I’m not a huge beach guy, both because my pale-skin is quickly burnt and my restless spirit gets easily bored after about an hour sitting in sand, but the beaches and water of the Virgin Islands were picturesque. Even I wanted to stay put and soak up the post-card worthy views of the white sandy beaches sliding under crystal clear waters moving from aqua to turquoise to teal. But thankfully, the calm beaches were complemented by awaiting adventures such as great spots for snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking, and swimming, of course. A wide variety of animals were observable in the water (we saw green sea turtles, stingrays, a nursing shark, all kinds of fish) and on land (bright birds, large iguanas, deer, and small scattering geckos).
The various islands throughout the US and British Virgin Islands seemed similar in their look and feel, and yet also different based on how secluded or crowded, commercialized or protected, and habited or inhabited they were. Our clear favorite was St. John (USVI) and the Virgin Islands National Park—making up 2/3 of the island and its surrounding waters, but each offered its own charms and gave us distinctive memories.
We did five nights/six days and spread them out with roughly two days at St. John, one day hopping around the British Virgin Islands, and two days on St. Thomas. The beaches had largely recovered from Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Cinnamon Bay on St. John proved to be the exception, with their amenities still closed and some buildings completely wiped out. The islands were not as green as some of the pictures online because they’ve been in a drought since the hurricane. Two people described the islands as formerly being lush and vibrant green reminiscent of Jurassic Park, but now things are dry and browning. Within the islands, people are still recovering and slowly rebuilding, but most beaches and tourist stops are now restored.
Our Airbnb was in St. Thomas, on the East End in the Red Hook area. It was a perfect place to stay, with the house nestled up on one of the hillsides—thankfully we rented a Jeep—opening to beautiful panoramic views(pic above). You could see St. John, Tortola, several nearby bays on St. Thomas, and a number of other local islands from where we were perched. I’d highly recommend staying in this area as it offers the Red Hook Ferry (we used both the car barge and passenger ferry), a good grocery store, the American Yacht Harbor, a coffee shop, and a number of restaurants.
If anyone wants ideas on how to make the Virgin Islands an affordable vacation, leave a comment or question and I’d be glad to share our ideas. We benefitted from going off-season, bringing snorkeling gear we purchased in advance, flying with a budget airline (Spirit), avoiding hotels and using Airbnb, making our own breakfasts, and renting a car. Less time at attractions and more time on the beaches or hiking at Virgin Islands National Park also saves you cash, but you’ll pay amusement-park prices for food or drink at the beaches (so pack some snacks, waters, and even a sandwich).
Our first and last stop was Magens Bay on St. Thomas (pic above), definitely the longest, largest, and most beautiful on that particular island. While not a snorkeling hotspot, it was a safe place to start and I was immediately lured in by swimming up to a sea turtle. Lindquist Beach was another gem, though it lacked amenities, and seemed more widely used by locals. We heard people rave about Coki Beach, but the beach was scattered with debris and definitely not on the same level as Magens Bay.
St. Thomas has its nice spots, the places tourists flock to for a quick picture and a souvenir to take home. One benefit of having a rental car is you get the chance to see more of the island and even a piece of the local culture, and not just the tourist stops. It’s a poor island, and I imagine day-to-day living for the locals to be a tough life. Food is very expensive and throughout the islands it was difficult to determine which homes, cars, and areas were simply rundown and deteriorated versus affected by the hurricane. I don’t say any of that to disparage the attractiveness of St. Thomas, but merely as a reminder that the tourist’s short stay and quick rides to attractions doesn’t reflect the hard lives of the many people living there.
If visiting, I’d recommend renting a Jeep over using the local taxis. Both will add up pricewise, but the rental provides you with freedom to go where you want and when you want, keep extra supplies in the car, and stop at scenic overlooks. Driving is challenging, not because you do so on the opposite side of the road but because the hills and switchbacks are no joke. As you go higher into the hills, the side roads become smaller, rockier, and riskier. At one point, while heading up to the famous Mountain Top, the GPS on our Apple’s Maps app took us onto a road where around the first turn the road crumbled and ended. Not the easiest place to turnaround as you catch your breath from the sudden stop, but Melissa was a champ at reversing the Jeep and I got out to fulfill the role of spotter. The challenge of driving here is part of the adventure, and the convenience of moving on whenever you want makes it worth the experience.
St. Thomas provided not only a great island to see but also a great launching point into other parts of the Virgin Islands.
British Virgin Islands
Our experience of the British Virgin Islands was limited. We didn’t stay overnight and never spent much time inland, other than a fifteen-minute taxi ride to The Baths. But from the little I saw and from my prior research, the two look and feel very similar. We did a one-day excursion (booked through Viator but done by New Horizons on the boat Breakaway) to the BVI that included stops at The Baths at Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke’s White Bay, and snorkeling off of Guana Island.
I enjoyed The Baths at Virgin Gorda more than Melissa did. The large boulders on this part of the island make for fun climbing in and out of small hidden tunnels, tidal pools, and grottoes. Some spaces were very small, which added to the beach experience as you squeezed through tight holes.
The payoff would be a small but splendid beach on the other side, but despite their beauty, each was packed with visitors. We had the unfortunate luck of arriving on the same day as a nearby cruise ship, which meant large crowds and slow lines. The box is checked, and it was fun, but I wouldn’t do it more than once.
We much preferred our stop at White Bay on the Southwest corner of Jost Van Dyke. The turquoise waters were worth the attention it receives, and it offered a unique experience. There’s no driving to this beach; you need a boat. Despite its seclusion it’s a busy place because of its fame as the home of the Soggy Dollar Bar and the overall atmosphere of the place. You feel like you’ve just swam up to a party, and at any given point a Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney song would be playing. (There’s an actual live year-round webcam for anyone interested.)
Melissa and I both loved the experience. I’ve taken taxis, trains, shuttles, ferries, and subways to be dropped off, but never had I been told to jump overboard and swim to shore (and back). Because it was a busier day, the difficulty level of the swim was ratcheted up as our boat was further away. The longer swim, floating boats and anchor lines to avoid, and an ocean current to fight against make you earn the reward of sitting beachside admiring the waters. Any souvenirs purchased are likely to get wet and slow you down on the swim back to the boat, but a couple gulps of fresh seawater because you’re swimming one-handed are worth the keepsake you’re holding in the other arm. If you’re ever in the British Virgin Islands, swim to shore here and you’ll gain a memory you won’t soon forget.
St. John and Virgin Islands National Park deserves its own post, so read more on Part 2 here.
(All photos taken on my iPhone XR.)