Three beautiful Virgins beckon, published in Classic Travel magazine
Published in Classic Travel magazine
There's something very James Bond about the U.S. Virgin Islands. Something which has long been missing from Ian Fleming's original Caribbean haunt Jamaica and even from renowned West Indies spots like St Lucia and Barbados (each of which have hosted Bond films in their time).
It's to do with a sense of drama, of undiscovered beaches, secluded mansions high on cliffs overlooking turquoise seas, coral reefs harbouring ancient wrecks, sea-planes buzzing between palm-fringed bays, the promise of romance, evil billionaires plotting to conquer the world... (I made up that last bit).
During our stay on the islands, there were a number of distinctly Bond-like moments. There was the motor launch, from the town of Red Hook on St Thomas (the most populous island) swishing across to the private Hassel island and straight into a candle-lit, ultra-chic cocktail and dinner party hosted by Rolex for the island's regatta.
We stepped ashore to be greeted by a glamorous hostess, then ushered alongside trimmed tropical lawns, with a dozen servants smiling and welcoming us. A salsa band played in one corner, champagne was presented in tall fluted glasses and a heap of lobster tails a foot high gleamed with moisture atop white linen-covered tables. A dazzlingly beautiful woman in a low-cut white dress with a long, slender slit up her skirt flashed a smile worth a million dollars and I felt a Roger Moore chat-up line coming on with the inevitability of dawn.
Just as I was toying with various puns on 'virgin' (Roger would have been shameless), the former deputy Governor of the islands stepped up to introduce himself. "And who's that lady by the roses?" I asked. "That's the wife of the owner's son," he replied. Well that wouldn't have stopped Roger, but I decided to keep my chat-up lines for later.
Then there was the sleek and opulent cruiser which took us out to watch the 29th Rolex Regatta, the annual display of maritime might hosted by the St Thomas Yacht Club and drawing entrants in 12 classes, from 50-foot giants down to modest runabouts. We were hosted by Chuck Ollinger, Regatta Director this year, but soon to take over preparations for yachting at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
As we shot across the calm seas in his turbo-charged craft, we came within hailing distance of the competitors, winching up their spinnakers and stretching along the windward side of the yacht in great lines. Earlier, the wind had been too weak, so we'd swum from the boat, diving from its sides into the warm clear ocean, in between feasting on crab salad.
Coming to the islands from the sea is much the best way. Charter companies run yachting holidays where you will anchor in the bustling harbours and in secluded bays, which cannot be reached by land. The islands are a popular stop-off choice for the mega ocean cruisers with their hundreds of guests, cabaret shows and swimming pools. St Thomas is a shopping location for them, since it is tax free.
For Commander Bond, shopping holds few attractions, but being on board ship is second nature, almost as natural as being beneath the waves. The U.S. Virgin Islands have some of the best conditions for scuba diving in the world: clear water, masses of healthy corals, hard and soft, profuse marine life and friendly, professional dive guides.
A dive boat left the beach of the Renaissance Hotel on St Thomas, taking us out to the Ledges of Little St James dive. This is a wonder of natural underwater landscaping, with vast chasms and overhanging coral reef, walls of pullulating life, caves with eight-foot long eels in them or hairy red lobsters. I've dived on four continents and this was close to the best.
There are equally stunning dive sites around St. John and St. Croix, the other two main islands in the U.S.V.I., so anyone with a real passion for the sport could easily do a different dive every day for a week, probably seeing turtles, rays, giant eels and sharks. While St. Thomas has dive companies attached to many of the larger hotels, in St. John and St. Croix there are also neighbourhood dive companies in the streets of the main towns.
St. John is the beach Mecca of the islands. There are more than 50 stretches of pure white sand sitting next to the most amazing coloured water you'll ever see, mixing more blues and greens in its palate than you'd think possible. Most of the island has been given National Park status, so development is restricted and the whole place is heavily wooded, giving an opportunity for Bond-like adventures through the dense vegetation, looking out for madmen armed with poisoned dart-guns in the trees (Live and Let Die, 1973 - set in Haiti).
Real life visitors are said to include Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Bill Gates, Melanie Griffith and John Travolta, while Bill Clinton is thought to be house hunting for a place in the $5 million bracket.
As we hurtled along the narrow St. John roads in our open-sided taxi truck, two scantily-clad women emerged from the undergrowth, breathing heavily and glistening with sweat. Naturally, as good courteous Englishmen we stopped to offer them a lift - and they accepted. The Roger in me began reaching once more for the hilarious punning chat-up line: "Let's not beat about the bush my dears" or "I think it's time to branch out a bit, don't you?" with one eyebrow mischievously raised.
But something about the way they smiled at one another and held hands told me that a scruffy Englishman making corny comments wouldn't exactly light their fires. Ah well, there's still St. Croix.
Pronounced 'Saint Croy' (locals and American visitors always say 'saint' rather than the English 'snt' as though the word had no vowels), this is the largest of the U.S.V.I. but the least touristical. The main town of Christiansted, however, is a place of great charm, with an old Government House, a restored fortress, Fort Christiansvaern, complete with dungeons and ramparts and a laid-back series of bars along the harbour. St. Croix was a Danish colony for 162 years until the U.S. took over in 1917. These buildings were created by the Danish and retain a distinctly northern European touch.
Originally, though, Columbus discovered the islands in 1493, landing in St. Croix before being repulsed by local Indians. In the ensuing centuries the island was owned by half a dozen countries, including England, France and Holland, before the Danish pitched up in 1755. Then came the island's heyday, as profits from sugar and rum exports soared and the planters grew prosperous, using African slave labour.
Bond would have had little time for such historical details (except in order to show off), but he would have enjoyed eating seafood pasta on the front in Christiansted or walking by moonlight along the terraces next to the harbour with a willowy blonde. "You're not saying very much," she said. "Damn! Where are those witty comments when you need them," I thought. Then I remembered Bond's failsafe solution to any quiet moment. And there, beneath the stars, with the waves gently lapping at the yachts across the water and the lights of the bars twinkling in the distance, we kissed.