U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands are an American territory in the Caribbean known for beautiful sandy beaches, coral reefs, and sparkling clear water. Some of the islands are mountainous due to their volcanic origins. Others are relatively flat and formed by exposed reefs as ocean levels lowered. The latter is how the Florida Keys were formed as well.

Note: The photos don’t really follow the narrative…just sprinkling them in.

Basking in a tropical climate, temperatures for the Virgin Islands average temperatures hang around 90 degrees all year long during the day and dip into the mid-70’s during the evening. The three main islands are Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas. There are a number of smaller islands as well.

Archeologists believe the Virgin Islands were originally settled by Native Americans originating from South America around 1,000 BC. Europeans first discovered the islands in 1493 during Christopher Columbus’ second exploration of the New World. Over the next few centuries, Spain, Britain, France, and the Denmark would each stake claim to these islands.

Denmark established settlements on St. Thomas and St. John in the late 1600’s and purchased St. Croix from France in 1733. The islands officially became colonies of Denmark in 1754 with sugar plantations being the primary economic driver. Most of those plantations exist today only as ruins and are scattered about the islands.

The United States eventually purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 after 50 years of ongoing negotiations. Today, tourism is the primary economic driver of the Virgin Islands’ economy. Rum production is also notable (along with its consumption).

Sunset at the Marriott Resort on St. Thomas

Florida Keys – The Conch Republic

Music for the Florida Keys – Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet

The Florida Keys (also known affectionately as the Conch Republic) are a coral cay archipelago located off the southern coast of Florida, forming the southernmost part of the continental United States. The population is a little under 100,000 with Key West being the most populated island and most visited by tourists.

Islamorada – Florida Keys

This photo for this post features images taken during a trip to Islamorada and a stay at the Cheeca Lodge and Spa.

The Florida Keys have a Caribbean climate with average highs ranging from 75 – 90 degrees throughout the year. Unlike most Caribbean islands which were formed by volcanos, the Keys are the exposed top of an ancient coral reef exposed when sea levels lowered. The Keys are relatively flat with rich tropical flora.

Soothing Vistas

Peaceful Sunsets

Conch Republic – Behind the Name

How did the Keys come to be known as the Conch Republic? This is a fun story. On April 23rd, 1982, the city of Key West (unofficially and in a lighthearted manner) seceded from the United States. While secession was a light-hearted publicity stunt, the frustration was real and stemmed from a US Border Patrol checkpoint established in Key West that greatly inconvenienced residents and tourists.

This act appeared to Key West officials as if they were being treated like a separate nation since no other U.S. cities had Border Patrol roadblocks. This stunt did capture the attention of the US government and the roadblock was removed. The Conch Republic celebrates its “independence” every April 23rd with a multi-day festival filled with humor, warmth, and respect…along with a lot of tequila, rum, and beer.

On September 20, 1995, another incident arose that added to the lore of the Conch Republic. The US military was conducting a training exercise off the coast of Key West but never notified Key West government officials. The Conch Republic mobilized by dispatching vessels of the “Conch Navy” to meet a Coast Guard vessel which they then assailed with water balloons, Cuban bread, and Conch fritters (a favorite local food).

The gesture was apparently taken in stride and considered a humorous moment by all involved. The Department of Defense apologized to Key West officials for not notifying them of the military exercise. Military leaders involved in the training exercise apologized the next day saying they “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic” and submitted to a light-hearted surrender ceremony.

The term Conch Republic has been expanded and now refers to all of the Florida Keys and has been maintained and celebrated as a state of mind and tag for tourism.

Origin and Economy

Originally settled by Native Americans, the Keys were discovered by Ponce de Leon of Spain in 1513. The Keys eventually became part of an early trade route between the Bahamas, Cuba, and New Orleans. Pirating and the looting of wrecked ships were common in the early settlement and economy of the Keys. The Conch Republic’s economy is now driven by fishing, festivals (party central), ecotourism, and scuba diving.

Getting There

You can travel the length of Keys by car via the 127-mile Overseas Highway (a section US Highway 1). The highway includes part of what was once the Overseas Railway built in the early 1900’s and destroyed by a hurricane in 1935. Key West also has a small airport that has regular connections through Miami. Regardless of how you get there or how long you stay, the spirit of the Conch Republic will always be with you.