America’s Caribbean Paradise: The US Virgin Islands



A U.S. territory since 1917, this exotic island group is a top tourist destination that allows visitors a taste of paradise—and for U.S. citizens, a way to experience the best of island life, all without having to score a passport. Just a short flight away from the continental United States, the islands are a year-round destination where the temps stay warm, and the white sand beaches are always welcoming.  

Made up of three main islands—St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas—the U.S. Virgin Islands offer travelers a chance to have a unique experience while visiting each one. And while every island is a stunning example of the best the Caribbean has to offer, all have their own distinctive blend of activities—from maxing and relaxing to water sports and eclectic local culture, there’s something for everyone looking for a tropical escape and an unforgettable adventure in the Caribbean.

Cinnamon Bay, St. John, USVI

Three unique islands: St. Thomas, St. John’s, and St. Croix

Each of the principal U.S. Virgin Islands has its own personality: St. Thomas, also called ‘Rock City’ for its mountains abundant throughout the surrounding green hills, is an all-around favorite and perhaps the most visited (and liveliest) island; St. John’s is made for nature lovers with its designated parkland and eco-friendly activities; and St. Croix is the largest, most diverse island and the place to be for history and culture. However, what the islands do have in common is their stunning beaches that offer travelers the chance to soak up the sun in style.

St. Thomas

The place to be for both adventure and relaxation—popular activities, historical attractions, and outdoor activities, all set among a backdrop of indescribable beauty, St. Thomas is also home to Charlotte Amalie, the USVI’s capital and largest city. A riotous mix of bustling city life and relaxed island paradise, St. Thomas is the place to be for vacationers who want to see—and do—it all on their USVI getaway.

Perhaps one of the most popular activities on St. Thomas is spending time on one of its pristine powdery white sand beaches. And with over 40 to choose from, all with crystal-clear blue water and dotted with the island’s signature coves, it’s easy to find a spot to hit the beach and while away the hours (or days) among some of the most beautiful scenery in the USVI. One of the most popular and picturesque beaches on St. Thomas, Magens Bay Beach has a stunning backdrop of lush, green mountains that complement its white sand and blue waters perfectly. Great for swimmers and other water sports, Magens is often a hive of activity because of its location—it’s a popular stop for cruise ships. A snorkeler’s paradise due to its abundance of colorful reefs, Sapphire Beach is also a great spot to simply stroll along the sand and people-watch among the bright, Caribbean flora. Located on the East End of St. Thomas, Sapphire beach is a fabulous all-around beach for experiencing some of the island’s most popular activities, looking for less hustle and bustle and more peace and quiet? Then check out one of St. Thomas’ smaller beaches. A little less touristy and often a lot smaller, beaches like Dorothea Bay, Limetree Beach, and Vessup Bay are perfect for relaxing, taking a stroll, or having a dip.

St. Thomas Harbor from Paradise Point, USVI

Believe it or not, St. Thomas isn’t just about the beaches; there are plenty of other fun things to see and do here, too. From sightseeing stops to well-known historical hotspots, bustling nightlife, and picturesque views, there’s never a dull moment on this stunning island.

Charlotte Amalie is the largest city in the USVI and has some of St. Thomas’ most famous sights—all in a bustling spot where the past and present live comfortably side by side.

Want to see some of the Caribbean’s most dramatic views? Then head to the St. Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point and prepare to be amazed by the stellar views some 700-feet above Charlotte Amalie. Nature-inspired attractions on St. Thomas are also some of its most popular activities, from snorkeling at Magen’s Bay to hiking on its Beach Trail and scoping tropical birds; to visiting The Butterfly Garden, a 10,000 square-foot mesh enclosure filled with colorful plants and hundreds of butterflies. Plant lovers will also enjoy the Phantasea Tropical Botanical Garden and its colorful, exotic blooms (there are also some great scenic views of Magens Bay and nearby St. John from the garden). For a more family-friendly experience, be sure to visit the Coral World Ocean Park to swim with the sea lions; take a Sea Trek; check out the marine wildlife, visit the Undersea Observatory, and so much more.

Snorkeling in the Caribbean

There are plenty of sightseeing opportunities throughout St. Thomas, too. At over 2000-feet above sea level, Mountain Top has some of the most spectacular views on the entire island (don’t forget to try their famous banana daiquiri while you’re there). Get a sense of St. Thomas’ historical side with a visit to Blackbeard’s Castle, a National Historic Landmark located in Charlotte Amalie. Situated at the top of Government Hill, the area is sometimes referred to as “The Williamsburg of the Caribbean.” If you’re planning to spend the day in Charlotte Amalie, then be sure to go up the 99 Steps, one of the city’s most famous landmarks that wends its way from the harbor and climbs through the city’s hills.

There’s never a dull moment in St. Thomas—and that includes its restaurants and accommodations, too. Chock full of exciting resorts with a ton of amenities, to smaller, more relaxing, and intimate inns, St. Thomas has top-notch lodgings that are as eclectic as the island itself.

St. Thomas has a number of restaurants spread throughout the island that are easily accessible by can or water taxi. While many establishments are casual and informal, there are a number of upscale spots (many located in resorts or hotels), such as the popular Mafolie Restaurant, or the Old Farmhouse. Diverse and eclectic fare is the way of the day, whether the restaurant is serving a local like Gladys’ Cafe or global, such as Beni Iguana’s Sushi Bar & Restaurant,  menu. Wherever you dine in St. Thomas, be sure to expect fresh flavors and vibrant local fare in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.

St. John

The smallest of St. Thomas’ three main islands, St. John is home to the Virgin Islands National Park, which encompasses over half of the 12,500-acre island. Also known as “Love City,” St. John offers visitors the unique opportunity to explore a pristine and protected Caribbean Island that’s full of natural beauty and an appreciation for the heritage of the USVI. One of the best reasons for visiting St. John is its outstanding eco-tourism opportunities that extend to both land and sea. Snorkeling is an especially popular pastime, as the underwater terrain where visitors have the chance to see over 500 species of fish; 40 types of corral; and hundreds of invertebrate species.

Like St. Thomas, St. John also has its share of breathtaking and diverse beaches where visitors can embark upon many exciting water sports and outdoor activities—or simply relax and lounge beside the cerulean waters. Trunk Bay is St. John’s most famous beach and a showpiece in the National Park—the beautiful white sand beaches are great for lounging, while fans of water sports will enjoy the Underwater Snorkeling Trail. Cinnamon Bay is another popular spot; known for activities like windsurfing, kayaking, and snorkeling, there’s never a dull moment. Visitors who want a full St. John nature experience can also camp here too. For a more secluded and private beach experience, head to Salt Pond Bay—located in a scenic cove, Salt Pond Bay is known for its snorkeling and hiking on nearby trails.

Because most of the island is a National Park, there are several hiking opportunities on St. John’s for those of all experience levels. Reef Bay Trail is one of the most popular trails on the entire island—considered strenuous; it is also incredibly scenic, containing some of the oldest and tallest trees on the island. It has a solid cultural and historical component, too—as there are a number of petroglyphs from the Taíno tribes who once lived on the island, along with the ruins of an old Danish Sugar Plantation. For those who like a more leisurely hike, Ram Head Trail is picturesque and lovely, taking travelers to the island’s southernmost point with culminates at the beautiful Salt Pond Beach. For those looking to have a hike with a side of history, the L’esperance Trail and the Annaberg Hiking Trail both lead through historic former area plantations and have some fantastic scenery, too.

Because St. John is a great deal smaller than its neighboring islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas, there are not as many accommodations. However, there are a number of villas for rent and opportunities for camping. Though there are no all-inclusive resorts on St. John, there are some great places to stay—from the large and luxe Gallows Point Resort to smaller inns and B&Bs like the Estate Lindholm and Garden By The Sea.

St. John is home to a number of restaurants, including both casual spots and fine dining establishments both in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay. For casual bites, check out one of Coral Bay’s food trucks or BBQ joints, or stop in at local faves like The Longboard and The Tap Room in Cruz Bay. Want a fancier night on the town? Then check out the upscale faves Morgan’s Mango and Rhumb Lines, known for their island vibes and top-notch cuisine.

St Croix

At the easternmost point of the U.S. lies the largest of the USVI: the laidback island of St. Croix. Steeped in a proud cultural heritage evident in its historical landmarks and its way of life, the two largest towns on the island, Christiansted, and Frederiksted, are great places to explore the area’s diverse and vibrant past. And while St. Croix’s cultural oeuvre sets it apart from its fellow islands, like both St. Thomas and St. John, it does have a number of stunning beaches and outdoor activities perfect for any adventurer.

St. Croix. USVI

St. Croix has almost three dozen beaches, and their turquoise waters, warm sun, and white sand make them as lovely as any in the USVI. However, like its counterparts, St. John and St. Thomas, each beach offers its own activities—and some are more secluded than others. Both Colony Cove and Chenay Bay are known for their bustling vibes; located on two of St. Croix’s most popular resorts, these beaches have it all—from water sports to restaurants. For those who like a quieter beach, Coakley Bay and Davis Bay are both great spots to spend a peaceful, relaxing afternoon lounging on the beach. Sandy Point is another popular beach on St. Croix, known for its lush green backdrop, crystal clear waves, and 3-mile long beach  (one of the longest in the Caribbean). This remote West End beach is also home to the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, making it a great place to go hiking and scope some local wildlife.

St. Croix is also a great place for water sports, especially scuba diving and snorkeling. Home to one of only three underwater monuments in the U.S.—the Buck Island Reef National Monument—St. Croix has an underwater trail to explore and a variety of marine life that includes colorful flora and fauna. And the best part is Buck Island is just two miles off of St. Croix’s north shore, making it a perfect day trip and fun island hop while on St. Croix. Visitors can access Buck Island via charter or a half/full-day cruise.

Snorkeling off Buck Island, St. Croix, USVI

Christiansted is one of the largest towns in St. Croix and was the capital of the Danish West Indies from 1755-1871, which left a significant cultural and historical impact on the area. A vibrant, bustling spot, Christiansted is surrounded by lush green hillsides that make the perfect backdrop for its signature lemon-yellow buildings. Visitors will enjoy strolling the quiet streets on foot to admire Christiansted’s quaint streets and historical spots such as the 18th century Fort Christiansvaern and the Danish Customs House, both relics of when the Virgin Islands were a Danish territory.

But Christiansted isn’t just history; it’s great times, too—Cruzan Rum is distilled here and can be found almost everywhere. There are also many great bars and restaurants that showcase the islands’ delicious Caribbean cuisine at places like Ital in Paradise and Centenos Cruzan Cuisine. Happy hour is also a fun time to explore the town, as many businesses have live music—and spectacular waterfront views.

Frederiksted is located on the West end of St. Croix and has an equally long and storied history. Often referred to as “Freedom City,” as its famous Fort Frederick was the site of the proclamation reading that ended slavery in 1848. Today, Fort Frederick houses a popular museum where visitors can explore the historic site, including the fort and surrounding buildings that have been restored to their 18th-century configurations. Frederiksted also has a bustling, popular pier known for its excellent snorkeling. There are also a couple of quiet beaches nearby, including Rainbow Beach and Fort Frederik Beach.

After visiting Frederiksted’s historical spots like the Fort and the Estate Mount Washington Plantation, grab a bite at one of the local restaurants like The Fred, which is also a boutique resort and fun place to stay; Rhythms at Rainbow Beach with its amazing views and fantastic drinks; or Louie & nacho’s Beach Bar.

Pristine Cay Beach, St. Croix, USVI

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a fantastic Caribbean getaway for anyone looking for an island paradise packed with fun things to see and do. And while all the islands are different, what they do have in common are some of the most beautiful beaches in all of the Caribbean—the perfect place to the max and relax while soaking in the distinctive beauty of this incredibly tropical U.S. Territory—no passport necessary.

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Read next: Long Weekend Romantic Escapes: Puerto Rico

Discover America’s other Caribbean outpost, Puerto Rico with our long weekend getaway guide.

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