Friday, August 28, 2009

Vacationing in the Caribbean During Hurricane Season

One of my readers emailed me about the possibility of a hurricane during her vacation. She didn't know this was hurricane season and had planned a trip to St. Thomas right in the middle of the season.

Unfortunately many travel professionals are often tight-lipped about hurricane season to travelers heading into those destinations.

After all, if you knew a hurricane was possible during the time and at the place of your vacation, you'd probably think twice about going there.

Now, there's good news and bad news about making the decision to vacation or not vacation in such an area at such a time.

I would go ahead with travel plans unless a hurricane is currently on the way to your vacation destination. If so, don't go. Or, at least wait until it passes, or until you have more information about it.

If nothing is on the way, then take a chance and go. You definitely get the best bargains during hurricane season. So, go ahead. Take advantage.

Once a hurricane is reported to definitely be heading to your vacation destination, (particularly to a Caribbean island), airline seats off island will disappear faster than a cold beer on a hot day. Not only will vacationers change their exit dates, but residents of the island will be buying up those seats as well.

If you're already at your vacation destination, and you learn a hurricane is on the way, pay attention to what's being said by local authorities. When they say, it will probably hit your location, immediately call the airline and change your return date. By the time it's definite the hurricane will hit, it's usually too late to leave the island by air. Seats are gone.

While living in St. Thomas, I stayed up one night for the 5am weather report, which was going to have more info on the approaching hurricane. By that report, they would know and be able to tell the public if the hit was definite. When the report came on, it was a sure thing that the storm would hit St. Thomas.

I called the airline immediately. No seats available. Every seat on every airplane leaving the island was gone.

Before the storm hits, all the airlines fly their airplanes off the island and are gone until such time as the storm is over.

So, bottom line, I would definitely go ahead with any plans made to travel to the Caribbean, or anywhere hurricanes are a fact of life. I would, however be very aware of the weather and weather reports, and be ready to act quickly in the event something blows up.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hurricane Bill Was Good to the Virgin Islands

How marvelous that Hurricane Bill moved away from St. Thomas. The islands missed the trauma that a hurricane ... even a small one ... can bring. Bill is preparing to move up the east coast of the US mainland, probably as a bad storm.

Now, there's only a couple more months of hurricane season. September is usually the most active month of all, however I'm optimistic.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hurricane Bill Moving in on St. Thomas

This is hurricane season; words that have a special meaning to those living in an area of the world prone to these destructive storms.

I am a survivor of Hurricane Marilyn, which struck the Virgin Islands, and most particularly St. Thomas in 1995. If it is true that adversity builds character, then I am a towering mass of character.

Marilyn hit on September 15, 1995, lasted about 15 hours and was the worst hurricane in Virgin Islands recorded history. Over 95 percent of structures on the island were damaged or totally destroyed. Recovery took months and in some cases, years.

Hurricane Marilyn at its Height

It was three months before the island had electricity in some areas, one year before telephone service was restored to all parts of the island (I was one of those with no phone service for a full year), and years before homes, businesses and public buildings were restored.

Destructive Aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn

I could expound on what it was like to have to wait until the generator was turned on each day from 6pm until 9pm to flush the toilet, wash dishes, take a bath, etc., but, you don't want to hear about that. Let's just say, both the hurricane and the aftermath are experiences that I'll never forget.

Hurricane Bill is currently approaching the Virgin Islands and has been predicted to be a Category 2 storm that will possibly reach St. Thomas on the 19th or 20th.

I don't want to mention this, but I feel I must: Hurricane Marilyn was predicted to be a Category 1 (little more than a tropical storm). Now that's what it was when it hit St. Croix (about 45 miles from St. Thomas), that fateful evening. But, when it left St. Croix and crossed the ocean it gathered in strength and ferocity. By the time it arrived in St. Thomas, it was another story altogether.

Afterward, the National Weather Service admitted that the storm strengthened possibly to a Category 3, and maybe a 4. Let me say that for those who suffered through those 15 hours, it was obvious, we were in a storm that was at the least a Category 4 and at the most, a 5.

I am praying that this storm either disspates, or really will be no more than a Category 1.

An approaching hurricane is a frightening reality, especially when it is realized that the only possible defense is leaving the area, or if that is impossible, making the necessary preparations.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Steel Pan Music is ambassador For the Caribbean

When one hears steel pan music it is easy to imagine the beautiful tropical paradise that spawned the magical music.

Pan music is perhaps the most innovative musical contribution of the twentieth century, and is an intrinsic part of the culture of the Caribbean.

Steelbands originated in Trinidad and were born out of the people's need to continue the African tradition of drumming despite the British prohibition of the instruments, especially during Carnival celebrations.

For many years, revelers substituted bamboo tubes for the drums, which they beat on with bamboo sticks. Then, at some point during the 1930's it was discovered that metal produced a more melodious, resonant sound and from that point everything from tin pans to brake drums were introduced to the mix.

During the early years, the pan hung on straps around the player's necks or, as it's expressed ... "pan round de neck". The use of oil drums, which produced a wider range of notes, and the transporting trolleys came later.

Steelbands eventually sprung up in different parts of the Caribbean, including in St. Thomas where it was introduced at the 1952 Carnival (the first Carnival the island had celebrated since 1914). Needless to say, the music was a big hit, as it has been around the world.

Today, pan is the true ambassador of Caribbean music.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

St. Thomas' Famous Mountaintop Burns Down

Mountaintop, the famous tourist spot atop St. Peter's mountain burned down on the evening of May 18th. What a huge loss to the community and to the many people who hold cherished memories of the attraction.

Famous for its Banana Daiquiris, which has used the same receipe for 60 years, Mountaintop was also famous for it's bird's eye view of the beautiful Magen's Bay Beach and a multitude of surrounding islands. The view was considered the best on the island of St. Thomas.

Also known as Signal Hill, Mountaintop was used by the U.S. Government in the 1940's as a communications center and at approximately 1,500 ft. above sea level is the island's highest point.

I remember Mountaintop as being one of the most colorful areas on St. Thomas. There was the bar, the shops, the Parakeet lady, the music ... and of course, the view. There was always a line of colorful Safaris loaded with cruise ship passengers and other vacationers coming up for some Mountaintop ambience.

We hope that the owners will rebuild and that Mountaintop reemerges even bigger and better than before the fire.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

St. Thomas' Amazing 99 Steps

An aspect of St. Thomas that I have always found intriguing are the 99 Steps. These are steps found in various areas of Charlotte Amalie (the capital of the VI), that makes it easier (slightly) to traverse the many hills on the island.

In actuality there are 103 steps, not 99, which is really kind of funny.

The most popular of the steps are located on Government Hill next to Hotel 29, formerly a private home built by a nineteenth century sea captain for his bride, and Haagensen House, a restored nineteenth century upper-class family home.

The Steps circa the 1950's

The above photograph shows the area surrounding the steps before some of the amazing restorations of the past couple of decades, particularly to Haagensen House.

Everyone, including Virgin Island historians agree on how the steps became a part of St. Thomas' landscape. It seems Danish engineers who laid out the town (in Denmark), had never actually been to St. Thomas. After all, in the 1600's the trip from Denmark to the Virgin Islands would have been long, and hazardous.

The story goes these engineers had no idea of the island's hilly terrain, and when the mistake was discovered, the steps were added as an attempt to connect the various streets of the town to approximate (as much as possible), the original vision of a flat terrain.

The steps traveled to the island as ship's ballast.

The 99 Steps on Government Hill lead up to Blackbeard's hill, where one will find historical structures such as, Blackbeard's Castle, built originally as a pirate lookout, and Crown House, the home built for Governor Peter Von Scholten, the man who freed Virgin Islands slaves.

It is interesting to travel around the town of Charlotte Amalie and suddenly look up and notice some of the steps in various areas. Sometimes they're heavily used by town residents, and sometimes they look somewhat overgrown. But, whatever the case, they are always intriguing, and a beautiful feature of a beautiful island.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Bush Tea Calypso

We talked previously about Calypso music and how there are different kinds, and most of it, except for Soca, which is primarily dance music, focuses on the story told in the song.

A while back, I ran across the old sketch below with a Calypso about Bush Tea, which is definitely an important part of the islands' culture. Bush Tea is derived from, yes BUSHES! Bushes that grow wild all over the islands, but particularly of course, in the more wooded areas. I have however, seen people picking bushes from the side of the road. Of course, you really have to know what you're doing, for example the difference between Lemon Grass and regular grass.

During Carnival, at certain times there are restaurants serving free Bush Tea.

There are said to be approximately 400 varieties of Bush Tea, but what makes it special is that most are considered medicinal. As a matter of fact, some years back there was an elderly gentleman on a local television talk show who was supposed to have more knowledge about the teas than anyone still living, and I believe he said he knew hundreds of varieties; and what medicinal purpose each should be used for ... whether preventative or curative.

What was interesting was that this man refused to teach anyone what he knew, including his son, who he said wasn't really interested. Unfortunately, that meant his knowledge would leave the earth with him. I hope someone broke down his resolve and got the information before it was too late. In any case, even if no one did, today there are people who have extensive knowledge of Bush Teas.

Here is the Calypso:

She had her dress tied up over her waist
And was wriggling down the street
She had on a pair of old slaps on her feet
Just then she started to name the different weeds

And I really was more than glad
Although I can't remember all
that she called
These are a few she had:

She had pap bush, elder bush,
black pepper bush
Then soldier, corporal and carpadulla
Fabian leaf, money bush, soldier posely
Pumpkin blossom and even devil doer.
Demon Congo, grass in galore
Physic nut, and lily root
In fact the only bush she didn't have
Was the bush for everyday soup.
Author Anonymous

Is it possible to purchase Bush Tea outside of the Virgin Islands? You bet. Check out:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Parade Day in St. Thomas

It's Adult Parade day and the last official day of Carnival. Remember, this is the event that can last 9-10 hours. But, that's what makes it so much fun.

The parade also marks the end of Carnival. Oh, there'll be another couple of activities, like the fireworks display, this year dedicated to President Barack Obama, but for the most part, when the parade is over, carnival is over for another year.

The images of carnival:

Happy Carnival!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A J'ouvert Story

As I'm writing this, J'ouvert (pronounced J'ou-vay) warm-up is in progress in St. Thomas. J'ouvert, a pre-dawn dance through the streets of Charlotte Amalie will begin at 4:00 am and run approximately 5-6 hours.

There is something enchanting about thousands of people pouring into the dark, early morning streets waiting for the first flatbed truck loaded with bands, and humongous speakers to weave into view.

As the trucks roll slowly by, booming some of the best road march music imaginable, fans fall in behind and in front of the one carrying their favorite band, and begin their tramp (dance). The sun rises on thousands of people jamming with abandon to pounding Calypso music. Although it can get a little risque, it is fantastic fun.

Bands play at various locations around the island leading up to J'ouvert. The partying can actually last for a couple of days straight.

My first carnival, I was working on a pretty demanding job, but still trying to make ALL the canival events. Well, I was invited to J'ouvert by someone I had just begun dating. I was really excited because this was someone I really liked a lot, plus I was looking forward to this new carnival experience that I had heard so much about.

The day of J'ouvert, I was pretty tired, so I left work early, called my date and explained that I was running on low because of all the festivities, and wanted to change our plans. Since he had to work until early evening and I wanted to take a nap, I suggested we meet at the pre-J'ouvert warm-up later on. We agreed on the time and everything was set.

I got everything ready for later, set the alarm and laid down to take my nap.

I woke up with the sun in my eyes. It took me a few minutes to wonder why the sun was up. Then, it hit me. I jumped up like a scalded cat. I believe I actually screamed. I turned the alarm off, already understanding what had happened. I had set the clock for 9am not 9pm.

I hurriedly dialed my friend, but as expected, no answer. My heart sank. I couldn't believe this had happened. Tears of frustration rolled down my cheeks as I jumped into the outfit I had planned to wear the night before all the time wondering why he hadn't called. It was then that I noticed the bed room phone was off the hook.

Can you believe that? I couldn't.

I went looking for my friend. As I reached the downtown area, J'ouvert was winding down, and sleepy eyed revelers were passing me on their way to the beach (a tradition after the tramp), or to carnival Village.

I finally found my friend at a restaurant on waterfront. I calmly explained that I had fallen asleep, and unfortunately had set the clock wrong and overslept. I apologized profusely. I mean profusely. He was extremely quiet during my explanation. Finally, I understood why he was quiet. He hadn't believed a word I had said; he thought I had intentionally stood him up.

When I didn't show up, he had tried to call me, and after prolonged busy signals the operator had told him the telephone was apparently off the hook. He had figured something more interesting had come along and I had chosen to do that, rather than be with him. There was nothing I could say to get him to believe that I really had fallen asleep, set the clock wrong, and had knocked the phone off the hook. Actually, it was hard for me to believe, and I knew it was true. He finished his breakfast, said he'd catch me later, and walked out of the restaurant.

So, that's how I missed my first J'ouvert. A sad story, huh? I still think of it today. Needless to say, my friend and I never get together after that. No trust; on his part.

I finally accepted the crazy incident by understanding that everything happens for a reason. I may never understand what the reason was, and can only hope it was worth my missing everything ... and I do mean everything!

But, life goes on, and I never missed another J'ouvert.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Carnival Village and Calypso Competition at St. Thomas Carnival

Okay, it's the last crazy, frenzied week of Carnival, and it's pretty much none stop at this point. It's just party! Party! Party! And fun! Fun! Fun! Some of the events going on now, or coming up soon are:

The Village opened yesterday amid the usual fanfare. This is where everyone hangs out between events the last week of the festival. It's open almost 24 hours a day, and is the main meet-and-greet venue of the carnival experience. Everyone walks around greeting friends, digging and dancing to the music, eating, and yes, drinking.

The Village is named each year in honor of various citizens who have made serious contributions to carnival over the years. This year it's called: "Chummy's Culinary Kitchen".

The Village is built in a parking lot and is designed in a square comprised of about 20 booths that are individually decorated and named by their owners. It is all very colorful and actually, quite historical. A winner is chosen each year based on the design.

A stage is built in the center of the Village, and the best local bands, and many visiting bands play there each evening until the wee hours of the morning. People dance on the ground around the stage.

Preparing Pates

The most important function of the Village though, is the food cooked and served at each booth. This is another place to get those traditional Virgin Islands dishes that just aren't that available throughout the year. Beverages like Maube, Soursop, Guavaberry and many others are highly anticipated. And, dishes like Kallaloo (a soup), Conch (a shell fish), crab and rice, Johnny Cakes, Pates and so much more are eagerly sought.

The village is where you go to see and be seen; it's where everyone comes to mix and mingle and get their CARNIVAL ON.

This is when local Calypsonians compete against each other for the title of King of Carnival. It's something that's taken very seriously, as carrying the title of "king" can affect your income pretty much the way an Academy Award does; as well, it raises your prestige all over the Caribbean and everywhere calypso music is played and understood.

King Kan for Plenty dressed as a woman during Calypso Tent performance

In the weeks leading up to the competition, Calypso Tents are held around the island. In the tents local Calypsonians reveal their new songs for the carnival season. Only those considered the best will continue on to the finals at Lionel Roberts stadium the last week of carnival. These guys pull out all the stops in terms of costumes, props, back-up performers, etc.

Remember, the songs are satirical, funny, and/or ribald; and usually tell stories based on local gossip, political foibles, and achievements during the past year. This is where the audience really connects with the performers.

Calypso competition is one of the most important carnival events, primarily because it's really all about music.

Next time J'ouvert.

Friday, April 24, 2009

St. Thomas Carnival Means ... All Things Calypso

This is the second week of carnival, and it's really rolling, now. This evening, a star studded Calypso Revue will bring the biggest international (those who travel to Europe, Canada, the Caribbean and the mainland U.S. to perform), and local Calypsonians together on the VI carnival stage. This event is in my top three.

Calypso is the unofficial (official) music of the Virgin Islands, particularly during carnival. There are several different kinds of Calypso, but what you'll find in the VI, for the most part, is Soca (basically dance music with an uptempo), and old style Calypso. Not that there aren't other forms of music, like Reggae and others.

Old style Calypso is what made the genre famous and has been around since slaves first arrived on the island's shores. The story told in the song is the most important feature of the music. The lyrics can be stingingly satirical, laugh-out-loud funny, or down-right bawdy.

Calypsonians are poets, singers and entertainers. They mostly write their own material, and are known for their entertaining presentations. The best of the best can sing extemporaneously (compose and sing songs on the spot), and are masters at double entendre (songs that have a double meaning).

Some of the famous entertainers, who hail from all parts of the Caribbean include: The Mighty Sparrow, Short Shirt, Lord Kitchner, Louis Ible, Jr., Whaddablee, Lord Nelson, King Obstinate, Calypso Rose, The Mighty Chalkdust, Singing Francine, and so many more, it is impossible to name them all.

Calypso Revue generally runs for two nights, and is incredibly entertaining. The outfits are generally glitzy, particularly on the second night, and props are used to give emphasis to the songs. It's theatre at its best.

My greatest challenge in my first two carnivals in the Virgin Islands was simply understanding the accents of the singers. If you don't know what's being said, you feel real left out when every one is screaming with laughter, singing chorus, or participating in call and response. I learned super fast.

Calypso is a unique art form that has influenced many genres of music. Think about it this way, Calypsonians were rapping long before there was anything called rap.

So, tonight Lionel Roberts Stadium will be rocking with some of the best Calypso on the planet, and I may not be there physically, but I'm going to be there in spirit ... with that chicken leg, and Red Stripe.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

St. Thomas Carnival: Echoes Through Time

Well, St. Thomas Carnival officially kicked off on April 12, and around now it is in full swing. The theme this year is: Echoes Through Time. Events like the Prince & Princess Selection Show, The Queen Selection Show, Toddler's Derby and Junior Calypso Revue (young Calypsonians), have already come and gone. But, there's so much more to come.

St. Thomas Carnival Magazine

Coming up this week are some popular events. First, there's Cultural Night, which celebrates the history and culture of the Virgin Islands, and takes place at Lionel Robert's Stadium. You can count on seeing awesome exhibitions of Quadrille and Bamboula dancing (both in elaborate costumes, of course).

The Quadrille is a parlor dance that made its way to the islands from Europe around the same time as the Waltz. The dance, described as a five-figure square dance, was observed by blacks as they served guests in the European style ballrooms of wealthy planters and merchants. They soon copied and adapted the dance for themselves, and it still survives today.

The Bamboula, on the other hand, came straight from Africa ... by way of slaves. It is a dance that comes complete with lots of drums and body movements associated with Africa, and is the only dance that is considered indigenous to the Virgin Islands.

Other Cultural Night activities include, Maypole Dances, Masqueraders, troupes, groups and more. It is a spectacular celebration.

During Cultural Night the most elaborate costumes that will lead the various troupes and floupes on the day of the big parade, will be presented. The parade is like the jewel in the crown. It is the last big event of the festival, and can I say ... it is an all day event. We're talking from 10:oo am until ... yes, it has run as late as 9:00 pm. Does anyone mind? Absolutely not. But, more on that later.

The King and Queen of the Band will be chosen based on those spectacular costumes. It is a huge honor because these costumes are so stupendous, so amazing, and some are so big, that part of their under-carriage is riding on small wheels. I call them human floats.

Then, there's Latin Calypso Night, which is a celebration of Latin music with local bands, and bands from Puerta Rico and various other islands. Dancing in the aisles is definitely allowed. This is where you get your Salsa on.

Oh, did I mention there are carnival rides and games? Well, there are. I would say it's for the kids, but you see an awful lot of folks over there who don't have children.

Also coming up at the end of this week is Calypso Revue. Now, that's one of the events I NEVER missed. Not under any circumstances.

Calypsonians are the highest level of Caribbean entertainer, and are a combination of singer, poet (most write their own songs), and performer. They are true artists. The show consists of local performers, and the best and most famous Calypsonians from all over the Caribbean, the States, Canada, or where ever they happen to be living.

These artists converge on St. Thomas at Carnival and .... IT'S ON!!!

Next time, we'll take a closer look at some famous Calypsonians who have graced St. Thomas' carnival stage in the past.

Monday, April 13, 2009

St. Thomas Carnival: A Personal Perspective

It is difficult to explain my first carnival as a newcomer to the Virgin Islands. I found it so exciting ... because I had never experienced anything similar. It was all new to me, and I drank it in like an intoxicating drink. Ten years later, I was still as enchanted as that first year.

I admit I was like a child with eyes as big as saucers; wanting to experience every bit of fun and wonder, but at the same time wanting to understand the history behind all I witnessed. I couldn't then, and still can't believe how interesting it is from a historical perspective; which made me feel something like an anthropologist, fastidiously digging for treasure.

The Caribbean carnival celebration that many credit with beginning in Trinidad, according to a number of scholars, actually has its roots in Africa. It made the transition across the ocean, and began first in Trinidad before spreading to other Caribbean islands, landing eventually in the Virgin Islands.

One of the adjustments I had to make as a new islander was the size of everything. My first carnival event at Lionel Roberts stadium, for instance was an eye-opener. I knew better than to expect anything even resembling say, Soldier Field in Chicago, but still I was surprised at the small size of the stadium.

Amazingly though, even that worked for me. There was more camaraderie and more closeness among both friends and strangers ... and believe me, that's a wonderful factor during some of the events when the crowd actually participate with the performers, as in call-and-response when the Calypsonians are singing (we'll get to that later).

Oh, amazing carnival. I can still close my eyes and and get a clear image of me at the stadium heading up into the stands for an evening of fun, ready to whoop and holler at the hilarious, the intriguing, and yes, the bawdy ... with my fried chicken leg in one hand, and my Red Stripe in the other.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Rain Don't Stop the Carnival!"

Carnival is the most exciting event on the annual Virgin Islands calendar. It starts slowly with the different pageants like, Queen Selection, and events like Junior Calypso competition and Cultural Night, but excitement builds as it moves toward the end.

And finally it's the last week and BAM! The last 7-10 days are positively insane: sleep is simply not a priority; employers are threatening employees about showing up for work; shop owners in town are making plans to shut down on certain days (some close the entire last week of the festival); stores are running out of cut-off jeans, and shorts; beauty shops are open longer hours ... it's just crazy! Good crazy.

But, before we get into what happens during Carnival, I should discuss how all this wonderful craziness began ... so let's go all the way back. The very first Virgin Islands Carnival took place in 1912. The next one took place in 1914 and unfortunately, there was a 40-year hiatus before another Carnival celebration happened in 1952. Then, it was ON! Carnival hasn't stopped since.

Because of the weather, the 1952 celebration was a real challenge. There was a deluge of rain. All the bands, the grand Marshall, the troupes were ready ... but the rain wouldn't stop. Neither would the Duke of Iron.

Trinidad Calypsonian (calypso singer), The Duke of Iron composed a song on the spot, "Rain Don't Stop the Carnival" and while singing with the accompaniment of some of the musicians, led the Gypsy troupe, the bands and everyone else down the road ... in a drenching downpour, setting the stage for future generations.

Despite the rain, Carnival was a huge success that year, and every year since it just keeps getting bigger and better.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's CARNIVAL Baby!! Carnival Time in St. Thomas!

It's the most anticipated ... most exhilerating ... most exciting event on the Virgin Islands calendar. We're talking CARNIVAL baby! And it's fast approaching.

The fabulous costumes! Fantastic music! Delicious food! Intriguing contests! It's a Carnival Baccanal!

The three islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John celebrate Carnival at different times of the year. For St. Thomas, the largest Carnival of the three, the dates this year are: April 12-May 02.

If you're wondering why Carnival runs for such a long period, it's because there's so much that goes on, it takes that long to stuff it all in. There are parades, tramps (more on that later), singing contests, pageants, fairs, parties, and oh, so much more.

According to a 2003 survey conducted by USA Today, St. Thomas' Carnival is in the Top Ten of Carnivals in the world. Each year the number of visitors, and non-Virgin Islands participants increases.

Carnival in the Virgin Islands is not only a fun event, but is considered seriously historical and cultural. It is fascinating to look at some of these events from the inside out.

In the coming weeks, we'll visit some of the many Carnival events that make the celebration so special:

Carnival Queen-King-Prince & Princess Contests
Cultural Fair
J'ouvert (pronounced Jou-vey)
Calypso Tents
Calypso Revue
Children & Adult Parades ...

and more.

I hope you'll join me as we celebrate St. Thomas Carnival.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Little Virgin Islands History

The Virgin Islands is located at the head of the arc of the chain of islands stretching northward from Trinidad. These islands are known as the Lesser Antilles. They stand on the threshold of the group of larger islands continuing westward that is known as the Greater Antilles.

The Virgin Islands were created for the most part by a great volcanic explosion, and as a result has a rocky, hilly, mountainous terrain. It is amazing that the island of St. Thomas is only 32 square miles and St. John is approximately 19 square miles. The hills and mountains give the islands an appearance of being much larger.

Archaeological discoveries place human inhabitants on the islands as early as 710 BC. The Tanio, Arawak and the Carib (the tribe of Indians from whom the Caribbean takes its name), were some of these early inhabitants and survived by hunting, fishing and practicing agriculture.

MAPes MONDe Collection

The Virgin Islands received its name from Christopher Columbus. When he landed in the Lesser Antilles in 1493, Columbus named the seemingly countless unspoiled islands, cays, and islets, The Virgin islands, after the legendary Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers.

By 1671, after periods of squabbling and brief occupations by Holland, France, England, Denmark, Knights of Malta, Spain and the Dutch, Denmark emerged victorious and the ruler of St. Thomas. It wasn't long before the expansion minded Danes had also added St. John and St. Croix to their holdings, which effectively united the three major islands.

The Danes ruled the Virgin Islands through a series of Danish governors until 1925 when the islands were sold to America for $25,000,000.

Today, the Danish influence is still evident in its wonderful architecture, and in the names of the streets in Charlotte Amalie, which is the Capital of the Virgin Islands.

Charlotte Amalie, by the way is named after a Danish queen.

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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Glory & Grandeur of Yachting Season in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands

One of the most anticipated times of the year in the Caribbean is yachting season, and St. Thomas Virgin Islands is no exception. Every winter yachts of every size, beauty, grandeur and expense descend on the islands in large numbers.

They come from all over the world, some staying for several months, others staying for shorter periods; and yes, some bringing well-known celebrities. Some of the yachts are rented, or leased, but most are privately owned. They make quite an impression on many aspects of island life, not the least of which is the economy.

The yachts dock at any of a number of marinas, like Yacht Haven Grand, St. Thomas Yacht Club, American Yacht Harbor, and others; however all the yachts pictured below are docked at Charlotte Amalie Harbor in St. Thomas. During season these lovelies lined up like huge, magnificent toys, and are only separated from the picturesque shops and boutiques of Charlotte Amalie by the harbor sidewalk and Waterfront, a 4-lane thoroughfare.

The harbor, a natural deep water harbor is one of the deepest in the world, and at one time was the busiest shipping and distribution center in the Caribbean. In those long ago days, import houses and warehouses belonging to English, French, German, American, Spanish and Italian traders thrived. Today the historic old buildings housing the fashionable boutiques and salons were once those warehouses.

Of course during those times, pirates like Blackbeard were also frequent visitors to the island. That is, until it became apparent that their presence restricted trade (for obvious reasons). A Virgin Islands governor responsible for allowing pirates access for financial gain was severely punished by the Crown in Denmark ... but that's another story.

Today, Charlotte Amalie harbor is still a bustling center of activity as yachts, cruise ships, departing/arriving seaplanes, tour boats like the Kon Tiki party boat (yes, the one that just sits the bottles of rum and fruit punch on the bar and it's every man and women for themselves), as well as small boaters provide plenty of traffic.

One of the activities that keeps St. Thomas a hot spot for yachting takes place each Spring. The International Rolex Regatta, held this year between March 27-29, 2009 has been around since 1974, and is an island tradition.

Commodore Newbold, of St. Thomas Yacht Club stated recently ... "Over three days, the finest yachtsmen and yachtswomen from around the Caribbean, the United States and Europe join in world-class racing in a spectacular environment, which includes the warm, clear waters surrounding our club. It is an adventurous way to get a jump on their summer sailing season."

The beautiful, classy yachts definitely add a pleasant ambiance to the island scene. It is a joy on an early morning walk to pass them so close on the sidewalk that you can greet and chat with crew busily swabbing the decks and attending to other chores.

But what I find really intriguing is while shopping, dining or walking on Waterfront ... to casually observe an early morning breakfast, a romantic sunset dinner, or maybe a cocktail party on the deck of one of these vessels. I'm telling you, it's the stuff of movies.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Settler's Handbook: A Guide to Virgin Islands Relocation

Numerous people have asked what information resources I used to successfully relocate to the Virgin Islands.

I used everything (almost), at my disposal: newspapers, the Virgin Islands Chamber of Commerce, The VI Tourism Department, contacts ... and anything else I could think of to get information about the islands.

I said "almost" because what I didn't use was "The Settler's Handbook, U.S. Virgin Islands". Although I did just fine without the book, the process would have been much simpler with it. The Handbook is a publication designed to assist people in relocating to, or starting businesses in the USVI, and has been around off-and-on for approximately 25 years.

When I made my move the handbook was unfortunately, out of print (had been for years). The book was revised around 2002 and is now periodically updated. For anyone considering such a move, the Settler's Handbook is an incredibly valuable resource.

Some of the book's highlights includes:

  • Chapters on each island: St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John

  • Information on the history and culture of the islands

  • How to move personal items such as, cars, furniture

  • How to register your vehicle

  • How to dress for the tropical climate

  • A list of schools, churches, civic organizations

  • Information on community life, entertainment, holidays ... and so much more.

More information on The Settler's Handbook, U.S. Virgin Islands is available at: and

Friday, February 20, 2009

St. Thomas: My New & Beautiful Tropical Home

So, I relocated to the small Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. A U.S. territory since 1917 when the island was purchased from the Danish for 25 million.

And, there I was ... a stranger in a strange land. But, as I said before, although there was some cultural difference, I felt right at home.

Immigrants from the U.S. mainland are called state-siders ... and not always with the most positive reference.

My biggest difficulties were adjusting to the heat, and understanding the speech of the islanders, which was English spoken quite rapidly, often with heavy accents. I found the lilting accents beautiful; almost musical. In time, I not only easily understood the speech, but when I returned to the states for visits was told I had acquired something of an accent myself ... although I never heard it.

My living situation was quite exceptional as I lived on a hill above town and had a wrap-around balcony that afforded me an enviable view of the cruise ships in St. Thomas Harbor. The harbor was in the town of Charlotte Amalie, the Capital of the Virgin Islands.

St. Thomas Harbor in Charlotte Amalie as seen from my balcony

St. Thomas harbor at sunset from my balcony

During high season, which ran between December and May, the island could accommodate as many as 16 ships spread out between Havensight Harbor, St. Thomas Harbor (hailed as one of the deepest harbors in the world), and Sub-Base (an area that had been a naval base for many years).

I did not need to become accustomed to my surroundings, which were amazingly colorful and beautiful. My yard contained plentiful fruit trees, like Genip, Tamarind, and Mangos; lush flowers like the Bouganvillea, Oleander and Flamboyant; and exotic animals like the Iguanas that boldly crossed the yard as if they, not me were the rightful tenants of the house.

Iguana on an early morning yard crossing

Iguana on tree limb in yard

As a visitor from Cleveland, Ohio once so appropriately put it:"It's as if everything where I came from is in black and white, while everything here is in technicolor."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

St. Thomas Here I Come!

So, there I was ... back stateside. Back at work. My vacation over.

The one bright spot was that I knew I would be returning to the Virgin Islands as soon as I could day-trade (trade off days with other employees), and string enough days off together to make another trip worthwhile. Remember, I was working for an airline.

Pretty soon I had established a pattern of travel to St. Thomas that took me there once, sometimes twice a month. During some of those visits, I made sure to circulate resumes to the contacts I had made on the first visits. I wasn't exactly clear why I did this; it just seemed that you never knew. Networking was always a good idea.

Then, after several months ... big news. Really, bad news! The airline was going under. Kapoosh! Down the drain! It was disheartening. For a few minutes. Until I realized that perhaps, this was an opportunity. Time to take that lemon and make some lemonade.

I began making plans to do something almost unbelievable. I started planning a relocation to the Virgin Islands.

Four months later, I was a resident of St. Thomas.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Last Days of my St. Thomas Vacation

I couldn't believe my Virgin Islands vacation was almost over. Rats! I couldn't remember when I'd had so much fun. But not just fun, I'd had a curious sense of contentment the entire visit. And now it was time to leave.

I had packed as much into each of the seven days that I could. The day after the Sunday afternoon beach party at Sapphire Beach, I had been the typical tourist and visited a few of the great attractions.

Ferry leaving Red Hook to St. John

I had taken the short ferry ride to the island of St. John, which amazingly is about two-thirds national park. Of course, the park is a story in itself ... with Laurence S. Rockefeller as the main character. It was Rockefeller who bought up thousands of acres of land and turned it over to the federal government in 1956 to help create the Virgin Islands National Park at St. John. But, that's a story for another day.

The pristine beauty found on St. John is difficult to imagine; the rustic little village of Cruz Bay where the ferry boats dock is straight out of a novel; and the beaches ... well, all I can say is breathtaking.

Cruz Bay, St. John

During the next few days the attractions I visited included:

Coral World Ocean Park
A marine park built on a peninsula adjacent to Coki Beach on St. Thomas' east end. From an underwater observatory that is 15 feet down spectacular ocean life seems up close and personal. Then, there's the 80,000 gallon circular coral reef aquarium; the shark shallows; stingray lagoon; turtle park; and so much more. Before you go, check on feeding times, which is fun to see, especially if children are along.

Atlantis Submarine
This is a submarine designed to take excursions 90 feet down under. During the hour long dive each passenger has his own window on the world of the sea. A diver adds to the excitement of the experience by doing a feeding. Just be aware that children must be 36" tall, no exceptions. Now, I'm just a little claustrophobic so this was something I had to challenge myself to do; but in the end it was well worth it.

Paradise Point Tramway
Essentially a seven minute cable car ride up 700 feet above sea level. Once at the top of this mini mountain, there's a "knock your socks off" view. The most popular time to visit the Point is at sunset. The town of Charlotte Amalie, the ocean, the cruise ships in port ... it's just an awesome sight. There's also a cafe, bar, boutiques and souvenir shops at Paradise Point.

I took a sight-seeing tour that meandered its way into the hills above the town of Charlotte Amalie, and ended at Magens Bay Beach. Amazing! I was reminded of my first taxi ride and my fear of both the height and lack of guardrails. I was still petrified, but it was getting better. My advice ... if you don't see St. Thomas from this perspective, you've probably missed about half the beauty of the island.

As an airline employee I visited some of the hotels and resorts, met staff and asked a load of questions. I was heartily welcomed and even received tours of some of the larger properties. I would later look back at the contacts I made during those visits with a great deal of gratitude.

But alas, that last day finally rolled around. Although my heart was heavy, I was already planning my next trip.

As I boarded my flight that afternoon, I took one last look around, smiled and promised myself , I would return many times to what had become my own wonderful paradise.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Liming (Partying) Island Style

The days following my arrival on the island, I was slowly, relentlessly and absolutely being seduced by the sun, sand, and sea. I was completely entranced with the music, people, beaches, and just altogether comfortable with the beautiful, lush surroundings.

At first, it was relaxing to slow down, not rush around, and slide into the islander's slow, easy style of living. Plus, moving too fast generally attracted attention; and not in a good way.

It wasn't until I was living there that I'd feel like screaming ... "There's a reason they call this FAST food!" ... while standing in a line at say, McDonald's that was so slow, I could read a couple of newspaper articles before making it to the counter. But, it's amazing how I eventually and unconsciously adapted to the slower pace.

My first beach experience was at Sapphire Beach Resort. Everyone kept telling me I didn't want to miss the Sunday afternoon beach party. Pretty soon, I believed them. When Sunday rolled around, on my third day, I was off to Sapphire.

What a party!

Also designed as individual condos, Sapphire Resort has a casual ambiance with an open lobby, restaurants, and a gift shop. It is best known for great water sports: sunfish sailing, windsurfing, snorkeling; and a long, lovely beach with sugary white sand, beautiful palm trees and amazing turquoise water.

Videos on Sapphire Beach, St. Thomas, USVI

A covered pavilion on the beach is a big attraction ... okay, it's the star attraction (aside from the beach), of the resort. A covered dance floor with a recessed bar, and a stage for the bands that play there puts the J in jam on Sunday afternoons.

Some of the locals ... and visitors swim and picnic in the morning on the beach, then in the afternoon dance to live Calypso/Reggae music at the pavilion. Calypso, by the way, is the main music heard in the Virgin Islands.

Then, the serious partiers show up once the band starts to play to get their dance on. They're the ones without sarongs and swimsuits; free of sand; hair combed and with shoes on. But, what's great is that all are appropriate.

Everyone comes together to lime (party), island style.

This is where I was introduced to the Bushwhacker (a potent, popular island drink); Caribbean dancing; and Calypso music (I had been more familiar with Reggae). Calypso is quite different (more on that later).

Talk about fun? By the time I left that evening, I was sold on the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands and St. Thomas.

More on the beautiful beaches of the Virgin Islands and its 4 main islands later!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why I Write About the Virgin Islands

My first blog about the years I spent in the Virgin Islands described my initial trip to the U.S. territory. In hindsight, I thought it might have been more appropriate to begin by explaining the importance of those ten years of my life ... and why it's important to write about that time.

Living there was both transformative and restorative. The experience was transformative because I was forced to rely on my writing to generate income. It was in the Virgin Islands that I became a writer (for real). Restorative because the islands' incredible beauty inspired spiritual reflection ... and truly restored my soul.

My surroundings affirmed the merits of: a simple life; the great natural beauty of God's earth; and the resourcefulness of the human spirit to prevail under exigent circumstances.

When I first stepped off the airplane in the Virgin Islands and looked around, I felt something akin to coming home; although I'd never been there, or anywhere in the Caribbean, it was still familiar ... and not "I saw this in that movie" familiar.

It was similar to the first time I'd heard drumming (authentic African drumming), as a young adult. I was in the park and four or five guys in African dress were playing to the delight of an impromptu audience.

I was surprised by the emotions those rhythmical, driving, relentless drum beats inspired: as if I had heard it many times before ... although I never had. That day, the drums affirmed a kinship with Africa that was both profound and comforting.

My arrival in St. Thomas had that same surreal quality. I sensed that at some long ago crossroads of time, one or some of my ancestors had walked, lived, loved labored, sweat and probably died, if not in this specific place, than one very much like it.

It was small wonder then that I took to the Caribbean lifestyle without preamble or hesitation. I claimed it good and bad.

Of course, that was my first visit to the Virgin Islands, and relocating there didn't enter my mind that day. But when I look back now, I know it did enter my heart.

Monday, January 5, 2009

City Slicker to Mellow Islander: How It All Began

In the early '90's I was diligently working for a small, regional airline in the southeastern United States. I had little interest in visiting most of the cities on our limited route until ... wonder of wonders ... a new route to the Caribbean was announced. I couldn't believe it. We were going to begin flying to the U.S. Virgin Islands!

Most of my friends and family had heard of the Virgin Islands, but knew next to nothing about this U.S. territory. So, I'd have to explain that it is only a couple of hours from Puerto Rico, and consists of three major islands: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix; as well as close to a hundred small islets and cays. Oh, and that from the pictures I'd seen, it was extraordinarily beautiful.

I had never been to the Caribbean, so my first trip, to the island of St. Thomas a few months later, was highly anticipated.

I get my first impression of the island while still in the air as we come in for a landing. Looking out the window of the MD80, I stare down at the ocean mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty of the impossibly clear, turquoise water.

My later experiences would be that ... no matter how travelled visitors to the Virgin Islands happened to be, they were always amazed at the beauty of the waters and beaches.

My second impression, as I walk down the steps of the airplane to the ground (no Jetway here), is of heat so solid, it is like hitting a wall. It is the kind of heat that immediately generates perspiration (everywhere!); the kind of heat that gives you an urge to disrobe, at least of any extra outer wear.

What makes the heat tolerable and probably saves us all from absolute annihilation are the gentle tradewind breezes.

But, I am soon distracted from the heat by the picturesque beauty of colorful, pastel painted houses strewn across rolling, green hills. I would learn that St. Thomas' nickname is 'The Rock', because of those hills. The islands were formed by volcanic activity and as a result are mountainous and rocky, which makes farming extremely difficult.

Inside the airport travelers are greeted by Steel Pan musicians, and ladies adorned in native costume speaking in lyrical accents as they offer tastes of popular island drinks - especially Fruit Punch - with or without the rum that is made right on the island of St. Croix. Crucian Rum is one of very few products manufactured in the Virgin Islands.

Before I know it, my luggage and I are loaded into a long - thankfully air-conditioned -van (that seats about 15), and we're heading up hills so steep, I bite my lip to keep from crying out as we
seem to travel straight up.
I chance a look out the window and gaze down at the town of Charlotte Amalie below. We had recently passed through the lovely little town with the red-roofed shops on one side of the street and the harbor on the other.

I find it impossible to enjoy the view, however as I notice there is nothing even resembling a guard rail on the side of the road, and one wrong move could send us plunging over the side of the mountain!
I keep my eyes straight ahead until I reach my destination. Of course I would learn it's not as easy as all that to go over the mountain ... but it is indeed possible.

My resort is as they say ... "In the country", which means up from town, and in the mountains. It is a large, older property spread out over many acres of land, and set up like condos. There's the living room with floor to ceiling windows that opens onto a wrap-around balcony that's to die for; a dining area, kitchen, bedroom and bath. It really does look more like a movie set rather than some place I'd be staying.

It's not long before I realize the air conditioning doesn't work, but with all the balcony doors open and the ceiling fans on in every room, it is unbelievably breezy and yes, cool.

Something else I'd learn: most houses aren't air conditioned. Strategically placed ceiling fans, regular fans, windows, proper clothing, and a natural physical resistence to the heat (built up overtime), are the weapons of choice.

Later that evening, after settling in, I am dressed for dinner and waiting for the taxi to take me to the restaurant that I've been told has one of the island's best views, as well as some of the best cuisine on the island.

I walk out onto the balcony and look down at the twinkling lights in the houses all over the valley far below, and it's so beautiful, tears well up in my eyes and threaten to spill over and ruin my make-up. I quickly blink them back as I think, this is indeed paradise.

Suddenly, a small shiver travels up my spine as I feel this trip may turn out to be even more of an adventure than I can imagine.

Just then I hear the taxi give a couple of short bleeps outside.

I shake my head to rid myself of fanciful thoughts, grab my purse, and I'm off to begin the adventure.
The adventures ... and misadventures of a city slicker turned mellow islander.