Last winter, my wife and I were going stir-crazy and decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Neither of us had been, but both had heard good things. Besides, when has anyone ever regretted a tropical island in December? So we packed our bags!
In this post, I’ll go over our travel experience in the US Virgin Islands, the most fun activities we did, and what I wish we would have known going into it all.
If you’re considering a trip to St. Thomas or you’re already there and looking for tips, this post is for you.
Now let’s get started!
Arriving on the island
The nonstop flight from the east coast was relatively cheap and has us in Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas capital) in just under 4 hours. It’s a beautiful view on arrival and stepping out of the plane and feeling the warm air hit us was all the validation we needed that we made the right choice.
After grabbing our bags, we headed for the rental car desk where I had to face my biggest fear of the trip:
Driving on the left side
Yes, they drive on the left side of the road in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
This is the opposite of what most North Americans are used to. I was nervous about this and had originally been thinking that we should ditch the rental and use public transportation instead.
But after looking over our itinerary, where we were staying, and the transportation options, a car seemed like the best bet.
Fun fact: cars in the USVI are imported from North America, which means the steering wheels are still on the left side. This is different from what you would see in someplace like the United Kingdom where the steering wheel is on the right).
So anyway, we got in the car and away I drove with white knuckles and sweaty palms. Yikes!
The drive to our Airbnb was only about 15 minutes, but to be honest it was nerve-wracking. I had to constantly remind myself to stay on the left, which is simple when you’re driving in a straight line, but can get confusing at lights and intersections.
The only advice I can give you is to stay hyper-alert for the first few times you drive. After a few days, you’ll fall into the rhythm and it will feel more natural. Just don’t get distracted by the amazing views when you first arrive… safety first!
Where to stay on St. Thomas
St. Thomas is a fairly small island, so wherever you stay will be within reach of everything — but from my research, I found that the neighborhood of Red Hook would be the best option for us.
Red Hook is located on the east shore of St. Thomas. It’s home to a small downtown strip area with a few restaurants, bars, boat tours, grocery stores, and the car/passanger ferry to St. John (an even smaller, but arguably more beautiful island just 20 minutes away). Our experience staying in Red Hook was a good one, and I would recommend Red Hook to anyone looking for a fun and accessible jumping-off point.
We personally booked an Airbnb, but there are a number of hotels and luxury resorts nearby including the St. Thomas Ritz-Carlton, so you have options.
Other popular neighborhood options include staying in downtown Charlotte Amalie which is where many cruise ships dock. That area is home to many restaurants, more nightlife/shopping, and you’ll be close to Blackbeard’s Castle and the 99 Steps, a popular tourist attraction (it’s literally a 99 step outdoor staircase).
St. Thomas Beaches worth exploring
After getting settled, our next stop was to feel the sand in our toes.
Throughout our stay, we visited 4 different beaches on St. Thomas:
Magens Bay Beach – 20 minutes from Red Hook. Magens is probably the most well-known beach on St. Thomas and the largest we visited. It’s quite long and had a small restaraunt and equipment rental stands for paddleboards, etc. Overall, a very nice place to spend the day. Magens Bay is located on the north side of the island, and the roads leading there can be pretty small/sharp corners in places, so no speeding!
Saphire Beach – 3 minutes from Red Hook. Fairly small beach and pretty crowded from the many resort guests around. Not a bad experience, but not the best. This is one of the more popular ones so worth stopping by to say you’ve been at least.
Lindquist Beach – 3 minutes from Red Hook. This was a smaller beach that we went to later in the afternoon and literally NO ONE else was there. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life to have a private tropical beach to myself, even just for 30 minutes. It’s something I’ll remember forever.
Coki Point Beach – 10 minutes from Red Hook. This was another smaller beach but had a bit more of a party vibe, with drink vendors walking the beach selling cocktails.
Later in this post, I’ll go over the beautiful beaches we saw on St. John.
St. Thomas excursions, boating, and tours
There are a million tours and activities available in St. Thomas and we didn’t waste any time getting shown around.
Here are a few of our USVI experiences that you could consider:
For a few hundred dollars you can rent a private powerboat with a captain to take you around the island. Two of our friends had flown down to meet us for a few days, and we decided to splurge and get a small 5-6 person boat for half the day.
The captain took us on a tour around St. Thomas, stopping wherever we wanted to let us jump out and snorkle. Then he took us over to St. John where we spotted another totally empty beach. We swam to shore and had it all to ourselves!
Snorkle turtle tour
We took a group snorkle tour with ~30 other people. It started with a 20-30 minute boat ride on a huge catamaran, followed by a guided swim around an island known as a turtle habitat. We did indeed see some beautiful and friendly turtles!
My wife and I had never scuba-ed before, but we found a company that catered to beginners. We had our first guided scuba experience with lots of hands-on help from our guides. Scuba is actually more complicated than I ever knew, and we learned a lot about breathing, equalizing pressure, rising, and sinking in just a short time. Great experience if you’re already a strong swimmer.
St. Thomas Food and Drinks
After all the activities in the sun, we definitely worked up an appetite most days.
I was initially curious as to whether the food would be any good in the Virgin Islands. I’ve had limited experience with Caribbean food overall, so I didn’t have much of a baseline. On the whole, I’d say the food was a mixed bag. Some really great meals, and some mediocre ones.
It’s not that the food was bad, a lot of the food was just a little over-salted. It could have just been bad luck at the places we ate, but I’ve since talked to a few of my friends who have also gone, and they reported similar experiences.
The drinks however are a different story:
The beverage of choice is the USVI is the Pain Killer — a mix of rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, and nutmeg. They are fantastic and we actually have been making them at home ever since we returned. Always a huge hit!
Where is the best view for pictures in St. Thomas?
My wife is always snapping insta-pics, so we’re always looking for nice photo vantage points.
There’s really not a bad view on the island, but one place in particular stuck out to me — funny enough, it’s the parking lot of a restaurant.
There’s a restaurant called Prime at Paradise Point which is located up on a mountain overlooking the bay in Charlotte Amalie. There’s a winding road (not bad) that you drive up to get there, and then several lookout points for great sunset pics overlooking Charlotte Amalie.
It’s definitely not the only good place for pictures, but it’s an easy way to take some that are sure to impress. I’d recommend driving by to check it out.
Taking the car ferry from St. Thomas to St. John
Before arriving in the Virgin Islands, we had heard really good things about St. John. It’s the closest neighboring island to St. Thomas and only takes about 20 minutes by ferry if you leave from Red Hook, so we didn’t want to miss it.
Many travelers claim that St. John is the best Virgin Island to visit due to its untouched natural beauty. The island does have a somewhat less commercial feel compared to St. Thomas. And many celebrities have homes on the island, which the tour guides and locals love to point out.
Our experience on St. John
The food we had on St. John was solid, and our day was spent outside. Great success!
We took the short Lind Point hiking trail to Honeymoon Beach and rewarded ourselves with a swim. After that, we drove 15 minutes to Cinnamon Bay Beach, which is one of the longest on the island with lots of room for frisbee. Both were incredibly scenic.
The other St. John beach worth mentioning (which comes highly recommended) is Trunk Bay. Unfortunately, we ran out of time as we were rushing back to catch the ferry, but you should check it out!
Cell Phone Pro-tip: St. John is right next to the British Virgin Islands, whose cell phone networks are generally not covered on U.S.-based cellphone plans. To avoid any roaming or service charges, it’s recommended to turn off roaming, or keep your phone on airplane (no signal) mode while you’re there. You’ll have to research this more yourself, but someone mentioned it to me, so passing it along.
Bottom line: Is visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands worth it?
This one is a definite yes!
If you’re looking for a not-too-far-away destination with great outdoor activities and world-class beaches, the U.S. Virgin Islands is the place for you.
We stayed for 10 days and enjoyed every second of it, but you could easily make this a fun 3-4 day long weekend trip as well!