U.S. Virgin Islands
While the devastation left behind by Hurricanes Maria and Irma in September 2017 lingers in parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands, many of the islands’s towns bounced right back into business. AFAR will continue to update the destination guide over the coming months to include the new openings and renovations, as well as to tell the stories of the Caribbean people and their resilience.
The United States Virgin Islands are justifiably called “America’s Paradise,” but they’re still a far cry from the mainland. You can find standard U.S. conveniences across the three main islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John—but many come with a unique island twist. Cars drive on the left in this former Danish colony; wild donkeys roam freely on St. John; old pirates are celebrated like national heroes on St. Thomas; and the pigs on St. Croix drink beer! Each of these colorful, distinctive islands offers much more than just sun, sand, and sea—though it’s hard to find more spectacular beaches anywhere else in the world.
When’s the best time to go to U.S. Virgin Islands?
Daily temperatures average between 77 and 83 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, so it’s almost always the right time to escape to the USVI for sunny weather. Check the forecast before you go, however. Hurricane season runs from early May to late November, and the peak storm season pummels the islands from August to October.
How to get around U.S. Virgin Islands
Like many Caribbean destinations, the USVI is well-served by major U.S. airlines. Stateside visitors enjoy daily nonstop flights from at least twelve U.S. cities, and connecting flights are usually available through San Juan. Note that no passport is required for U.S. citizens to visit the USVI. This goes for cruise lovers, too: every major cruise line calls on St. Thomas, one of the busiest cruise ports in the Caribbean.
The USVI is also ideal for visitor exploration: well-marked roads and popular rental car brands make things easy. Note that cars drive on the left! Taxis can be expensive, and there is no Uber. Island hopping is easy, with hourly ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John. A new ferry connecting St. Thomas and St. Croix is planned for late 2016, though the Seaplane flights operated by Seaborne Airlines may leave you with more thrilling memories.
Food and drink to try in U.S. Virgin Islands
Gastronomy in the USVI reflects the colorful hodgepodge of cultures that has coalesced here over the generations. African, Danish, and French influences from the colonial era mix with more recent infusions of American, Spanish, and Middle Eastern traditions, keeping this Caribbean melting pot percolating with ever-more-inventive culinary delights. To eat like an islander, look for USVI favorites like fish and fungi, souse, Johnnycakes, oxtail, pâtés, and curries at roadside food trucks and local eateries. You can find international wines and island-inspired beers—but the main alcoholic drink here is rum, and the popular Cruzan brand is distilled in St. Croix.
Culture in U.S. Virgin Islands
The local music, dancing, and storytelling traditions in the USVI are a mash-up of African and European influences, with roots tracing back to colonial times. Scratch bands play quelbe music with improvised instruments ranging from a squash to a car exhaust pipe—an experience worth seeking out, especially if you get to hear them accompanying a European-inspired quadrille dance performance. Look also for “moko jumbies": stilt dancers in festive garb that are present at various festivals and are said to chase away evil spirits. St. Thomas is also home to one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.
Each of the three main islands harbors a unique blend of heritage, and the USVI is always hopping with festivals. Attend one of the colorful Carnival celebrations for a unique Caribbean extravaganza: in St. Thomas in the spring, St. John around the 4th of July, and St. Croix in December. St. Croix also plays host to one of the Caribbean’s wildest St. Patrick’s Day parades, combining elements of traditional West Indian carnival with a healthy dose of Irish charm. In April, foodies can see firsthand why the annual St. Croix Food & Wine Festival ranks among the Caribbean’s top gourmet events. To get a really authentic sense of these islands, however, check out the annual Agrifest events held in St. Croix in February and St. Thomas in November.
Local travel tips for U.S. Virgin Islands
Each of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands has its own distinctive character. St. Thomas is the most cosmopolitan: the capital city, Charlotte Amalie, is always bustling with activity. St. John is almost pure nature, with two-thirds of the island’s landmass set aside in a national park. St. Croix, the largest of the three islands, is the perfect combination of the two. For shopping: duty free stores may draw the cruise ship hordes, but it’s the one-of-a-kind, made-in-the-USVI items that keep the smartest shoppers coming back. Look out for hook bracelets from Sonya’s, Chaney pieces from ib designs, Crucian Knots from Crucian Gold, the amazing glass menagerie of Jan Mitchell-Larsen, exquisite mahogany carvings from St. Croix LEAP, handmade leather sandals from Zora of St. Thomas—the list goes on and on.