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A trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands is the closest thing to a Caribbean sampler, as it provides several different island experiences in one territory.
For bustling beaches, nightlife and great shopping, look to St. Thomas. Its heavy development, North American atmosphere and throngs of cruise-ship visitors make it the least distinctive of the islands but also the most visited. This is high-volume tourism—among the highest in the Caribbean.
If you want unspoiled scenery and quiet surroundings, hop the ferry to St. John. About half of the island is a national park, so it feels like St. Thomas' alter ego. The coral reefs, hiking trails and small resorts on St. John have been a model for other ecotourism efforts in the Caribbean.
Somewhere between the extremes of St. Thomas and St. John is St. Croix, which is perhaps the most typical of other Caribbean islands. It balances a fair amount of shopping and attractions with a relaxed atmosphere and historic architecture.
Water Island is the youngest and smallest of the Virgin Islands, and it gets little publicity. It's quiet and sparsely populated.
Although it's possible to spend all your time on one island, take advantage of the variety. Good ferry and plane connections make it relatively easy to hop between the islands and discover which experiences most appeal to you.
The U.S. Virgin Islands sustained severe damage during Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, but this has largely been addressed with substantial recovery efforts nearing completion. The Still, it is wise to investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit to a specific location.
Historic Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas fared relatively well and was one of the first areas to be fully restored. All beaches and many tourist attractions are fully open and welcoming visitors.
All of St. John was hit harder than the rest of the USVI, while one of the most challenging topographies hinders rebuilding. However, as more than half the island is undeveloped national park, nature is well on its way to being as beautiful as ever.
St. Croix showed great resiliency with its beaches, attractions, restaurants and resorts open and even better than before.
Sights—A visit to Magens Bay Beach on St. Thomas; Christiansted National Historic site on St. Croix; a few hours at Trunk Bay Beach on St. John.
Museums—The French Heritage Museum on St. Thomas; Estate Whim Museum on St. Croix.
Memorable Meals—West Indian dishes at Gladys' in St. Thomas; conch fritters at Miss Lucy's Restaurant in St. John; pot fish at the Cast Iron Pot in St. Croix.
Late Night—Hanging out with the locals at Duffy's Love Shack in St. Thomas; dancing to calypso, reggae or steel bands; barhopping on St. John; Jump Up celebrations on St. Croix; jazz at the Blue Moon in St. Croix.
Walks—A stroll along any of the beaches, especially Magens Bay on St. Thomas, Trunk Bay on St. John or Grapetree Bay on St. Croix; hiking through the Virgin Islands National Park or a bird-watching trek at Francis Bay on St. John.
Especially for Kids—The 50,000-gal/200,000-l deep reef Tank at Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas; snorkeling off Buck Island's beaches off St. Croix; a carnival celebration or festival to see the Mocko Jumbie stilt walkers in Frederiksted on St. Croix.
Cannibalistic tribes, pirates, fierce wars, slavery, long periods of prosperity, and lean times after sugar's demise all make up the tale of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Taino people originally inhabited St. Thomas and St. John, but the Igneri, Tainos and Caribs occupied St. Croix at different times in that island's history. The islands became the home of settlers from nearly every country in Western Europe, as well as slaves brought from Africa.
Columbus arrived in 1493. He sent his men ashore on St. Croix and claimed the islands for Spain. Because of the strategic location of the islands on the eastern rim of the Caribbean, they were popular hideouts for pirates in the late 1500s. (Sir Francis Drake perched on a high hilltop on St. Thomas at what is now called Drake's Seat and peered through his spyglass at the Spanish Armada.) Permanent European settlements didn't grow until the early 1600s, when the Danes began to arrive on St. Thomas and St. John. On St. Croix, settlers flew seven different flags, including that of the Knights of Malta, until Denmark finally prevailed.
In 1917, the U.S., fearful of German expansion and eager for a naval base to help protect the Panama Canal, bought the islands from Denmark for US$25 million. The territory experienced economic hardship until the early 1960s, when tourism became lucrative. Today, the islands are the easternmost possession of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere.
The foremost attractions of the U.S. Virgin Islands include white-sand beaches, snorkeling and diving, Virgin Islands National Park, deep-sea fishing, restaurants, nightlife, golfing, tennis, hiking, wildlife, parasailing, duty-free shopping, historical buildings and yachting.
Travelers who enjoy shopping, beautiful Caribbean beaches, protected tropical habitats, and excellent snorkeling and diving will enjoy the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those seeking seclusion or a landscape free of fast food chains and big box stores should restrict most of their stay to St. John (away from Cruz Bay) or to St. Croix.
Two Virgin Islanders have been featured on American currency: Alexander Hamilton and Judah P. Benjamin. Born on St. Thomas, Benjamin later settled in New Orleans and appeared on the Confederacy's $2 note. Some think he masterminded the plot to assassinate Lincoln.
Quelbe, an old style of music combining horns, string instruments and gourds, is often played at traditional West Indian celebrations featuring quadrille dancing.
The mongoose, a slithering, ferretlike animal that moves across roads at amazing speed, was introduced to the islands to control rats and snakes. Now the mongoose is more numerous than the pests it was intended to eliminate.
Point Udall, on St. Croix, is the easternmost point of the U.S. On 1 January 2000, revelers gathered there to mark what most considered the first sunrise of the new millennium on U.S. soil.
Columbus named the Virgin Islands after St. Ursula, a Christian martyr, and her 11,000 virgins. A 10th-century legend states that Ursula, a daughter of a Christian king, sailed across the North Sea with 10 ladies-in-waiting, each attended by 1,000 maidens. On the voyage home, they were all massacred by pagans in Cologne, Germany, when Ursula refused to marry a chieftain.
The paved patches that you may see on hillsides are part of a rainwater collection system. Rain flows into a holding cistern below, for distribution to the main supply.
Bluebeard is a fairytale villain, not an actual pirate.
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