I’ve been on a water binge lately…if you can’t tell by my latest travel destinations: Hawaii and now the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. John). The USVIs may be a US territory but there is definitely the feeling of being on foreign soil after landing. With recent hurricane devastation, the island is still recovering; there is trash, broken down cars and destroyed houses. Don’t expect the Miami/LA-esque beach cities, like Waikiki. There’s a definite third-world feel here…and you even drive on the left side of the road!
When to go: Unknowingly, we booked within the prime season: December thru March. The weather was only in the low 80s but the strong Caribbean sun and humidity really made it feel hotter. It was intermittently overcast and only rained a couple times on us. The evenings were nice and cool, just like the water. If you are lacking melatonin, WEAR SUNSCREEN and rashguards/cover-ups. Make sure to bring A LOT of reef-friendly sunscreen and bug spray. Those mosquitoes sure ate us up. Supposedly the hottest/most humid time to go is between April thru October. Temperatures reach upwards of 100 Fahrenheit per a local.
Hiking Ram’s Head Trail, after snorkeling and freediving
Getting Around: A car rental is a must if you’re staying for a pro-longed period. Places are a bit out of the way and a taxi isn’t always practical/nearby. Uber and Lyft are illegal here so all you’ve got are taxis. However, driving on the left side of the road was quite an adjustment for us here. It gets more confusing because sometimes there are no markings or delineations of where the lanes are or which lane is the turn lane. Get ready: roads are steep with wicked curves, there are no street signs and locals drive fast/impatiently. Google maps isn’t very accurate here and there are no such things as “addresses.” Let’s be honest, Cody did not allow me behind the wheel here lol.
There is a ferry and car barge at Red Hook (St Thomas) + Cruz Bay (St John) that will take you back and forth between St Thomas and St John. FYI: You purchase your car ferry ticket after boarding the car barge. Pre-purchasing your car ferry online does not guarantee you a spot on the boat for your chosen time; you will still have to wait in the car line to board, just like everybody else. Also, take note that if you pre-purchase your car ferry, you better make sure you get on the correct ferry (there are 2 different companies).
From the balcony of our Airbnb, overlooking Charlotte Amalie West
Where to stay: The popular end on St. Thomas is probably near Magen’s Bay or Red Hook. Cody and I opted to stay in this BEAUTIFUL airbnb in a house overlooking Charlotte Amalie West. It was beautiful, clean, airy and we practically had the entire house to ourselves! The host was sweet and greeted us upon arrival. The bedroom has a shared patio/balcony that overlooks Charlotte Amalie and your own bathroom. You have complete access to most of the house and we spent a lot of evenings on the balcony enjoying the cool trade winds and the sunset. We woke up every morning to snacks and fresh coffee. It was such a a great find!
On St. John, we rented an airbnb room in a small apartment in Cruz Bay, which seemed to be the side where everything was happenin’. The space was tight but the host was super friendly and had lots of advice to give on where to go and eat. The biggest drawback here was that it was more expensive in terms of finding lodging. However, because the majority of St John is a Nat’l Park, it’s fairly well-kept and beautiful and clean. A lot of hiking trails and old ruins to explore as well. Near the trailhead of Reef Bay Trail (St John). You end up at that little beach in the far-off distance.
Top hikes: St. John’s definitely has the better end of the hiking deal and my favorite hikes were here. Fair warning: it’s hot and humid so BRING LOTS OF WATER. Seriously. And it’s steep, so you are definitely working your booty.
Two must-do hikes (& beaches at the end to visit if you bring snorkel gear on your hike):
1.) Reef Bay Trail– make sure to stop and see the ruins of the Sugar Mill Plantation and the short, side-hike (0.8 mile) to see the petroglyphs.
2.) Ram’s Head Trail– you can snorkel at that beach. It’s called Salt Pond Bay.
Favorite digs: My favorite hang-out in St. Thomas was, hands down, Hull Bay. Why? It’s definitely where more of the locals & ex-pats go and it has live music in the cool evenings, chill bartenders (Mallory is my favorite! She saved me from a creeper across the bar), lots of seating (lounge areas, bar seating, dining, patio, etc) and fun games. It definitely picks up in the evenings when it gets cooler and the live music is coming on. The locals and ex-pats are super fun to chat with and we made some great friends with some of the local fishermen.
It also happened to be where we went to meet our boat for the AMAZING spearfishing and lobster-diving tour that we booked with Swashbucklin’ Tours. He took us to some of the most stunning reefs and there wasn’t a single boat around us. None of that touristy crap. PURE BEAUTY and he treats you like family. Super chill guy and best reefs that I have seen in the USVIs. He is worth EVERY PENNY. A million times more personal and better than the other tours we booked. When you get back from your tour, he’ll clean your fish/lobster and then have the bar/restaurant in Hull Bay cook your catch for you!
A little taste of some of the reefs we encountered while on our spearfishing trip with Captain Rick. Not a single boat in sight for miles.
Sapphire Beach is also a great lively hang-out on St Thomas as well if you’re looking for loud fun. There’s a bar, a large stretch of beautiful (but crowded) beach and some snorkeling to the very far left of the beach. There’s also live music here as well. The parking is free but you have to drive like you’re going to Sapphire Beach resort. Security will let you in and park to the left.
While on St. John, I’d have to say the “hoppin'” side of town is Cruz Bay. The Tap & Still has good food and beers (for cheap). I absolutely loved their BLTA sandwich paired with an IPA on tap. Seriously TRY IT. Another cool spot in Cruz Bay is Mongoose Junction. It’s super cute, clean, adorable and modern. There are several bars and places to eat here. The local island brewery, St John Brewers, is here at The Tap Room. For $10, they’ll give you a souvenir pint glass and beer tastings. It’s quite a deal and really neat hearing about two guys just living their dream. They also brew their own root beer so it’s a must if you are a root beer lover like me. After the tour, get a pizza. Do it. You won’t regret it. They are all delicious, but the meat lovers pizza was my absolute faaaaaaave. It still tastes good even when it’s cold later.
If you’re looking for something quieter and less crowded on St John, East End is the place to go. If you head out to Sandy Bay Beach, it’s beautiful and not crowded at all. However, there aren’t a lot of facilities out there in terms of bars/restaurants. On occasions like this, there are usually a lot of “food trucks” on the side of the road that actually are just mobile bars. If you’re thirsty or forgot your cooler, you can pull off and order mixed cocktails or beers. You aren’t allowed to drive under the influence but there isn’t any policies against open containers in your car (except in St John’s Natl Parks). You are also allowed to drink on the beaches, just as long as they aren’t glass containers. Oh, and please pick up after yourself, the sea creatures thank you.
Turtle spotted at Coki Beach
Snorkeling: Cody and I spent the majority of our vacation here in the water. We were essentially trying to find the best off-shore snorkel reefs. In our expertise, here they are:
1) Swashbucklin’ Tours– Just do their snorkel or spearfishing trip. Seriously. You won’t regret it. Captain Rick takes you out to the BEST REEFS in the UVSIs. Not a single boat in sight but ours.
Spiny lobsters from our spearfishing + lobster-diving tour with Capt. Rick
2) Sapphire Beach- the better snorkeling is out to the far left against the rocks. We saw a decent array of reefs (nothing nearly as good as what we saw on the tour), a sea turtle and a spotted eagle ray.
3) Sandy Bay and Mermaid’s Chair (inside The Preserve at Botany Bay)- Ok, so my theory is that this bay could have some of the best snorkeling off-shore. We just didn’t have our snorkel gear. Due to the secure location of this bay, I would bet that this spot has little snorkel traffic and, thus, better reefs. This bay is inside a private residency preservation and you have to park off the side of the road & check-in at the gate with security (you’ll need your driver’s license). You can’t park inside but they can’t deny public access to the beach, so you are allowed in by foot. It’s a mile hike down some steep, paved hills to this spot but you’ll most likely have the beach to yourself when you arrive. We just wished we would have brought our snorkel gear with us. IT WAS PRISTINE.
3) Secret Harbor Beach- you park near the resort tennis courts & take the stairs thru the hotel rooms down to the beach. I loved how serene and quiet it was. It wasn’t overly crowded and there’s a decent amount of fishes and cool coral to see. Stick to the left side of the beach.
4) Brewer’s Bay- Turtles! Lots of turtles here! You can even see their heads popping up for air from the beach. Many of them are tagged for research by the USVI Marine and they are more plentiful as you snorkel towards the left side/pier.
Sandy Bay, St Thomas
St John: *side note, we were only here a couple nights and spent more time hiking, so we did not get to snorkel many places.
1) Salt Pond Bay- not too crowded, nice sandy beach. If you snorkel near the middle of the bay in the turtle grass, you will be SURE to spot several turtles. There’s even some squid hanging out low at the grass bed. Near the rocky shore, Cody spied a little baby black-tip reef shark. SUPER CUTE. He swam away from us as fast as he could. The best reef is out towards the rocky points in the center of the bay, towards the open ocean. Decent reef and lots of fish.
2) Honeymoon Beach- we didn’t get a chance to go here but a fun couple we met while on our BVI boat trip said it was pretty fun!
3) Little Lameshur- our airbnb host (ex-pats from the mainland and catamaran sailing hosts) said this was a good spot for snorkeling away from crowds as well.
Freediving in Salt Pond Bay
British Virgin Islands: My thoughts on the BVIs… I wouldn’t recommend a day trip out here. The price for the day-trip boat tour is around $130-175 (not including a $75 customs fee). The reefs at all the “cool” spots (The Baths and White Bay) are pretty much nonexistent. The Baths themselves was a cool experience and it was definitely a bucket-list item but felt very touristy. White Bay is a little tourist-trap, stop-over where you are forced to buy an expensive lunch that tastes mediocre at best and drinks at an exorbitantly high price (but there are no other bars around). If you’re looking to party, this is definitely it. For me, if I had known that I was paying $75 for a customs fee, I might have actually stayed there longer or at least booked a place in Virgin Gorda for a night.