US Virgin Islands: The Insider’s Guide to Paradise

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The Virgin Islands are America's Caribbean Paradise - far enough away to be exotic, yet close enough to be accessible.

These gorgeous islands are the easiest, most hassle-free tropical getaway for American families on the East Coast.

A recent survey found that only 30% of Americans actually own a passport. Even if you and your partner have a passport, what about the kids? Because these three tropical islands are collectively a U.S. territory, Americans need only a government issued photo ID to enter. What awaits, is a permanently temperate and undeniably gorgeous island paradise.

Whether you're after memorable cultural experiences, the best beaches, or a thrilling adventure, here's a look at 10 things you absolutely cannot miss on a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cruzan Rum Distillery - St Croix

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creative commons / Moresheth

Nothing says the Caribbean like a delicious rum cocktail on the beach - and nothing says the Virgin Islands like its world-famous rum, Cruzan. A visit to the Cruzan Rum Factory is an education both in the island's history and in the alluring art of high end liquor. Each tour departs from the visitor's pavilion and includes a visit to the factory's old windmill and lessons on the entire fermentation process. Of course, the tour is not complete until you've sampled some of the products!

Getting There: Catch a taxi from Frederiksted or check cruzanrum.com for more details.

Dive the Wall - St Croix

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creative commons / adamgaston

Sure, there's great diving all around these coral-rimmed islands, but the wall in St Croix may be the best. Running along St Croix's north shore, the wall drops over 13,000 feet and is one of the best developed reef systems in the tropical Atlantic, home to the most extensive reef on the Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands shelf. Not only is the wall great for both novice and experienced divers alike, it can be reached by a short swim from shore. That means no dive boat and a cheaper dive. The wall is a great place to see (harmless) sharks, colorful clown fish, and the elusive seahorse. Best of all, it's sorely overlooked and never crowded. You're guaranteed to see swimming fish, not swimming humans.

Getting There: You can book dives from both Christiansted and Frederiksted or head directly to Cane Bay on the North Shore.

Christiansted - St Croix

REUTERS
REUTERS

Christiansted was the capital of the Danish West Indies from 1755 to 1871, and a visit will easily transport you back to an earlier time. The historic yellow buildings are sandwiched between enticing beaches and the rolling green hillside. Wander along the cobblestone streets to the steeple museum, the Old Danish Customs House, the Apothecary Museum and the imposing Fort Christiansvaen. Along the way, stop in at one of the handful of art galleries, check out the duty free shopping, or grab some West Indian cuisine along the water.

Getting There: The Seaplane and ferry both dock in Christiansted Harbor.

Magens Bay - St Thomas

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creative commons / daquella manera

Though it's best avoided on heavy cruise ship days, the breathtaking beauty of the ever-popular Magens Bay cannot be denied. Situated along St Thomas' rugged north coast, the large beach is ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and other watersports activities. With parking, lifeguards, equipment rentals, freshwater showers, bars and restaurants, this beach has more amenities than any other beach in the territory.

Getting There: Magen's bay is a 20-minute ride across the island from Charlotte Amalie to the north coast of St Thomas. Taxis in the St Thomas capital will be more than willing to drive you to the popular beach.

Yacht Haven Grande - St Thomas

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creative commons / capt kim

One of the premier marina facilities for megayachts in the Caribbean, Yacht Haven Grande is sure to make any visitor feel luxurious. Located alongside the scenic Charlotte Amalie Harbor, the facility encompasses a 48-slip megayacht marina with over 80,000 square feet of retail space. It's one of the best spots in the Virgin Islands to grab a meal or laze away with a tropical cocktail.

Getting There: Yacht Haven Grande is located in Charlotte Amalie where most ships and ferries dock. It is just three miles from the Cyril E. King Airport (STT).

Mahogany Run Golf Course - St Thomas

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creative commons / Marilyn m

For many, nothing says vacation like a good game of golf - and you're unlikely to play a more scenic game of golf anywhere else. Mahogany Run Golf Course is rich in tropical foliage and boasts dramatic vistas like the 14th hole, perched on a cliff 200 feet above a rocky inlet of the Atlantic Ocean with views of the neighboring U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Visited by celebrities and presidents alike, the par-70 course rises and falls over a gentle valley from 80 to 200 feet above sea level. Open seven days a week, the resort course caters to devoted local clientele as well as the daily or weekly traveling guest.

Getting There: The golf course is just 20 minutes' drive from the cruise ship docks in Charlotte Amalie and only 15 minutes from the Red Hook Ferry Terminal.

Maho Bay Glass Studio - St John

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creative commons / 50%chanceofrain

The drive alone makes this excursion worth your while. At the far end of the North Shore Road is Maho Bay Camps. The highlight of the world's first eco-resort is its Trash to Treasure art center where the resort's trash is recycled into craft items and fine art. The center features a Clay Studio, Textiles Department, Art Gallery, and a Glass Studio that is famous for its nightly demonstrations on how to transform empty beer and wine bottles into works of art.

Getting There: Maho Bay Camps is located at the far end of the North Shore Road. If driving, follow signs for Francis Bay. Alternatively, you can catch Mr Frett's Taxi, which leaves every two hours from Cruz Bay.

Snorkeling Waterlemon Cay  - St John

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creative commons / bradspry

This small cay within Leinster Bay is a favorite spot for snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. A short ten-minute walk from the Annenberg Ruins parking lot puts you at a small beach. On the swim from the beach out to the cay, be on the lookout for the serene sea turtles and a seabed full of sea stars. Circling around the cay, you'll experience a circus of colorful fish, brightly lit coral, and tropical sea creatures. Just watch out for the sea urchins!

Getting There: Drive or take a taxi to the Annenberg Ruins and walk ten minutes along the Leinster Bay Trail. Alternatively, you can hike over the ridge from Coral Bay along the Johnny Horn Trail.

Cinnamon Bay - St John

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creative commons / yawper

St John has an endless supply of pristine beaches, but Cinnamon Bay is the absolute best all around. Most travel organizations rank nearby Trunk Bay one of the Best Beaches in the World. Trunk Bay is great, but it's where cruise ships from St Thomas drop loads of tourists and it's the only beach on St John where you'll have to pay a fee. Cinnamon Bay is just as beautiful and offers the same amenities. There's a bathhouse, snack bar, watersport options, and the island's longest expanse of white sand. It's also where locals gather to play volleyball.

Getting There: Cinnamon Bay is a twenty-minute drive or taxi ride from Cruz Bay along the North Shore Road. There are regular shuttles back and forth between the beach and town.

Reef Bay Hike - St John

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creative commons / Curtis Dalton brown

With the vast majority of the island protected by the National Park Service (NPS), St John offers a glimpse of what the Virgin Islands may have looked like before Europeans arrived to the region. The Reef Bay Hike is the perfect introduction to St John's complex history of civilizations -- both free and enslaved -- dating back more than a thousand years. Not only will you experience the human history from the Taino petroglyphs to the colonial ruins, but you can enjoy the shade of the island's second generation vegetation and a swim at the trail's end in Reef Bay. For an enhanced experience, the NPS offers a six-hour guided tour from Cruz Bay on Mondays and Thursdays.

Getting There: The Reef Bay Trail begins at a signpost about halfway along Centerline Road. It ends at Reef Bay where there is no road. Be prepared to walk back to Centerline Road unless you do the hike with the National Park where you will catch a boat back.

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