A U.S. Virgin Islands Travelers' GPS
PHOTO: Charlotte Amalie’s Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church is the oldest Lutheran church in the Western Hemisphere. (Photos by Brian Major)
For Americans, the U.S. Virgin Islands is the Caribbean’s easy-access destination. Because the archipelago is part of the U.S., Americans don’t need a passport to visit. The Virgin Islands’ Cyril E. King airport is served by several major carriers including American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta Air Lines and the Virgin Islands’ cruise docks hosted 2.1 million vacationers last year, the third most among Caribbean destinations.
But easy access doesn’t mean simple or routine. The Virgin Islands is a land of diversity, beginning with the three largest islands, all of which feature a distinct flavor and character. In a matter of days, Virgin Islands travelers can immerse themselves in all manner of activities and experiences, from sun and fun at some of the Caribbean’s finest beaches to leisurely exploration of quaint and historic colonial towns.
Along the way, vacationers can enjoy the territory’s outstanding culinary options. And active- and adventure-oriented travelers can plunge into one of many available outstanding scuba diving and snorkeling excursions. Hikers will find lush trails that link beautiful beaches with stunning national parks across all three islands.
In fact, the U.S.V.I. has so much to offer that travelers some might feel compelled to fire up their GPS devices to track the destination’s broad variety of options. The following is a convenient guide to the experiences, activities and options found at each of the U.S.V.I.’s three main islands.
The vibe: St. Thomas features magnificent beaches, a historic downtown district and world-class shopping. Some of the Virgin Island’s signature resorts, including the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Hotel, the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, the Bluebeard’s Castle Resort, the Sugar Bay Resort & Spa, the Ritz Carlton St. Thomas and the Windward Passage Hotel, are located here.
PHOTO: The Bluebeard’s Castle Resort is one of St. Thomas’ signature hotel properties.
Charlotte Amalie, the capital city, is one of the world’s largest cruise ship ports and features some outstanding shopping options at malls and retail districts near the cruise piers and around downtown.
Things to do: Charlotte Amalie is filled with historic landmarks tied to its 17th and 18th century past first as a pirate haven, and later as a Danish colonial commercial outpost. In a recent nod to that past, tourism stakeholders joined with preservationists to re-establish original Danish street names across the historic downtown district. The newly re-named streets include Dronningens Gade, the former Main Street.
Travelers will find mostly well-preserved examples Danish colonial architecture throughout the city. A short (but steep uphill) walk off Dronningens Gade brings visitors to St. Thomas Synagogue, the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Charlotte Amalie also features the Frederick Lutheran Church, the oldest Lutheran church in the Western Hemisphere, and Blackbeard's Castle, a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Fort Christian, set on the edge of downtown Charlotte Amalie’s Emancipation Park, is the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands archipelago.
Located at 14 Dronningens Gade within the downtown shopping district is the home and birthplace of Camille Pissarro, the father of the French Impressionist painting school. The home and studio is open to visitors, and features contemporary artwork by local artists. The city’s main shopping street has been recently restored with new cobblestone roads, street lamps and decorative bollards.
The U.S.V.I.’s volcanic past and its legacy as a commercial shipping and trading center have combined to create an ideal diving and scuba environment, with numerous reef and shipwrecks for underwater enthusiasts to explore.
Green turtles, tropical fish and rays populate the waters off Turtle Bay; the waters are also shallow enough for snorkelers. The Cow & Calf rocks off St. Thomas’ southeast coast is an underwater wonderland with large caves, ledges and canyons wide enough to swim through at depths of 20 to 40 feet. The 328-foot WIT Shoal former military cargo ship and freighter offers a dive site 90 feet below the water’s surface off Saba Rock.
The vibe: St. Croix offers a relaxed atmosphere distinguished by with natural beauty. The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, it has a flatter terrain than mountainous St. Thomas. The island’s hotels and resorts, highlighted by the Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort, the Hotel Caravelle, the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort and Spa and the Tamarind Reef Resort, Spa & Marina, typically have fewer than 200 rooms and offer an upscale orientation.
St Croix’ two main towns typify its wide range of experiences, as travelers can go visiting the regal 18th and 19th-century hones Christiansted to a tropical rain forest in Frederiksted.
Things to do: The Estate Whim Museum is a restored 18th century plantation and museum offering demonstrations and interactive activities featuring traditional Cruzan experiences reflecting St. Croix’ historic crafts, cuisine and lifestyle. The Whim plantation is also a terrific resource for distinctive Virgin Islands artwork, holding auctions of fine West Indian furniture and artwork in March. Music is another Whim Estate activity, as the facility annually hosts a Candlelight Classical Concert from December to April.
Travelers in search of culinary inspiration can opt for the Mango Melee at the St. George Botanical Garden, which features workshops, demonstrations, tastings, vendors and contests designed to celebrate the celebrated territorial fruit. The Taste of St. Croix Food and Wine Experience is an annual, five-day long destination food event that benefits the St. Croix Foundation.
St. Croix is also big on celebrations. The Christiansted Restaurant & Retail Association hosts Jump Up, a carnival-like cultural party held three or four times a year in the town’s streets and along its boardwalk. Food and craft vendors, musicians and Mocko Jumbie stilt dancers line the streets and restaurants remain open late. St. Patrick’s Day is also celebrated big time in St. Croix; its island-style parade is one of the oldest and largest in the Caribbean.
The vibe: Tiny St. John is a paradise of intimate beaches and coves and an emphasis on luxury villas and resort accommodations. Sixty percent of the island’s land is part of a national park. Petroglyphs created by Arawak Indians can be found along the Reef Bay Trail in Virgin Islands National Park. Tour guides available across the island can acquaint visitors with the island's ancient folklore and wildlife.
The signature properties here include the Caneel Bary Resort, the Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel, the Westin St. John Resort & Villas and the Eco Serendib Villa and Spa.
What to do: Visitors would be remiss no to spend some time enjoying the island’s inspiring beaches. Many believe the Virgin Islands’ most beautiful beaches are found in Caneel Bay, is set on a 170-acre peninsula in the Virgin Islands National Park. The region features seven palm-lined beaches, one of which, Honeymoon Beach, is home to the Honeymoon Hut, a decades-old beach shack that has been restored by Virgin Islands Ecotours.
At the Hut, visitors can reserve all-day passes that include the use of lockers, snorkeling gear, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, beach chairs and hammocks. The hut’s gift shop offers snacks and drinks, plus underwater cameras. Travelers can access Honeymoon Beach via a half-mile trail that begins at the National Park Service office in Cruz Bay.
St. John’s Annaberg Sugar Plantation hosts exhibitions, concerts and arts and crafts fairs. A self-guided Annaberg Historic Trail takes visitors through restored ruins on the plantation grounds. The Elaine Lone Sprauve Library and Museum is located in a restored plantation greathouse near Cruz Bay and contains photographs and newspaper articles detailing the island's history. Paintings, drawings and other artwork by local artists are also on display.
For more information, visit the U.S. Virgin Islands website.
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