Updated: 1/5/19 | January 5th, 2019
Two of the most-visited destinations in the Caribbean, the US and British Virgin Islands are what I expected them to be: white sand beaches, excellent diving and snorkeling, turquoise crystal-clear water, scenic hiking, lots of boating opportunities, and heavily poured rum drinks.
I spent a month traveling around the islands by boat. There is a fascinating number of things to do on the islands — life here is not all hammocks and piña coladas. From festivals to diving to strenuous hiking trails to hidden tide pools, each of the islands in the area has plenty to offer to keep you busy if a full day at the beach isn’t your thing.
Take a trip to Buck Island
The only marine national park in the United States, Buck Island is a half-day trip from St. Croix (though full-day trips that come with food and booze are also available). While the marine park and coral are slightly dead after years of overfishing and coral bleaching, there’s a fabulous beach on the island that couldn’t be more quintessentially Caribbean: empty, wide, and ringed with palm trees. The half-day trip is the greatest value and one of the best things to do on St. Croix.
Recommended Buck Island tour companies:Big Beard’s Adventure Tours ($75 for a half day and $105 for a full day)Caribbean Sea Adventures ($75 for half day)Jolly Roger Charters ($75 for half day and $90 for a full day)
Relax in Jack Bay and Isaac Bay
Located on the easternmost point of the United States, these bays are two empty beaches on St. Croix. Difficult to access, after a steep hike down a very overgrown trail, you’ll come upon Isaac Bay (also home to nesting turtles), where you’ll be able to enjoy a thin slice of white sand, blue water, and snorkeling right from the shore. Jack Bay is connected by a poorly signed trail at the end of Isaac’s. The beaches aren’t maintained, but, while not the prettiest, they are one of the few spots on the island you can have to yourself. Bring your own water and food as there are no facilities in either bay.
Chill out at Cane Bay
This is my favorite bay on St. Croix, featuring a beautiful beach, a delicious restaurant (Eat @ Cane Bay), and snorkeling within swimming distance of the shore. Though the beach isn’t very wide and it’s located right near a road, the chilled-out atmosphere of the area, good snorkeling (there’s a steep dropoff out from shore, creating a lot of fish-viewing opportunities), and few crowds make it a place worth spending the day (and early evening when the restaurant has happy hour). Cane Bay is located on the north side of St. Croix.
Explore Jost Van Dyke
The party island of the British Virgin Islands, Jost sees a lot of day trippers from St. John and yachties coming into the harbor and making a beeline for the Soggy Dollar Bar to drink Painkillers (rum, pineapple and orange juice, and fresh nutmeg), the bar’s famous drink and one that everyone on the Virgin Islands drinks (the best one I had was at Rudy’s on Jost; Soggy Dollar is overrated). White Bay is where all the action is, but I loved it early in the morning or late at night when all the day trippers (drunks) were gone and the extensive white sand beach was deserted. Be sure to visit the bubbly pools on the other side of the island where the incoming water rushing into this tiny tide pool creates a whirlpool effect.
Explore The Baths
At first, I couldn’t figure out why everyone loves this spot on Virgin Gorda. The beach was tiny, the water rough, and the crowds plentiful. Then I followed the sign to the caves, and it became clear why this is the most-visited spot in the Virgin Islands. After crawling through a tiny opening, you are surrounded by gigantic granite boulders nestled on each other with streams of water flowing all around them. It’s beautiful. There are nooks and crannies to explore everywhere. After wading through water and climbing over rocks, you find yourself in tide pools that collect between the boulders on your way to Dead Man’s Beach. It costs $3 USD to enter.
Enjoy paradise on Anegada
Looking to get away from the crowds? Anegada in the BVIs is a coral atoll with a few hundred people living on it. Few ferries go to the island (only three per week), and most people who get up here tend to come via their own boats. This keeps the crowds down. You can go hours without seeing anyone on the beaches. The island is ringed by a reef, making it perfect for snorkeling right from the shore (you can see a lot of rays here too!) The island is famous for its lobster, and each restaurant has its own signature dish (Neptune’s Treasure and Potters by the Sea were my favorites). If you come in November, be sure to catch the lobster festival that occurs the last weekend of the month. It’s lobster heaven.
Enjoy the food and music of Redhook
This port town on St. Thomas has some of the better restaurants and bars on the island. You’ll find lively music, a delicious beer and burger bar called Tap and Still, and energetic clubs. If you’re on the island and looking to have a night out, this is the place to be. You can also get ferry service to/from Cruz Bay on St. John and to/from the British Virgin Islands.
Party on St. John
Want fun? $1 happy hour specials? Amazing drinks? St. John is for you. With only 2,000 people living on the island, it has a small-town feel, but it heaves with tourists who want to escape the stuffy and expensive prices of St. Thomas. Since the main town of Cruz Bay is so small, bar hopping is really easy, and most bars feature live bands.
Note: Hurricane Irma and Maria really did a number on St. John. While recovery has been strong (most businesses and beaches have reopened), some accommodations are still closed. You can follow the islands’ recovery progress at usviupdate.com.
Visit Cinnamon Bay
This bay on St. John is home to the only campground on the USVIs. It’s a wide bay that stays pretty empty and calm, making it one of my favorite beaches on the island.
Note: Hurricane Irma and Maria really did a number on St. John and much of the island is still recovering. At the time of writing, this bay is still closed to visitors.
Hike the Reef Bay Trail
Cutting through St. John, this trail begins in the center of the island and takes you through the forest featuring old sugar plantations, stone ruins, ancient petroglyphs, and a deserted sugar factory by the water. It’s beautiful, easy, and the beach at the end is a perfect place for a dip (you’re going to work up a sweat!). Combine it with Cinnamon Trail that begins at Cinnamon Bay on the top of the island, and you can cut across the entire width of the island in about four hours.
Get away from the crowd at Brewer’s Bay
Located near the airport on St. Thomas, this beach is near the USVI university and a locals-only beach — for the sole reason tourists just don’t seem to ever make it here. You’ll see local families BBQing, people exercising their dogs, and planes coming to and going from the airport.
Wander the empty Salt Island
This tiny, deserted, out-of-the-way island is filled with once-important salt ponds. There’s snorkeling around the island, and you can take a dinghy to visit the deserted town near the salt pools. The island is owned by a family that pays an annual rent to the Queen of England of a single one-pound bag of salt. You’ll need to get here with your own boat; there are no ferries.
Dive/snorkel the RMS Rhone
Considered one of the most impressive dive and snorkel sites in the world, the RMS Rhone was a mail ship that crashed in the nearby reef and is now its own artificial reef, home to thousands of different fish and coral. It’s a must for every diver. Most dive trips leave from Tortola. You’ll be able to enter the wreck too.
Drink at Willy T’s
Located off Norman Island, this old boat turned floating bar is where everyone goes wild in the British Virgin Islands. I’ve seen old ladies doing body shots here, while young guys chug beer and jump off the boat naked. It’s always a wild day on Willy T’s. But if the water is calm on weekends, the place gets very busy as locals take boats over for some Sunday Funday. There is no ferry service to this party barge. You’ll either need your own boat or pay to go with the Dolphin Water Taxi.
Hob nob on Necker Island
Famously home to Sir Richard Branson, you can stay on this island for a cool $50,000 a night. Don’t have that much money? No problem. You can take a day trip with Gumption on the Sea It Clear Glass Bottom Boat Tour. Tours leave from several locations on the northern Virgin Gorda (including Gun Creek, Bitter End Yacht Club, Leverick Bay, Fat Virgin, and Saba Rock) and feature fish spotting and a walk around the island. Branson has been known to say hello.
Sail around the islands!
****When I visited the islands, I imagined myself wasting away the days on beaches and reading and writing at night. It turned out there was simply too much to do on this area to “waste a day.” No matter what island you end up on, there will be dozens of options to choose from. This list of amazing things to do in the Virgin Islands can help guide you, but don’t think for a second that these islands are boring. Even non–beach bums will fill their days.
It may be expensive, but you can’t visit these islands and not sail around them. It would be a sin. Whether for one day or multiple days, be sure to jet around the islands. It’s the only way to see the more remote islands that ferries don’t visit, get away from the crowds, and discover your own hidden snorkeling spots. Here’s how you can sail around the islands on the cheap (or for free!)
Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to The Virgin Islands!
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