The Us Virgin Islands-- America's  Other Paradise

An informational page by Warren Montgomery

The US Virgin Islands are a territory, just off the island of Puerto Rico, originally a Danish colony purchased by the US during WW I for military operations and now mainly a tourist outpost.  There are 3 main inhabited islands (St Thomas, St Johns, and St Croix), and dozens of smaller islands.  Often overlooked as a tourist destination they provide excellent beaches and water activities, a taste of exotic cultures, and for some an opportunity to save on duty free merchanidse.

My Soapbox statement:

Like many places, the Virgin Islands have changed as cheap money brought more development.  The result is both raising costs for visitors and changes to the character of the place, so see it now while it's still special.  There are some places that people just shouldn't live.  It's not that more people on tropical islands by themselves is necessarily a bad thing, but people in today's society draw the "camp followers" of modern society:  Strip malls, superstores, fast food, gas stations, traffic lights, and lots of ugly and noisy construction and service businesses.  My vision of paradise doesn't include these things.  Does yours?

General information for your visit

Getting there and getting between islands.

Many airlines operate direct flights to St Thomas from east coast cities, though frequency of flights and schedule will depend on season. Temperatures don't vary much over time, though the area is prone to hurricanes (June-November) and some seasons have more rain than others.  The islands keep "Atlantic Standard Time" -- 1 hour east of the east coast, except that they do not go on daylight savings time so during the summer they are on the same time as the east coast.  Many people come via cruise ships out of various ports.  Cruising is a major business for these islands and many activities are catered to cruise ship passengers.  Thomas and St Johns are close together and an inexpensive 20 minute ferry that runs every hour provides an excellent way to hop between them.  St Croix is further from both islands and while there is some ferry service it's a longer and more expensive trip and better done by air.  There is both airport-to-airport air service and harbor-to-harbor sea plane service between St Thomas and St Croix.  In addition ferries and charters provide connections to the British Virgin Islands which are very close.

You do not need a passport to visit, but you will need a drivers license and a copy of your birth certificate as an alternative.  The islands are part of the US, but you still will go through Customs and Immigration when you return.  You do this at the airport in St Thomas, and this, plus security, can cause substantial delays, so during the day at least plan a couple of hours to make your return flight.  There is some shopping at the airport, and a fast food restaurant and bar, but it's not much.

Ground Transportation

You can rent a car and drive on any of the islands, but for most people taxis are a better idea.  All the islands are small, roads are narrow, winding, steep, and crowded, and probably because of a brief occupation by the British while the traffic laws were being developed they drive on the left side of the road, even though all the vehicles are standard US left hand drive.  Most taxis are large vans, and the taxi drivers are agressive on the road.  Navigating bad roads on the wrong side of the road dodging large taxis and trucks isn't a fun experience for most.

Taxis on the island work on a fixed fee system, one fee for one passenger travelling alone, and a reduced rate per person for more than one person.  Drivers will combine groups going to similar places to fill the van, so don't expect to ride alone often.   On St Thomas and St John the rates are very reasonable, so you are unlikely to save money by renting a car unless you have more than 2 people in your group.  (St Croix is larger so the longer distances make the fares higher and the roads are enough better you might want to drive yourself theree.)  There are also bus systems on all the islands, which are very cheap, though the service is more oriented towards locals than tourists.  If you don't have a car, plan your days to combine trips (e.g. if you are going to the far side of the island for tour or attraction and there are good beaches or restaurants of interest there try to plan it so you can do them all in one trip).  Most places are very casual about how people dress so shopping or dining in a decent looking swimming outfit isn't a big deal.

General Information on what to do

People come to tropical islands for a variety of reasons, but a lot of the reason to come revolves around the ocean.  All 3 islands have beautiful sandy beaches perfect for swimming or lying around in the sun.  Some are deserted, others are lively.  Check local guides to be sure you get what you want.  One thing not to miss if you have any interest in it is Snorkeling.  Most hotels and many beaches have places to rent snorkeling gear, but if you do it more than a few times you probably want to just buy your own and not have to rent every time and wonder what you can get.  (Or at least buy the mask and snorkel, and rent fins where you want them to save on luggage space).  You will probably see something by swimming off the beach just about anywhere.  Most of the beaches on these islands are well protected so it's not likely you will experience strong currents or surf, but basic safety dictates you not do this alone.  There are sharks and other dangerous animals, but odds are that if you don't bug the marine life as you shouldn't it won't bug you.  Some beaches are much better for snorkeling than others because the water is clearer and/or good coral and lots of fish are more easily reachable, so check a local guide (or see some suggestions below).  Odds are you will want a camera for this.  Waterproof digital cameras are now quite afordabble and in addition to using one underwater they are handy for the beach, boats, or just about any outdoor activity where you might get wet.

There is some hiking on all of the islands, probably more suitable country on St Johns, which is mostly parkland, but this isn't a big hiking/camping destination.  Boating is another big item on many people's agendas.  There are many charter boats that will take you to remote beaches, offshore snorkeling or diving locations, or just for a day sailing.  You can also rent a boat and drive it yourself.  St Thomas and St Johns are better for all of this because of the proximity to many interesting small islands (St Croix is in a more isolated location and a long haul to any other large islands).  St Thomas and St Croix both have 18 hole golf courses, though this is not really a great place for golf.  You will find the courses interesting and challenging and very scenic though.  Clubs can be rented everywhere, so again consider just bringing shoes and balls unless you plan to play a lot.

Shopping is something lots of people come for.  The Virgin Islands have no sales tax and no duty on your purchases, and there are higher duty free limits for many things returning to the US.  As a result, you will find an astonishing number of stores selling diamonds and high end jewelry and watches, as well as expensive imported booze and perfume.  What you will have more trouble finding is stores selling local crafts and ordinary souvenirs, but they are there.  Keep in mind that all things here revolve around the cruise industry, so if there isn't a ship in port a lot of shops close, especially near the docks, while away from the docks a lot of shops close on Sundays and holidays (more so than I'm used to even in non resort areas).  The same is true of many tourist attractions, even historic sites, so it's wise to check before spending the cab fare to get somewhere only to discover it closed.

One other thing to note about this area -- the Caibbean is the land of "Any day now mon" -- the appropriate response to just about any question from a time conscious tourist, as in "When will my room be ready", "when will the taxi come", etc.  Transportation runs to schedule, but nothing else does, so plan extra time when it's important, have an extra Pina Colada or a good book handy when you have to wait, and don't sweat it.

Island by Island

St Thomas

St Thomas is the capital of the area and the most densly populated island, though not the largest physically.  There is almost no flat land on the island so little agriculture and not much manufacturing, so tourism is the heart of the economy.  Most of that is focussed on the cruise docks, which can host 3 or 4 enormous ships most days.  It's also home to the major airport, and your likely point of arrival.  Some attractions include:

St Johns

Most of St Johns is actually Virgin Islands National Park.  The park is low key, with few developed facilities and no general admission charge (though there are charges for some facilities like Trunk Bay, the most popular beach.)  There's not much civilization on the island outside of the town of Cruz Bay where the ferry docks other than private houses and a few small resorts.  This is a place to come to get away from civilization.  Try a few of the beaches.  Trunk Bay is most famous, a perfect white sand beach with a snorkeling trail, but just about any beach will provide a similar experience.  The Annenburg plantation ruins are interesting though again low key (not restored, minimal information), but interesting and provide a view of the colonial and slave plantation era on the islands.  The bay adjacent to this area is good snorkeling though it will take a 1/2-1 mile hike along the shore to reach a sandy beach, and a bit of swimming from there to reach the best snorkeling area (near the small offshore island or along the shore next to it past the beach).

St Croix

St Croix is geologically quite different from the others and also a long way away.  It's a lower, flatter island, and larger.  It also has beaches, snorkeling, ruins, and two golf courses as well as the islands biggest industry -- rum production.  Cruzan rum, produced on this island, is used everywhere to make tropical drinks.  The rum itself is very cheap (as well as being tasty!)  You can tour the distillery and see some of the history of rum productions.  The island definitely seems more laid back, less tourist oriented than the others.  (Note that I last stayed on this island in the late 1980s, before 2 hurricanes and a period of civil unrest after devastation caused by one of them.   According to guides everything has been restored and is again welcoming to tourists.

Warren Montgomery (