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Shopping The Caribbeans

Caribbean cruises: Sun and sand can wait, it's shopping time

DAVID SWANSON  Jan 31, 2010

The sun and sand can wait -- it's shopping that reigns as the No. 1 one activity for cruise passengers touring the Caribbean.

Call on Antigua and you'll find fine English linens competing with local pottery for your attention. Dock at St. Barts and it's hard to turn down the locally-made skin products and latest haute couture from France. And there are few shopping districts more pleasurable for strolling than historic San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Fortaleza Street has specialty shops that carry caretas, Carnival masks with demonic horns and wild expressions.

Two Caribbean cruise ship ports particularly stand out for their sheer variety, quantity and quality of shopping options. On St. Thomas and both the French and Dutch sides of St. Martin, electronics, jewelry, watches, crystal, china, perfume and cosmetics are among the good buys.

It's not by accident that St. Thomas and St. Maarten/St. Martin are leaders for the region.

St. Thomas possesses one of the loveliest harbors in the Caribbean, a naturally protected deep-water port. The tradition of commerce in Charlotte Amalie, the town that climbs into the steep surrounding mountains, stretches back three centuries.

In the early 1700s, island business was centered on plantations and slave trading. For years, legitimate trade was hampered by piracy -- no one dared question the propriety of goods stocked in the town's warehouses. Edward Teach, the notorious Blackbeard, built a castle atop a hill to monitor the goings-on in the harbor. Jean Hamlin, George Bond and Captain Kidd were other pirates who frequented St. Thomas.

In 1766, the island was declared a free port by Danish King Frederik V, and Charlotte Amalie blossomed into one of the Caribbean's most prosperous trading centers. The town is on the National Register of Historic Places for its architecture and history.

While mastering today's mercantile maze, take a moment to soak up the evocative architecture and the cobblestone walkways made up of ballast stone that came on European ships.

Make no mistake, St. Thomas is serious about shopping: The industry generates more than $1.1 billion in sales annually for the island, most of it from one-day, cruise ship visitors.

The one disadvantage in Charlotte Amalie is that you'll be competing for elbow room with some of the 2 million cruise ship passengers that visit each year.

The advantage is volume, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at and a former St. Thomas resident. The number of shoppers who arrive via ships allows major merchants like A.H. Riese to arrange with cruise lines to make free delivery to the ships for passengers.

Perhaps no port of call has more on store shelves for visitors than Charlotte Amalie. But with more than 250 jewelry shops alone, it can be a little overwhelming.

``It's an incredible place for duty-free shopping,'' says Shelley Blyth of Shopportunities, a personal shopping consultant for guests of Ritz-Carlton, Caneel Bay and other high-end resorts. ``But guests come in and they're literally bombarded with merchants touting everything from $5 toe rings to million-dollar pieces of jewelry.''

Not everything in Charlotte Amalie is a bargain. It pays to familiarize yourself with prices at home, including sales tax (there is no tax in the U.S. Virgin Islands) to make comparisons.

Good buys include crystal and china, perfume and cosmetics, and electronics. The island's two main electronics stores are authorized dealers for everything they carry, meaning warranty issues are resolved direct with the manufacturer. Liquor, especially rum, is sold at rock-bottom prices here.

Some of the best bargains lie with jewelry and watches, where prices may be reduced 30 percent or even 40 percent. Generally, prices are negotiable, but to limit price wars, a few name manufacturers limit the discount retailers can offer. Regardless, the variety is awesome.

``One store had a phenomenal pink diamond ring set in rose gold,'' says Blyth. ``It was a one-of-a-kind, and sold for $1.7 million.''

St. Thomas shopping is concentrated in Charlotte Amalie proper. Havensight Mall, at the main cruise ship dock, has the personality of a stateside strip mall, and mostly duplicates lesser items found in town. But the $150 million Yacht Haven Grande has a number of quality merchants.

St. Thomas has one other advantage: Throughout the Caribbean, Americans can bring home $800 in merchandise duty free, per person. But those returning from the U.S. Virgin Islands are allowed $1,600, and members of a family can pool their allowance (details at

``That's precisely the most important difference for U.S. travelers,'' Brown says. ``The extra bonus of spending their money in a U.S.-affiliated port is significant.''


Every bit as famous as St. Thomas for its free port, but without the larger duty-free allowance, is the dual-nation island of St. Maarten and St. Martin.

The island's first real export was vital, if decidedly unglamorous. Starting in the late 1700s, salt was gathered from the wind-ruffled salinas that ring the island -- over a period of months the ponds would crystallize into shards of salt. At the peak of production, 6,000 laborers collected the salt, most of which was exported to North America for preserving meat and fish. But by the 1930s, refrigeration had arrived and salt's value plummeted.

In 1964, prompted by an expanded airport and cruise ship dock, the Dutch side plunged head-first into tourism. Today, duty-free shopping is perhaps the island's biggest lure.

``If you're searching for value on electronics, St. Maarten is actually superior to St. Thomas,'' says Brown. ``The prices are cheap enough to make up for the duty you'd pay when buying cameras and such.''

Stores on the Dutch side are concentrated in Philipsburg, along Front-street, a mile-long passage between the beach and the largest salt pond. You'll find a few more stores one block inland, along Backstreet, including discounted clothing and shops carrying Asian imports.

Some stores in Philipsburg are also open to barter, especially on higher-priced purchases, or multiple items. This is especially true with jewelry, and late in the day merchants tend to be more flexible. Ask for a certified jeweler to provide an appraisal of any gemstones you are considering -- most shops have one on staff. At some of the bigger stores, the prices aren't negotiable but a 5 percent discount is offered for cash purchases.

As on St. Thomas, crystal, china, perfume and cosmetics are a good value on the Dutch side. Cuban cigars can be purchased on both sides of the island, though they cannot be brought back into the U.S. (Dominican cigars are an excellent buy.)

The island never made much in the way of rum, but guavaberry trees produce the unofficial liqueur, a gently bittersweet concoction available at many places. Liquor prices tend to drop as you head away from the cruise ship docks, while fine French wines and cognacs will be found in several wine shops on the French side, plus superb rum from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Ma Doudou makes artisinal, infused rums in hand-painted bottles tied off with a festive knot of madras fabric.

The French side of St. Martin, where tourism in earnest started a little later, is ideal for Parisian and Italian haute couture. Marigot is the place to land if you find yourself short of an outfit for a cocktail party, especially the shops that ring Port la Royale. Designers like Versace, Gucci, Hermes, Lacroix, Cavalli, Gaultier and Armani are well represented. Unlike in Philipsburg, bartering isn't a custom on the French side.

Near the Marigot waterfront is a lively outdoor market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, with vendors selling spices, shells and handicrafts. Charming na√Įf art, usually from Haiti, is abundant, but St. Martin is also home to fine artists and their galleries, like Roland Richardson, who paints en plein air on his native island, creating a sort of Caribbean impressionism.

The official currency of the French side is the euro, and with the U.S. dollar suffering in its wake, it pays to keep an eye out for shops offering a ``one-to-one'' exchange rate.

Caribbean cruises: Sun and sand can wait, it's shopping time
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