The US Virgin Islands: America, Caribbean style.

Before reaching the cruise’s first port of call, I has browsed the online version of some guidebook, and the description of the small town of Frederiksted, Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands, went something like this: “When there is no cruise ship in port, it will pretty much be you and the lizards”.

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It was an understatement. Even when there is a cruise ship in port, it’s just you and the lizards. I will be brutally honest, the cruise stopped twice in the USVI and they were arguably the most boring places we visited. But judging by the popularity of other USVI ports of call, my opinion seems to be in the minority.

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Immediately upon disembarking in Frederiksted, you see a number of tourist souvenir shops, modest restaurants and cafes.

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But walk a single block inland, and there is nothing. Nothing at all.

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And a lot of what is there is in bad need of restoration.

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Official buildings, like this local office of the USVI Supreme Court, are certainly in good condition, but you will not spend very long marvelling at the architecture.

Ironically, we had planned to spend the entire day in and around this small place. The plan was to walk around town, rent a bicycle, make our way to  a nearby botanical garden, the famous Cruzan rum factory and the Frederiksted Fort. I would certainly have expected that cruise ship schedules would dictate business schedules in such a place, but not so. It was the Day of the Lord, and making money apparently was not on the order of the day.

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So with the rum factory closed, the bike rental shop closed, and Frederiksted Fort looking, as you can see, very underwhelming (it’s the little red thing behind the tents), we completed our visit of the town in about 30 minutes and booked a shared taxi for the 45 minute drive to Saint Croix’s main city, Christiansted.

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While Frederiksted is that-place-where-the-water-is-deep-enough-for-the-ships-to-dock, Christiansted is an actual destination on its own. People fly in there to vacation for a week or two. While still small, the town is the island’s biggest, with a population in excess of 3,000. A very nice promenade was built along the shore, incorporating the old and the new in a rather pleasing way.

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Fishing appears to be a big draw for tourists, as are diving and the beaches, like in most of the Caribbean.

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If you need an even more low key setting, you can pay a few dollars for a quick ferry to Protestant Cay, a tiny island just a stone throw’s away from town. As far as I could tell, eating, drinking and lying on the beach is all you will do there.

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But the town has more to see than restaurants and beaches. A major US National Historic site was the first place to make me realize the complex and long history of European colonization of the Caribbean.

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So we asked the chicken for directions and it nicely took us across the road to the fort.

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Fort Christiansvaern was built in 1738 by the Danes and played an important role well beyond that of military defence, with the site housing commercial facilities, the customs house and the slave market. As far as I understood, the fort was never involved in any hostilities. In 1801, 2,000 British soldiers threatened to attack it and the Danish forces surrendered immediately. No matter how competent the Danes were, they had little chance of holding the fort against a naval invasion, as it was designed and built mainly to defend against a slave rebellion coming from inland.

To this day, the vast majority of the entire USVI’s population are descendants of African slaves, and the island’s ethnic make-up is basically the same as the mainland US, reversed (i.e. 15% black becomes 15% white). They are all American citizens, but with a slightly different legal status, the details of which are not particularly interesting.

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Saint Croix took an enormous economic hit in 2012 when this refinery closed down, resulting in the lay-off of 1,200 well paid local employees, as well as 950 contractors, who most likely packed their bags and moved to North Dakota or some other booming oil and gas region. Given the island’s population of only 50,000, this was a terrible blow. Tourism is now by far the largest segment of the entire USVI economy. While poorer than the continental US, it compares favourably to the sovereign Caribbean nations, with a GDP per capita in excess of $18,000. In case you are curious – like I obviously was – here is a rough breakdown of the 13 Caribbean countries by GDP per capita:

1 – The good exception ($23,000+): The Bahamas, richer than some Western European countries, like Greece or Portugal.

2 – The rich ($13,000-18,000): Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Saint-Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago.

3 – The poor ($5,000-8,000): Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Grenada, Saint-Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint-Lucia.

4 – The extremely bad exception (~$750): Haiti. One of only three countries outside of Africa with a GDP per capita of less than  $2 a day (with Afghanistan and Nepal).

Christiansted also has a bit of a depressed look because of a failure to revitalize the downtown area. Driving in from Frederiksted, one sees all sorts of Walmart-like superstores indicating the relative prosperity of the locals, but the centre of town looks pretty dead. The reality is that most of the middle class and the rich have moved to the suburbs, and while many redevelopment opportunities exist downtown, investors perceive it as a day time only, touristic place. Having to deal with the protected status of many 200 year old buildings is also a major disincentive to redevelopment.

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While Saint-Croix was the week-long cruise’s first stop, the last was Charlotte Amalie, also in the USVI, so I might as well talk about it now. One of the busiest cruise ship stops in the Caribbean, it is also a major marina with some very, very expensive toys parked there. Unfortunately, it is not at all the kind of destination I like to visit. It might a good vacation spot, with beaches, golf courses, diving and a few more outdoors activities, but there is not much to see or visit for this long-term traveller.

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But if you want to shop for luxury goods, it is THE place in the Caribbean, along with Puerto Rico. I read somewhere that there are 300 jewellery shops in this small town. I didn’t count them, but the figure sounds realistic. Again, not my cup of tea.

Overall, I can’t say I found the USVI very exciting. A combination of a lack of things of interest to me and a lack of exoticism. Sort of not American enough and too American at the same time. Next stop, the much more interesting country of St-Kitts and Nevis.

#USA