Caribbean Charm

Trip Start Feb 08, 2007
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Trip End Feb 12, 2007


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Flag of Virgin Islands US  , St. Thomas,
Friday, February 9, 2007

February 9, 2007
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
US Virgin Islands (USVI)

The sunrise over the azure water of the Caribbean was mesmerizing. Perched dramatically on a hill with a sweeping balcony view of the horseshoe harbor, my hotel had a wonderful vantage point. This was also where Jeanine and Brian were staying. I stood on my private balcony, with a cup of coffee in hand, as the scintillating rays of dawn painted the sky and sea in an acquarelle fusion of delicate magenta and scarlet. How different the scenario was just 24 hours ago - cars dodging the light-rail train back home contrasted with sailboats dodging big ships in the harbor here.

The Virgin Islands, an archipelago owned by Denmark until 1917 and also referred to as De tidligere Dansk Vestindiske Øer (The Former Danish West Indian Islands), were originally discovered by Columbus in 1493 during his second voyage to the New World. Named after the legend of 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula, the islands were believed to possess priceless spice. The Danes took over the islands from Spain in 1666 and were the only Scandivanian nation to colonize the Western Hemisphere. During the submarine warfare of World War I, the US approached the Danish crown to purchase the islands for $25 million, fearing they would be seized by the Germans and used as a base too close to America.

The three western Virgin Islands belong to the US: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, all 1,000 miles (1,600 km) east of Miami. Although every Virgin Islander holds a US passport, the citizens here cannot vote in US Presidential elections. Neither do they have representation in Congress; such is also the case for neighboring Puerto Rico, another US Territory. Today, the inhabitants of the USVI enjoy a high standard of living, and the economy and infrastructure are the most developed of all Caribbean nations, even surpassing those of the adjacent British Virgin Islands. Cost of living in the USVI is generally 35% more expensive than in the mainland. The wages and salaries, however, are not commensurate with the overpriced lifestyle. In 2004, median annual salary was only $14,500 in the USVI compared to $37,800 in the US (Ref: CIA World Factbook). 

The architecture and streets of the island's capital Charlotte Amalie, named after the Danish queen consort (1650-1714) of King Christian V, still retain ample colonial charm. The main street is still called Dronnigens Gade (Queen's Street), and it slices through the commercial district overflowing with brand-name fashion and jewelry boutiques.

After finishing my coffee, I went next door to Jeanine and Brian's room to tell them of my arrival and was warmly received by them. Jeanine had recently been bestowed a Ph.D. degree from the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics back home while Brian was already entrenched in the research world for some time with a doctorate background in Chemistry. Their schedule for today was swamped with pre-wedding preparations, including surveying the right spot for a beach wedding ceremony. I extended my offer for any assistance, but they said they had everything under control.

Taking leave of them for a while, I decided to go for a jog along the waterfront harbor. From the hotel, I meandered through lush tropical vegetations to get downtown. When the Danes first colonized St. Thomas, the civil engineers were challenged by the steep hills in their urban planning. Denmark, after all, was a low, flat country, averaging only about 100 m (300 ft) above sea level. Charlotte Amalie, however, was blanketed with hills everywhere. So, the Danes had to construct staircases on the hills to connect the winding roads at different elevations. Bricks and building materials were imported from Denmark.

Jogging through downtown, I could recognize only a tiny remnant of Danish influence on the island: stylish shopping streets. Other than that, Charlotte Amalie had a completely different architectural style from Copenhagen. Exuding a colonial atmosphere, the capital of USVI reminded me a lot of New Orleans, with many ballast brick-walled houses sporting balconies supported by scrolling brackets of hand-wrought iron. 

Another charm of the island was Magens Beach, voted by National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveler as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. Spanning between two mountains with a horizon dotted with remote behemoth rocks rising from the sea, this heart-shaped beach offered an idyllic, relaxing escape from the bustling capital. I certainly took advantage of the afternoon here, swimming in the clear, turquoise water and lying on the soft, white sand.

Later that evening, we all went to Hervé Restaurant for a rehearsal dinner. We were joined by Amanda, our friend who just arrived from TX, and Brian's parents and relatives. Our table was perfectly located near the balcony, allowing us to enjoy the sweet evening tropical breezes and a dramatic view of the illuminated cityscape below. Red and white wine, mostly imported from California, continued to flow endlessly while sumptuous French-Caribbean appetizers were brought out in an endless procession. The entrées were also a fusion of different goûts from the Old and New Worlds. It was nice to wind down and relax before the big day tomorrow....
 
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