A Virgin Islands Historical Journey
The Virgin Islands’ astounding beauty has long overshadowed their unique history — at least in the eyes of most visitors. But for people interested in learning about the islands’ most fascinating past, there is plenty to see and do.
St. Croix is the best base for historical and cultural exploration. It has more to see, more resources for learning, and more people who are interested in preserving heritage. Historical tourists on the other islands will need a little persistence and ingenuity to tap into all the resources, but if you do, you will be rewarded. Other islands are increasingly discovering and protecting their own unique histories, too.
Downtown Charlotte Amalie is composed of historic buildings, cobbled alleyways, and converted sugar warehouses. Climb Government Hill and its 99 Steps to Blackbeard’s Castle for a historical walking tour of old homes including Haagensen House. Fort Christian, a redbrick fortress on the St. Thomas waterfront, is the oldest building on the island. Visit the St. Thomas Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.
Annaberg Plantation deep within the Virgin Islands National Park is a quiet reminder of St. John’s plantation past. A windmill ruin dominates the site, but there are also ruins of the sugar works, the mill round, and placards identifying the location of the slave cabins and other outbuildings.
There is a true abundance of historic sites on St. Croix. Christiansted is a beautiful, colonial-style port city of which a great deal has been declared the Christiansted National Historic Site. Fort Christiansvaern is a yellow fortress on the waterfront, and the Steeple Building is one of the island’s first churches. Stroll along the covered sidewalks and admire the lovely St. Croix Government House.
In the countryside there are remnants of the island’s plantation past, most distinctively marked by the presence of lonely windmill ruins that dot the landscape. You can see a windmill ruin as well as a restored great house at Whim Plantation Museum.
In St. Croix’s second city, Frederiksted, you will find its most picturesque fort, the redbrick Fort Frederik. The Fort Frederik Museum recounts the story of St. Croix’s successful slave uprising, which culminated here.
In Road Town three museums tell of the BVI’s history in slightly different ways. Old Government House Museum is a monument to its colonial past (and present); the Virgin Islands Folk Museum and the Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum celebrate the culture and accomplishments of native Virgin Islanders, as well as some of the territory’s most important historical events.
On an island tour of this British island, drive past the Fahie Hill Mural, a colorful testament to life post slavery but before widespread development. Callwood Rum Distillery in Cane Garden Bay has changed little in more than 200 years. Eat a picnic at Mount Healthy National Park, the site of Tortola’s only standing windmill ruin.
Dive the wreck of the RMS Rhone off the coast of Salt Island. Sunk in a hurricane in 1867, the Rhone remains one of the best dive sites in the entire Virgin Islands. Come ashore at Salt Island to see what remains of the settlement here as well as the windswept burial ground of some of the Rhone victims.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition