Chill on gorgeous beaches, ply Caribbean waters, tour historic attractions and shop duty-free on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John—while leaving your passport at home.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are a territory of the United States consisting of three main islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John—along with many smaller islands and cays, which are mostly undeveloped. They are among the closest Caribbean islands to the mainland United States, situated just 90 miles east of Puerto Rico. That proximity, together with the stunning natural beauty of the islands—great for diving and snorkeling, boating and fishing—and the fact that no passport is required for American visitors, has made the islands a tourism haven. The English language also reigns in the U.S. Virgin Islands as does the U.S. dollar. Add to that no need for electric adapters and cell phone coverage as if you were stateside and it doesn’t get any easier for a Caribbean vacation getaway.
Note: Though no passport is required for U.S. visitors, citizenship evidence is required such as a raised-seal birth certificate and government-issued photo ID.
The high season for hotels in the U.S. Virgin Islands is from around mid-December through early April. Try the shoulder seasons in May and November for better bargains, or venture to the Caribbean during the rainy summer season (mostly afternoon showers but with the chance of hurricanes, especially in August and September).
The islands are served via two international airports, Cyril E. King Airport (STT) on St. Thomas and the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (STX) on St. Croix, both of which have daily flights from numerous U.S. cities. Cape Air and other airlines provide regularly scheduled flights for travel between St. Thomas and St. Croix. Visitors to St. John typically arrive via the St. Thomas airport and then take a taxi to Red Hook for the short ferry ride to St. John.
As for touring the islands, taxis on St. Thomas are very expensive, and their drivers have a well-deserved reputation for rudeness. Rent a car if you plan to tour much of the island (people in the U.S. Virgin Islands drive on the left side of the road). On the other hand, St. John and St. Croix are the complete opposite of St. Thomas, with talkative, friendly drivers and reasonable fares.
An ideal itinerary for a seven-day vacation that explores more than one island is three days on St. Thomas and four days on St. John, or an interchange of one island with St. Croix. Make it a 10-day tour and visit all three islands for the perfect U.S. Virgin Islands trifecta.
Columbus “discovered” the islands on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, but in fact, Arawak and Caribe Indians inhabited the area long before. It wasn’t until the late 1500s, however, that Europeans started arriving from places like Britain, Denmark, France, The Netherlands and even the Knights of Malta. Among those nations, it was the Danes that prevailed, setting up sugar plantations in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the late 1600s and importing slaves from Africa for labor.
Eventually the slaves revolted and were emancipated 17 years prior to the U.S. mainland emancipation. The African culture, however, seeded many of the customs prevalent today in the Virgin Islands, including the unusual lilt of English, the food and music, and the colorful annual carnival celebrations held on each of the islands. Blended together with a European touch, along with residents from the “down-islands”—namely the Caribbean islands which are further south—and it all adds up to a lively culture in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The United States purchased the islands from the Danes in 1917 for their strategic position with the onset of World War I. But far from being critical in wars, the territory instead developed over the years as a tourism mecca. The beauty of the mountainous tropical islands is exquisite, the seas are bountiful with colorful aquatic life and the beaches are some of the prettiest in the world. So don your sandals and get ready to kick up some sand!
St. Thomas and St. John are a stone’s throw from one another and can easily be conquered in a one-week vacation, while St. Croix is a distance away and is typically toured on an entirely separate vacation. In recent years, a seaplane, Seaborne Airlines, initiated service between St. Thomas and St. Croix, so it’s possible to connect all three islands on a tour, but that’s a lot of ground to cover if you want some relaxing island time. In other words, I’m already recommending that you plan at least two U.S. Virgin Island vacations! (Or start with an extended visit.)
St. Thomas is the most commonly visited island of the U.S. Virgin Islands, partly due to its port that hosts thousands of cruise ship passengers almost daily. And where there are cruise ship passengers, there is duty-free shopping, and no one does it better than St. Thomas. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it in the port city capital Charlotte Amalie. The city has pretty cobblestone streets filled with historic sites and charming duty-free boutiques, but two nearby shopping centers have taken over, Havensight Mall and Yacht Haven Grande. It’s shop till you drop what with a $1,600 per person duty-free allowance back to the United States. But why, I ask, does someone want to go to a mall when they’re on a gorgeous tropical island?
Of course the beaches are a must, especially Sapphire Beach, and Coral World Ocean Park is also not to be missed for its wonderful reef exhibits and aquatic interaction. The top spot for golf is Mahogany Run.
A 15-minute ferry ride from Red Hook is St. John, the antidote to the hustle and bustle of St. Thomas. The island is revered for its gorgeous national parks, both above and beneath the sea. Snorkel the underwater trail at Trunk Bay, one of the world’s most renowned beaches. Hike lush tropical mountain trails like Reef Bay. Indulge in luxury eco-camping at Estate Concordia. Check out an archeological dig at Cinnamon Bay. Or peruse the quaint main town of Cruz Bay with its pretty pastel-colored Wharfside Village and casual bars.
A restaurant highlight on St. John is to visit Le Châteaux de Bordeaux, perched high in the hills with spectacular sunset vistas and fine dining. In town, Morgan’s Mango is an institution on the island for delectable Caribbean entrées with a flair. Gallows Point Resort in Cruz Bay is a lodging favorite for gorgeous suites overlooking a peninsula, but there are plenty of additional resort options, including the family-friendly Westin St. John, the luxurious Caneel Bay and upscale camping in eco-tents among the jungle at Maho Bay.
Of all the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is the most largely populated destination with fascinating history interwoven amidst its mountainous beauty. It’s also renowned for its scuba diving at Cane Bay, Buck Island Reef National Monument and for having the eastern-most point in U.S. territory, Point Udall.
The charming capital town of Christiansted is where Alexander Hamilton’s mother was jailed (he grew up on the island). The Buccaneer, a former estate on which Hamilton lived for many years, is now an exquisite beach resort and a top choice for luxury lodging just minutes from town. The Divi Carina Beach Resort & Casino, while more remote, offers all oceanfront rooms and has a large casino with entertainment almost nightly.
Visit the fort tour the Estate Whim Plantation (a former sugar plantation) or roam the island’s Botanical Gardens. For dining, Kendrick’s offers fine French dining amidst an historic 18th century house. Restaurant Bacchus has an excellent wine list and is located on an upper floor of a historic townhouse. By St. Croix’s cruise port in Frederiksted, Le St. Tropez has been admired for decades for French fare at moderate prices. [Read more in our St. Croix feature.]
For families, the island to visit depends on the primary type of vacation a family prefers—a beach resort vacation for relaxation and fun, a vacation focused on exploring attractions, or a back-to-nature vacation.
For those just interested in chilling island-style, the beachfront resorts are the way to go. Resorts with kids’ clubs are recommended for families with younger children interested in some parental escape. Those that best fit the bill are:
• Wyndham Sugar Bay on St. Thomas, which has miniature golf, bumper water cars, volleyball and more activities geared towards kids.
• Westin Resort St. John is kids’ central, including a playground, large game room, floating trampolines and an “iceberg” to climb in the bay.
• The Buccaneer on St. Croix has a free kids’ camp—the crab races are the best.
[Read about more U.S. Virgin Island family resorts and attractions.]
For more active agendas like exploring history and culture, then St. Croix is the best bet. The island is rich with opportunities that will interest people of all ages. My 6-year-old loved Christiansted’s fort; she tried like an ox to push a cane mill crusher around at the Estate Whim Plantation; and she reveled in the blacksmith’s shop at the Botanical Gardens among other fun explorations.
For a return to nature vacation, there’s St. John (with its previously mentioned eco-camps too—always fun for kids). Snorkeling, diving and hiking are three big activities for family visitors to the island, as well as going to the countless gorgeous beaches. St. Croix, however, offers a scuba program for kids.
As for good family island meals that don’t break the bank, here are a few suggestions for the different islands:
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Everyone has to arrive in Cruz Bay, I would quickly find myself a ride to Coral Bay or one of the many beautiful beaches. Cruz Bay is just too crowded these days. Soloman beach can be reached by foot from Cruz Bay. It is a beautiful place.
Cinnamon Bay Highly recommend Cinnamon Bay for a great beach day. Right next to Trunk Bay, but with few tourists, no boats, and no destroyed coral. We found a spot just off the beach where thousands of small fish had attracted several large tarpons. Amazing snorkeling, when all you can see is shiny silver fish until they dart away and you see a 4 foot tarpon swimming toward you!
Sail Safaris on St John offers award winning snorkeling tours to the islands in the National Park and beyond. They have a fleet of boats from fast and fun beach catamarans that can land right on the islands to snorkel or a larger six passenger catamaran ideal for excursions to the British Virgin Islands.