US Virgin Islands
Hmm, which of the US Virgin Islands (USVI) to choose for hammock-strewn beaches, conch fritters and preposterously blue water? Easy: any one, though each differs in personality. St Thomas has more resorts and water sports than you can shake a beach towel at and is the most developed island, with dizzying cruise-ship traffic. St John cloaks two-thirds of its area in parkland and sublime shores, ripe for hiking and snorkeling. It leads the way in environmental preservation and draws a more outdoorsy crowd. The largest Virgin, St Croix, pleases divers and drinkers with extraordinary scuba sites and rum factories. It's the furthest-flung island and offers the greatest immersion in local life. Wherever you go, get ready for reggae rhythms, curried meats and mango-sweetened microbrews. These are US territories, but they feel a world away.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout US Virgin Islands.
This historic site includes several structures. The most impressive is Fort Christiansvaern (1749), a four-point citadel occupying the deep-yellow buildings on the town’s east side. Built out of Danish bricks (brought over as ships’ ballast), the fort guarded against pirate onslaughts, hurricanes and slave revolts. Cannon on the ramparts, an echoey, claustrophobic dungeon, and latrines with top-notch sea views await inside. The fort entrance has brochures for self-guided exploration of the other nearby historic buildings.
The sugary mile that fringes Magens Bay, 3 miles north of Charlotte Amalie, makes almost every travel publication’s list of beautiful beaches. The seas here are calm, the bay broad and the surrounding green hills dramatic, and tourists mob the place to soak it all up. The beach has lifeguards, picnic tables, changing facilities, a taxi stand, food vendors, and water-sports operators renting kayaks, paddleboards and paddleboats (US$20 to US$30 per hour).
VI National Park covers two-thirds of St John, plus 5650 acres underwater. It’s a tremendous resource, offering miles of shoreline, pristine reefs and 26 hiking trails. The park visitor center sits on the dock across from the Mongoose Junction shopping arcade. It’s an essential first stop to obtain free guides on hiking, birdwatching, petroglyph sites and ranger-led activities. Green iguanas, geckos, hawksbill turtles and wild donkeys roam the landscape. A couple of good trails leave from behind the center.
This bay adjoins the Annaberg mill ruins. Park in the plantation’s lot and follow the trail along the water for 25 minutes. Some of St John’s best snorkeling is at the bay’s east end, offshore at Waterlemon Cay, where turtles, spotted eagle rays, barracudas and nurse sharks swim. Be aware that the current can be strong. There are no amenities and usually few people out here.
The water here is shallow and less choppy than elsewhere (good for snorkeling and kids), and it’s a good bet you’ll see green sea turtles in the early morning or late afternoon, and maybe a stingray or two. There's a parking lot and a changing room, as well as a bar, a food truck and water-sports rentals. Maho can get crowded (especially after 11am), but never overwhelmingly so.
For such a small landmass – 1 mile long by half a mile wide – Buck Island draws big crowds. It’s not so much what’s on top but what’s underneath that fascinates: a 19,015-acre, fish-frenzied coral-reef system, protected as Buck Island Reef National Monument, that surrounds the island. The sea gardens and a marked underwater trail create captivating snorkeling on the island’s east side. Most visitors glide here aboard tour boats departing from Christiansted, 5 miles to the west.
This secluded beach off Rte 82 offers no shade or facilities, and you'll have to hike about 20 minutes through scrub to reach it, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful stretch of sand. The Nature Conservancy manages the area as part of a preserve for green and hawksbill turtles, which are active from July to December. Snorkeling on the coral reef here is good, though be careful of the strong current.
Part of the national park, this site near Leinster Bay is home to the most intact sugar-plantation ruins in the Virgin Islands. A 30-minute self-directed walking tour leads you through the slave quarters, village, windmill, rum still and dungeon. The schooner drawings on the dungeon wall may date back more than 100 years. Cultural demonstrations take place here at least three days a week and range from baking 'dum bread' to basketweaving.
About 4 miles west of Christiansted, Salt River Bay holds prehistoric archaeological ruins and is the only documented place where Christopher Columbus landed on US soil. Don’t expect bells and whistles: the site remains undeveloped beach. The 700 acres surrounding the Salt River estuary form an ecological reserve filled with mangroves, egrets, and bioluminescent life come nighttime.