St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands: 2 Vacation Travel Treasures
Treasures in Plain Sight
In the harbor city of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, vendors compete for the attention and wealth of cruise ship shoppers and tourists. Amazingly, a store will establish multiple locations only a block apart from each other. Taxi drivers and cruise activity guides add to the frenzy as international consumers race from diamond shop to diamond shop. However, for the visitor wishing to muse on aesthetic riches, there are two treasures in the harbor area. One, a shopping mall, is on the tourists' must-do itinerary, but is not given credit for its striking structural beauty. The other, a synagogue, is marked on maps, but often neglected because what it has to offer cannot be wrapped and placed in a shopping bag.
Historic Sandy Sanctuary
About three blocks from the harbor, ferry, and shopping area of Charlotte Amalie is a one-way street merely four blocks long. It is narrow and steep and known as Crystal Gade. (Interestingly, despite the control of the Virgin Islands by multiple peoples, colonizers, and nations, it is the Danish nomenclature for street names which is retained. Thus, a street is frequently called a Gade, pronounced - GAW-duh.)
Almost at the the crest of the hill sits a beautiful jewel of a worship center which is hundreds of years old, full of carefully tended mahogany, and always endowed with a carpet of taupe-colored sand.
View Looking In from the Sanctuary Door
Historic Island Synagogue in Continuous Use
The congregation Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim is better known as "the historic St. Thomas synagogue." It is the only synagogue on the island. Founded in 1796, it provided a safe haven for worship for the Jewish families settling there. Although the current building was constructed in 1833, there never was a time since 1796 that the congregation dissipated or moved, no matter the government-du-jour. Therefore, since the synagogue is now in a United States territory, it holds the honor of being the oldest continually used synagogue under the U.S. flag.
Beauty Rivaling Colonial America
The synagogue is open for business and graciously open to tourists. Its small congregation is thriving and enjoys deep connections with other faith communites on the island. It is peaceful, cool, and shaded, and adorned with European fixtures as well as island-made furniture. Please take note of the pineapple finials in the photo below.
A Worship Haven for Over Two Centuries
But the sand?
If you are not right on a beach, can you imagine the central gathering room of a church or place of worship with - not a sprinkling - but a hefty, substantial, intentional layer of sand meant to be the floor covering? It is quite surprising, and, as an island synagogue, so fitting. The sandy floor is calm and quieting, in concert with Mother Nature, with the Gaiam of the Caribbean beaches. It feels absolutely welcoming to an island soul.
So responsive to the foot, the body, the being, this rolling sand on the floor greets the eyes like rolling waves of the sea. It is gentle, yet dynamic. It has a comfortable feeling. Nature. That of God’s world. And, it IS so quiet---which was probably the point. Anti-Semitism of the past may have led the congregants to muffle the sounds of their unique, non-Christian worship with a sand-covered floor. Another reason proferred is that the sand symbolizes the Egyptian desert crossed during the Exodus. Whatever the reasons, the sand is something to be experienced.
After spending quiet moments appreciating the synagogue, one re-enters the sunny, bustling world. Walking from the synagogue into the harbor shopping district, the visitor can find the second treasure for the spirit, the Royal Dane Mall.
Royal Dane Mall
Historic Architecture in Shopping Complex
It is a shopping "mall;" make no mistake about that. But what an environment! Appealing to the fashion of renovating old industrial spaces, the development company, Armour Enterprises, embraced - rather than demolished - three adjacent warehouses. These three incredibly narrow buildings are said to have been constructed from the late 1700's to late 1800's. Running parallel to each other, they are separated by six foot wide alleys. Occasional connecting walkways make the three a beautiful unit.
The entire mall is a treat for anyone who connects on a spiritual level with natural elements. Brick and cobblestone alleys transport the imaginative passer to the eighteenth century, if not earlier. The exterior and interior walls of these warehouses are also exposed with distressed brick and wood. Some of the locals suggest that these warehouses once may have been used by pirates to store their booty. However, the date of their construction lies after the great age of pirates and privateers. Nevertheless, who is to say?
Sitting Area in Royal Dane Mall
Hidden meditation alcoves
Within the Royal Dane Mall are nooks to sit down, stay cool, and inhale the beauty. Much care has been given to these non-income producing spots. Fountains, plants, wooden benches, pergolas, and a sundial obelisk grace a few choice "get away" recesses.
As in the old maxim, the photos in this article convey much more than my meager words. If you are drawn to aesthetic experiences, when spending time on the lovely Caribbean island of St. Thomas, be sure to seek out these two treasures. No purchase required.
Maren Morgan loves the tropics! A mi, me gusto! If any employers in the islands could use someone with her talents, please feel free to drop a line! :)
Nearby St. John island
- Jazz on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
If you like Caribbean warmth, both the weather and the people, and jazz performed live - the diminutive island of St. John has the event for you.
Text and photos copyright 2008 Maren E. Morgan
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