Back in the day, real-life pirates of the Caribbean would find shelter in the deep natural harbor at St. Thomas before going ashore to trade trinkets, baubles and spices. While many of today’s visitors still travel by sea, they arrive not on galleons, but cruise ships.
The U.S. Virgin Islands – the main ones being St. Thomas, the busiest; St. Croix, the biggest; and St. John, the prettiest – were bought from Denmark in 1917, and had previously been colonized by the British, Dutch, French, Spanish and West Indians. The result is a curious mix of European architecture and place names, Caribbean color and culture, with a fresh garnish of Americana.
Inter-island ferries and flights can help you make the most of each island’s sparkling blue waters, lush rainforests and historical architecture. And if you’re up for it, renting a car is a great way to escape the crowds for a real taste of island life. However you visit, here are the star attractions.
St. Thomas – the most populated of the three islands – is a shopping haven, especially for cruise passengers who also flock to castles and forts in Charlotte Amalie and Magen’s Bay. If you want a more authentic taste of St. Thomas, get out of town and away from the crowds. It’s a half-hour trip through beautiful scenery to reach the Coral World Ocean Park, where a submarine ride takes you to one of the world’s few underwater observatories. Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts will be in their element at Coki Beach, where the 100-foot clear water makes it easy to see neon-colored fish and iridescent coral.
For an above-the-sea view, ride an open-air safari bus 1,500ft up to Mountain Top, the island’s highest point, for a sweet panoramic view of 20 islands, including England…well, the British Virgin Island of Tortola to be exact. If you’re looking for a quieter place to relax, consider Secret Harbour Beach, tucked away in Jersey Bay on the southeast side of the island. You’ll only find beach chairs there—no water sports or activities—which is why many prefer this tiny slice of heaven. While there, dine at Blue Moon Café any time of day – the view from its beachfront patio was crowned “one of the most memorable panoramic sunsets” by the New York Times.
For a night out on St. Thomas, try A Room With A View, the intimate bistro at Bluebeard's Castle with great views and a well-deserved reputation as the best restaurant on the island. The owner's attention to details extends to the wine, where a state of the art wine-room keeps bottles in good condition – always an issue in the hot and humid Caribbean.
If St. Thomas is all about shopping and tourist attractions, St. John is about unspoiled scenery and natural beauty. To appreciate all it has to offer, take a Jeep tour to explore the glorious emerald forests and secluded beaches of the 7,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park, covering two-thirds of the island. The park has more than 800 species of plants, 140 of birds, 500 of fish and 50 of corals – and very few humans. A stiff hike to Waterlemon Cay rewards you with a cooling swim among starfish, seahorses and shoals of tropical fish.
Or take a sail safari on a high-performance catamaran to get your feet wet as you land right on the beach. The captain will teach you about reef ecology, beach plants and tropical birds, or just leave you to snorkel the coral reefs around an uninhabited island on your own. Bigger catamarans have their own on-board bar, stereo music system and freshwater showers, so you don't have to leave all the comforts of civilization behind.
The third island, St. Croix, has done the most to preserve its Danish heritage, which you’ll appreciate walking amid the colonial buildings, smart shops and up-market galleries around the capital, Christiansted.
Much of the land used to be sugar cane plantations, but the island now boasts two of the best golf courses in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Robert Trent Jones, Sr. designed the spectacular Carambola Golf & Country Club, which was awarded a gold medal by Golf magazine. Buccaneer Resort has one of the most scenic courses in the Caribbean, and its famed third hole is where the late Senator Edward Kennedy said: "The only problem with this hole is that it's so beautiful, you don't want to leave the green."
Speaking of beauty, if you’re in Frederiksted in the early evening, be sure to watch the sunset. You might catch sight of the famed “green flash” – a burst of green light that appears for a second after the sun disappears over the horizon.