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St Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Thursday, July 17, 2008
The US Virgin Islands are around 80km east of Puerto Rico. There are four main islands — St Thomas, St John, St Croix and Water Island, each with its own character — and many smaller islands.

They have white sandy beaches and strategic harbours. The volcanic and very hilly islands were first sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World.

The Danish arrived in St Thomas in 1666 and by 1672 had established control over the entire island through the Danish West India and Guinea Company. Land was divided into plantations and sugar cane became the primary economic activity. While that provided great prosperity, it also meant high dependence on slave labour and for some time, the world's largest slave auctions were held there.

By the early 19th century, St Thomas was in decline — crops were threatened by hurricanes, drought and stiff competition from the United States. In 1848, slavery was mercifully abolished, and higher labour costs further weakened the position of sugar production.

St Thomas' harbours and fortifications allowed the island to retain its strategic importance. In the 1860s the US Government tried to purchase the three islands from Denmark for US$7.5 million but failed. In 1917 a successful US$25 million offer secured the sale as part of a defensive strategy to maintain control over the Caribbean and the Panama Canal during WWI.

US citizenship was granted to residents in 1927 and the US Department of the Interior took over administrative duties in 1931.

St Thomas is the capital and most commercial of the USVI. Its population is around 52,000, 47 percent of the islands' total. Charlotte Amalie is the major port and city and its deep harbour is perfect for the many cruise liners making their way around the Caribbean.

Passengers make a bee-line for Charlotte Amalie's 400 or so shops — most of them duty free. Many just go into the air-conditioned shops to escape the heat, but once you're in, it's hard to resist a little spending.

Vendor's Plaza is set up with small booths, tables and tents, right across from Emancipation Park and Fort Christian. You can shop for souvenirs, silver jewellery, T-shirts, tropical print wrap skirts, shirts, imitation bags and watches and all sorts of trinkets. There are hair-braiders, coconut and ice-cream stands, food stalls, and you can even have your picture taken with a donkey. The market opens at 7.30am every day. Across the road is a co-op store selling locally made crafts and other goodies.

Those who wish to discover more about the islands' days of piracy should visit Blackbeard's Castle and the skytower. St Thomas, in particular, was known as a paradise for pirates and buccaneers, the most famous being Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard. His many encounters with English ships are recorded in varying accounts along the eastern coast of the United States, particularly the Carolinas. Blackbeard took over the tower so he could keep watch on shipping movements.

Magens Bay on the northern side of the island — around 20 minutes from town — is St Thomas's most popular beach. Its 1.5km stretch of sand is rated as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. It was donated to the people of the Virgin Islands by Arthur S Fairchild, a Wall Street genius and long-time island resident and philanthropist.

An entry fee is charged and that money is used to maintain the beach and its facilities. The water is calm and while it's not great for snorkelling, it is perfect for families, lap swimming and just floating.

Location

The US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.

Cost

Blackbeard's Castle one- to three-hour tours cost $20 for guided tours and $12 for self-guided tours. Half price for children. They run when ships are in port.

Prices correct at July 17, 2008.

For further information

United States Virgin Islands
Department of Tourism
PO Box 6400
St Thomas USVI
Ph: +1 800 372 8784
www.usvitourism.vi

Blue Water Aviation
North Ramp
Cyril King Airport
St Thomas USVI
Ph: +1 340 776 5631
Fax: +1 340 777 4694

Cruise ship schedule
Ph: +1 340 776 1234

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