White sand beaches and sparkling turquoise waters have long drawn travelers (and pirates, and Christopher Columbus) to these islands, but it's the friendly locals and unexpected adventures that have kept so many coming back
Author Grant Stoddard Photography Peter Frank Edwards
IT’S EASY TO IMAGINE that when the members of the Virginia Company stopped in 1607 on what is now St. Thomas, on their way to establish the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, their sublime surroundings would have sparked an impassioned debate about the merits of just staying put. It wouldn’t have been the first: Native American tribes and Christopher Columbus, among others, also figure in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history. Seven different flags have flown here, with the last changeover happening in 1917, when Denmark sold the trio of Caribbean islands to the United States for what was then a princely sum of almost $300 an acre. The acquisition turned out to be a masterful use of Treasury money: St. Thomas offers bustling streets and brisk commerce, and has done so ever since it was a favorite haunt of infamous pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd; St. John has rugged natural beauty (two-thirds of it is a U.S. national park) as well as culinary sophistication; and St. Croix, which is larger, flatter and, unlike its siblings, nonvolcanic, has laid-back ambience to spare. But what truly distinguishes these islands is the easy hospitality of the unique group of Americans who live there and who just might, in three short days, have you, too, debating the merits of sticking around.