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Warm Winds' Welcome

October 04, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St. Thomas — "I heard the winds whisper softly--they spoke of things long ago and even of yesterday . . . . "

These words are from Don A. Hecox's newly published "Portraits of the U.S. Virgin Islands--by verse, by thought and by pen."

We came upon this small paperback book, illustrated by the author, in a bookstore here after a day of roving around the island that is the Caribbean's busiest cruise port.

The opening lines of the poem, titled "I Heard," expressed our own mood after this first day back on the island we had visited so often before. To the poet's words "even of yesterday," we could add, "and today."

To listen to the winds whisper of the past and the present can make every visit to St. Thomas, and to all Caribbean islands, an experience of hearing what was missed before or what has drifted out of focus in today's busy world.

Growing Carefully

"Tourism will continue to grow in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but we must control growth carefully so that we will never lose what these islands can mean to every visitor," says Gov. Alexander A. Farrely.

As an example of control by local people, Magens Beach on Magens Bay, directly north across the island from St. Thomas Harbor and the capital city of Charlotte Amalie, has no hotel because of a zoning ordinance. It's a quiet beach where you can listen to the wind and sea.

Drake's Seat, high above Magens Bay, is where Sir Francis Drake is said to have sat watching the Spanish sail by while his ships were hidden in the bay.

Freedom for the Slaves

Emancipation Garden near the harbor is a green oasis commemorating the freeing of island slaves in 1848, 17 years before it happened in the United States. In the park are a bust of Danish King Christian V and a replica of America's Liberty Bell.

After Columbus named this island group the Virgin Islands in honor of St. Ursula and her followers, they were part of the ebb and flow of European empires during the 16th Century. Pirates and plunderers, including Drake, found sanctuaries in the hidden bays, sometimes invited by governors to accept a hideaway in exchange for a share of what they looted on the high seas.

Robert Louis Stevenson preserved part of the legends and history when he wrote "Treasure Island." His Blackbeard was the pirate who was born Edward Teach in Bristol, England, and built a watchtower on St. Thomas so he could watch the sea while he drank rum spiked with gunpowder and acquired as many as 14 brides in rapid succession. But don't confuse Blackbeard's Tower with the tower named for Bluebeard, who apparently was sheer legend.

By 1671 Denmark had built the first permanent port settlement around Fort Christian, today the oldest standing structure on St. Thomas. It was a jail until recently, now a museum.

Bought From Denmark

Exploitation of slaves on the sugar plantations led to more than a century of rebellions that finally brought emancipation. Each rebellion is its own drama of tragedy and heroism. Two years after the U.S. Civil War ended, the United States began negotiations with Denmark to buy the three Danish Virgin Islands.

The agreement was finally signed by President Woodrow Wilson and the islands became a U.S. territory Jan. 16, 1917. Two days later a farewell service was held for the Danes at the Reformed Dutch Church; there is still a Friends of Denmark Society on St. Thomas.

The price paid for the islands was $25 million, or about $300 an acre. If you look for a beachfront lot today, it can cost $100,000.

It wasn't until after World War II that St. Thomas began to prosper as a vacation destination and a free port shopping mecca.

St. Thomas is 13 miles long and four miles across at its greatest width, rising in green mountains out of beaches and a turquoise sea.

Panoramas Past, Present

Begin your visit with a half-day tour to get an overview, then pursue your own special interests. Here are a few checkpoints along the way:

Charlotte Amalie and its historic district. The settlement was named in honor of the Queen of Denmark, wife of King Christian V. The first census in 1681 listed 37 residents. Dronningens Gade (Main Street) and its Gothic Revival buildings were constructed and reconstructed after devastating fires between 1804 and 1832.

The French Impressionist artist Pissarro was born at Dronningens Gade 2. Frederick Lutheran Church is pure Gothic Revival. The old Grand Hotel, opened as a coffeehouse in 1840, is Greek Revival architecture.

The Beracha Veshalom Vegemiluth Synagogue is an example of Spanish Moorish influence. The Jewish community here is one of the oldest in the Caribbean. Moravian Memorial Church is built of volcanic rock beneath its delicate bell tower and cupola.

The English Creole speech you hear along the streets borrows from Danish, Spanish, French, Dutch, West Indian and African heritages. "Tanks" is a sincere "thank you" that somehow manages to be lilting. "Mash-n-go" is a car with automatic transmission. And driving is on the left side of the street.

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