|Size||134 square miles (346 square kilometers)|
|Population||110,000 (76% black, 15.7% white, 17.5% Hispanic, 8.4% other)|
|Status||Unincorporated and organized territory of the United States|
|GDP per capita (2015)||$36,350|
|Electricity||US standard two-prong|
|Driving||on the left|
Whenever you spot an ad from a travel company promoting the Caribbean, there is a good chance a picture in the ad was taken on one of the US Virgin Islands. The perfect combination of lush hills, turquoise bays and calm waters makes USVI one of the most, if not the most, picturesque place in the Caribbean. Hence, it’s no surprise that several local beaches make the top 10 best in world list every year. This also means the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St.Croix are very popular tourist destinations with over a million visitors coming here every season. Majority of them first land in St. Thomas, which is the most developed island and its biggest town of Charlotte Amalie is the capital of USVI. As a popular cruise port, Charlotte Amalie is, in fact a miniature metropolis with lots of great, duty-free shopping, some fantastic cosmopolitan restaurants and many historical sights and attractions. Although equally cosmopolitan, St. John and its villages is nowhere near as busy as St. Thomas. Two thirds of its land is actually protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park making it an ideal place for those who enjoy nature and hiking. Finally, St. Croix, which is located 40 miles from the other two islands, differs from its relatives in its vibe, but has an equal amount of charm and beauty.
All three of the islands are rich in history. As many as four colonial empires wrestled for their control in the beginning of colonial era of the Caribbean in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, it was the Danes who finally took control of the three lands in the 18th century. Their neutral approach to colonial conflicts in the region meant that the islands were not ravaged by wars in a similar way as many other neighbouring lands were. Instead, for a long while St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix prospered through their cane sugar and rum industries, for which the Danes brought in thousands of African slaves. It wasn’t until the 19th century when beet-root sugar production started in Europe that the islands’ economies suffered. Then, eventually came World War I that although had no direct impact on the three islands, it meant that US strategic interests grew in the region while Denmark looked to support its own, weakened economy. Therefore, in 1917 Denmark sold St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to the United States for $25 million dollars. However, not much changed for the islands themselves until the 1950s, when tourism started to bring in revenues in the form of US dollars. And today, US Virgin Islands are a true Caribbean hotspot recognized globally for their astounding beauty and tourist friendly atmosphere.
There are two international airports on US Virgin Islands – Cyril E. King International on St. Thomas as well as Henry E. Rohlsen International on St. Croix. However, most direct flights from the United States fly to St. Thomas with the only non-stop flights to St. Croix originating in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. You can get to St. Thomas from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Chicago Atlanta, Miami and a couple other airports seasonally. If you are flying to USVI from Canada or Europe you will need to connect at an airport in the United States. Finally, if your final destination is St. John then your best bet will be to fly to St. Thomas and take a ferry from Charlotte Amalie (40 minute ride) or Red Hook harbour (20 minute ride) on the east coast or you can also fly to Tortola on British Virgin Islands and take a ferry to Cruz Bay from there.
Although renting a car is not very difficult on any of the three USVI islands, driving on them is. The roads are steep and narrow here with many sudden turns and twists. Driving on the left is an additional stress factor for US or Canadian drivers making the overall experience less than fun. If your driving skills aren’t great and you are not planning to move around lots, consider relying on local taxis and buses instead. Taxis are usually van size and their drivers tend to pack them with as many passengers as possible. Rates are fixed so you should know your costs upfront. As for buses, both St. Thomas and St. John have a decent network of buses that get around key points on the islands (at $1 per ride). However, keep in mind the buses will only pick you up and drop off on main roads, which means you may have to walk quite a bit to your final destination. Finally, if you want to get between the islands its worth keeping in mind the ferries (not all of them) between St. Thomas and St. John do take on cars as well as people. However, if you rent on St. Thomas you will be advised not to take the rental on a ferry for insurance reasons. You can take the risk of course, but if you rather be safe than sorry, consider taking the ferry on foot and renting a car in Cruz Bay to get around St. John.
Things to explore
There is lots to see and do on US Virgin Islands, especially considering their relatively small size. You can literally spend a week in Charlotte Amalie alone and never be bored! Of course, if your time is limited, you cannot miss out on visiting as many of the gorgeous beaches of these islands as possible. One could argue, USVI have the most paradise like beaches per square mile anywhere in the world. It will be best to go island by island and describe their key attractions as well as list all of the (in our opinion), best beaches.
St. Thomas – when you land here you will actually be arriving to Charlotte Amalie West. From here, its only a couple minute drive to Charlotte Amalie center, which is rich in historical and cultural sights. One of them that is hard to miss and sits right in the center on the bay is Fort Christian, a 17th century fort that has served many functions for the local population over the centuries and is in fact, the oldest stone building on the island. Just a couple minute walk from Fort Christian is Haagensen House, a quirky little house from early 19th century turned into a museum and definitely worth a visit. Another couple minute walk from here is a picturesque staircase called 99 steps that leads to a 17th century watchtower called Blackbeard’s Castle dedicated to the famous pirate, who visited the island often back in the day. You can get a great view from up here out to the whole of St. Thomas and its lovely bay.
Once you come down from the hill, you will find the second oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere on Krystal Street. Right next to it is also the Weibel Museum, which showcases the history of the Jewish population on the island. For much history of the island you will want to head to the Historical Trust Museum (only opened on Wednesdays) located by the pretty Roosevelt Park. Besides historical sights and museum, Charlotte Amalie is also a superb shopping destination with a huge choice of shops selling crafts, jewellery, clothing, alcohol, tobacco and much more! You will find most of the popular shops between Waterfront Highways and Main Street where you will find several extensive malls and passages full of little shops, which offer high quality and duty-free products. You will also find here some quite unusual establishments like the Magic Ice Gallery located on the Waterfront where you can see many impressive ice sculptures and stay very cool when the heat is scorching outside!
Once you get out of Charlotte Amalie going north, be sure to stop at Drake’s Seat, a viewpoint from which you can see much of Magens Bay and the capital town. You will find another amazing overlook of Charlotte Amalie at Paradise Point in Havensight, to which you can get to with a gondola. One more great viewpoint is located in Estate St. Peter and its called Mountain Top. From here you will see tens of miles out as well as closer out to some of St. Thomas’ best beaches. Speaking of which, St. Thomas has tens of great beaches, but the ones most well-known and recognized are:
- Magens Bay – the longest beach on the island and also one of the most popular. Its busy here most of the time, but you will always find a good and private spot for yourself. All kinds of amenities are available here such as snorkel equipment rental, food and drinks, showers and toilets.
- Lindquist Beach – possibly the most peaceful and undeveloped of all of the island’s beaches, Lindquist Beach has a large parking as well as showers and changing rooms. If being away from the crowds is why you came to USVI in the first place, this is definitely a place to put on your list.
- Sapphire Beach – just a couple hundred meters away from Lindquist Beach, Sapphire Beach is fronted by many hotels so its not as wild or pretty as the two mentioned earlier, but its still a fun place to visit, especially as snorkeling here is truly of first rate.
- Coki Beach – small and tends to get busy, but this is the best place to snorkel on St. Thomas. The variety and count of fish you will see so close to shore here is hard to beat. Plus, there are several great restaurants tens of feet from the water so you can run from your food into the water in seconds.
St. John – Virgin Islands National Park is definitely the coolest thing about this island. No other island in the Caribbean has so much of its territory protected and undeveloped. This makes St. John the ideal place to visit for nature lovers and those who enjoy hiking. The best place to start a hike into the National Park is from its visitor center, which is located just a couple minute walk from Cruz Bay Ferry Terminal. The visitor center offers trail maps and tours of the park and its opened on weekdays. Cruz Bay itself is pretty small and there aren’t many sights here, though you can do plenty of good shopping, eating and drinking here. Outside of Cruz Bay, St. John also has several old sugar plantations that you can explore and that allow you to peak into the colonial past of the island. The best preserved is the Annaberg Plantation, which is free to visit and you can get a tour around the historical buildings and fields. The plantation also offers a spectacular view of Leinster Bay and if you walk down from the plantation to the water, you will get to a small rocky beach, which is perfect for a quick swim. However, you will not want to make to spend too much time here since when it comes to beaches, St. John has the most of the best in all of the Caribbean:
- Honeymoon Beach – it takes a hike to get here, but its worth it. Its quiet and calm and rarely disturbed by noise. There are no amenities here, but then again, the wilderness is its main appeal
- Hawksnest Beach – although also feels wild and undeveloped, this beach has a large parking area and toilets and tends to get busy, especially on the weekends.
- Trunk Bay – picture of this beach appears on many travel catalogues and websites. Its amazing for snorkelling and swimming and of course, for picture taking!
- Cinnamon Bay – the longest stretch of sand on the island, it possibly also has the best views. The surrounding lush hills are gorgeous and the water is very shallow and perfectly still
- Maho Bay – close to Cinnamon Bay, this narrow beach offers much wilderness and there are few crowds. Trees and bushes that line up the beach give great shade and are feet away from water
St. Croix – rich in history, St. Croix is home to many expansive sugar plantations and rum distilleries. Its two main towns of Frederiksted and Christiansted are also full of historical sights and attractions. For one, they both have large forts within their borders (Fort Federik and Fort Christiansvaern) that are hard to miss and are definitely worth a visit. Both towns also have nice waterfronts and boulevards that are lined up by a few tasty restaurants and bars. Outside Frederiksted and Christiansted, you should definitely check out several plantations and distilleries like the Estate Whim and Museum, Estate Mount Washington Plantation, Cruzan Distillery as well Captain Morgan Distillery in Annaberg and Shannon Grove.
If you are all about nature, St. Croix also has plenty to offer. There is the large St. George Village Botanical Garden set within remains of an old sugar plantation, Salt River National Preserve where you can encounter lots of species of fauna and flora as well as Point Udall in the very east of the island, where you can do some great hiking and enjoy some splendid sights of the coast as well as take a dip into a water in one of Fairleigh Dickinson Territorial Park beaches. When it comes to these, St. Croix also has plenty of beautiful stretches of sand to choose from just like its sister islands. Our pick for the top five are:
- Jack Beach – this beach offers complete privacy and superb views. This is a great spot for surfers as waves and wind can get quite strong though there are no amenities here.
- Buck Island – off the north coast of St. Croix this uninhabited island offers great snorkeling and scuba diving and the beach here has some spectacular views out to St. Croix mainland
- Sandy Point – only a couple miles south of Frederiksted, this wild and wide beach is part of the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge so besides being a beach bum you can also do some good hiking here
- Rainbow Beach – this almost two mile beach to the north of Frederiksted Pier is popular among tourists and locals alike. There are plenty of amenities here and you will get a good view of incoming and outgoing cruise ships
- Hay Penny Beach – expect plenty of wilderness here and calm and shallow waters, in which you can relax and forget all your troubles. The beach stays mostly quiet so there is a good chance you will have it all to yourself
US Virgin Islands have plenty of very good hotel options. You can expect to find most choices in St. Thomas and the least in St. John. Because of smaller number of accommodations available, St. John is also, in general, the most expensive of the three islands. On St. Thomas, you can find plenty of lovely boutique hotels for under $200 per night as well as several high end resorts like the Ritz-Carlton where you should expect to spend a minimum of $600 per night. St. Thomas also has many condo rentals available and one well-reviewed company that offers private villas and condos is Caylypso Realty.
On St. John as well as on St. Croix, private villas are even more popular. Here, many of the best apartment and house properties are located high in the hills with great views over surrounding turquoise bays. Prices for villas and condos start at about $200 and go to well above $1,000 per night. You can expect to find fully stacked kitchens, terraces and outdoor pools at most villas and apartment complexes. When it comes to resorts, both islands have a few although not nearly as many as on St. Thomas. Popular, though not cheap options include secluded Caneel Bay Resort and family friendly Westin Resort on St. John as well as inexpensive Tamarind Reef Resort and popular among golfers The Buccaneer on St. Croix.
Food & restaurants
When it comes to dining, UV Virgin Islands feel like the United Nations. You can find many types of international cuisine here and there is also lots of food experimentation going on here. Like with accommodations, the most choices are available on St. Thomas and especially in Charlotte Amalie, where you will find several very fine establishments like Banana Tree Grille, which not only serves truly fantastic dishes, but also offers some amazing views of the town harbour and ships coming and out of it. Although there may be slightly fewer restaurants on St. John and St. Croix, there are plenty of superb establishments here as well. You will locate the most variety of options in and around Cruz Bay, Christiansted and Frederiksted.
Of course, besides going out, you may thinking of cooking many meals yourself, especially if you are staying at a private villa or a condominium. Unfortunately, if you want to do it to save money, you are out of luck. Groceries on each of the three islands are very expensive and it is, in fact, often cheaper to eat out in a restaurant here rather than prepare meals yourself. Nonetheless, if you do decide to cook much, consider making some of the local specialties like the Caribbean pate (fried pastry with spicy filling) or fish and fungi. You can actually ask for some local recipes from local restaurant owners and most of them will be happy to share some of their own, “secret” cooking tips with you.
Although they are not big party destinations, you can find good bars and late night music on each of the three USVI islands. Most of this activity happens in and around the major towns though there are also several bars inside the bigger hotels. A couple hotels, like the Divi Carina Bay Resort on St. Croix also operate a small casino. St. Croix also hosts an evening jazz concert once a month on Fridays on the waterfront of Frederiksted. The Sunset Jazz is a popular event visitors and locals alike and its performers include some of the Jazz artists of the Caribbean. Its also free to attend so there is no reason to miss it out!
Sports & adventure
Sailing, snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and hiking are the top five activities of the US Virgin Islands. Indeed, the islands are heard to beat in all of these categories. The many gorgeous bays of St. Thomas and St. John are truly perfect spots to set anchor and jump into the water with a mask on or put in a fishing rod and wait for a blue marlin to roll around. There are many companies located in Charlotte Amalie, Red Hook, Cruz Bay as well as in Frederiksted and Christiansted that offer boat charters as well as fishing and diving tours. In fact, you will have so many choices of boats and cruises, its worth to research and plan your boating expeditions well in advance. Keep in mind, prices here can be pretty high, especially in high season. Nevertheless, the experiences on, in and under the water in USVI are worth every penny!
However, there is plenty to do and experience on land as well. The Virgin Islands National Park on St. John is definitely in the top three of National Parks of the Caribbean. There are tens of miles of beautiful hiking here that takes you over many hills and leads you to calm and quiet lagoons where you can jump into turquoise waters to refresh. The most famous trail is the Reef Bay Trail that cuts right through the middle of the park and offers some fantastic views of the island. Besides St. John, you can also do a fun hike on St. Croix in Annaly that takes you through hills all the way to the coast and Annaly Bay Tide Pools where you can take a dip in natural pools and take some great photos.
USVI are also a paradise for animal lovers. Charlotte Amalie has a large butterfly garden located in Havensight Mall whereas Coral World Ocean Park in Red Hook is a fun place both, kids and adults alike. Here you can swim with dolphins, sharks, turtles and more! There are also tons of exhibits as well as shows you can see every day. Tickets are $19 per person. For horseback lovers, you can find a well-managed stable on each of the three islands. To name just three of the more well-known, there is the Golden Age Ranch on St. Thomas, Carolina Corral on St. John as well as Paul and Jill’s Equestrian Stables on St. Croix. Finally, if you enjoy kayaking there are several well reviewed companies that offer EcoTours allowing you to explore local mangroves and observe animals living within them. You will have a good opportunity to spot large iguanas as well as exotic birds and fish. A several hour tour will cost you from $100 to $150 per person.
Safety and security
Although generally safe, petty crime is not unusual on each of the three islands. One of the most common type of it are car (especially to rental cars) break ins. Therefore, be sure not to leave your valuables in a car whenever and wherever you park it. Indeed, your best course of action may be to keep a car window rolled halfway down so that potential thieves have a look inside and leave empty handed without braking your car windows. Besides leaving your car without valuables in it, you yourself should also avoid carrying your valuables and passports on you. If you have a safe in your room, use it. Otherwise, if you can leave your most precious items somewhere else at your hotel, it is a good idea to do so. Finally, do not venture late at night outside the main tourist areas and even there, remain cautious.