My love for the Caribbean is no secret: I travel at least four times a year to the region to dig my feet in its golden sands, wine to the rhythm of soca music during Carnival season, and find solace between blanketed green rain forests or a streetside rum bar with no name.
In April, I made my first visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands—which include the main islands of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix and 50 other surrounding minor islands and cays. For years, I had been a bit hesitant to go, worried that its association with America would introduce many of the all too familiar comforts of home. Fortunately, I was wrong, and my weeklong adventure to the islands of St. Thomas and St. John felt just as Caribbean as any other islands I’ve visited—from the sound of its music to the pride of its people. Here’s how I spent my time on both land and sea.
St Thomas’s capital, Charlotte Amalie, is a cosmopolitan city filled with docked cruise ships, duty free shops, and restaurants. Though there’s a bustling commercial district, there are also beaches like Lindbergh Bay. Carnival, the Caribbean celebration filled with soca, rum, and celebration also takes place along these streets during a weeklong period in April, and it has served as a central location for concerts performed by some of soca’s biggest stars, including USVI artist Adam O and Trinidad’s Bunji Garlin and Fay-Ann Lyons. I’m a passionate bacchanalist, and it was great to be able to experience the same joy on the streets of St. Thomas that I’ve felt all across the region.
Beyond cultural events like Carnival, St. Thomas offers a number of activities for visitors to consider. For panoramic views of the island from 700 feet above the main harbor, take a 5-minute drive from the capital to board the 10-minute Skyride aerial tram to Paradise Point. Popular beaches include a white-sand retreat called Magens Bay on the north side of the island, and 15 minutes away, the less crowded, resident hangout Hull Bay.
When hunger struck, I satiated my cravings at the low-key Gladys’ Cafe, which serves West Indian favorites like callaloo and conch fritters. At Cutlass & Cane, an oceanfront restaurant in Charlotte Amalie’s yacht-dotted harbor, I enjoyed dishes of tender octopus atop a bed of arugula, and braised oxtails that easily fell off the bone.
St. Thomas served as the starting point to my land to sea adventure, and there are many companies that offer day trips to nearby islands. With RED Hospitality & Leisure and Cruz Bay Watersports, guests start at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas to board a luxury catamaran for the 6-mile, 45-minute ride to St. John for a day of snorkeling in a secluded bay by a hamlet and walking through St. John’s main town, Cruz Bay, to shop and enjoy a number of restaurants and bars. Day tours also include the Caribbean’s only floating taco bar, Lime Out, where hungry visitors can enjoy options like rum rib tacos and tamarind mezcal margaritas.
Where to stay
Book now: The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas
In St. Thomas, a 30-minute car ride from the airport through winding roads above a bustling port and city center leads to the idyllic Great Bay. I checked into the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, a 180-room oceanfront property that sits on its own little corner, spread over 30 cascading acres. Amenities include a cabana-lined infinity pool, four restaurants serving everything from Caribbean to impressive Sicilian cuisine at Alloro, a kids club, beach activities that include kayaking, and a catamaran sunset cruise aboard its in-house luxury catamaran Lady Lynsey II. Guests can also enjoy a daily spiced rum tasting that features locally grown spirits. My room’s spacious balcony view of the sapphire-colored ocean was the much needed welcome I needed after a long day of travel.
A 20-minute catamaran ride from St. Thomas landed me in the middle of the ocean on the 118-acre private island of Lovango Resort + Beach Club. As I stepped off Lovango’s wooden dock surrounded by crystalline water, I was whisked away to the beach club with a glass of rum punch in hand. Lovango welcomes day visitors from nearby islands looking to enjoy its restaurant and infinity pool, though it’s guests (like me) who take the golf cart ride up to their row of rustic tree houses for overnight stays who are really able to optimize the offerings of this eco-chic playground.
For the next three days, I took a culinary dive into the first annual Taste of Lovango, a culinary pop-up experience that included a lively opening party fueled by breadfruit spirits distilled by Mutiny Island Vodka of St. Croix and bites of coconut polenta, baked peekytoe crab toast, and oxtail and braised greens spring rolls. Participating chefs in the May event included Food Network’s Tiffani Faison, former Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller chef Brian Arruda, James Beard Rising Star semi-finalist Robbie Felice, and the “godfather of poke” Sam Choy.
A six-course chef’s table event set against the backdrop of a sparkling ocean included pairings from Island Hope Wines—a boutique wine distributor based in St. John that partners with local restaurants, hotels, and event planners to employ people on the island to invest back into the local economy. My favorite dish of the night was a decadent lobster tail served with mussels, morels, cognac, and lobster roe, created by chef Brian Arruda, founder of private chef placement agency Executive Chefs at Home. It was paired with a herbaceous pinot noir from Oregon; my taste buds were dancing. This is a food festival that’s intimate and vibrant—and one I can imagine gaining popularity over the years.
Where to stay
Book now: Lovango Resort + Beach Club
The secluded property is the first one to be built in over 30 years in USVI, and feels worlds away from its nearby neighbors of St. Thomas and St. John. The sustainably built resort is powered entirely by wind and solar energy, with 11 freestanding glamping tents and tree houses that feature spacious outdoor showers and unobstructed views of mountains cloaked in palm trees.
Lovango is just a 10-minute boat ride from nearby St. John, where I spent a day exploring its palm-fringed beaches, culinary scene, and great outdoors. Where St. Thomas buzzes with cruise ship visits and nightlife, St. John serves up a resplendent retreat of unspoilt nature: Nearly two-thirds of the island is the protected Virgin Islands National Park in addition to more than 11,500 acres of protected land. There are over 20 hiking trails criss-crossing the 5,500 acre National Park that range from low to medium impact. The beaches aren’t half bad, either. When I made my way down to Trunk Bay’s powdery white sand, I snorkeled through its warm, aquamarine waves, greeted by underwater signs that shared fun facts on the coral reef ecosystem glowing around me.
For a history lesson on land, Annaberg Plantation in St. John’s Leinster Bay is part of the national park and once functioned as a sugar plantation. Here, over 600 enslaved West Africans’ labor during the sugar boom of the 18th and 19th century made the island’s economy—like many parts of the Caribbean—as profitable as it is today. Visitors to Annaberg can tour the grounds and read about the history of Indigenous and enslaved people in the region.
St. John’s main oceanside strip, Cruz Bay, is lined with lively bars and restaurants full of day-trip visitors and residents. My favorite among them all during my visit was the Mediterranean-focused La Tapa. It’s clear from the line that my sentiment was shared as diners congregated to order small plates of savory gazpacho and duck confit from chef-owner Alex Ewald and her team. A rotating list of freshly caught fish like grilled mahi and loaded paellas sourced from nearby fishermen rounded out this memorable dining experience, where I spent my last evening on a night clear enough to see St. Thomas and Lovango in the distance—making it a full circle moment indeed.