Explore Paradise

U.S. Virgin Islands offer a variety of activities and celebrations for the whole family

By Greg Seiter  //  Photography submitted by U.S. Virgin Islands Visitor Center

Warm Caribbean winds gently kiss glistening white-sand beaches as the calming turquoise waters that surround the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) welcome snorkelers, sailors, divers and deep-sea finishing enthusiasts to another day, in what many describe as paradise. However, there’s much more to enjoy in this unincorporated U.S. territory than sunbathing and water-based activities.
A part of the Lesser Antilles volcanic island arc, located at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the USVI are composed of three main islands — Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas — as well as many small, surrounding islands. The tropical archipelago was originally inhabited by Native Americans, including Ciboney, Caribs  and Arawaks. In 1917, the U.S. bought the territory and because of that U.S. citizens are not required to present a passport for entry.
Recognized as being one of the biggest success stories in Caribbean tourism following the global pandemic, the USVI had the highest hotel occupancy in the Caribbean (72.5 percent) from June 2021 to May 2022, according to STR data. In addition, first quarter 2022 visitor arrivals surged 153 percent compared to the same period in 2021 with 452,764 visitors, according to tourism commissioner Joseph Boschulte.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands are a friendly, talkative community that still values manners and a friendly ‘Good morning’ greeting,” said Ayana Young, account director of Development Counsellors International, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Moreover, they enjoy partying. There is always something to celebrate across the islands with carnivals held throughout the year.”
Perhaps it’s that carefree, celebratory atmosphere combined with temperatures that average 82 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 77 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter that attracts so many families, couples and adventurers to the area.
According to Young, Carnival is a USVI tradition and each island hosts its own rendition at different times of the year. The St. Croix Carnival, called the Crucian Christmas Festival, takes place from December to January 6. The St. John celebration is in June and July and the St. Thomas Carnival is in April and May.
“Celebrations include musical competitions, pageants for Carnival royalty and cultural activities,” Young said. “The embodiment of culture, the parades feature troupes dancing through the streets wearing intricately hand-crafted costumes. The more feathers, the better.”
Thanks to their volcanic origin, most of the islands are hilly with the area’s highest point being Crown Mountain in St. Thomas at 1,555 feet high. St. Croix is the largest of the USVI islands, while Virgin Islands National Park occupies the majority of St. John.
“The National Park is full of tropical forests, hiking trails and secluded beaches,” said Kendell Buennagel, senior travel agent specialist at AAA Hoosier Motor Club’s Greenwood service center.
History buffs should make visiting St. Croix a high priority. Throughout time, the island has flown the flags of Spain, the Netherlands, England, France, the Knights of Malta and Denmark. In fact, Christiansted, located on its northern shore, was once capital of the Danish West Indies. There, visitors will find 18th century butter-colored, red-roof buildings connected by quaint, stone streets. Along with a fort that once protected the island from pirates and rival nations, visitors will also find the ruins of hundreds of sugar and cattle estates along the St. Croix landscape. However, fine dining, resorts, casinos, and golf courses as well as an abundance of recreational activities can also be found there, including the recently opened Carambola Zipline.
“This zipline gives visitors a unique view of the island’s lush rainforest,” Young said. “The tour includes a couple of stops for photos and some amazing information about the island.”
If you’re into culture, St. Thomas is the place to be. Recognized as the shopping capital of the Caribbean, the island reportedly draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who undoubtedly welcome the ability to buy goods duty-free. As vacationers bath in the area’s laid-back lifestyle and mingle with locals who are eager to recommend their favorite spots for eating, shopping and exploring, guests can also sample island delicacies such as fish and fungi, callaloo stew, rice and whelks, pates and dumb bread. In addition, St. Thomas is home to Fort Christian, built in 1680 and the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
For those curious about overnight accommodations, St. Thomas is filled with high-end resorts, but many believe the Ritz-Carlton sets the standard for luxury.
“The property recently completed a 100 million dollar renovation inspired by the Caribbean’s natural beauty,” Young said. “The property has 180 revamped rooms, four restaurants, three pools, as well as the robust Ritz Kids program, where children can take part in a host of supervised activities, while adults enjoy the daily rum tasting or a seaside massage at the spa.”
For nature enthusiasts, St. John, the smallest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, is a must-see. Frequently referred to as one of the best places to snorkel in the Caribbean, the area’s crystal-clear waters commonly lead to up-close encounters with sea turtles, rays and brilliantly colored fish. On land, more than three dozen hiking trails beckon adventurers crisscrossing the lush, 5,500-acre
National Park.
“Lovango Resort and Beach Club recently opened on a private cay in St. John, just a 15-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas,” Young said. “The property is a famous day-boating destination home to a hotel, restaurant and a trendy village. Guests can relax by the 70-foot infinity pool or enjoy a cocktail and oysters at the bar.”
According to Young, the resort also hosts a child-friendly beach party three nights a week.
As you would expect, dining options are plentiful, no matter the island.
On St. Croix, The Galleon at Tamarind Reef Hotel features an informal atmosphere and seaside location, while a place called “Too. Chez” offers French-inspired American cuisine in an open-air courtyard.
Blue 11 and Indigo 4 are highly-recommended options on St. Thomas.
“Blue 11 serves seven, nine and 11 course bites with the option of a wine pairing dinner,” Young said. “The menu is locally inspired with locally sourced ingredients, including a range of seafood dishes.
“The menu at Indigo 4 features Caribbean-inspired dishes, such as steak with coconut ginger mushrooms and warm green banana and horseradish salad.”
Morgan’s Mango is an extremely popular eatery on the island of St. John, where Creole, Bahamian, Cuban, Jamaican, Haitian, Puerto Rican and Mayan influenced food is served with modern neo-Caribbean twists.
Many experts say the best time to visit the USVI is between mid-April and July, after the peak tourist season in the winter and before the arrival of the mid-summer rainy season.
“You’ll want to make sure you book your trip well in advance,” Buennagel said. “Fall is the cheapest time to visit but it is also the territory’s hurricane season.”
Buennagel also has specific recommendations for packing.
“Pack only the essentials and you’ll want to include sunscreen,” she said. “There’s no recycling on the islands, so for environmental reasons you’ll want to bring your own reusable water bottle. Just remember to make sure it’s empty before going through airport security.”
However, Young said there is much to consider when bringing sunscreen.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands has enacted laws to help preserve the glorious beaches and stunning underwater world,” she said. “Sunscreens that contain the ‘Toxic 3 Os’ — oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene — have been banned from the destination. Guests are encouraged to wear rash guards and hats and use only non-nano mineral sunscreen containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”
Because of the intensity of the Caribbean sun, cotton clothing is recommended.
According to visitusvi.com, currency utilized in the USVI is the U.S. dollar and automated teller machines can be found throughout all three islands. Most establishments reportedly accept credit cards and traveler’s checks and the most widely accepted credit cards are Visa and MasterCard.
For those planning to drive while visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands, automobiles are driven on the left side of roads and a valid U.S. or foreign license is accepted for up to 90 days. Seatbelts are required by law and it is illegal to drive while speaking on a cell phone.
It’s also important to remember
that ride-share services like Uber and
Lyft aren’t available on the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas or St. John. Additionally, the public bus service is limited during late-evening hours so visitors should plan to get around by taxi in the evening.
“Also, when going into restaurants or shops, you want to make sure you’re properly covered up in order to respect local customs,” Buennagel said.