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August 30, 2014, 4:18 am

U.S. Virgin Islands a quiet warm retreat

Any time is a great time to head to the Caribbean for a quiet, warm retreat.

But with winter breathing down our necks, the time couldn’t be any better than now to make the trip. My choice: The United States Virgin Islands — St. Thomas in particular.

St. Thomas is the largest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, which include St. John and St. Croix, and is steeped in history. Like most of the Caribbean, it was first settled by South American natives. The Taino Indians were on the island when Christopher Columbus reached what would later become the U.S. and British Virgin Islands in 1493. Columbus’ observations of the area’s many curving quays prompted him to name St. Thomas Island and the others after Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. (A 4th-century story says Huns slaughtered them at Cologne, Germany.)

But the Spaniards didn’t stay long on St. Thomas, and it was taken over by the Danish government in 1733, remaining under Danish rule until 1917. It then became a possession of the United States and remains so today.

Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the United States Virgin Islands, is the most visited port in the Caribbean and boasts one of the most beautiful harbors in the world. Dozens of cruise ships arrive daily and seem almost unwilling to leave.

On the other hand, once visitors do reach shore, they can travel farther out on the island and discover beautiful, peaceful, pristine white sand beaches that border the Caribbean. They can also enjoy beautiful overlooks, including Drake’s Seat and Valdemar Hill. Then there’s the Paradise Point Tramway that lifts visitors 700 feet about sea level in a cable car for truly spectacular and unforgettable views.

As anyone who’s ever been to St. Thomas can tell you, the shopping opportunities are legend, and many visitors choose to shop rather than take advantage of the island’s impressive history. But the proximity of the historic buildings to the shops helps make it easy to enjoy both. And it’s very easy to explore most of the island on foot.

For example, you could start your investigation at Fort Christian, a Danish-built fort named after King Christian V. It is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin islands, and the bright red fort houses a museum that exhibits historical photos and documents, period furniture and local flora and fauna. It was built to protect the town’s harbor from the raiding European armadas that sailed the Caribbean centuries ago.

Directly across the street from Fort Christian is the Legislature Building, a pretty green, two-story structure. The original building was wooden, erected in 1828 as barracks for the Danish police.

Interested in museums? Then you’re in luck on this island. Start with the Seven Arches Museum. Once the home of a Danish artisan, the house has been converted into a museum, named for the seven arches that support its “welcoming arms” staircase. The museum provides a wonderful example of West Indian architecture, and features antique furnishings and a balcony with a view of the beautiful harbor.

Move on to Blackbeard’s Castle, Villa Notman and Haagenhouse Museum. Blackbeard’s Castle is what’s left of Fort Trygborg, built around 1679 as a supplementary watchtower. It, too, offers great views of the harbor at its location atop Government Hill.

And don’t miss Hotel 1829. Constructed between 1829 and 1831, it was originally a townhouse built for a French sea captain, and is a fine example of island architecture during Danish times. It became a hotel in 1906 and remains so today.

The hotel can be visited as part of a tour that starts at Blackboard’s Castle and includes several museums that should be on your list. And just beyond the hotel are the famed 99 steps. They were built in the mid-1700s by the Danes, who found streets of steps the easiest way to climb up and down the steep hills of Charlotte Amalie. Some say the steps were actually a result of impractical planning on the part of Danish engineers who had never been to St. Thomas.

The bricks used to construct the 99steps (actually 103 steps in all) were originally brought from Denmark as ballast in the hulls of sailing ships. If you can, go ahead and take a climb.

Keep walking and you’ll soon come to Vendor’s Plaza, an outdoor market where you can pick up lots of interesting, and inexpensive tokens of your visit. After shopping and lunching, you might want to take a break and relax at Emancipation Park, named in 1848 for the emancipation of slaves in the Danish West Indies. Every U.S. state and territory has a copy of our very own Liberty Bell, and the Virgin Islands’ reproduction is no exception and is located here in this park.

The bell seems to bring you a little closer to home, not that you miss it that much when you are exploring this beautiful, sun-filled destination.