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Hull Bay in St. Thomas - photos by C. Kennerly
Hull Bay in St. Thomas - photos by C. Kennerly

GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE

U.S. Virgin Islands

By C. Kennerly

WHY GO?

Despite increasingly modern infrastructure, the USVI are still a far cry from the level of mass commercialization and development so characteristic of the American mainland. 

Even busy St. Thomas, overrun by cruise ship passengers on some days, is still fit to be explored and enjoyed island-style. 

Then there is breathtaking St. John, widely considered to be the most beautiful within the USVI group.  This nature hotspot, two-thirds national park thanks to Rockefeller’s land donation of the 1950s, is known for its lush forests and wild animals (even including the occasional donkey or mongoose). 

St. Croix is the biggest of the USVI, but even less touristy than St. Thomas and less populated than St. John.  All three islands, at the very least, can be relied upon for their beautiful beaches, stunning turquoise seas, and underwater coral reefs. 

WHEN TO GO

With winter historically the most popular time to visit, the off-season can be quite a bargain.  Temperatures are still consistently in the 80s, the rainy season is not bad at all, and many festivals and events would otherwise be missed.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

Larger airlines will generally offer direct flights into St. Thomas’ Cyril E. King Airport or St. Croix’s Henry E. Rohlsen Airport.  Otherwise, passengers might require a connection from San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

Once inside the USVI, travel to St. John or between islands is most often accomplished via airplane, seaplane, ferry, or private boat.  Intra-island travel is usually relegated to rental vehicle, taxi, or limited bus service. 

If traveling by sea to the USVI, St. Thomas is a popular stopover for larger cruise ships, whereas St. Croix is more accessible for smaller ships.  No cruise ships, though, are allowed to drop anchor at the piers of St. John.

Seaplanes are a popular way to travel among the islands. iStockphoto.com/flemmingmahler
Seaplanes are a popular way to travel among the islands. iStockphoto/FlemmingMahler

BEST ATTRACTION

Known for their beaches, the islands play host to a plethora of sandy options.  Whether the goal is to swim, snorkel, or just lie out under the sun, all would suffice, although each is slightly unique in some aspect. 

On St. Thomas, Magen’s Bay is the most famous beach, said to be one of the most beautiful in the world.  There is also Coki beach, popular with divers, Sapphire Beach, popular with families, and Hull Bay, popular with surfers. 

On St. John, check out Trunk Bay, Caneel Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Hawknest Bay, Honeymoon Beach, and Solomon’s Beach (known for nude sunbathing despite its illegality). 

On St. Croix, Chenay Bay, Grape Tree Beach, Rainbow Beach, Reef Beach, Cane Bay, and Buck Island Beach are the best.

BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION

Located in the historic section of Charlotte Amalie, capital of St. Thomas, there is actually a synagogue which claims to be the second oldest in the entire Caribbean.  Known as the St. Thomas Synagogue, and dating back to 1796, the church is further characterized by its unique sand floor, representing the flight of the Jews from Egypt. 

For more local history within the capital, try visiting sites such as Fort Christian, the Legislature Building, the Government House, or the 99 Steps. 

Petroglyphs left on St. John by the Taino, the original inhabitants of the islands - iStockphoto.com / blupompano

For an equally unique site on St. John, make sure to view the Reef Bay petroglyphs, which are still controversial to this day.  Although most experts believe that the carvings were created by pre-Columbian Taino Indians, there are others who credit colonial-era African slaves.

BEST ACTIVITY OR TOUR

Along with sugar and molasses, it’s obviously no secret that the Caribbean has a long-running history of rum production, all three being byproducts of harvested cane.  To get an idea of the entire process, first visit the restored Annaberg Sugar Plantation on St. John.  

Dating back to the 1700s, this site showcases a massive stone windmill, a small jail, the remains of a slave village, and of course, the sugar factory. 

As a follow-up, the Cruzan distillery on St. Croix also dates back to the 1700s, but instead offers tours of the rum-making process.  Because Cruzan rum is still in production, visitors are even offered free samples at the end, along with a chance to buy more liquor at discount prices. 

For those back on St. Thomas, there’s always the free coolers of rum punch offered at St. Peter Great House.  All you have to do is buy a ticket to tour the grounds (which are actually beautiful anyway) and such endless drinks are included. 

Ruins at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation on St. John - iStockphoto.com / mablache
Ruins at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation on St. John - iStockphoto / Mablache

Other popular activities within the USVI include golfing on St. Croix, mountain-biking on Water Island, kayaking in Salt River Bay, horseback riding, and windsurfing.

BEST ANNUAL EVENT

In early April, the St. Thomas Yacht Club hosts the International Rolex Cup Regatta, an event which draws premier racers from around the world. 

Later in the month, St. Thomas is also the central location for the Virgin Islands Carnival, a celebration with distinctly African roots.  Although festivities at this time are actually taking place throughout the surrounding islands, the capital of St. Thomas tends to overflow the most with live music, parades, and “Mocko Jumbies,” or stilted participants dressed as spirits. 

Further contributing to the Carnival element, the St. John Festival in July is only distinguished by the fact that it is also meant to celebrate emancipation and independence, culminating in a big parade on the 4th.  Then in August, the U.S. Virgin Islands Open (Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament) is a prestigious St. Thomas charity event that donates all of its proceeds to the Boy Scouts of America. 

BEST LODGINGS

For anyone a fan of pirate lore, Bluebeard’s Castle and The Inn at Blackbeard’s Castle may be particularly appealing.  Both “castles,” situated in the hills above Charlotte Amalie, were originally built around 1680 as harbor watchtowers, before apparently being taken over as pirate hideouts.  Now both are more likely to be recognized as your everyday hotel. 

Or you might want to try a more personable stay at one of the many bed and breakfast sites in St. Thomas, like Bellavista, or at one of the charming inns, like Garden of the Silver Palm. 

Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas - iStockphoto.com / polette2
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas - iStockphoto Polette2

For another St. Thomas alternative, the Best Western Emerald Beach Resort is certainly a convenient choice, if only for its close proximity to the airport.  Despite being part of a branded chain, this setting on Lindberg Bay actually provides an amazingly unique vibe and happy, tropical atmosphere.  Also, the beachside bar and restaurant are open all day long. 

Next, over on St. John, the Maho Bay Campground is definitely not to be missed.  Like the rest of Stanley Selengut’s eco-friendly creations, it offers the perfect opportunity to reconnect with nature.  The surroundings are lush and beautiful, and although communal bathhouses are shared, each tent-cottage is private. 

On a similar note, the VI Environmental Resource Station on St. John actually offers guests free room and board in exchange for four hours of “eco-research” per day. 

Lastly, on St. Croix, there are some really unique smaller resorts.  For example, Waves at Cane Bay offers a tropical atmosphere and off-the-beach diving near The Wall (with gear included in the room rate). 

Or, try a vintage stay at Pink Fancy near downtown Christiansted.  Once a destination for mid-century artists and writers, this boutique hotel is now filled with antiques and unique décor in every room.

A hen and her chicks stroll the beach in St. Croix.
A hen and her chicks stroll the beach in St. Croix.

BEST EATS

A longtime favorite of visitors and locals alike, Mafolie Restaurant on St. Thomas offers unbeatable views of the harbor below.  At night, the candlelit atmosphere is only matched by the glow of lower Charlotte Amalie.  Steak, pasta, and lobster are common fare, and there is even live music every Sunday night. 

On the Red Hook side of St. Thomas, Duffy’s Love Shack is another all-around favorite, mostly known for its festive, theme-like atmosphere.  The tropical drinks, with funny names like Revenge of Godzilla, are a great complement to the fresh food, and eventually, late-night atmosphere.  Remember, though, they don’t take credit cards. 

On St. John, Fish Trap has a stellar reputation for some of the best West Indian style seafood at moderate prices.  Asolare offers Pan-Asian fare and a fabulous sunset view of Cruz Bay.  There is also Woody’s, with its cheap beer and sailor atmosphere, or Fred’s, with its reggae music and ethnic vibe. 

On St. Croix, enjoy cocktails and live music at the Divi Carina Bay Casino (the only casino in the USVI).  Or, for the most local of experiences, don’t miss the ever-popular Junie’s Bar and Restaurant.  This spot is simple, family-run, and full of unique menu items. 

Try the stewed goat or a drink of maubi (the result of fermenting tree bark and rain water before adding sugar and spices).  Other popular creations throughout the USVI include kallaloo, conch fritters, Johnny cakes, and patés (not in the traditional sense, but instead referring to meat or seafood turnovers).

Magen Bay in St. Thomas
Magen Bay in St. Thomas

BEST SHOPPING

Due to sheer popularity, St. Thomas’ reputation as a duty-free paradise should be fairly noted.  In strolling the streets of Charlotte Amalie, center of Caribbean merchant and pirate trade since the 18th century, one is certain to find deals on anything from liquor to jewelry. 

On St. John, one should consider the shopping around Mongoose Junction.  On St. Croix, Christiansted is the shopping hub.  Other popular buys within the USVI include locally-made paintings, glasswork, pottery, and leather goods.

NOTE

Islanders drive on the left side of the road and walk on the left side of the sidewalk.  Also, if visiting St. Croix, avoid the more dangerous urban areas at night.

CONTACTS

U.S.V.I Division of Tourism: www.usvitourism.vi

Transportation

An iguana suns himself on St. John. iStockphoto.com / adwalsh
An iguana suns himself on St. John. iStockphoto/adwalsh

CyrilE.KingAirport: 340-774-5100, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
HenryE.RohlsenAirport: 340-778-1012, Christiansted, St. Croix
Ferry Transportation Services: 340-776-6282, St. Thomas and St. John
Smith’s Ferry Service: 340-775-7292, St. Thomas and St. Croix, smithsferry.com
Seaborne Airlines: 888-359-8687, 340-773-6442, Christiansted, St. Croix, seaborneairlines.com
Avis Rentals: 800-331-1084, all locations, avis.com
Budget Rentals: 800-626-4516, 340-776-5774, all locations, budgetstt.com, budgetstcroix.com
Dependable Car Rental: 800-522-3076, 340-774-2253, St. Thomas, dependablecar.com
St. John Car Rental: 340-776-6103, CruzBay, St. John, stjohncarrental.com
L & L Jeep Rental: 340-776-1120, St. John, bookajeep.com
Judi of Croix Car Rentals: 877-903-2123, 340-773-2123, Christiansted, St. Croix, judiofcroix.com

Attractions and Activities

St. Thomas Synagogue: 340-774-4312, Synagogue Hill, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Annaberg Sugar Plantation: Leinster Bay Rd., Virgin IslandsNational Park, St. John
Cruzan Rum Distillery: 340-692-2280, West Airport Rd., St. Croix, cruzanrum.com
St. Peter Great House and Gardens: 340-774-4999, St. Thomas, greathouse-mountaintop.com
Carambola Golf Course: 340-778-5638, St. Croix, carambolabeach.com/golfing.htm
WaterIsland Adventures: 340-714-2186, St. Thomas, waterislandadventures.com
Salt RiverBay: nps.gov/sari/
Paul and Jill’s Equestrian Stables: 340-772-2880, Frederiksted, St. Croix, paulandjills.com

St. John offers many scenic vistas.
St. John offers many scenic vistas.

Events

International Rolex Cup Regatta: 340-775-6320, rolexcupregatta.com
Virgin Islands Carnival: 340-776-3112, vicarnival.com
Carnival in St. John: 340-776-6450
U.S.Virgin Islands Open / Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament: 340-775-9500, abmt.vi

Lodging

Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel: 340-774-1600, Bluebeard’s Hill, St. Thomas, bluebeards-castle.com
The Inn at Blackbeard’s Castle: 340-776-1234, Blackbeard’s Hill, blackbeardscastle.com
Bellavista Bed and Breakfast: 340-714-5706, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, bellavista-bnb.com
Garden of the Silver Palm: 340-715-4116, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
BestWesternEmeraldBeach Resort: 340-777-8800, LindberghBay, St. Thomas, emeraldbeach.com
MahoBay Campground: 800-392-9004, 340-715-0501, CruzBay, St. John, maho.org
VI Environmental Resource Station: 888-647-2501, 410-647-2500, St. John, islands.org/virgin/viers

Lindberg Bay, St. Thomas
Lindberg Bay, St. Thomas

Waves at CaneBay: 800-545-0603, 340-778-1805, St. Croix, canebaystcroix.com
Pink Fancy: 340-773-8460, 27 Prince St., St. Croix, pinkfancy.com

Dining

Mafolie: 800-225-7035, 340-774-2790, 7091 Estate Mafolie, St. Thomas, mafolie.com
Duffy’s Love Shack: 340-779-2080, 6500 RedHookPlaza, St. Thomas, duffysloveshack.com
Fish Trap: 340-693-9994, CruzBay, St. John, thefishtrap.com
Asolare: 340-779-4747, Caneel Hill, CruzBay, St. John
Woody’s Seafood Saloon: 340-779-4625, CruzBay, St. John, woodysseafood.com
Fred’s: 340-776-6363, CruzBay, St. John
Divi Carina Bay Casino: 877-773-9700, 340-773-7529, St. Croix, carinabay.com
Junie’s Bar and Restaurant: 340-773-2801, 132 Peter’s Rest., Christiansted, St. Croix

Shopping

Mongoose Junction: CruzBay, St. John, mongoosejunctionstjohn.com

 

C. Kennerly is a part-time writer and photographer who studied history and global affairs in college.

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