Travels & Traditions: The U.S. Virgin Islands - #308

BURT WOLF: During his second voyage in 1493, Columbus was sailing in the waters east of Puerto Rico when he saw a group of hills above the horizon. Based on his experience in the Bahamas, he thought that as he approached the separate highlands would pull together into one big island. But that was not the case. The closer he got, the more islands appeared. Columbus claimed that they reminded him of the 11,000 virgins of Saint Ursula, and he called them the Virgin Islands. Today, they're known as the U.S. Virgin Islands and there are only about 50.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But that's okay, because Ursula only had 11 virgins not 11,000. The original story tells of Ursula and her 11 virgins being martyred in Germany during the Forth Century. But when the manuscript was being recopied, the guy who was doing the copying misread the "11 M" for martyrs as "11 M" for thousands. And in the 1200s, when the story became popular again, she had become Saint Ursula, a princess, sailing to Rome with 11,000 virgins. As a result of this new nautical aspect of the story, sailors of the time would often pray to Saint Ursula and her 11,000 seagoing virgins.

BURT WOLF: The three largest islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands are Saint Thomas, Saint Croix and Saint John. But before they belonged to the U.S., they were Danish. In 1671, the king of Denmark issued a charter to a company that wanted to do business on the island of Saint Thomas, which soon became the hot spot in the neighborhood. During the 16- and 1700s, when the wars in Europe were spilling over into the Caribbean, Denmark remained neutral. Saint Thomas, with its deep, safe, and neutral harbor turned into a major free port for international trade. It developed an urban class, businessmen, bankers and traders with a cosmopolitan view. The free port aspect is still very much in evidence. The main downtown streets are lined with duty free shops.

MAN IN STREET: All right, you millionaires, let's save some money right in here. Cheap souvenirs for relatives you don't like but you got to get them something anyway.

BURT WOLF: After the Danish government abolished slavery in 1848, contract laborers were brought in from India and the Middle East and their descendants run many of the local shops. If you are a resident of the United States, Saint Thomas is a particularly free free port. Normally, U.S. Customs allows you to return to the United States with a duty free allowance of $400 per person. But from the U.S. Virgin Islands, the allowance is $1200 per person.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: As you may recall, Saint Thomas was the doubting saint, so while I was on Saint Thomas, I began to doubt some of the duty free pricing and thought I would call the United States to check on it. I found a 1.7 ounce bottle of Guerlain Shalimar eau de toilette spray, $60 in New York, $44 here. A liter of Tanqueray Gin, 27 bucks in Chicago, $11 here. Not bad.

BURT WOLF: At the edge of town, but on top of my shopping list was Zora's. Zora's a sandal maker, and for over 40 years, she has been fitting the local feet, which is no mean feat. And recently, she's been cutting her custom made sandals for tourists. Here's how it works. You pick out the style you like, the leather you want, the height of the heel and buckle, or no buckle, and Zora or one of her daughters traces an outline of your feet on a piece of paper. A master leather worker cuts out the leather and builds the heel. You come back for a fitting. Adjustments are made. The sandal is finished, a towering feat. I no longer have any doubts about the duty free pricing. But I also have no doubt that you should take a look at the historic aspects of the island.

Saint Thomas' main town is Charlotte Amalie, which in 1691 was named after the Queen of Denmark. It's one of the few towns in the Caribbean with step streets, long pedestrian sidewalks built as short cuts through the hills. Charlotte Amalie has 43 of them. The strip called, "99 Steps", was built out of yellow ballast bricks that were taken off Danish ships in the 1700s. There are actually 103 steps on 99 Step Street, and two explanations for the situation. The first claims that the four additional steps were added after the street sign went up and no additional funding was available to make a change. The second explanation tells of a brief period in which the new math was being taught. At the top of the 103 steps on 99 Step Street, is Haagensen House. It's being restored by The Virgin Island Inns and gives you a good idea of what the home of a Danish colonist was like in the 1860s. Most of the furniture was built out of mahogany. Not only was mahogany a local wood, but it was the only wood that would stand up, year after year, to the local weather.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I am sitting in what is known as a planter's chair. Guys who owned the plantation would spend the day riding around on horseback inspecting their land and wearing big boots. When they got home, their legs were so swollen; they couldn't get the boots off. So they would sit down in their planter's chair, swing out the leg supports, put up their feet, and wait until the swelling went down and they could take their boots off. They'd often have a cup of tea, which came with a little cover on top to keep out the bugs,

BURT WOLF: and sometimes some peanuts.

Just down the street is the synagogue of Saint Thomas. Jewish settlers from London and Amsterdam arrived here in the mid 1600s. In 1796, they built the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. The floor is covered with sand in memory of the Jews who fled into the desert to escape their enslavement by the Egyptians. Because Saint Thomas was a neutral harbor,

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: it became the ideal home port for pirates. Now, pirates were not criminals the way we use that term today. They were independent contractors working on commission for a specific king or queen with instructions to pillage the enemies of that royal family. Saint Thomas became home to two of the most famous, Blue Beard and Black Beard. Now, Black Beard actually had a black beard. But Blue Beard's beard was white, just like mine, except he kept using his grandmother's rinse. Big problem.

BURT WOLF: Black Beard's castle is a medieval style stone tower, built in 1679. It's a good example of 17th Century Danish military architecture. The walls are nearly five feet thick at the base and taper up to a height of over 30 feet. It was put up to protect the town from any attack that might come from the upper hills or from ships that could anchor outside the firing range of Saint Thomas' guns. At the time, the spot where cruise ships dock today was the town's most vulnerable point, and it still might be, which brings me to my most vulnerable point, lunch.

One of the spots in town that's an old favorite with me is Gladys'. It has a down home feeling and good local food. It was built into an old Danish warehouse just off the waterfront. Most of the dishes are based on traditional Caribbean recipes, lobster fritters, stewed chicken with rice and beans, and Gladys’ favorite, hot chicken salad. Her signature drink is fresh mango colada.

While I was on Saint Thomas, I stayed at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef, which was built on a point at the entrance to the Charlotte Amalie harbor. It's an excellent location with great views of the water and the surrounding islands, and all the facilities you would need for a traditional Caribbean vacation.

Right next door is Marriott's Morning Star Resort. The Resort's Tavern on the Beach has some of the best food on the island. Kevin Goodchild is the chef. Dean Simon is the pastry chef and an ice carver. You've got to admire a guy who carves ice outdoors in the Caribbean, a real chip off the old block. The Morning Star Resort is considered to be on the intimate side, which is very much in keeping with Frenchman's standing as a major location for weddings. Norma Kennedy is the property’s wedding and honeymoon planner, and she has over 2,000 weddings under her belt.

NORMA KENNEDY: We get the bouquet, the minister, the cake, the champagne, we do the whole nine yards, even if it’s for two people.

MINISTER ON CAMERA: We’ve got a beautiful day. The sun is shining. We have a breeze, fresh Caribbean Ocean, air, surrounded by flowers on one of the prettiest places on earth. You’re going to remember this day for the rest of your lives.

NORMA KENNEDY ON CAMERA: And, of course, of all the beautiful venues we have here at Frenchman's Reef, the pictures are phenomenal.

NORMA KENNEDY: The virtual wedding is something very new.

NORMA KENNEDY ON CAMERA: If you come down here and you don't have maybe your best friends, your family don't have the money to come down with you, or maybe you just want to come down and be on your own, we can still surprise

NORMA KENNEDY: them by sending them an e-mail invitation and in 24 hours, the wedding is up on the Internet and that’s beautiful. They see it from the beginning to the end.

MINISTER ON CAMERA: Barbara, you may kiss your husband. Scott, you may kiss your wife.

NORMA KENNEDY: The Internet is really a big help to me because it shows pictures and brides love to see pictures of other brides. Weddings in paradise.

BURT WOLF: When I was a Boy Scout, I taught a class in knot tying. But she appears to have made it a profession.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When it comes to getting married, most people are a little bit at sea to begin with. So they tend to take their honeymoon on land. But if you're already gotten your sea legs, a great alternative to a land based vacation is a yacht charter.

BURT WOLF: And Saint Thomas it the perfect place to find out what it's like. The U.S. Virgin Islands has the largest charter fleet in the Western Hemisphere. And the place to start finding out about it is The Virgin Islands Charter Yacht League, and non-profit association that has helped the industry get organized. They put me in touch with Greg and Laura Lewis. Greg was an airline captain for a major US airline. Today he's a licensed sea captain and certified dive master. His dream was to go sea.

GREG LEWIS ON CAMERA: These are the old fort fortifications during the pirate back about 1650. And they actually had cannons and stuff mounted in here to help protect the harbor.

BURT WOLF: His wife Laura's dream was to own a little bed and breakfast. A 50-foot catamaran called, "The Sea Chateau", became the perfect compromise. He sails and she cooks. Laura was born into a restaurant family and produces three meals a day for their guests. She's also the first mate, which is only fitting for the captain's wife. Cabins on the lower level are equipped with queen-sized beds, private bathrooms, and air conditioning. The main cabin upstairs holds the kitchen, the dining table, and an entertainment area with TV, VCR and a library of movies. Greg will help you design your ideal voyage.

GREG LEWIS: The unique thing with yacht chartering, particularly down here in the Caribbean, we have such a vast array of areas that we can attend and go to. There's so many activities that you can participate in. We have a kayak. We have a wind glider. We specifically do a lot of scuba diving. We have a full rig of all the diving equipment, snorkeling. We make this the ultimate vacation you've ever had.

BURT WOLF: And for those of us who are into extreme sports, there's off shore sun bathing and rum punching. The Sea Chateau's homeport is Charlotte Amalie. A 20 minute drive from downtown will bring you to The Coral World Marine Park.

For me, the most interesting thing about Coral World is that in addition to viewing the creatures of the deep, Coral World will arrange for you to join them. It's called, "sea trekking." And it's a guided underwater tour around the coral banks of Coki Bay. All you need is a bathing suit. They supply the foot and hand wear, as well as a helmet the supplies the oxygen.

SEA WORLD INSTRUCTOR: Up on top, there's about 60 to 80 psi being pumped into the helmet, a lot more air than you can breathe. Basically the reason for that is that the helmet is sealed tightly onto the body. Basically the air that's being pumped in there makes the water stay down.

BURT WOLF: The helmet weighs 70 pounds, but underwater it feels quite light. Weight is important because it provides stability. It's about 16 feet to the sea bottom. And a Coral World diver and safety guide are there to show you what's going on. There's a chain fence that acts as a road guide. You move along the chain and the diver points out the sights. The first thing to come along was a creature that had the same hairdo as Don King. The diver points to his eyes to indicate that he's going to show you something interesting. When you wave at this sea plume worm, it closes up. When you snap at this Christmas tree worn, it disappears. The second diver is also the executive chef and feeds the local school including a friendly barracuda. Clearly, I missed my big chance with Costeau.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What an amazing experience.

BURT WOLF: Historically, the primary commercial activities on the islands were divided between the main port and the plantations. And each developed a different culture, which has continued into the present. In 1717, the Danish inhabitants of Saint Thomas sailed across the two-mile wide Pillsbury Sound and occupied Saint John, which at the time was a plantation island. These days you can take a 20 minute ferry ride from Saint Thomas to Saint John. Most people come over for a day and take a local taxi for a two-hour tour of the island, about two thirds of which is a national park. Beach after beach covered with soft while sand, sailboats hiding out in small bays. This is Trunk Bay, and it's famous for its underwater trail. There's a series of markers beneath the surface that tells you what you're looking at. Just put on your snorkel gear and head out on your self-guided tour. Down the road from Trunk Bay is the remains of the Annaberg Sugar Plantation. Denise George is a park ranger at Annaberg.

DENISE GEORGE: Annaberg was an old sugar plantation. And it was really the mecca of the north side for being one of the largest estates and one with a windmill plus a horse mill, producing a large yield of sugar, rum and molasses year round.

BURT WOLF: African slaves worked the fields, but they were also allowed to work small plots of land so they could provide food for themselves and to sell some to the plantation owner. They established an exchange economy among themselves and some managed to save enough money to buy their freedom. A pattern of mutual support evolved among the enslaved workers on the plantation. But freemen tended to associate with the planter society and often moved to the ports.

Cruise Bay is the main port of Saint John, and home to Hercules Pate Stand. He opens at six am, at which time he serves a typical West Indian breakfast of salt fish and Johnnycakes. Hercules was a cook at the Caneel Bay Resort, but he wanted to cook for his neighbors. So he took over this little shop and learned how to make what is called, "pate." But it's really a dough pocket or a turnover filled with shrimp, fish, conch, chicken or beef. Good t'ing.

The third big island in The U.S. Virgin Island Group is Saint Croix, and it's the biggest island in the chain. In 1733, the Danes purchased it from the French. And in 1917, the United States purchased it along with the rest of the U.S. Virgin Islands from the Danes. The US purchased the islands because they were concerned that the Germans might use them as a submarine base during the First World War.

The way to get from Saint Thomas to Saint Croix is by seaplane. The largest town on the island of Saint Croix is Christiansted and it's one of the most unspoiled towns in the Caribbean. During the 1700s, it was a major port in the sugar trade, and many of the buildings that were constructed during the period are still standing. It's the kind of town that lends itself to an easy walking tour.

This is the scale house, built in 1856. It's the spot where the Danish weigh masters would weigh and inspect the sugar and molasses that were the island's major source of income. Today it's the information center for tourists, who are the present major source of income. The fort at Christensted was built in the 1740s as part of a defensive plan for the port. But it was never used to defend the town. Just as well, it has a long history of falling down during strong winds. Great views though.

Saint Croix is also famous for a piece of jewelry. A bracelet that was designed by Sonya Hough. Sonya moved from San Diego, California to Saint Croix in 1964 and opened a shop on the corner, called, "The Corner Shop." Sometimes stating the obvious can be helpful. Then she began hooking people into the shop with her hook bracelet. It's one of the most sought after piece of jewelry in the Virgin Islands, and it's comes with its own folklore. If you wear the hook with the open part facing down, you're looking for love. If you wear the hook with the open part up, you're not looking for love. If you're not wearing the bracelet, you're looking for love in all the wrong places.

SONYA HOUGH ON CAMERA: It happened in the middle '60s, when unisex first came in to use, or whatever. And I came up with one that I was sort of like the elephant hair bracelet. It had the wrap and I made one bracelet. And it sold. And then I made another one. And it sold. And 37 years later, we're the hookers on the island…I couldn’t resist it!

BURT WOLF: That’s okay, we’ll leave it in.

Nearly 40 years later, she's still selling them along with 30 other bracelet designs, necklaces and earrings. The shop is still here on the corner. But now it's called, "Sonya Limited." It's the oldest store on Saint Croix with its original ownership.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: From the U.S. Virgin Islands, that's TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I hope you've enjoyed it. And I hope you will join us next time. I’m Burt Wolf.