I finally had the chance to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands. Why it took so long? I have no excuse. Although the U.S. Virgin Islands are a U.S. territory, there are a few things that surprised me that I never knew before visiting. When you visit, and you should, here are a few handy things to know before you arrive so you can enjoy your stay.
1. For U.S. Citizens, Passports Are Optional, But Highly Recommended
Being a U.S. territory means that U.S. citizens do not need a passport in order to travel to the islands. But I highly recommend you get a passport because it makes things so much easier. However, if you do not have one or do not want to get one, you can use your driver’s license as long as it is Real ID compliant.
You can read all about the TSA ID rules here.
2. Flights To The Islands Can Be Expensive
Here’s How To Save
Flights to the U.S. Virgin Islands are the most common way to get there, and the prices vary a lot. In order to get a good deal on a flight, you really need to look at all your options. The main airports in the United States that fly to Saint Thomas, Cyril E. King (STT) airport are American, Spirit, and Frontier Airlines through
In addition, you can get flights on Delta, Jet Blue, American, and United through
Flights to Saint Croix are a little more limited. Airlines American and Delta as well as airports in the United States servicing Saint Croix are
You can also easily reach the Virgin Islands from Puerto Rico, which is only about 115 miles away. There are flights as well as ferries. The Virgin Islands are also easily reached from other Caribbean countries.
Pro Tip: In order to find a good deal on a flight from the U.S., consider booking a flight to one of the main airports servicing the islands then getting round-trip tickets to your final USVI destination from there. A little planning can save you a lot.
3. Skip The Rental Car
Hire A Private Driver Or Try Public Transportation Instead
Once you arrive at the airport, you will need to take a taxi to your hotel. I did not see any hotel shuttles picking anyone up. You can rent a vehicle, but I would not advise it. First, vehicles drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the vehicles have left-side driver’s seats. Second, the roads on Saint Thomas and Saint John are very narrow and the roads are very steep, both islands are not flat but very hilly with winding roads.
The roads on Saint Croix are more generous and wider, but it is still best to hire a car and driver. It just isn’t worth the trouble and hassle of navigating narrow roads in an unfamiliar setting when you can sit back and enjoy the views. You will pay for each passenger and each bag. The rates are set by the government, and although there are options based on the type of transport you take, the drivers really don’t have any leeway as to fares.
There are shared taxis, private taxis, usually an SUV or van, and VITRAN public transports (dollar ride buses) where the fares are cheaper, but unless you have the time to wait at a stop and want to go to a stop on the route, riding probably isn’t worth your time.
There are also options called safaris. These are open-sided covered pickups with bench seating, and you will see them all over the islands. They are used for private hires and tours of the islands that can get you to all the best tourist sites.
4. The U.S. Virgin Islands Has Over 50 Islands, Islets, And Cays
Here’s How To Pick Your Island
The total area of the U.S. Virgin Islands is about 130 square miles. The temperature averages between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and humidity varies with the seasons. The main islands are Saint Thomas, with the capital, Charlotte Amalie, Saint Croix, Saint John, and Water Island. Each has its own kind of vibe and although they’re close together, they’re very distinct.
Saint Thomas has the largest airport on the island, and the majority of flights arrive here. Saint Thomas is also a major port of call for cruise ships. During my visit, I witnessed two to three cruise ships per day arriving. In fact, Porthole Cruise and Travel named the USVI the readers’ choice award winner for 2022 Best Caribbean Cruise Destination.
August, September, and October are the slowest times of the year for cruise ships given that it’s hurricane season. The rest of the time, the island of Saint Thomas is busy with tourists visiting all the sites and taking safari tours around the island.
Saint Thomas has a lot of things to do, from shopping in high-end stores for jewelry to great dining experiences, fantastic mountain-top lookouts where you can see the islands, and many venues where you can just hang out, relax, and have a drink.
Paradise Point And Skyride
One such place is Paradise Point. There are three ways to get to the top: Walk (I don’t recommend it!), take a car (this is easiest), or book a ride on the Skyride. The Skyride sits next to the Pirate Museum near the cruise port in Charlotte Amalie. The ride costs under $30 for adults, is less for children 6 to 12, and kids under 6 ride free.
You will get a breathtaking view of Saint Thomas as you take the leisurely 7-minute ride to the top of Paradise Point. Once you arrive, you will be greeted by some of the best views on the island, a great bar and restaurant where the signature drink is the Baileys Bushwacker, souvenir shops, and the Skywalk. Paradise Point also has live music in the evenings.
Water Island sits right off the shore of Saint Thomas and was in private hands until 1996 when it was transferred to the government. At a little over 490 acres, it is mostly an exclusive residential area but also has some great beaches and old military fortifications and is a great place for kayaking, hiking, cycling, or renting a golf cart for a tour.
Getting There: The best way to get there is a 10-minute ferry ride that costs about $15 round trip per person. Spending the day on Water Island might just make you want to sell your house and contemplate moving.
With the most beautiful views in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Saint John is worth the visit. It is only 4 miles west of Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands, and at times your cell phone might switch carriers. Saint John is 9 miles long and 3 miles wide and only 28 square miles in size with two-thirds of the island being a U.S. National Park.
Beaches And Virgin Islands National Park
With almost 40 beaches on the small island (it’s less than 20 square miles), visitors can find one that will suit their style. From small hideaway beaches to sprawling white sand beaches and crystal clear blue waters, Saint John is a beach lover’s paradise.
In 1952, philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller was sailing the Caribbean and came upon Saint John. With no electricity, no roads, and no dock, he thought that Saint John was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen. Without ever setting foot on the island, he decided to purchase 5,000 acres of the 12,500-acre island and turned it over to the Federal government to create a national park.
One unique thing about the park is that it is completely open. There is no fee to enter the park and there is a lot of private land within it.
Cruz Bay And Mongoose Junction
Arriving at Cruz Bay in Saint John, you will see a small town with shops, restaurants, and bars all surrounded by high-end villas where some of the rich and famous vacation.
One great place to visit is Mongoose Junction, named after the many wild mongooses on the island. Mongoose Junction is a shopping center with breweries, tap rooms, gift shops, restaurants, and much more.
Getting There: To get to Saint John from Saint Thomas, take a taxi to the Red Hook area and take the ferry, which costs around $6 and takes about 20 minutes.
Saint Croix is about 45 miles from Saint Thomas and is the largest of the islands, measuring about 22 miles long and 6 miles wide. It’s best known for its historic and cultural vibe.
Frederiksted And Christiansted
The two main towns on Saint Croix are Frederiksted and Christiansted, and both still show heavy influence from Danish times. Frederiksted, known as Freedom Town by the locals, is home to a deep water port and is a cruise line port of call.
The town is home to Fort Frederiksted, an 18th-century Danish fort and U.S. National Park Site and historic landmark. There are several old historic buildings to explore that showcase the early history of Saint Croix as well as great shopping, boutique and high-end hotels, and superb restaurants.
Christiansted is home to Fort Christiansvaern, part of a National Park Site that covers 7+ acres of historic buildings. The fort commands a majestic presence overlooking the bay and was used by the Danish to control the island.
Christiansted has better shopping while Frederiksted has a lot of different accommodations to choose from. The two towns have different vibes with Frederiksted being artsier and Christiansted being better for shopping and nightlife. While you are there, visit Salt River Bay and Altona Lagoon at night to see their spectacular bioluminescence waters.
Pro Tip: While you are on Saint Croix, get away from the main tourist area and meet the locals. They are welcoming and there is a lot to do, including
- a delicious rotisserie chicken lunch at La Reine Chicken Shack, during which you might rub elbows with anyone from government ministers to laborers
- a rum distillery tour
- hitting up the local farmers market
Getting There: To get to Saint Croix from Saint Thomas, take a 45-minute puddle jumper flight or seaplane. You can also take the 2.5-hour ferry ride; just know the waters might be a little choppy.
5. Food And Drink: What To Expect
The U.S. Virgin Islands is a true melting pot of both people and food. People from all over the Caribbean have moved to the islands over the years and many people from the U.S. mainland have decided to make the move to the tropical paradise, too. With all the diversity, you have a wide selection of restaurants, both upscale and small local spots to choose from.
All of the islands have excellent restaurants, but don’t limit yourself to high-end establishments. While on the islands, check out some of the local spots to eat. On Saint John, I had a great time mingling with the locals at a place called Heading East Bar and Grill, a small place with outdoor seating and a bar where they served up some fantastic goat curry.
Pro Tip: As far as the drinking goes, the water is safe to drink and tap water or mineral water can be had almost everywhere.
Rum In The USVI
The drink of choice in the U.S. Virgin Islands is, of course, rum. Rum has a long history in the Caribbean and the islands are home to Cruzan and Captain Morgan rums with several other bottlers and craft distilleries opening up.
One of the best ways to sample some excellent Caribbean rum is to head over to the Bajo el Sol Gallery, Art Bar & Rum Room on Saint John. The Art Bar is a combination gift shop, art studio, and rum room. All of the items are produced by USVI locals with everything from books from local authors, to jewelry, pottery, paintings, and more.
For me, the star of the show was the rum. They have over 200 high-end rums from all over the Caribbean and can tailor a sampling flight that will have you thinking a lot differently about rum. While you are there, make sure you try the fungi (pronounced foon-gee), a polenta-like dumpling prepared from salted cornmeal mixed with shortening and water, and the Jonny cakes, deep-fried flour-based bread often stuffed with savory meats or cheese.
There are also some great beer options with Saint John Brewers on the island of Saint John as well as a tap room on Saint Thomas and a few others.
Pro Tip: While out and about in the local eating and drinking areas, you might come across someone offering you a drink called MamaWanna, also called Mama Juana in the Dominican Republic. It is a bright-red sweet, syrupy liqueur made from rum, red wine, honey, and medicinal fruits, herbs and spices. All I can say is be careful; they will sneak up on you.
6. Getting Home From The USVI
You Don’t Get To Skip Immigration, Customs, Or Taxes Just Because The Islands Are A Territory
Okay, here is a weird thing about the USVI: When returning to the U.S. from the islands, you must go through U.S. Immigration and Customs. Even though the USVI is a U.S. territory, it is outside what is called the “Customs Territory.”
While you do not need a U.S. passport in order to travel to or from the USVI, even as a U.S. citizen, you are restricted in what you can bring back to the mainland. I smoke cigars and travel with an abundant stash. I was told I could have brought in as many as I want but could only take back 100 cigars. I don’t travel with that many, so it didn’t matter.
You are also allowed up to five cartons of cigarettes, four liters of alcohol, and $1,600 worth of duty-free goods such as clothing, jewelry, perfumes, cosmetics, et cetera. Anything more and you need to declare or face penalties.
One benefit of shopping in the USVI is that there are no sales taxes collected. The price you see on goods is the price you pay.
Pro Tip: Almost everywhere that sells alcohol has boxes that will hold up to four bottles, and the salespeople are more than happy to box it up and get it ready to pick in your checked baggage. Just ask them.
7. A Bit Of Island History
The U.S. Virgin Islands Used To Belong To Denmark
The islands were acquired between 1672 and 1773 by the Danish West India Company, becoming the Danish West Indies. During that time, they were used primarily for sugar cane growing and processing. In the mid-1800s, a slave revolt against the Danish caused the plantation system to collapse and the Danish started looking to sell the islands.
During WWI, the German government was looking to get a foothold in the region. As a preventative measure, the United States purchased the islands in 1917 for $25 million and established them as a territory. Today, all citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. Citizens.
Real-Life Pirates Called The Islands Home
Between the late 1600s and early 1700s, the area now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands was a pirate haven. Ships sailing under British privateer license used the Saint Thomas Charlotte Amalie Harbor as a shelter and lookout when not raiding Spanish ships. Many notorious pirates, including Captain Kidd, Jean Hamlin, Stede Bonnet, Tempest Rogers, Bartholomew Sharp, Black Sam Bellamy, and others called the area home at one time or another.
Blackbeard’s Castle, now closed due to hurricane damage, was built in 1679 by the Danes and named Skystborg Tower. Built as a watchtower to overlook Fort Christian, it later gained the name Blackbeard’s Castle after the notorious Captain Edward Teach was rumored to use the area as a safe haven. There is a fantastic little museum and shop in Charlotte Amalie called the Pirates Treasure Museum that tells the tales of pirates and found treasures. You can even purchase actual treasure from the shop. It is well worth your time if you are interested in pirate lore.
So, what is the best island to visit in the USVI? All of them! Don’t limit yourself to just one island; check them all out and have the time of your life.