Many travelers think they know St. Thomas from a cruise ship stop.
That's like ringing the doorbell and believing you've seen the house.
St. Thomas looks better now than it has in about 15 years. It struggled for a decade to recover from Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 and the downturn after 9-11. Now, it seems buoyant and in better shape than some places back home. Sister island St. John remains pristine, most of it a national park. I have not seen St. Croix, 40 miles to the south, but 21 years after Hurricane Hugo flattened it, it survives vibrantly.
Existing under the radar of most Americans, the U.S. Virgin Islands attracted only 600,000 overnight visitors last year as the U.S. mainland economy ailed.
The upside for tourists? The USVI is nearly as affordable as Florida.
So without disparaging Florida's many attractions, here are 12 reasons to visit the Virgin Islands this year.
1. THE WATER AND VISTAS
Did you ever buy Navajo turquoise jewelry? That's the color of the water here. And the water temperature is 80 degrees in April. In the Virgin Islands, the hilly vistas rising out of the sea are what you dream about in winter. It's your screen saver back home.
2. THE WEATHER
Unlike Florida, USVI temperatures rarely vary from the 80s in daytime and 70s at nighttime. The air is clear. Your hair suddenly feels moist, and your skin looks good. Steady trade winds from the east keep temperatures from sweltering. If it rains, the wet stuff generally yields quickly to blue skies.
3. CHEAPER FLIGHTS
Despite a decline in the number of visitors, there were more airplane seats last year, due to heavy lobbying by tourism officials. That means deals. On busy holiday weeks, it might still cost $400 round-trip from New York, but if you are flexible with dates or days, you can find round-trip airfare for less than that.
4. NO PASSPORT OR JET LAG
It's a U.S. territory, which means you need only a driver's license and a birth certificate. And time here is only one hour ahead of Eastern time, so there's no jet lag.
5. THE BEACHES, SNORKELING, SAILING AND SCUBA
It's not an exaggeration to say that you can walk off the beach and snorkel amid schools of tropical fish. The diving is good, too. Beaches? My favorites on St. Thomas - Coki and Sapphire - are so pretty they seem like you've walked into a photograph. On St. John, Trunk Bay is shaped like a giant smile. Busy or empty, beaches are everywhere, all with fine white sand and velvety water - and no jellyfish.
6. INTERESTING SIDE TRIPS
Side trips? From an island? Florida may have Disney World, but the USVI is ferry distance from the stunning British Virgin Islands (Tortola is an hour from St. Thomas, Jost Van Dyke 45 minutes). Plus, St. Thomas and St. John are only 15 minutes apart on the ferry for just $6 each way.
Want traffic, stores, lots of people and dining? Choose St. Thomas.
Want to see nobody? Choose a remote beach on St. John. Want a combination of the two? Try St. Croix. There's also a lot of history on these former Danish islands that gives them a cultural richness beyond palm trees and pirates.
7. HOTELS AND RENTAL UNITS REALLY, REALLY WANT YOU
Many resorts have "buy two nights, get one free" promotions similar to the U.S. mainland. Also, look for travel packages that include airfare and lodging. Meanwhile, do not be put off by high prices ($250-$600 a night) you see quoted on hotel booking sites. Go straight to the hotel or resort website for deals or scout out specials. Better yet, rent a condo or villa.
8. YOU CAN ACTUALLY DRIVE AROUND
At many Caribbean and Mexican resorts, tourists are warned not to leave their resorts or drive. While the USVI has its share of crime (mostly drug-related), it is fine to drive around on your own on the islands, taking the same precautions you would at home. That gives you more freedom. The tricky part? Driving an American-style car on the left-hand side of the narrow winding roads.
9. THE VIRGIN ISLANDERS
Personally, I very much like the strong personality of the people here. Talkative, opinionated and direct, they also represent a place where manners and "Good mornings" still count. I also like the sailing crowd and the quirky wrinkly-skinned U.S. transplants who have gone native.
10. THE EXOTIC YET FAMILIAR ATMOSPHERE
Folks in the USVI speak English and use the dollar. You'll find American TV stations in your hotel, and your cell phone will get a good signal. There's even a Kmart on St. Thomas. Still, this is the Caribbean, and efficiency is a relative term. "If you require speed and order, stick with Florida," says David Bello, owner of Fair Wind Sailing School in Red Hook, St. Thomas. "This is the U.S., but it's not the U.S."
11. ART AND SHOPPING
St. Thomas is famed as the biggest tax-free, duty-free shopping hub in the Caribbean. And it attracts lots of artists. "We have been trying to get us known as an art destination. We have 80 potters on the three islands and painters galore," says Ruth Prager, owner of Gallery St. Thomas in Charlotte Amalie, which represents 27 artists. Visitors are allowed to exit St. Thomas with $1,600 in duty-free goods - double that of most destinations.
12. BRAGGING RIGHTS
The Virgin Islands are simply more glamorous than Florida. It's just a sexier vacation. And, no, you don't have to tell anyone how little you paid.