Introduction

Located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands consists of the three main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas, as well as an often-ignored chain of minor islands.

The total land mass of the territory is 133.73 square miles, making them one of the smaller island chains of the Caribbean, but they also have the distinction of being the only holding of the United States with a native population granted U.S. citizenship without having become an official state.

Known for its pristine beaches, and protected coral reefs, the U.S. Virgin Islands has long been a haven for scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts from around the globe. The easy going island atmosphere and relaxed attitudes of the resident population, coupled with the historic Danish architecture that predominates the landscape, has made the islands a top choice of tourists from both the United States, and Europe.

The largest city is Anna's Hope Village, Saint Thomas, with a population of barely 1,200.

People

Collectively known as Virgin Islanders, distinctions are also made based on the island of residence. Residents of St. Thomas are called St. Thomian; St. John, St. Johnian; St. Croix, Crucian; and Water Island, Water Islanders respectively.

With a combined population of only 108,612, the Virgin Islands is 78% African descent, with a varied racial mixture that includes West Indian, French, British, Puerto Rican, Americans, and a small close knit Middle Eastern community.

While residents originally from the U.S. mainland make up only 13% of the population, Puerto Ricans make up 4%, and the remaining 2% is composed of immigrants from around the globe, including the Middle East, India, and Asia.

Geography

The easternmost extension of the Greater Antilles, the Virgin Islands are the peaks of submerged mountains rising from the ocean floor to a few hundred feet above sea level. The highest point is Mount Sage on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, at 1,710 feet.

The island terrain ranges from rocky and arid, with short grassy hillsides and many cactus clusters, to large, lush fruit trees and ferns gracing the mountains. Beautiful beaches, and rolling pasturelands make up most of the remaining land.

The U.S. Virgin Islands has an arid climate, moderated by trade winds, with temperatures that vary little throughout the year, ranging between 91 degress in the summer and 86 degrees during the winter.

History

Originally settled by the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawaks, Christopher Columbus renamed the islands on his second voyage in 1493 for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next three hundred years ownership of the islands changed hands many times, finally ending up as a province of Denmark-Norway.

The Danish West India Company settled Saint Thomas in 1672, Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. In 1867 the United States attempted a treaty to purchase the islands, but the sale was never finalized and soon fell through.

During the First World War, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany, made a second attempt to purchase the territory. After a few months of negotiations, a selling price of $25 million was agreed and the deal was finalized on January 17, 1917. The U.S. took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917, and granted citizenship to the residents in 1927.

Famous Attractions

Blackbeard's Castle:

One of five National Historic Landmarks, Blackbeard's Castle is located in the city of Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas, at the highest point on Government Hill. The Danes originally built it as a watchtower to protect the harbor, and named it Skytsborg Tower, (meaning gun tower).

Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge:

There are actually two different "Buck Islands": onelLocated about 2 miles south of the island of St. Thomas; a second just north of St. Croix. Both serve as wildlife refuges with the Buck Island Reef National Monument as the centerpiece.

Magens Bay:

Magens Bay lies on the North (Atlantic) side of St. Croix, with a well-protected white sand beach stretching for nearly a mile. With its clear water, soft sand, and palm trees, it is commonly referred to as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and serves as one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island.

Nightlife

As far as Virgin Islanders are concerned, it's always five o'clock somewhere, and most bars and nightclubs bars open for business in the afternoon, closing at 2:00 AM, building crowds long after the sun goes down. The nightlife scene matches the casual laid-back feel of the islands, and most clubbers are known to show up in straight-from-the beach attire.

Some of the more popular nightspots include 2 Plus 2 Nightclub in Christiansted, St. Croix, and Larry's Landing in Cruz Bay. 2 Plus 2 is a lively, Caribbean dance club offering an eclectic blend of calypso, soul, disco, reggae, and salsa. Larry's is a laid back dive bar where you pour your own drinks. Simply ask for any cocktail and the bartender will provide you a cup of ice and everything you need to make the drink as you see fit.

Culture

The official language of both the U.S. Virgin Islands is English, but Virgin Islands Creole is the main spoken language.

Christianity is the main religion with a large Roman Catholic presence, and various other Protestant denominations. As it is in most Caribbean islands, there is a significant Rastafarian presence as well as a small number of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other eastern religions.

As with much of the English speaking Caribbean, Virgin Islander culture is synergetic, deriving from West African, European and American influences. The Dutch, French, and Danish have also contributed elements to the island's culture over the years, and with recent immigration, the Arab world, Indian and other Caribbean islands have begun to have a significant influence. The single largest influence on modern Virgin Islander culture, however, still derives from the African slaves brought to work the cane fields from the 17th to the mid-19th century.

Cuisine

Traditional U.S. Virgin Island food tends to be spicy and hearty. Most of the food products are imported due to the poor soil quality, little available farmland, and a developing taste for foreign foods. There are many upscale restaurants that often cater to tourists, serving a combination of North American dishes with tropical twists in addition to local cuisine. A prime example of this kind of innovation is the addition of mango and Caribbean spices to salmon, a non-tropical fish.

Fungi, (pronounced fun-gee), is cornmeal boiled and cooked to a thick consistency with okra included. Mostly it is eaten with boiled fish or saltfish, and is considered a staple of traditional cuisine.

Pate, (pronounced PAH-TEH), a fried bread stuffed with various meats including beef, chicken and saltfish, is a favorite snack on all three islands. Johnny cake, (originally known as 'journey cake'), is a popular pastry, possibly imported from the U.S. south.