Fiction -- Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival (Little Brown & Co., 1992) is "the Caribbean classic," and all readers contemplating a visit to the Virgin Islands might want to pick it up. It's great airport lounge reading. Wouk lived in St. Thomas in the 1950s, and his novel is based on actual people he met during that time. Bob Shacochis's Easy in the Islands (Grove, 2004) giddily re-creates the flavor of the West Indies with short stories. Tales of St. John & the Caribbean, by Gerald Singer (Sombrero Publishing Co., 2001), is an easy read: a collection of amusing and insightful stories, and the best volume if you'd like a behind-the-scenes look at St. John after the tourists have taken the ferry back to St. Thomas for the night.
My Name Is Not Angelica, by Scott O'Dell (Yearling Books, 1990), is a young-adult historical novel based in the Virgin Islands in the early 18th century. It tells the saga of a slave girl, Raisha, who escapes bondage; the rather grim realities of slavery are depicted here.
Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have used Norman Island, in the B.V.I., as a fictional setting for his 1883 classic Treasure Island. This swashbuckling adventure has intrigued readers for years with such characters as the immortal Long John Silver. The book, which gave rise to such memorable lines as "shiver me timbers," continues to find new generations of readers.
Cookbooks -- A number of books are devoted to recipes of the Caribbean, including The Sugar Mill Caribbean Cookbook: Casual and Elegant Recipes Inspired by the Islands, by Jinx and Jefferson Morgan (Harvard Common Press, 1996). The Morgans run the Sugar Mill on Tortola. With this book, you can learn the secrets of their signature dishes, including Rasta Pasta, rum-glazed chicken wings, and lobster and christophine curry.
Food & Folklore of the Virgin Islands (Romik, 1990) is penned by Arona Petersen, a well-known St. Thomas writer and folklorist. The regional flavor of Virgin Islands fare is captured in her recipes, and the idiomatic dialogues of island people are perfectly re-created as she spins old island tales and wisdom.
History -- The concise History of the Virgin Islands (University Press of the West Indies, 2000) is a bit scholarly for some tastes, but if you're seriously interested in the islands, this is the best-researched survey of what was going on before your arrival. Caribbean Pirates, by Warren Alleyne (Macmillan-Caribbean, 1986), is a good read for preteen travelers and attempts to separate fact from fiction in the sagas of the most notorious pirates in history. Some of the material is based on published letters and documents.
Outdoor Adventure Books -- Sailing enthusiasts say you shouldn't set out to explore the islets, cays, coral reefs, and islands of the B.V.I. without John Rousmanière's well-researched The Sailing Lifestyle (Fireside, 1988).
Exploring St. Croix, by Shirley Imsand and Richard Philobosian (Travelers Information Press, 1987), is a very detailed guide of this island. The authors take you to 49 beaches, 34 snorkeling and scuba-diving sites, and 22 bird-watching areas, and lead you on 20 different hikes.
A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico & the Virgin Islands, by Herbert A. Raffaele, Cindy J. House, and John Wiessinger (Princeton University Press, 1989), is for bird-watchers. The illustrations alone are worth a look, with 273 depictions of the 284 documented species on the islands.
St. Thomas was one of the sites selected for background shots on the Brad Pitt film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Islanders hope that the success of the film will inspire other movie companies to come to St. Thomas to revive fading film production that reached its heyday in the '70s and '80s, when major TV shows such as Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat, and All My Children were shot here.
Many films have been shot in the Virgin Islands, including Open Water (2003), the adventure story of a couple stranded in shark-infested waters; Weekend at Bernie's II (1993), shot in both St. John and St. Thomas; and the final scene of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), when Andy Dufresne escapes the harsh Shawshank Prison for a tropical island. The final island scene in Trading Places (1983), starring Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis, was shot in St. Croix. A 1980s film classic, The Four Seasons (1981), was filmed in part in the Virgin Islands; the film is a tender-sweet melodrama that stars Carol Burnett and Alan Alda. Three middle-aged couples take vacations together in spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The true classic of the archipelago is Virgin Island (1958), starring John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier. Filmed in the beautiful British Virgin Islands, it is a fairy-tale type of story about a young man and woman, who buy a small, uninhabited island and go there to find their dream. The film was based on the actual experiences of novelist Robb White, who, along with his wife, decided to pursue a Robinson Crusoe existence on the islands.
As the Caribbean rhythms go, the Virgin Islands encompass it all, from reggae to classical to steel drums to spiritual hymns, but soca, reggae, calypso, and steel-pan beats seem to dominate the night.
Calypso, though originating in Trinidad, has its unique sounds in the Virgins. It is famously known for expressing political commentary through satire.
If you add a little soul music to calypso, you have soca, a music form that also originated in Trinidad, but made its way north to the Virgin Islands. Reggae originated on another island, Jamaica, but also made its way to the Virgins. As reggae is sung in the Virgin Islands, it usually focuses on redemption. Virgin Islanders have put a unique stamp on reggae, making it their own.
Scratch bands are popular in the British Virgins, in the musical form known as fungi. Merengue is also heard in the Virgins, having "floated over" from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the year in various clubs, you can hear the music of the islands, including zouk, dance music from Martinique. Music is most popular at frequent reggae concerts, steel-pan shows, and jazz concerts. Find out what's happening by reading the local newspapers.
Of course, the leading musicians of the islands make recordings, including the hypnotic and tantalizing vocals from Dezarie, which can be heard in the album Gracious Mama Africa. This album, among others, has earned her the title of St. Croix's Roots Empress. Another empress is Mada Nile, known for her poignant lyrics. Our favorites of her selections are "Senseless Killing" and "Righteously."
A vocal rival of both Dezarie and Mada Nile is Sistah Joyce, who is acclaimed for her hard-hitting lyrics as evoked by her recording of "Remembah." She scored a hit with her debut album, H.Y.P.O.C.R.I.C.Y.
Since the new millennium, island music has reached an international following for the first time. Reggae bands, such as Midnite and Inner Visions have found renewed popularity, although they've been around since the '80s. Midnite Intense Pressure, Midnite's debut album, firmly established them as a force in roots music; the group is known for its fiery lyrics. Midnite's rival group is Inner Visions; their album Spiritual Dancer demonstrates the group's refined musical abilities, which distinguish them from the more "raw roots" style of other rival artists. The band is made up of first- and second-generation members of the Pickering family, with names like Grasshopper and Jupiter. The voices of two generations blend harmoniously as they "Blow Down Babylon."