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.
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.
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).
Getting There and Around
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.
- Seaplanes are a popular way to get around the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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.
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.
History of the Islands
“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.
- Paradise Point offers unparalled views of St. Thomas and its busy harbor.
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!
Planning a Vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands
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.)
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.
- Fun will be had by all at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort in St. Thomas.
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.
- While visiting St. John, don’t miss out on Trunk Bay, which regularly appears on ‘best beaches of the world’ lists.
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.
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.
- Built by the Dutch in the 1600’s, Fort Christian is the oldest standing building in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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.]
USVI for Families
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.
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.]
- A young girl tests her strength at the ox mill on the Whim Estate, a former sugar plantation on St. Croix.
Activities for Kids
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:
- Molly Malones (tel. 340-775-1270): Serves dockside pub dishes. A stream runs through it, and kids love the resident iguanas.
- Señor Pizza (tel. 340-775-3030): Great pizzas and delivery to Red Hook area hotels.
- The Shipwreck Tavern (tel. 340-777-1293): “The best hamburgers” and juicy steaks across from Havensight shopping.
- Iguana Grill (tel. 340...): Located at the Wyndham and serves “pirate” pizzas, fish tacos and ribs.
- For superb dining on the St. Croix waterfront, head to Rum Runners, a local favorite.
- JJ’s Texas Coast Café (tel. 340...): In Cruz Bay’s town square with Tex/Mex fare like enchiladas, chili, and fish and chips.
- Café Roma (tel. 340...): Good pastas and specialty pizzas, including take-out.
- The Fish Trap (tel. 340-...): Great selection of seafood dishes in a casual setting.
- Rum Runners (tel. 340-773-6585): A can’t miss for American and seafood options.
- East End Pizza: Great gourmet pizzas at Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort.
- The Mermaid: Beachside at The Buccaneer for Caribbean/seafood fare.