What's New in the U.S. Virgin Islands?

What’s New in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 2014: Sustainable Living Workshops and Water Sports Await Visitors

By Dan Peltier

Charlotte Amelie Harbor, St. Thomas
Charlotte Amalie Harbor, St. Thomas

When you think U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), you think beaches and resorts. It’s a place people go to get away from their stresses and relax. But this year, the islands are rolling out new activities and excursions that will allow you to do more than get sand between your toes.

There is no passport requirement to visit the islands, making getting there easier than other island destinations.

“The U.S. Virgin Islands is often referred to as ‘America’s Paradise,’ mixing authentic Caribbean culture with the ease of traveling within the United States,” said USVI Commissioner of Tourism Beverly Nicholson-Doty. “Our Territory offers a no-passport-required status for U.S. citizens, and direct flights from most major cities on the Eastern Seaboard.”

For History Buffs

The Estate Whim Museum along the St. Croix Heritage Trail
The Estate Whim Museum along the St. Croix Heritage Trail

‘America’s Paradise’ is no longer a place where only beach-lovers go. Now, history buffs can indulge in the islands’ colorful Dutch history that isn’t well-known to most Americans. The Western world first became interested in the islands after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1493. Since then, the islands have been ruled by seven different powers: The Spanish, English, French, Knights of Malta, French (for a second time), the Danish, and now they are a part of the U.S.

Columbus named the islands after the legend of Saint Ursula and her eleven-thousand virgins. The colony established on the islands was one of the leading trading and shipping hubs in the New World, with St. Croix being dubbed the “Garden of the West Indies” for becoming the wealthiest sugar-producing island in the region.

The remaining sugar plantations on St. Croix today continue to be a big draw for visitors wanting to learn about the Slave Trade and the early economy of the islands.

The Danes started their nearly three century rule of the islands and their influence and is most visible to visitors today. Street, town and area names, architecture and former plantations all reveal the vast influence on the islands still remaining after 251 years under Danish rule.

History seekers can experience the islands’ Danish history in multiple ways. The newly-restored Estate Whim Museum, an 18th-century plantation Great House serves as a museum of Danish island history. In addition to a sugar mill and gift shop, the museum features an impressive collection of sturdy mahogany furniture and hand-carved mahogany artwork in traditional style that reflects the talent of St. Croix master craftsmen of yesteryear, and has since been reproduced for international trade.

The museum is one of many stops along The St. Croix Heritage Trail, which is a great way to explore the unique influences of the Danish, French, Spanish, West Indian, African and other cultures on the architecture and history of the island. This is a self-guided tour that includes over 200 points of interest and can be done by driving or hiking part of the trail.

If you’re looking to experience history in a place where it merges with the islands’ modernity, Downtown Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas offers a satisfying mix of nostalgia and trendiness. Charlotte Amalie, named after a Danish queen, is still the USVI’s most cosmopolitan city, and everything that is sold in shops are duty free.

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The city is known for its thriving merchants selling a dazzling selection of both the latest styles of jewelry and their own unique designs, fine fragrances, cosmetics, china, crystal, spirits and apparel. Guided walking tours through downtown Charlotte Amalie take visitors past the Danish-named streets to some of the Danes’ most outstanding architectural landmarks, such as Fort Christian, the oldest standing structure in the Territory, which has stood as a symbol overlooking the Charlotte Amalie Harbor for more than 300 years.

Flyboarding on St. Thomas
Flyboarding on St. Thomas

The Landmarks Society of St.
Croix continues to offer visitors an opportunity to explore the islands Dutch legacy through museums and educations programs such as Annual House Tours and the Antiques Auction & Fair.

For Adventure Seekers

The USVI have become a place where it’s just as easy to get your adrenaline pumping as it is to get a tan.

On St. Croix, the newly re-opened Mount Victory Camp adds sustainable living workshops to the list of adventures visitors can have. At these workshops, you can learn how to build a fire, track animals, how to make a bow and arrow and how to make leather.

St. Thomas is featuring flyboarding, which is an “Iron Man” experience of sorts that takes you soaring above Lindbergh Bay. After 10 to 15 minutes with certified instructors, thrill seekers can go from swimming like a dolphin to back flipping up to 30 feet above the waters of St. Thomas.

Night kayak and paddleboard tours now await vacationers on St. John courtesy of the St. Thomas Adventure Center. The clear-bottom kayaks are equipped with powerful LED lights with the paddleboards retrofitted with LED lights, creating a window into the USVI waters to view nocturnal underwater life filled with coral, sting rays, turtles and nurse sharks.

You can also soar through the air with St. Thomas Jetriders, allowing visitors to fly above Caribbean crystal blue waters by using water-propelled jetpacks. Formerly a toy for the rich and famous, certified flight instructors can teach students the basics of flight within fifteen minutes. Introductory classes cost $200 for a 20-minute experience, while the 30-minute “Maverick” experience is $250.

For Hikers

On St. Thomas, the Historical Trust is offering the Hassel Island Tour. This three hour historical hike highlights glimpses of island history from archeological artifacts dating from 500 BC to forts build during British occupation centuries ago. Hassel Island is one of the locations of the first expeditions to the USVI and offers vacationers a rare look into what made the islands the paradise they are today.

The Francis Bay Trail on St. Thomas
The Francis Bay Trail on St. John

The island sits in the Charlotte Amalie harbor, just south of St. Thomas and east of Water Island. The 136-acre island was once a peninsula of St. Thomas known as Hurricane Hole and was separated by the Danish government in 1860 and used to defend Charlotte Amalie harbor in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was a popular trading port.

Travelers can kayak or take a boat ride over to Hassel Island and ascend up a rocky, 10-minute trail to Fort Willoughby, a former Danish and British Fort built during the Napoleonic wars.

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The Francis Bay Trail on St. John is ideal for all hiking levels and is an easily accessible, fairly short trail. This steady trail unveils ruins and eventually ends at the beach where bird-watching is ideal.

On St. Croix, the Blue Mountain Hike extends along one of the highest peaks on the island. It is a 3.5 mile intermediate-level hike along a dirt road path. This hike can be accomplished during the day or at night during a full moon, which illuminates the trail at the top of the mountain, making it a perfect location to stargaze.

For Foodies

Food trucks are spread throughout the islands and are one of the staples of island cuisine.

These trucks are often overlooked, but offer better prices and the option to take-away food to the beach or wherever you want to enjoy it. They are an important local trend that feature curry chicken, fresh produce, shaved ice, for example and have become more popular in recent years.

Kayaking on St. Thomas
Kayaking on St. Thomas

Among the indigenous dishes that can be found on local menus are kallaloo (a stew of okra, local greens, meat, seafood and spices), fungi (a cornmeal polenta-like dish), Johnny cake (a deep-fried unleavened bread) and patés (a spicy meat-filled fried pastry). Dishes like these decorate menus at restaurants all over the Territory, most notably at Sogo’s and Vie’s Snack Shack on St. John, Cuzzin’s Caribbean Restaurant & Bar and Glady’s Café on St. Thomas and Harvey’s or Kim’s Restaurant on St. Croix.

Getting There

American Airlines and Seaborne are now making it even easier to book travel to the USVI gateways of St. Croix and St. Thomas, with transfers in San Juan, PR.

Delta Air Lines is now offering new seasonal service from New York’s JFK Airport to St. Thomas. This daily service runs March 31, 2014, while the Saturday service begins April 1 and continues until August 30, 2014.

The Department of Tourism is offering two incentives this year to help make your dream of visiting the USVI more affordable. The “Find Your Bliss” promotion allows visitors to save $500 on their next Caribbean winter or spring getaway to St. Croix.

The “Intimate Treasures” promotion invites visitors to experience the USVI’s boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts. This offer includes $50 in dining certificates and $50 in attractions and activities certificates.

For more information on these promotions and to plan your trip, visit http://visitusvi.com.

Daniel Peltier

Daniel Peltier is a staff reporter for the travel news site Skift, in New York City. He began his travel writing after studying abroad, and then as an intern for GoNOMAD.com Travel. He got his journalism degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.