These Caribbean islands are not just for vacations anymore. They have been discovered as exotic places to relocate and still be part of the United States.
"This place is just like a tide," says the man waiting in frontof me in a long line to pay our phone bills. "There's high andthere's low."
Having lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the last 12 months(half year stints in St. Thomas and nearby St. John), I get hispoint. Sure, we're standing in a typical bureaucratic line. But wealso get to see, from this vantage point, the incredible waters ofSt. Thomas harbor and the huge cruise ships that line the docks atHavensight.
The U.S. Virgin Islands offers an intriguing blend of thetropical exotica of the Caribbean and the more prosaic (andpractical) American influences. We have gorgeous white sand beachesand a sea so blue and green that a friend once noted he'd "neverseen so many shades of color." We live on island time, another zonein more ways than one. We still pause for cows and goats and boarsthat cross the road.
But we also live mainland style. We use American currency.Wendy's, McDonald's, Kmart, and Blockbuster have discovered St.Thomas (though not St. John). We can dine elegantly, sipping fine,imported wines. Most of the news channels on our cable system comefrom New York.
"Still, all in all," says Mary Bartolucci, a four-year residentwho relocated from Baltimore to St. John, "living here isdefinitely more peaceful and simplistic." Mary's husband came for ajob at a local resort, and she swears she'll never move again.
There is magic here. I love to watch the tropical rainstormsblow in, across the water. I take snorkeling trips on the spur ofthe moment, with companies that offer big discounts to locals. Evenmy daily drive to the market on St. Thomas is extraordinary,offering views of the Caribbean, St. John, and neighboring BritishVirgin Islands.
The U.S. Virgins attract folks from such "down island" localesas Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, and Dominica. Their West Indianculture encourages many kindnesses. On the night before HurricaneDebby struck, my neighbor, Nevis-born Floretta Charles, came up tomy terrace. We watched as ominous clouds obscured the stars.Floretta cracked jokes to make me laugh even as she double-checkedmy preparations.
And then there was the elderly gent at the Motor VehicleAdministration who dropped to his knees in the gravel parking lotto help me attach new license plates.
Yet, reality does find its way, with drugs, poverty, and crime(more on St. Thomas than St. John). A police blotter in St. John'sDaily News ran: "A woman said that someone was picking coconutsfrom trees on her property without her permission."
"It's a different world," says Peter Briggs, owner of St.Thomas-based John Foster Real Estate. But it's the islands'eclectic atmosphere that draws and keeps people here. "People comeand go from all walks of life," Peter says. "That's the key toenjoying it here: being able to open up and interact with peoplewhether they've come from Europe, Wall Street, or another Caribbeanisland."
Just because you're living in vacationland doesn't mean you canlie on the beach all day sipping rum punch. Once, though, theInternet crashed island-wide, halting my research for a project. Icould have spent the three days yelling and complaining, or I couldhave taken it as a sign and headed for the beach.
The secret to living here successfully is opting for thelatter.