The American Caribbean – Life and Culture in the US Virgin Islands
The Four main islands of the US Virgin Islands are surprisingly diverse and while sharing a common colonial history, each one has its own cultural nuances either due to location, geography, demographics or particular events.
Part II – St. Thomas
This little island measures only 13 by 4 miles but has been one of the most strategic American positions since the US acquisition in 1917. It was developed as a military base but today it is a sophisticated modern port and the home to Pirate castles. Charlotte Amelie is the capital of the US Virgin Isles, home to half the island’s population and is the most popular cruise ship stop in the Caribbean.
Geography and economy
St. Thomas is a land mass of just over 31 square miles with an interesting topography of one central long ridge of hills running east/west with smaller ridges branching out from the centre. Crown Mountain is the highest peak at 1,556 feet and although there are no particularly flat areas on the island, there is a beautiful natural harbor at Charlotte Amelie and many protected bays. Where slaves and sugar was once the mainstay of the St. Thomas economy, today it is tourists that pour wealth into the island’s coffers, perfectly safe from marauding pirates.
St Thomas Resorts and Vacations
Despite its small size St. Thomas is absolutely packed with vacation activities and attractions. Holiday accommodations in St Thomas ranges from budget to ultra luxurious and from small hotels to private villas. Hotels of all price ranges are well equipped and organised. Many have tennis courts and pools and luxury spas are popular features. It’s also a stunning location for a tropical wedding.
This small slice of paradise has over 40 major beaches and a multitude of tiny inlets, rocky coves and secluded bays and of course many of the deserted islands around about can be reached by boat. St. Thomas’s beaches cater for every kind of beach animal – the lazy bum, the adrenaline junkie, the sun worshipper, the castaway and the pale and spade brigade.
The US Virgin Isles have many points of ecological interest and there are numerous protected and preserved areas. If you want to sample some eco-tourism at its best, from St. Thomas you are within really easy access of Buck Island Reef National Monument. Divers and snorkelers will enjoy this 176 acre site, particularly Green Cay and Tamarind Reef. For an action packed but short eco-tour there’s a 3 hour visit to Cas Cay Wildlife Sanctuary. It means hiking amongst volcanic cliffs to the spectacular Red Point Blow hole, kayaking through the Inner Mangrove Lagoon round tiny islands and snorkelling through a marine paradise teeming with sea life. Humpback Whales roam the waters around the US Virgin Islands and if you’re lucky you might catch sight of them. The best time is between December and March.
The best view of the island, cruise ships entering and leaving Charlotte Amelie harbor and many of the surrounding islands has to be from the St. Thomas Skyride which takes 7 minutes to climb the 700 feet above sea level to Paradise Point. At the terminus there’s a bird show, some unique shops and bars.
If you want an energetic Caribbean vacation, St. Thomas is a sporting paradise, particularly for those who enjoy being in or on the water. There are plenty of locations for snorkelling and scuba diving including Coki Point, Sapphire Point and Secret Harbor. Windsurfing, kite boarding and parasailing are available on many beaches and if you enjoy boating, opportunities range from kayaking to yacht charters. There is one golf course on St. Thomas and many of the hotels and resorts have tennis courts but the mountainous terrain means it’s not the best place for cycling.
One of the best attractions on St. Thomas is Coral World Ocean Park which is located next to Coki Beach. Here all sorts of Caribbean marine life in a stunning setting and you are able to experience the world of the sea close up with chances to interact directly with some of the park’s inhabitants. The day just flies by as you hand feed a stingray, stroke a shark, pet a turtle, laugh at the antics of sea lions and view reef life from the Undersea Observatory.
On this small island there are some good sites of historical and modern significance.
Bluebeard’s Hill and Castle:
Unfortunately it is only legend that this 1689 stone tower was constructed by Bluebeard for his love Mercedita but it is befitting its location and far more a romantic tale than the truth which is that it is a watchtower built by the Danes to extend the fortifications of Fort Christian.
A bench, fitting called Drake’s Seat, commemorates the spot where Sir Francis Drake used to spy on Spanish ships passing through what is now known as Drake’s Passage. It may only be a bench but it has significance but more importantly has stunning views.
This area was settled by French immigrants from St. Barthelemy in the late 1800s and there’s a still a very French flavour to the fishing village where Creole is still spoken. The French Heritage Museum has an extensive collection of historical and regional interest and the bars and restaurants are very popular.
The Virgin Islands Carnival is held annually on the island of St. Thomas, usually during the last week of April. This year, 2011, Carnival in St. Thomas will be held April 17 – May 7. It is a time when Virgin Islanders are anxious to display their creativity and talents while graciously demonstrating their hospitality.. There are frequent arts and crafts shows and classical music concerts at Tillett Gardens throughout the year. This former Danish farm is a now a centre for local artists and performers and as well as a great restaurant there are shops selling local arts including silkscreen prints, paintings, enamels and candles.
Other points of Interest
Painting Classes: The USVI have long inspired artists with their beauty and natural light and you can learn to paint a watercolour in a class run by a professional artist at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Scheduled sessions and private classes are available.