The US Virgin Islands are awash in green. Gaze out from just about any of perch on these three Caribbean outposts and behold some of the richest imaginable hues of nature’s most abundant color. The broccoli-colored valley of trees sweeping between Blue Mountain and Mount Eagle on St. Croix. The spearmint-toned wall of organ pipe cactuses along the Tekite Trail on St. John. The wasabi-hued bromeliads along the top of St Peter’s mountain on St. Thomas.
To be sure, it takes more than colorful foliage to lure most travelers away from other local attractions such as Trunk Bay Beach on St John, the rush of duty free shops on St. Thomas or a bioluminescent kayak tour on St Croix. But those who fancy an escape into tropical flora and fauna could hardly find a more suitable or accessible destination under the American flag.
More inspired by music and dance than agave plants and hummingbirds? These islands are also steeped in folk music, dance and other rituals. Cock your ear during the vibrant annual Carnival events or other festivals for the sounds of Quelbe, the music performed by small bands often using traditional instruments. Like so many of the traditions in these parts, this music style can be traced back two centuries to the African slaves who worked the islands’ sugar plantations.
For the richest immersion in local folk culture, St. Croix should be your first stop. Crucians, as locals are called, work doggedly to maintain the music and dance traditions many of their ancestors brought from Africa.
The Crucian Christmas Carnival, an event held every year in December and January centered in the city of Frederiksted, is where locals put their best musical, dance, artisanal and culinary talents on full display. Popular local bands perform Quelbe, using African drums and gourds nightly during the celebration. Dance troupes also stage performances of the quadrille, a traditional dance of the Virgin Islands in which couples, dressed in madras shirts and skirts, dance steps given by a caller. The style, beloved throughout the Caribbean, is likely the forerunner to the square dancing craze on the U.S mainland.
Travelers passionate about ecology should head straight for St. John. Virgin Islands National Park, covering two thirds of this island, and home to more than 150 species of birds, 22 kinds of mammals, and 700 plant varieties, is a wonderland for eco travelers. Die-hard devotees of the environment will find the details and anecdotes local guides give about this island’s natural history well worth it.
Others should just jump feet first into a hike along one of the island’s 20 trails. Each is finely tailored to highlight different sights. (The Francis Bay Trail cannot be beat for birders; The Annaberg is tops for island history). One option for seeing a bit of everything is the Turtle Point Trail. It starts at turquoise waters of secluded Turtle Bay and winds for a half-mile along the craggy coast to the irresistibly serene Caneel Hawksnest Beach. Located along the grounds of the magnificently appointed Caneel Bay Resort, it offers close-up looks at exotic cacti and a rush of other flora.
St. John’s land-based bounties give way seamlessly to the wonders of the sea. The 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail, in the waters off Trunk Bay feature unbeatable close-up exposure to the island’s 50 types of coral, 302 fish and other aquamarine bounty.
Curious to dig deeper into these islands’ natural and cultural history? A tour of sugar plantations and other historical sites around St. Croix is a must.
The island’s Landmark Society has made it easy by charting out a heritage trail. This self-guided trail runs for 28 miles between the major cities of Frederiksted and Christiansted, with stops at venues that highlight the island’s agricultural and artisanal traditions. Maps are available for download at www.stcroixlandmarks.org.
One favorite stop is the Whim Museum, a well-preserved three-room 18th century sugar plantation. Here guides discuss the furnishings in the great house and offer samples of the local bread called johnny cake. The large conical windmill beckons back to the time of sugar cane production, the Virgin Island’s main economic stronghold from around the 1670s until the late 1800s.
Time for only one St Croix nature excursion? Make it at St. George Village Botanical Garden, off Queen Mary Highway, east of the city of Frederiksted. Scattered around the 16 acres of grounds of a 19th century sugar plantation, gardeners maintain more than 1000 plants and trees. They have taken great pains to preserve dozens of species native to these parts, including towering Kapok and Sandbox trees and bright yellow Ginger Thomas plants.
Beyond the daunting displays of flora, visitors to St. George’s get an intriguing glimpse into this island’s colorful history. Plaques displayed on the grounds tell the story of the Arawak Indians who settled in this location nearly 2,000 years ago. Others detail later chapters of the period when this was a thriving Danish sugar plantation and of the key role Africans slaves played here and throughout the local economy.
For a closer look at the vibrant heritage of the slavery period, check out one of the regular shows staged around the island by Mocko Jumbies. These colorfully dressed performers on tall stilts perform dances to rhythmic music and take observers through the historical sequences of the art form.
Slaves brought to the Virgin Islands beginning in the 1600s brought the Mocko Jumbie tradition from Africa. There Mocko Jumbies were village healers or protectors who were tall enough to reach the evil spirits and keep them away.
Locals keep this rich tradition alive by training a younger generation of Crucians in the skills at the Guardians of Culture Mocko Jumbie Academy. Troupes perform weekly at the Renaissance Carambola Beach Resort, the Palms at Pelican Cove and other locales.
Whether it’s Mocko Jumbies, rich nature or other traditions, you can find them not only on St Croix but throughout these islands. Even on St. Thomas, with more than 50,000 inhabitants the most populous of the US Virgin Islands, natural wonders are also within easy reach.
A hike is the gentlest way to experience this island’s ecological side. Magens’ Bay Trail is favored among travelers. Hop in a car to the Preserve at Botany Bay, an elite community on the western edge of the island. A nicely paved trail descended through groves of arbor. After 20 minutes, you’re at one of the most secluded beach spots on the island. This is a rare spot where the rocky Caribbean coast extends on one side and the Atlantic on the other.
Like to combine your eco fix with a heavy dose of adventure? Strap in for a zip line tour atop St. Peter’s Mountain, the island’s highest peak. Tree Limin’ Extreme, one of several well-recommended operators, promises a thrilling experience. They transport you to the mountaintop and in no time you’re gliding through thickets of Tamarind, Calabash, Bay and other arbor.
But it’s the panoramic view across this idyllic corner of the Caribbean that makes this open air joy ride stand out. Beyond the foliage, you look down 1,000 feet and behold the vast spectrum of the green – from light moss to deep dark shamrock and every shade in between — blanketing St. Thomas and the neighboring islands.
For more information on the USVI, go to visitUSVI.com.