The U.S. Virgin Islands are situated east of Puerto Rico and form part of an archipelago that also includes the British Virgins. The 3 major islands are St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.
They were named by Columbus after St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers who were sacrificed, according to legend, in the year 383 on the site of today’s St. Ursula’s Basilica in Cologne, Germany.
After passing from the Spanish to the French during early colonial times, the islands became part of the Danish West Indies in the 17th century and were subsequently sold to the United States in 1917 for $25 million for a mere 133 square miles, the highest price ever paid for the purchase of territory by the U.S.
The islands were bought less than one month before the U.S. entered WWI. The deep water harbors of St. Thomas and Coral Bay, St. John were valuable as naval outposts designed to prevent European incursion into the hemisphere. In World War II, submarines were based in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie’s harbor, on Hassle Island. Ships were hidden and anchored in the very deep water harbor of St. John’s Coral Bay. Coral Bay gets its name not from coral, but corral. The Danish word for corral is ‘krall,’ and this town is still known for its many goats. It seems as if there are no more corrals since goats are ubiquitous, off-the-chain, competing for the roadway and behaving boldly as if there are no “goat police.” They try to dominate everything including pooping their dark pellets on your shoes if you get too close. They are simply off the chain and can quickly become a pain in the ass.
The islands are non-incorporated territories of the U.S. Its residents are citizens but cannot vote in presidential elections and have a non-voting delegate in congress.
The economy is dominated heavily by tourism. The islands attract over 2 million visitors per year. The VI’s license plates read “America’s Playground.”
A population of over 100,000 makes this one of the most densely inhabited areas in the region. By comparison, St. John, with a scant 4,000 residents affords large expanses of pristine forest by virtue of the protected nature of more than 60% of its land and shores that lie within the boundaries of the Department of the Interior’s Virgin Islands National Park.
St. John is a veritable paradise. Lawrence Rockefeller donated more than 5,000 acres he acquired during the 1950’s provided they be preserved as a park.
St. John is the smallest of the 3 islands with 19 square miles. It has no airport, relying on ferry service from St. Thomas, St. Croix, and the British Virgins. It is a very hilly island where four-wheel drive vehicles are needed to climb the steep grades .The island was formed by volcanic upheaval and its geology affords insight into the violent formation of the archipelago as well as evidence of early inhabitants who carved glyphs into the dark rock.
The small town, Cruz Bay has only one gas station, one bank, and a single post office.
St. John’s only other population center, Coral Bay, is on the seemingly remote, and drier, eastern coast.
Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist that helped develop nuclear weapons and who worked on the Manhattan Project, was gifted with a beachfront property that became the Oppenheimer Estate.
Quite recently, the estate was made public and is now accessible to all.
The climate on the island is generally hot and dry and significantly different from the climate in nearby Puerto Rico. Dry winds from Sub-Saharan Africa cross the Atlantic unimpeded and encounter first landfall along this archipelago.
St. John is a place for rest, recreation and contemplation. A place where time can stand still but more recently, a place that gives visitors options between the somewhat busy town and the remote tranquility of the national park. St. John is the polar opposite of more touristy places like Cancun, Cozumel, Aruba, neighboring bustling St. Thomas, or The Bahamas. It is unspoiled, difficult to reach, and off the beaten path.
Beaches are the star attraction and second only in beauty to those in the South Pacific.
One would be hard pressed to find a more idyllic beach than Trunk Bay whose cove and nearby reef make it an ideal and breathtaking, almost surreal, experience.
In town, unique dining experiences await the eager palate.
From the lavish offerings at the premiere and expensive resort, Caneel Bay Plantation, to the food truck offerings of Hercules’ Fish Patties on the edge of town, to the impossibly succulent fare at Da Coal Pot, St. John may be off the beaten path but the options are varied and wide-ranging to fit any budget or preference.
The island sits on a living emerald sea fringed with coral, marine life, birds, from pelicans to egrets, and in a dynamic biosphere that changes as it adapts to its environment and to frequent and sudden but short-lived storms and rainfall. Despite the seeming fragility, the island is resilient and hardy, recovering quickly. The weather is so predictable that in the 1970s, American Express would guarantee it. If rain or lack of sunshine were recorded outside a certain range, then the traveler would be given a full refund!
Most of the action occurs underwater and a lot of it at night.
Scuba divers are surprised to find glimmering lights under the surface at night. Bio-luminescence and fish that emanate light pulses abound. Sounds, something we don’t usually associate with marine life, can become a cacophony as grunts and chirps from fish and creatures ripple through the superior sound conducting medium that is water.
As a traveler I seek to find new destinations but am also pulled to those that are unique and familiar. As of today, without having visited the South Pacific, I can truly say that no natural experience comes close to the enchantment of St. John. Not the Grand Canyon, not Yosemite, not any other beach anywhere. I’m sure there are secluded coves in Tahiti or Thailand that are breathtaking, but until I travel halfway around the world, I am comforted by the fact that St. John, as well as the British Virgins are only a three hour flight from home. And so, as the French-Canadians say: “Je me souviens.”