The U.S. Virgin Islands
Lying some 90 miles east of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands consist of three main resort islands: St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, plus a little islet called Water Island and several smaller islets. Their combined landmass is roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C.
The largest of the islands is St. Croix, with 82 square miles, which is structurally akin to the Lesser Antilles. It has the same flora and fauna as Puerto Rico.
At its widest point, St. Croix is 6 miles wide; it is also 22 miles long. Its highest peak is Mount Eagle at 1,088 feet. The western end of the island is lush with towering fruit trees and ferns growing on the mountainside, but the eastern terrain is rocky and arid.
A few natural harbors and protected bays grace St. Croix. In the middle of the island are beautiful white sandy beaches. The distance between St. Thomas and St. Croix is 40 miles.
The coasts of St. Croix are generally flat and uniform, but St. Thomas and St. John have very irregular coastlines, broken by bays and rugged headlands. Both St. John and St. Thomas have excellent natural harbors that provide shelter for boats against the many hurricanes that strike the area.
The highest elevation on St. Thomas is Crown Mountain at 1,550 feet. Unlike St. Croix, there are relatively few flat areas on St. Thomas. The island is virtually one long ridge of hills running east and west. Its landmass is 31 square miles, and St. Thomas is about 4 miles wide and 13 miles long. Both St. Thomas and St. John are volcanic in origin, whereas St. Croix was formed by a coral reef, which explains why it is flatter.
Lying 4 miles off St. Thomas's East End, the small island of St. John, 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, is virtually a national park. More than two-thirds of the island is protected by the National Park Service. Its highest point is Bordeaux Mountain at a modest 1,277 feet. Cruz Bay is the main town and natural harbor, but the island's coastal areas have many fine protected bays, especially the natural harbor of Coral Bay.
The fourth island of any significant size is Water Island, less than 500 acres. It is 2 1/2 miles long and 1 mile wide, and is irregular in shape, studded with many bays and peninsulas. The highest point on Water Island is only 300 feet above sea level. The island lies just half a mile off the southern shore of St. Thomas.
The British Virgin Islands
Lying 97km (60 miles) to the east of Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands comprise 16 inhabited and more than 20 uninhabited islands. The total landmass of the B.V.I. is 153 sq. km (59 sq. miles), a little smaller than Washington, D.C. This subtropical archipelago at its highest point reaches only 534m (1,752 ft.) at Mount Sage on Tortola, also home to Road Town, the capital of the B.V.I. The other principle islands are Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke.
The volcanic British Virgins are the easternmost extension of the Greater Antilles, representing peaks of submerged mountains that rise up from the ocean floor.
Virgin Gorda lies 13km (8 miles) to the east of Tortola. To its north are the islands of Mosquito and Prickly Pear. Anegada lies 24km (15 miles) to the north of Virgin Gorda.
To the north of Tortola are Jost Van Dyke (with tourist facilities) and both Great Tobago and Little Tobago. Other islands south of Drake Channel include Norman (of Robert Louis Stevenson fame) and Peter Island (site of a luxurious resort).
The most northerly of the B.V.I. is Anegada, flat, dry, and bare of foliage, its highest elevation reaching only 8.5m (28 ft.). It is not volcanic in origin, like the other islands, but is a coral atoll fringed by dangerous horseshoe-shaped reefs. The island is home to the endangered rock iguana.
South of Tortola, Salt Island is known as the site of the wreck of the Rhone, the most famous dive site in the Caribbean. The vessel sank in 1867 in one of the most devastating hurricanes ever to strike the B.V.I.
With its white sandy beaches and scalloped coastlines of tiny coves, the B.V.I. remains the most secluded spot in the Virgin Island archipelago, a retreat of yachties seeking safe havens and visitors who want to escape from modern civilization.