Everything You Need to Know Before Visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands
This trio of islands in the Caribbean Sea—St. John, St. Croix, and St. Thomas—is famous for its dreamy beaches, world-class snorkeling and diving, and pristine beaches. It’s also a snap to get to from most of the 50 states, with plenty of non-stop flights that can be fairly inexpensive. Best of all? U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to visit.
Travelers can find accommodations for all types of trips, whether it's a family getaway or a romantic retreat. St. John, for example, is known as the "Beverly Hills of the Caribbean," thanks partially to its more remote location (visitors must arrive on a boat or ferry from Charlotte Amalie).
St. Thomas, meanwhile, is perhaps the most popular island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's a popular port of call for cruise ships, and is the most likely place to get a flight.
And vacationers seeking exceptional food and a slightly more quiet island escape should head to St. Croix. The largest of the main islands, St. Croix is known for its burgeoning food scene (and an always-excellent West Indian curry).
Whether you're island hopping or looking for a lengthy, low-key beach retreat, travelers can find everything they need from a Caribbean vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A History of Colonization
These islands—about 50 small islets and cays in addition to the three largest—have been claimed by many nations over the centuries, including Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands. Most recently, the Danes claimed St. John and St. Thomas in the late 17th century, followed by St. Croix in 1733.
Denmark developed plantations, grew sugar, and used first criminals, then African slaves for labor. The early 19th century witnessed a decline in the sugar industry on the islands, along with slave revolts.
Slavery was abolished in 1848, and in the 1860s, the United States began negotiations for a purchase of the islands. It came to fruition in 1917, so the U.S. Virgin Islands will celebrate a century of U.S. possession in 2017.
Things to See
On St. Thomas, visit the synagogue—the oldest American synagogue in continuous use and a national historic landmark—where the floors are made of sand.
Be sure to get out on the water and see all the beaches, particularly on St. Thomas (Magens Bay is great for kids) and St. John (where Trunk Bay remains world-renowned).
See the sprawling botanical garden on St. Croix, and keep a look-out for various types of enormous sea turtles, such as the hawksbill, and the hard-to-find leatherbacks. But please, don't touch the wildlife.
If you’re curious about the history of the island, wander the brick-lined alleys of downtown St. Thomas during the daytime, including Market Square. This was the site of slave trading, and the painful separating of families.
Activities on the Islands
Adventurous travelers love ziplining here, while the more leisurely prefer chartering a boat, eating slow West Caribbean lunches, and sipping wine. If you need a workout, look for the famed “99 steps” in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the Virgin Islands, which lead to Blackbeard’s Castle. Constructed in the 1660s by the Danish military, it's a great spot for a view.
If you're visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands, you should also listen to live music and go out for tropical drinks. St. John is the least settled of the three isles, so you’ll likely stick to your hotel or B&B while there, but spontaneous shows tend to spring up all over these islands. On St. Thomas, check out the live Sunday afternoon jazz at open-air bar Fat Turtle.
Snorkeling and diving are top-notch here, with gorgeous reefs that lure visitors worldwide (the Virgin Islands Coral Reef Monument is a terrific spot for donning your goggles). And don’t miss the sprawling national park on St. John, where you can snorkel, camp, and hike along mountain paths to hidden coves.
Places to Stay
Whether you decide on an all-inclusive option, a ritzy hotel on St. Thomas (which has the poshest places), or a quiet bed and breakfast on St. John, there are plenty of places to stay in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Point Pleasant Resort is away from the hubbub of downtown on St. Thomas, and its location on the east side of the island makes for easy jaunts to St. John. Rooms are done in tasteful Caribbean decor (wicker furniture, tropical prints) and boast large balconies. And at the Ritz-Carlton—a larger, more imposing hotel known for pampering guests—travelers will find a more refined take on island design. Expect private balconies or terraces, marble baths, and contemporary finishes.
Meanwhile, the 16 rooms, sprawling gardens, and knockout views of Estate Lindholm on St. John are available to those willing take the 20-minute ferry over.
And on St. Croix, The Buccaneer remains a hotspot, thanks to its 18-hole golf course, eight tennis courts, and three private beaches. Travelers can also book a room at Starfish Cottage at Judith's Fancy, a cozy space with a full kitchen and wraparound porch, perfect for large families and groups.
Where to Eat
While visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands, you're going to want to look for—and ask about—the local fish. Don't leave without trying specialties like conch fritters and Caribbean lobster, grouper and flying fish. Also look for jerk chicken, roast pork, pepperpot, and goat stew on restaurant menus.
St. Thomas has many options for upscale restaurants, such as Oceana, which is right on the water and serves bouillabaisse, pork rillettes, and a fantastic mushroom-leek tarte tatin. Travelers can also tuck into classics at Gladys’ Café, where the hot sauce is homemade. And St. Croix seems to be having something of a culinary awakening. At Balter, for example, diners might find cured balcony and fresh herbs from the restaurant's private garden.
Secrets of the Islands
One local told Travel + Leisure that rum is cheaper than Coca-Cola on these islands—so the drinks are correspondingly strong, for which a lot of tourists are not prepared. Think twice before you order a second round of rum punches for the table.
Everyone says “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening," on these islands, so to waltz up to a busboy, waiter, or local without greeting them first is considered the height of rudeness.
How to Get There—and Get Around
No matter where you're headed in the U.S. Virgin Islands, travelers must fly into either St. Thomas or St. Croix, both of which have airports. If you're bound for St. John, however, be prepared to take a 20-minute ferry or chartered boat.
The main islands in the archipelago, especially St. Thomas and St. Croix, are also popular ports of call for cruise ships. Consider taking a Caribbean cruise if you're keen on seeing this string of islands.
Taxis are very expensive, often charging upwards of $30 per head for a short drive, so consider renting a car if you’re here for more than a day. Just be prepared to drive on the left side of the road, and know that local drivers tend to think of stop signs as suggestions. When using local buses, ask before boarding to ensure you’re not boarding a “taxi bus,” which is more expensive than the "safari” or “tap-tap” buses, on which locals simply stomp the floor when they want to get off.
Currency and Where to Shop
United States currency is the thing. Most stores and restaurants will accept credit cards, but not always American Express. In the open-air plazas, bring cash for spontaneous purchases like knock-off designer tote bags.
There’s excellent shopping to be had here, particularly for jewelry and locally made specialties such as hot sauce, rum, linens, china, and crystal. Keep in mind that it’s duty-free, which can make all the difference on your return trip home. Travelers have an allowance of $1,600, so keep a good record of what you’ve purchased—and know that St. Thomas is the place you’ll find the most variety.
On St. Croix, look to Christiansted’s boardwalk and Frederiksted’s Strand Street for the best souvenirs. If you're on St. John, check out the shops in Coral Bay, Wharfside Village, and Mongoose Junction.
When to Visit the U.S. Virgin Islands
Most visitors arrive between December and April, seeking a respite from colder climes, but one local suggests not overlooking the summer months. During June and July, kids are out of school and will befriend your own children on the beach—particularly at places like shallow-waved Magen Bay on St. Thomas. And you can often get your kids onto the beach for as low as a single dollar.
Regardless of when you book your trip, anticipate temperatures in the 70s and 80s year-round, with most rain falling during hurricane season and peaking in the autumn months.