Street jewelers include Cardow, with appealing discounts on Piaget and Swatch watches (the latter from $20) and with lovely three-carat diamond bracelets (about $1,900).
H. Stern's two Main Street shops show extensive jewelry selections. The Jewelry Vault's styles are similar to those at H. Stern, but lower prices include impressive sapphire and diamond rings for as little as $500.
In Palm Passage, an exclusive esplanade that runs between Main Street and Waterfront Highway, Cartier sells Les Musts staples at up to 30% less than mainland list.