Traveling in Virgin Islands
The Virgin Islands are an island group located in the Lesser Antilles, just east of the larger island of Puerto Rico. The islands are divided into two political units—part belongs to the United States and part to the United Kingdom. The U.S. Virgin Islands form the western half of the group, and are comprised of the main islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. The main islands that form the British Virgin Islands are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, and Anegada. Generally speaking, it is easy for nationals of both countries to travel freely between the islands via ferry or private water taxi—but be aware that you will need to present passports and pass through a (generally very lax) customs process when you do so.
Many assume that the Virgin Islands were named for their natural and untouched beauty and, looking at them today, this would seem to make sense. However, they were actually named for the Catholic Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers. This name was given by Christopher Columbus himself, who must have been impressed by the sheer number of islands in the vicinity.
The Virgin Islands were once inhabited by indigenous groups, but these were eventually wiped out following the arrival of Europeans. The islands were first colonized by the Danish and the British, though the Danish sold their holdings to the United States in 1916 for $25 million. This resulted in the political situation that continues to this day.
The Virgin Islands experience a beautiful tropical climate year round; heat and humidity are kept in check by near-constant easterly trade winds. This climate, coupled with a geographical proximity to the United States and the fact that U.S. citizens do not need a passport to visit the U.S. Virgin Islands, have made the Virgin Islands a very popular travel destination.
499 km2 / 193 sq mi
US Dollar (including in the British Virgin Islands)
Some great photos of Virgin Islands.
St. Thomas is the most populated Virgin Island—its residents comprise almost half of the territory’s population. It is the main point of entry for many visitors to the Virgin Islands who arrive both by air and sea.
Charlotte Amalie is the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the territory’s largest city. It is known for its historic buildings, which include the oldest Lutheran church and second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, as well as its world class duty-free shopping.
The Beaches of St. Thomas include such famous names as Lindquist Beach, Honeymoon Beach, and Secret Harbour. These are just the tip of the iceberg, however, as world-class beaches literally surround the island.
The Marriott Frenchman’s Reef is perhaps the island’s most iconic hotel. It is situated dramatically on a point that juts out into the sea near Charlotte Amalie, providing a location that is both central as well as secluded.
The Green Iguana Hotel is St. Thomas’s best budget-friendly option, a family-owned spot whose warm service and great location overlooking Charlotte Amalie have made it very popular with all types of travelers.
The Old Stone Farmhouse is without a doubt one of best upscale dining experiences in the Virgin Islands, excellent for romantic or otherwise elegant occasions. As the name suggests, the restaurant is located in a refurbished 200-year-old estate house.
Off the Grid is a super-casual and budget-friendly food truck dining experience providing truly delicious American and Caribbean barbecue. Find it parked near the Sapphire Beach overlook.
Take a short ferry or water taxi ride over from St. Thomas to find yourself on St. John, the smallest and least populated of the main U.S. Virgin Islands. Nature-lovers flock here to visit the Virgin Islands National Park whose land, donated by philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, comprises more than 60% of the island’s total area.
Cruz Bay is the island’s commercial and residential hub and will serve as your point of arrival if you’re traveling over from St. Thomas (or most anywhere else). It’s a quaint town whose bars, restaurants, and shops can certainly be fun to explore if you’ve got some time to kill.
The Virgin Islands National Park is virtually unavoidable if you’re going to visit St. John. Skip Trunk Bay, whose beach is generally overcrowded, especially during tourist season. If you’re feeling adventurous, head to Salt Pond Bay and do the Ram’s Head hike while you’re there. You’ll have the chance to see a number of environments including salt ponds, white sand beaches, stone beaches, and even desert-like conditions over the course of a very short hike culminating in an incredible view.
The Annaberg Historic District is also administered by the National Park. Visit the immaculately preserved ruins of this sugar plantation to learn more about the island’s old economy as well as the lives of the slaves who lived and worked on St. John.
Gallows Point Resort is located just a five-minute walk from the ferry dock in Cruz Bay, but it feels a world away. This beautiful resort complex counts a pool and ocean access among its many amenities, and you’ll cherish the short walk into town for dinner or some drinks.
Concordia Eco-Resort sits far away on the island’s isolated southeast coast. This is your best bet for a quiet and peaceful escape into nature. Don’t worry—even though they call their units “eco-tents,” you will not feel like you’re roughing it here.
Rhumb Lines is a comfortable but upscale Pacific Rim/Caribbean fusion restaurant located in the heart of Cruz Bay. The ambiance is nice, and the food is truly some of the best in the Virgin Islands.
Skinny Legs Bar & Grill bills itself as “a pretty ok place,” and that it certainly is. Stop by for some very casual burgers and potato chips—no fries, as this place doesn’t even have a deep fryer.
St. Croix is the largest island in the Virgin Islands, but it is also the most geographically-isolated, some sixty kilometers (about forty miles) away from St. Thomas. This oftentimes makes it difficult for vacationers to visit St. Croix as they might the other islands during their travels. This said, if you do find yourself on St. Croix, there is plenty to see and do!
Christiansted was once the capital of the Danish West Indies and is today the largest city on St. Croix. While in town, you should certainly visit the Christiansted National Historic Site, home to a number of historically significant buildings. Perhaps most interesting is Fort Christiansvaern, the most well-preserved colonial fort in the Virgin Islands.
Horseback Riding is a very popular activity on St. Croix due to its long beaches and flatter topography relative to the other islands. Two popular and highly-regarded tour operators are Equus and Paul & Jill’s Equestrian Stables.
The Buccaneer is one of the island’s nicest hotels and also one of its most historic. The sprawling beachfront property has been visited by many celebrities since opening as a hotel in 1947.
Hibiscus Beach Resort is a more casual boutique hotel. Located on the island’s north shore, it’s ideal for the more budget-conscious traveler.
Harvey’s is your best bet on St. Croix, and perhaps in the Virgin Islands, to get a taste of authentic, down-home Caribbean cuisine. The place has no website, but it’s easy to find at the intersection of King Cross Street and Company Street in downtown Christiansted.
Jaccar Organic & Natural Sorbet is the place to stop for dessert on St. Croix. We recommend trying the unique local flavors including soursop, Crucian apple, or baobab.
Tortola is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands. It is located just northeast of St. John, less than a mile away at the closest point. Slavery was outlawed in the United Kingdom before it was in Denmark, and slaves would often make the dangerous journey across the channel trying to swim to freedom in Tortola.
Road Town is the capital and largest city in the British Virgin Islands. It is also the territory’s cultural center. There are a number of attractions to check out in town, including the British Virgin Islands Folk Museum and the Joseph Reynold O'Neal Botanic Gardens.
Ridge Road is the main thoroughfare that connects Road Town with Tortola’s West End. The way is dotted with homes, farms, restaurants, and breathtaking views, making Ridge Road a destination in and of itself.
Frenchmans is a boutique hotel comprised of nine standalone cottages situated on a peninsula on the western side of the island. Though a bit pricy, you do get what you pay for—Frenchmans is regularly regarded as one of the best small hotels in the world.
The Sugar Mill is a slightly less expensive but still luxurious option, centered around an almost 400-year-old refurbished building which is now the hotel’s restaurant.
The Brandywine Estate Restaurant is perhaps Tortola’s most highly-regarded dining experience. The restaurant is elegant yet relaxed and also features an extensive and fairly-priced wine list.
Sharky's Cantina is the perfect break from standard island cuisine, serving a casual and delicious Mexican-Italian fusion.
Virgin Gorda is the second-most populous of the British Virgin Islands, lying due east of the larger island of Tortola. The island is often lovingly referred to as “The Fat Virgin,” due to the fact that the island’s profile resembles a plump woman lying on her side.
Spanish Town is the island’s largest settlement, though in reality there is not all that much to do here. A long time ago, Spanish Town was the capital of the British Virgin Islands. If you’re on island, it’s worth stopping by to check out the few restaurants and stores before you continue on your way.
The Copper Mine is a complex of historic ruins located on the southeastern tip of Virgin Gorda. If you’re interested in learning more about the island’s history, it’s definitely worth stopping here during your trip.
Mango Bay Resort is a fantastic option for the traveler seeking some peace and quiet for a reasonable price in a comfortable setting. Though located just a few minutes from town, Virgin Gorda’s rolling hills make this idyllic setting feel quite isolated.
Saba Rock is not technically located on Virgin Gorda, but is actually on a small private island a short ferry or boat trip away. The hotel itself is quite small, but its restaurant is a quite popular lunch and dinner spot—boats dock right outside in the resort’s own private marina complex.
CocoMaya is a beautiful beachfront restaurant and lounge serving an innovative Latin and Asian fusion menu.
Chez Bamboo is an excellent tapas-style restaurant located in the heart of Spanish Town. Featuring funky décor and live music on the weekends, it’s pretty tough not to have fun while you’re here.
Jost Van Dyke
Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the main British Virgin Islands. The island is generally quite quiet—electricity and paved roads arrived only in the late 1990s. Chances are you won’t be staying on Jost Van Dyke, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be visiting—in fact, the island’s Great Harbor is one of the busiest ports in the Virgin Islands.
The Sandcastle Hotel is really the only traditional hotel on the island. It’s a casual and laidback island retreat, and its guest rooms offer neither phones nor television in order to ensure that you are truly at peace with the world.
The Soggy Dollar Bar is so named because there is no road or dock access to get here—the only way to arrive is to jump off your boat and swim over. The bar claims to have invented the now-famous “painkiller” drink, and downing one is a rite of passage when visiting.
Though geographically larger than Jost Van Dyke, Anegada has an even smaller population. Unlike the other Virgin Islands, Anegada is completely flat—it is not of volcanic origin but rather a coral atoll.
The Settlement is the only town on the island, featuring a few restaurants including the Cow Wreck Beach Bar and Neptune’s Treasure. Both of these locations double as lodging, featuring small guest houses for visitors adventurous enough to stay on the tiny island.
The real draw to Anegada is what surrounds it—pure white beaches and some of the most pristine coral reefs in the entire Caribbean. For this reason, Anegada is most popular as a day-trip destination for visitors staying on the other islands.
(St. Thomas) Magens Bay is St. Thomas’s most famous beach, popular with tourists and locals alike. Don’t come here for peace and quiet, but rather for an immersive experience in island beach culture and some truly superb people-watching.
The Petroglyphs Waterfall
(St. John) The Reef Bay Trail cuts south through St. John from Centerline Road to Reef Bay. Along the way you will pass an impressive waterfall which features stunning pre-Columbian carvings known as petroglyphs. These have become iconic of St. John and of the Virgin Islands as a whole. Though the hike is long, it is downhill. You can arrange for the National Park Service to pick you up via boat at the end of the trail.
(St. John) Drive as far east as the road will let you, get out of your car, and knock on the door. You’ve arrived at the studio of Sloop Jones, an artist who paints one-of-a-kind clothing articles which he calls “wearable art.” Even if you don’t buy, Sloop is happy to welcome visitors, and the journey to the remote East End is worth the trip in and of itself.
(Virgin Gorda) Visiting The Baths National Park is a must when in the Virgin Islands—these otherworldly rock formations at the water’s edge will make you feel like you’re on another planet, more beautiful than our own.
(just off Jost Van Dyke) This half-acre island is comprised of nothing but a beautiful white sand beach surrounding a few trees and shrubs. Pull up on your boat and jump in to experience one of the most peaceful and idyllic settings imaginable.
(Jost Van Dyke) The centerpiece of Great Harbor is world-famous Foxy’s Bar. The party goes year round, but this is the only place to be for New Year’s Eve in the Virgin Islands, when hundreds of ships dock offshore to join in the festivities together.
Cayman Islands Travel Links
Here are some links that we've found useful in planning our travels in Cayman Islands.