Blackbeard’s castle

ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS– So many choices. So little time.

A huge cruise ship looks like a small toy from Mountain Top.

Our Eurodam cruise ship arrived in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, at about 8 in the morning. The ship would depart at 4:30 in the afternoon. My sister Elaine and I scanned all the shore excursions and settled on one we thought would give a good overview. It was a great choice.

First, we caught an island shuttle for a winding trip to the top of St. Thomas Island, appropriately named Mountain Top. Our driver “Toothpick” (“because I’m so skinny”) expertly guided the vehicle up the narrow road to the highest peak on the island and gave us a history lesson at the same time.

“We are driving on the left side of the road which is the right side,” he said. “The U.S. bought the Virgin Islands in 1917 for $25 million in gold. The United States wanted to protect the Panama Canal and knew the islands were a strategic location during World War I.”

Today, the Virgin Islands are a thriving tourist destination – tourism is the No. 1 industry.  But island drivers still drive on the left side rather than conforming to the American practice of being on the right.

“There are so many steep hills and narrow streets that the U.S. wisely decided not to change the side of the road that we are used to driving on,” Toothpick said. “If you are driving on the left side, you can look down and see how close you are to the side of the road so you don’t fall off.”

We looked down. Toothpick was sure right. We were so close to toppling over the side of the teeny road that I was glad I wasn’t driving.

The Three Queens fountain stands in front of Blackbeard’s Castle.

Mountain Top boasts a big duty-free shopping mart filled with tons of souvenirs, clothing, jewelry and other stuff, plus a clean restroom and a bar that serves the famed banana daiquiris.

But it was the amazing view that captured my time. Mountain Top is the perfect place for photos. On a clear day, the bartender said, you can see San Juan.

Back on the shuttle with Toothpick, we took a jolting ride down to Blackbeard’s Castle where our driver turned us over to tour guide Jerome. The castle is actually more of a tiny tower and it’s unlikely that Blackbeard himself ever used it. But it was worth a short climb to the tower top to see that it was a great lookout.

Blackbeard’s Castle,  officially known as Skytsborgtarn – meaning sky tower – was built in 1679 and is one of five National Historic Landmarks in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Escorting us into the Rum Factory & Museum, Jerome gave us a quick overview of how rum is made, then turned us loose for free rum tastings and a self-guided tour of other attractions as we walked down the mountain.

Jerome warned us that there are 99 steps to the bottom of the attractions. Sure glad it was all downhill. I would not recommend the walk for anyone with mobility problems or anyone pushing a baby stroller.

Along with its fantastic views and duty-free shopping, Mountain Top is known for its banana daiquiris.

Off we went – through a couple of historic homes, gift shops, the Caribbean World Amber Museum, some lovely gardens and a bunch of pirate statues, more than 20 of them said to be the world’s largest collection of life-sized pirate statues.

A Three Queens bronze fountain honors three women – Mary, Agnes and Josiah – who led a rebellion of laborers on Oct. 1, 1878, in a successful demand for better wages and working conditions. If you are not shy, you can bring a bathing suit and swim in one of the pools. The cool water sure looked inviting on this balmy day.

My favorites were the two-story high amber waterfall built using 12,000 pieces of amber from all over the world and the amber wish stone. Elaine and I both left wishes. I’m pretty sure our wishes were much alike. We are both mothers, you know.

Entering the Amber Museum was a bit of a surprise. Strolling through a darkened tunnel, we encountered a huge roaring dinosaur. The little boy behind me didn’t know whether to be fascinated or to scream. I think he did both.

The museum has pieces of amber and jewelry for sale. But it also has some interesting fossils of insects and leaves embedded in amber. An eye-catching 60 million-year-old piece of Baltic amber has an ancient cockroach lodged in it. The roach doesn’t look much different from the yucky pests of today.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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