U.S. Virgin Islands Guide
Date Visited: May 2015
The territory of the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) consists of three large islands (St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix) and fifty smaller islands and cays. Along with neighbouring British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John are part of the Virgin islands archipelago, with St. Croix lying 70-km to the south.
The USVI is located in the Lesser Antilles of the Eastern Caribbean, immediately west of the British Virgin islands and 65-km east of Puerto Rico.
The original settlers on the USVI were the Arawak Indians who sailed up from present day Venezuela. The Arawak’s were a peaceful lot who developed intricate social and cultural lives. Their civilization flourished for hundreds of years until the more aggressive Carib Indians arrived.
The Caribs were not as peace-loving as the Arawak, normally destroying everything they found. They also had a reputation for eating their victims and this is where the word ‘cannibal’ comes from.
However, not even the Caribs were a match for the Europeans. Christopher Columbus first landed on St. Croix after being blown off course during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. He then continued his explorations, stopping at St. Thomas and St. John. He named the islands, Santa Cruz, San Juan and San Tomas. The collection of tiny islets and cays dotting the sea around them reminded Columbus of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, inspiring the name Las Once Mil Virgenes (the 11,000 Virgins). Columbus found the Caribs to be hostile so he left the islands without attempting to establish a settlement.
In the early 1600’s many countries coveted the Virgin islands. Holland, France, England, Spain, Denmark, even Malta sought colonies.
The Danish West India Company first attempted to settle St. Thomas in 1665. They successfully established a settlement on St. Thomas in 1672 and quickly set about establishing sugar and cotton plantations. Following early success, they expanded and settled on St. John in 1694. After the Danes settled St. John plantation agriculture developed rapidly.
Like most other islands, large numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to work on the cotton and sugar plantations. Plantations covered all the islands. Following the abolition of slavery, the planters began to abandon their estates and the population and economy in the islands declined.
The islands remained under Danish rule until 1917, when the United States purchased them for $25 million in gold in an effort to improve military positioning during critical times of World War I.
St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John became the US Virgin Islands.
Today the USVI is a U.S. territory, run by an elected governor. The territory is under the jurisdiction of the president of the United States of America and residents are American citizens.
Tourism is the number one revenue generator for the USVI and its islands are considered premiere destinations for tourists visiting the Caribbean.
My 2 cents worth: St. Thomas is much more developed and much busier than neighbouring St. John. If your time is limited I would allocate more time on St. John, a much more agreeable place with amazing beaches, nature, snorkeling and diving.
With a population of 51,634 (about 49% of the USVI total), Saint Thomas is the main island of the USVI. Here you will find the busiest airport, largest cruise ship terminal and the territorial capital and largest city – Charlotte Amalie.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to sight the island during his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. However, the Dutch were the first to settle the island in 1657 but they were expelled by the Danish following their conquest of the island 1666. The Danish West India Company divided the island into sugar plantations and imported vast numbers of African slaves as a labour pool.
In 1691, the primary settlement on the island was renamed Charlotte Amalie in honor of the wife of Denmark’s King Christian V.
In 1917, St. Thomas was purchased (along with St. John and St. Croix) by the United States government for US$25 million in gold.
The capital and largest city (population: 18,481) of the USVI, Charlotte Amalie is located on the southern shore of St. Thomas at the head of Saint Thomas Harbour. The deep-water harbour was once a haven for pirates but is today the busiest port of call for cruise ships in the Caribbean, receiving more than 1.5 million passengers per year. Not surprisingly most of the city is a large shopping mall catering to the needs of visiting day-trippers, who come to shop in the city dubbed “the duty-free capital of the world“.
Apart from it’s shops, the city is known for its Danish colonial architecture and Danish influence. The downtown area is compact and most sites can be visited on foot in less than a day.
- St. Thomas Synagogue – Located at Crystalgade #16AB, this is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. A beautiful, serene place of worship – definitely worth a visit. The synagogue is famous for it’s sand floor, said to represent the desert the Israelite’s journeyed across.
- Government House – Located at Kongensgade 21-22, this impressive colonial mansion is the residence of the Governor of the Virgin Islands. If you ask nicely the security guard will allow you to take a peek inside.
- Frederick Lutheran Church – the oldest Lutheran church in the Western Hemisphere.
- Blackbeard’s Castle – Built by the Danes during the 17th century as a military watch-tower. The tower was later renamed Blackbeard’s Castle possibly because Edward Teach (Blackbeard) used it as a lookout during his days of piracy.
- Bluebeard’s Castle – Not to be confused with Blackbeard’s Castle, this watchtower was built by the Danes in 1689 and was apparently used by the pirate Bluebeard.
- Fort Christian – Located on the harbour-front, this is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands archipelago. This once served as the seat of government during the Danish period.
- Camille Pissarro Gallery – Located on Main street, this small gallery is housed in the birth home of the famous impressionist painter.
- Market Square – once the venue for the biggest slave market auctions in the Caribbean, today the square serves as a local farmers market.
- French Heritage Museum – Located in Frenchtown, this small museum tells the story of French settlers who migrated to St.Thomas from St. Barthelemy. The museum is run by a group of enthusiastic volunteers who will happily guide you around the single room of displays.
- Frenchtown – This small fishing community was established in the late 1800’s by French settlers from St. Barthelemy. Today the French community has preserved a high degree of cultural identity. You can visit French bakeries and you’ll hear French Creole being spoken on the streets. There is a good selection of bars, cafes and restaurants here – an ideal place for lunch.
Around the Island
Like all other islands in the Virgin Islands archipelago, St. Thomas is volcanic in origin. As such it is largely mountainous, with many roads around the island offering terrific panoramic views in every direction. There are more than 40 beaches on the island, many of them with white powdery sand.
Red Hook is a town located on the east side of Saint Thomas, overlooking neighbouring St. John. The main reason to come here is to take one of the frequent ferries, which make the crossing to St. John or to the British Virgin Islands (see the ‘Getting Around‘ and the ‘Getting There‘ sections below for more details).
Apart from the ferry terminal, there is a marina, a dive shop, supermarket and a few restaurants and bars.
Coki is a small, pretty beach located on Coki Point on the north coast of St. Thomas. The crystal clear water is usually very calm with a near shore reef offering great snorkeling. There is a dive shop here offering one-tank shore dives.
Located on the north coast, this sweeping bay is St. Thomas’ most popular beach. It is the only beach on St. Thomas that has an entry fee; with the funds being used to maintain the facilities and the beach. The bay is very protected so the water is usually very calm with no waves or current.
Just along from Magens Bay, Hull Bay is a tranquil little beach and, due to it’s more difficult access road, much quieter than neighbouring Magens Bay.
Located just 4-miles east of St. Thomas, the history of St John is very similar to the history of St. Thomas.
The British originally claimed St. John, especially in 1684 when Denmark tried to take possession of the island. Although they never settled the island, the British authorities on neighbouring Tortola considered St. John to be their possession.
On March 25th, 1718 a group of twenty Danish planters from St. Thomas raised their flag at the first permanent settlement in Coral Bay. The first settlers had already established sugar plantations on neighbouring St. Thomas and wanted to do the same on St. John. Within the first fifteen years of settlement, 109 cotton and sugar cane plantations were created and covered almost all of St. John.
African slaves were introduced to the island to work on the plantations. By 1733, the number of the slaves on the island hugely outnumbered free-men. This led to a revolt against plantation owners, which lasted seven months and left a quarter of the island’s population dead.
Slavery was abolished in 1848 at which point the plantations went into decline and the island’s population decreased by 50%. At around 1913, there were fewer than 1000 people living on the island.
In 1917 the United States purchased St. John from Denmark. Years later, news of this beautiful American island spread to the United States mainland, setting the seeds of what would become a tourism boom.
In 1956, Laurence Rockefeller donated 5000 acres of island real-estate to the Federal Government, allowing the government to establish the Virgin Islands National Park. Today the park covers 60% of the area of the island.
Today St. John is a thriving tourist destination, with pristine beaches, untouched reefs and forests. If you enjoy nature and the outdoors this is a little slice of heaven.
With a population of 2,743, Cruz Bay is the main town on St. John. It is also where ferries arrive from St. Thomas and the British Virgin Islands and is the main tourist centre with most of the island’s restaurants, hotels etc.
There are no tourist sites to see in town but it is a pleasant place to spend time strolling. The National Park Service has its headquarters near the waterfront, which includes an informative visitors centre with information on the Virgin Islands National Park.
Around the Island
Just around from Cruz Bay, Honeymoon Beach is another perfect white-sand beach and a great introduction to the beaches on the island.
Next beach along the coast from Honeymoon beach, the water here is normally calm and crystal-clear. There is good snorkeling just offshore.
Trunk Bay is a beautiful, long, white-sand beach and is one of the most popular beaches on the island. At one end of the beach is an island, which you can snorkel around. There’s also an underwater snorkeling trail with signs providing information on local marine biology.
Next-door to Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay offers excellent snorkeling with the chance to see sea turtles feeding on the grassy seafloor and sting rays cruising the sandy bottoms.
This is a good beach for swimming and snorkeling. Like neighbouring Cinnamon Bay, the seafloor is full of sea grass so there’s a good chance to see sea turtles while snorkeling.
Annaberg Sugar Plantation
The Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins are the most intact plantation ruins in the Virgin Islands and keep the memory of the days of slavery alive. The U.S. National Parks service maintains the site and has prepared a self-guided tour of the ruins using signboards, which leads you through the slave quarters, village, windmill, rum still and dungeon.
Located a 30-minute along the bay from the Annaberg sugar plantation ruins, this beautiful little cay is a short swim offshore and offers good snorkeling with a tiny strip of sand that is just big enough to allow tired snorkelers to rest. The currents around the cay can be strong so caution is needed.
Hanson Bay Beach
Fantastic snorkeling in crystal-clear waters in this protected bay.
There are many accommodation options available on both St. John and St. Thomas. Best to book in advance using booking.com
On St. John, I stayed on the hill overlooking Cruz Bay at Hillcrest Guest House, which I would recommend. If you are on foot you need to be a mountain goat to make it up the steep hill to this property but the panoramic views of Cruz Bay are worth it.
Cruz Bay makes a great base as it contains most of the tourist infrastructure on St. John.
On St. Thomas, I stayed in a guest house, which I would not recommend due to the strange vibe. The best place to stay on St. Thomas would be close to one of the pristine beaches on the north coast.
This is an American territory so there is no shortage of places offering generous portions of North American dishes with tropical twists as well as local cuisine.
On St. John there is a good selection of restaurants in Cruz Bay. This is my favourite place in the USVI for wining and dining.
I especially recommend The Longboard. Located on Prince street, the cocktails here are legendary – a frozen ‘Painkiller‘ is a great way to start your evening. The food is the main event and could be described as inventive, fresh and tasty. One of the culinary highlights of the USVI.
Located downtown in Mongoose Junction plaza and run by the good folks at St. John Brewers, The Tap House is a micro-brewery where you can sample the product from this favourite local institution. The Tropical Mango Pale ale is their best seller. The delicious food selection is also worth checking out – from burgers to fish tacos.
Located on the waterfront in Coral Bay, Miss Lucy’s is a great place to stop for lunch. The food is North American style with Caribbean influences. The ice-cold drinks are very refreshing after a hot morning of snorkeling at nearby Salt Pond.
There are plenty of options on St. Thomas, especially in Charlotte Amalie. In the evening I recommend heading to Red Hook where you will find a good selection of restaurants and bars.
My personal favourite is Duffy’s Love Shack. Described as ‘The best parking lot bar in the world‘, this restaurant is located in a parking lot on the main road of Red Hook. The service, food and over-sized cocktails (complete with take-away ornaments) are all memorable.
Some nationalities require visas for USVI – check your visa requirements prior to arrival.
All flights into St. Thomas arrive at Cyril E. King Airport, 3-km from downtown Charlotte Amalie. The airport also serves as the gateway to St. John and is used as an access point for the British Virgin Islands.
Airlines providing international connections include:
- Air Sunshine – services to Anguilla, Dominica, Nevis, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Tortola, Virgin Gorda
- American Airlines – services to Charlotte, Miami, New York (JFK), Philadelphia
- Cape Air – services to Saint Croix, Puerto Rico, Tortola
- Delta Airlines – services to Atlanta, New York (JFK)
- Hummingbird Air – services to Dominica, Nevis, Saint Kitts
- JetBlue Airways – services to Puerto Rico, Boston
- LIAT – services to Antigua, St. Maarten
- Seaborne Airlines – services to Saint Croix, Puerto Rico
- Sea Flight Airlines – services to Saint Croix
- Spirit Airlines – services to Fort Lauderdale
- Sun Country Airlines – services to Minneapolis/Saint Paul
- Tradewind Aviation – services to Saint Barthélemy
- United Airlines – services to Washington-Dulles, Chicago-O’Hare, Houston-Intercontinental, Newark
There are regular international ferry connections between the US Virgin Islands of St. John (Cruz Bay) and St. Thomas (Red Hook Bay and Charlotte Amalie) and the British Virgin Islands of Tortola (Road Town and West End Ferry Terminal), Jost Van Dyke (Great Harbour) and Virgin Gorda (Spanish Town).
For current schedules, refer to the following website.
Charlotte Amalie is the most popular cruise ship destination in the Caribbean. Visiting cruise ships dock at Havensight, a huge port which has the capacity to handle up to eleven cruise ships simultaneously and is a short walk from downtown.
You can access the current cruise ship schedule here.
There are buses operating on both St. Thomas and St. John, however the service is limited. If you wish to fully explore these islands you will need your own wheels.
On St. John, VITRAN (Virgin Islands Transit Service) operates one bus route (hourly) from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay then onto Salt Pond Bay, which covers most of the island.
On St. Thomas, there are regular buses operating between Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook.
The best option for exploring the islands is to hire a car. On St. Thomas, you can collect a car upon arrival at Cyril E. King Airport or in downtown Charlotte Amalie. On St. John, there are numerous rental agencies located in Cruz Bay.
Driver’s holding international licenses must purchase a temporary foreign driver’s permit from the rental agent, while those holding U.S. driver’s licenses can drive for up to 90 days without a permit.
An oddity in the USVI is that driving is on the left side of the road (only place in the U.S.), a legacy from the Danish colonial era. However, all vehicles are American imports with left-hand steering so all drivers are sitting on the outside of the lane rather than on the inside of the lane. This does make a difference on the narrow windy roads.
There are taxi operators available on both St. Thomas and St. John. Fares are based on a fixed tariff:
- For the current tariff schedule of St. Thomas, refer to the following website.
- For the current tariff schedule of St. John, refer to the following website.
Frequent, fast and reliable inter-island ferries connect St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. All schedules are available on the following website.
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.