Occupying about 133 square miles of pristine Caribbean waters the United States Virgin Islands – often referred to as the USVI – are known for spectacular beaches, excellent shopping, and a laid-back attitude. The USVI are a mainstay on the Caribbean cruise route, but a short stopover on these islands just isn’t enough to really experience what’s on offer. Stay a little while, why don’t you!
A major tourist hotspot for Americans, the USVI welcome nearly 2 million visitors a year, with most visiting the islands of St John, St Thomas and St Croix. There’s the perfect combination of Caribbean culture and American convenience here, as old-world influences still peek through in architecture, food and cultural events, but it’s easy for travelers to feel at home right away. English has been the official language here for 100 years, since the US purchased the territory from the Dutch in 1917. All three islands boast gorgeous emerald green mountainous landscapes, world-class beaches and incredible natural environments. You’re guaranteed to mingle with fellow travelers on each island, yet hidden sanctuaries made for relaxation also come by the dozen. If you’re thinking of kicking back at one of these islands this winter (or island hopping around all three!) here’s everything you need to know before you go.
Natural Beauty: St. John
For nature lovers, St. John may be the best destination in all of the Caribbean. Nearly two-thirds of the island is made up of the Virgin Islands National Park – a protected reserve site – where you’ll find hiking trails, snorkeling spots and beaches aplenty to explore while enjoying the company of birds, iguanas, turtles and more.
Sun-seekers could spend an entire week exploring the many swaths of sand surrounding St. John, from hidden coves to popular beaches that are consistently rated as some of the best in the world. The first order of business is visiting Trunk Bay Beach, located on the island’s northwest shore. On your way there, stop and take a picture of the stunning view from the lookout point on North Shore Road (one of the most popular views in St John.) Trunk Bay Beach has all of the main facilities, including a snack bar and grill, souvenir shop, and restrooms. It’s also one of the few beaches on the island that has lifeguards, so it’s an ideal choice for families traveling with young swimmers.
After Trunk Bay, the other must-visit beach is Maho Bay. If you continue down North Shore road after Trunk Bay you’ll see the parking area for Maho Bay Beach. It’s crystal clear waters and picture-perfect sands make it popular with the tourist crowds, especially in high season, but if you wander down to the western tip you’ll find some quiet places, and perhaps even some turtles! The America Hill Great House Ruins are visible up on the hill, which you can hike to via the Cinnamon Hill Trail.
While daytime is all about soaking up St John’s outstanding natural setting, evenings are equally relaxing. Most bars and restaurants are casual, so if you prefer a relaxed beachside eatery over stuffy white table cloths, you’ll love it here. In Cruz Bay, go to Taproom (right near the passenger ferry dock), to try their St John Brewers microbrews. For a taste of your favorite “Irish” pub from home, go to Quiet Mon, where you’ll find shamrock decorations, a classic pub menu and sports from back home playing on the big screen.
Where to stay in St John
A Taste of Everything: St Thomas
Home to the USVI territorial capital of Charlotte Amalie, the island of St Thomas offers the most variety to travelers. If you’ve visited the Virgin Islands before, there’s a good chance you’ve landed at the St Thomas airport while en-route to your final destination. The vistas here are similar to St John, where lush green hills reach up to touch the sky, and sandy little inlets make for lazy days by the water. That said, St Thomas is much more developed than its counterparts, with several big hotels and resorts. While St Thomas’ commercialization translates to more crowds, the natural beauty, shopping and historical experience make a visit worthwhile.
The island has been a longtime favorite of jewelry shoppers, thanks to its many vendors that sell gold, silver and diamonds, tax free. The famous Havensight Mall (right near the cruise ship port) has over 100 shops, while downtown Charlotte Amalie is lined with even more jewelry stores. Art lovers should check out the Camille Pissarro Gallery, which houses the artwork by the famous French impressionist painter who was born here. If you’re on the market for adding some luxe goods like Louis Vuitton and Gucci to your closet, the boutiques of Yacht Haven Grande await you and your credit card.
For a quiet day at the beach, our favorite is Vessup Bay Beach. It’s underdeveloped compared to many other around St Thomas, and you can rent water sports equipment. Calm waters make it ideal for swimming and simply floating around the water, plus you can gawk at the pretty sailboats out to sea. Otherwise, Magens Bay, the most popular beach on the island (pictured right), comes complete with chairs and umbrellas for rent, plus a fun beachside bar where you can sip on a cold cocktail and bite into many variations of battered fried fish.
When it’s time for a slice of adventure, there are some excellent hiking and water sports options around St Thomas. We love to take a morning hike on the nature trail that surrounds Magens Bay, or enjoy a late afternoon kayak excursion around the nearby Mangrove Lagoon.
St Thomas has the most vibrant nightlife scene in all of the Virgin Islands, so you’re bound to find a place for a sunset cocktail or two. Our go-to spot for a casual dinner with a view is Sunset Grille, where fresh seafood and classic American-style burgers are both delicious. For something a little cozier, if you’re willing to sacrifice the view in lieu for Italian fare, head to Virgilio’s; it’s been a favorite on the island for more than two decades, and once you taste the pizza del mare you’ll understand why. For a fun-loving atmosphere, live music and a classic beach bar menu, Iggies Beach Bar & Grill is the top choice.
Where to stay in St Thomas
An Amazing Underwater World: St Croix
Warm waters year-round make St Croix a good choice for those who love to dive. In particular, Frederiksted Pier has a wreck dive and also easy reef diving. What’s more, St Croix’s relatively shallow waters and sandy ocean floor make it an ideal spot for night diving, novice scuba divers and underwater photographers.
If you’re an advanced diver, the Salt River area on the island’s northern coast has an incredible deep trench where you’ll find a myriad of ocean life – from coral reefs and tropical fish plus sea turtles. Back in open air, St Croix has excellent fishing, parasailing and kite surfing too.
For a taste of authentic Caribbean culture, the island has a loaded event calendar of fun goings-on throughout the year. We love to visit the island during the The Crucian Christmas Carnival – which takes place over the holiday season – where you’ll find lively calypso shows, horse races, parades and pageants in the main hubs of Christainsted and Frederiksted. For the ultra-active vacationers, challenge yourself with the Half Ironman Triathalon taking place in the last week of May.
A typical day at the beach should be spent on the quiet sands of Davis Bay, or if you’re willing to go a little further off the beaten path, Sandy Point. Sandy Point is a 2-mile stretch of sand; while there are no facilities here, the crystal clear waters and practically deserted sands make it worthwhile. The beach is closed from April-August as this is when leatherback sea turtles are nesting. Movie buffs will love to visit Sandy Point as it was the filming location for the famous closing scene of the film The Shawshank Redemption.
When hunger strikes, the best spots to grab a bite are in Christiansted. We love Rum Runners for the view and ribs, and Savant is our choice spot when we can’t quite decide what we want: they have everything from Thai curry to chicken to tacos on the menu. For a fun taste of the local way, try Maggie’s Snackett in Frederiksted for Caribbean lunchtime classics like chicken stew and smoked mackerel.
Where to stay in St Croix