There's a reason so many cruise ships stop in St. Thomas (and it's not just because its two ports, Havensight and Crown Bay, are big enough to handle up to six vessels at a time). While compact, the hub of the U.S. Virgin Islands contains plenty of beaches -- and enough room to handle the inevitable crowds that arrive on cruise ship days; all beaches are public, so nothing is technically off-limits (although some of the most popular charge a fee for maintenance).
But which beach to choose? Do you join the masses in Magens Bay, seek out your own space at Secret Harbour or throw a blanket down at Brewers Bay Beach? Or should you take the ferry to St. John, where the beaches are protected by Virgin Islands National Park? "Which beach" is a question that's frequently asked and oft-debated in our St. Thomas/St. John forum. Here's our rundown of the best beaches available during your typical port stop in St. Thomas.St. Thomas
Best for Traditionalists: Magens Bay
Why go: It's one of the Caribbean's most famous beaches, and indeed, Magens Bay has a lot going for it. It's an expansive stretch of sand, for one thing, located in a horseshoe-shaped bay. The water is calm, making it a safe stop for children and toddlers.
Distance from pier: Magens Bay is on the north side of St. Thomas, about a 30-minute taxi ride from Havensight Pier (depending on traffic).
Crowds: It's not bad if only a handful of ships are in town, but if there's more than three, things start to get hectic.
Fee: $2, adults and children 12 and up; children younger than 12 free.
Facilities: Restrooms, changing rooms, lifeguard, picnic tables and taxis. The Yak Shak rents double and single kayaks, standup paddleboards and paddleboats. Lounge chairs rent for $7, beach chairs are $5, a snorkel mask is $9 and lockers are $4 (deposit required). All equipment must be returned by 4:30 p.m.
Restaurant: Beach bar onsite. Meals average about $10.
Best for Crown Bay Cruisers: Emerald Beach (Lindbergh Bay Beach)
Why go: Home to the Best Western Emerald Beach Resort, Lindbergh Beach has all the things you want in a beach, while located a little closer to civilization. The airport isn't far, so the beach provides the extra attraction of watching planes take off.
Distance from pier: Lindbergh Beach is on the southwest side of the island, not far from the airport. For this reason, it's more popular with cruisers coming from ships docked in Crown Bay, which is about 15 minutes away.
Crowds: Much fewer than beaches on the eastern side of the island. A fair number of locals go there too.
Facilities: Restrooms, although you'll have to rent a room at the resort if you need a changing room and shower. Arrange a pick-up time with your taxi, or see whether someone at the hotel will call one for you. On the beach, you'll find water scooter rentals, flyboarding and snorkeling equipment. Chairs rent for $7 without an umbrella, $10 with.
Restaurant: The menu at the Best Western's restaurant is fairly complete, with salads, pizzas, burgers and Caribbean snacks such as conch fritters available. Expect to pay about $15 for lunch.
Best to Avoid the Crowds: Brewers Bay Beach
Why go: If you think it's impossible to have a beach to yourself on St. Thomas, a stop at Brewers Beach will prove you wrong. Even on the busiest days, the beach remains delightfully deserted; when five ships were in port, we only saw a handful of people on blankets. Most seemed thrilled with the view of airplanes and sailboats moored in the protected water.
Distance from the pier: Farther west than the airport, Brewers Beach is near the campus of the University of the Virgin Islands. Arrange for a taxi to come back to pick you up, or you might find yourself stranded.
Facilities: Restrooms. No rentals.
Restaurant: Food trucks set up during the day and on weekends. You can get an authentic island lunch of a conch patty and johnnycake for less than $10.
Best to Be in the Thick of Things: Coki Beach
Why go: Next to Coral World, Coki Beach ranks among the most popular attractions on St. Thomas -- and has the crowds to prove it. The beach itself isn't that large, which adds to the crowded feeling. So what's the draw? Quality from-the-beach snorkeling and scuba diving, which tend to be better on the island's eastern end. You also have a view of the British Virgin Islands.
Distance from pier: It takes about 20 minutes to reach Coki Beach, on the island's east end. Taxis wait there, so getting a lift back to the pier shouldn't be a problem.
Crowds: Coki is not a large beach, so it can feel pretty packed, pretty quickly.
Facilities: Restrooms, changing rooms and several competing vendors renting equipment and selling beach clothing and jewelry. Chairs with umbrellas range from $15 to $20, snorkel masks and floats cost about $5. All kinds of water sports are available, including parasailing and banana boat rides. On-the-beach massages cost $1 per minute.
Restaurant: Several vendors sell beer, rum drinks and snacks; competition keeps the prices low. Lunch will be about $15, but judging from what we saw on the beach, many visitors go for the liquid variety, which will up your cost.
Best for Do-it-Yourselfers: Sapphire Beach
Why go: Once a perennial favorite with cruisers because of its snorkeling and views of St. John and the BVI, Sapphire Beach's popularity has deteriorated as rental facilities have closed. While the public can still enter and spread a towel, the chairs on the beach belong to the condo association and are not rentable.
Distance from the pier: Taxis are no longer allowed to park here, so you could be facing a long trek from the main road to the beach. Arrange return transportation ahead of time.
Crowds: Few, because of the lack of facilities.
Facilities: Restrooms and changing rooms are boarded up, along with the watersports rental station.
Best All-Around: Secret Harbour
Why go: Our choice for best beach on St. Thomas, Secret Harbour has it all, and yet no one seems to know it, as only a small condo development is there. Calm waters and decent snorkeling make the beach a primo draw, but bring plenty of sunscreen, as the southern location lacks shade.
Distance from pier: Located between the cruise pier and Red Hook, Secret Harbour is surrounded by a fairly affluent neighborhood of hilltop villas. While taxis pass by occasionally, you'll want to arrange transportation back.
Facilities: The Aqua Action Dive Center rents snorkel gear, kayaks, paddleboats and standup paddleboards. Chairs cost $10. Scuba trips are also available.
Restaurant: The Cruzan Beach Club is a full-service restaurant with a large wooden deck and a menu that's a little more expensive than most. Expect to pay about $20 or more for lunch.
Best for Resort Seekers: Morningstar Beach
Why go: Although it's part of one of the islands' biggest resorts, the Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort, many cruisers tend to forget about this tucked-away cove. It's perfect for those who want the amenities of a big resort with the ability to pick and choose what you buy.
Distance from pier: Technically the closest beach to the Havensight Pier, Morningstar has enough people coming and going from the resort that getting a taxi isn't a problem.
Crowds: Toward the high end because of all the resort guests.
Facilities: The Marriott charges a $35 resort fee to use chairs and umbrellas, but we've heard that this isn't always enforced. It doesn't include access to the pools. Water sports equipment is also available to rent. (The Marriott also offers a day pass for the spa, where you can use the adults-only pool, sauna and showers for $25, as well as a day rate for hotel rooms if the property's not full).
Restaurant: The Marriott has several restaurants right on the beach, including Havana Blue, Coco Joe's and Sand Bar. Expect to pay about $20 for lunch.
Best for Beginning Snorkelers: Trunk Bay
Why go: Part of Virgin Islands National Park, gorgeous Trunk Bay is one of St. John's primary draws. With a decent underwater snorkel trail, clear water and a white sand beach that also has shade available, it's the type of place that appeals to active families and groups.
Distance from pier: You catch the ferry to St. John in Red Hook, which is about a 20- to 30-minute taxi ride from the cruise ship pier, depending on traffic. The ferry costs $14 roundtrip for adults, $2 for kids ages 2 to 11 and free for children younger than 2. It leaves Red Hook every hour, on the hour. Once you dock in Cruz Bay, it's another 10 minutes to Trunk Bay. Taxis are readily available.
Crowds: It's not as crowded as Magens Bay on St. Thomas, but when cruisers come to St. John, this is most likely where they're headed, so expect a full house.
Fee: $4 adults. Children younger than 16 are free.
Facilities: Extensive, with restrooms, changing rooms, lockers and equipment rentals. A full snorkel set rents for $5, umbrellas and chairs rent for $8 each and a chaise lounge is $10. You'll have to pay a deposit, and rentals are due back at 3:30 p.m. Snuba lessons are also available.
Restaurant: There's a pretty basic, cash-only snack bar. Expect to pay around $12 for lunch.
Best for Activities: Cinnamon BayWhy go: If you want to share your beach with fewer people yet want all the amenities of Trunk Bay, go a little farther north and you'll hit this equally glorious beach, our favorite. Significantly larger than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay also has the national park campground and a small archaeological lab, perfect for visiting during the brief showers that might hit the rain forest. This area of St. John is also great for windsurfing, if you're brave enough to try.
Distance from pier: Cinnamon Bay is another five minutes past Trunk Bay. Taxis are readily available.
Crowds: Moderate; Cinnamon Bay is still on the beaten path, although its size means more people can spread out.
Facilities: Restrooms and locker rooms are available. Wind n Surfing Adventures offers windsurfing lessons, sailing lessons, standup paddleboard rentals, kayak rentals, boogie boards and float rentals. Umbrellas, chairs and lounges have the same rental price as Trunk Bay.
Restaurant: Because Cinnamon Bay has a campground, it has a full-service restaurant, T'ree Lizards, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Expect to pay about $12 for lunch.
Best for Picnickers: Hawksnest Beach
Why go: Few cruise passengers park themselves at Hawksnest Beach -- and that's just fine with the locals, who go there for snorkeling. There's not a ton of beach, but shade is readily available when you're ready for a break.
Distance from pier: Hawksnest is about five minutes from Cruz Bay. Taxis don't stop there so you'll have to arrange to have someone come back to pick you up.
Facilities: Restrooms, covered picnic facilities and BBQ grills are available, and that's about it.
Restaurant: None; you'll have to bring your own food.
Best for Privacy: Francis Bay Beach
Why go: On the island's northern end, Francis Beach is another beach where you'll need to bring in your own equipment. The calm water there makes it a popular spot for private sailboats to dock. Beachgoers like the shade, the snorkeling (turtles are often seen) and the privacy.
Distance from pier: This is the farthest national park beach on the north shore, so it could take 25 minutes or so to get there. The road into this beach is bumpy; it's better if you're in a Jeep. Taxis don't stop there, so make arrangements for your trip back.
Facilities: A small restroom and a few picnic tables.
Restaurant: None; bring your own food.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor