At some point in every adult’s life, an exotic beach vacation becomes less a fantasy and more a necessity. I reached that point in my early 20s. After weeks spent meeting with clients and gasping under the pressure of looming deadlines in my first office job, I booked a ticket and boarded a plane for the sandy paradise of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Within hours of landing, I enjoyed a scene I had only seen on the postcard pinned to my cubicle wall. I slid off my sandals and sank my toes into the sun-warmed white sand, hearing the faint sound of steel drums in the distance as the warm breeze glazed over my body. Filling my lungs with the salty-sweet sea air, I couldn’t have felt farther from the office — but in reality, I hadn’t even left the country.
Located just east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea, the U.S. Virgin Islands boast a year-round warm temperature that bounces between 77 and 82 degrees. The islands represent the northernmost portion of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles but are an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States, meaning passports aren’t required for U.S. citizens. Despite proudly waving a flag as an “American paradise,” the islands developed a definitive culture from their blended histories and now present a flavor and tradition all their own.
Christopher Columbus claimed discovery of these islands in 1493, although two arboriginal tribes already inhabited them: the Caribs and the Arawaks. Since then, the islands have flown no less than seven flags from their corner of the Caribbean. Influences from each ruling country still freckle the islands, from Spanish courtyards and Danish architecture to French culinary influences. The primary influence came from the more than 251-year stretch the islands spent under Danish rule. The Danes set up vast sugar and tobacco plantations, grand estates set among lush gardens and the famous “step streets” (frigangs) that work their way up the hills. Even though the Danes haven’t been in control here since the United States took possession March 31, 1917, the Danish aesthetic still sparkles through as you walk along the pristine streets and gaze at the vibrant red roofs and colorful shutters of the well-preserved yellow-brick buildings.
With so many rulers stirring the pot, it’d be easy to write off the USVI as a destination without an identity; but, thankfully, the untiring and lively spirit of the Virgin Islanders persevered through the changes. The islands managed to blend their history into an enchanting essence that’s at once tenacious, hospitable and enduring.
Today, most visitors think of the three most prominent “saints” — St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — which, along with the petite and unsullied Water Island, make up the main destinations of the chain. But the territory actually comprises more than 50 minor islands, islets and cays. Each island plays a significant role in seasoning the USVI with a spicy and vibrant flavor, but to the locals who call the islands home, the balance is a bit more defined. They view the islands in city planning terms, where St. Thomas serves as the city, St. Croix represents the suburbs, and St. John is the country.
A cosmopolitan energy surrounds St. Thomas, where you can spend your days luxuriating in the sands of a private beach, shopping exclusive designer collections at The Shops at Yacht Haven Grande, sipping craft cocktails at one of the hottest bars in Frenchtown or savoring gourmet dining at the Old Stone Farmhouse restaurant nestled in the hills of a former Danish sugar plantation. Yet even with its city reputation, a laid-back ambience surrounds this 32-square-mile island.
World-famous golf courses and more than 40 pristine white-sand beaches set aside a sea of stunning turquoise waters paint a backdrop of serenity across St. Thomas. All the beaches (even those along the gorgeous Ritz-Carlton property) are open to the public, from the famous mile-long stretch along Magens Bay to the secluded shores that make Lindquist Beach the perfect spot to get away from it all. The shallow shorelines and deep waters make all the beaches on St. Thomas great for snorkeling, sailing or diving — even night kayaking at the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef inside clear-bottomed, LED-lit kayaks with the Adventure Center.
Most visitors favor St. Thomas as a shopping mecca, a reputation that dates back to 1607 when settlers on their way to Jamestown stopped off to stock up on supplies. Today, eager tourists flock to the swanky shops along downtown Charlotte Amalie (the capital of the USVI and one of the most visited cruise ports in the Caribbean) to try to reach their duty-free limit of $1,600 with treasures like imported watches, high-end spirits, gorgeous diamonds and more. Even the historic passageways that wind through the Royal Dane Mall offer amazing ways to “spend” the afternoon. While you’re there, stop at Gladys’ Café for local Caribbean dishes or check out the newly opened Virgin Islands Ice Cream Co. for a homemade waffle cone filled with Danish-style ice cream (try the local soursop flavor).
Although St. Croix is the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, boasting more than 82 square miles, it exudes an unmistakable small-town feel. Sit at a bar long enough and you’ll likely discover the man next to you is the guide leading your next day’s snorkeling adventure, or the woman two seats down is best friends with the owner of the hotel you’re staying in. There’s an underlying sense that everyone knows everyone on St. Croix, and that welcoming vibe makes it easy to feel you’re part of the family in this casual utopia.
St. Croix’s substantial history sets it apart from its USVI siblings: home to the Caribbean’s longest-running resort, The Buccaneer, family-owned since the 17th century; the oldest Moravian church in America, Friedensthal Moravian Church; and tons of historic forts and landmarks dating to a time when pirates plagued the island.
This is also a water sports paradise, where adventurous aquaphiles take advantage of the year-round warm waters by snorkeling, scuba diving, paddle boarding, surfing and more. One of the island’s greatest attractions, the “don’t-miss” activity, is snorkeling the underwater trail at the Buck Island Reef National Monument with Big Beard’s Adventure Tours. Buck Island — one of only two underwater national monuments in the United States — provides the rare opportunity to swim alongside the threatened and endangered species that inhabit this protected reef.
While St. Croix hosts some of the USVI’s most historic and quirkiest gems, make sure to visit the world-famous beer-drinking pigs at Mt. Pelier Domino Club. The island is also lush with modern resorts, like the Renaissance Carambola Beach Resort, and brand-new dining options ranging from the historic Danish dishes at 40 Strand Eatery to the haute cuisine at Zion Modern Kitchen.
With acres of unspoiled terrain and forests of lush green flora rolling across its petite expanse, it’s no wonder St. John has been the favorite beach destination for names like Kenny Chesney, Laurance Rockefeller and Denzel Washington. This 19-square-mile island blends natural beauty with effortless charm and elegance that attract the most discriminating visitors.
St. John is only accessible by ferry from the surrounding islands, but once you arrive, you have unrestrained access to a mix of chic shopping, fine dining, outdoor activities and trendy subcultures. Fashionable folk flock to downtown Cruz Bay to meander through the shaded terraces and tropical plants at Mongoose Junction, where quaint boutiques and high-end shops seamlessly intertwine with hip cafés like the Ocean Grill and the locally favored Tap Room. Here, best friends Chirag Vyas and Kevin Chipman brew up mango-sweetened microbrews and other St. John-specific beers.
Just outside the downtown area and along the route to the scenic town of Coral Bay lies what many call the “pearl of the Virgin Islands.” Part of the Luxury Hotels of the World, this isolated enclave embodies the island’s aesthetic and ideology of unassuming luxury. The Caneel Bay Resort has played host to everyone from Harrison Ford to the entire Pitt/Jolie clan. But despite the celebrity-speckled guest book, visitors from all walks of life can expect star treatment when dining at the hotel’s scenic restaurant, ZoZo’s at the Sugar Mill, a romantic Italian restaurant perched within the ruins of a 19th-century sugar mill overlooking the bay.
U.S. Virgin Islands Info to Go
U.S. citizens do not need a passport in the U.S. Virgin Islands, although it’s recommended to carry one. (In lieu of a passport, proof of citizenship is required, such as a birth certificate plus a government-issued photo I.D.) Two major airports serve the USVI: the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas and the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix. The flight is considered domestic; fly non-stop to either airport from Atlanta (ATL), Charlotte (CLT), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), Miami (MIA), Newark (EWR), New York (JFK) or Philadelphia (PHL). Commuter service flies to St. Croix and St. Thomas from San Juan (SJU). Commuter airlines and ferries run daily between the islands.
Where to Stay in the U.S. Virgin Islands
The Buccaneer Family-run since the 17th century, The Buccaneer has been meticulously modernized and maintained to remain St. Croix’s leading hotel. 5007 Estate Shoys, Christiansted, St. Croix $$$$
Caneel Bay Resort This sanguine sanctuary doesn’t offer televisions or telephones in its 166 guestrooms, but it does offer an understated opulence for refined guests looking to unplug. St. John $$$$$
The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas Set on 30 acres offering easy access to the exquisite Great Bay and Coconut Cove beaches, this 180-room hotel defines luxury on St. Thomas. 6900 Great Bay, St. Thomas $$$$$
Restaurants in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Old Stone Farmhouse Dine in elegance inside this restored 200-year-old field house where Chef Christopher Spesak prepares upscale weekly dinner menus and a decadent Sunday brunch. Mahogany Run Tennis Village, St. Thomas $$$$
Zion Modern Kitchen Savor the season’s best sustainably raised foods in a contemporary garden atmosphere. The bar offers a unique selection of handcrafted cocktails. 2132 Company St., Christiansted, St. Croix $$$$
ZoZo’s at the Sugar Mill Fresh-made pasta and hand-formed ravioli top the menu at this Italian restaurant inside the ruins of the sugar mill at Caneel Bay Resort. Caneel Bay Resort, St. John $$$$
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