Lifestyle

Escape and relax in the U.S. Virgin Islands

ESCAPE, RELAX, AND EXPLORE IN THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS

If you find yourself wanting to take a break from the hustle, bustle and hassle of work, consider a vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

These beautiful islands offer enough activities to pique anyone's interest as well as year-round tropical temperatures (winter averages range from 77 degrees in the winter to 82 degrees in the summer).

I have to admit, St. Thomas is my favorite Caribbean island. Charlotte Amalie is a town with incredible character and charm, not to mention duty-free shopping. If you do an island tour, the view of the British and other U.S. Virgin Islands from atop the mountain is nothing short of spectacular.

St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix are situated in the heart of the Caribbean Sea in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean. This means year-round warm weather! The islands are also located close to one another (within 40 miles) and are connected via ferry, helicopter and plane routes, making it easy to see all three on one vacation.

The U.S. Virgin Islands were discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. Over the next few centuries, the European powers failed to consolidate their power on the islands, allowing them to become a haven for pirates. One the most famous pirates, Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) called St. Thomas home.

During the 1700s, the islands fell under the power of Denmark and became popular trading ports, funneling slaves from Africa to the Americas. Sugar plantations were also established on the islands, and the export of sugar became a large portion of the islands' economies.

The United States purchased the Virgin Islands in 1917 from the Danish to use for defensive purposes during the World Wars. Today, the Virgin Islands are U.S. territories.

World-renown shopping is what draws some tourists to the Virgin Islands. Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, the bustling port city and capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a haven for shoppers. King Alley's Walk on St. Croix also boasts a variety of stores and boutiques for the serious shopper. The Virgin Islands are also rich with historical plantations, abandoned military forts, museums, botanical gardens and traditional Danish architecture.

If beaches and natural beauty are more to your liking, be sure to check out Magens Bay located on the north side of St. Thomas. The bay's white sandy shores are bordered by calm, aquamarine waters on one side and lush, tropical forest on the other. This crescent-shaped paradise was named "one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world" in an article by National Geographic, and it's easy to see why.

St. John also offers a plethora of natural wonders. Two-thirds of the island is a national park, allowing visitors to view the flora and fauna of the Caribbean in their natural splendor. You can discover the island's 11,560 square acres of natural beauty on a guided tour, or simply go exploring yourself by Jeep or on a hike.

While all three islands offer outstanding scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, St. John's protected waters make it one of "the best places in the entire Caribbean to explore the underwater world." St. Croix's aquarium and underwater snorkeling trail also provide glimpses of the diverse and vivid underwater ecosystem surrounding the islands.

The rich local culture of the islands is revealed during Carnival, an all-out party celebrated during the month of April on St. Thomas, in December on St. Croix, and on July 4 on St. John. The celebration's delicious food, elaborate costumes, dancing, steel-drum music and nightlife are sure to keep any visitor entertained.

There are a variety of hotels and resorts to choose from on the Virgin Islands, and flights leave from the United States mainland daily. Cruises to St. Thomas generally depart from Florida, New York or San Juan, Puerto Rico.

St. Thomas is a common port of call on most Eastern Caribbean itineraries, and some small-ship cruise lines offer itineraries that include all three islands. Day-long trips to St. John and St. Croix may be offered as shore excursions by some of the larger cruise lines when the ship is docked in St. Thomas.

The sun, surf and sand of the Caribbean is definitely a great escape.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way and can be reached at jvaughn@worldvoyagervacations.com. E-mail Vaughn to be included on a mailing list of travel destination reports.

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