If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that some of the best things are in our own backyards. For Americans, that includes Puerto Rico and the three major territories of the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix).
Although all of these places have great weather and beautiful beaches, each destination has its own distinct activities and attractions. Travelers can go bar hopping in Puerto Rico, diving in St. Croix, ziplining in St. Thomas, and hiking through the sprawling Virgin Islands National Park in St. John. (Cruisers visiting the Caribbean can even consider going beyond these destinations on a closed-loop cruise, which allows U.S. travelers to sail to some international destinations without a passport.)
If you’re ready for a weekend getaway or a weeklong recharge, check out this guide to the best islands in the Caribbean that don’t require a U.S. passport.
1. Puerto Rico
Each year, Puerto Rico sees millions of visitors, and many head straight to San Juan, the island’s capital. No wonder: Colorful Old San Juan is home to the 16th-century Spanish colonial fortress Castillo San Cristobal and other UNESCO World Heritage sites, and fantastic restaurants like Santaella or La Casita Blanca, where the tostones and mofongo are not to be missed. For after-hours drinks, San Juan’s most popular bar La Factoria is a standout: The James Beard Award–nominee is a maze of six different themed bars and dance rooms. For more options, check out El Batey’s laid-back dive bar ambience or the Mezzanine’s cocktails and fine wines served on cozy balconies overlooking Old San Juan.
There’s also lots to do outside the capital city. Consider renting a car and driving out to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rain forest, or head south to hike the Guanica State Forest. Rincon, a town on the island’s west end, is a surfer’s paradise with smaller boutique hotels scattered along the coast—travelers can catch a wave or a gorgeous sunset on one of its beaches. To experience one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays, head to Laguna Grande in Fajardo, about an hour east from San Juan.
Where to stay
- Book Now: Fairmont El San Juan Hotel
The famed Fairmont El San Juan was completely renovated in 2017, but still retains many of its original details from its 1958 debut, including the 7,000-piece hand-blown chandelier in the hotel’s ornate lobby. The 388-room beachfront resort is less than 10 minutes from the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport and offers four pools, cabanas with bottle service, and a stellar steakhouse, the Meat Market.
- Book Now: El Pretexto
Located one hour from San Juan, El Pretexto is a mini farm and bed-and-breakfast tucked in the Cordillera Central mountains. The 2018-opened property offers bright and minimalist rooms alongside pop-up dinners, a wraparound deck, and a resident rooster named Santiago.
How to get to Puerto Rico
You can take an airplane or cruise ship to get to Puerto Rico. While the cruise ships stop at San Juan, there are plenty of direct nonstop flights from many hubs on the East Coast, including Hartford, Connecticut, and Tampa. There are even international nonstop routes from cities like Montreal and Frankfurt.
2. St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Sandy Point is the island’s most attractive white-sand beach, but it’s only open on the weekends. It also closes from mid-April to August for nesting sea turtles, so consider yourself lucky if you get a chance to enjoy this two-mile stretch of paradise. Other good beach options include Buccaneer’s Beach and Rainbow Beach near Frederiksted. Only 28 miles long and 7 miles wide, St. Croix can also be explored by horseback or on an ATV or dune buggy. For water activities, Buck Island Reef National Monument is a top choice for snorkeling and diving, and St. Croix’s bioluminescent bay, Salt River Bay National Historical Park, is best experienced at night in a glass-bottom kayak.
St. Croix is also full of historical sites and has two major towns to explore. Christiansted is a harbor-front district where visitors can tour the St. George Village Botanical Garden. Frederiksted, on the west of the island, is a cruise port home to Fort Frederiksted, a Danish 18th-century fort, and the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts.
Where to stay
- Book Now: The Buccaneer Beach and Golf Resort
Overlooking the Christiansted harbor, the Wyndham-owned resort has a golf course, two pools, a water sports center, and access to three different beaches. Inside, guest rooms have huge four-poster beds and soaring ceilings; select rooms have balconies with direct views of the ocean.
- Book Now: The Fred
The Fred, an adults-only waterfront property in Frederiksted, is one of the island’s newest properties since its opening in late 2017. Each of the 22 rooms is designed in bold colors, giving a modern contrast to the historic structures that house the rooms. Its hotel bar has a long list of inventive cocktails that include the Painkiller, a concoction of light rum, dark rum, coconut juice, pineapple juice, and orange juice.
How to get to St. Croix
You can reach St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, via direct flights from several cities on the U.S. mainland.
3. St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
For beaches, you can’t go wrong with the turquoise waters of Magen’s Bay or with Sapphire Beach, which has views of neighboring St. John. Take advantage of St. Thomas’s hilly terrain by hiking up to Drake’s Seat, a lookout spot that offers sweeping views of the Caribbean, or by ziplining at Tree Limin’ Extreme Zipline Park. Culinary options on St. Thomas range from Duffy’s Loveshack, a lively watering hole in Red Hook, to Old Stone Farmhouse, an elegant restaurant with an extensive wine list.
There’s lots to do in St. Thomas’s capital, Charlotte Amalie: Visit the Frenchtown Brewing Company for a tour of the microbrewery and a beer flight with four seasonal brews. Next, climb the historic 99-step staircase (technically there are 103 steps) in the city for fantastic views. Finally, set aside an hour to two for a self-guided tour of Fort Christian. The red- and green-hued 300-year-old fortress is the oldest standing structure on the Virgin Islands and has served as a prison, government building, and a governor’s residence.
Where to stay
- Book Now: Bolongo Bay Beach Resort
One of the few all-inclusive resorts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the 74-room Bolongo Bay Beach Resort still feels intimate. The guest rooms have views of either the ocean or the tropical gardens, and the resort sits on 1,000 feet of secluded beachfront. Hop aboard its 53-foot catamaran, Heavenly Days, for day sails and epic sunsets.
- Book Now: Emerald Beach Resort
Emerald Beach Resort overlooks Lindbergh Bay, one of the most picturesque beaches in St. Thomas. All 90 guest rooms have an ocean view, and the resort has a partnership with JetskiVI for jet skiing and kayak rentals.
How to get to St. Thomas
St. Thomas is home to the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Charlotte Amalie, which is also a popular cruise port. It’s the most developed of the three major islands and can be reached by regularly scheduled flights from the mainland.
4. St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Things to do
About 60 percent of the isle is a designated national park, and travelers flock to St. John for its green, rugged landscape. The relatively quiet island is ideal for travelers who truly want to unplug. Visitors head to Trunk Bay for its powdery white sand, and Cinnamon Bay is ideal for water activities like windsurfing, snorkeling, and kayaking.
St. John has a collection of restaurants sprinkled around Cruz Bay, the island’s main shopping and restaurant district. The Longboard is a bright and airy Caribbean cantina serving tacos, sushi wraps, poke bowls, and half-price drinks during happy hour. Skinny Legs Bar and Grill is a long-standing dive bar good for a burger and a cold beer, and one of the best dishes on the island is the clam chowder at Lime Inn.
Where to stay
Book Now: The Westin St. John Resort Villas
One of the largest resorts on the island, the Westin St. John overlooks Great Cruz Bay. The 252-room family resort has a 10,000-square-foot pool and private beach—and ferry service from St. Thomas is included in your stay.
Book Now: Gallows Point Resort
Offering 60 one-bedroom villas, Gallows Point Resort is a short walk to all the restaurants and shopping in Cruz Bay. The hotel’s on-site restaurant, Ocean 362, sources fresh ingredients from its garden beds, and the third-floor bar offers sunset views.
How to get to St. John
As the smallest and least developed of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John doesn’t have an airport. Instead, you’ll have to fly into nearby St. Thomas and ferry over to the island, which takes about 45 minutes.
This article was originally published in 2022; it was updated on January 10, 2024, with current information.