'I’ve met Danes who are livid they gave up these islands,” reflects Luana Wheatley, a tourism official and resident of St Thomas, the most popular destination in the US Virgin Islands. “They can’t believe how they lost their wonderful colony in the Caribbean sunshine, yet still clung on to freezing cold Greenland.” When I swim in the warm waters of Magens Bay, with its mile-long white sand beach, I can see their point. What would you prefer? Mangos, spices, fresh snapper and an average year-round temperature of 26C, or treeless, snow-shrouded Nuuk?
From 1754 to 1917 the islands of St Thomas, St John and St Croix were indeed royal Danish colonies. Ties with Copenhagen were only severed in the turmoil of the First World War, when they were sold to the United States for $25 million. Meanwhile, across a stretch of water known as the Narrows, lies the quieter and more exclusive British Virgin Islands, which have been under our jurisdiction since 1670.
The landscapes and lifestyles of both overseas territories are similar – topsy-turvy green hills rising steeply to more than 1,000ft, glorious sandy beaches, limpid blue waters, an addiction to the joys of sailing, carnival and rum. But while the British islands come lightly washed with Uncle Sam’s influence, those across the water are soaked in it.
As the vehicle licence plates put it, the US Virgin Islands are “America’s Caribbean”. US citizens don’t need a passport to visit and the capital, Charlotte Amalie, is one of the busiest cruise ports in the region. All the familiar hallmarks of the American way of life are here – folksy mailboxes, baseball diamonds, endless tipping, basketball matches showing on the never-turned-off television.
There are no freeways but the vehicles are still massive, somehow getting around the steep, winding roads. These include custom-built, open-sided “safari taxis” that take 12 or more passengers. With typical Caribbean swagger, they invariably come with the owner’s name emblazoned across the windscreen. “Are you Mr Wonderful?” I ask one driver as he waits for a pick-up. “All the time,” he replies with a killer smile.
Like nearby Puerto Rico, the islands have their own quirks and independent identity. Driving is on the left (unlike back home), and the USVI sends its own sports teams to the Olympics. There are home-grown public holidays such as Transfer Day (celebrating the buy-out from Denmark) and Emancipation Day, remembering the official abolition of slavery in 1848. The many years spent as the Danish West Indies are not forgotten, either.
You will find glorious sandy beaches and limpid blue waters
This is most obvious in Charlotte Amalie, named in honour of King Christian V’s queen, where the streets bear names such as Dronningens Gade and Kronprindsens Gade. The St Thomas Historical Trust runs guided walks that visit the port’s mighty Lutheran church, built in 1793, along with grand 19th-century government buildings and the warren of brick warehouses and narrow alleys bordering the harbour.
Once piled high with rum, arms and contraband, today they are filled with duty-free shops selling jewellery, watches and sunglasses. Most poignant of all is the Danish cemetery in Hospital Ground where the graves, framed in conch shells and shaded by venerable mahogany trees, bear names such as Pedersen, Haack and Thorsøe.
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