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Virgin Islands: bargain sails.


Most people hearing of the Virgin Islands think first of the island of Saint Thomas and its capital, Charlotte Amalie--a bustling, Americanized, nightlife-laden destination for 747s and huge cruise ships. Just this February the island throbbed to the music and dancing of the annual carnival, led by "Mocko Jumbies,' who spur the revelers on from atop 17-foot stilts.

But the first-timer in the Virgins has to leave the big city behind and get out on the back roads, as it were, to really feel that his vacation nickel has taken him out of the States. He actually will leave the United States if he makes a minimum attempt to explore the Virgin Islands. Only the western third or so of the islands-- Saint Thomas, Saint John, and slightly more distant Saint Croix, off to the south--is American owned, bought from the Danes in 1917. To the east stretch the British Virgin Islands, or B.V.I.--a string of pearls that, rising abruptly in brown green lumps, surround their own little lake, the Sir Francis Drake Channel.

Brown green lumps in the Caribbean? Well, lush foliage isn't a constant feature of the B.V.I. "Semitropical' is semiarid here, where the cacti sometimes grow, as well as the local version of the Christmas tree--the century plant, which, somewhat like its northern counterpart, blooms once and dies. Even the simplest, ramshackle hut with chickens scratching in the dirt, high in the hills, must by law be built with a cistern to catch the precious rainfall. Rainfall is frequent if not overabundant in the Virgin Islands. Any slightly overcast sky is a potential shower, a sudden spray that comes and goes before threequarters of the sky ever has a chance to cloud over; a minor inconvenience to sunbathers on the snow-white beaches that underline the tall, green islands, a boon to ships' crews swabbing decks and fighting sea-water rust.

Between big-city Saint Thomas (lots of Buicks, Pontiacs, condos, and steel-and-glass buildings) and the small-town B.V.I. (roosters in the streets of Road Town, the capital), lies the suburb of the Virgin Islands-- Saint John, an American possession. Most of this most serene island was once owned by Laurance Rockefeller; he developed what he wanted as one of the world's premier resorts, Caneel Bay, and gave the rest to the National Park Service. As a result, development on Saint John is carefully controlled; there never was and never will be the hustle and bustle of the "mainland.' Visitors reach it mainly by ferry, often as a one-day visitor, for overnight accommodations--even the campgrounds--are limited and often booked a year or more in advance.

No wonder. Saint John is the Virgin Islands run riot, the jewel of the Virgins, American or British, perhaps of the Caribbean. Islanders quote unnamed sources that rate the Trunk Bay beach, for instance, as one of the top ten in the world (open to the public, by the way). That anonymous expert is not only expert but right. Could the sand be finer or whiter, the water bluer, the lapping waves gentler? --ah, well, there's even a snorkeling "trail' about 50 yards offshore where the landlubber can come face-to-face with exotic sea life and coral formations.

As the sun sets on the daytime visitor to Saint John and he's forced to drive back to catch the ferry, he travels well-paved parkway through dense growth (Saint John gets the most rainfall of any Virgin Island). Up steep grade and down the rental car goes, passing Rockresort's Caneel Bay (Laurance R. reserved some pretty fair country beaches for his corporation, natch) and pausing at the latest picture-perfect overlook.

The parklike calm and beauty of Saint John (two-thirds national park) are no inevitable results of history. The early goings on in the vicinity were pretty grisly. Besides the obligatory extinction of the native Indians by the Spanish, Saint John, courtesy of its thriving sugar-cane plantations, held the granddaddy of all slave revolts in 1733. Things got so bad the Danish masters called in foreign troops to restore order. The last resisters threw themselves off cliffs. As in so many matters historical, the bloodshed was for naught: The sugar economy pooped out a few decades later, and now all that's left of the plantations are crumbling rulins the park service is gradually restoring.

Saint Thomas to Saint John, big city to suburb, is a snap; saints Thomas or John to the B.V.I. is no more than a two-or three-mile excursion itself. They're happy to see some American foot traffic in the sparsely populated British sector, so the only paperwork necessary is flashing a voter-registration card. (American Express is still not accepted as proof of citizenship.) Ferries and small planes are the usual ways to get there, but a sailboat makes the perfect introduction: As mentioned previously, the Sir Francis Drake Channel, actually only a few city blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, is a body of water unto itself--the Mississippi looks wider at Memphis.

In every direction the intrepid sailor sees yet another benign B.V.I. thrusting from the emerald waters. Sailing craft, lured by the constant trade winds and easy island-hopping, ply the channel everywhere. Sir Francis' name implies a Virgins' tradition stretching back centuries; however, yesteryear's were not strictly plasure craft--a Jolly Roger being hoisted when the occasion demanded. Some of their lairs are marked today by such place-names as Jost Van Dyke, named for a prominent freebooter of the 17th century. Not far from Jost Van Dyke is Norman Island, reputedly the Treasure Island of Robert Louis Stevenson. A grotto large enough to shelter a privateer or two looms over the waterline on the channel side of the island, but no one's claiming your beach shovel will strike any barnacle-laden chests.

Such is not the case near Anegada, the only coral Virgin, far out in the Atlantic. Bert Kilbride, a bewhiskered, septuagenarian deep-sea diver by trade who looks 20 years younger than his age, is convinced he is close to finding the remains of the Spanish galleon San Ignacio, sunk nearby in 1722 with $100 million in bullion aboard, according to official Spanish records. So far all he has to show for a decade or so of labor is a couple of cannons and "some silver.'

Few sailors, or any other visitors to the Virgins, dream of sunken treasure. They do come to savor the sunshine and cool breezes, to explore idylls, coves, and beaches, to scale dizzying heights for their panoramic effects. Those who want to spend the bulk of their time on one particular island or another may do so, but most prefer to sample an island or two a day--and the best way to do that is by boat. A variety of windjammers (selfcrewed sailing vessels) run out of Saint Thomas and duck in and out of the islands; a more elegant way to the same end is the itinerary of the Newport Clipper, a large yacht or small cruiser, as you will, that has begun cruising the Virgins in the past few years. The Clipper will take you to all the aforementioned locales and at the same time pamper you with a combination of eager young staffers, roomy accommodations, and cuisine which will make your eventual homecoming that much less joyful.

All good things end, of course, and even the Clipper's yacht ride through paradise arrives at the dock in Saint Thomas at the end of the week. The inconsolable can try to cheer themselves up by binging in the shops of Saint Thomas, where a battery of duty-free or low-duty rules produces some of the best bargains in the world, notable among them cameras, jewelry, and liquor. This being the "big city' of the Virgins, onshore dining is available in quantity; and if you have another day to kill before your return flight, Magens Bay supplies another of the world's great beaches.

That's life in the big city--and its suburbs and rural areas too. Beaches, breezes, sun-dappled waters--even if you didn't want to live there, you'd have to admit the Virgin Islands is a pretty nice place to visit.

Photo: Fortunate travelers to the white sands of Cinnamon Bay Beach, Saint John, owe a thank-you note to Laurance Rockefeller, who donated the haven to the park service.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:British and American
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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