Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
THE US VIRGIN ISLANDS
Cruising, sailing, diving, beautiful beaches, and a national park teeming with wildlife - the US Virgin Islands, or USVI, have them all, shared between St Thomas, St John, and St Croix.
St Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point
Coral World Ocean Park
Virgin Islands National Park
Trunk Bay Beach
Estate Whim Plantation Museum
Buck Island National Monument
Green volcanic islands peer from the never-ending blues of the Caribbean for as far as the eye can see, their submerged feet a vast underwater landscape. No one knows for certain how many islands there are but Columbus, on his second voyage of discovery in 1493, felt there were too many to count and named them after the 11,000 martyred virgins in the legend of St Ursula. However many there are, the USA has 68 of them, amounting to 136 sq miles (352 sq km), and Britain has around 50 (for more information, click here).
A diver looks through a crevasse in the waters off the Virgin Islands.
Situated at the top of the Lesser Antilles chain, only four of the USVI are inhabited: St Thomas (pop. 51,600) is the most developed and can have up to eight cruise ships visiting on some days; neighboring St John (pop. 4,100) is mainly taken up by a national park; St Croix (pop. 50,600), 40 miles (64km) to the southwest, is the largest but poorer and more tranquil than St Thomas. Water Island, off St Thomas, has a few residents and is known as the fourth Virgin Island. When sugar-cane production bowed out of the economy in the 1960s, the US started developing the islands’ potential as a “holiday paradise” for Americans, and today more than two million visitors descend on them every year, the majority arriving by cruise ship or under sail - only about a third fly in.
St Thomas, with USVI capital Charlotte Amalie, is the recipient of the largest proportion of vacationers, and there is very little of the island that hasn’t been built on, which gives it rather a crowded feel: the airport runway, a paved stretch of landfill, juts out into the sea - there is no other place for it.
A thriving Danish colony
Columbus met with a hail of arrows on his visit to the Virgin Islands and as a result of such Carib ferocity, no European settlement was established until the 17th century when the Danes took St Thomas and St John.
View of the busy town of Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas.
St Croix, on the other hand, was settled first by the Dutch and English in around 1625, then by the Spanish in 1650, followed briefly by the Knights Templar of Malta under the sovereignty of France. Finally in 1733, St Croix was sold to Denmark, and the Danish West Indies officially became a colony in 1754.
US Virgin Islanders waved goodbye to the “last vestiges of Danish colonialism” in 1993 when their government bought the West Indian Company (WICO), including a cruise-ship dock and Havensight Shopping Mall in St Thomas, for US$54 million. Denmark had hung on to the company when selling the colony to the US in 1917.
The colony thrived with sugar growing on St Croix and a roaring slave trade in St Thomas, also an important stopping-off port for ships after crossing the Atlantic. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the abolition of slavery, the drop in the price of sugar, and the technological advances in shipping, it was no longer necessary for ships to stop at St Thomas and the economy went into decline.
Meanwhile, the USA had been eyeing up the colony, anxious to protect the Caribbean and the Panama Canal (opened in 1914) from the Germans, and bought the islands from Denmark for US$25 million in 1917. They were then ruled by the US Navy until 1931, when a civil government was established. The inhabitants were given US citizenship a year later but even now they don’t have the right to vote in presidential elections: the status of the USVI is as an unincorporated territory with a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.
After World War II, the islands were neglected until American conflict with Cuba sent tourists looking for new white beaches, coral reefs, and azure waters. The construction industry boomed, labor had to be imported from other Caribbean islands, and at the same time new industrial centers and an oil refinery opened up on St Croix.
St Thomas - a popular island
The main island of St Thomas is often called “Rock City” because it is essentially one big mountain - its highest point being 1,550ft (470 meters) - with one main town, Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the USVI, on its central south shore. The remainder of the 32 sq mile (83 sq km) island’s coastline is a garland of beach resorts around a wooded interior of private homes - bright red, corrugated tin-roofed eyries set into the steep hillsides.
Charlotte Amalie - a shopper’s paradise
Built by the Danes on the south coast of St Thomas and named after the Queen of Denmark in 1692, Charlotte Amalie 1 [map] (pronounced “Ah-mahl-ya”), the capital of all the USVI, is a congested town set round an equally congested harbor. Tax-free shopping is the name of the game here, and you can wander along the narrow streets lined with old Danish shipping warehouses, all converted into shops and restaurants. All the streets retain their Danish names, displayed on corner buildings - Kongens Gade (King’s Street), Dronningens Gade (Queen’s Street), which is also called Main Street, and so on.
Two blocks north of Main Street along Raadets Gade, you come to Crystal Gade and St Thomas’ Synagogue. Constructed in the 18th century, but rebuilt three times since, it remains the second-oldest synagogue in the Caribbean (the oldest is in Curaçao). The present hurricane-proof building with an original sand floor dates from 1833, although its congregation was formed by Sephardic Jews from Amsterdam and London in 1796. The adjacent Weibel Museum (tel: 340-774 4312; www.onepaper.com/synagogue; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm; donations welcome) charts the history of St Thomas’ Jewish community.
Wandering eastwards along the waterfront you can see the lines of docked boats, sleek yachts, and sailboats in the harbor. St Thomas hosts the St Thomas International Regatta (formerly the Rolex Regatta; www.stthomasinternationalregatta.com) at the end of March, a major yachting event attracting many competitors. The USVI competed in the Americas Cup for the first time in 2000. Sailing gets into your blood on these islands. The ferry that runs every 2 hours to St John waits here alongside the inter-island cargo ships: round-bellied boats with smoke stacks and circular windows; rusted hulls and lamp-lit, lived-in cabins furnished with little cooking stoves, clothes-strewn bunk beds, and radios. Each has a backboard hanging off the side rail, listing their destinations: “Accepting cargo for St Martin, Dominica, St Lucia, and St Kitts.”
Behind the wharf is the red-painted Fort Christian. Built by the Danes in 1680, it is the oldest building in continuous use on the island and is a National Historic Landmark. Among many uses, it served as a prison, with the last prisoner leaving in 1982. The dungeon had housed the Virgin Islands Museum (tel: 340-776 4566) displaying valuable Amerindian artifacts, local history, and colonial furniture but since 2007 the fort has been closed for renovation. On Government Hill above the fort is the Seven Arches Museum (tel: 340-774 9295; www.sevenarchesmuseum.com; call to make an appointment; donations welcome), a striking example of Danish West Indian 19th-century domestic architecture, now a private museum and art gallery housing artifacts from that era.
To the yachting havens of the east
Traffic jams are a constant factor in Charlotte Amalie. They are peculiarly “island” traffic jams - not so much the result of too many cars as they are of the relaxed attitude of local people who come upon a friend and stop for a chat through the car window.
Leaving the town along the Waterfront you soon come to Havensight Mall, a major shopping center where the cruise ships dock; Denmark owned all this until 1993. Nearby is the St Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point (tel: 340-774 9809; www.ridetheview.com; every ship day 9am-10pm), a cable car that will take you up to a beautiful view point. From Yacht Haven Marina you can charter a yacht for the day, go light-tackle fishing, or deep-sea fishing for blue marlin - St Thomas is often referred to as the blue marlin capital of the world. Past the turn-offs to the dazzling Morningstar Beach (where the people dazzle as well) and the idyllic Secret Harbour, after half an hour you come to Red Hook, at East End, and the American Yacht Harbor offering more sailing of all sorts and a choice of ferries running regularly to neighboring islands. Don’t forget, the British Virgin Islands are another country and so passports need to be shown. There is a plethora of beautiful islands out there and you can explore them at speed but not in peace by renting a power boat from the marina.
Yachts are synonymous with the USVI.
Coral World Ocean Park
A fascinating underwater observatory in which you, the visitor, become the contained curiosity, and the fish the passing curious, Coral World Ocean Park 2 [map] (tel: 340-775 1555; www.coralworldvi.com; Nov-Apr Sun-Thur 9am-4pm, May-Oct times vary) is 15-20 minutes northeast from Charlotte Amalie at Coki Point. The centerpiece is a three-level underwater observatory from which to view an enormous range of marine life, but the highlight is watching divers from the observatory when they come to feed the sharks, moray eels, and stingrays in the predator tank. There is also a Nautilus semi-submersible - an enhanced glass-bottomed boat tour, or Sea Trek, where you don a specially designed helmet to follow a trail along the sea floor.
If that inspires you to swim down there among the exotic fish, the Orange Cup corals, and the colorful sponges in the underwater gardens off Coki Beach, Coki Beach Dive Club offers beginners’ courses close by, with practice dives on the shallow reefs between St Thomas and St John. Many of the 15 dive companies on the island also give lessons in underwater photography.
At Sandra’s Terrace (tel: 340-775 2699), in Smith’s Bay, close to Coral World on the east coast, you can enjoy creole cooking such as gutu, a sweet, steamed white fish, with fungi - a grit-like mixture of yellow cornmeal, okra, and butter - on an open wooden deck on stilts above nothing but jungle brush.
St Thomas is a popular port for cruise ships.
On the road back to the capital (a 20-minute drive away) lies Tillett Gardens 3 [map] (tel: 340-775 1405; www.tillettgardens.com) an old Danish farm that was converted into an arts and crafts center in 1959. Outbuildings in the grounds hold an art gallery, with local artists’ work for sale, and screen-printing and crafts studios, and you can combine a visit with lunch in the pretty garden restaurant. During the winter season, there is a series of chamber music concerts, and twice a year the Arts Alive Arts and Crafts Festival, a fusion of art and music, is held here.
Back on the coast road, continue west for another 3 miles (5km) or so, past the spectacular cliffside 18-hole Mahogany Run Golf Course, and you reach Magen’s Bay Beach 4 [map], a sheltered horseshoe bay once voted “one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world” by National Geographic. All the fun of the beach can be had here on this mile-long stretch of sand that is perfect for children but does get very crowded. Follow the marked trail to Little Magen’s Bay for legal sunbathing in the nude - but don’t get burned. The picturesque Route 35 back to Charlotte Amalie passes Drake’s Seat, just a concrete bench in a layby but believed to be the spot used by Sir Francis Drake as his lookout.
For more views and the “world’s best banana daiquiris” there is Mountain Top 5 [map] (daily), the highest viewpoint on the island, nearly 2 miles (3km) from the capital, which offers more duty-free shopping. Once called Signal Hill, at 1,500ft (457 meters), it was of strategic importance to the US in the 1940s. Now it is commercialized, and best visited when there are few or no cruise ships in port. But it is still worth the trek for photos of the beauty of Magen’s Bay - a bright green tear drop of calm, protected waters in a shell of white sand - toward St John and the British Virgin Islands.
Weddings in paradise
The USVI has become a prime spot in which to get married. After all, what could be more romantic than a wedding ceremony on a white sandy beach or in an exotic tropical garden? What could be more original than tying the knot under the sea in a coral garden or on top of a mountain with a spectacular panorama as a backdrop? Of course you can get married the traditional way in a church, or at any time of day from sunrise to sunset. And how about chartering a luxurious yacht for you and your guests? The choice of settings in the USVI is endless.
As the islands are an American Territory, US marriage laws still apply, so there is just an 8-day waiting period after the Territorial Court of your chosen island has received your application. Then, with the help of the tourist office, which has long lists of addresses and telephone numbers, you can contact the army of wedding consultants, planners, florists, and photographers necessary to achieve the “wedding of your dreams.”
Weddings are big business here and yacht charterers are used to working with wedding planners to enable a trouble-free ceremony and reception on the sea, even providing diving gear if desired. And you won’t have to go far for your honeymoon - that can be laid on, too.
Wharfside Village, Cruz Bay, St John.
Winding your way back down to Charlotte Amalie as evening falls, the boat lights in St Thomas Harbor look like felled constellations bobbing on the water. Island nightlife then kicks into gear as revelers gather to dance in the bayside bars around Frenchtown and the former World War II submarine base to the west of the harbor - away from downtown, which is not a desirable place at night. Frenchtown was first settled by immigrants, mostly fishermen, from St-Barthélemy in the late 19th century and many of the older people here still speak creole. Here you find the Quetel Fish Market, where the catch from little fishing boats is sold, the small French Heritage Museum next to the ballpark, and waterfront restaurants, which are great attractions.
Offshore is Water Island, the fourth inhabited Virgin Island, reached by ferry from Crown Bay Marina. The US bought the island from Denmark in 1944 to use as a military base and for weapons testing, but it has been in private hands since the 1950s. The freshwater ponds that gave the island its name are now salt ponds. Hassel Island, also in the bay, is part of US National Parks and uninhabited, although you can get a water taxi to take you there for hiking and a picnic to enjoy the views.
St John - a nature island
Lying 5 miles (8km) east of St Thomas, St John is a small, green atoll, worlds apart from its overcrowded neighbor. The roads are steep, twisty, and rocky but the deeply indented bays afford spectacular views of forested hills, sandy bays, and turquoise sea at every turn. Essentially, St John’s fate was sealed when Laurence Rockefeller bought about half the island in the 1950s. He then deeded his portion of the 28 sq mile (70 sq km) mountainous island to the National Park Service. The Virgin Islands National Park (www.nps.gov/viis) was opened in 1956 and now covers about two-thirds of the island, although some land in the park is still privately owned and not open to visitors.
The ferry from Red Hook on St Thomas to St John takes just 20 minutes. There are no high-rise hotels here and a four-wheel-drive is the best mode of transport. If you are over just for the day, taxis offer a 2-hour trip around the island.
The main town, Cruz Bay 6 [map], is the sort of place where people come to meet a friend at the ferry, pick up their mail, get some groceries, and then retreat back into the woods. Taxi drivers mill about and there are T-shirt shops, moped rental shops, open food stands, bars, and restaurants. Wharfside Village is a beachfront shopping mall with a working spice factory. The road to the left goes to Mongoose Junction, another mall a few minutes’ walk away, and the National Park Visitors’ Center (tel: 340-776-6201, ext. 238; daily 8am-4.30pm), where there are informative displays and you can pick up maps and books and sign up for tours and activities.
Cruz Bay, St John.
Beautiful Northshore Road
The Northshore Road from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay follows the lush green coastline through the park to beach after beach of soft, white sand. At Caneel Bay, a few minutes’ drive outside town, the rich and famous enjoy going without their digital distractions in the genteel, luxury hotel on the beach, created by Rockefeller in 1956.
Hawksnest Beach (with changing rooms and picnic tables) in the next bay is a dream of a beach, popular with local people and film-makers alike. The cream of the crop, so it does get crowded, is Trunk Bay Beach 7 [map] (with bathhouse, snack bar, snorkel-gear rental, shop, and lifeguards), where snorkelers can follow the well-marked, 675ft (210-meter) long National Park Underwater Trail. Around the corner are two campgrounds: Cinnamon Bay offers basic cottages, large tents, or bare sites on the beach backed by tropical vegetation; and a little further on, Maho Bay concentrates on deluxe camping with tent cottages.
Park trails and mill ruins
There are 20 hiking trails in the National Park, ranging from 15 minutes to 2 hours, and many of them start from the Northshore Road. From Leinster Bay, just past Maho Bay, you can take a 30-minute walking tour of the Annaberg Historic Sugar Mill Ruins 8 [map], where there are the remains of the mills (wind- and horse-powered), the sugar factory, and the rum still. The mortar between the stones of the buildings is made of flour, molasses, and sea shells, so you’ve essentially got very old, hard cakes in front of you. Cultural demonstrations of traditional skills take place Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 2pm. The trail back to the parking lot is lined with small, low-growing, fern-like plants known locally as greeche greeche. The plant’s tiny leaves fold up when touched.
The walking tours with rangers through the park are an eye-opener, especially if you’re curious about the indigenous flora (there are 800 species of plants and 50 species of birds breeding here, while many more migrants visit in the winter) and their various medicinal uses. On the 3-mile (5km) Reef Bay Trail (reservations at the Visitors’ Center), you see the Reef Bay sugar mill ruins and petroglyphs (Amerindian stone pictures) and have a boat ride back to Cruz Bay.
Hiking along one of the National Park’s many trails.
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
St Croix - an island with a difference
A seaplane - “It’s fun to land on water” says the sign at the St Thomas terminal - takes you to the waterfront of Christiansted on St Croix (pronounced “Croy” as in toy), 40 miles (65km) to the south of St Thomas. Very different from St Thomas, it takes longer to get around, and from east to west there is a dramatic change in the landscape - from low, grassy seaside hills that are reminiscent of Cornwall in England, to lush rainforests. Nearly 20 miles (33km) long and at 84 sq miles (210 sq km), St Croix has room for changing climates; it’s drier in the east and prone to drifting mists over the west end.
In the bars you’ll hear many conversations comparing one island to another, declaring what one has over the other. You hear a lot of that from the resident aliens who make up one-third of the population here - those from other Caribbean islands who’ve migrated to the USVI to find work and who are known as garotes, after a local bird that flies from island to island; North Americans, called Continentals, who have made their home here. They all say they want to keep St Croix quiet and modest, not like St Thomas.
Once a private club for wealthy planters, Pink Fancy, in Prince Street, Christiansted, was opened as a hotel in 1948 by the Ziegfeld Follies star, Jane Gottlieb, whose guests included the writers and artists of the day. Built round a 1780 Danish town house, the hotel - which closed in 2008 - is one of St Croix’s historic landmarks.
Christiansted - a Danish preserve
You feel the Danish influence everywhere, especially in the main town of Christiansted 9 [map], in the northeast, where the cream-colored buildings are made of bricks that the Danish ships brought over as ballast. Christiansted is a town built for the tropics, with overhanging balconies and cool arcades. Many of the red-roofed buildings constructed in the prosperous years of the 18th century by rich merchants have been restored and the whole of the historic area, including the harbor area, is maintained by the US National Park Service. Christiansted National Historic Site, established in 1952, consists of 7 acres (3 hectares) and six historic buildings: Government House (1747), Steeple Building (1753), Danish West India & Genia Company Warehouse (1749), Custom House, Scale House (1856), and Fort Christiansvaern (1738).
The Annaberg Historic Sugar Mill Ruins.
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
The majestic, colonial Government House on King Street is used for many government and social functions. You can visit the ballroom, gardens, and the Court of Justice (tel: 340-773 1404; daily 8am-7pm; free). In the square on the waterfront, the Old Danish Scale House was where sugar and molasses were weighed before being shipped out. Close by, Fort Christiansvaern (visitor center tel: 340-773 1460; www.nps.gov/chri; daily 8am-5) has been well preserved and you can see the dungeons and punishment cells plus an exhibit on how to fire a cannon. Across Hospital Street, the Steeple Building (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm, in winter until 4pm), originally built as a Lutheran church, is now a museum of the island’s early history. Since its deconsecration in 1831, the building has also been a bakery, school, and hospital. Behind the Boardwalk where the seaplane checks in, King’s Alley Walk, developed after the 1995 hurricanes, penetrates a fascinating maze of arcades and alleys lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. Several times a year, whether the area needs it or not, shopping is actively encouraged with “Jump Up,” when bands play in the streets, Mokojumbie dancers (stilt walkers) chase away evil spirits and a party atmosphere prevails.
The only other town on the island is tiny Frederiksted ) [map], 17 miles (27km) away on the west coast. A small network of shops greets the cruise ships as they dock at the modern 1,500ft (450-meter) pier. Sights include the renovated 18th-century, red and white Fort Frederik, with a museum and art gallery (Mon-Fri 8.30am-4pm, Sat if a cruise ship is in) and the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts (tel: 340-772 2622; www.cmcarts.org; Thur-Sat 10am-5pm), promoting regional art. The town has seen its fair share of natural disasters, from hurricanes to fires, but still retains its narrow streets and alleys lined with colonial buildings.
Bush teas are drinks made with medicinal plants from recipes handed down over the centuries. Many are still used for minor ailments: mango tea is taken for arthritis, soursop for insomnia, limebush for an upset stomach, and guava for coughs.
Every plantation tells a story
Between the two towns is the rural heartland of St Croix, where cattle and sugar have been the traditional farming activities. The St Croix Heritage Trail runs the length of the island following the routes of 18th-century roads (now upgraded to modern standards). A self-guided experience, it offers a cross-section of the island’s history and culture. Guided walks and tours round plantation houses and ruins are offered on a regular basis by St Croix Landmarks Society (52 Estate Whim, Frederiksted; tel: 340-772 0598; www.stcroixlandmarks.com). One of these is the Estate Whim Plantation Museum ! [map] (Wed-Sat 10am-3pm). Whim is the oldest sugar plantation museum in the Virgin Islands and is a fascinating window on to the lives of the people who lived and worked there, as well as the economics and technology of sugar making. The estate is typical of plantations laid out by the Danish West Indian Company in the early 18th century, with first cotton, then sugar being grown, and finally cattle being reared here.
History is preserved at the Estate Whim.
Another visit is to the Lawaetz Museum (Tue-Sat 10am-4pm) 3 miles (5km) away at Little La Grange, the beautifully preserved family home of Danish farming immigrants, several generations of whom lived and farmed here.
Putting the sugar plantations into context in the modern age, it is worth visiting the Cruzan Rum Distillery (3 and 3A Estate Diamond, Frederiksted; tel: 340-692 2280; www.cruzanrum.com; tours Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat-Sun10am-2pm), for a view of the production process. The Nelthropp family have been on St Croix for many generations and were among the first distillers to experiment with flavored rums, still popular with visitors today.
Also in this area, on Route 70, a collection of more than 1,000 species of tropical and exotic flowering trees, vines, and shrubs can be seen among the ruins of an 18th- and 19th-century plantation village in 16 acres (6.5 hectares) at St George Village Botanical Garden @ [map] (tel: 340-692 2874; www.sgvbg.org; gardens daily 9am-5pm, museum Tue-Fri 9am-5pm and weekend cruise ship days; charge to enter gardens). A small museum in a former slave house details the history of the area from the first Amerindian settlers to the Danish planters. An archeological site has dated Amerindian habitation of the area to AD 100.
The north coast
On the north coast, just 4 miles (6km) from Christiansted, is Salt River Bay £ [map], where Columbus landed looking for fresh water (he found hostile Carib Amerindians instead) and which is now a National Historic Park. It has a large mangrove forest and an underwater canyon, which is ideal for scuba diving. Northshore Road runs along many of the island’s beautiful beaches. Unprotected by reefs, the surfing is good off these shores and divers love the drop-off wall at Cane Bay. Heading south on Route 69 past the Carambola Golf Course, Robert Trent Jones’s pride and joy, you reach Mahogany Road, which leads west through the heart of the rainforest - a rich, bowered darkness with vines hanging from giant mahogany trees, kapoks, and the tidbit, also called the mother-in-law tongue, for the way its long seed castings rattle in the wind.
Guided horseback nature rides are arranged from Paul and Jill’s Equestrian Stables alongside Sprat Hall Plantation just north of Frederiksted (tel: 340-772 2880; www.paulandjills.com). For the more hale, mountain bike tours of 2-6 hours take you up through lush rainforest (Freedom City Cycles, 2 Strand Street, Frederiksted, tel: 340-772 2433; www.freedomcitycycles.com).
Snorkeling in the USVI.
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
An underwater park
Buck Island Reef National Monument $ [map] covers around 850 acres (340 hectares) of dry land, crystal-clear water, and barrier reef just off St Croix’s northeast shore. Dive shops on the waterfront at Christiansted organize scuba diving and snorkeling trips to the island. There’s a stretch of beach to the west that boaters like to sail up to, where there are changing facilities and picnic tables and two underwater trails (charter a boat; there are plenty on offer, and it will come ready equipped with lunch, and snorkeling and diving gear). The sea’s most exotic and psychedelic renderings pass you by like a pre-arranged fashion show: the dusky damselfish, the redbanded parrotfish, the yellowhead wrasses, and the lookdown moonfish - you can just check them off in your program.