If you were trying to persuade a loved one to go on a U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) vacation with you, you’d probably attempt to sell them on the fact that you don’t need a passport to visit the tantalizing trifecta that is St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. And while that convenience is certainly worth mentioning, you’re undervaluing the destinations if it’s the only part of your pitch.
All three of the places offer a world of engagement, though they do so in very different ways. One plants you squarely at the crossroads of tradition and tourism. Another takes you on a colorful history lesson. And the other simply asks you to walk side by side with Mother Nature. Travel to one or two and you’ve set yourself up for an adventure. Choose them all and you’re in for an unforgettable trip.
The most visited port in the Caribbean, St. Thomas can feel a little commercial when the big cruise liners dock. But even in the wave of sandals and selfie sticks, there’s an authenticity to the city that can’t be ignored.
Start any journey on this island with a stay at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas. The 180-room tropical palace doesn’t go out of its way to say you’re in the Caribbean with obscene colors or ridiculous music; instead, it simply lets stirring waterfront vistas and walkways hugged with coconut palms tell the story. Get lost further in restaurants that thrive off freshness (Bleuwater) and a spa steeped in flavors (coconut-oil-and-sugar-doused signature scrub).
Once you make your way off The Ritz-Carlton’s hill, head down toward the heart of Charlotte Amalie, the USVI’s capital city. Weave through the crowds and tight streets and you’ll find a brilliant afternoon meal at Gladys’ Café, a local institution that does grilled mahi with peas and rice as well as any kitchen within a 300-mile radius.
Scores of vacationers from the cruise ship will walk around aimlessly or hail the first cab they see, but you’ll have already worked out a meeting point with Campbell Rey, the unofficial mayor of St. Thomas and your guide for the day. The neighborly independent driver (340-771-1568) who knows a little something about everything will take you to Paradise Point, Drake’s Seat and any other breathtaking site you’d want to go to in his open-air jitney.
When it’s time for dinner, Campbell knows where to take you for that, too — Mafolie Hotel Restaurant. Most locals will agree that the eatery’s position on the side of a mountain is perfect — seeing as how you’ll be far enough from the cruise ships that they look like bath toys, you’ll be inclined to agree — but the things the establishment does with seafood jambalaya or the famed potfish (depending on the season, said pot can be filled with grouper, snapper or grunt) are also rather inspired.
If St. Thomas is the “big city” of USVI, consider St. Croix the hip town where the scenesters go to get away. A laid-back place that’s equal parts cultured and cool — see where Nevis native Alexander Hamilton worked as a teen long before he became the inspiration of a smash Broadway musical — St. Croix is only a 20-minute flight from St. Thomas yet it feels an ocean away.
If you’re only in town for a night or two, reserve a room at The Buccaneer. The pride and joy of the Armstrongs since 1948, this 340-acre property is thought to be the Caribbean’s longest-running family-owed resort. The clan appears as proud of that fact as it is about the blush-pink hue blanketing most of the buildings. The Buccaneer offers an 18-hole golf course, four restaurants and a welcome reception with owner Elizabeth Armstrong every Tuesday evening.
Before diving into too much rum punch at the get-together, though, head to D. Hamilton Jackson Park in the heart of Christiansted for a history lesson. Crucian Heritage & Nature Tourism tours are information-filled walks where you learn about indigenous Carib and Arawak people from the 1500s, see the inside of the Christiansted National Historic Site and go inside active government buildings.
In between those historic markers, you’ll spy more contemporary landmarks such as Sonya Ltd. jewelry (home of the famed St. Croix hook bracelet) and Harvey’s Restaurant. Time your lunch visit to the latter just right to beat the natives pining over the goat stew and fried grouper.
Walk off the meal with a tour a few miles away at the Estate Whim Museum, the only sugar plantation museum in the Virgin Islands. The well-preserved grounds are essentially a snapshot to the 18th century — you’ll notice antique furnishings, ladies making candies by hand and artisans like Junie Bomba, a man who crafts conch shells into inventive pieces of art.
When it comes time for dinner, the choices run almost as deep as the Atlantic — Blue Water Terrace (tomato basil mahi) and Cast Iron Pot (backyard roasted chicken) are two great options. But for your short stay, it’ll be best to visit the Virgin Islands’ chef of the moment, Digby Stridiron, at balter. With visible wood beams in the ceiling, long rows of booths and a garden out back, the recently opened dining room is the perfect place for just-caught yellowfin tuna or lamb and sweet plantain gnocchi.
If you can handle a nightcap, make the short stroll over to Zion Modern Kitchen to see Frank Robinson. More of a beverage alchemist than a bartender, Robinson preps every cocktail as if it’s his last. Though he’ll happily make you one of the bar specialties (the Pineapple Express is a spunky number with pineapple-infused tequila, hot pepper, lime, cucumber and triple sec), his eyes absolutely light up when you ask him to make you something special. Come with an open mind, leave with your mind blown.
They say that two-thirds of St. John is national park. After a day or so here, you’ll wonder where the other one-third is. St. John feels like your own private island that you just happen to be sharing with a few other mammals.
Donkeys are everywhere at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Caneel Bay Resort. As the taxi drives you onto the grounds, you’ll pass grazing white-tailed deer and remnants of a sugar plantation, too. But it’s all a part of the property’s (and island’s) undisturbed essence.
The view only gets better from your natural-wood-filled, telephone-free room. Most units either peek out onto Caneel Bay, Hawksnest Bay or Turtle Bay Beach (yes, sea turtles do occasionally hatch here).
But even with its proximity to nature, the luxury hotel hasn’t forgotten about the needs of its affluent clientele — be it with dining (Zozo’s at the Sugar Mill), de-stressing (hot stone massages in cabanas) or distracting the kids (just-renovated Turtle Town).
Trunk Bay is a mesmerizing stretch of sand just a five-minute drive from Caneel Bay Resort. If you decide to spend an entire afternoon twiddling your toes in the water, we wouldn’t judge you. Then again, going for a hike through Virgin Islands National Park makes for good memories as well. Just keep your eyes open on the trail and remember that the mongoose, iguanas and wild pigs have the right of way.