No place more evokes the tourist image more than the Virgin Islands. Like Timbouctou or Outer Mongolia, they are a myth of a placename. I doubt most people would be able to place them in the Caribbean let alone pin point where they are. It is hardly surprising, they cover less than 25 square miles on the British side, and only a bit more on the US side.
But it was to here I came in 2000 for the first time, about 8 years after I had first helped them create their map of the coral reefs and seagrass beds in Chatham. I landed at the tiny Beef Island Airport and we taxied into Road Town, bump bump bump over the speed humps all through the east end. I walked around this curious town, amazed at how over-Americanised it was with its parking lots, big square office buildings and the ubiquitous green road signs. The northern Caribbean, being closer to the USA I suppose, was more susceptible to American trappings. They were also generally more prosperous than the southern islands. There were huge brightly coloured mansions on the hillsides, the ones under construction looked to be larger again, the cars were not beat up old Toyotas but expensive gleaming 4WD. There were better facilities in the hotels, the offices and shops oozed money. I was relieved when I saw a cockerel crossing the road in the middle of this;
I was still in the Caribbean. The backstreets still had the chattel houses and the accents were definitely Caribbean.
The main island of Tortola was all I saw the first time around, but it was stunning. Although the south coast is pretty rudimentary – where the electricity is generated, the rubbish burnt and the fuel oil comes in, the north coast is a series of magnificent bays, each with their own particular view of the other 60 or so islands. Jost van Dyke to the west and the US Virgin Islands in the distance, the Southern Cays of Norman (Reputedly Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island), Peter, Cooper, Salt, Ginger and Dead Chest (yo ho ho and a bottle of rum – we really are in the stuff of myths here). To the east Virgin Gorda, the fat virgin lying on her side, her overdeveloped mounds covered in green forest.