GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
U.S.V.I Division of Tourism: usvitourism.vi
CyrilE.KingAirport: 340-774-5100, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Attractions and Activities
St. Thomas Synagogue: 340-774-4312, Synagogue Hill, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
International Rolex Cup Regatta: 340-775-6320, rolexcupregatta.com
Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel: 340-774-1600, Bluebeard’s Hill, St. Thomas, bluebeards-castle.com
Mafolie: 800-225-7035, 340-774-2790, 7091 Estate Mafolie, St. Thomas, mafolie.com
Mongoose Junction: CruzBay, St. John, mongoosejunctionstjohn.com
C. Kennerly is a part-time writer and photographer who studied history and global affairs in college.
Read C. Kennerly's destination guide to the British Virgin Islands
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