The elderly woman pressed her cruise-ship-issued wheelchair against the glass display case in one of those combination jewelry-liquor-T-shirt shops that proliferate in St. Thomas and frowned at the 7-carat diamond tennis bracelet dangling from her bony wrist.
"Well, if I were back home, I could talk to my banker," she said, fretting that her Visa card would not bear the weight of all those diamonds. "And it's not like I need more jewelry."The merchant, determined not to let a hefty sale slip out the door, launched into a fast-talking, hard-bargaining pitch. In the end, he wound up $6,000 richer. She wound up with a shiny new bauble. And both wound up smiling.
St. Thomas has long been regarded as a shopper's paradise. The shops of Charlotte Amalie and their bounty of gold, gemstones, linens, crystal and electronics are as great a draw for some visitors as the island's beautiful white-sand beaches. But St. Thomas' reputation as the shopping capital of the Caribbean is challenged by St. Maarten, the dual Dutch-French island nation (known as St. Martin on the French side), whose shops are brimming with temptations similar to those found in St. Thomas.
Both islands are popular cruise-ship destinations. More than a million cruise-ship passengers arrived in St. Thomas last year; another 515,000 sailed into St. Maarten. And because some ships stop at both ports during a single sailing, passengers often wonder which island harbors the best buys.
Predictably, the answer depends on what you're looking for.
Michael Day, a Caribbean shopping expert employed by a Miami-based company that hires out lecturers to cruise ships, has spent three years scouring the shops on a number of Caribbean islands. His conclusion: St. Thomas is better for high-end merchandise, such as watches that cost more than $200, and for good-quality gemstones starting at $400 and up.
But less expensive watches and gold jewelry are better bargains in St. Maarten, he believes.
"The word is getting around that St. Maarten is now a great shopping island on par with St. Thomas and even better for some (merchandise)," Day said.
Brad Lake, also a port lecturer on cruise ships, has been shopping in Caribbean ports of call for six years. Some items, like perfume, are better buys in St. Maarten, he said. But in general, he prefers St. Thomas for better prices and selection.
Hundreds of merchants ply their trade in two major shopping areas in St. Thomas. Most convenient for cruise-ship passengers is Havensight Mall near the cruise-ship dock, in an area that is also less frantic than the streets of Charlotte Amalie. But for better selection, brave the confusion (which increases with the number of cruise ships in port) and take a cab ($2.50 per person) into town.
Best buys are on linens - a good-quality Battenburg lace tablecloth sells for $60, compared to about $200 in the United States. Seiko watches start at $39, or about 40 percent below U.S. prices. Stores also offer savings on imported china and crystal, but don't count on finding a particular piece to complete a place setting in your china pattern. Selection is spotty.
The duty-free shopping allowance in the U.S. Virgin Islands was raised earlier this year from $800 per person to $1,200. And there's no sales tax, which can mean substantial savings on higher-priced items.
The duty-free shopping allowance for Americans bringing back goods from St. Maarten is $600. The island's major shopping haunt is Front Street in Philipsburg, which, to the casual shopper at least, appears to sport much of the same stuff you'll see in St. Thomas. However, the shopping area is smaller and the scene is less hectic than in St. Thomas.
On the French side of the island, the major shopping area is in Marigot, where pricey boutiques sell trendy European clothing.
St. Maarten is a true duty-free port - that is, no duty is assessed on imports brought to the island. Nor is there sales tax. Regardless, merchants are free to price imported goods at whatever level the market will bear.
When shopping on either island, it pays to compare prices at several stores. In St. Thomas in February, for instance, gold chains were selling anywhere from $11 to $14.95 a gram, depending on the store, and the identical woman's Seiko watch ranged from $100 to $130 at various shops.
Beware of counterfeit goods, particularly in St. Maarten, both Lake and Day warned.
"There are still pirates in the Caribbean, only they don't wear patches over their eyes," Lake said. "You really have to be careful."
Among the deceptions he has encountered: gold-plated jewelry stamped as 14-karat gold; damaged cameras fixed up and sold as new; and a $2,000 emerald whose color drained out when its owner dived into a swimming pool.
Several stores in St. Maarten sell Louis Vuitton bags at suspiciously low prices - around $110 for a medium-size purse, for instance. The bags are stamped Made in France, although, if you ask, the clerks will tell you the goods are Italian-made copies.
Another tip for wary shoppers: The only authorized Rolex dealer in the Caribbean is Little Switzerland, Day said. Buy one anywhere else and, as with all counterfeit goods, it'll be subject to confiscation by U.S. Customs.
Some cruise ships provide passengers with a list of recommended stores in each port of call. But be aware that these merchants may have paid for the privilege of appearing on the list. Their prices aren't necessarily the lowest, although they do guarantee the quality of what they sell. (Check with the resident shopping expert on your cruise ship to determine what guarantees, if any, recommended merchants have made with the cruise line.)
Regardless of where you buy, do your homework before you leave home so you'll know a bargain when you see one. Prices, particularly on electronics, aren't necessarily cheaper in the Caribbean. The same goes for other goods, as well. For instance, a Gold Pfiel leather bag in St. Thomas was priced at $320, only $5 less than in Los Angeles, though the store claims to sell the bags for 30 percent under U.S. prices.
Shoppers vary, of course, and one person's bargain is another's burden. Lake has seen both types in action.
"Some people are happy to spend thousands on a cruise so they can save 50 cents on a bottle of Bacardi," he said. "Then there are people who are sure they're going to be railroaded. They say, `What could we buy in the islands that we can't buy at Bloomie's?' The answer is, maybe not a lot, but at least you're avoiding sales tax and, possibly, duty."
Price fight: St. Thomas vs. St. Maarten vs. U.S.
St. Thomas and St. Maarten are favorite haunts among shoppers who know the Caribbean. Whether one island has better buys than the other depends on what you're looking for, of course. But it pays to compare prices, since the cost of identical merchandise can vary substantially on the same island.
Following is a shopping list of five randomly selected items and their costs in St. Thomas, St. Maarten and in the Los Angeles area.
Mont Blanc roller ball pen
$120 in St. Thomas
$90 in St. Maarten
$150 in Los Angeles
Nikon Zoom Touch 500 camera
$220 in St. Thomas
$215 in St. Maarten if you pay cash ($223 if you pay by credit card)
$240 in Los Angeles
Panasonic PV-10 Palmcorder
$799 in St. Thomas
$745 in St. Maarten
$830 in Los Angeles
Ladies Seiko watch (Rolex style)
$100 in St. Thomas
$125 in St. Maarten
$250 in Los Angeles
Chanel No. 5 Eau de Toilette
$44 in St. Thomas
$42 in St. Maarten
$50 in Los Angeles