Five Things You Didn't Know About The US Virgin Islands
PHOTO: Charlotte Amalie harbor. (All photos by Brian Major)
The U.S. Virgin Islands offer Americans their very own slice of the Caribbean lifestyle. As a U.S. territory, travelers don’t need a passport to visit, and the country’s beautiful beaches, sunny skies and friendly residents are the equal of any island in the sun-splashed region.
But the U.S. Virgin Islands offer visitors much more than just sun and fun. A multitude of shopping, dining and entertainment options exist side-by-side with some of the Caribbean’s most accessible historic attractions. Vacationers may find that one week is not enough to sample everything there is to do around the territory. Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the U.S. Virgin Islands:
The U.S. Virgin Islands are filled with history
The United States purchased the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark on Aug. 4, 1916 for $25 million via the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. The agreement was signed at New York’s Biltmore Hotel by Danish minister Constantin Brun and Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and preceded the U.S. entry into World War I by two weeks.
Today the territory features numerous buildings, place of worship and military fortifications imbued with architectural details from the Danish colonial era. Examples of each can be found all around the main towns of each of the three main islands: Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, Cruz Bay on St. John and Christiansted and Frederiksted on St. Croix.
On St. Thomas, Charlotte Amalie tourism stakeholders are focusing on the area’s historical legacy through initiatives to re-claim old Danish street names, including Dronningens Gade, the former Main Street.
Charlotte Amalie travelers can also walk a short distance from to central shopping district to visit St. Thomas Synagogue, located at the intersection of Crystal Gade and Raadets Gade. The building features all of the elements from its 1833 construction including pews carved by shipbuilders from local mahogany, a domed ceiling and Baccarat crystal chandeliers.
Charlotte Amalie’s harbor figured prominently in colonial history. On March 3, 1801 the Danish ships Louge and Den Aarvaagne confronted the British privateer Experiment and the HMS Arab. The latter was commanded by Captain John Perkins, a Jamaica native and the British Navy’s first black commissioned officer.
The skirmish was tied to the American Revolutionary War and Great Britain’s anger over continued U.S. use of St. Thomas for trade and munitions purchases. Today the St. Thomas Historical Trust offers walking tours that highlight the country’s compelling history.
Charlotte Amalie has undergone a transformation
Today the main shopping street of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ largest city, Dronningens Gade was historically a commercial street tied to the docks that border the town. Over the past year, the street has been re-cast as a pedestrian-friendly walking district that offers close proximity to historic buildings and the city’s bustling shopping district, one of the Caribbean’s largest.
During the 17th century Dronningens Gade carried traffic and treasure from pirate ships. Today it is undergoing a renovation and beautification program designed to create a more elegant, less congested area.
The improvements are the result of a public-private partnership that includes the Virgin Islands government, the local chamber of commerce and independent entrepreneurs. The Jaredian Design Group, which won the contract to make the improvements, is headed by local designer John Woods, a graduate of New York’s Cooper Union.
Under the project, utility poles and wires have been removed, the roadway has been resurfaced with cobblestones and new street lamps, bollards and landscaping planters have been added. While the street remains open to motor vehicles, parking has been reduced and new regulations keep traffic moving. Taxi vans and the island’s omnipresent safari buses now have convenient, designated drop-off and pick up stations.
Veterans Drive, the oft-congested boulevard that rings Charlotte Amalie’s waterfront, is being expanded with wider roadways and a tree-lined median and promenade with cobblestone crosswalks. The crosswalks lead to landscaped lookout points and the boulevard extends to Charlotte Amalie’s historic Legislature Building, where a public park encompasses historic Fort Christian.
PHOTO: The Charlotte Amalie waterfront has been renovated to include pedestrian-friendly features.
A great cuisine scene
Gourmands will find true inspiration from the variety of dining options offered across the territory. Longtime island chef and restaurateur Patricia Corte runs three of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ most popular outlets: Oceana, which features fine dining in the former Russian Consulate Great House in the Frenchtown district; Grande Cru, offering cutting-edge cuisine at Charlotte Amalie’s Yacht Haven Grande complex, and Fresh Bistro, another Yacht Haven Grande eatery featuring comfort food in an upscale setting.
St. Thomas is also home to several outstanding open-air restaurants, headlined by Havana Blue at the Frenchman’s Reef and Morningstar Marriott Beach Resort, one of St. Thomas’ signature hotels. The eatery overlooks Morningstar Beach and features experiential dining with a Latin America/Pacific Rim motif. The Banana Tree Grille on the terrace at Bluebeard’s Castle, also in Charlotte Amalie, offers more outstanding views of St. Thomas harbor.
Visitors will also find several options for local Caribbean cuisine and casual dining. Gladys’ Café at the Royal Dane Mall features stewed oxtail, roti, butter conch and other West Indian favorites. On St. John, the High Tide Bar & Seafood Grill is located steps away from the fry dock and offers a festive scene including live music from touring bands. Next door, St. John’s Waterfront Bistro features French cuisine and all of the seaside eateries feature spectacular sunsets.
The U.S. Virgin Islands even has its own culinary ambassador. St. Croix native Digby Stridiron, who has worked as head chef for top restaurants around the world and today represents the destination at local and international culinary events.
Beach bars that are second to none
Enjoying libations by the water’s edge is a must-do part of almost any Caribbean vacation and the U.S. Virgin Islands provides travelers with a multitude of opportunities to enjoy a casual drink at along the sandy shores. Iggies Beach Bar and Grill, located at the Bolongo Bay Beach resort, is easily among the most popular of St. Thomas’ numerous beachside watering holes.
In addition to its casual restaurant, Iggies’ bar area features beach volleyball and basketball courts plus big-screen TVs broadcasting global sports events. Nightly entertainment features top island musical acts and world-class musicians - including Stevie Wonder – have been known to drop by announced to perform.
The beach bar at Magen’s Bay is reportedly one of the largest circle-shaped bars on the island and has the added distinction of its location on mile-long Magen’s Bay Beach, one of the finest in the entire Caribbean.
The island-style bar and restaurant at St. Thomas’ Hull Bay is known as the Hide-Away. The district’s man boat ramp is located at beach here, making for great people-watching. The beach is also popular with surfers in the winter months and also often features live music.
The Island Beachcomber Hotel is located on the airport road along Lindbergh Bay and provides travelers with an opportunity for a quick dip and sip before departing St. Thomas.
French Impressionist roots
Camille Pissarro, the 19th century artist widely considered the father of the French Impressionist painting school, was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie. The only artist to have shown his work at each of the eight Impressionist exhibitions held in Paris between 1874 and1886, Pissarro’s birthplace and home is located prominently on 14 Dronningens Gade and open to visitors. The home features a collection of his creations along with artwork from local painters.
PHOTO: The Camille Pissarro home.
Pissarro’s father was of Portuguese Jewish descent and held French nationality; his mother was native Creole. At age 12, his father sent him to boarding school in France, where he developed an appreciation for the country’s art masters. Receiving training in drawing and painting at the Savary school near Paris, Pissaro’s instructor advised him to draw from nature upon his return to St. Thomas.
When Pissarro ventured back to St. Thomas at age 17, he worked for his father as a cargo clerk, practicing drawing during breaks. His earliest paintings, including “Paisaje Tropical con Casas Rurales y Palmeras” and “Two Women Chatting by the Sea” feature scenes from 19th century St. Thomas.
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands website.
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