Starter Kit to the US Virgin Islands

Posted by Liz Behler on March 07, 2013 at 3:00:08 PM EST | Post a Comment

When most people think of America’s best beaches, their minds drift off to waves lapping on Hawaii’s or Florida's shores. But there’s another batch of islands open to Americans...and you don't need a passport to go. As an American territory, the US Virgin Islands offer sun and sand to those looking for an idyllic island getaway. But there’s more to the USVI than lazing on a beach all day. Hiking trails, spectacular scuba diving, sugar plantation ruins, and charming colonial cities, complete with cobblestone streets, all beg to be explored.

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St. Thomas

Whether by plane or cruise ship, most visitors enter the USVI through St. Thomas. The island also serves as the commercial center, with hundreds of duty-free shops, many of them focused in downtown Charlotte Amalie. St. Thomas is also one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean, meaning cruise crowds can grow thick here. Magens Bay, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand named among the world’s most beautiful beaches, is a cruise tour staple. To enjoy the beach without the crowds, either head out early for a sunrise swim, or check the island’s cruise ship schedule and plan accordingly.

Don’t Miss: Plan to visit in April to experience St. Thomas' Carnival in all of its street-dancing, steel-drum music, feathered-costume glory.

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St. John

Just a quick three mile ferry ride from St. Thomas, St. John is the smallest and least developed of the USVI. Virgin Islands National Park covers and protects nearly two-thirds of the island, making it a magnet for nature lovers and eco tourists. Choose from more than 20 hiking trails on the north and south shores, some of which pass by 18th century sugar mill ruins before emptying onto stunning beaches complete with reef and wreck dive spots. At Trunk Bay, explore a different kind of trail by strapping on a snorkel and following parrotfish and yellowtail snapper as they swim amidst the coral. As the day winds down, hang with the expat crowd in Cruz Bay and sip some "plantation punch" (a rum, orange, and lime juice concoction with a dash of nutmeg).

Don’t Miss: The last Saturday of each month, vendors take to the streets for St. John Saturday, a market where everything from jewelry and clothes to produce and tropical flowers are sold.

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St. Croix

Forty miles south of St. Thomas sits St. Croix. Its distance deters most tourist crowds, giving the island an easygoing, off-the-beaten-path vibe. And its size—nearly twice that of St. Thomas—means there’s a lot to discover. Explore the candy colored buildings in downtown Christiansted, built in the 18th century by Danish settlers, on a walking tour, or head to Frederiksted for a taste of the island with a distillery tour at the Cruzan Rum Factory. Rain forest covers the northwest and sugar plantation ruins are scattered throughout the island, a reminder of the island’s colonial history.

Don’t Miss: A short boat ride away, Buck Island is known for its superior scuba diving. Don’t pass up the chance to dive the Cane Bay Wall, a spectacular drop-off that plunges more than 2,000 feet, covered with coral and teeming with marine life.

Getting There

While St. Croix has its own airport, most visitors enter the USVI via the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas. Non-stop flights are common, making the islands an easy getaway from the continental US. St. Thomas is also one of the most visited cruise ports in the Caribbean, with upwards of 1,000 ship arrivals each year.

Ferries provide year-round travel between the islands, with hourly service between St. Thomas and St. John, and service running twice a day from St Thomas to St Croix on most days.

Winter time, from December through April, is high season for the islands. But with generally low humidity and temperatures that range from 78F to 83F year-round, there’s never a bad time to visit.

Photo Credits: St. Croix via Shutterstock; St. John via Shutterstock; St. Thomas via Shutterstock

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