Paradise on a Penny: The Savvy Traveler’s Guide to the U.S. Virgin Islands

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If you want to enjoy all that the U.S. Virgin Islands offers without breaking the bank – this is the guide for you. From stunning attractions to delectable dining and cozy accommodations, we’re revealing the secrets for budget-friendly experiences on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.

So pack your bags. It’s time to plan the ultimate vacation and make the most of your U.S. Virgin Islands adventure.

St. Thomas

While St. Thomas is a tourist haven, attracting big crowds to Charlotte Amalie, it’s also home to countless and affordable ways to experience the food, culture and natural beauty of the island.

Dining

Quick, easy, and oh-so-delicious, Latte’s in Paradise in Red Hook is an excellent spot for a grab-and-go breakfast paired with a steamy cup of joe. The café overlooks the marina, and you’ll find tasty menu items like pastries, fresh fruit and breakfast sandwiches. Even better, everything on the menu is $6 or less!  

A plate of fish tacos.

Craving a fish taco or a burger? Well, be sure to hit up Dinghy’s Beach Bar and Grill. The restaurant is located on the gorgeous Honeymoon Beach and serves locally caught fish, mouthwatering burgers, specialty cocktails, and beer. With most menu prices under $20, you can bite into a catch-of-the-day sandwich while sipping a Coconut Swizzler (Cruzan Dark Rum with lemon-lime) as you gaze out over the cerulean water.

At Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill, the food is dynamite, the views of the glistening coast are incredible, and the prices won’t have you taking out a second mortgage. Located at the top of Providence Hill on Water Island, you’ll need to take a short ferry right to get to it, but the food and views are worth the ride. The perfect lunch spot, you’ll dine on flame-grilled burgers, sandwiches and their island-famous fish tacos.

In Frenchtown, next to Cay Bay, Frenchtown Deli and Coffee Shop serves no-frills eats. Grab a hearty breakfast, lunch or dinner for under $15, from eggs and waffles to Reuben sandwiches and chicken salad. Vegetarians won’t go hungry at this joint either, with items like veggie lasagna and roasted garlic, onion and pepper quiche.

Accommodations

If you’re looking for affordable accommodations on St. Thomas, Galleon House Bed & Breakfast has everything you need for a comfortable stay. Spacious rooms with great views? Check! Central location in Charlotte Amalie? You bet! Swimming pool? Absolutely. Enjoy complimentary breakfast on the verandah, panoramic hilltop views, quick access to the area’s shopping district, and ferries to nearby St. John.

A sunny day at Magens Bay, St. Thomas. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

Imagine looking out at the beautiful Magen’s Bay Beach from your poolside lounge chair with the rolling green hills of St. Thomas surrounding you. That can be your reality at Flamboyan on the Bay Beach Resort. Tucked away in the island’s hills, this quaint resort has two pools, tennis courts, an on-site restaurant and a video gaming center. Sunbathe by the garden pool, stroll on one of the garden paths or experience a striking sunset over Magen’s Bay. And best of all? The rates are more than affordable, with most suites under $150 per night.

Nestled in Charlotte Amalie’s historic district, the Bunker Hill Hotel offers gorgeous views of the Downtown Harbor, surrounding hills and 17th-century architecture. Featuring 20 rooms with private balconies, a pool and an on-site restaurant (Sugarcane Grille), you’ll also be just a short walk away from popular spots like the 99 Steps, Emancipation Garden and Blackbeard’s Castle.

Attractions and Activities

When it comes to affordable activities on St. Thomas, nothing beats free. Take a walk through history on the 99 Steps, a picturesque flight of stairs in Charlotte Amalie built in the 18th century when the Danish colonized the islands. As you walk up the 103 steps, tropical flowers line the pathway made from bricks brought over from Denmark. At the top, you’ll find Blackbeard’s Castle – one of three National Historic Landmarks on the island.

Make a splash at Coral World Ocean Park at Coki Point. This five-acre complex is a great place to learn about the island’s ecosystem and various marine life. Descend beneath the depths at the Undersea Observatory Tower. Stop by the Dolphin Sea Sanctuary. Or, get up close and personal with sea lions at the Sea Lion Encounter.  

St. Thomas Synagogue. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

If you’re looking to spend the day at the beach, Sapphire and Coki Beach are two of the least crowded beaches on St. Thomas. Sapphire is on the island’s east end and is a great snorkeling spot thanks to its calm waters. At Coki Beach, relax on a serene stretch of sand with access to chair and umbrella rentals. Admission is $5, and you’ll be just a five-minute walk from Margaritaville.

St. Thomas Synagogue is the second oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. During the 17th century, Jewish sugarcane traders arrived on the island, contributing to the synagogue’s construction in 1833. Today, the sacred space in Charlotte Amalie offers 15-minute tours where guests can view the dome ceilings, traditional sand floors and even a museum with photographs and artifacts like a Torah from World War II.

In downtown Charlotte Amalie, tour Fort Christian near the Emancipation Garden. Built in the 17th century, this impressive stone fort once housed the Danish militia. Visitors can explore the grounds, see the jail quarters and visit the museum’s exhibits featuring historic furniture, paintings and West Indian artifacts.

St. Croix

While it may be the largest of the three islands, St. Croix is the least commercial, providing a beautiful haven for laid-back excursions without the crowds.

Dining

Don’t let the gas station facade fool you. When it comes to authentic Caribbean food, Ziggy’s Island Market is where it’s at. Located in northeast St. Croix, this spot serves delicious Cruzan barbecue, curry and rice, and other dishes crafted by Chef Aaron. Don’t miss out on their Sunday brunch, where you can indulge in blueberry waffles, vegetable scrambles and chicken hash.

La Reine Chicken Shack on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

If the affordable prices don’t lure you to La Reine Chicken Shack, the aromas will. This centrally located island hotspot is known for its rotisserie roasted 1/2 chicken served with a Cruzan favorite – johnny cakes (savory cornmeal flatbreads). You can also order favorites like stewed goat, lobster salad and bull foot soup.

Just steps away from Cane Bay Beach, you can swim, soak up the sun and chow down without even changing out of your swimsuit at Off The Wall. This beachfront eatery is the place to go for pizza, burgers, hotdogs, and an alcoholic beverage–or two. And don’t skip their signature deli sandwiches, like the namesake Off The Wall featuring roast beef, banana peppers and horseradish.

A popular dining spot in Christiansted, Shupe’s on the Boardwalk is a burger joint with gorgeous bay views. Build your own burger or chicken sandwich, bite into spicy chicken wings, or try their hand-cut fries topped with truffle parmesan. Seeking something sweet? They also serve ice cream and puffy pies (flaky layers of buttery dough with fruit filling).

Accommodations

A private slice of island paradise awaits at Hotel on the Cay. Accessible only by ferry, this property is located on a five-acre cay and features 53 rooms, an outdoor pool and a private beach. Affordable and charming, this resort offers spectacular sunset views of Gallows Bay and your own little slice of Caribbean paradise. Plus, the ferry to Christiansted is free, so you can easily get to the surrounding attractions. 

Over on the North Shore, Arawak Bay Inn is a lovely boutique hotel with all the amenities you need for a relaxing vacation, from cozy, tropical-themed rooms to views of Salt River Bay, a pool and bar and quick access to the Salt River Marina. If you’re looking to snorkel or kayak, a dive shop is within walking distance for equipment rentals – perfect for exploring the area’s coral reefs and mangroves.

Rooms with an ocean view don’t have to be pricey, and the Inn on Strand Street provides that and more. Located in Frederiksted on the historic Strand Street, you can see the waterfront from the privacy of your balcony. Recently remodeled, the hotel offers an outdoor courtyard, complimentary breakfast and access to nearby museums, shopping, horseback riding tours and beach bars.

Attractions and Activities

With endless opportunities for beachcombing, birdwatching, and basking in the sun, Sandy Point Wildlife Refuge is a protected strip of land on St. Croix and the nesting grounds for leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. Take a swim in the warm waters, sunbathe on the shore or take part in a guide sea turtle hatching observation depending on the time of year. Note: the refuge is closed annually from mid-April through August.

Fort Frederik on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

If you love history, take a free tour of Fort Frederik. A 1760 Danish military installation, the fort is a historic landmark overlooking the port that helped protect the island from pirates and smugglers thanks to its cannon battery. Today, you can explore this National Historic Landmark’s restored buildings that now function as an interpretive museum.

Another historic area on St. Croix is the Christiansted National Historic Site. Spanning seven acres, visitors can explore historic buildings like Fort Christiansvaern, learn about the island’s sugar industry, and snap photos of the antique cannons.

Discover the wonders of St. Croix’s native fauna at St. George Village Botanical Gardens. Located in the ruins of a sugar plantation, this botanical wonderland in Frederiksted was curated from the native plants that reclaimed the area over the years. Admission is only $10, and you can book a guided tour to learn about the estate and the plants within the garden, such as the semi-arid cacti.

St. John

Only accessible by ferry, St. John is a great place for a daily excursion or overnight trip. With over two-thirds of the island being a protected national park, it offers an exclusive and immersive look at the untamed beauty of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ natural habitat.

Dining

A local favorite in Cruz Bay, Our Market Smoothies crafts refreshingly fruity concoctions that are great after a sunny day at the beach. Sip on flavors made from local papaya, banana and pineapple. Vegan options are available, and if you’re looking for something that packs a punch, you can even add a splash of rum.

Our Market Smoothies on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

Just a quick walk from Our Market Smoothies is Little Olive – a food truck whipping up bold flavors. Serving a menu of affordable Mediterranean food, you can chow down on classics like gyro wraps or Greek lasagna. Try the conch fritters with fiery tzatziki paired with their ginger turmeric iced tea. And for vegetarians, they make a seriously good beyond burger with fresh avocado.

Located in the heart of Cruz Bay, Uncle Joe’s Barbecue plates up delicious barbecue takeout. Choose between fall-off-the-bone ribs or tender chicken paired with a heaping portion of their tasty sides, from creamy coleslaw to rice and beans or pasta salad. With its proximity to the waterfront, you can dine with a picture-perfect view of the bay.

New Jersey-style pizza on the island? You betcha at Ronnie’s Pizza ‘an ‘Mo. This pizza place opened in 1995 and serves piping hot pies, from classic cheese to fresh tomato and roasted garlic. Wash it down with a classic cocktail like the Painkiller, and you have a delicious (and affordable) meal.

If you’re looking for a quick breakfast or lunch, check out St. John Provisions. This coffee shop in Cruz Bay features a grab-and-go menu with fruit smoothies, house-made bagels, doughnuts and even overnight chia puddings. Want to start the day with a kick? Order a frozen Kahlua, Bailey’s and vodka.

Accommodations

Since most travelers commute to St. John, accommodation options can be limited, but there are some affordable options if you’d like to stay overnight. Cinnamon Bay Beach Campground in the Virgin Islands National Park offers eco-tent rentals fully equipped with a bed, cooking kit, and patio. Camping? More like glamping. You’ll also have access to Cinnamon Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, with stretches of white sand and mango and coconut trees. Stop by the Rain Tree Café at the campground if you’re hungry.

A gorgeous view of Cinnamon Bay on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker.

Just a short stroll from the restaurants, shopping and ferry docks, St. John Inn provides a boutique hotel experience in Cruz Bay. Amenities include a free breakfast, a private swimming pool, complimentary access to snorkeling equipment and a free sunset happy hour. 

Attractions and Activities

Mongoose Junction, St. John. Photo Credit: Taryn Parker

Tucked away in Virgin Islands National Park, the Annaberg Plantation ruins are what’s left of an 18th-century Danish sugar plantation, including the enslaved laborers’ village, windmill, sugar factory and guardhouse. The ruins are just a 20-minute drive from Cruz Bay, and you’ll find interpretive signs guiding you through the area once you arrive.

Love shopping? Mongoose Junction is the place to be. You’ll find many shops, restaurants and bars in this popular tourist hub, many selling affordable souvenirs to take home. However, if you’re just window shopping, the architecture is worth the visit, from the gray stone buildings to the cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways. It’s a really neat place to explore. Keep an eye out for the roaming donkeys who love to drink from the many fountains in the complex.

The ultimate snorkeling adventure awaits at Trunk Bay Beach. Located on the island’s northern shores, this beach has a 650-foot snorkeling trail. As you dive beneath the waves, you’ll find informative plaques explaining the importance of the coral reef and the various species of aquatic life in the region, from exotic fish to sea turtles.

 

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