Strolling through the US Virgin Islands
When many Barbadians think about travelling to the United States, most think about either Miami, New York or possibly Puerto Rico if a cruise is more your speed.
However, there is a piece of the US close to home that can be explored.
The US Virgin Islands (USVI), comprising St Thomas, St Croix, St John and Water Island, are indeed US territories, but the citizens are truly Caribbean people. They share the same history of colonisation as the rest of the region and this is reflected in the similarity in architecture and food.
The islands changed hands several times, beginning with a combination of the Dutch, English and French in the 1600s right through to the 1800s. In 1917, St Thomas, St Croix, St John were purchased by the US for US$25 million, and Water Island was bought by the US in 1944 for US$10 000. It was transferred to the USVI territorial government in 1996.
While locals can vote for their representatives that will sit in US Congress, they cannot vote in presidential elections.
The islands are still rebuilding after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and the numerous blue FEMA roofs are a testament to that. However, the hilly topography means that you are guaranteed a beautiful view from every angle.
During my five days in the islands I was based in St Thomas, which is home to the capital Charlotte Amalie. While St Thomas is known for its shopping, it truly has much more to offer.
I happened to be there during carnival, which was held during the first week in May this year, and the island was indeed a hive of activity. But more on that later.
The statue of the conch shell blower in Emancipation Park in St Thomas.
As I said before, there is a shared history with the region, no better exemplified than by Emancipation Park. Located just off Main Street it holds the statue of a conch shell blower commemorating 150 years of emancipation. This statue also holds pride of place on both St John and St Croix.
Just outside of the park is Fort Christian, which bears a striking resemblance to the buildings in the Garrison Historic Area here in Barbados. The park also contains a replica of the Liberty Bell, which every US state and territory is said to have, and a bust of Denmark’s King Christian IX.
I was able to take a 20-minute ferry ride over to St John to explore some of what it had to offer. There is no airport so the ferry is the only way to reach the 19-square mile island. It is home to several luxury hotels as well as 18 churches to service the 500 island residents.
St John also is home to the Virgin Islands National Park, which was initially 5 000 acres gifted to the government by Lawrence Rockefeller in 1956. It has since expanded and now includes more than half of the island.
If hiking is your pleasure, the park contains several hiking trails and if you’re lucky you may even spot some deer.
The major historical site on St John is the Annaberg Plantation. It contains the ruins of the island’s largest sugar plantation, including a 36-foot windmill, slave quarters and a sill house.
The plantation’s slave quarters face the sea and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Slavery was abolished there in 1834, years before emancipation in the USVI in 1848. Many slaves were said to have jumped from their quarters on St John and attempted to swim the distance to Tortola. Some made it, many did not, but either way it was freedom or freedom.
The mill at the Annaberg Plantation in St John.
There is no hospital, only the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Centre of St John, which was opened in 1983 and was named after the first woman from the island to obtain a college degree. Smith went on to become a registered nurse and midwife. She returned to St John after her studies and was the only medical practitioner on the island for 20 years. She died in 1994.
The health centre was extensively damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and was only reopened in March of this year.
There is history to be found on Water Island as well. A 15-minute ferry ride from St Thomas will get you to the fourth and smallest Virgin Island of 0.76 square miles.
The island is home to Fort Segarra – the only underground fort in the region, intended to help defend the submarine base on St Thomas – but due to the ending of World War II, but it was never finished.
Prior to the 2017 hurricanes there were about 200 permanent residents of the island, but since then the number has dropped to around 80.
The island remains largely uncommercialised, with no gas stations, schools or stop lights. Mail is brought by ferry and delivered to postboxes next to the jetty.
Many people have vehicles for transport – mostly jeeps and trucks – but golf carts are mostly used. Fuel is brought once a week and a barge that can transport larger vehicles is available. However a return trip costs US$65, so most residents use that service for monthly shopping or transporting building supplies.
Visitors and locals flock to the hotspot at Honeymoon Beach to enjoy a day of relaxation.
Unfortunately, I was unable to visit St Croix on this trip, but that just means I have a reason to go back to the USVI. All in all, the islands are beautiful, the people are wonderful and the atmosphere really does feel like home.
Join me next week as I take you through the spectacle that is St Thomas carnival. (BD)