Whether it’s your first or 15th trip to the Eastern Caribbean, chances are good that one of the U.S. Virgin Islands will be a stop on your itinerary. The three main islands – St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John – receive an astounding number of cruise passengers per year; in 2013, nearly 2 million visitors arrived on 626 ships!
With this amount of traffic, it’s easy to dismiss the ports as over-run tourist traps, with little to engage the discerning traveler. But that would be a mistake. As I found on five days spent on the islands last week, each one offers its own flavor – and enough activities to engage even the most crowd-averse cruiser.
Turtle Beach on Buck Island, in St. Croix.
If you love authentic Caribbean….try St. Croix:
Far fewer ships visit St. Croix than its smaller Virgin siblings – and as a result, the atmosphere on the island is decidedly more laid back. Residents take Sundays seriously (many shops are closed), and “island time” is fluid; this isn’t the place to come with a strict schedule and checklist. Instead, kick off your shoes and learn what Caribbean-style “limin’” is all about, while still remaining on U.S. soil.
First timers: St. Croix has its share of beautiful beaches; Turtle Beach on Buck Island is one of the prettiest – and most pristine – in the Caribbean. But it’s what is under the water that is most intriguing. Snorkelers have their choice of easy access spots, such as Rainbow Beach, Sand Castle Beach and the wildlife refuge, Sandy Point. For those looking for more of a challenge, the Wall at Cane Bay – where a vertical slope drops the ocean floor from 40 to 3,200 feet – is one of the best diving spots in the world.
Veteran travelers: If you’d rather spend time on land this trip, consider an ATV trip through the island’s extensive rain forest. Or, if you’re in shape and don’t mind wearing sneakers, a hike to the Annaly Bay tidal pools, accessible through the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort, rewards you with waterfalls and marine life, including eels, urchins and more. Don’t forget to try the local food. The island’s agricultural focus means that it’s fresher and more sophisticated with spices than you’ll find elsewhere (I’m still thinking about the curry chicken and johnny cakes I had at La Reine Chicken Shack).
Stand-up paddleboard rentals at Cinnamon Bay, within Virgin Island National Park on St. John
If you love nature…..try St. John:
It’s hard not to fall for St. John after your first visit, as the presence of Virgin Islands National Park means that most of the island has been preserved. While cruise ships don’t dock in St. John, reaching the island is easy, via a 20-minute ferry ride from Red Hook on St. Thomas. Once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded with Cruz Bay – a tourist-friendly outpost that’s just Caribbean enough to make your mainland stresses go away – and easy access to all that the park has to offer.
First timers: To see what all of the fuss is about, head to one of St. John’s premier beaches, Trunk Bay or Cinnamon Bay. Of the two, Cinnamon Bay is larger and attracts fewer people, while still offering all of the services – snacks and rentals – that a daytripper needs. There’s even a small archaeological exhibit that holds remnants of the many cultures that have called the Virgin Islands home. It’s not only interesting, but a good place to duck into when one of St. John’s frequent showers blows through (hey, it’s a rain forest, after all).
Veteran travelers: Honestly, I’d still spend the day at Cinnamon Bay, no matter how many times I’ve been to St. John! That being said, I’d trade my water shoes for hikers on my next visit, and leave the beach for one of the many trails contained within the national park. For those whose ships come in early, the guided Reef Bay Hike offered by the National Park Service on Monday and Thursday mornings sounds just about perfect.
Tourists inside the new Magic Ice attraction in St. Thomas
If you love lots of activities…..try St. Thomas
The busiest port in the USVI – and much of the Caribbean, aside from Nassau or Cozumel – St. Thomas has a buzz that belies its island setting. Although the island itself is not big, the sheer amount of tourist attractions make it an impossible place to get bored – and more are offered every year, so there’s bound to be something new since your last visit.
First timers: Almost every beach bum heads straight for Magens Bay, considered one of the best in the world (and big enough that it can handle lots of people; the beach doesn’t feel really crowded unless three or more ships are in town). You’ll also want to schedule some time for shopping; duty-free stores are one of Charlotte Amalie’s major attractions and if you’re considering stocking up on cosmetics, perfume or electronics, you’ll want to take a look around (there are also a few galleries, for the arty set).
Veteran travelers: Believe it or not, St. Thomas does have its quiet side. Tucked away on Nazareth Bay, Secret Harbour was my favorite of St. Thomas’ beaches, with calm waters and few crowds, even with six ships in port! For my next trip, I’m also eyeing the kayaking within the Mangrove Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary & Marine Reserve, as well as a late lunch and drinks at Duffy’s Love Shack in the expat haven of Red Hook.