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St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix: Exploring the U.S. Virgin Islands

The three major landforms of the U.S. Virgin Islands all have stories as unique as their namesake saints.

With a total population of more than 100,000 residents, about half on St. Thomas, the islands were acquired by the United States from Denmark in 1917, but each has its own exotic flavor. St. Thomas is known for its shopping, sailing and night life. St. John is favored by nature lovers and rugged recreationists. St. Croix continues to nurture an authentic island culture.

The islands offer something for almost any traveler, including a full range of accommodations, from hotels to resorts full of amenities; from eco-resorts with cabins to small inns in former private homes. Condominium to villa rentals abound. The U.S. Virgin Islands tourism site lists accommodations at visitusvi.com/where_stay

Now is the time to visit: To celebrate the centennial of the U.S. acquisition, the USVI are offering a $300 voucher for historical and cultural activities to travelers who stay for more than three consecutive nights in 2017. The vouchers can be redeemed at select hotels; and your trip must be booked by Oct. 1 (details at visitusvi.com/package_and_promotions). 
 

St. Thomas

The main cruise ship port, Charlotte Amalie, pictured, is
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Wangkun Jia

Direct flights from many U.S. airports make this the island for a weekend getaway. Whether you fly or cruise into St. Thomas, you’ll visit Charlotte Amalie, with less than 20,000 residents, still a quaint seaport that’s dominated the 32-square-mile island’s economy for hundreds of years and serves as capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Shopping

The main cruise ship port, Charlotte Amalie, pictured, is often overrun with cruisers working their way through the old sugar warehouses — now shops selling jewelry (the Virgin Island hook bracelet is favored), liquor, china, crystal and myriad merchandise. A long-standing favorite for linens is Mr. Tablecloth (mrtablecloth-vi.com) on Main Street, with lace parasols and embroidered items. The Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative (340-777-1153) sells traditional date-palm brooms, floral-scented perfumes and goods made by several dozen local artists.

History
Danish heritage abounds in King’s Quarter, where steep step-streets, like the famed 99 Steps (actually more), end at a lookout tower known as Blackbeard’s Castle. Island lore has it that Charlotte Amalie once harbored pirates. Besides innumerable old churches, there is the brick-red Fort Christian (stthomashistoricaltrust.org), the oldest standing structure on the island, which underwent renovation in 2005. The childhood home of St. Thomas native Camille Pissarro, the renowned 19th century Impressionist painter, is an art gallery (340-774-4621). 
 

Beaches

Magens Bay and Coki Beach are two of
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Christian Wheatley

Beaches

Magens Bay and Coki Beach are two of the most fetching beaches, while Lindbergh Bay beach, pictured, was so named after pilot Charles Lindbergh landed in a field nearby in 1929. For a memorable aquatic experience, check out Coral World Ocean Park (coralworldvi.com), where you can pet sharks and try Snuba, a snorkeling-scuba diving cross.

Dining

Gladys’ Café (gladyscafe.com) is a must-visit for local specialties, such as “bush” tea and conch in butter sauce. For fine dining, the Old Stone Farmhouse (oldstonefarmhouse.com), in a restored plantation house, serves exotic meats like camel and kangaroo. 
 

Night life

The Greenhouse (thegreenhouserestaurant.com, 340-774-7998) is heavily frequented for live reggae, calypso and soca, while Iggies Beach Bar (iggiesbeachbar.com) has regular “Carnival Nights” with limbo contests.
 

St. John

Virgin Islands National Park is the centerpiece of
Photo Credit: Alamy /George H.H. Huey

The option for reaching St. John, a roughly 20-square-mile island that’s mostly national park, is public ferry from Charlotte Amalie or Red Hook on St. Thomas (some resorts have private ferries). It has a population of only about 5,000 residents, and more visitors are discovering its lush jungle and striking beaches each year.

Hiking

Virgin Islands National Park is the centerpiece of St. John. The 2.6-mile Reef Bay Trail wends through both humid and dry tropical forest and passes sugar mill ruins. A half-mile spur leads to petroglyphs carved as early as A.D. 500. The 2.6-mile L’Esperance trail passes great house ruins and has St. John’s only known baobab tree.

History

Ferries arrive in Cruz Bay, a town on
Photo Credit: Alamy Photo/Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

History

Ferries arrive in Cruz Bay, a town on the island’s west end where the Battery is the center of island administration. It sits atop the foundation of Christian’s Fort, an 18th century redoubt built after the 1733 slave rebellion — hence the cannons face inland instead of toward the sea.
 

History

The Annaberg Plantation (nps.gov/viis) has ruins of a
Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

History

The Annaberg Plantation (nps.gov/viis) has ruins of a windmill, sugar works, slave quarters, mill round and rum still. It’s on the road between Cruz Bay and St. John’s other population center, Coral Bay. 

Beaches

The north shore of St. John has the
Photo Credit: Alamy /Steve Murray

Beaches

The north shore of St. John has the islands’ most exquisite beaches, such as Trunk Bay, pictured, and Jumbie Beach (named for the alleged ghosts, or jumbies, that haunt the sands). Gibney’s Beach, a white-sand crescent with a tire swing, has an interesting history tied to J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the inventors of the first atomic bomb. An offshore islet called Waterlemon Cay is encircled by a reef known for excellent snorkeling.

Dining

Dig into a red snapper Creole or whelk saute at De’ Coal Pot (decoalpot.com), serving some of the island’s best Caribbean dishes. Miss Lucy’s Restaurant (340-693-5244) at Friis Bay has tasty conch fritters and local favorites served bayside under the sea grape trees.
 

St. Croix

St. Croix's two towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, both
Photo Credit: Alamy

As the boyhood home of Alexander Hamilton, Broadway’s current pop icon, St. Croix would appear a natural choice for visitors. However, the largest of the Virgin Islands, at 84 square miles — and perhaps its richest in terms of culture — is about 40 miles south of its sister islands, with direct flights from only some U.S. airports (most stop in Puerto Rico or St. Thomas). Thus, St. Croix remains a lesser destination for tourists, though condos and subdivisions are appearing with increasing regularity.

History

St. Croix’s two towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, both have their individual allure. The Danish colonial buildings in Christiansted include the yellow Fort Christiansvaern (nps.gov/chri), pictured, completed in 1749, and the nearby Customs House. The Fort has information about Alexander Hamilton’s life. Frederiksted is renowned for Victorian architecture. Carmine-colored Fort Frederik (340-772-2021), now a museum, was the location of the 1848 slavery emancipation. A statue of a slave blowing a conch shell — the means of spreading news of the revolt — is opposite the Frederiksted pier, where cruise ships arrive. 

Beaches

Frederiksted pier is also a landmark, where people
Photo Credit: Alamy /Stephen Frink

Beaches

Frederiksted pier is also a landmark, where people stroll, fish and snorkel to view a rare colony of sea horses. Cane Bay beach, with a windmill ruin, is popular with snorkelers, while the two secluded beaches in the Jack and Isaac Bays Preserve (nature.org), on St. Croix’s east end, are accessible only by foot. The Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve (nps.gov/sari), where Christopher Columbus had a skirmish with natives in 1493, is an archaeological site and ecologically sensitive estuary. Paddle out to parts of the bay that are bioluminescent after sunset.

Dining

Balter (balterstx.com) serves excellent callaloo, a West Indian
Photo Credit: Balter

Dining

Balter (balterstx.com) serves excellent callaloo, a West Indian stew, as well as other modern twists on island classics, pictured. Harvey’s (340-773-3433) sanctifies St. Croix native and NBA star Tim Duncan, while offering goat stew and its own fiery hot sauce.

Night life

Hotel on the Cay (hotelonthecay.com) on an islet accessible by ferry in Christiansted Harbor has a weekly West Indian beach buffet with stilt walkers, steel pan musicians and fire eaters. Blue Moon Café (340-772-2222) in Frederiksted may have a Cajun zip to its food but its mellow jazz can smooth the rough edges off any stressed traveler.
 

 

 

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