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U.S. Virgin Islands See And Do

Beaches on St. Croix

With well-preserved reefs and easy points of access, St. Croix's beaches have long been popular for snorkeling and shore diving. Some of the best beaches are near hotels, so gear is often available for rent at beachside sport shacks. Here are three of our favorite sandy spots.

Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge
St. Croix's best beach is Sandy Point, the longest and most pristine stretch of sand in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The 360-acre beachside reserve is a national wildlife refuge that's home to more than 100 species of birds and an important nesting site for endangered leatherback turtles. It's not the easiest place to find, but once you get there, you'll be rewarded with almost four miles of white powdery sand and some of the clearest water in the Caribbean. Head west on Melvin Evans Highway (Hwy. 66) from the intersection with Emancipation Drive (Hwy. 70), drive past the sign for the park, and follow the newly paved road to the beach parking lot. Be sure to bring plenty of water and a picnic since there are no concessions in the refuge. Sandy Point's beaches are open only on the weekends and are closed to the public during the leatherback nesting season (April–August), although the Fish & Wildlife Service does offer nighttime turtle-watch programs at this time.

Cane Bay
Located along scenic North Shore Road (Hwy. 80) about 20 minutes west of Christiansted, Cane Bay is a family-friendly beach with plenty of shade under the palms. It's also wildly popular with divers, who come here for the Wall, a massive coral shelf that drops to depths of 3,200 feet a few hundred yards from the shoreline (for diving excursions, stop by the Cane Bay Dive Shop). If you get hungry, head to the upscale-casual Eat @ Cane Bay for a cooling cocktail and a bowl of smoked-duck and chipotle chili.

Shoys Beach
Shoys Beach is surrounded by an affluent, gated community, which makes the picturesque cove something of a local secret, although it is open to the public. Pass the security checkpoint just east of the Buccaneer resort, follow the main road approximately one mile to a gravel parking lot, and then head down the sandy pathway bowered by sea grape and mahoe trees that spills onto a gorgeous quarter-mile arc of sand cupping Punnett Bay. Chances are you'll have the place nearly to yourself during the week; families from the surrounding neighborhood relax here on the weekends. Bring along everything you might need, as there are no vendors or services on the beach.

Hotel Photo
Beaches on St. John

It's hard not to find a quiet cove to call your own on idyllic St. John island. A drive along North Shore Road will take you past dozens of secluded spots, all with crystal-clear water, sugar-white sand, and shady coconut palms. Here are our favorite beaches on the island:

Trunk Bay
Mainly due to its proximity to Cruz Bay—it's less than a ten-minute drive east from the port town—Trunk Bay is St. John's most popular beach. But much credit should also be given to the powdery white sand, luxuriant palms, and well-marked, beginner-friendly snorkel trail. In addition to lifeguards, there are picnic tables, bathrooms, and showers—all well worth the $4 admission fee (children 16 and under are free). Other amenities include a snack bar and snorkel rental. Note to the thrifty: There's no entry charge after 4 pm.

Caneel Beach
Even if you're not staying at Caneel Bay resort, you can still laze on its fabulous namesake beach. You'll have to bring your own towels, and steer clear of the guest-only chaise longues, but you'll have access to one of the prettiest strands on St. John as well as the open-air Caneel Beach Bar & Grill. (Remember to bring a shirt or wrap to wear in the resort's public areas.) Adventurous snorkelers can hop in the water (BYO gear, too) and head west around the rocky point to secluded Honeymoon Beach. It'll take strong swimmers about 15 minutes to get there, but once ashore you'll be rewarded with a slice of sand all your own. If you're not exhausted yet, explore the headland between Honeymoon Beach and Salomon Bay (the next cove over) for a closer look at the reef fish hugging the coast.

Cinnamon Bay
Cinnamon Bay, just east of Trunk Bay, is best known for its affordable beachside camping, but it also happens to be home to the longest beach within Virgin Islands National Park. Strong afternoon breezes make it popular with windsurfers; newbies can get a two-hour introductory lesson from Wind 'n' Surfing Adventures. If balancing on a board is not your style, rent a sea kayak from the same outfitter and paddle out to one of the bay's five snorkeling sites for an up-close glimpse of giant brain and elkhorn coral, plus plenty of parrotfish, barracuda, and blue tang.

Beaches on St. Thomas

The majority of the beaches on St. Thomas are home to hotels, so expect to compete with other visitors for your own place in the sun. Non-guests are permitted, although some resorts charge a small fee for a beach chair if you're not staying at the property. Here are our favorite beaches on the island:

Magens Bay
If you avoid this mile-long landmark between 10 am and 2 pm—the crush of the cruise ship day—Magens Bay can be every bit the unspoiled strip of sand all those "best beaches" lists make it out to be. The water is consistently calm, the shallows are sandy, and there are tons of palm trees for a shady respite; in addition, there are ample changing facilities and a snack bar, making it a great choice for families. It's overseen by the Magens Bay Authority, which charges $4 per person and rents lounge chairs and nonmotorized water-sports gear. On your way there, take Route 35 up and over the central range and stop to admire the stunning Drake's Seat overlook.

Hull Bay
Two miles west of Magens Bay and accessible via serpentine Route 37, this pretty little north-side beach caters to locals and visitors who want to escape the crowds. Many of the island's fishermen keep their boats anchored here; during the winter, in-the-know surfers paddle out to ride St. Thomas's most consistent waves. There's a low-key restaurant-bar, the Hull Bay Hideaway, stand-up paddleboard outfitter Bluewater for surfing lessons and board rentals, and on weekends, even a single-chair barber operating out of a step van.

Boat Charters in the U.S. Virgin Islands

With steady trade winds and dozens of islands within a day's sail, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands are one of the world's finest cruising grounds. You can explore the bays and cays of St. John and the nearby British Virgin Islands' Jost Van Dyke on a day trip with Calypso Catamaran Charters, with stops for snorkeling, lunch, and cocktails at the famed Soggy Dollar Bar, the birthplace of the lethal cocktail the painkiller. For an unforgettable multiday customized adventure, consider chartering a crewed yacht; a broker like Nicholson Yacht Charters can find a boat to match your style and interests.

If you want to cover a lot of water in a short amount of time—perhaps via a day trip that hits the Baths and Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, lunch on Cooper Island, and drinks on Jost Van Dyke—a speedier powerboat may be more practical. Calypso Catamaran Charters also operates a power catamaran; call for days of departure.

Remember to bring your passport and $25 in cash for the customs fee if visiting the British Virgin Islands.

Buck Island Reef National Monument
Off St. Croix
Buck Island
U. S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 773 1460
www.nps.gov/buis/

Declared part of the National Park system by John F. Kennedy in 1961, this 176-acre island off St. Croix's northeastern coast is surrounded by nearly 20,000 acres of protected barrier reef, making it perhaps the best spot in the Virgin Islands to go snorkeling. To get there, climb aboard one of two catamarans operated by Big Beard's Adventure Tours (44A Queens Cross Street; 866-773-4482; www.bigbeards.com). All snorkeling gear is provided, and once underwater, you'll be treated to stunning views of brain and elkhorn coral, massive sea fans, and tropical fish of all kinds, including parrot fish, schools of blue tang, and more.

Charlotte Amalie
Charlotte Amalie , St. Thomas
U.S. Virgin Islands

With restaurants, dozens of shops, and enough bars to keep you busy every night of the week, it's not hard to see why the U.S. Virgin Islands' capital city is the most visited Caribbean port of call. Though it's easy to spend the whole time snapping pictures of the gorgeous harbor—and ducking the cruise ship crowds—you'll want to visit attractions like Fort Christian, the oldest standing structure in the Virgin Islands (it dates to 1672 and now houses a museum); the Emancipation Garden and Market Square; and of course, the stores. Though they now stock everything from rubies to surf shorts, these restored trade warehouses once held rum, spices, and molasses.

Christiansted
Christiansted , St. Croix
U.S. Virgin Islands

St. Croix's commercial heart—and the former capital city—was once a Danish trading center, and still has the colorful 18th-century buildings (painted bright yellows and blues) to prove it. You'll find your bearings easily, as every street slopes down toward the waterfront. Highlights include the Danish Customs House, Scale House, Government House, Steeple Building, and Fort Christiansvaern, a former Danish stronghold completed in 1749 that's open for self-guided tours. Looking to cool off while in town? Hop aboard the $4 ferry that departs in front of the Customs House for nearby Protestant Cay, a tiny islet about two minutes away that's home to a hotel, bar, restaurant, and Christiansted's only swimming beach.

Diving on St. Croix

While the islands of Bonaire and Little Cayman are justifiably famous for their underwater attractions, St. Croix is finally getting some love from the scuba sector, particularly for its shore and wall dives, which are considered among the best in the Caribbean. Along the northwestern coast, a massive reef runs from Hamms Bluff east toward Christiansted with coral spurs, sand chutes, and the island's most famous dive site The Wall (a coral shelf that plunges to depths of more than 3,000 feet offshore from Cane Bay). Cane Bay Dive Shop offers boat dives to popular sites along the Wall and beyond, such as Salt River Canyon (an underwater gorge that attracts hammerhead sharks), Butler Bay Wrecks (a collection of five sunken ships), and the Frederiksted Pier (a popular nighttime critter dive for elusive sea horses and frogfish).

Hotel Photo
Hiking on St. John
St. John
U.S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 776 6201
www.nps.gov/viis

There are more than 20 worthy trails within Virgin Islands National Park, all easily tackled in a half-day or less, but no serious eco-adventurer should miss the day hike to Reef Bay on St. John's southern coast. Ranger-led treks on this easy, 2.2-mile downhill trail take you past Danish-era plantation ruins, pre-Columbian petroglyphs, and an abandoned sugar mill before ending at the beach, where you can take a dip to cool off. Best of all, a boat zips you back to Cruz Bay so you don't have to climb back up the mountain. Reservations are essential; a five-mile jeep ride from the park visitor's center in Cruz Bay will bring you to the trailhead (340-776-6201, ext. 238, for schedules; $23).

For one of the best views in all of St. John, make the cactus-studded hike to Ram Head on the island's southeastern tip. Drive four miles south of Coral Bay along Route 107 and then follow the quarter-mile path to Salt Pond Bay. At the south end of the beach, you can pick up the 1.2-mile Ram Head Trail, which skirts a blue cobble beach before climbing a rugged, 200-foot-tall promontory for an incredible, 360-degree Caribbean panorama.

Low-impact hikers will appreciate the half-mile loop at north-shore Cinnamon Bay. The nature trail, including a boardwalk through the ruins of a colonial-era sugar estate, begins across the road from Cinnamon Bay Campground and is clearly marked with signs identifying animals and trees you'll spot along the way.

A short drive east of Cinnamon Bay is a portion of the half-mile Francis Bay trail that meanders through mangrove forests to a brackish pond where it's possible to spot deer and wading birds. History buffs should check out the nearby Annaberg Historic Trail, an easy half-mile walk overlooking Leinster Bay that passes through one of the island's best-preserved 18th-century plantations.

Horseback Riding
Equus Stables
Cane Bay , St. Croix
U. S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 778 0933

With his 15 surefooted horses, Stephen O'Dea leads riders of all skill levels around St. Croix's north shore. Depending on his mood, you may be climbing an embankment, negotiating a rocky path down to a beach, or even taking your steed into gently breaking waves. Ladies, be warned: If you let on that you're even the least bit daring, O'Dea might convince you to stand up on your saddle. Some sunset and moonlit trips are available. It's best for children to be at least six years old for them to ride.

Paradise Point St. Thomas Skyride
9617 Estate Thomas
Charlotte Amalie , St. Thomas
U.S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 774 9809

Located just across the street from Havensight, the cruise-ship port area of Charlotte Amalie, this Swiss-built lift is a popular shore excursion for cruise ship passengers. Luckily, the slow ascent in a glassed-in gondola to an overlook atop 700-foot Flag Hill is best appreciated in the late afternoon, when the big boats are weighing anchor and the setting sun bathes the hills surrounding the harbor. At the summit, you're delivered to a collection of tacky souvenir shops, but the views from the restaurant-bar here are spectacular: On a good day, it's possible to spot Vieques and Culebra, the so-called Spanish Virgin Islands, and even Puerto Rico. There are far worse places to nurse a bushwacker (a potent frozen drink made of Bailey's, Kahlúa, rum, Amaretto, vodka, and crème de cacao) while listening to the obligatory reggae soundtrack. The round-trip fare is $21 for adults, $10.50 for children.

Open daily 9 am to 10 pm.

Snorkeling on St. John

Nearly half of St. John's Virgin Islands National Park is underwater, and coral reefs can be found just offshore along much of the coastline. Without a doubt the most popular site is Trunk Bay, where a trail of plaques set 5 to 15 feet underwater explains the complex coral-reef ecosystem. Suitable for beginners, the route extends about 100 yards along the west side of Trunk Bay, with good specimens of brain and elkhorn coral, schools of yellowtail snapper, and plenty of stoplight parrotfish. Two novice-level sites, Caneel Bay's Scott's Beach and east-side Waterlemon Bay, both have have sandy bottoms and sea grass beds that attract spotted eagle rays, southern stingrays, and green sea turtles. More experienced snorkelers can tackle rocky Salt Pond Bay, where octopus may be sighted. But mind the sea urchins and be sure to wear fins, or you may struggle against the wind-whipped current on your return to the beach. Many hotels provide complimentary snorkeling gear or rentals for a nominal fee.

St. George Village Botanical Garden
127 Estate St. George
Frederiksted , St. Croix
U. S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 692 2874
www.sgvbg.org

More than 1,500 native and introduced species flourish here amid the well-preserved ruins of a 19th-century slave village. There's also an orchid greenhouse and a "rain forest" area (it's helped along by misters). As you wander the grounds, keep a safe but watchful distance from the "monkey no climb" tree (it has a spiked trunk) and the "touch me not" plant (it has thorns on its leaves). Sweeny Toussaint (St. Croix Safari Tours; 800-524-2026; www.gotostcroix.com/safaritours/index.htm; sjtouss@hotmail.com) leads informative tours of the fragrant, 16-acre estate; he'll offer samples of local fruits like sweet lime and help you choose a fallen mango to snack on later.

Virgin Islands National Park Tour
St. John
U. S. Virgin Islands

Though we're not generally fans of vehicular tours, it's worth getting to see large stretches of St. John, which is two-thirds national parkland—and therefore still pristine. As soon as you pass the National Park Services entrance kiosk, nature takes over (the park is home to more than 800 plant species). Like its two sisters, the island has plenty of red-and-white-striped open-sided safari buses that make the hilly ride even more thrilling. Levi Liburd (L&L Jeep Rental; 340-776-1120; www.bookajeep.com) knows the best photo spots, the history of the Annaberg Sugar Mill Ruins, and possibly more about Virgin Islands botany than anyone else you'll meet.

Whim Plantation Museum
Centerline Road/Route 70
Frederiksted , St. Croix
U. S. Virgin Islands
Tel: 340 772 0598
www.stcroixlandmarks.com/index.cfm/CFID/16104199/CFTOKEN/99836310/MenuItemID/105.htm

This restored sugar estate lets visitors peek into St. Croix plantation life during the 18th century. Stretching across 12 acres, the grounds encompass an oval-shaped great house (note the surrounding moat that was used for cooling, not defensive purposes), bath house, windmill, and several other buildings. The guides are especially humorous and knowledgeable; it's worth waiting for one of the intimate tours of the main home. Check the Web site for details on the evening Candlelight Concerts, the only classical music series performed on St. Croix.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.