Things to Do in US Virgin Islands
Honeymoon Beach is both convenient and out-of-the-way, a good choice for those who want to avoid the crowds at spots like Trunk Bay, but still appreciate a few on-site amenities. The beach is accessible by trails and serves as an area for watersports enthusiasts. Travelers can grab a kayak for a paddle up the coast before diving in to snorkel alongside the tropical fish that school around the rocks.
With more than 40 major beaches lining St Thomas’ shores, how do you decide which to visit?
One of the most popular is Sapphire Beach, located on the east end of the island. This area of St Thomas is known for its laid-back atmosphere and is home to some of the best views of neighboring St John. With a mix of red-tiled roof homes and commerical buildings, the area is anchored by Red Hook, a popular spot for boating enthusiasts and where the historic center of Charlotte Amalie is located.
Sapphire Beach, an ideal stop for cruise ship passengers exploring St Thomas for a day, features about 35 acres of fine white sand beaches and is also a great choice for families. The waters are calm and good for snorkeling, while the sea grape trees on the right end of the beach provide some shade for beach goers. The left side, however, is ideal for sunbathing. Keep your eyes open for ducks and iguanas wandering the shores.
At the nearby Sapphire Beach Resort, visitors can rent lounge chairs and snorkeling equipment, or opt for other water activities, such as windsurfing, kayaking, jet skiing and sailing.
Thanks to its curving arc of white sand and its bright blue water, Magens Bay is St. Thomas’ most popular beach. The area is surrounded by forests and palm trees, and the bay offers calm waves for swimming and kayaking. For stunning views of the bay’s unusual rectangular shape and mile of beach, head to the nearby Mountain Top lookout.
The U.S. Postal Service put it on a stamp, Condé Nast Traveler called it one of the top 10 beaches in the world, National Geographic declared it without equal: Trunk Bay. The talc-soft sands, turquoise waters and lush green backdrop of this earthly paradise inspire superlatives in all who see it, while its location within the Virgin Islands National Park ensures it remains free of unsympathetic development.
Just off-shore, a marked-out underwater trail is a popular snorkeling spot, and you can hire equipment if you didn’t bring your own. In the late afternoon, as visitors drift away, stick around for a perfect tropical sunset.
Perched on a set of cliffs overlooking Caribbean waters, Mountain Top is considered the oldest and tallest attraction on the island. With an elevation of 2,100 feet above sea level, it provides visitors with some of the best views on St Thomas. More than 20 neighboring islands can be seen from the top.
The views from Mountain Top are so renowned thatNational Geographic Magazine hails the spot as one of the Top 10 Scenic Views in the world. The site wasn't always accessible, however; it was occupied by the United States during the 1940s as a strategic communications location called Signal Hill.
Today, the site is also considered a shopping mecca and known as the birthplace of the banana daiquiri.
Even so, it's a toss-up as to whether visitors like the site's views or shopping better. A shopping mecca, this is where people come to check out a range of unique souvenirs and handicrafts. Shops selling everything from T-shirts to Cruzan Rum are at Mountain Top, along with international brands like Tommy Bahama, Reef, Guy Harveyand Panama Jack.
If you are a fan of banana daiquiris, Mountain Top is the place to be. As the self-proclaimed birthplace of the beloved tropical drink, Mountain Top legend has it that in 1953, a British sea captain by the name of George Coule was sailing from his native Barbados in search of the perfect Caribbean cocktail. He tried Guava Gimlets in Guadeloupe, Soursop Sodas in Saba and Mango Margaritas in Martinique, but when he arrived on the highest mountain in St Thomas, he found the banana daiquiri.
Coki Beach is considered St. Thomas’ party beach and is always full of families, revelers, and vendors. Snorkelers and scuba divers love the clear water and sea creatures here, while beach-goers enjoy the white sands, sunshine, and wandering vendors who offer drinks and snacks, souvenirs, sunscreen, and hair braiding.
Maho Bay, perched on St John’s northern shore, is named after the Maho tree, which you can identify by its heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. The coconut palm-lined stretch of sand allures with its calm, shallow waters and a coral reef just offshore popular for snorkeling.
Secret Harbour Beach Resort is located on St Thomas’ East End, at Nazareth Bay near Red Hook and the popular beach of Vessup Bay.
The resort is situated on prime island real estate with its gorgeous shoreline and crystal clear waters. Some visitors opt for a variety of water sports and activities such as kayaking, paddle-boarding and snorkeling, while others choose to simply relax on the beach and take in the mesmerizing views. The secluded cove creates a shelter that allows very calm waters to reach the seashore and makes the spot safe for children. Secret Harbour also has an onsite PADI dive shop with rental equipment of all kinds.
The resort features several spots for grabbing a drink or a bite to eat, including the ever-popular Cruzan Beach Club, offering a number of cool Caribbean-inspired cocktails and fusion cuisine. The tiki-style bar is quite casual and welcoming to visitors looking for that barefoot experience. A bit more upscale is the Sunset Grille, an American-style restaurant with traditional culinary classics that have a touch of Caribbean influence.
Those with a goal of not leaving their beach chair can order Cruzan Beach Club tropical drinks and some menu items right from their beach chair or hammock.
Water Island is the smallest of the main US Virgin Islands, and that’s what gives it its charm. Rather than shops and restaurants, it’s the thatched cabanas and lazy vibe of idyllic beaches like Honeymoon Beach that are its main draw.
Away from the beach, you can tour the underground tunnels and watchtowers of Fort Segarra, built during WWII. Getting around the island by bicycle is highly recommended.
Around 160 people are fortunate enough to live on Water Island, but the volcanic island remains undeveloped. Facilities are limited to a few food outlets, dive shops and charters, a beach bar, fishing operator and ferry dock.
The US Virgin Island’s so-called fourth island, Water Island only joined the group relatively recently, in 1996, and so far it’s kept its low-key atmosphere and local character.
One of the most beautiful and convenient beaches on St. John, Hawksnest Bay is a favorite for families with children and visitors coming from the ferry docks at Cruz Bay. Swaying palm trees and sea grapes line the narrow beach, which has restrooms, grills, and a shaded picnic area.
More Things to Do in US Virgin Islands
One of the top family-friendly attractions in the US Virgin Islands, Coral World Ocean Park combines both indoor and outdoor observation facilities which showcase the region’s diverse and plentiful marine life. Highlights include the hermit crab, starfish, and sea cucumber touch pool and the 50,000-gallon Deep Reef Tank, home to moray eels, tarpon, and plenty of sharks.
For one of the best views on St. Thomas, make the drive to the mountaintop perch at Drake’s Seat. Here you can keep lookout over Magens Bay and the British Virgin Islands, just as Sir Francis Drake was said to do from this very spot in order to catch pirates, privateers and invading naval ships approaching from the north via Drake’s Passage, also bearing his name. Today, this lookout point sports a stone platform with a bench atop it, and it’s a popular top for tour groups. The crowds mostly disperse by evening however, making Drake’s Seat an ideal spot to take in the sunset.
Want to get away from it all? Once you get to Buck Island, there is no more "all" to get away from – this is about as secluded as the Caribbean gets (presuming you don’t own your own island).
The ravishing clear waters of the Buck Island Reef National Monument protected area are teeming with busy tropical fish darting around colorful coral. Accompanied tours along the underwater trails mean even first-time snorkelers will get the most out of this sea haven.
And after that burst of activity, the soft, white sands of Turtle Beach – voted by connoisseurs as one of the world’s best – invites you to lie back and do precisely nothing.
Wandering the marina at Yacht Haven Grande to marvel at some of the stunning megayachts that call St Thomas home is an elite experience in itself. The near 50-slip marina is the premier facility for these beautiful ships, some over 450 feet long.
The area's Yacht Haven Grande can also keep you occupied with duty-free shopping and plenty of places to grab a bite or just relax with a cocktail or two.
Upscale brands are plentiful at Yacht Haven Grande, which was rated “Best Shopping” for three years by the Virgin Island Daily News Reader Poll. Recognizable international brands such as Bebe, Bulgari, Coach, Ferragamo, Gucci and Louis Vuitton are among the designer stores, and the site also has a wealth of jewelry shops. Unique stores catering to pets, Caribbean crafts, cigars and electronics are all in the line-up too.
If you are looking for dining options, consider Fat Turtle, a hip spot featuring Caribbean flavors with a touch of fun–how can you not smile with a rubber ducky floating in your cocktail? There's also Grande Cru, an upscale wine bar offering tasting flights and interesting cocktails created by mixologists. Look for Mediterranean-inspired tapas plates.
The marina also hosts various events throughout the year including a local farmer’s market, performing arts, yoga and more.
The tiny island of Waterlemon Cay on St John is a favorite among snorkelers. The sandy beach of Leinster Bay serves as the starting point for a 10-minute swim to Waterlemon Cay; it's less than a mile to the island and worth every breaststroke. The cay is home to a wealth of coral and marine life, which is what ranks it so high with travelers. Sadly, the island has seen a recent reduction in coral and reef fishes, attributed to high rates of erosion and run off from local construction.
During the swim, keep watch in the sea grass for the first glimpses of marine life in the area. It’s not uncommon to see turtles, stingrays, sea cucumbers and giant starfish 20 feet below.
The south- and east-facing sides of Waterlemon Cay are bordered by the region’s shallow fringe reef, whereas the west and north sides are deeper. The reef is the best spot to look for the main abundance of colorful fish and other marine life; look for large parrotfish and schools of bright blue tangs. Some snorkelers swear they can hear the crunch of parrotfish “teeth” as they grind their beaks on rocks and dead coral at the surface. Turns out parrotfish digest coral and algae that are ultimately excreted as fine coral sand, helping build the beaches we love so much.
Snorkelers will find a lot of colorful coral, sea fans, sea plumes and other colorful fish on the deeper side of the reef. Keep your eye out for eels in deep holes and you may even luck out and see an octopus or two.
Perched on the scenic southeast coast of St John, Salt Pond Bay shimmers with crystal clear waters fronted by a rocky, white-sand beach. The beach offers an escape from the crowds of Cruz Bay, with calm waters for swimming, tide pools filled with marine creatures, and a coral reef in the middle of the bay for snorkeling.
Back in its heyday, the Annaberg Sugar Plantation was one of 25 facilities on the island producing sugar, along with molasses and rum. All that remains today are ruins, but they are an important reminder of St John’s past, and visitors can walk a trail that leads them through important structures such as slave quarters, windmills and factory remains.
Learn about 18th- and 19th-century sugar production and the importance of Annaberg, where slaves were brought in to clear the dense hillsides and terrace the slopes, allowing for farming. Slaves were also involved in actual sugarcane production and completed tasks like planting, harvesting and processing. When slavery was later abolished, the plantation was subdivided into small farms.
Evidence suggests there were at least 16 slave cabins at Annaberg, each constructed using branches woven together with a mud, coral and lime mixture called daub. Visitors can see placards depicting the areas where these slave cabins once stood and also view Annaberg's windmill, a key structure from the 1800s and one of the tallest windmills on St John at 38 feet tall.
Several factors contributed to Annaberg’s ultimate demise, including its steep and rugged terrain, which provided only marginal growing conditions; the introduction of the sugar beet, which could be grown in a multitude of climates; and the end of slavery in the British West Indies. The final nail in the coffin for Annaberg was the 1867 hurricane, earthquake and tsunami.
A historic fortress built in the history-rich St Thomas town of Charlotte Amalie, this Danish-built fortress has been a cultural highlight here since 1672 and so acts as one of the finest treasure troves of ancient artifacts in the small Caribbean island’s long history.
Fort Christian serves as a beautiful example of Dutch-Caribbean architecture, built in the Gothic-Revival style. It once successfully repelled foreign invaders from a bygone era, but today, the fortress stands as a monument to colonialism and exhibits the history of the Caribbean from the Stone Age to the present, while also offering a fine display of Dutch antiques.
Known also as Blackbeard’s Castle, the Skytsborg Historic Park is one of St. Thomas’s most beautiful landmarks. The park contains, alongside life-sized bronze pirate statues, some of the most beautiful architecture and ocean views on the island. Situated scenically on a hilltop overlooking the harbor and surrounding sea, the park sits on five acres and includes multiple manor houses dating back to the 17th century. The houses collectively contain the largest display of authentic West Indian mahogany furniture, which is all handmade. The Villa Notman, Haagensen House and Hotel 1829 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places
Marked paths allow for self-guided walking tours that tell the history of the area. The Skytsborg Tower is of particular interest, having been a 17th century Danish defense tower built to protect the harbor. There are also three pools, many terraces, and tropical gardens to explore throughout.
St. John's Coral Bay prides itself on being the raffish alternative to the island’s main point of arrival, Cruz Bay. Its few dozen houses are haphazardly sprinkled on the green slopes tumbling down to Coral Harbor, a beautiful, protected cove.
The red-roofed Moravian Church dates from 1750 and serves as a local landmark. Otherwise the town’s charm lies in its laid-back bars and restaurants where – unlike some Caribbean locations – tourists won’t necessarily outnumber locals.
A short way out of town there is great snorkeling to be had at nearby Salt Pond Bay, or there’s always the secluded haven of Lameshur Bay, further round the twisting coastline. Alternatively, charter a boat and head for the nearby British Virgin Islands.
Off the shores of the stunning island of St. John, Henley Cay is a short boat ride but seems worlds away. Comprised of 11 isles, its crystal clear turquoise waters make it a draw for water activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. Much of the reef is located in shallow water (from 3 to 15 feet,) so visibility is often best just off the shore. Though it has a history dating back to the 18th century, it’s uninhabited today.
Its bay and cove are protected and receive fewer visitors than other snorkel spots on the island. Colorful corals, sea fans, and tropical fish are easily seen, and many consider the snorkeling at Henley Cay to be world-class. Angelfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, and wrasse are a few of the common fish species spotted often. Tours of the cay typically leave from Caneel Bay and combine kayaking and snorkeling the reefs.
In the old days of Imperial Empires and the early colonization of the Caribbean, tall ships would set their ballasts with huge stones and offload them when filling up with spices and other exotic Caribbean goods, leaving the stones as a reminder of their visit. Intrepid residents of Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas have since decided to use these stones as a stairway up the city’s hills, which serves to remind residents of their colonial roots.
What makes the 99 Steps (there are actually 103; 99 Steps has a better ring to it) an attraction, however, is the lush foliage on either side of the stairway and the spectacular view from high atop the mountain once you make the climb. At the top you'll see Black Beard’s Castle. Innovative explorers have learned that a cab can be taken up to the top to avoid walking up 103 stairs. It’s easy, however, to take the 99 Steps downward at a leisurely pace.
Hull Bay is all about snorkeling the neighboring reef, swinging in a beach hammock and unwinding at a cool little beach bar.
There’s fishing off nearby Inner and Outer Brass Cays, and the Atlantic whips up waves off the beach for some of the island’s best surfing.
Hull Bay doesn’t attract the crowds of nearby Magens Bay, so the vibe is more laid-back and off the beaten path. Trees provide some welcome shade, and there’s even a nearby sushi bar for when you get hungry. Better yet, you can bring your dog along to friendly Hull Bay.
If you are after shopping on St John, Mongoose Junction is the place to go. Considered to be the island's premier shopping and dining destination, Mongoose Junction is home to a number of stores selling local Caribbean products such as furniture and textiles. Check out Bamboula, which offers primitive art, clothing, beads, baskets and old-style Caribbean furniture, or Best of Both Worlds, which sells locally made artwork, including sculptures, glass, pottery and designer jewelry.
Other standouts include St. John Brewers, Island Fancy and Island Cork, each selling a variety of goods from apparel and toys to locally made beer and crafts. Island Cork is the spot for oenophiles looking to bring a few bottles of wine back to the hotel or cruise ship.
When it comes to eating at Mongoose Junction, visitors may have trouble choosing where to stop. Beef aficionados will want to head to the Tap Room, the island’s microbrewery and bar, home to St John Brewers. Even non-beer drinkers can try some interesting concoctions here, such as homemade root beer and ginger beer. Virgin Fire is a great stop for local, but more contemporary, cuisine, as they source many products, including their Coral Bay honey and St Thomas peppers in their sauces, from the surrounding area.