The three U.S. Virgin Islands - St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John - known as America's Caribbean, are an easy flight from the U.S. mainland, prices are in American dollars, and accommodations suit any style - oceanfront resorts, small inns, condos, campgrounds or luxury villas. Nearly 2.5 million tourists vacation here annually to enjoy the sugar white beaches, water sports and fine dining, and each island tends to exhibit its own personality.
Largest at 84 square miles, St. Croix features varied terrain from arid, cactus-studded hills in the east to lush tropical forests in the west. Hiking, kayaking and kite boarding are popular pastimes, and the island offers two 18-hole golf courses. Regrettably, St. Croix is getting into heavy-duty condo development.
Scuba fans claim this as the only place in the Caribbean where you can actually dive a wall, reef, wreck and a pier all in the same day. Chartered powerboats or catamarans transport enthusiasts to the faultless beach and a laid-out snorkel trail winding through a forest of elkhorn coral, available at the uninhabited
Buck Island Reef National Monument.
St. Thomas is the best known and busiest island due to the steady streams of arriving passengers aboard
cruise ships. Charlotte Amalie, the shopping mecca of the Caribbean is named after an 18th-century Danish princess, its white houses and bright red roofs glistening in the sun. There are ample duty-free opportunities here with no sales tax on imported perfumes, cameras, watches, fine porcelain and crystal. Parts of St. Thomas have been turned into condos and time-share developments.
There are excellent beaches such as popular Magens Bay and dreamy Trunk Bay compelling one to snorkel, scuba, fish offshore or take a boat excursion. St. Thomas' only golf course,
Mahogany Run, is well known for its demanding trio of cliff-side holes called the Devil's Triangle.
The smallest of the island trio at 20 square miles, St. John is a draw for nature-lovers. It's the most beautiful of the three and the least developed with only two big hotels. Fortunately, two-thirds of St. John falls within the boundaries of the 9,485 acre
Virgin Islands National Park. More than 800 plant species grow in undulating tropical forests that drop down to exotic beaches bordered by coral reefs. Expect to see flora and fauna from pelicans to sandpipers, mahogany to bay trees and tropical flowers such as the tamarind and the exciting flamboyant. Park guides lead nature walks through this park and often take you past ruins of old plantations.
The underwater Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
was added to the National Park Service in 2001 to augment postcard-
perfect beaches along the north coast and quieter ones to the south.
There are two international airports serving the islands:
Cyril E King Airport, St Thomas (STT), and
Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St Croix (STX). Gateways/Flying Times are: Atlanta: 3.5 hrs., Boston: 4 hrs., Detroit: 5 hrs., Miami/Ft. Lauderdale: 2 hrs., New York: 4 hrs.
With St. John exclusively in the Atlantic, St. Croix entirely in the Caribbean, and St. Thomas spanning both, all encounter subtropical,
easterly trade winds, and therefore enjoy one of the most perfect year-round world climates. Average daytime temperature is 25C (78F) in winter and 28C (82F) in summer with low humidity.
Nightlife on St. Croix involves: jazz, disco, calypso, reggae, Latin and rock & roll nightclubs and karaoke as well as steel pan music, limbo dancing, and mini street carnivals featuring "jump up." In St. John, local bars offer live entertainment and satellite TV. St. Thomas offers jazz, disco, calypso, reggae, Latin, rock & roll nightclubs and karaoke as well as steel pan music, theatrical and musical arts.
sightseeing in St. Croix, try the Old Danish towns - Christiansted and Frederiksted, a tropical secondary forest, Heritage Trail, aerial sightseeing, charter, safari and hiking tours, the Whim Plantation Great House Museum, the Carl & Marie Lawaetz Family Museum at Little La Grange, St. Croix Leap, Oceanique semi-submersible underwater excursion, and the Cruzan Rum Factory tour.
At St John, there's the Cruz Bay National Park Visitor Center, Elaine Ione Sprauve Library and Museum, the Annaberg Plantation Ruins and Bordeaux Mountain.
St. Thomas offers up Fort Christian, Emancipation Park, the Legislature Building and Government House, Frederick Lutheran Church, Blackbeard's Castle, Market Square, Tillet Gardens, Magens Bay & Drake's Seat, the "World Famous" Mountain Top Estate, St. Peter Great House & Botanical Gardens, Atlantis Submarine, Coral World, Paradise Point Tramway and V.I. Kayak ECO Tours.
The annual Carnival celebration is celebrated after Easter, an extravagant event, with
"Mocko Jumbies," participants dressed as spirits and parades through the streets on stilts measuring 6m (20 ft.) high. Steel, calypso and "jump-ups" enervate the event which takes place island-wide, but most action is geared to the streets of Charlotte Amalie.
Taxis are unmetered, and fares are controlled and widely posted, but I recommend that you price a fare with the driver before you set out. Car rental is widely available. Driving is strangely on the left.
The Danes ruled here until 1917, but the U.S. feared German expansion in the Caribbean, and purchased the islands. Now, they enjoy the Caribbean's highest per-capita income with 50,000 settlers of mixed ethnicity alone making their home in St. Thomas.
Courtesy of the Caribbean Tourism Organization
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.