Best Things To Do in U.S. Virgin Islands
For duty-free deals on high-end merchandise, exercise the plastic along Main Street in St. Thomas; for a walk through the past, tour Fort Christiansvaern or the Estate Whim Plantation Museum of St. Croix; for a taste of nature, try hiking, swimming or scuba diving in the Virgin Islands National Park of St. John.
Updated February 26, 2014
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You don't have to make a special effort to visit the Virgin Islands National Park; if you're on St. John, you're probably standing right on the edge of it. Two-thirds of the island is parkland, and most of Love City's top attractions — Annaberg Plantation, Caneel Bay and Trunk Bay — are within its confines. There are numerous ways to enjoy this tropical paradise. Adventurous travelers should hike at least one of the 22 trails, while families will enjoy camping overnight on the beach.
There is no fee to enter the park, but you'll have to fork over $4 per adult to enjoy Trunk Bay beach. One TripAdvisor user raves that a visit to Trunk Bay is well worth the price: "Trunk Bay is absolutely gorgeous and has all the amenities — sheltered picnic tables, restrooms and a good snack stand. If you want to sit, read and/or watch the world go by this is the very best beach!"
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To some, Trunk Bay is the Mecca of beaches. You'll be hard-pressed to find another Caribbean beach with sand quite so pearly or water so aquamarine. And as it's cocooned by the Virgin Islands National Park, Trunk Bay still maintains its otherworldly serenity despite its constant barrage of tourists. "I recommend going early in the morning. Several years ago we arrived around 7 in the morning and we were able to get some photos of empty beaches and had the snorkeling all to ourselves," one TripAdvisor user noted about avoiding crowds.
Be sure to try your hand at the Underwater Trail — a snorkeling path of coral and fish with underwater plaques along the way. Trunk Bay's water is calm enough that even young snorkelers can enjoy the experience.
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There's no beach on St. Thomas (or maybe even the entire Virgin Islands archipelago) that's as celebrated as Magens Bay. So let us add our own poetic schpeel: This north coast beach could potentially be the most photogenic and swimmable shore of the Virgin Islands. But years of positive reinforcement has led to an intense popularity with tourists who are all too willing to pay the entry fee to enjoy Magens' charms.
A TripAdvisor user gushes that the beach looks great from every angle: "We drove to the top of a mountain to view this beautiful heart shaped beach. We got amazing pictures from the top. Beautiful white sand and clear water." And the praise goes on and on …
- #4View all Photos#4 in U.S. Virgin IslandsMuseums, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMuseums, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
The Estate Whim Plantation Museum chronicles the 18th century life of Cruzans, especially those involved in the production of sugar cane. You can tour the great house of this Frederiksted museum and stroll through the windmill and bath house.
St. Croix also has an Estate Mount Washington Plantation (a private residence that once was a sugar cane plantation), but of the two, travelers say the Whim is a richer, more enjoyable tour. You'll have to see yourself around Mount Washington, whereas the Whim has great tour guides on site who are full of facts concerning the island's sugar cane production and the lives of Cruzan slaves. In the winter you can visit the Estate Whim for its Candlelight Concert Series, an outdoor concert held on the grounds of the former plantation. The site also hosts wine tastings periodically.
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Caneel Bay is adjacent to the Caneel Bay Resort, but it's free for everyone to enjoy. And according to travelers, you should definitely take advantage. Very few tourists who aren't guests of the hotel ever venture to this northwest St. John beach, and as a result, it's one of the more romantic spots on the island. Settle into the hotel's top-notch restaurant for a leisurely lunch or dinner. Or for something more active, swim the 0.3-mile distance from the coast of Caneel to the even more isolated Honeymoon Beach.
If you are not staying at one of the nearby luxury resorts, reaching Caneel Bay can be difficult. If you can find a taxi near the shops of Cruz Bay, it's only a short jaunt from there. But you can also walk or bike the approximately 1.5 miles. The easiest option is, of course, arriving via boat.
- #6View all Photos#6 in U.S. Virgin IslandsWineries/BreweriesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDWineries/BreweriesTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Most Virgin Islands vacationers love the chance to sample Cruzan Rum on its island of origin, and you should do the same at Frederiksted's rum distillery. Tour guides at the rum headquarters will teach you about the distilling and bottling processes. Most visitors note that while informative, the experience is quick. When the tour is complete, guides will mix you up a sample of some of the best cocktails. Favorites include the "Cruzan Sunset," the "Rum Cream" and the "Rush Hour." One TripAdvisor reviewer who has experienced the end-of-tour treat advises: "The tasting afterward was great, but make sure you go with a full stomach because I ended up a little drunk! You can buy bottles in a box and check it at the airport for free, so it makes a great souvenir to take home!"
The Cruzan Rum Distillery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tours cost $5, and the distillery only accepts payment on credit or debit cards. Visit the company's website for more information.
- #7View all Photos#7 in U.S. Virgin IslandsShopping, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDShopping, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
If you love to shop, dive in: St. Thomas has the best shopping plaza in the Caribbean. Dazzling diamonds, fragrant perfume, designer duds, shiny electronics and potent liquor stream from the cobblestones of Main Street (also known by its Danish name, Dronningens Gade) in Charlotte Amalie. And just like you've read in travel book after travel book, it's all duty-free.
But if you're not in the mood to shop, stay away, particularly in the late morning and early afternoon. Narrow Main Street is an assault to the senses, filled with vacationers straight from the cruise dock and plenty of solicitors beseeching you to visit their stores. The surrounding area of Charlotte Amalie is clogged with tourist taxis trying to drop visitors off as close to the shops as possible.
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In its heyday, the Annaberg Plantation produced sugar, molasses and rum. Now, if you swing by this ruined (but partially restored) plantation and mill, you can learn about sugar production in the 18th and 19th centuries. And depending on the day, participate in a demonstration on basket weaving or bread baking. One TripAdvisor reviewer valued the chance to inject some history into a beach vacation: "The ruins are fairly extensive and well-preserved ... the signage is great and explains what you are looking at and some background on the sugar plantations and the slaves the plantations depended on." Down the hill from Annaberg is Leinster Bay, a perfect spot for some impromptu beachcombing.
The Annaberg Historic District, which includes the plantation, is run by the Virgin Islands National Park Service. The Cruz Bay Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. to5 p.m., and rangers lead tours throughout the day. For more information, check out the national park's website.
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Sandy Point is a southern beach in St. Croix that moonlights as a habitat and natural refuge for the leatherback sea turtles. During the day, you can swim in the shallow waters or sunbathe along the buff-colored sand. If you're lucky you might catch some turtles nesting their eggs in Sandy Point's 2-mile stretch. One TripAdvisor reviewer notes that this off-the-beaten path locale can be a bit of a challange to get to: "Once you enter the park, follow the gravel road ... to the end. [G]o slow, it is a single lane with one or two turnouts for traffic coming the opposite direction." When you finally arrive, you may recognize the setting from the movie, "The Shawshank Redemption." The spot was said to be Mexico in the flick, but the final scene was actually filmed right on Sandy Point's beach.
The refuge operates very limited hours and only welcomes visitors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekends from September to March. For more information, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's official website.
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You only have one place to play golf on St. Thomas, and reviewers insist it's an excellent course. The Mahogany Run Golf Course, located on the island's northeast side, features 18 holes sprawled across 6,022 yards. The par-70 course was designed by George and Tom Fazio, who particularly exerted themselves on holes 13, 14 and 15 — known as the the Devil's Triangle. "The round is only worth playing because of the Devils Triangle. These three holes have great views of the ocean and present quite a challenge," one TripAdvisor reviewer wrote.
Most visitors are pleased with the greens, service and facilities at Mahogany Run, though they warn to be careful that an iguana isn't within hitting distance. Rates change depending on time of day and time of year, so check the Mahogany Run Golf Course's website for details.
- #11View all Photos#11 in U.S. Virgin IslandsMuseums, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDMuseums, SightseeingTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDRead More
Originally built to protect the Virgin Islands from piracy, Fort Frederik (also called Frederiksfort) was the site of a different sort of historic stampede. In 1848, some 8,000 slaves marched through the streets of Frederiksted to this fort in order to demand their freedom. During your visit to this historical site, you can learn more about the emancipation rally and the "Triangle Trade," a slave ship route between Europe, Africa and St. Croix. Despite offering tons of information on these subjects, the fort is met with mixed reviews. One TripAdvisor reviewer suggests that the property is not living up to its potential, saying that "a visit to the museum inside rather disappointing, as there is so much more that could be done with it. I found it rather dreary."
You can tour Fort Frederik for an admission fee of $3 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays (when cruise ships are in port) from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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Lemon-colored Fort Christiansvaern is a well-preserved stronghold on the waterfront overlooking a northern edge of St. Croix. The building is located on the grounds of the Christiansted National Historic Site, and previous visitors say the best way to experience Christiansvaern is with a walking or driving tour. Exploring the fort's exterior and perimeter should only take 30 minutes tops, but as long as you're here, you should also stop by the Danish Custom House, the Scale House and the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse, where former St. Croix resident and founding father Alexander Hamilton worked as a young man. One TripAdvisor user conisders it a must-see: "The fort is very worth a visit when in Christiansted. It provides a concentrated insight to the history of the island — its settlement, slavery, emancipation, and eventual turnover to [the] U.S."
You can tour the fort Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for a $3 entry fee. For more information, check out Fort Christiansted's website.
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If you want to recline in the sun; choose Magens Bay or one of the more peaceful shores of St. Thomas' southern coast. But if you want to literally swim with the fishes, there's no better spot on the Rock than Coki Beach, located next to Coral World Ocean Park on the northeast shore. The beach is lined with vendors selling quite the variety of goods and services (from hair braiding to meat pies to marijuana), but the translucent waters (some report visibility of up to 100 feet!) are full of tropical fish.
"The crystal clear water and soft sands were ideal for an afternoon of fun in the sun. Local vendors supply food and drinks (including adult beverages)," one TripAdivsor user said. "There are also paddle boards you can rent to explore more of the surrounding area."
- #14View all Photos#14 in U.S. Virgin IslandsCasinos, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDCasinos, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
If you've got that gambling itch, book a hotel on (or take a day trip to) St. Croix. The U.S. Virgin Islands' only full-service casino is located in the town of Christiansted on the grounds of the Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort. The casino is small by big-city standards but according to TripAdvisor users, it will appease any visitors who love trying Lady Luck. In addition to video poker machines, Divi Carina Bay has more than 300 slots as well as live-action table games like blackjack, craps and Caribbean stud poker. One TripAdvisor user described the casino as "clean, modern, safe. All the usual games and gimmicks on a very small scale — snack bar (very basic), players club, bells, whistles and no natural light."
Part of the Divi Carina Beach Resort, the casino is open Sunday through Thursday from 10 a.m to 4 a.m. The casino stays open until midnight on Fridays and all night on Saturdays. You can peruse the casino for free, but playing any games will cost you. Visit the casino's website for more information.
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One of St. Thomas' most visited tourist attractions is an indoor-outdoor aquarium filled with baby sharks, stingrays and touch starfish. Located on the northeast coast of St. Thomas, Coral World also has as walk-through aviary and an offshore underwater observatory with an 80,000-gallon coral reef exhibit.
Despite its popularity, previous visitors voice mixed impressions of the site. "The highlight of the visit was definitely seeing the sharks fed, the reef encounter, the sea turtles, and the sea lions," one TripAdvisor user said. "Without the feedings, it would have been less interesting." Maximize your time at the park by following the feeding and show schedule. If you're only on St. Thomas for the day, consider skipping this attraction in favor of sunbathing on one of the beautiful beaches (like Coki Beach, which is right next door) or perusing duty-free deals along Main Street.
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One of the best views of the Charlotte Amalie harbor, Water Island and Puerto Rico awaits you atop Paradise Point, an overlook that's coupled with an on-site restaurant and gift shop. Vacationers are wowed by the spectacular panorama, but are less than impressed by the average food and the overpriced souvenirs.
Here's an insider trick: Find a taxi or rent a car and drive yourself to the top of Paradise Point. Though there is a skyride tram that will take you to this peak in Charlotte Amalie, travelers consistently label it a ripoff. Driving the road up will ensure the same views for far cheaper. For the most ambiance, visit around sunset.
- #17View all Photos#17 in U.S. Virgin IslandsBeaches, Natural WondersTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Natural WondersTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located about 2 miles off the coast of Christiansted, Buck Island is St. Croix's go-to spot for scuba diving or snorkeling. The 176-acre island is fringed with a barrier reef chock full of tropical fish and elkhorn coral. On land you just might spot a hawksbill turtle or brown pelican. There are picnic spots and restrooms on one side of the island, but you'll need to pack your own refreshments.
Those who've made a recent excursion to Buck Island reiterate that this is the spot to snorkel, but note that the underwater coral isn't worth the hype. One traveler writes in to TripAdvisor: "The snorkeling was pretty good, but the coral on most of the reef is dying."
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