So you are ready to leave the country and set forth on a Caribbean adventure but with all the islands to choose from, where do you begin? Perhaps you should start at home. The U.S. Virgin Islands, 1100 miles southeast of Miami, are an excellent entrée to the Caribbean without leaving the comfort and security of home. Sure you’ll actually leave the United States mainland, so it feels as if you’ve left the country, but language, currency, drivers license, banking are all the same so you won’t have to feel out of your element. In fact, you don’t even need a passport to travel to the USVI! So for the Caribbean virgins out there, the USVI is a great starting point. Maybe that’s why they’re named the Virgin Islands…
The US Virgin Islands are comprised of three magnificent islands: St Thomas, St Croix and St John. They are all uniquely different and are located close enough together so that which ever island you make your home base, you can easily take a day trip to the others via high speed ferries or a catamaran. The British Virgin Islands are also just a short hop away and can also be seen on a day trip, but these islands do require a passport.
All three of the USVI have a myriad of accommodations available. Luxury all inclusive resorts, grand hotels, condos, villas, private guest houses to small inns are options for your choosing. Camping is even an option on St John.
A US Driver’s license is acceptable for car rental, just keep in mind that a tiny bit of the British influence still remains and driving is on the left side of the road, with the driver’s seat on the right side of the vehicle. At first, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but in no time you will learn to follow the other drivers and suddenly you are an expert. With your own vehicle it is so much easier to explore the island and try all the beaches, restaurants and attractions that are available. There are of course taxis and buses for those not wanting to drive.
St Thomas is known primarily for its heavy concentration of duty free shops in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie. It is a bustling stop on the cruise ship routes and is the busiest cruise-ship harbor in the West Indies. This small island is only 12 miles long and 3 miles wide, but there is a lot of activity for such a small space. Rich in history, it is delightful to walk the narrow passageways in town where chic shops now occupy ancient Danish warehouses that once stored pirate loot. Don’t miss the opportunity to go to Fort Christian, the oldest standing building in the Virgin Islands and home to a great museum offering a glimpse into the island’s multicultural history. Fascinating Blackbeard’s Castle, which is now a restaurant and hotel, is also an interesting look into a 17th century tower.
St Croix, the largest of the three US Virgin Islands, is a little more tranquil than St Thomas although the capital city of Christiansted does offer numerous shopping venues. The real attraction of St Croix is Buck Island National Park. Several tour operators offer day trips to this protected underwater national monument, which has excellent underwater trails for snorkelers filled with brightly colored corals and marine life.
St John, the smallest of the three, is really the most beautiful and least developed. Two thirds of St John is a national park with guided trails and a third of the park is underwater. Laurence Rockefeller donated his acquired land on the island to the United States’ National Park Service in 1956, provided that the lands remain protected from any future development. These early eco conscious provisions make this is a stunning island with perfect white sand beaches that stretch for miles. St John is a peaceful, non-commercialized natural wonder with postcard perfect beaches and views. Accessible only by boat, there are no cruise ship ports, airports or high-rise buildings; just a simple, natural, beautiful island.
Whether you are a Caribbean veteran or a “virgin” to the West Indies, everyone should visit the US Virgin Islands at least once. They are a national treasure of beauty and diverse cultures that deserve to be fully experienced.