The U.S. Virgin Islands, which lie within sight of Puerto Rico's east coast, have an abundance of physical beauty, tourist-friendly towns, and, owing to their Danish colonial past, a quirky cultural history. Mountainous St. Thomas and St. John islands, volcanic in origin and just three miles apart, have vaulting central ridgelines cloaked in tropical forest and cut with switchback roads from coast to coast. Most of St. Thomas's residents are clustered in the southern foothills and harbor area of Charlotte Amalie, one of the Caribbean's busiest cruise ports. On St. John, two thirds of the land is protected as Virgin Islands National Park, so civilization is mostly restricted to the west side of the island around Cruz Bay. Forty miles due south, St. Croix, the largest and least touristed of the islands, is much flatter with the exception of lush, rugged hills dominating the northwest rain-forest region. The population is centered around a pair of Danish-era settlements, historic north-central Christiansted and west-end Frederiksted (St. Croix's main port of call).
WHEN TO GO
Prices are highest from mid-December through mid-April, and peak during the weeks around Christmas and New Year's. During this time, you'll find low humidity and the most stable weather. Rates—not to mention crowds—decrease significantly from June through November, though this is officially considered Caribbean hurricane season. You're generally safe booking trips in June, July, or November, as hurricanes are uncommon at that time. However, you're more at risk when the season peaks in August, September, and October. You can expect high humidity, short periods of rain, and temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s. And as a precaution against hurricanes, you should investigate travel insurance.
For the best mix of price and weather, consider shoulder season periods: the second half of April, all of May, and the beginning of December.
HOW TO GET THERE
Both St. Thomas's Cyril E. King Airport (STT) and St. Croix's Henry Rohlsen Airport (STX) are served by American, Delta, Continental, United, and U.S. Airways, often with connections in Miami or San Juan. Cape Air flies between St. Thomas and St. Croix, which are 40 miles apart (www.capeair.com); Seaborne Airlines also makes the island-to-island trip aboard 15-passenger seaplanes (www.seaborneairlines.com). To reach St. John, which has no airport, fly into St. Thomas and board a ferry to Cruz Bay from either Charlotte Amalie (a 45-minute ride; $11 each way) or Red Hook (a 20-minute ride; $6 each way). The larger St. John hotels—like Caneel Bay and the Westin—offer private water-taxi service directly to their docks, so inquire when booking. Detailed ferry and airline information can be found at www.visitusvi.com.
Once you arrive, taxis as well as car and jeep rentals are widely available on all three islands. If you plan to spend most of your time at a resort, hiring a taxi to get to and from dinners (and maybe taking a tour to see more of the island) should be sufficient. Taxi stands can be found at most major hotels or in downtown areas on all three islands. Since rates are based on destination, not mileage, agree on the fare before you're on the road (note that taxis are often passenger vans or pickup trucks outfitted with roofs and rows of benches).
Guests at a villa or campground, and anyone who wishes to explore the islands at their own pace, should consider renting a car. In addition to major agencies like Hertz, Budget, and Avis, consider local outfits—like Olympic in St. Croix (888-878-4227; olympicstcroix.com) and Hospitality in St. John (340-693-9160)—for a more affordable rental car. Car rental rates vary widely depending on the type of vehicle you reserve and the outfit you rent from. Well-known rental companies charge $50–$60 a day for a midsize vehicle, while smaller shops charge about $40 a day for the same car. Road conditions are generally good, although there are some narrow and winding spots.
Renting a jeep or other four-wheel-drive vehicle for excursions on St. John is recommended—it's hilly, and some of the more remote roads are unpaved. Driving is on the left throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands—keep it in mind, but don't be intimidated.
The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism
Tel: 800 372 8784
78-123 Estate Contant
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
Tel: 340 774 8784
Fax: 340 774 4390
Henry Samuel Street (next to post office)
Cruz Bay, St. John
Tel: 340 776 6450
Fax: 340 776 6450
53A Company St.
Christiansted, St. Croix
Tel: 340 773 0495
Fax: 340 773 5074
Fredericksted, St. Croix
Tel: 340 772 0357
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Charlotte Amalie
Area: 136 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 1
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Dec 30, 2008:
1 United States Dollars = $1.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
The U.S. Virgin Islands, a United States territory, does not require a visa or passport for citizens of the United States.
GOOD TO KNOW
Not surprisingly, the USVI has the feel of a U.S. destination. On St. Thomas you are never far from a McDonald's or a respectable four-star restaurant. Finer farewhich is all that is available on St. John, and mostly absent from St. Croixis a charming amalgamation of New American, West Indian, and Continental cuisines. After a long meal of Conch chowder, branzino-stuffed filet mignon, and quenelle of mango and durian sorbet (or a burger and fries), try one of the island's renowned Cruzan rum cocktails.
If duty-free shopping were a religion, St. Thomas would be the Caribbean Holy Grail. The shops of Charlotte-Amalie are the major draw for teeming crowds from resorts and cruise ships that dock here daily. If you're looking for jewels, watches, electronics, or liquor, you have found the right spot. If you're in the market for more personal wares, Christiansted in St. Croix and Cruz Bay in St. John offer island specialties, homemade jewelry, oil and watercolor paintings, and the occasional upscale clothing boutique in more laid-back settings.
January: 1, New Year's Day; second Monday, Birthday of Eugenio María de Hostos; third Monday, Martin Luther King Day
February: Second Monday, Presidents' Day
March: Fourth Monday, Transfer Day
May: Fourth Monday, Memorial Day
July: 3, Emancipation Day; 4, U.S. Independence Day; 25, Hurricane Supplication Day
September: First Monday, Labor Day
October: Second Monday, Columbus Day; 17, Day of Friendship with Puerto Rico
November: First Monday, Liberty Day; 11, Veterans Day; fourth Thursday, Thanksgiving Day
December: 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Thursday before Easter, Holy Thursday; Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter; day after Easter, Easter Monday