Looking for tropical adventure that’s still close to home (and that doesn’t require a passport for Americans)? The U.S. Virgin Islands, located just over 1,100 miles from Miami and a quick flight from Puerto Rico, provide an easily accessible way to get lost in the sun, sand and natural fun of the Caribbean with adventures that seem far removed from your hectic life back home.
While it’s possible to visit all three of the larger Virgin Islands in one weeklong trip, it requires some planning. Forty miles of rough sea separate St. Croix from its smaller brethren, and there is no ferry service, necessitating a flight on a puddle jumper if you leave the island. Although many travelers base themselves in heavily commercialized St. Thomas, accommodations are available on the less trafficked islands of St. John and Water Island, allowing you a more peaceful stay.
Check out our list of 10 recommended experiences in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Paddle to History
Because of its status as a tourism hub, St. Thomas has no shortage of organized excursions and activities, from zip-lining to flyboarding to family-friendly Coral World. While more natural options, including kayaking, hiking and birding, are available, they can be a little harder to find.
One we like: A kayaking trip to historic Hassel Island, offered by Virgin Islands Ecotours. About 95 percent of this island, visible from Charlotte Amalie, is owned by the National Park Service. Once you get there, you can tour the ruins of Fort Willoughby, a British fort that dates to Napoleonic times, and explore the Creque Marine Railway.
Camp in the Rain Forest
At one time, the Rockefeller family owned large portions of St. John; Laurance Rockefeller donated the land to the National Park Service in 1956. A luxe vibe still remains on parts of the island, including the tony Caneel Bay Resort and numerous private villas scattered among the hills.
The antidote? Booking a tent at one of the two campgrounds on the island. Cinnamon Bay, part of Virgin Islands National Park, offers the more rustic experience, although you still have access to services such as showers, cafes and water sports rentals. On the island’s east side, Concordia Eco-Resort features eco-tents more for “glampers” for whom solid walls, a pool and Wi-Fi make outdoor life more attractive.
Get a Taste of the Islands
As the most agricultural of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix has become an emerging destination for foodies; the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience attracts more visitors every year, and local chefs are upping their game to keep up.
If you’re looking for authentic island cooking, you can’t go wrong at La Reine Chicken Shack, located on the road between Christiansted and Frederiksted. Locals and travelers in the know (including Martha Stewart!) line up for pork, fish and chicken that’s been barbecued to perfection on the grills out back. Don’t miss the “johnny cake,” fried bread dumplings also known in the Caribbean as “bake.” Note that the restaurant is cash only.
Watch a Movie on the Beach
A quick 10-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas’ Crown Bay, Water Island is considered the “fourth Virgin Island” and has long been a day tripper destination for people drawn to its quieter vibe and beaches.
For those who can stay through sunset, Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill makes a memorable Monday night outing with its weekly movie night. A projection screen is strung between two palm trees, allowing diners to watch a flick from their table, a blanket or the golf carts that visitors and residents use to get around the island. Popcorn is sold, naturally.
Kayak in a Bioluminescent Bay
Of the three main Virgin Islands, St. Croix feels the most traditionally “Caribbean,” primarily because not as many cruise ships choose to stop there. That’s good news for independent travelers, who will find prime snorkeling and scuba opportunities on St. Croix’s beaches, as well as plenty of nature activities in its rain forests and mangrove bays.
One of these, within Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve, has bioluminescent properties. The best way to view the effects — generated when movement disturbs tiny plankton and comb jelly, causing them to glow — is during a nighttime kayaking trip through the park. Several operators, including Virgin Kayak Tours and Sea Thru Kayaks, offer evening excursions. Try to book your trip during the new moon, as the plankton glow brighter during this point of the lunar cycle.
A hub for Caribbean cruising, St. Thomas can seem swamped with tourists, particularly when five or more ships are in port. On this island, full of duty-free shopping and Diamonds International stores, even events celebrated primarily by locals can get crowded.
If that doesn’t bother you, make sure your visit coincides with Carnival, the island’s annual time set aside for music, masks and merriment. Unlike the celebrations on some Caribbean islands, Carnival here isn’t tied to Lent, and it usually takes place after Easter in April or May. Expect steel drums, calypso dance-offs, parades and costumes, as well as Caribbean food fairs.
Hike to Tidepools
Many people come to the Virgin Islands for beach bumming, but there are plenty of opportunities to hike too. The best hike in St. Croix allows time for both. The challenging 1.5-mile trail to the Annaly Bay tidepools starts at Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Resort and winds its way up and along the hillside ridge, before depositing you down at the pools, deep pockets of water filled by crashing ocean waves. You can swim under the natural waterfalls created by the sea, or merely examine the sea life that get caught in the pools.
Novices, be warned: The trail is often difficult in places, with jagged and slippery rocks; open-toed shoes are discouraged. Bring plenty of water and watch the tide schedule so you arrive when the water levels are lower and safer. If you’d rather not go independently, Tan Tan Tours provides a 2.5-hour Annaly Bay Tide Pool Swim.
Dance During the Full Moon
The Cruz Bay beach bars fill up with day trippers, but most leave on the ferry back to St. Thomas after dinner or earlier. That leaves the outdoor tables at Miss Lucy’s, a beachfront bar tucked away on the less traveled east side of the island, open for the lucky ones who have decided to stay on St. John for a few nights.
Once a month around the full moon, Miss Lucy’s throws a party that includes live music and a roasted suckling pig; if you’re on the island at this time, it’s considered the place to go. Alternatively, Sunday brunch provides the perfect start for limin’ the day away.
Sail Away, Sail Away
For sheer relaxation, it’s hard to beat exploring the Virgin Islands by sailboat. St. Thomas and St. John are just a few miles from the catamaran-crazy scene of the British Virgin Islands, and many travelers spend a week or more living on a boat, island-hopping.
Don’t know how to sail? Don’t fret. The Blue Water Sailing School on St. Thomas offers learning “Bareboat Skipper” vacations where you can develop your sea skills while still having time to relax. Trips leave on Saturday and come back on Friday, all year round.
See Plantations and Petroglyphs
Despite its proximity to St. Thomas, lush St. John seems a world apart. That’s because the bulk of the island is national park land, protected from overzealous developers. Although day trippers flock to popular beaches such as Trunk Bay, it’s still easy to find a stretch of sand to call your own.
Because it leaves in the morning, most cruise passengers miss the 5.5-hour guided Reef Bay Hike, offered by the National Park Service on select weekdays. The downhill trek meanders through the rain forest, passing the ruins of Reef Bay Plantation and native petroglyphs, before ending in Lameshur Bay. A National Park Service boat takes you back to Cruz Bay. Reservations are required; call at least two weeks in advance to snag a spot.
Best Time to Go to the U.S. Virgin Islands
As far as weather goes, the best time to travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas — is between December and May. However, accommodations and flights will also be more expensive during that time, particularly over the winter holidays. Atlantic hurricane season runs from June through November, and while there’s always a possibility of running into inclement weather during those months, most storms occur during September and October, so travel during most of the summer is usually worry-free. If you do choose to visit during hurricane season, consider purchasing travel insurance, just in case.
U.S. Virgin Islands on a Budget
The Virgin Islands are popular year-round, and traditional lodging can be expensive. Try booking a package deal that combines flights and accommodations, particularly those offered during the rainy season, which can save you hundreds of dollars. If you don’t mind more of a self-serve vacation, try a vacation rental, a bed and breakfast or even camping. As for shopping and dining, stay away from the most touristy spots. Ask the property manager or receptionist at your hotel for tips on where to get great local food for cheap.
–written by Chris Gray Faust