The U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) an unincorporated organized territory of the United States, is located among the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean. The USVI consist of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas, and the much smaller but historically significant Water Island, along with many surrounding minor islands. The U.S. took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917 and the territory was renamed the Virgin Islands of the United States, with U.S. citizenship granted to the island’s inhabitants in 1927. Water Island did not become a part of the USVI until 1996.
The USVI feature magnificent white-sand beaches, including Magens Bay and Trunk Bay, and strategic harbors, including Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted. The port at Charlotte Amalie is among the Caribbean’s most heavily visited by cruise ships. Most of the islands, including St. Thomas, are volcanic in origin and hilly. The highest point is Crown Mountain in St. Thomas, at 1,555 feet high. Although less populated than St. Thomas, St. Croix is the largest of the USVI, and features a flatter terrain. More than half of St. John and many acres of surrounding coral reef are a preserve controlled by the National Park Service.
In addition to an array of fine beaches, St. Thomas features museums, forts and historic houses, and a duty-free shopping district in Charlotte Amalie that is among the Caribbean’s most popular. The St. Peter Mountain Greathouse & Botanical Gardens, located high in the St. Thomas’ volcanic peaks, features distinctive examples of West Indie architecture and furniture, and was originally part of the 150-acre Plantation St. Peter. The Botanical Gardens offers lush nature trails featuring streaming waterfalls and tropical bird aviaries, with more than 20 varieties of orchids and 150 species of Caribbean plants and fruits.
Other attractions include the 99 steps, built by the Danes in the mid-1700s. The Danes regarded “step-streets” to be the easiest way to navigate the steep hills of Charlotte Amalie. The Blackbeard’s Castle watchtower, originally named Skytsborg (“sky tower”) by the Danes, dates to 1679 and according to legend was used by the infamous pirate Edward “Blackbeard” Teach to watch for ships entering the harbor. Another Danish fortress, Bluebeard’s Castle, was built in 1689 and is named after the fictitious pirate, said to have built the castle to lock away his beautiful wife.
Historic sites tied to real-life figures include the Camille Pissarro Gallery. The great French Impressionist was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie, and his childhood home is now an art gallery featuring artwork from dozens of artists including Pissarro himself.
Drake’s Seat is one of the island’s best lookouts, offering a panoramic view of Magens Bay and the U. S. and British Virgin Islands. Sir Francis Drake is said to have kept watch on his fleet from here. Built in 1680, Fort Christian was built to defend the Danish settlement and is today home to the historic fort as well as a museum. This National Historic Landmark is Saint Thomas’ oldest building in continuous use and has at various times served as the governor’s residence, a place of worship and a police station.