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The U.S. Virgin Islands: Sun, Sand, and Savings on Shopping
How to get the most from a visit to the US Virgin Islands
One island resembles a city in the United States with teeming streets, sidewalks, and shops galore. Another is a tiny dot of land that consists mainly of unspoiled wilderness (see St. John: Little has changed in 50 years, posted on April 6, 2019). The third bridges the gap, with a something-for-everyone variety of ambiance and activities.
Anyone who visits the U.S. Virgin Islands and doesn’t find something – or many things – to like may not be trying. The atolls are so different that they could be oceans apart. Instead, they are perched in the Caribbean Sea, close enough to be easily combined into a single visit.
Along with their differences, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and, yes, St. John also share inviting attributes.
Year-round tropical climate? Check. Enough choices of land and water activities to fill many a day? No challenge.
Sun worshipers, snorkelers, and those in search of picture-postcard beautiful beaches find a welcome selection on both St. Thomas and St. Croix (rhymes with “boy”). The heart-shaped stretch of white sand at Magens Bay on St. Thomas is included on many a “most beautiful beaches” list.
Not to be outdone, the choices on St. Croix include Reef Beach, whose gentle incline appeals to families, and Sandy Point, which is one of the most extended stretches of sand in the Caribbean.
The islands also tempt visitors with a lengthy and eclectic menu of other enticing activities. If classes in making baskets, dinnerware, and other items out of local materials don’t appeal, how about lectures on growing orchids? If discussions of ongoing archaeological research sound too severe, you might prefer to check out the famous crab and donkey races.
These islands are U.S. territories.
Another appeal is that as United States 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.
One difference is that people drive on the left side of the roads. The island inherited that practice from Denmark, which controlled the islands for nearly 200 years when driving on the left was Danish law.
Before the Danes showed up, Christopher Columbus came upon the islands during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He called them Las Once Mil Virgines in honor of St. Ursula, a 4th-century Christian martyr.
While Columbus claimed the islands for Spain, that country had little interest in colonizing them, and over time, control changed hands among the Dutch, British and French. Denmark ultimately achieved ownership and, in 1917, sold the islands to the United States for $25 million in gold coins.
Two centuries of the sugar-industry prosperity
The sugar era reached its peak at the end of the 18th century. The abolition of slavery by the Danish Crown in 1803 was the first of several events that started the sugar economy’s decline. Others included drought, natural disasters, and increasing competition. Today, the brooding stone skeletons of once-thriving sugar mills dot the landscape of the islands and serve as reminders of those once heady days of the past.
St. Thomas -- the hub of the American Virgin Islands
Let’s begin our trip at the most developed island where most visitors start theirs. St. Thomas is the transportation hub and more commercialized of the Virgins. Large resorts overlook beaches, and cruise ships disgorge crowds of passengers, most of whom head for shops in Charlotte Amalie (uh-MAHL-yuh).
The big draws are the variety of items and reasonable, in some cases bargain, prices. U.S. citizens also benefit by bringing home up to $1,600 worth of purchases duty-free, double the limit from most destinations worldwide.
Many stores sell jewelry, diamonds, watches, and other upscale merchandise, while others offer goods ranging from sunglasses to linen tablecloths to cigars. Some specialize in items endemic to the location.
For example, S.O.S. Antiques sells swords, coins, and other artifacts recovered from historic shipwrecks. Eden South offers island-made syrups, jams, and other edibles along with local art, crafts, and textiles.
On St. Thomas, even Mother Nature takes a back seat to shopping. The popular tourist destination called Mountain Top, perched on the island’s highest point, offers stunning panoramic views of other nearby Islands. But most visitors spend much of their time wandering through “the Caribbean’s largest duty-free gift shop.” They sample the highly touted banana daiquiris served at the bar.
Yet St. Thomas is more than just a shopper’s paradise. As the most significant historical town in the United States, Charlotte Amalie boasts its share of exciting sites. Red-roofed buildings line streets, which still are identified by Danish language signs.
Did Blackbeard sleep here?
According to legend, a watchtower built by the Danes in 1679 used by the infamous pirate Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, spotted 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 that developed in Charlotte Amalie constructed a synagogue in 1803, which is the oldest in continuous use in the United States and its territories.
The Frenchtown neighborhood is home to descendants of people who immigrated from the French island of St. Barthelemy 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.
St. Croix — The largest of the American Virgin Islands
St. Croix is the largest of the trio of islands. It provides a comfortable middle ground between the frenzy of shopping, commercialism, and noisy nightlife on St. Thomas and the laid-back quiet of St. John. It combines just enough attributes of its sister islands to satisfy most travelers, then adds its unique flavor.
That flavor includes red-roofed pastel-color buildings in the picture-book harbor town of Christiansted, the old Danish capital, and the meticulously restored waterfront area. It’s home to an early 18th-century Danish fort; the elegant Government House, which served both as the residence of Danish governors and seat of the colonial government, and a former warehouse where slave auctions once were held.
Frederiksted, the only other central town, seems sleepy by comparison. An eclectic mix of architecture lines broad tree-shaded streets. Many adorned by fanciful trim. Some Victorian-style buildings still stand after the town was destroyed by fire in 1879. Fort Frederik, built 1752-1760, hovers over the harbor.
Sugar cane fields once covered almost two-thirds of the gentle St. Croix landscape, and more than 155 mills still dot the island. The Whim estate offers an immersion in life as it was on a sugar plantation. Its sprawling Great House, built in the 1760s, is surrounded by a sugar factory, windmill, cookhouse, rum still, and other structures that transport visitors back in time.
Brooding ruins of once-thriving sugar plantations are but one reminder among many of the enticing history that awaits visitors to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Add a long list of other attributes and activities, and the result is an inviting destination that combines a familiar setting with Caribbean charm.
If you go
Accommodations on the U.S. Virgin Islands range from luxury to low-priced. At the top end of the scale is The Buccaneer Resort on St. Croix, steeped in history.
Remnants of the Manor House, built in 1653 as part of a plantation, are still visible. A sugar mill constructed 80 years later now serves as a romantic wedding venue, and lodgings include 250-year-old former slave quarters.
Activities at the extensive property range from snorkeling to salsa lessons and from basketball to tetherball. Call (800) 255-3881 or log onto thebuccaneer.com.
Secret Harbour on St. Thomas offers a different, but no less inviting, setting. It’s a beachfront condominium resort overlooking a small bay with apartment-like accommodations and an array of land and water activities.
Swim-out snorkeling from the beach is well suited to beginners and children. For more information, call (800) 524-2250 or log onto secretharbourvi.com.
When it comes to dining, you can’t go wrong by following island residents. On St. Thomas, they often head for Gladys Café at breakfast and lunchtime. A long list of familiar fare shares menu space with curried, stewed oxtails and other local favorites. For more information, call (340) 774-6604 or log onto gladyscafe.com.
For information about visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands call (800) 372-8784 or log onto visitusvi.com.
After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries worldwide and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won several writing awards.