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US Virgin Islands

Of the 60 mostly uninhabited islands that make up the US Virgin Islands, the biggest and most visited are St Thomas, St John and St Croix. Their appeal lies in the amalgamation of the exotic and the recognisable, an island paradise with modern comforts, and a balance between Caribbean culture and American practicality.

The energetic capital of Charlotte Amalie, with its attractive harbour, lies on St Thomas. This island is the most Americanised of the chain, famous for its world-class duty-free shopping. Nearby St John is an unspoilt nature lover's paradise, with most of its forests, pristine beaches and reefs part of a protected national park. The largest of the islands is St Croix and its remoteness from the others, the historic remnants scattered about the landscape, the pretty Danish-influenced towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted, and the snorkelling at nearby Buck Island are the attractions here.

Surrounded by the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, these islands boast some of the most splendid coastline in the world, with white sandy beaches, astonishing coral reefs and pristine marine life, secluded coves, and untouched rainforests rising up above the sea-swept landscape. Caribbean colour touches every aspect of the islands, blending with the strong Danish influence in the towns. White sails glide effortlessly across the emerald waters; local craftsmen display their unique island art along cobblestone alleyways; tiled villa roofs provide a splash of red against the verdant hillside; busy markets supply the essentials for a delicious cuisine; and the sounds of folk songs and calypso bands fill the air.

The Virgin Islands being among the most popular cruise ship destinations in the Caribbean has meant that the port towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted and Frederiksted are usually swamped with newly arrived passengers in a frenzy of shopping and dining. Main beaches are seldom deserted, and the key reef areas are often a flurry of flippers and snorkels. Luxury resorts and fine hotels share the streets with old colonial architecture. Yet it is still possible to escape the crowds and find that bit of elusive paradise, to relax away from the divers and sailors, the sightseers, the ecological tour groups, and the shoppers.


Basics

Time: GMT 4.
Electricity: 120 volts, 60Hz. Two-flat-pin plugs are standard.
Money: The official currency is the US Dollar (USD) divided into 100 cents. Most credit cards are accepted, including American Express, Diners Club Mastercard and Visa, and are useful for withdrawing cash at ATMs. Travellers cheques are widely accepted in hotels, shops and restaurants provided they are in US Dollars.
Language: English is the official language. Spanish, Creole and some French are also spoken.
Passport/Visa Note: Entry requirements are the same as for the United States of America. There is no immigration control for visitors arriving from mainland USA. Visitors entering the country under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) must have a machine-readable passport (MRP) that has a bar code on the photo page. From 26 October 2006 eligible travellers under the VWP must include biometrics in their machine-readable passports if they wish to enter the country without a visa, containing unique personal data such as fingerprints or iris details. All new passports issued on or after 26 October 2005 must contain a digital photo image in order to travel visa-free. Due to new security measures, all visitors to the USA will have a photograph and two fingerprints taken by an inkless scanner on arrival, including those travelling visa-free under the Visa Waiver Programme.
Health: Health risks include hepatitis A, bilharzia and dengue fever. Only bottled water should be drunk outside the major towns. Medical facilities are of a high standard, but health insurance is vital as medical care is very expensive.
Tipping: Tipping of 15 to 20% percent is customary for good service. Some hotels and restaurants automatically add a service charge and room tax.
Safety: Normal precautions apply, especially in the back streets of towns at night. Don't leave valuables lying on the beach when snorkelling or swimming.
Business: Industry in the US Virgin Islands is based primarily around tourism though petroleum refining takes place off St. Croix. Like many other Caribbean countries, things are pretty relaxed, and formal business attire is not considered necessary as the climate makes this quite uncomfortable. The people are friendly and polite and shaking hands is common with introductions for men and women; business cards are handed out at introductions. Business hours are typically 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday with lunch breaks around 12pm.
Communications: The international country code for the US Virgin Islands is +1 340 and the code for dialling out internationally is 011 (followed by the relevant country code, for example 01144 for the United Kingdom). City/area codes are not required. The AT & T Wireless GSM 1900 mobile network covers the islands. Internet cafes are available in the main resorts.
Duty Free: Travellers to the Virgin Islands who are residents of the USA follow the same regulations that apply to the United States. Gifts and alcohol brought into the Virgin Islands by non-residents is not exempt from duty.

Activities

Diving and snorkelling

Scuba divers and snorkellers will find endless opportunities along the reefs surrounding the islands of St Thomas, St Croix and St John. The US Virgin Islands are among the most beautiful diving areas in the world with coral reefs, crystal clear water, dramatic drop-offs, underwater caves, shipwrecks, and a variety of marine life, including the region's famous sea horses. Along the north shore of St Croix is a fantastic underwater wall that offers caves, pinnacles and tunnels and opportunities to mix with deep-sea sharks and eagle rays. Other sites of note are the 1,000ft (305m) drop-off of Salt River Canyon, Frederiksted pier and the wall at Cane Bay. Between St Thomas and St John the waters of Pillsbury Sound contain several shipwrecks, and the best dive site off St Thomas is Cow and Calf Rocks. Snorkellers should head to the unrivalled Buck Island Reef National Monument off St Croix for beautiful coral reefs, Magens Bay or the marine sanctuary on St Thomas, or the coastline of the Virgin Islands National Park on St John.


St Thomas

St Thomas is the second largest and most sophisticated of the Virgin Islands with a strong Danish influence especially evident in Charlotte Amalie, the main town and capital. Being the most accessible of the islands also means it is the most heavily developed and visited, with visitors from around the world attracted by the town's reputation as an international shopping Mecca. It is also scenically beautiful, with numerous headlands and coves, forested hills providing stunning vistas over the Caribbean, and some of the best white-sand beaches in the Caribbean. Magens Bay beach on the north coast is acclaimed as one of the finest in the world and the sparkling waters and coral reef of Coki Bay are superb for snorkelling. Fabulous panoramas can be viewed from Drake's Seat, a high point in the centre of the island from where Sir Francis Drake used to watch for enemy ships. Sports and activities are abundant on St Thomas. There are snorkelling and dive sites, excellent greens for golf enthusiasts, sport fishing and yachting opportunities. The educational Coral World Marine Park and Observatory provides a unique look at the goings-on of Caribbean marine life, and the nearby resort town of Red Hook is a smaller version of Charlotte Amalie, with dining and shopping. It is the jumping off point to other Caribbean islands and the upmarket beach resorts nearby. Combining natural beauty with first-rate amenities, St Thomas offers numerous activities on and off the water, fine hotels and international cuisine.


St Croix

Less developed than St Thomas, St Croix is the largest and most remote of the three inhabited Virgin Islands, covered in forested hills, fertile lowlands and surrounded by coral reefs with excellent diving, particularly along the north coast. Located 40 miles (64km) south of St Thomas, the island has two main towns, Christiansted on the north east coast and Frederiksted to the west. Both prospered as commercial ports during the 18th and 19th centuries. Christiansted is a lively town offering trips to the tiny Buck Island as a popular excursion. Frederiksted is smaller and a sleepy place until the weekly cruise ships arrive for a spree of duty-free shopping. Both towns contain numerous examples of fine Danish colonial architecture. The surrounding landscape is scattered with remnants of sugar plantations, stone windmill towers and ruined houses from the island's commercial heyday in the sugarcane industry. Whim Greathouse is an impressive planter's mansion, restored to reflect its glory days in the 1700s, and is one of the main historical sights on St Croix. Rum production was another of the island's primary industries and visitors can visit the Cruzan Rum Distillery for guided tours and free tastings. The Heritage Trail is a self-guided trip that links the main sights of interest on the island. Along with its picturesque beaches and superb diving, St Croix has a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, including hiking, historic sights and attractions, golf and horse riding. There are fine hotels, excellent dining and casinos.


Airports

St Thomas (Cyril E King) International Airport (STT)

Location: The airport is situated three miles (5km) west of Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas Island. Time: GMT 4. Contacts: Tel: +1 (340) 774-1629. Transfer to the city: There are buses and taxis available to transfer passengers to the main towns and resorts. Many hotels also offer transport. Car rental: There are car rental agencies at the airport such as Avis and Dependable Car Rental. Departure tax: None.

St Croix (Henry E Rohlsen) International Airport (STX)

Location: The airport is situated nine miles (14km) south west of Christiansted on St Croix Island. Time: GMT 4. Contacts: Tel: +1 340 778-1012. Transfer between terminals: There is public transportation to and from the terminal building. Transfer to the city: There are buses and taxis available to transfer passengers to the towns and resorts. Car rental: Car rental companies include Avis, Budget and Hertz. Facilities: Facilities are available for the disabled. Departure tax: None.


Climate

The islands are hot and humid throughout the year, with most rain falling between August and October. The busiest tourist season is from December to May, during the northern hemisphere winter, and outside of these months rooms are cheaper and the islands less crowded. Between April and August the waters are calmer and underwater visibility is best for diving and snorkelling.


send requests for more information to tammie@allwaystt.com

Copyright 2006 Globe Media, Ltd. 2006. All rights reserved.
Mangrove diving is
mesmerizing. The
mangroves of St.
John's Hurricane Hole

in the U.S. Virgin
Islands are some

of the best in the
world. The water
clarity, calmness and
diversity of marine

life are amazing.
This particular
mangrove area is
protected in that

it is part of the
U. S. National Parks
of St. John