Things to Do in St. Thomas
||Sunny, year-round temperatures range in the 80's during the day and 70's during the night. Average annual rainfall is 50 inches, the wettest months being May, and from August through November, with 4 to 6 inches per month.
If people are going to persist with an American dream, they may as well wake up to some of this. The three islands and 60-odd cays that comprise the US Virgin Islands include some of the most magnificent coast on earth and provides a taste of paradise and a bit of light relief to millions each year.
Swanky resorts, an armada of cruise ships and a massive yacht charter industry hardly sound like the turf of the indie traveler. However, it is possible to travel the Virgin Islands - especially low-key St John - without joining Bud and Barbara on the poop deck with a piña colada in hand.
When to Go
The peak tourist season is December to May, but this has more to do with the weather in North America and Europe than it does with the reliably balmy Virgin Islands' weather. It's therefore best to visit outside this period, when you can expect room rates to be two thirds of those charged during the busier months. An additional draw is that the calmer weather between April and August tends to keep the waters clearer for diving.
The US Virgin Islands' cultural hodgepodge means that St Patrick's Day is celebrated with as much verve as a blues festival. No matter what is being celebrated, the costumes are going to be colorful, there's bound to be a calypso beat in there somewhere and it's hardly a party unless someone's on stilts.
Carnival on St Thomas is a crazy week full of masquerades, drumming, dancing, feasting and mocko jumbies (costumed stiltwalkers). Unlike other Carnivals in the Caribbean, which precede Lent, St Thomas' takes place after Easter, usually in late April. St John extends US Independence Day on 4 July into a week's worth of fireworks and vigorous celebration right after its own Carnival in the last week of June.
St Croix's two-week Crucian Christmas Festival from Christmas through early January offers yet more feasting, drinking and parading. And if one Christmas isn't enough, get back for Christmas in July when Santa dances on the streets of Charlotte Amalie with the tallest elves you've ever seen. Bull and Bread Day celebrates the efforts of sugar plantation slaves to attain better conditions. It's held every 1 November on St Croix. Transfer Day (31 March) commemorates the 1917 handover of the islands from Denmark to the US.
The St Thomas Yacht Club's International Rolex Cup Regatta cuts up the waters every April. On a not quite so grand scale are the Hermit Crab Races in Christiansted on St Croix every Monday afternoon. Also worth looking out for are 'scrambles,' tournaments ranging from golf to cake baking where the emphasis is on participation rather than excellence.
Off St Croix's northeastern shore, uninhabited Buck Island is one of the best excursions in the Virgin Islands. The whole island (tiny though it is) and the surrounding reef has been declared a nature reserve, meaning you only have to share it with other folk who can be bothered to grab a boat and a picnic in Christiansted. The islet's attractions include an excellent beach, fantastic elkhorn coral and an underwater snorkelling trail that introduces you to the area's copious marine life.
This gorgeous spot is by no means deserted but it's only fair that such beauty gets shared around. Tucked away snugly on the northeastern coast of St Thomas, the water here is sparkling, the sandy beach is dazzling and the fish are so friendly they'll eat from your hand. The snorkelling is great, but it's just as rewarding to grab a fruit shake and let your deck chair do all the work.
A short toddle away is the crowded but educational Coral World, an 80,000 gallon aquarium that lets you get eye level with sharks, eels, stingrays and fish without getting so much as your little pinky wet.
St Croix (you can say it 'St Croy') is less developed than rowdy St Thomas, so it's a good place to change down a gear, find isolated beaches and bend the elbow with locals not engaged in the tourist industry. The island, the largest in the Virgin Islands, is composed of forested hills and fertile lowlands and is surrounded by coral reefs. At its commercial height St Croix had about 100 sugar plantations, and decaying plantation houses and the stone towers of their windmills still litter the landscape today.
Once the capital of the entire Danish colony, pastel-painted Christiansted has been accused of being the prettiest town in the Caribbean. Clustered around the atmospheric harbour are the clean lines of old Danish warehouses, a customs house, government buildings and a church. Some of the town's oldest buildings are constructed from distinctive Danish bricks that were carried to the Caribbean as ballast. Fort Christiansted, at the eastern end of town, has great views of the harbour and settlement from its cannon-studded ramparts. It was built in 1749 and protected the town from pirates and unruly slaves until 1878 when it was converted to a police station. Also in Christiansted is a flash aquarium notable for the fact that it rotates its fishy residents every few months to keep them perky.
Most of St Croix's excellent diving is to be found along its northern coast. The best hikes are in the hilly, forested northwestern corner of the island. The forest peters out in the southwest, turning into salt pans and mangrove. Sandy Point, in the extreme southwest is one of only two leatherback turtle nesting grounds in the Caribbean. If you want to celebrate the continued existence of these enormous creatures, the Cruzan Rum Distillery in nearby Frederiksted gives guided tours and free tastings. Frederiksted is just as cute as Christiansted but the town is largely given over to the duty free frenzy and it dies when there aren't captive cruiseshipping shoppers.
Through the 19th century St John was goopy with sugar and rum, and merchant ships clogged Coral and Cruz Bay. But by the 1950s, when American financier Laurence Rockefeller sailed by, things were mighty quiet. Rocky fell in love with Johnny's perfect white beaches and spectacular views, and did what any of us would do: he purchased half the island, built a secluded resort and campground on the site of an old sugar plantation and donated the remaining 5000 acres (2000ha) to the government. Today, two-thirds of St John is preserved by the Virgin Islands National Park.
Largely due to the national park, St John remains tranquil and covered by dense forest. Park rangers with encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora and fauna (which includes mongoose and feral donkeys) lead guided hikes into the interior, and there are twenty-odd trails to explore under your own steam. One of the best hikes is the Bordeaux Mountain Trail, which leads to the summit of the island's highest peak. Two other ridge peaks, Camelberg and Mamey, offer strenuous hikes and rewarding views, while the walk to the Annaberg Plantation takes in the partly restored ruins of an 18th-century plantation house and sugar mill. The national park also encompasses the surrounding waters and reefs, so you'll find excellent snorkelling and marine life, especially at the popular snorkelling trail off beautiful Trunk Bay, and at Reef Bay, Honeymoon Beach and Salt Pond Bay.
Development on St John has been restricted to modest Cruz Bay, where the restaurants and bars are concentrated, and shy and retiring Coral Bay, a mere slip of a thing. Ferries connect Cruz Bay with Red Hook and Charlotte Amalie on St Thomas; a weekend ferry zips all the way to Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
This spiky lizard-shaped island has a rambunctious past peppered with the exploits of men named after their facial hair. You'd think the stomping ground of Blackbeard and the mythical Bluebeard would be the last place to turn into the quintessential American beach suburb, but a fine port is a fine port whether you're unloading booty, slaves or cruise ship passengers. St Thomas is overly developed and fixated on shopping but it's also strikingly pretty, thanks to a spine of hills whose forested ridges form headlands separating bays and coves filled with turquoise-blue water. There are more than forty beaches fringing the island, and snorkelling and dive spots galore.
Charlotte Amalie (named after the wife of King Christian V in 1691), the capital of the Virgin Islands, has long been a busy port. Today you'd call the town 'lively and bustling' if you were feeling polite, 'congested and harassing' if you'd just had 40 spruikers tell you what lovely watches they have. True enough, the centre of town is swamped by cruise ship passengers and duty-free shops, but it does wear its Danish heritage with style. The neat, pastel-painted warehouses, the ochre-coloured fort and the dual Danish-English street signs combine to keep it clear that this ain't no mall. The colourful melange of tropical foliage, red-roofed houses and the rich blue bay are best seen from Blackbeard's Castle, atop Government Hill.
The town's top ranking historic attraction is Fort Christian, a modest red affair that looks barely fit to defend a string of sausages. The building dates to the 1670s when it served as a combined defence post, government house, church and community hall. When the threat of invasion dissipated, the fort became a jail and, since 1987, a museum with displays on the region's natural heritage (including medicinal plants and birdlife) and art.
Part of the island's inglorious past is still standing in Market Square at the other end of Charlotte Amalie. Today the covered plaza is the local food market but it was once the Caribbean's busiest trading post for slaves. Nearby, the Beracha V'Shalom V'Gimilath Chasidim Synagogue was built by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; it's now the oldest continually operating synagogue under the US flag.
The island's other attractions include the Virgin Islands panorama at Drake's Seat, a high point in the centre of the island from which Sir Francis himself is said to have watched naval engagements. Any self-respecting beach connoisseur should stake out a patch of Magens Bay on the central north coast. Those craving peace and privacy are better off heading to the nearby uninhabited islets of Hassel Island (not hassling at all) and Great St James.
Mountain Top, at the peak of St Peter Mountain is higher than Drake's Seat though the surrounding forest means the view is better from lower down. Nevertheless, this is a tranquil spot in between tour buses when you can get a seat at the pleasant bar behind the carpark. Locals claim the banana daiquiri was invented here in an idle moment - boy, does this watering hole have a lot to answer for.
In the early 19th century, when St Croix was one of the region's richest sugar producers, Whim Estate was one of its grandest operations. Today the neo-classical great house, its outbuildings and grounds comprise an evocative museum giving an insight into lives of the plantation owners and the slaves who lived and worked on the property. The main house is notable for its unusual curved walls and the waterless ventilation moat that rings it. Whim is on St Croix a short drive southeast of Frederiksted. Classical musical concerts are periodically held in the grounds.
Just 10 minutes east of Whim is the immaculately presented St George Village Botanical Garden. Over 1500 species of plantlife weave and wend around old plantation buildings, workshops and a dinky wedding bower. A walking tour pamphlet helps you find your way around.
St Thomas has some of the best white-sand beaches in the Caribbean, notably at popular Magens Bay, an oversized scallop of sand and palm trees that shows up on lists of the top ten beaches of the world. If you're looking for enough space to throw a frisbee around, consider quieter Limetree Beach on the southern side of the island. On St Croix, try Shoy Beach near Christiansted or catch a boat to Buck Island, a couple of miles off the northeastern coast. On St John, beautiful Cruz Bay winds its way around to Honeymoon Beach, a favorite with photographers looking for an exotic backdrop, and Jumbie Bay, where being nude is quite acceptable.
There's good diving and snorkeling at Buck Island Reef off St Croix's northeastern coast. This protected nature reserve is surrounded by a coral reef, part of which is marked by an underwater snorkeling trail. There are dozens of other dive options off St Croix, including the Salt River Dropoff on the central northern coast. If you're staying on St Thomas, try Coki Point or the waters around the Cow and Calf, two rocks poking out of Jersey Bay. Snuba, a curious hybrid of snorkeling and diving, is the new thing on St John: the 'snuber' is attached to a raft of air through a long breathing tube - if you haven't got over having your umbilical cord slashed this may be just the therapy you need.
There's only one real surfing spot in the islands and that's Hull Bay, just west of Magens Bay on St Thomas. Windsurfers have a wider choice with particularly good winds along St John's northern coast and on the eastern coast of St Thomas. As marinas on the adjacent British Virgin Islands have become more crowded, sailing has been getting a decent go around the US Virgin Islands. If you want to cruise the islands, there are boats for hire at marinas at Red Hook on St Thomas, Christiansted on St Croix, and Cruz Bay on St John. Deep sea fishing enthusiasts can tackle up for some hefty marlin, tuna and kingfish.
The Virgin Islands National Park on St John has dozens of steep, rocky trails offering good hiking, including some that pass old sugar plantations and cross three different peaks. Bordeaux Mountain, at 1277ft (385m), is the highest. Various stables offer horseback riding through the islands' forests.