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Virgin Islands U.S., VIR

Introduction

Taken together, all three U.S. Virgin Islands—St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John—create the ideal West Indies vacation package. Charlotte Amalie (a-MAL-ya), capital of the islands, typifies the Caribbean town with its delightful shops and patios, winding streets and Old World, Continental flavor. Its picturesque harbor is among the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean. Varied nightlife and a resort atmosphere make St. Thomas the liveliest of the U.S. Virgins. The largest of the islands, St. Croix is dotted with the ruins of plantation great houses and secluded beaches. St. Croix also offers shopping and amusement opportunities, but at a slower, less hectic pace. For those seeking peace, quiet and natural beauty, St. John is the archetype of the remote and undeveloped Caribbean isle. The beautiful Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of the island.

About Virgin Islands, U.S.

History

Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands during his second voyage in 1493. His fleet of 17 ships first anchored off the north coast of Santa Cruz, or St. Croix as the French would later call it, then sailed off to the chain of smaller islands on their northern horizon. Columbus named the chain in honor of the 11,000 virgins who in legend were martyred with St. Ursula in a battle with a pagan ruler in the third century.

The English and French attempted to colonize St. Croix as early as 1625; the Dutch and Spanish made later appearances. After changing hands several times, St. Croix was ceded to the Knights of Malta in 1653, then sold to the French. The Danish West India & Guinea Co., permanently chartered in 1671, established Denmark's first settlement in the West Indies on St. Thomas under Gov. Georg Jorgen Iversen. St. John was acquired in 1684, St. Croix in 1733.

Denmark ruled these islands for nearly 250 years, with the exception of two brief periods of British administration in the early 19th century. The Danish West Indies became the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917, when Denmark sold them to the United States. The American government, which desired a naval base in the Caribbean and proximity to the Panama Canal, purchased the islands for $25 million in gold. Many of Charlotte Amalie's thoroughfares still bear Danish names.

Tourism to the U.S. Virgin Islands began to boom in the 1960s partly because of the closing of Cuba to tourists from the United States. The number of visitors quickly escalated from about 100,000 per year to more than 2 million. At the same time tourism was rising, the islands' population tripled. Other islanders were attracted by the relative economic security.

Today the U.S. Virgin Islands is an unincorporated territory of the United States, and its people are American citizens. The islands were administered by a governor appointed by the president until 1970, when the first gubernatorial election was held.

Shopping

Among the bargains in the U.S. Virgin Islands are imported liqueurs and local rums. In some instances, considerable savings are possible on Royal Copenhagen, Limoges, Wedgwood, Bing and Grondahl china; Baccarat, Waterford, Lalique, Daum and Val St. Lambert crystal; Swiss watches; island wearing apparel; jewelry and precious gems; English doeskin products; cashmere sweaters from Scotland; and designer fashions from Europe. Silver bracelets, earrings, cuff links, table settings, fine perfumes and Danish silver also can be found. Handicrafts include basketry, hats, handbags, dolls and embroideries.

Hundreds of tiny shops crowd the narrow streets of Charlotte Amalie; at its center is Royal Dane Mall, a group of shops housed in former warehouses for trading goods and rum. Nearby are several shops at Palm Passage Courtyard and International Plaza Mall. Just south of Emancipation Gardens, at the corner of Veterans Drive and Forte Strade, locals sell handmade jewelry, artifacts, fabrics and T-shirts at Vendors Plaza and Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative. Havensight Mall, at the cruise ship dock, has some 100 stores, restaurants and businesses. Atop St. Peter Mountain in the center of St. Thomas, Mountain Top offers a spectacular view of the north coast in addition to shopping opportunities. Designer fashions can be found at Yacht Haven Grande, an upscale waterfront development with more than 20 restaurants and boutiques. Also in St. Thomas, Tillett Gardens was once a Dutch farm and now is a marketplace for local arts and crafts. The adjacent TuTu Park Mall houses more than 30 stores. In St. Croix, King, Strand and Company streets in Christiansted are lined with shops and arcades, as is Frederiksted's waterfront; King's Alley Walk offers stores and restaurants. Shopping on St. John centers around Mongoose Junction, Wharfside Village and The Marketplace in Cruz Bay, which feature specialty shops, restaurants and water sports outlets.

St. Thomas shopping hours are Mon.-Sat. 9-5; Havensight Mall is open daily 10-5. Banking hours are Mon.-Thurs. 9-2:30 and Fri. 9-2 and 3:30-5. On St. Croix, most shops in Christiansted are open Mon.-Sat. 10-6, and banks are open Mon.-Thurs. 9-3, Fri. 9-4.

Food and Drink

Restaurants serve a variety of cuisine, including West Indian and Danish dishes as well as American, French, Mexican, Italian, Asian and Middle Eastern; seafood is especially popular. Many hotels also have individual specialties.

The Virgin Islands' tropical climate produces an abundance of exotic culinary favorites, including papayas, mangoes, avocados, passion fruit and bananas. Leaves of wild herbs and plants, combined with meat, fish, okra and other native ingredients, make the most truly native of all dishes, a thick island soup called callaloo. Cornmeal and okra are combined to make fungee, a common side dish.

Ripe soursop is used as a fruit and in ice cream; it also is made into a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, as is tamarind. Desserts include tarts made with pineapple, coconut, guava and guavaberry. It is said that the banana daiquiri was perfected at the U.S. Army base on Signal Hill in the 1940s; to date, more than 6 million of these sweet concoctions have been served at Mountain Top.

Drinking water, obtained by the desalinization of seawater or from rainwater cisterns, is safe in hotels and restaurants. Tipping customs are the same as in the United States.

Sports and Amusements

All of the U.S. Virgin Islands are havens of lovely beaches and pools, providing excellent scuba diving and snorkeling. Buck Island Reef, 6 miles (10 km) northeast of Christiansted, St. Croix, is an underwater U.S. national monument. Beginning divers enjoy investigating the more than 300 reefs around the islands; the experienced usually head for spots in Drake's Passage northwest of St. John. In a protected cove near Buck Island off the south shore of St. Thomas is the 190-foot World War I cargo vessel Cartenser Sr. On St. Thomas and St. John, dive shops operating through major hotels offer equipment rental, diving excursions and lessons; there are independent shops as well. Independent and resort dive shops in St. Croix are located near dive sites in Cane Bay, Christiansted, Frederiksted and Salt River.

For swimming and sunbathing, Magens Bay on the north coast of St. Thomas is considered one of the top 10 beaches in the world, as is Trunk Bay on St. John. On St. Croix, some of the out-of-the-way inns and hotels have superb beaches and plenty of privacy. Popular beaches include Ha' Penny, Cramer's Park and Jack's and Isaac's Bays. For sailors, and those on land with binoculars, there is the St. Thomas International Regatta in late March.

Deep-sea fishing is popular. The most important gamefish are blue marlin, sailfish, dolphin, kingfish, tuna and wahoo. The USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament Marlinfest is held on Labor Day weekend. Fishing boats are available for charter on all three islands. Sailboats and yachts also can be chartered on all three islands; private cruises are available around the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico.

For those who prefer land-based pastimes, St. Croix has an 18-hole championship golf course at the Carambola Golf Club, (340) 778-5638, an 18-hole course at The Buccaneer, (800) 255-3881, and a 9-hole course at The Reef Condominiums at Teague Bay, (340) 773-8844. You can play tennis at hotels and on public courts. St. Croix has many magnificent trails for horseback riding. Softball and baseball are played during the season on both St. Thomas and St. Croix, and some locals gather for cricket matches on Sunday.

Though sea, sun and sand are the islands' main attractions, there are enough evening pastimes to keep the spirit alive well after sunset. Dinner dancing, jazz, calypso music, limbo dancing and native acts are featured in many hotels and nightclubs. There are dance clubs on all three islands and movie theaters on St. Croix and St. Thomas.

Caribbean Community Theatre, at Estate Orange Grove on St. Croix, stages productions September through June. Similar fare is offered at the Reichhold Center for the Arts, an amphitheater on St. Thomas; phone (340-693-1559). Check with St. Thomas/St John This Week and St. Croix This Week magazines to find out what's happening and where.

Sightseeing

Island tours are most easily arranged through your hotel activities desk. A 2-hour tour of St. Thomas stops at Drake's Seat and Mountain Top. Visitors to the island's eastern end will find beach clubs and fishing centers. Sunset and harbor cruises are available from Charlotte Amalie.

A scenic trip to Magens Bay for swimming also departs from Charlotte Amalie; sailboats and beach equipment can be rented. A 2-hour tour to the island's western end passes a World War II submarine base, the University of the Virgin Islands and Brewer's Bay on the way to Crown Mountain. The return trip includes a stop at the old sugar mill at Estate Contant; admission is included. Safari bus tours of the island are often less expensive than taxi tours.

Perhaps the best of the many excellent scenic vantage points in Charlotte Amalie is Paradise Point atop Flag Hill. Southeast of Havensight Mall via a steep roadway, the site is especially popular at sunset. Paradise Point Skyride transports visitors to the hilltop. West of the harbor is the fishing village of Frenchtown, where the descendants of settlers from St. Barths continue to live off the sea.

Popular excursions on St. Croix include 3-hour glass-bottom boat or catamaran trips to Buck Island Reef National Monument for snorkeling. Beach barbecues are available with some all-day sails. Arrangements can be made at local dive shops in Christiansted Harbor. Full- and half-day tours of local highlights are available, including the rain forest and Salt River, where Columbus landed. In February the St. Croix Landmarks Society conducts house tours that include restored sugar mills, great houses and elegant mansions.

You can hire one of several safari guides for exploring St. John. A popular day tour includes excursions to the Virgin Islands National Park, Annaberg Sugar Mill ruins and lunch and swimming at Trunk Bay. For those more interested in aquatic sports, boat trips to St. John are available and include 2 hours in Francis Bay for swimming and snorkeling.

Transportation

Direct jet service is available from the U.S. mainland via several airlines. Commuter airlines fly between Puerto Rico, St. Thomas' Cyril E. King Airport and St. Croix's Henry E. Rohlsen Airport. Many cruise ships call at Charlotte Amalie and Frederiksted.

The Vitran bus service on St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas is mainly for local traffic. Taxi service on St. Thomas and on St. Croix is good, and you also can rent cars on all three islands. Taxi rates are set in advance and apply per passenger. It is always wise to agree on the fare in advance. Parking is usually very scarce in Charlotte Amalie; a public lot east of Fort Christian costs $1 per hour ($5 per day). Taxi service is available on St. John as well, and jeeps can be rented by the day or week. A U.S. driver's license is valid.

Daily ferry service to Cruz Bay, St. John, is offered from two St. Thomas ports: Red Hook, a 20-minute trip, and Charlotte Amalie, a 45-minute trip. Daily ferry service connects both Charlotte Amalie and St. John with the British Virgin Islands of Jost Van Dyke, Tortola and Virgin Gorda; proof of citizenship is required. Service providers include Inter Island Boat Service, (340) 776-6597, and Native Sons, (340) 774-8685.

Fast Facts

Population108,612.

Area344 sq km (133 sq mi.).

CapitalCharlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

Highest Point474 m (1,555 ft.), Crown Mountain, St. Thomas.

Lowest PointSea level, Caribbean Sea.

Time Zone(s)Atlantic Standard.

LanguageEnglish; Spanish or Spanish creole; French or French creole.

GovernmentUnincorporated U.S. territory.

CurrencyU.S. dollar.

Electricity110-120 volts, 60 cycles AC.

MINIMUM AGE FOR DRIVERS21-25, depending on the rental car agency. U.S. license valid; drive on left.

Seat Belt/Child Restraint LawsSeat belts are required for driver and front-seat passengers. Child restraints are required for children under age 3; seat belts required for ages 3-5.

Helmets for MotorcyclistsRequired.

HolidaysJan. 1; Three Kings Day, Jan. 6; Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. (3rd Mon.); Washington's Birthday/Presidents Day, Feb. (3rd Mon.); Holy Thursday; Good Friday; Easter Monday; Transfer Day, Mar. 31; Memorial Day, May (last Mon.); VI Emancipation Day/Danish West Indies Emancipation Day, July 3; U.S. Independence Day, July 4; Labor Day, Sept. (1st Mon.); Columbus/Puerto Rico Friendship Day, Oct. (2nd Mon.); D. Hamilton Jackson Day, Nov. 1; Veterans Day, Nov. 11; U.S. Thanksgiving, Nov. (4th Thurs.); Christmas, Dec. 25; Boxing Day, Dec. 26.

TaxesA 12.5 percent room tax and 10-15 percent service charge are added to most hotel bills. Departure fee is $10 U.S. by air. Rental cars are taxed at $3.75 per day.

ImmigrationProof of U.S. citizenship is not needed to enter the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it is required to reenter the United States. A valid passport or birth certificate accompanied by a photo ID is accepted. A passport is required when travel involves stops on other Caribbean islands.

PHONING THE ISLANDSTo call the U.S. Virgin Islands from the U.S. or Canada, dial 1 + 340 + the 7-digit local number.

Further Information U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, St. Thomas 78 Contant 1-2-3 Charlotte Amalie, VIRGIN ISLANDS, U.S. 00804. Phone:(340)774-8784 or (800)372-8784

U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, St. Croix P.O. Box 4538 Christiansted, VIRGIN ISLANDS, U.S. 00822. Phone:(340)773-0495 or (800)372-8784

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Virgin Islands U.S., VIR

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