Three islands. Three vastly different experiences.
The U.S. Virgin Islands don’t get a lot of press in Canada, where many of us seem to long for the beaches of Barbados or the all-inclusives of Cuba or the D.R. The only exposure for many Canadians is a stop in St. Thomas during a Caribbean cruise, where you’ll likely end up wandering through touristy areas that feature the same Senor Frog’s restaurant and the same duty-free rum they found the day before in St. Martin.
Here’s a look at the main three islands in the group, each of which gives off a distinct vibe.
The busy main town of Charlotte Amalie is on St. Thomas is by far the most visited of the main U.S.V.I. islands.
Charlotte Amalie is a bustling port town that can be overwhelming on days when the cruise ships are in port. Still, there are quiet corners and narrow, cool alleyways to be explored in the old town, where you can quickly get away from the duty-free jewelry and alcohol shops. Just off Main St., also known as Dronningens Gade from the islands’ days as a Danish colony, you’ll find colourful, shady laneways dotted with small shops. Be sure to stop at Gladys Café, where you can dine on local dishes such as rice and peas or jerked mahi-mahi and sip fresh passion fruit juice.
Arrange for a tour of Blackbeard’s Castle complex; a collection of historic homes and sites that rise up a steep hill just a few steps from downtown. Haagensen House dates to the early 19th century and was built by a Danish banker using Greek revival elements. You’ll find deep orange walls inside and a veranda/patio with awesome views of the harbour. Much of the period furniture is made from local mahogany trees, said to be some of the most prized on the planet. Haagensen House also is home to a few prints of impressionist master Camille Pisarro, who was born and raised in the town. At the top of the hill is a tall, rounded stone building called the SkyTower that dates to 1679.
Beach lovers will want to race to lovely Magen’s Bay. Your car or taxi will twist ever upwards until it reaches the spine of the island. There’s a lookout area and tourist shop on top of the hill (appropriately called Mountain Top) where they sell trinkets and banana daiquiris (too sweet for me). The real treat is the beach at Magen’s Bay on the north side of the island, where you can buy a beer and a sandwich for a few bucks at the casual oceanfront bar or just swim in the pure, azure waters.
WITH THE KIDS Coral World is a short drive from Charlotte Amalie and features aquariums, a touch pond where kids can feel the knobby top of a starfish and a snuba service, where you get to swim underwater for long periods of time with a breathing tube that attaches to an air tank floating on the surface of the water; like scuba but without the heavy tank on your back.
WHERE TO STAY Hotel 1829 is a casual, fun hotel just steps from the action in Charlotte Amalie. Ask for a higher-up room with a view. There are several chain hotels, as well, including a wonderful Ritz Carlton.
This island is a short ferry ride from St. Thomas, but a world away. Hillside homes are fewer and seem more colourful, and there’s hardly any boat traffic most days in the main harbour.
You’ll disembark in the tiny village of Cruz Bay, where you’ll find open-air taxis waiting to take day-trippers to nearby Trunk Bay, which might be the best beach in the Caribbean. But take a few minutes first to explore the town, where you’ll find a pretty main square and a lovely shopping village called Mongoose Junction, with pretty restaurants and shady nooks and casual shops painted canary yellow, mint ice cream green and canary yellow.
Most of the island is given over to a U.S. national park, so it only takes a few minutes to get out of town and out into protected countryside filled with birds and small animals and lovely hiking trails. About 20 minutes from town is the lovely Bordeaux Mountain lookout. There’s a café with fantastic views of the British Virgin Islands of Jost Van Dyke and Tortola, each of them nestled in a deep blue blanket of Caribbean water. Sidle up to the bar and try the “Dirty Monkey” drink, with a ton of rum and coconut and ice and chocolate. Next to the café is a small artists’ shop painted in groovy shades of lime green, fuchsia and lemon yellow, with local prints for sale as well as T-shirts and knick-knacks.
The oh-so-quiet eastern end of the island is home to the Concordia Eco-Resort, a series of (mostly) tent-like structures built on a hill overlooking the sea. There are no telephones and very limited Internet access, but there’s a nice pool and excellent snorkeling and hiking nearby at beautiful Rams’ Head, where slaves once leapt to their deaths to avoid capture. The units feature thick, canvas walls and zippers that can be undone for fresh air, as well as cooking space.
“You come here to find some sanity in yourself,” says manager Kent Fraser. “You admire the stars on a clear night, and it’s like God is talking to you.”
WITH THE KIDS Trunk Bay just may be the top stretch of beach in the world, with gorgeous water and a long stretch of soft, silky sand. There’s an underwater snorkelling “trail” you can follow around one of small islands, and there’s plenty of shady spots behind the sand if you need to keep the kids out of the sun.
WHERE TO STAY If Concordia is more than you bargained for, try the Westin St. John Resort and Villas. You’ll find lovely grounds with acres of lawn and towering palm trees on a nice stretch of beach. Try the grilled mahi-mahi or pot stickers at dinner.
This island might have the most variety of them all. The St. George Villa Botanical garden features dozens of species scattered around former plantation buildings; everything from dainty orchids and fiery red bottlebrush to so-called sausage trees, with fruit that looks like an Italian deli counter.
Not far away, Whim Plantation features beautiful, rounded rooms, tall windows and furniture that dates as far back as the 1600s. You’ll also find ruins from the old sugar mill days, including a towering windmill.
A late night kayak trip on the Salt River is a great experience as the waters are rich with bio-luminescent bodies that glow in the dark when you dip your paddle or hand in the water. It’s best experienced when there’s no moon, but even with steady moonlight it’s a very cool and different experience.
There’s a steep drop-off near the north shore of the island that’s renowned as one of the top scuba places in the Caribbean. Easier for non-scuba types is Buck Island, a tiny speck maybe 15 minutes from Christiansted by boat that’s flanked by a beautiful, curving beach and surrounded by the prettiest, brightest blue water you might ever see. Tour guides will teach you proper snorkelling technique and then take you to an underwater National Park with a fabulous reef. There are signs underwater that help point out deep blue tangs and canary yellow schoolmaster fish.
The western end of the island also is home to a very non-politically correct attraction called the Mt. Pellier Hut Domino Club, a casual club and bar where they keep pigs that love to drink cans of non-alcoholic beer. They’ll give you a can and all you have to do is hold it out in front of the pig. Their powerful jaws crush the can in no time, allowing them to slurp the contents like a thirsty fraternity member at a Canadian university, and then spit out the can. Definitely not something to tell your animal-loving friends, but some folks love it.
WITH THE KIDS Fort Christiansted has cannons for the little ones to clamber on and fine views of the water, plus a small museum upstairs. There also are tiny jail cells with carvings on the floor made by prisoners in a despicably dark and awful place.
WHERE TO STAY The Buccaneer Resort is close to Christiansted and has a couple of very nice beaches, as well as a restaurant with fabulous views and several pools. When I was there they were filming an episode of The Bachelor, so you know it’s got style. The Marriot Renaissance Carambola is on the wetter western end of the island.