United States Virgin Islands: Crossroads of Fun, Sun, History & Culture
The Virgin Islands as "America's Paradise"
One of the most beautiful locales in the world is luckily a part of the United States. Called "America's Paradise", the United States Virgin Islands is an American territory, and as a part of the Leeward Island chain is also a gorgeous Caribbean paradise.
Millions of tourists pour onto the islands each year, many arriving aboard cruise ships. A day spent on any of the islands is usually a fantastic experience and a great introduction to their great beauty and wonders; however many visitors return to their ships at the end of the day already planning a more extensive return.
Besides the amazing beauty of these compact islands, there's the rich history and culture, unbelievably lovely beaches, fun attractions, duty-free shopping, a hot climate (tempered by gentle trade wind breezes), and of course, excellent cuisine and music.
The U.S. Virgin Islands: The Rock
Four major islands make up the U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, where the town of Charlotte Amalie (officially named Amalia after a Danish queen), is the capital;St. Croix, the largest island; St. John, two-thirds national park, and the most pristine; and Water Island, the smallest and newest island transferred to the VI government in 1996, and often referred to as "The Last Virgin". The preservation of St. John is largely attributed to Laurance Rockefeller who, in the 1950's was determined to preserve its natural beauty (but that's a whole other story).
St. Thomas' nicknames, Rock City, and The Rock, refers to the volcanic nature of the island and the rocky, hilly terrain.
The Virgin Islands' Long, Intriguing History
The colorful history of the Virgin islands includes pirates, plantations, slavery, sugar cane, sugar mills, rum, the Danish, hurricanes, tsunamis and more. Founded in 1760, what is said to be some of the most full-bodied, yet smoothest rum in the world, Cruzan Rum is still today manufactured on St. Croix.
Seven flags have flown over the islands since Christopher Columbus cruised through the Lesser Antilles in 1493. Columbus is actually credited with giving the more than 100 beautiful, unspoiled (untouched) islands, cays and islets its name ... The Virgin Islands.
The fighting between those countries over who would ultimately govern the lands ended in 1671 when Denmark emerged the ruler of St. Thomas. The Danes would later claim the islands of St. John and St. Croix effectively uniting the three major islands.Their goal was sugar cane, and the manufacture and export of all the derivative products: sugar, rum, molasses.
The problem was that the Danes could not withstand the harsh climate and died in droves from fever. In walks slavery, which solved the problem, and opened a new, agonizing chapter of Virgin Islands history.
During the 1700's until the early 1800's, St. Thomas was the busiest import/export center in the Caribbean. A contributing factor to that was the Charlotte Amalie harbor, which is one of the deepest in the world.
The United States purchased the islands from Denmark in 1917 for 25 million as a military advantage relating to the Panama Canal.
Tourism, which would become the largest industry slowly began in the 1950's, but did not become a serious consideration until the 1970's. Today some of the most dynamic features of all the islands, aside from the obvious physical beauty, are the historical treasures such as, old sugar mills and plantation ruins. A prime example, The Annaberg Plantation ruins on St. John attracts thousands of visitors each year.
St. Thomas boasts a wealth of Danish designed and constructed buildings that are several hundred years old, and numerous national historic landmarks. The entire town of Charlotte Amalie is listed on the National Historical Register as being both historically and architecturally significant.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is a Cultural Bacchanal
The Virgin Islands is a rich mix of European, and African culture; but is chiefly African. The language (primarily English with some Creole, French and Spanish), art, music and food have traveled a circuitous route over the centuries. Influences are not only European and African, but also American, which makes for an interesting boondoggle (crazy mix).
There is no single event where all aspects of Virgin Islands culture intersect and is more prominently displayed, participated in, and enjoyed than the annual Carnival celebration.
Carnival began in 1912, faded out during World War I, and was revived in 1952 as an annual event. It is celebrated at different times of the year on the three main islands, but whenever it comes around, it is always the biggest party imaginable ... and everyone's invited to 'Lime' (party).
Thousands pour onto the islands from the mainland U.S., from other Caribbean islands, as well as various countries ... many coming not just to watch the festivities, but to participate. On St. Thomas the celebration begins in April and runs about four weeks culminating the last three days with non-stop action. Events range from beauty pageants and calypso competitions to culture fairs, native art, Carnival Village and parades.
Music: Carnival is music. Calypso, Soca, Steel Pan, Quelbe, Reggae, Latin is what drives the Carnival celebration. Some of the best venues for great music include, Calypso Revue, where some of the leading Calypsonians (singers) in the Caribbean perform; J'ouvert (pronounced jou-vay), a pre-dawn dance/tramp through the streets while dancing in front and/or behind huge flatbed trucks as they travel slowly down the street carrying the band, those gargantuan speakers, and some of the revelers. Adult Parade is where the Mocko Jumbies, majorettes, bands, and the troupes that can number three hundred strong strut their stuff.
St. Thomas Adult Parade
Music Caribbean Style
Virgin Islands Cuisine
Native foods are rooted in Europe and America, but mostly in Africa. Other than the many restaurants available for island food, the most popular place to find this fare is during Carnival at Food Fair and Carnival Village. The village is comprised of twenty or thirty small, themed and decorated booths. A stage in the center of the square hosts various popular bands, but with the village, the food is the thing.
Foods such as, Kallaloo, Conch, Johnny Cakes, Patés, Flying Fish, Peas and Rice; as well as beverages, such as, Ginger Beer, Maube, and Sopursop Punch, which are all in plentiful supply.
A typical island meal might consist of something like oxtails, or fish (cooked whole), with rice and peas, and fungi.
- Flying Fish: Flying fish or flying Cod favors tropical and subtropical waters, and is found in abundance in the Caribbean Sea. The biggest sellers of Flying Fish at Virgin Islands Carnival usually comes from the island of Barbados, which was once known as "the land of the flying fish".
- Kallaloo: A popular Caribbean soup made with seafood, pork and spinach
- Patés: A fried dough patty with a beef, chicken, salt-fish, or other filling.
- Conch: A shell fish (pronounced Conk), cooked in butter sauce and served with rice, or cooked as fritters with bits of conch deep fried in a Hush Puppy type of ball.
- Fungi: Usually serves as a side dish, Fungi is made with a corn meal base
- Ginger Beer: A spicy, non-alcoholic beverage made from ginger root and served cold.
- Maube: A tree bark that is boiled with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and served cold.
Virgin Islands Beaches
There are numerous picturesque beaches with translucent turquoise water, white sand, and palm trees on all the islands. Some of the most popular on St. Thomas includes, but is certainly not limited to:
- Trunk Bay: Located on St. John, Trunk Bay is part of the National Park and is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. A 225 yard self-guiding snorkeling trail is a popular feature. Once listed as one of the top ten in the world.
- Magen's Bay: This St. Thomas heart shaped beach was voted one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world by National Geographic Magazine, and is a world favorite.
- Sapphire Beach: A long, gorgeous St. Thomas beach with great water sports.
- Secret Harbor: Snorkeling is a main attraction at this lovely, quiet resort beach.
- Cinnamon Bay: A nature Trail that leads through plantation ruins and tropical woods provide beautiful scenic views at this St. John beach.
VIRGIN ISLANDS FLORA AND FAUNA
The Virgin Islands supports a large system of coral reefs and other ecosystems like the shoreline mangrove forests and salt ponds of St. John. This island is two-thirds National Park and is frugally preserved. There are over 800 trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants growing on St. John alone.
- Flowers and Plants: The national flower of the Virgin Islands is the Yellow Cedar, however beautiful flowers and plants abound: Hibiscus, Bouganvillea, Oleander, and the Flamboyant plants grow on all the islands. Seagrape Trees, Coconut Palms, Cactus, and Agave plants are also plentiful.
- Fruits: The fruits are as exotic as might be expected of such a sunny clime. Some of the staples of the region includes: Kanips, Mangos, Tamarinds, Soursop, Guava, Plantains and Passion Fruit.
- Animals: Exotic animals such as, Iguanas, Mongooses, Hawksbill Turtles, Soldier Crabs and so many others call these islands home. There's also the less exotic, but just as worthy, donkeys, deer, goats and more.
- Birds: Over 161 varieties of birds fill the skies: Hummingbirds, Brown Pelicans, Yellow Bananaquits, Herons, Sea Gulls, Doves and of course, the national bird, the Frigate..
Most people have heard the phrase "See America First", so if you plan to visit the Caribbean, and haven't visited The U.S. Virgin Islands ... here you are. It doesn't get any better than the V.I.: incredible beauty, friendly people, warm, sunny weather, amazing beaches, duty-free shopping, amazing history ... just to name a few of its wonderful features
All of these are reasons why the Virgin Islands is called America's Paradise; it simply is.