Every so often, someone I know goes on vacation to St Thomas or one of the other Virgin Islands, and I find myself answering the same questions. Eventually I realized I should just post something here.
The Virgin Islands are astonishingly, breathtakingly gorgeous. I've since lived in several other places and traveled to many more, and the Virgin Islands are still among the most beautiful. If you've never been to the Caribbean before, you're in for a real treat. Even if you have been to the Caribbean before, you're still in for a real treat. (And if you're from the West Indies, you probably think your island is the best, but you may like the VI too.)
Note: My recommendations are primarily for St Thomas and St John because that's what I know best.
Beaches: There are many excellent beaches on St Thomas, of which my favorites are Magens Bay and Coki. Magens is a long beach and is by far the most popular beach. It's well-protected and usually one of the calmest beaches, is good for long-distance swimming, and while it's not known for snorkeling, I always see green sea turtles (ususally between the concession stand and shed 3). Coki is a smaller beach with excellent novice-friendly snorkeling (there's plenty to see in waist-deep water). Both beaches have frequent taxis (safari buses and vans), food and drink concessions, handicap-accessible bathrooms with rinse showers, and crowds. Other beachs I like include: Lindquist Beach (aka Smith Bay), which is usually nearly empty; Sapphire Beach, which has ducks and live music on Sundays; Secret Harbor, which is less busy and has a restaurant and some snorkeling; Hull Bay, which is always quiet; and Lindbergh Bay, which is a convenient stop while waiting to pick up people at the airport. There are dozens of other beaches to choose from. The beaches are most crowded peak cruise ship days and Sunday afternoons, so if you're looking for quiet (and less sun) go early or late.
If you'll be on St Thomas for more than a couple days, spend a day on St John, reachable via ferry from Red Hook or Charlotte Amalie. All of the northside beaches on St John are spectacular. For snorkelers (and soon-to-be snorkelers), try the self-guided underwater trail at Trunk Bay. There are many excellent snorkel spots a bit off the beaten track (but if I tell you about them, they'll be on the beaten track). Cinnamon and Maho are good beaches for long swims.
Snorkeling, diving, and sailing: The snorkeling here is amazing. In addition to Coki and Trunk, consider a daysail and snorkel tour around the USVI or to the BVI (passport required). There are also many good scuba dive sites, and the water is always warm (I wear a full 3mm wetsuit because I'm always cold, but most everyone else dives in at most a shorty). I've been diving repeatedly with Admiralty and Coki Dive Center. If you've never been scuba diving and are interested to learn, there are several places to take extensive courses for certification, or if you don't have that much time, you can go on a sample shallow dive after a brief training. For sailors and yachties, the Virgin Islands are ideal; island-hopping is a breeze. (Although you must clear customs between the USVI and the BVI.)
Flora and fauna: In addition to the ocean life, you'll probably see iguanas and mongoose. There are plants including palms, bright flowers like flamboyants and hibiscus, and tropical fruit trees. You can explore on your own, but for a more guided look, my favorite onshore attractions are Coral World Ocean Park and St Peter Greathouse. Coral World is adjacent to Coki Beach, and St Peter Greathouse overlooks Magens Bay, so you can visit either on the way to the beach. I also recommend booking an ecotour with Virgin Islands Ecotours or checking out the many trails and campgrounds on St John.
History: The history of the Virgin Islands is the history of European colonialism. After being settled by native Indians, the islands were "discovered" by Columbus in 1493, and then settled by the English, Dutch, French, Danish, other Europeans, and Africans (as slaves, not colonizers) from the 1600s. The U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark in 1917. Charlotte Amalie, USVI's capital, is home to Fort Christian, Blackbeard's Castle and many other historic buildings and landmarks. Just offshore, you may appreciate Hassel Island. St Croix also has many historic attractions.
Food and drink: Eating out is expensive, and the grocery store selection is limited (and expensive). Most of the food isn't local, but you can find good West Indian cuisine in a number of places including Cuzzin's and Gladys' Cafe (both in town), Brooks (near Magens), and various food trucks. There are many restaurants and bars in town, Frenchtown, Red Hook, Yacht Haven, and Havensight, as well as at the hotels. Nightlife is concentrated in those areas as well. Drinks are cheap. Rum is the drink of choice, and the islands boast several rums, including Cruzan, Captain Morgan (sorry Puerto Rico), and Pusser's (BVI). For the classic spring break experience (or high school flashbacks), get something brightly colored from Duffy's Love Shack. Another island institution is the St Thomas Dairies, a convenient stop for milkshakes after a day at Magens. Don't drink and drive!
Shopping: I'm not a shopper, but there's shopping in downtown Charlotte Amalie and around the Havensight dock. Both sell the usual assortment of tourist wares, as well as a variety of high-end jewelry and duty-free goods. Yacht Haven is newly remodeled and more upscale. If you take the gondola up Paradise Point to see the harbor view, you'll also find a small bit of shopping there. For a quieter experience and local crafts, try Tillett Gardens on St Thomas or Mongoose Junction in Cruz Bay, St John.
Carnival: For an authentic Caribbean experience, consider visiting during Carnival, a lengthy fete of calypso and soca music, parades, and revelry.
History: See Fort Christiansvaern and take a walking tour of the rest of Christiansted. Go to Frederiksted, the other town located on the west end of the island. While there's not much to see there, you may also want to visit Columbus Landing, a site where Columbus may have landed in 1493.
Nature: I like the St George Village Botanical Gardens. I've also heard good things about Estate Whim, but they have erratic hours (likely corresponding with cruise ships) so check before going.
Ocean: As a St Thomian, I'm not especially impressed with the main St Croix beaches of Cane Bay and Cramer Park, but they're still decent beaches. There's also a bit of snorkeling in Frederiksted. Although it's less accessible, Buck Island is a great spot to visit, especially for snorkeling or diving. There are several dive operators that dive Buck Island and other sites.
Beaches: From St Thomas and St John, you can take a ferry to several islands in the BVI. I recommend The Baths on Virgin Gorda and White Bay on Jost Van Dyke.
Ocean: From St Thomas and St John, you can take daysail and snorkel tours to the Baths and other snorkel sites. The BVI also has many excellent dive sites.
Food and drink: The BVI is home to a number of famous bars and restaurants, including Foxy's and Soggy Dollar on Jost Van Dyke and Pusser's and The Sugar Mill on Tortola.
Old Years': Celebrate the end of the year and ring in the new at Foxy's.
Passport: If you're visiting the BVI, you need a passport (even if you're a U.K. national). If you're visiting the USVI and are not a U.S. citizen or are visiting from somewhere other than the U.S. mainland, you need a passport. If you're a U.S. citizen visiting only the USVI from the U.S. mainland, you will need either a passport or both a government-issued photo ID and a certified birth certificate to return to the U.S. mainland. In short, bring a passport.
Clothing: Bring at least one bathing suit, a beach cover-up (preferably one that will keep your shoulders from burning), and shoes that you don't mind getting sandy or wet. Short-sleeve or sleeveless shirts and shorts (or skirts, dresses, or lightweight pants) will be most comfortable during the day. Bring at least one pair of lightweight pants (or a skirt or dress) for restaurants where shorts will be out of place. Pants also provide some protection against mosquitoes. You may want a light sweater for air-conditioned restaurants, but you're not likely to need one outdoors.
Sun and bug protection: Remember that you can get sunburnt even when it is cloudy. Bring cover-ups, including ones you can swim, a hat or a visor, and sunglasses. Wear sunscreen, making sure to choose reef-friendly waterproof sunscreens when swimming. Mosquito bites are itchy and mosquitoes can carry diseases. Bring insect repellent that is at 20% DEET. Aloe and anti-itch remedies are also useful to have.
Other: Bring snorkel and/or scuba gear if you have; if not, there are many convenient rentals.
As places to visit go, the Virgin Islands is pretty close to paradise. But paradise can be deceptive.
Sun: Welcome to the tropics. If you're pale (i.e., not of African or Southeast Asian descent) and not used to spending lots of time in the sun, you will get a sunburn. If you're pale and think you don't burn easily, you'll still probably get a sunburn. If you're dark, you may not get a sunburn, but the sun is still damaging. Apply sunscreen thoroughly and frequently, wear cover-ups on the beach, stay in the shade whenever possible, avoid midday sun (~10AM-3PM), and drink lots of water (not alcohol) to reduce the risk of sunburn and dehydration. When swimming, please stick to reef-friendly sunscreens and wait at least 5 minutes after applying sunscreen before getting in the water to give the sunscreen time to soak in to your skin.
Insects: The Caribbean is a great place to be an insect. Most annoying are the mosquitoes, with their itchy bites, and even sometimes carry diseases (including at times dengue, zika, and chikungunya). Avoid mosquito bites as much as possible.
Weather: It's sunny and warm all year, with pleasant tradewinds to moderate the temperature, but you won't see cloudless skies here. Isolated rainstorms are common and can leave you ducking for cover on the beach. Many rain showers only last a few minutes, and you're often rewarded with a rainbow. Hurricane season runs from June through November, and August and September are typically the most active months. If you're planning a visit then, pay attention to weather forecasts. Hurricanes suck. (Small comfort: as a tourist, if there is a hurricane, you'll be able to get on one of the first planes off-island afterward.)
Driving: We drive on the left-hand side of the road (like in the U.K.) using left-hand drive vehicles (like in the U.S.). Roads are narrow, curvy, steep, and potholed. Sometimes the potholes have potholes. If you're renting a car, drive slowly and keep left. If you're not renting a car, there's an abundance of group taxis and safari buses that will take to you anywhere you're likely to want to go. Taxis won't leave until they are full, so plan accordingly.
Liming: As in most of the Caribbean and Latin America, the pace of life here is slow. We take our relaxing ("liming") seriously and don't care much for schedules and hurrying. Slow down and be patient, and you'll enjoy being on "island time". If you're expecting fast service and planning tight schedules, you're likely to be disappointed.
Be respectful: People live here. Greet locals with "good morning", "good afternoon", and "good night", and remember your pleases and thank-yous, or don't be surprised if you don't get good service. Seriously. Shirts and shoes are required in stores and restaurants. Don't take pictures of people without permission.
Utilities: Outside of the large resorts, power and water outages are common. Water comes from rain, and there are occasionally droughts, so you may be asked to conserve water. Cell phone reception (especially AT&T) is generally good, but can be spotty in valleys. You don't have to pay roaming charges on most U.S. cell phone plans, but beware of roaming charges if you pick up a signal from the BVI. (If you do get roaming charges, you can dispute them on your bill. And while you're at it, please ask your provider to improve their coverage.)
Prices: There are plenty of places you can vacation cheaply, but few of them are in the Caribbean. Nearly everything here is imported, so expect to pay more than on the U.S. mainland, especially for food and gas. However, alcohol, cigarettes, and duty-free items are usually much cheaper here than on the mainland. For budget accomodations, camping on St John is the way to go. Note that the U.S. Dollar is the official currency in all of the Virgin Islands (USVI and BVI).
Americanization: The USVI are part of the U.S. While there are many geographical and cultural differences, the USVI -- especially the bits you'll see as a tourist -- are a lot like the rest of the U.S. If you're an American worried about being somewhere foreign, there's no need to worry. We have electricity and running water (well, much of the time), McDonald's, KFC, K-Mart, and all those usual comforts. If, on the other hand, you're trying to avoid boatloads of Americans, you may prefer to visit off-season or to spend much of your time on less-touristed islands than St Thomas.
Crime and drugs: St Thomas and St Croix have more crime than you'd expect. Act as you would in one of the less safe areas in the US. Don't leave valuables in your car or unattended at the beach, and avoid walking alone especially in downtown alleys and at night. Someone at your hotel can point out areas where you should be especially careful or simply avoid. Alcohol (legal drinking age 18), marijuana (illegal but decriminalized), and other drugs are available in abundance. Be responsible, and if you are going to do anything, then at least have a buddy and don't drive under the influence.
For more travel information, I've compiled a list of visitor websites. Enjoy your trip!
(Sara Smollett, last modified 2016)