January 12, 2015

St. John and St. Thomas: A Supplemental Virgin Islands Travel Guide

  • By: David Weible

View of St. Thomas from Blackbeard's Castle
View of St. Thomas from Blackbeard's Castle

When I woke up in my apartment in Northwest D.C. this morning, I could practically see my breath. And as I sit here writing this, my back is turned to the outlines of downtown Washington adrift in a blotted mist of freezing rain. I’m sure many of you can relate.

But somewhere there were American citizens that woke up to a perfect 74-degree, sunlit day. They were surrounded by palm trees, warm waters, and plenty of rum. That place is St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The island’s human history -- spanning thousands of years and seven different colonial claims -- was explored by writer Scott Elder in the Winter 2015 issue of Preservation. And though there are enough attractions on St. Croix to last longer than your average vacation, the U.S. Virgin Islands also include St. John and St. Thomas.

Below is a guide to a few of their most interesting historical spots, if you’re ever inclined to leave a dark, cold place behind.

99 Steps: St. Thomas

Better going down than up…
Better going down than up…

Being the sensible people that they are, the Danes decided around the mid-1700s that climbing a few stairs -- there are actually 103 of them -- directly to your destination was preferable to a meandering clomp around looping hillside roads. But these aren’t the only frigfrags -- as the Danes called them -- in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’ biggest town. They are merely the most charming.

Like many of the houses in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the steps were constructed of bricks brought to the islands in the ballast of ships. Today, they are a reminder of Danish colonization and influence.

Blackbeard’s Castle: St. Thomas

Originally named Skytsborg (Sky Tower) by the Danes, Blackbeard’s Castle was built in 1679.
Originally named Skytsborg (Sky Tower) by the Danes, Blackbeard’s Castle was built in 1679.

What would a trip to the Caribbean be without a visit to a pirate’s castle?

This Blackbeard fella (given name: Edward Teach) was apparently very real, and decidedly less charming than Captain Jack Sparrow. He was a British ex-privateer who plundered the American colonies and the Caribbean from 1716 until the British Royal Navy found him and unceremoniously removed his head in 1718.

Forget, for a moment, that the castle is really more of a tower, and that it was built by the Danes in 1679, and not Blackbeard. It is still a cool place. And though it can’t be proved, it is said Blackbeard used the tower -- originally dubbed Skytsborg, or “Sky Tower” -- to watch for ships entering the harbor. That’s enough to get me to visit.

Government House: St. Thomas

Government House was constructed in 1867 to house the Danish Colonial Counsel.
Government House was constructed in 1867 to house the Danish Colonial Counsel.

If you’re an architecture buff, Government House is your best bet on this list. It’s an 1867 Neoclassical beaut, built to house the Danish colonial government. Today, it serves the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It is also, undoubtedly, the most low-key governor’s office in the U.S. Visitors are welcome weekdays between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.

Reef Bay Trail and Petroglyphs: St. John

The Reef Bay Trail includes ancient petroglyphs and an abandoned sugar mill.
The Reef Bay Trail includes ancient petroglyphs and an abandoned sugar mill.

If pre-Columbian history is more your thing than 1700s European architecture, the Reef Bay Trail and Petroglyphs should be right up your alley. Most of St. John is covered by the 7,000-acre-plus Virgin Islands National Park, which is chock full of both natural and man-made wonders.

The Reef Bay Trail descends more than 900 feet from its head as it passes four abandoned sugar plantations. The highlights of the trip, however, are the ancient rock carvings created by the Taino people, who inhabited the island continuously from 1200 A.D. until roughly the 1550s.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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