The U.S. Virgin Islands

Three Destinations in One
by K.K. Snyder

If you're longing for an exotic getaway that doesn't require you update your passport or keep you holed up in a plane for an entire day, consider the relatively close proximity of the breathtakingly beautiful U.S. Virgin Islands.

Part of the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, the destination is comprised of about 50 islands. Granted, some are mere rocks or islets, but all are set in the shimmering turquoise waters visitors dream of long after they return home.

The three principal islands - St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas - are magnificent tropical environments, distinguished by personalities as varied as the tourists who visit. The three share a rich history meshed in the colonial forts, restored plantations, greathouse museums and contemporary art galleries displaying the work of local artists.

Seven flags have flown over the three principals since their discovery in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. Ruled in succession by the Spanish, English, French, Knights of Malta, French (again), Danish, and now the United States, the islands' eclectic historical path has influenced development of all three islands, particularly during the expansive Danish reign. Street, town and area names, architecture and former sugar plantations all reveal the vast influence that remains on the islands from Danish rule.

Cultural St. Croix
The largest of the three islands, cultural St. Croix rests entirely in the Caribbean Sea. Pastel buildings and charming shops can be seen in the historic towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted, while the island's emerald waters, powdery sands and lush green hillside remain just as they were when the first settlers arrived. The island also boasts memorable snorkeling experiences just off the shores at Buck Island, home to the only underwater national monument in the United States.

Follow the island's self-guided driving tour of the Heritage Trail to experience the 200 historic and cultural sights that highlight the unique influences of the Danish, French, Spanish, West Indian, African and other cultures on the architecture and history of the island. Visit the beautifully restored Estate Whim Plantation Museum, featuring an 18th century greathouse and sugar mill.

Home to many talented local artists, St. Croix's small art galleries and studios showcase original paintings, period-influenced furniture, jewelry, and arts and crafts. The Crucian hook bracelet and jewelry are crafted to highlight Larimar - a rare Caribbean gem.

Once a working sugar mill when sugar plantations supplied molasses for the rum trade, the Cruzan Rum Distillery today produces a variety of delicious rum from sugarcane and only the purest, natural ingredients. Visitors to the distillery will discover the time-honored process of rum production and enjoy free samples of Cruzan's distinctive line of flavored rums.

Sampling the local rums might lead to a bit of dancing for some visitors. From the fusion of French and African cultural influences emerged the native folk music and dance of the islands known as quelbe or "scratch band music," with its unique acoustic sound, and quadrille, a cultural dance still performed at traditional and cultural festivities on the island. Dancing "mocko jumpies," reggae and calypso music, steel bands and salsa add to the diverse sights and sounds that add to the island's broad cultural mix.

Tranquil St. John
The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John retains an unspoiled beauty uncommon anywhere else in the world. The island's unspoiled forests and stunning beaches attracted the attention of wealthy families who sought privacy and tranquility on the island. In 1956, Laurence Rockefeller was so moved by the island that he bought and donated broad expanses of land and underwater preserve to the National Park Service to keep St. John "a thing of joy forever."

Today, two-thirds of the island's 19-square-miles are designated as protected national park land. St. John boasts 22 self-guided hiking trails within the Virgin Islands National Park, where visitors can discover ancient petroglyphs and beautiful foliage along the way. The island's Trunk Bay and Hawkesnest Bay feature some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, and St. John is an underwater paradise accessible by snorkeling and scuba diving.

Visitors may find it easier to plan their stay if they have their own wheels. Renting a jeep or four-wheeler is a great option for getting around the island. St. John's terrain includes many steep hills and "hook backs" that lead to the most breathtaking landscapes and overlooks in the Caribbean - be sure to take the camera on these jaunts.

Don't get the wrong idea. St. John isn't all flora and fauna. Downtown Cruz Bay offers visitors shops and restaurants at Mongoose Junction or Wharfside Village. Likewise, Coral Bay is an especially scenic town, boasting the highest point on the islands. And while ecotourism is a top priority, this tiny island also features two major luxury resorts with all the creature comforts one would expect from a high-end property - The Westin St. John and Caneel Bay Resort. In addition, a plethora of villas, condos and B&Bs round out the lodging options here.

Cosmopolitan St. Thomas
If you like a little action with your natural beauty, St. Thomas will leave you wanting more. Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is the most-visited port in the Caribbean and boasts one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. The city's reputation as the shopping mecca of the Caribbean attracts visitors from around the world who are drawn to its elegant dining, exciting nightlife and international, duty-free shopping.

St. Thomas offers a wide variety of culinary delights, ranging from West Indian fare to international cuisine. Caribbean and West Indian delicacies such as conch, kallaloo, fungi, curried chicken, plantains, sour sop and johnnycakes are tantalizing additions to be sampled at many of the island's first-class restaurants. Exciting nightlife include performances of local music as well as jazz and pop music, all performed by the many talented local musicians.

While touring St. Thomas' higher elevations, visitors can treat themselves to a taste of contemporary island culture with a stop at the world-renowned Mountain Top for a refreshing banana daiquiri. Since the 1960s, this site has offered the legendary cocktail made with local rum, cane sugar and bananas.

The island isn't all glitz and glamour, however. It's also home to more than 40 pristine white sand beaches and some of the most scenic and picturesque views of the Caribbean. Visitors can enjoy beautiful overlooks, including Drake's Seat and Valdemar Hill.

A popular attraction, Paradise Point Tramway lifts visitors 700 feet above sea level on a cable car, for one of the most spectacular views of Charlotte Amalie harbor. Situated at the top of the lift on Flag Hill is a complex that includes a caf? restaurant, a nature trail and several retail shops.

Also a big draw, Coral World Marine Park and Observatory, located on the northeast shore at Coki Point, is recognized as an internationally renowned tourist attraction. The 4.5-acre park includes an underwater observatory tower, a tropical nature trail, a marine gardens aquarium and an 80,000-gallon coral reef tank.

Perfect for those not interested in snorkeling, the circular, glass-enclosed tank offers visitors a glimpse of the Caribbean Sea and its underwater inhabitants. The aquatic panoramic view provides an up-close look at beautiful species of coral, tropical fish, stingrays, barracudas, tarpon, moray eels, seahorses, nurse sharks and more.

Though there is so much to attract visitors to the islands, current leadership recognizes the importance of sustainable tourism, which protects the beauty of the natural environment while allowing visitors to enjoy its pristine wonder. Of the three, St. John leads in eco-tourism resorts that provide visitors with intimate encounters with the natural beauty of the Caribbean outdoors, along with comfort and convenience at an affordable cost.

All three islands offer an endless choice of activities including tennis, golf, horseback riding, kayaking, biking, hiking and sport fishing. Numerous waters ports are also available on each island including scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, windsurfing, parasailing and "snuba," a unique sport that combines snorkeling and scuba diving.

Of course, visitors shouldn't feel pressured to island hop or run from one activity to the next. After all, it is a vacation and there's nothing wrong with grabbing a cold drink and passing the days gazing at the magic of the Caribbean Sea from the quiet comfort of a beach chair nestled in the sand.

Both St. Croix and St. Thomas offer airports and provide frequent ferry runs to St. John. For more information about the U.S. Virgin Islands, call (800) 372-USVI, visit www.usvitourism.vi or contact the USVI Department of Tourism in Atlanta at (404) 688-0906.nGP

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