Virgin Obsessions

By Tom & Therisa Stack

The pulse and variety of the Caribbean is superbly encompassed within the three jewels of the United States Virgin Islands. From the penetrating rhythms of St. Thomas' nightlife to the soft caress of midnight breezes sifting through the eco-paradise of St. John, USVI has the power to both energize and rejuvenate. Its fabled waters have welcomed pirates and heads of state, and its lasting architecture reflects the value its European conquerors put on these idyllic rocks of paradise.

Eyes glittering with excitement, Therisa recounted our most recent dive in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We were dumfounded that we had heard and read so little about such a wondrous place. Since our arrival we had experienced a virtual buffet of diving, including walls, pinnacles, canyons, ledges, wrecks and marine life. If you asked which of the three main islands we liked best-St. Thomas, St. Croix or St. John-we couldn't choose if our life depended on it.

Sampling St. Croix first, we were particularly impressed by two dive sites that lay directly under the place Columbus anchored on his second voyage in 1493. Known simply as West Wall and East Wall, these two world-class dives are separated by a mere half mile and a 600-foot-deep chasm, the Salt River Canyon. West Wall features awe-inspiring pinnacles, grotto-like recesses and diver-dwarfing passageways. The upper edge of the wall here starts at only 20 feet before plunging to 130, so a computer-bearing diver can multilevel his/her way back up to less than one atmosphere without ever losing the vertical wall face.

East Wall was just as auspicious, but in a more subtle way. We couldn't even get past the initial, massive coral head under the mooring buoy without burning an entire roll of film. Photo opportunities ranged from deep water gorgonians to seahorses and pelagics. Our expectations had already been surpassed, but more was to come when an exciting new twist was added to our diving repertoire: scooters! This techno-amenity let us morph into state-of-the-art aquanauts covering more ground than ever dreamed possible. After a few quick lessons we took an unforgettable solo flight to Buck Island Reef National Monument, beginning our run in the Marine Garden area, which is enclosed by a hulking barrier reef of Elkhorn Coral that has grown over the centuries to form an impenetrable wall nearly 30 feet high. As we scootered through the only opening into deeper water, we drafted off a phalanx of parrotfish while a graceful Hawksbill Turtle graced us with its company.

Whether you snorkel or scuba Buck Island, you'll invariably depart from the historic town of Christiansted. Take the time to explore and experience its impressive and beautifully preserved Danish architecture. This charming hamlet never suffered the devastating fires and battles that destroyed many other Caribbean colonial towns and since it is covered by the National Historic Site Preservation program, a jaunt through downtown is truly a sojourn back in time.

Frederiksted, St. Croix's other main town, has the fabled marine-life encrusted pier pilings we'd been dying to see as they are considered the best place in the world to photograph seahorses. When word got out that the pilings were to be replaced by new steel and concrete columns, the outraged cries from the diving community were deafening. This resulted in a decision to leave the old pier pilings in place, adjacent to the new pier. Because the entry and exit were so easy, we were able to do this dive on our own. It was made even easier by the lights from the new pier, which were bright enough to silhouette the monolithic pilings and the sandy, 30-foot bottom. Our dive lights reflected the opalescent eyes of our subject-the dazzlingly-hued seahorses of St. Croix. We surfaced an hour later, not because we were out of air, but because we were out of film. As we snorkeled in on our backs looking up into a warm, star-dusted night sky, we were greeted by a Cruzian man who had been watching the underwater fireworks of our strobes. "Good evening," he said. "What a beautiful night. Enjoy!" His simple blessing spoke volumes about the essence of St. Croix.

Our next stop was St. Thomas, conveniently reached by a quick plane ride. Cosmopolitan and bustling with vibrant energy, St. Thomas is what gives the Virgin Islands its gusto. Although Charlotte Amalie is a major cruise ship port, don't let this give you pause. It's a party 24-7 with great food, clubs and arguably the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean. It's world-famous for its huge selection of European perfumes, precious stones, watches, jewelry, lace, china, cameras, electronics and more. If you can't find something here, it probably can't be found!

As for St. Thomas' diving, the waters turned out to be as rewarding as their turquoise shades promised. Our first dive was at French Cap, which rises from the sea some six miles offshore. With an easy 100-foot viz, it has stunning encrusted ledges and colossal overhangs starting at 50 feet. There are also big animals here: Caribbean Reef Sharks, Spotted Leopard Rays and loads of turtles springing out of the cerulean deep.

In our constant search for wrecks to use as photo backgrounds, we couldn't do better than the Cartansar. Broken apart by hurricanes and storms, she lies in three pieces in a calm, sheltered bay only 30 to 40 feet deep. We were able to shoot both macro and wide-angle without effort in the silent still water. We also discovered Congo Rock, a group of large spiky rocks that rise up to 90 feet. As we progressed down the slope, we saw sponges and soft corals amid thick schools of fish and, toward the surface, the drama of the waves swirling against the cliff face. We thought we'd seen everything until we came to the swim-through granite hallways, which we explored until we finally had to return to the surface, filled with utter gratitude for an incredible experience.

St. John, which can only be reached from St. Thomas by ferry boat, was our final destination. Arriving in picturesque Cruz Bay, we found a naturalist's delight with 1,000-foot-high mountain peaks, 800 species of plants, hiking, donkey rides and ocean kayaking. Each bend in the roller coaster road granted views of Caneel, Hawksnest, Trunk and Cinnamon Bays so panoramic it was sensory overload. Our diving experience off St. John was equally impressive and as varied as the topography. At Carvel Rock, the underwater terrain even mirrored its dramatic topside face. We were like specks of silt in contrast to the immense boulders and sheer rock cliffs, and we marveled at the density of marine life enshrouding the rocks.

Diving the wreck of Major General Rogers, we found it is not for the faint-hearted. A buoy tender in her previous life, she lies proudly upright in a high-current cut. This heavily encrusted hulk was rewarding, but try to be there at slack tide or be prepared to do the horizontal mambo!

One of our favorite spots, Cow and Calf Rocks, offered thrills on a smaller scale. Rarely have we ever found such an abundance of close-up photo opportunities-on a vertical surface in translucent azure water to boot. There were clusters of sponges, bryzoans, cup corals, blennies, gobies, eels and countless other creatures put into relief by fields of vermillion and fuchsia encrusting sponge. It was nothing less than a macro tour de force.

As we reminisced about our trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, we now realize that few places on earth offer such a diverse collection of experiences, both above and below the surface. We discovered three different islands, each with a personality all its own. Rarely does any place so emblazon one's memories. USVI is the exception.