Things To Do In The United States Virgin Islands (USVI)
You can do a whole heck of a lot. I personally enjoy going to the Caribbean and my family and I have fallen in love with the USVI's. I get asked questions all the time about this paradise and figured it might be a good idea to write a blog post about it to help others.
Let's start with the basics of this paradise....The USVI, which stands for the United States Virgin Islands, is located in the Caribbean, right next to the BVI's (British Virgin Islands), The Spanish Virgin Islands and just East of Puerto Rico/Vieques.
The islands that make up the USVI consist of:
- St. Thomas (the main hub, where you would fly into)
- St. John
- St. Croix
- Lovango Cay
- Water Island
Welcome to the USVI! Here is your greeting in St. Thomas with lively music, dancing and Moko Jumbie, if you get in on a weekend day. A perfect way to begin your vacation.
A question I'm most often asked is, do we need a passport to go here? The answer is NO. If you are American you do not need a passport to travel to these islands. The caveat to that is that if you plan on taking a ferry over to the BVI's, then you will be crossing over into international waters, which will require a passport to be shown. So, if your passport is expired or you don't have one and want to experience that beautiful Caribbean blue water and perfect sunsets you can easily do so here, in the USVI.
Picture above is from one of my favorite beaches in St. Thomas at sunset.
If you're thinking of visiting, but not sure what there is to do, let me be the first to tell you that there is plenty! Whether it's fishing, snorkeling/diving, hiking or even ziplining, these islands truly have it all, including great restaurants! Let's take a look at each of the major islands and break down the vibe and activities for each to simplify it. St. Croix is furthest away from the other islands and has a major airport to fly into. The other islands, St. Thomas, St. John, Lovango Cay and Water Island are very close to each other and require a ferry ride or boat transfer.
St. Thomas is like the NYC of the USVI. It's the main hub, where goods come in and out, it's where you'll find the bigger grocery stores for more options during your stay and this is where you will fly into whether you're staying on St. Thomas, St. John or Lovango Cay. It has the only international airport within these three islands. It is also the biggest island of the USVI and therefore a lot more cars and traffic! I think a lot of people are surprised when they first arrive, because all they see online are beautiful pictures of the water and boats, (which is all accurate), but just like any destination there is a lower income community and that will be apparent when driving to your accommodations, depending on where you're staying. But don't worry, no one will bother you and the island is incredibly beautiful, well kept and safe.
There are great restaurants, beautiful beaches and activities to do from the island. I would highly recommend renting a car; a jeep is always fun, and definitely reserve it sooner than later, as they go quickly! The island is large and if you want to go out and about to visit the different beaches and restaurants, then you'll save money by having a rental car. Taxi's will charge you per person and some areas will take a little more time to get to since there's only a couple of main roads to get across the island. The roads are narrow, hilly and curvy, so drive slow and you'll be just fine. In fact, it's hard to drive fast, but the turns can be a bit extreme at times, but it's all fun.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO ON STT (St. Thomas)?
There are many things to do while on island and hopefully this helps to create your plans for your next visit.
- I would highly recommend a day on a boat to visit different cays to snorkel or dive from. If you do a full day charter you'll have time to go various areas by St. John, Lovango Cay and Water Island. I would recommend a stop for lunch at one of the floating restaurants - Pizza Pi and LimeOut, two very cool and unique experiences and a lot of fun for a group. You can do this on a charter from St. Thomas, St. John and Lovango Cay.
- Whether you're two adults traveling or a family with young or older kids, a visit to Coral World for some animal encounters is a great time. You can swim with dolphins in the open sea sanctuary or hang out and feed the sea lions and/or sharks. Maybe try snuba or some sea trekking, as well as see all of the animals that have been rescued by the marine team. It's a nice marine park with a great aquarium and will surely keep you busy for a couple of hours easily, if not more.
(First 4 pictures are at Coral World. 5th and 6th picture are at Mountain Top.)
- For the most amazing views and the highest point on the island check out Mountain Top. Not only are the views incredible and you can see the BVI's, as well as the USVI's, you can also have a refreshment or perhaps a Banana Daiquiri at the very spot where it was created. I think you'll also be pleasantly surprised at the large store that is there as well. It makes for great souvenirs and so much to choose from in one place.
- A little more adventurous? Try the new ziplining ride at Tree Limin' Extreme - the first of its kind on the islands. You can also visit their rum bar, which has 30 rums from around the Caribbean and Central America at Yacht Haven Grande, 'da lime in da coconut' for their signature drink!
- Beaches - all of the beaches in the USVI are public and whether there's a resort there or not you are allowed to go swimming, so bring a towel and/or beach chair and enjoy.
- Magen's Bay is renowned as being one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. There is a small entrance fee to get in, so be ready with some cash. You can rent watersports equipment from here, swim and snorkel in the clear waters, grab a bite to eat at the concession stand and there are awesome hiking trails to take on. Start near the top of the trail and hike your way down to the beach for a swim.
- Secret Harbour is one of my favorite beaches on the island. It's calm, has coral patches for some great snorkeling, there's a watersports rental company fixed there, as well as a restaurant and bar overlooking the ocean. In the distance you'll see Water Island and beautiful yachts.
- Sapphire Beach has a busier vibe, in my opinion. I found it to be not as wide of a beach as many of the others and a lot more people. The water was a bit rougher, which is perfect for kite surfing. There's a lively concession stand and tables and chairs after you place your order, but you can be waiting quite a bit of time for your food and drinks when it's busy.
- Coki Beach, which is located right next to Coral World. Another beautiful place to lie your towels and chairs down. It's a smaller beach and to the right there's some great snorkeling by the rock. You can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas here.
- Lindqvist Beach - on the East end of the island with great views of St. John and the BVI islands.
- Hull Bay, Bolongo Bay (very rocky), Neltjeberg Bay, Lindbergh Bay Beach and 30 others to choose from! Yes, there are 40 beaches or perhaps more on St. Thomas.
Magen's Bay for a hike and then a swim.
- Want to know how the US acquired the Virgin Islands? Take an awesome food and history tour through Charlotte Amalie. Learn about the pirates and Dane's that once ruled here, while trying delicious local foods from some of the local restaurants. You will be full by the end, so don't eat beforehand!
- A visit to the Charlotte Amalie area is a must! Charlotte Amalie is made up of perfectly placed cobble stones, what seems like endless alleys of jewelry shops, clothing, souvenirs and restaurants. It's lovely just to walk around and get lost. Have a pattie or ice cream or maybe stop for a drink. It's a nice way to pass the time and go out for some breakfast, lunch or dinner.
- 99 Steps - after you've had a large lunch you can work it off by climbing the 99 steps built by the Danes in the mid 1700's. It's the easiest way to get from one street to another on such a hilly island and is in Charlotte Amalie.
- When you're in Charlotte Amalie, don't forget to visit Fort Christian, which was once used to defend the island from pirates and then eventually turned into a prison. This 339 year old fort has a very interesting history and many stories to tell. The fort has changed locations, believe it or not, over the many years. You used to only be able to access the fort by boat or swimming, but many years later a landfill was added connecting it to the mainland. Now it is known as a National Historic Landmark and a great visit, especially with a guide for all the stories behind it.
Fort Christian - Photo credit to Uncommon Caribbean
- Horseback riding on the beach.
- Head to Red Hook at least once! Walk around and grab some coffee and breakfast at Lattes in Paradise, (thank goodness for this place!). Head over to Red Hook for lunch or dinner before hopping on the car ferry to St. John. It's a popular area for fun bars at night too. There's a great burger place, pizza restaurant, food truck, fine dining, icre cream, stores and the marina is here. Some restaurants in this area are Island Time Pub (ITP), Tap & Still Red Hook (also in St. John), Duffy's Love Shack, Agave, (one our favorite Mexican restaurants) and they have a great happy hour. The Easterly is nice for more of a fine dining experience. Of course there are many other restaurants options on island, but there are many in this one area.
Pictures from Agave, ITP, Duffy's Love Shack and Creamy Crepes, Red Hook
- Check out the Yacht Haven Grande marina. The prestigious shopping area within walking distance to Havensight Mall. Upscale shops and great restaurants. Stroll along the marina and admire the beautiful yachts.
- Last, but not least, try the cable car/Skyline to Paradise Point, which brings you 700 feet above the town of Charlotte Amalie. You can dine at their restaurant and try their frozen drinks. The drinks and ocean views have been named number 1 in the Caribbean from 2001 to 2017.
WHERE TO GET A FERRY TO ST. JOHN
You can purchase your tickets in advance, but it's not necessary.
- Red Hook - you can take a car ferry or passenger ferry from this area that will take you to Cruz Bay, St. John. This is the shortest ferry route to St. John, but Red Hook is about 40 minutes from the airport, but close to some resorts. The ferry ride will about 15 minutes.
- Downtown Charlotte Amalie ferry to Cruz Bay, St. John. If you're coming from the airport this is a closer passenger ferry option than Red Hook. It's about 15 - 20 minutes away from the airport. The ferry ride is about 45 minutes from this location. Passenger ferry only.
- Crown Bay Marina to Cruz Bay, St. John. The ferry ride is approximately 35 minutes. This option is also closer than the Red Hook location to get to St. John after arriving from the airport. Passenger ferry only.
Not St. John's, just St. John. Everybody wants to add the s at the end, including myself at first, but after some time you'll get used to saying it the correct way. In case you didn't know, St. John is 3/4 National Park, which means there's a ton of great hiking trails, nature observing and plantation sites to see. It also means that it will never get built up like St. Thomas, creating a very different vibe here.
Fun fact - there are no traffic lights on the island, but beware of the speed bumps! Sometimes you don't catch the little bit of paint that's left on the bump in order to see them in time and they are not the kind that is ok to speed over. Since so much of the island is untouched by commercialism that means the beaches are super clean and just gorgeous. St. John, for me and my family, is our favorite island, because of the slower pace and less traffic and cars, unless you're in Cruz Bay, of course.
Taking the car ferry to St. John.
How do you get to St. John? There's a couple of ways you can do this.
1. You can cab it or take a private transfer to one of the ports/marina's from the airport or your hotel and take the passenger ferry over to Cruz Bay, a 15 minute ferry ride.
2. You can also rent a car starting in St. Thomas, have it dropped off at the airport upon your arrival and then head to the car barge to take over to St. John. If you have time maybe stop at one of the bigger grocery stores on St. Thomas before the car barge comes and stock up on some groceries. You can do this on St. John too.
You can get your tickets for the ferry in advanced, but it's kind of pointless. It doesn't save your place at that particular time, so if that ferry is full you can take the next one. I would get there about 20 - 30 minutes before it departs to ensure you end up on it, especially if it's during a holiday week/weekend.
You can see how driving throughout the island can be - hills and windy. Middle- on the car barge heading over.
St. John is another island where I've heard that visitors thought it was 'dirty' when they went for the day and I understand why they're saying that. When you first arrive you're coming into Cruz Bay, a small, but busy port and walking around will not look like the suburbs in a nice neighborhood. It's an island, it's smaller, the roads are narrow and everything isn't necessarily brand new, but spend more time here and you will see just how beautiful it is and that it's not dirty at all, just looks a little older and used, like villages in Italy, for example. They're not dirty, they're just old.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ON ST. JOHN?
Here's some great things you can do from St. John, some are our favorites, as well as things we haven't gotten to yet, but plan on it.
- Fav - Hit the beaches! It's hard to miss the beaches on this island, because there's basically one main road around the island and you will see beach after beach after beach, so take your pick! I've found that each one is unique in its own way. Here's a map of the island numbering the beaches and you can see they just all line up nicely one after another, so you can easily visit a new one or two each day you're on island.
You start from CRUZ BAY on the left (where the ferries come in) and you head North to each beach. Some have a fee to get in, but majority do not. You just want to make sure you get there early enough to get a parking space, especially if you're going during a holiday. There are also tour vans that will drop you off if you don't have a car or want to worry about driving and parking. To get from Cruz Bay to Brown Bay will take you about 45 minutes since you can't go more than about 15 - 20 miles per hour when driving.
- Trunk Bay has 650 feet of underwater trails and such a beautiful beach.
- Cinnamon Bay – across from the parking entrance is a hiking trail through Cinnamon Bay Plantation Ruins.
- Maho Bay is known for sea turtle sightings and sand games, food trucks and beverages across from the beach.
- Francis Bay is a nice beach area that is smaller than some of the others. I feel like not as many people go to this beach, so it doesn't get as crowded as some of the others.
- Honeymoon Bay - What they don't tell you about visiting this beach is that you park on the grass by the entrance and then you MUST take a very short trolley ride to the actual beach area, which of course costs money. I think it was $5 cash per person.
Trunk Bay (above)
Maho Bay (above)
Francis Bay (above)
Trunk Bay is known to be one of the most beautiful beaches and you can see why in the video above. Beneath it a short video on Maho Bay, a totally different vibe. Beautiful beach, but across the street is a little lively area with food, sand games, picnic tables, a bar and some shopping.
Now that you've had a taste of the beaches.....what else is there to do???
- Hiking. There are loads of trails to hike through the National Park. The island is 3/4 protected after all. If you go to the Cruz Bay Visitor Center you can grab some pamphlets that will point out where the trails are and range them from easy to hard. In fact, there's a longer trail that starts at the visitor center. So, if you're active and want to hike and bike it's easy to do here. You will see old plantations and sugar mills along the way, as well as lots of different birds and tropical animals.
- Walk around Cruz Bay. Walking around this port area offers lots of great shopping, restaurants, bars and some hotels. As you continue to walk down the street, along the coast, you will see Mongoose Junction shopping area on the right. Here there are even more great stores, like local artists and their beautiful artwork like at Bajo el Sol Gallery. Not only is there great art here, but they have an impressive rum bar. You can ask the owners to do an improv rum tasting, like we did, or plan ahead, especially if you have a group and would like a full out rum tasting with the history behind each one. There's homemade ice cream and waffle cones in the plaza at Scoops. Greengos Restaurant, which has amazing street corn! is also within Mongoose Junction, as well as other great stores and restaurants.
- I briefly mentioned this under St. Thomas for a day charter, but if you're staying on St. John you are closer to the floating food bars, because they are just off of this island. Pizza Pi, serving NY style pizza, is within Christmas Cove and Lime Out, serving fresh taco's, is in Coral Bay. It's definitely worth a visit to one or both of them! Hang out on the lily pads while you eat at Lime Out.
- For an easy hike, beautiful, relaxing views and a great area for a wedding, event, meditation or yoga, stop at Peace Hill. It's an easy 5 minute hike up a short trail for the most amazing views of the islands. You are greeted with a sugar mill ruin atop. It's a great photo opportunity.
- Annaberg Sugar Plantation - as you're driving through the island you will probably run into Annaberg Plantation, which is a nice spot to pullover and have a snack and perhaps do a hike from the trail in this area to the old sugar plantation. Often times, you will find beautiful, white donkeys hanging around.
The restaurants are endless depending on what you want, but make sure to reserve a table in advance. In Cruz Bay, above DRINK (bar), there's a great pizza restaurant. If you want a chill evening without reservations, order some pizzas to go and walk down to the beach/water area and have a laid back, easy dinner. Grab some drinks at the bar too. You'll probably hear some live music from one of the restaurants. The famous Beach Bar is a fun place with tables 'inside', as well as on the beach. High Tide is right next door and also a great option. If you want something a bit fancier, head to Longboard, Extra Virgin Bistro or La Tapa. There are a ton of other great restaurants to stop and try during your stay, as well as fresh juice stands throughout the island.
Want a good book to read that takes place on St. John? Pick up 'Troubles in Paradise' by Elin Hilderbrand. She mentions so many of the places throughout St. John and it's a good read while away.
While the island of Lovango Cay has been there forever it is only recently that it has become more popular to visit and stay on. It's always been a popular stop on boat charters for snorkeling and cool cays, but with a recent opening of a new resort in December 2021, there are more day trippers at the resorts beach club. (A day pass is needed unless you're just going for lunch with reservations.) There are also very nice, luxury accommodations to stay in as well.
Other than the resort, the beach club and some great hiking and snorkeling locations there's not a whole lot on the island itself, but it is a part of the USVI and only a 10 minute boat shuttle ride from St. John and 15 minutes from St. Thomas.
Water Island is also known for great hiking, creature finding and snorkeling. It's a small residential island and the smallest of the USVI with 491 acres. Fun fact - there's less than 200 people residing on the island. There are no cars allowed, but when you arrive you can rent a golf cart to get around, if you'd like, and I would recommend doing this. Relaxing days on the beach, kayaking, exploring the shoreline at Limestone, a day of fishing or boating, a day trip to St. Thomas, hiking around the island, exploring the remains of military fortifications, joining residents for movie night on the beach, having lunch and drinks and bike and boat tours are some of the activities you can do from here. There are only homes, apartments and camp grounds on the island.
How to get to Water Island - there is a ferry that operates between St. Thomas and Water Island and it can drop you off for the day or a few hours before heading back.
St. Croix is the largest of the United States Virgin Islands and the furthest from the others, so you can't just take a 15 minute ferry over. You can fly over from St. Thomas and you can take a boat, but it is a few hours to get there by water. From most areas of the US, including New York, which is where I fly out of, there are currently no direct flights to the island, which is why I still have not visited yet. I do plan on going sometime in the future though or combine our vacation with a stay on St. John and St. Croix.
St. Croix is rich in diverse history that remains alive in the architecture, national parks, historic landmarks, botanical attractions, food, music and traditions that are an integral part of island life. When I speak to others about St. Croix I keep hearing how it's the most fun out of all the islands and that they know how to party!
Here are some great things to do on the island, other than eating and relaxing on the beautiful beaches:
- Christopher Columbus’ Discovery
Explorer Christopher Columbus found the U.S. Virgin Islands during his second voyage to America in 1493, first landing on the northern shore of St. Croix, which he named Santa Cruz (Holy Cross).
- St. Croix Heritage Trail
The unique influences of Danish, French, Spanish, West Indian, African and other cultures on the architecture and history of the island are evident during this self-guided driving tour. You can follow the Heritage Trail map and visit 200 historic and cultural sights on St. Croix.
- Estate Whim Plantation Museum
This beautifully restored, 18th-century plantation greathouse is a museum of Danish island history that also includes a sugar mill and gift shop. The museum features an immaculate 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.
- Crucian Art
Home to many talented local artists, St. Croix’s small art galleries and studios showcase beautiful paintings, period-influenced furniture, jewelry and arts and crafts. The famed Crucian hook bracelet and jewelry are designed with larimar, a rare Caribbean gem.
- Cruzan Rum
Once a working sugar mill when sugar plantations supplied molasses for the rum trade, the Cruzan Rum Distillery today produces a variety of delicious rum from sugarcane and only the purest, natural ingredients. At the distillery you will discover the time-honored process of rum production and enjoy free samples of Cruzan’s distinctive line of flavored rums
- If you enjoy a little gambling you can find a casino at Divi Carina Bay Resort.
- Buck Island National Monument
Located off the shores of St. Croix, Buck Island is one of only two underwater national monuments in the U.S., and the only one occurring naturally. Water enthusiasts can encounter tropical fish, coral reefs and exotic flora and fauna in a dramatic array of colors, during an unparalleled snorkeling experience through the monument’s 700 acres of protected national park.
- Crucian Christmas Festival
Winter holidays are celebrated Crucian-style with a unique cultural experience of pageantry, music, food and dancing. St. Croix hosts this festival both in December and January of each year with much jubilation.
- Serious Golf The Buccaneer Resort features an 18-hole, par-70 golf course sprawling across much of the property’s 340 acres, and encompassing 5,810 yards of sloping fairways, deceptive bunkers and water hazards. St. Croix’s 18-hole, championship Carambola Golf Course designed by legendary architect Robert Trent Jones has served as the site of many LPGA tournaments.
- Sports Tourism During May, the annual St. Croix Half-Ironman International Triathlon attracts world-class athletes to compete in one of the qualifying races for the series of World Triathlon Corporation sporting events and the Ironman World Championship. Other sporting events like the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim also draw thousands of visitors each year.
- Eco-tourism Salt River, an ecological reserve protected by the National Park, is a natural wildlife refuge and a popular area for kayaking. Visitors can explore local plants and flowers at St. George Village Botanical Gardens. Guided hiking tours, bike excursions and water activities are organized experiences that are also sensitive to the environment.
- Scuba Diving
Some of the best diving in the Caribbean can be found on St. Croix’s north side. Cane Bay Reef, Davis Bay and Salt River Bay are popular diving spots known for the 13,000-foot deep sub-sea canyon and steep diving walls. Divers off the coasts of St. Croix may also experience close encounters with rare species of sea turtles that nest seasonally on the island’s beaches.
The waters off St. Croix are renowned for world-class fishing.
- St. Croix’s Ann E. Abramson Pier
Located in Frederiksted, the Pier can now accommodate the cruise lines’ largest new megaships, including the 140,000-ton Eagle class cruise ships.
As you can see your days can be filled with things to do on the islands or you can do nothing at all.
Accommodations - staying in the USVI's can, at times, be a little challenging. There are not an endless amount of hotels and resorts or even villas, so planning ahead is important, especially if you want to stay on St. John. I can tell you that two more Marriott hotels are opening on St. Thomas by early 2023, which will be very helpful. There's been many delays in their construction, but it's looking good for January/February 2023 opening.
Another very popular way to travel here is by chartering a yacht. Experiencing all the islands and hidden cays and getting away from the crowds by having a private chef is the ultimate and best way to vacation in this area. Island hop with the privacy of a floating, luxury 'hotel', if you will. All of the water toys you can imagine right at your fingertips. Work out on the deck of your yacht and jump in the beautiful Caribbean blue waters to cool off. With or without children; for a small wedding or even tandem yacht charters with groups of friends, there are various size yachts to meet everyone's needs. For more information on yacht charters or if you have questions, please contact us and visit our blog post - Why you should travel by private yacht charter.
I hope this information has helped in considering your next vacation to the USVI's! It's a very special place that you will also fall in love with.
If you have any other areas that visitors should know about or a favorite activity on the islands you enjoy, please share!
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