USVI I: Among the Virgins

I am restless, cooped up by a grey Duluth winter and a pandemic that has stolen away my primary winter diversion. My days are inane circuits between my bedroom and my home office and my kitchen. I idly search for direct flights from Minneapolis, lusting for some affordable escape. To my surprise, Delta has just launched a new service to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here, I think, is a real option, and in a year that has snuffed out spontaneity, I decide to end with a burst of it. A few emails and a negative Covid test later, I make my way to the Virgin Islands for two weeks of sun and remote work.

The Virgin Islands are at the fulcrum of the Caribbean, the point where the Greater Antilles come to an end and swing southward to become the Lesser Antilles, the island chain that dangles down to South America. The British control the eastern islands, while the Danes sold the western collection to the United States in 1917. St. Thomas is the principal island of the bunch, home to the airport and the capital of Charlotte Amalie, which wraps around a large harbor that beckons in visitors in search of a tropical retreat.

The realm has its share of history, from ancient pictographs to exploration age outposts, from slave-filled plantations to a strategic sale to the U.S. during World War I. Charlotte Amalie bears the name of an old Danish queen, its strades and gades still evidence of that nation’s forgotten colonial phase. Blackbeard and Bluebeard had castles—or, at the very least, some stumpy turrets—here, and the city hosts a collection of pretty historic houses of worship. Now, however, most of that history is dead and buried, and this place exists as a great escape where Americans can enjoy the virtues of the Caribbean without sacrificing too many comforts of home. (Until one gets herded into the airport’s cattle pens on one’s departure, at least.) In normal times, as many as five cruise ships drop anchor in Charlotte Amalie, seemingly hundreds of jewelry and trinket shops lined up to greet them. These jagged islands have little flat ground, and not far from the top of the cable car up from the Havensight dock on Flag Hill sits L’Esperance, the villa that hosts me for my stay.

L’Esperance has a commanding perch from which to survey this realm. Its great room and patios provide sweeping views of the harbor to the west, where Charlotte Amalie rises from the waterfront like a red and white-spackled backsplash that fades into green as it works its way up the hill. The main floor bedrooms peek down the east side, giving the property views of the sea in three directions. I open the hurricane shutters and sliding doors to beckon in the sweet trade winds, which ease their way between balconies on either side of the villa through the glassed-in arcade: no conditioned air here. Every evening, the sun plunges to the horizon in the west, lighting up the whole harbor below me; on a rainy morning, rainbows erupt here and there. I could stare at this view for eternity.

My experience of St. Thomas is, of course, exceptional. The island is in a state of development limbo, a paradise found and hardly virginal anymore. The Virgin Islands are the last eastward outpost of the American empire, a colonial leftover that welcomes in thousands of Americans for vacations or second (or third or fifth) homes. Charlotte Amalie may be the only city in the traditional sense, but there are urban clusters around the east end ferry docks at Red Hook and in the built-up inland portions where one finds box stores and more basic necessities than those on offer at the duty-free shops along the wharves. Pothole-riddled roads strewn about the hills like haphazard silly string connect these clusters of homes. Resorts sprawl along the beachfront, while villas cling to the hills in varying levels of precarity, with only the steepest slopes remaining untouched.

Between the waterfront beaches and the hillside villas, a majority-Black, high poverty population clusters in cement apartment blocks or trailer-size homes along highways or tucked in the nooks of the hills. On my first full day, I go out for a spin to get used to left side driving and get momentarily lost in the back alleys of Charlotte Amalie. I bump around a maze through crumbling concrete homes, their paint chipped away, men shuffling around and sitting on stoops. Circling the islands’ roads makes me wonder if there are more broken vehicles than functional ones in the territory. Beauty and sorrow move in tandem.

The Virgin Islands are propped up by tourism, which, as is its wont, creates plenty of seasonal sales jobs but far fewer career paths or high incomes. Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which decimated Puerto Rico, also punished the islands and left part of L’Esperance’s great room temporarily roofless. The islands have weathered the pandemic well enough from a health perspective, but the economic toll took out the tail end of last year’s tourist season and has drastically altered the start of this one. No cruise ships ply the harbor this winter, and many of the tourist traps in Charlotte Amalie are shuttered. But life goes on; the usual regatta of sailboats and yachts dots the sea below me, and the rental car guy tells me their business has not suffered at all. Grocery stores conduct temperature checks, beaches close at four on weekends, and I retreat to the social distance of the villa.

Despite these travails, St. Thomas makes its way back to the dreamy lull of paradise. I’m told a hotel or two are still rebuilding, but I see no real evidence of the hurricane at haunts for tourists. Some of the locals’ homes are still looking pockmarked or covered in tarps, but the damage is quickly being paved over or fading away. The vegetation has come back with a vengeance. The lush tropics swallow everything back up, always growing but never really changing. Even the spurts of activity like the intense pandemic watchfulness come from an instinct to keep things as they are, not to change. The ecosystem reverts to stasis.

This is my sixth time in the Virgin Islands, a repeat destination made possible by the generosity of an aunt and uncle who own L’Esperance. The first visit came as a nine-year-old, back when they were still a little ways down the hill in a villa named Overlook, my first trip away from the U.S. mainland. I came again in high school and twice in college, and, most recently prior to this trip, as a first-year graduate student over New Year’s 2014-2015. This time I come alone.

The islands haven’t changed drastically over those twenty-two years. A few more villas and bigger cruise ships and a couple of new breweries, perhaps, but many places look as they did in my mind’s eye from the past. The temperature still oscillates in the same range of highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid-70s, days after day. The occasional unpredictable rainstorm erupts so as to reward us with some rainbows. Beaches remain beaches. The sea and cliffs still collide all around the islands, setting up those stunning views back from every angle. Scores of Americans arrive each year in search of the same things.

I, meanwhile, have changed. As a nine-year-old haunted by recent loss, I was content to ogle the views and the beaches and use this first trip into the unknown as a foundation for my fictional world-building. Later, on a return trip immediately after a semester in Mexico City, I felt like I’d gone right back: the people were Black and not brown and spoke English instead of Spanish, but the colorful, narrow streets and the gated outposts and the urban slums were just what I’d come to know south of the border. Now, as a working adult, I blur my worlds: remote worker, wilderness seeker, lover of a spontaneous party, amateur sociologist, history buff, single boy on a beach. My return to St. Thomas is a return to bliss, an escape I’ve had the great fortune to enjoy at times when life called for renewal or reflection and just a simple dose of fun. At the start of 2021, I come again for all those reasons, certain I’ll find it all because I know it’s all right here.

Part 2: Beach life in the Virgin Islands.