the islands | St. Croix | St. John | St. Thomas
US Virgin Islands
The sensory input you’ll get in the U.S. Virgin Islands—swaying palms, turquoise waters, salt-scented breezes, and driving drum beats, as a short list—is apt to convince you that you’ve arrived somewhere far from everyday life. But other parts of the experience will tell your thinking brain the opposite: you won’t need more than a driver’s license to get there, for example, and most major airlines will take you. Your U.S. dollars work, and so does your cell service.
Whether you’ll rejoice in Instagramming the natural beaches, vestiges of colonial history, pampering resorts and tasty Caribbean cuisine in real time, or you’d prefer to bury your phone in the sand, so to speak, every option is at your disposal. So grab a sun hat and some walking shoes—but leave your passport behind—to get started on a Caribbean adventure that strikes an inviting balance between home and a world away.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is made up of three main islands—stylish St. Croix, pastoral St. John and festive St. Thomas—plus about 50 small cays and islets, all set in the northeastern Caribbean.
St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie is the capital city and home to the most accessible airport (Cyril E. King/STT) for U.S. travelers, with nonstop flights from 5 US cities, though direct flights are also available to St. Croix's Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (STX).
Once you arrive, hopping from island to island is easy, thanks to frequent ferry service and the islands' close-set locations (St. Thomas and St. John are only 6 miles apart, while St. Croix is about 43 miles south).
Given the ease of getting there and getting around, it makes sense to explore the unique personality and flavor of each U.S. Virgin Island during your trip. Scroll on for a taste.
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You can have an even more unusual animal sighting at the Mt. Pellier Domino Club, a bar and restaurant housed inside this forested area, where the resident "beer drinking pigs" are always up for a (non-alcoholic) round.
Want to see more of St. Croix's festive side? Time your visit for the island's annual Carnival celebration, the Crucian Christmas Festival, which begins the day after Christmas and runs through Three Kings Day (Jan. 6).
Shopping & dining
Between souvenir-shopping and breezy beach sessions, you'll be treated to an abundance of choice on the restaurant scene. Try familiar favorites at spots like Blues' Backyard BBQ and Grill (the brisket sandwich is always a hit); Caribbean-style fare at La Reine Chicken Shack (the Johnny cakes are nothing short of addictive) or fine dining with an achingly beautiful view at Ama at Cane Bay (bonus: the farm- and tide-to-table dishes are sustainably sourced). Can't decide? A food tour lets you explore myriad flavors and eateries for a price that's easy to swallow.
History & architecture
Between the twin cities, travelers can explore the ruins of 18th-century sugar plantations. And don't miss a visit to Point Udall, where a giant stone sundial catches the first rays of sunlight to hit the U.S. each day (it's set on the easternmost plot of U.S. soil).
Nature and beaches
Wherever you stay, the ease of getting to—and enjoying—a U.S. Virgin Islands escape is liable to have you plotting your return before your plane home hits the tarmac.
Salt life devotees will find every conceivable maritime diversion on St. Thomas. The island is home to some of the most-loved beaches in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including horseshoe-shaped Magens Bay. Not for nothing, this postcard-ready palm-lined beach is the island's most popular. Those looking for quieter shores may want to opt for quieter Sapphire or Lindqvist Beach on the island's northeast shore instead.
Cultural sites & experiences
Rub elbows with locals as you explore the island's many enticing shops (there are over a hundred duty-free emporiums to peruse, so an extra suitcase is advisable). Seek out local specialties—stew conch, roti (an Indian-style flatbread) and kallaloo soup, for example—at island restaurants.
Or for the ultimate cultural experience (and a heavy dose of fun) time your visit around the island's Carnival festivities at the end of April.
Buck Island Sailing
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Buck Island, St. Croix
Bajo el Sol Gallery Art Bar, St. John
Mt. Pellier Domino Club
The BLOX Building (left); The Black Diamond (right)
Photo credit: Daniel Rasmussen
Wherever you beach, be sure to tote reef-safe sunscreen; all other kinds have been outlawed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
There's much to do and see on St. Thomas—billed by Travel + Leisure as "the cosmopolitan gateway to the U.S. Virgin Islands."
You can get a grasp on the variety of cultural influences that have impressed the island over time with a walk through the bustling capital of Charlotte Amalie. You'll find examples of Danish colonial architecture like Fort Christian—the longest-standing structure in the Virgin Islands at over 340 years—and dive into intriguing island history and lore at the Pirates Treasure Museum.
For an amazing snorkeling experience, consider a boat and snorkel tour to Water Island or Buck Island, both set just off St. Thomas' south shores. But those looking for a different kind of "immersive" undersea experience will want to include a visit to Coral World Ocean Park in their plans. This 5-acre park features a dolphin sanctuary, an observatory that puts you 15 feet below the water's surface to watch a coral reef in real time and even the chance to take a guided "walk"—complete with an oxygen helmet—on the ocean floor.
There's plenty of action for those who'd rather keep their heads above water, too—most notably during the St. Thomas International Regatta, which will celebrate its 50th year running this March.
USVI's largest island is loaded with sights—and sites— to see. Remnants of St. Croix's layered past, from the first inhabitants, to the arrival of Christopher Columbus and Dutch, British, French and Danish settlers, intermingle to create an experience that is uniquely Crucian.
Explore Christiansted's marigold-hued Fort Christiansvaern, one of the best-preserved colonial forts in the Caribbean. In Frederiksted (a.k.a. Christiansted's "twin city"), Fort Frederik radiates another primary color—red—which seems fitting considering the site's fundamental role in historical events, including a slave rebellion that led to abolition on the island.
Between St. Croix's eclectic shopping enclaves and its generous duty-free policy (buy up to $1,600-worth of goods tax-free across the U.S. Virgin Islands), you can plan to do more than window shop on St. Croix. If you're after a St. Croix-signature hook bracelet, set aside time to browse the jewelry boutiques in Christiansted. You'll also uncover cute surf shops, locally made body care products and galleries showing works by local artists.
The warm, semi-arid weather (read also: it's not humid) makes the U.S. Virgin Islands an ideal place to spend time outdoors. Pay a visit to St. George Village Botanical Garden to wander amid the cacti, bromeliads and tropical blooms from orchids to bougainvilleas, all set amid the ruins of a sugar plantation.
For a more rugged nature encounter, hike or drive (all-wheel-drive vehicle recommended) into St. Croix's "Rain Forest," 15 acres dense with kapok, mahogany, turpentine and fruit trees (mango, sweet lime and breadfruit, for example). Though it's not technically a rainforest, the area is home to an array of colorful bird species (Hummingbirds, Kestrels and Pearly-eyed Thrashers for starters) and animals like mongoose and iguanas.
St. George Village Botanical Gardens
Famously, St. John's unspoiled nature extends to its beaches, too. Trunk Bay Beach's crystal-clear waters, gleaming sands and intriguing underwater snorkeling trail make it a must-visit for sun worshipers, and its amenities (restrooms, showers, a snack shack and snorkel gear rental) lend it convenience as well. Maho Beach is prized for its prime turtle-viewing opportunities and calm waters. With about a mile of shoreline, Cinnamon Bay Beach is the longest in the park, and the only one that allows camping.
St. John is the least developed and most nature-rich among the U.S. Virgin Islands. In fact, more than half the island is protected by 5,500-acre Virgin Islands National Park.
Sapphire Beach, St. Thomas
The Westin Beach Resort & Spa at Frenchman's Reef just completed a head-to-toe renovation, unveiling a new spa, a luxe clifftop pool overlooking the sea and many water activity options, including sailing, standup paddleboarding and dinner cruises.
There are stay options for every travel style in the U.S. Virgin Islands, from luxurious eco-lodges on St. John to stylish resorts on St. Croix. And on St. Thomas, two in particular are making waves. The brand-new Morningstar Buoy Haus Beach Resort at Frenchman's Reef, Autograph Collection is a coastal-chic property set on the sands of Morningstar Beach. The 94-room hotel stars an oceanfront infinity pool and three dining and cocktail venues, including an oceanfront beach bar and eatery.
Within Virgin Islands National Park, you'll find windows to the island's long-reaching past—from ancient Taino petroglyphs to historic plantation sites—plus scenic overlooks, all accessible via the park's 20-plus hiking trails. There are also wheelchair-friendly boardwalks that lead to bird-viewing decks and historic ruins.
For an entirely different kind of activity, visit during St. John's annual Carnival—the St. John Celebration—which takes place late June through early July and commemmorates the abolishment of slavery.
Adrenaline seekers can strap in for a zipline tour that will grant 360-degree views of St. John's unreal blue-and-green beauty. And for those who would rather explore by sea, consider chartering a boat, jumping aboard a catamaran cruise or booking a snorkel tour. Divers will have their pick of incredible reefs, from the famed Wreck of the Rhone—a 367-foot sail-steamer ship that sank in 1867—to Grass Cay, a favored spot for dives at night, when octopus, crabs and lobsters are most active.
Cultural sites & experiences