I have always associated amber with the Baltic Sea. Who hasn’t heard about the fabulous Amber Room in St. Petersburg? Therefore it came quite as a surprise when I found out that amber is also found in the Caribbean, in even more colors and shapes as in the Baltic Sea and once used very much like money in trade. And how did I find out? Simple. Ask the locals! Pearl of travel wisdom #1! To find the best attractions of a foreign place, you can’t beat what comes up in conversation with the natives. Exactly what happened, when I ‘escaped’ my cruise the moment the liner docked in the very pretty harbor of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas in the US Virgin islands.
I already saw the half moon bay of white, red and pink low houses along the shoreline when standing in deck and decided on the spot to make my way there on foot.
Of course, I knew about the 99steps and Blackbeard’s Castle on the top and the history of St Thomas, closely connected to pirates, smuggling and other very exciting adventure stories. There is much more to the island, like a butterfly farm, the sky ride up to Paradise point or Eco tours including snorkeling and kayaking, but given the limited time I had on the island I had to make decision. As I am a history fan, Blackbeard and pirates it was!
The walk along the waterfront is very pleasant and a lot more enjoyable that taking a bus or taxi. It seems that cruise ships arrive all at once and the infrastructure isn’t made for such a sudden influx of tourists, all heading in the same direction, which measn that 4 wheel traffic gets stuck in exhaust fumes, whereas the happy pedestrian just whizzes past, breathing the fresh sea air.
It’s about 2 ½ miles from the cruise ship dock to the center of Charlotte Amalie and I got thirsty. I stopped at a colorful stal,l selling a huge variety of freshly squeezed fruit juices and run by a very jolly island lady. Naturally, we got talking and I asked her what to visit apart from the obvious.
“Oh,” she said, after taking an assessing look at me, “you will like the amber museum.” How did she come to that conclusion, I wondered. And amber? In the Caribbean? That was news to me. I had to see. “Just walk up the 99 steps,” she continued, “half way up you’ll find a sign and then ask for Michael.”
I downed my pineapple/mango juice and turned right towards the 99 steps which, really, are 103. Built by the Danes in the early 1700 the steps were meant to facilitate going up and down the mountainous island and the bricks used had actually come over from Europe as ballast on the sailing ships. I started my climb and, sure enough, came upon a small sign which read “World Amber Museum” with an arrow.
So far, so good, but each level of the steps is quite a labyrinth of connected buildings and it is no small feat to find the entrance, leave alone Michael. I finally located him in a wonderful little café, he sells you the ticket at$2 and tells you to “enter where you hear the roaring and see the jungle”. As it turned out, an apt description because the entrance to the museum is made to resemble a rain forest complete with taped rather frightening animal sounds.
The start may be a bit garish and ‘disneyesque’ but the museum which lies behind is glamour pure. Distributed over three mystically lit rooms, the exhibits, all made from amber are stunning. Replicas of historical pieces from Russia and modern art sculptures alternate with explanations of the history of amber in the Caribbean . Exit the museum and you can gape in awe at a 20 feet high waterfall, made entirely from amber pebbles.
To my great delight, the last room is a small jewelry shop. They sell beautiful pieces, necklaces, rings and bracelets set in gold or silver. Amber doesn’t come cheap but I couldn’t resist and bought a bead bracelet with all the colors of amber from the lightest green to black.
The museum only opened in February 2009 but it’s fast becoming a big tourist attraction.