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Virgin Islands MapHistory, facts and figures about the U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas, along with the much smaller but historically distinct Water Island, and many other surrounding minor islands. The total land area of the territory is 346.36 km² (133.73 sq mi), which is about twice the size of Washington D.C. As of 2007 the population was approximately 108,612.

The Islands are located in the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, about 90 miles (140 km) east of Puerto Rico. The Virgin Islands are known for their white sand beaches, including famous Magens Bay on St. Thomas and Trunk Bay on St. John. The two main harbors which are often frequented by cruise ships are Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, and Christiansted in St. Croix. Most of the islands, including Saint Thomas, are volcanic in origin and hilly. The highest point is Crown Mountain, Saint Thomas (474m). There is a tourist stop at a place called Mountain Top here. The views from this vista point are phenomenal and well worth the visit.

Saint Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies to the south and has a flatter terrain. While visiting St. Thomas one may catch a fast ferry or the Sea Plane (which takes about an hour) and visit St. Croix. The National Park Service owns more than half of Saint John, nearly all of Hassel Island, and many acres of coral reef. Due to this St. John has many hiking trails and underwater national parks which are well worth a visit.

St. John Trunk Bay

The Virgin Islands were originally settled by the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawak Indians. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next three hundred years, the islands were held by many European powers, including Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Denmark-Norway, giving the islands their distinct and diverse flavor seen today by visitors. The stories of great pirates such as Blackbeard and Privateers such as Sir BlackbeardFrancis Drake abound, and are from this time period. Interestingly, the Spanish considered Sir Francis Drake an outlaw Pirate, but to England he was simply a sailor and privateer. Piracy in the Caribbean resulted from the lucrative but illegitimate opportunities for common seamen to attack European merchant ships (especially Spanish fleets sailing from the Caribbean to Europe) and seize their valuable cargo. A practice that increased in the 17th century. Piracy was sometimes given "legal" status by colonial powers, especially England and the Netherlands, in the aim to weaken their rivals. This "legal" form of piracy is known as privateering.There are many historical sites in the Virgin Islands with references to these two individuals, as well as others from their time (think Pirates of The Caribbean matey!).

The Danish West India Company settled on Saint Thomas in 1672, on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754. Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the abolition of slavery by Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848. An unsuccessful attempt was made to sell the islands to the United States in 1867 and in 1902.

The onset of World War I left the islands isolated and exposed. During the submarine warfare phases of the World War I, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base, again approached Denmark with a view towards buying them. After a few months of negotiations, a selling price of $25 million was agreed. The U.S. took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917 and the territory was renamed the Virgin Islands of the United States. U.S. citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927.

Water Island, a small island next to Saint Thomas, was not included in the original sale. It remained in the possession of the Danish West India Company until 1944, when it too was bought by the USA for $10,000. It did not become a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands territory until 1996, when 50 acres of land was transferred to the territorial government. The remaining 200 acres of the island were purchased from the US Department of the Interior in May 2005 for $10.

Adult Gold Moco JumboThe U.S. Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory, not a state. Even though they are U.S. citizens, Virgin Island residents cannot vote in presidential elections. Virgin Island residents, however, are able to vote in presidential primary elections and have their own delegate elected to congress, currently Donna Christensen, a Democrat. At the territorial level, 15 senators—seven from the district of Saint Croix, seven from the district of Saint Thomas and Saint John, and one senator at-large who must be a resident of Saint John—are elected for two-year terms to the Virgin Islands Legislature.  The U.S. Virgin Islands has elected a territorial governor every four years since 1970. Previous governors were appointed by the President of the United States.

Tourism is the primary economic activity. The islands normally host 2 million visitors a year, many of whom visit on cruise ships.  Still more popular with those wanting to really explore and enjoy the islands for more than just a few hours are the many rental villas dotting the picturesque hillsides and beachfronts of St. Thomas and St. John. My favorites are listed here.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are permanently on Atlantic Standard Time and do not participate in daylight saving time. When the U.S. is on Standard Time, the U.S. Virgin Islands are one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. When the U.S. is on daylight saving time, Eastern Daylight Time is the same as Atlantic Standard Time.  More importantly to know, when you are on the islands, you are on “Island Time”.  Relax, slow down, and enjoy.  Life moves at a much slower pace here.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only part of the United States where traffic drives on the left, though almost all vehicles are left hand drive (as they are imported from the United States).  You will get used to it quickly!

Steel pan bandVirgin Islander Culture is based primarily on African and European cultures. Though the Danish controlled the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands for many years, the dominant language has been an English-based Creole since the 19th century, and the islands remain much more receptive to English language popular culture than any other. The Dutch, the French and the Danish also contributed elements to the island's culture, as have immigrants from the Arab world, India and other Caribbean islands. The unique culture and history reflect the West African, Danish, Spanish, Irish, Polish, and German heritage of those who have made the U.S. Virgin Islands their home since the late 1400s. The rhythms and lyrics of Virgin Island music--including calypso, cariso, soca, reggae, and steel pan melodies--are colorful reminders of the island’s history. Not to be missed is the annual Carnival Celebration held each year in the spring, usually lasting about 3 weeks. Festivities include parades, floats, local music and food, dance troupes,steel pan bands, calypso, and “moko jumbies”, spirit gods dressed in costume who walk on stilts.  It is a fabulous fun time for all.  Come and witness why many regard Carnival in the Virgin Islands as one of the best celebrations in the Caribbean.

Click here for a taste of St. Thomas Carnival music and more information on this fun event.