The U.S. Virgin Islands: Caribbean Sun, Sand and Savings
By Victor Block
One island resembles a U.S. city, with teeming streets and sidewalks and shops galore. Another is a tiny dot of mostly unspoiled wilderness. The third bridges the gap, with a something-for-everyone variety of ambience and activities. Adding to the appeal is that the three very different Caribbean atolls are close enough to be easily combined into a single visit.
St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix also share inviting attributes. These include year-round tropical climate and enough choices of land and water activities to fill many a day. Sun-worshipers in search of picture-postcard beaches find a welcome selection. The heart-shaped stretch of white sand at Magens Bay on St. Thomas is included on many a "most beautiful beaches" list. Cinnamon, Haulover and Francis Bay beaches on St. John are favorites among island residents. Sandy Point beach on St. Croix is one of the longest stretches of sand in the Caribbean.
Yet another attraction is that as U.S. territories, the USVI, as they're known, are easy to get to and around in. U.S. citizens don't need a passport, the dollar is the currency and English is the local language.
Christopher Columbus came upon the islands during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. While he staked a claim for Spain, that country had little interest in colonizing them and over time control alternated among the Dutch, British and French. The sugar industry brought prosperity to the islands for two centuries but began to wane toward the end of the 1800s. Among causes were drought, other natural disasters and increasing competition. The islands ended up being owned by Denmark, which in 1917 sold them to the United States for $25 million. Today the brooding stone skeletons of once-thriving sugar mills dot the landscape of all three islands and serve as reminders of those once heady days of the past.
St. Thomas is the most developed island and commercial hub of the Virgins. Large resorts overlook beaches and cruise ships disgorge throngs of passengers, most of whom head for shops in Charlotte Amalie. The big draw is the variety of items available at reasonable prices. Some stores sell jewelry, diamonds, watches and other upscale merchandise, while others offer goods ranging from local art and Island-made edibles to artifacts recovered from historic shipwrecks.
On St. Thomas, Mother Nature takes a back seat to shopping. The popular tourist destination called Mountain Top, perched on the island's highest point, offers stunning views of St. John and other nearby islands. But most visitors spend much of their time wandering through the aisles of "the Caribbean's largest duty-free gift shop." As the largest historical town in the United States, Charlotte Amalie boasts its share of interesting sites. Red-roofed buildings line streets that are still identified by Danish language signs.
According to legend, the infamous pirate Blackbeard used a watchtower built in 1679 to spot ships entering the harbor. He also is reputed to have used a Danish fortress, now called Blackbeard's Castle, to confine his beautiful wife while he was away at sea. A small Jewish community in Charlotte Amalie constructed a synagogue in 1803, which is the oldest in continuous use in the Unites States and its territories.
The Frenchtown neighborhood is home to descendants of immigrants from the French island of St. Barthelemy who arrived in the mid-19th century. Tiny brightly painted houses line winding streets, and fishermen display their daily catch along the waterfront from equally colorful fishing boats.
The main appeal of St. John is what it does not have. That includes an airport, cruise ship dock and fast-food restaurants. What the tiny island does offer, however, is a tranquil atmosphere and natural beauty. Hiking trails wind through forest-clad hills and donkeys and goats meander freely. About two-thirds of the island's 20 square miles is protected from development as a national park, so the outlook for dramatic growth is limited.