What does a travel guide need to do? Tell us how to get where we want to go, where to stay, what to do while we're there, and warn about possible problems we can prepare for before we set out. This book fulfills those purposes and is also a history book with a bit of sociology and cultural studies thrown in. You may need to read between the lines just a bit to get the meaning, but I assure it's there.
of all, the Manatee Press is not just any publisher. Their goal is to inform
travelers (and general readers like myself who will probably never go to the
destination) about the region - not just the exoskeleton of visas and babysitters, taxi fares and cuisine, but what lies beneath the skin of the place. Its website is
www.savethemanatee.com, and the manatee (aka the sea cow) is the symbol of the organization, a friendly seabound creature, entirely vegetarian, whose only enemy is man. The brains behind this publishing company is the author himself, Harry S. Pariser, a world traveler since his twenties who self-produces his guidebooks after years of writing about his many journeys for other presses.
I learned from this book that the Virgin Islands are twain - American VI (St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix) and British VI (Tortola and Virgin Gorda). They comprise in their entirety a long curved string of sparkling beachy beads that run between the eastern coast of Puerto Rico and the other island group known as the West Indies (Trinidad, etc.). Because tourism is the main, really only industry on the islands, the conditions for locals is anomalous. The local people are for the most part remnants of the slave populations for whom governance was never a simple matter. When the U.S. first acquired the AVI from Denmark after the Civil War, it was in an appalling state, having been abandoned by its owners with little attention to the welfare of the inhabitants. Many people who visited were disgusted that the U.S. had bothered to buy it, seeing it as more of a burden than a prize.
That was before the beautiful people saw its potential as a private paradise. Gradually the AVI (and the BVI, which is still nominally governed by Her Majesty) have become tourist havens, but mainly for the rich, not for the hoi polloi. It is quite possible to visit the AVI from Puerto Rico by ferry, however, and have a satisfying couple of days in a place where American is spoken and U.S. law applies. For a longer stay, an intentional vacation, one must plan and use the book. And be prepared to pay, unless one goes during the off-season (April to December, which sounds like a nice period
until one considers the heat and the black flies). Low-end rooms and rentals can range in price from several hundred to several thousand a day in high season. And the choice of restaurants is limited, so many travelers choose to have meals prepared at their hotel or guest house. And there is a nearly 8 percent tax and a ten percent
tariff on top of the base rate.
No one can do anything about these prices, just as no one can make the islands less beautiful. The descriptions in the book make the many varied environments from sand to forest seem enchanting. Who would not wish to go, for instance, to the island of Virgin Gorda (BVI) where the Baths are located? There one (or two, preferably) can choose among a myriad of private swimming holes where "huge granite boulders the size of houses topple over one another above underlying grottos of clear turquoise water." Or if architecture turns you on, you might wish to visit St. Croix, where many homes and buildings were built of white brick and the streets are wide and tree-lined. Your nightlife can range from calypso and reggae and fine dining to just sitting quietly enjoying the loveliness of nature - depending on which island you select. By day you can go hunting among ruins, snorkeling in some of the clearest waters imaginable, boating, kayaking, horseback riding or just walking on the hundreds of beaches. You can see flamingos, iguanas, and
mahogany trees along with exotic and fragrant flowers, arrayed for your sensual delight in what is essentially a desert climate.
How have the locals fared with the incursion of the moneyed vacationers? Well, very well. They enjoy the highest per capita income in the region - though of course they are stuck with local prices, too. And as you might imagine, there is no indigenous agriculture because no one can afford land. They are birds in a beautiful cage.
If I could afford it, I would visit some of the Virgin Islands now before the megabuck tourism takes completely over, and there may still be some few unspoiled corners of this natural
Eden. Look at the predicted fate of Beef Island, an extension of Tortola in BVI - a former cattle estate where you can stay at only one guesthouse and dine at the humorously yclept Last Resort while enjoying the soothing sights and the salubrious climate in relative peace. However, a multi-million dollar resort is on its way - "it will cover 690 acres (e.g. most of the island)." Yes, Virgin Islands, there is a Santa Claus. And he is carrying away the keys to your kingdom as he scoots off in his motorized scuba-sleigh, having deposited lavish shiny gifts - condos, golf carts, and pretty little yachts. Merry Christmas!