Words by Jesse Serwer
Photo by Martei Korley
St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, the three major land masses that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands, are widely acknowledged for their natural beauty. Beaches like Magens Bay on St. Thomas and Trunk Bay on St. John’s, and picturesque resorts like St. Croix’s Buccaneer Hotel, have made the archipelago a great draw among both American and European tourists.
Somewhat lesser known and celebrated (internationally, at least) is the local culture of the USVI. The islands are home to their own distinctive form of folk music, known as quelbe, or fungi, the latter name deriving from a tasty, cornmeal-based dish that’s a staple of the USVI’s own formidable cuisine. Considering its small size and population, the USVI has also had an outsized impact on sports such as boxing and basketball.
This USVI culture bubbled up a year ago with the release of the song “Virgin Islands Nice” by St. Thomas-based reggae singer Pressure Busspipe. A worthy tribute from a singer who knows how to craft an anthem, the track’s lyrics highlight the contributions of current-day USVI heroes like NBA superstar Tim Duncan and Vaughn Benjamin of the band Midnite, as well as that of historical figures like “Queen” Mary Thomas, leader of St. Croix’s 1878 labor revolt. An accompanying video flashes scenery from all three islands, highlighting both their raw beauty, and their people.
Eager to experience this side of the Virgin Islands, we linked our friends at the US Virgin Islands Tourism Board and our longtime bredrin, music producer Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred, and set about shuttling between St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John for five days last summer.
The diversity of experiences we enjoyed in under a week says a lot about the USVI. There was the evening in the gym with Julian “The Hawk” Jackson, the former world champ who’s set up a boxing dynasty in his home turf of St. Thomas; lunch at Harvey’s Restaurant, a Christiansted eatery that’s just as much a monument to St. Croix superhero Tim Duncan as it is to Cruzan cuisine; and a reasoning with Pressure and Vaughn Benjamin as the sun set on the waterfront in Frederiksted, St. Croix’s historic “Freedom City.”
We have pulled our favorite USVI experiences together into a series called Virgin Islands Nice, titled after both the Pressure Busspipe song and the spirit we encountered on our stay. Individually, each story is unique but most special is the story that they tell collectively.
On the last day of our visit, we met St. John steelpan master Lemuel Callwood, as he headed to a gig near our Cruz Bay hotel, Estate Lindholm. Lemuel belongs to a family responsible for much of the live music on the island, from pan to reggae; a moment with him seemed worth possibly missing our dinner at ZoZo’s at the Sugar Mill, low-key St. John’s most upscale eatery. His impromptu demonstration soundtracks “Island Hopping in the USVI,” a video teaser for the series shot on the fly (literally) as we made our way through the islands by mini-plane, seaplane and boat.
Watch the video below, and see you in the US Virgin Islands. VI Nice!