Shirley was a cheerfully vulgar woman in her mid-50s who, several decades ago, had an office near mine. She always spoke at high volume, so I wasn’t eavesdropping when I heard her tell someone on the phone, “I’m going to the Virgin Islands… to get recycled.”
That was the first time I ever heard of the Virgin Islands, and it was many years later that I went there — with no expectation of a transformative effect, by the way. The attraction for us was the clear, warm water and beautiful beaches that are characteristic of the Caribbean Sea. In fact, the Virgin Islands form part of the border between the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean.
Christopher Columbus had discovered this particular chain of islands on his second voyage in 1493, naming them “The Islands of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins”. That was based on a legend of early Christian martyrs, but the name proved to be cumbersome for mapmakers, and also exaggerated the number of islands.
There are only a handful that are inhabited, three of which — St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — are the principal U.S. Virgin Islands. Incidentally, it might be the only American territory where cars are intentionally driven on the left-hand side of the road. (This is in contrast to major American cities, where cars are driven on all parts of the road, especially at rush hour.)
Just to the northeast of the U.S.V.I. are the British Virgin Islands, consisting primarily of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke.
St. Thomas gets a lot of cruise ship traffic in its main town, Charlotte Amalie, but there are many tranquil spots elsewhere on the island, like Magens Bay. It is often cited as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and not just by the local tourism board. A long curved stretch of white sand facing the Atlantic, it is fringed with palm trees and looks very much like those postcards of tropical beaches that you’ve seen.
The snorkeling isn’t sensational at Magen’s Bay, but it’s excellent at Buck Island (off St. Croix) and Trunk Bay (St. John). Both have a nice feature for beginners: underwater trail markers that identify fish and coral found there. There is also good snorkeling on Virgin Gorda at a spot called the Baths, where giant boulders on the beach form caves in which shy fish try to hide.
Ferries run regularly between the U.S.V.I. and the B.V.I. It’s a fairly short trip, but on the day we crossed from St. Thomas to Virgin Gorda on the “Bomba Charger”, the waters were a little choppy. A few passengers started to feel queasy.
One of the crew members produced a bottle of green liquid and asked if anyone wanted “seasick medicine”. For those who took him up on the offer, he poured a little of the potion on a paper towel and told them to sniff it. Before long, the afflicted passengers claimed to be feeling better.
After we landed and the others had disembarked, I sidled up to the crew member and said that I’d been on a lot of boats, but had never encountered this miracle seasickness medication before. He just grinned. “What is it?” I persisted. He looked around to make sure no one could overhear us, and then confided, “Aftershave.”
Hey, whatever works, huh? And for all I know, maybe someone in the Virgin Islands had something that “cured” my co-worker Shirley, too.