Think American hospitality and service coupled with the relaxed laid-back vibe you would expect of an island paradise with turquoise waters, plus sea turtles.
Driving: Left side
To do: Beach, snorkelling, hiking
To stay: Airbnb for affordable quirky stays
How long to stay: 5-7 days
Food: Fish or Barefoot Buddha’s sweet potato wrap!
Why to go: Beautiful beaches, good vibes, and sea turtles!
Transport: Get a car if you can afford it for convenience and the freedom to explore
Best of: The beaches and the snorkelling
Worst of: Disorganised airport rental companies and cruise tourists
Go with: Partner, but works for friends or a family beach getaway
Why to go to the USVI
The USVI in the Caribbean, I ignorantly didn’t even know they existed before a friend suggested we go. To be fair I live in the UK, and for me the British Virgin Islands stirred up thoughts of private islands and Richard Branson, but I never thought to question why the British was in front – turns out it’s to distinguish. So how did I come to go to a place I’d never heard of? Long story short my travel companion couldn’t leave the US whilst waiting for a visa but we wanted to go on a trip and we wanted sun, so he did some research and it came down to Hawaii or the USVI. He’d just been to Hawaii (without me, how dare he) so we settled on the USVI as it offered sun, beautiful waters, snorkelling, and a good size for exploration, which in my opinion are all the reasons to go.
Which islands to go to in the USVI
There are three main island in the USVI: St Thomas, St Croix, and St John. Each island is different and which you visit will depend on your budget, time, and preference. For us the limiting variable was time. I have made the mistake of not spending enough time somewhere before and it is not one I wanted to make again. The cheapest flights we’d found flew into St Thomas and we had a little over 7 days to play with. St John is right next to St Thomas (a 20 min or so ferry ride), so it was the natural choice for us. St Thomas is the main island and significantly large than St John, with a “people actually live and work here” feel. St John was far quieter but also noticeably more touristy in the main town due to its size. It’s less built up as it’s a national park and this is one of the reasons it was my favourite of the two. St John fits the secluded island paradise criteria without being too secluded. Although there was a large amount of tourist traffic, it all felt pretty relaxed, no one harassing you to do a tour or anything of the sort. One of the most off putting things of St Thomas was the large amount of cruise traffic. There is a strip mall full of souvenir and jewellery shops dedicated to these visitors and the beaches are jammed with them. Tourism is important to the economy of the island but in an ideal world I’d selfishly have them skip the USVI to prevent the crowds.
What to do on the USVI
I’d call out the snorkelling. You can dive, fish, etc. on the islands but snorkelling is the one thing you see everyone doing, mainly because its cheap and convenient, as long as you can swim you are good to go. If you are looking to get your diving license, make sure you factor in the time as it will take you a few days. I’ve heard there are some cool dive sites though, including some ship wrecks which I’ve always wanted the chance to dive!
How long to spend in the USVI
I spent seven full days in the USVI, arriving on Thursday afternoon and leaving on Friday afternoon. I split this into four nights on St John and four nights on St Thomas. The decision to spend the first four nights on St John was down to our Airbnb’s minimum stay, although I am grateful we did as it was my favourite island and as it’s smaller, we had originally thought to spend only three nights there. I wish I’d spent fewer nights in St Thomas, particularly as our Airbnb ended up having bed bugs. Flying from the UK (with an atrocious eight hour overnight stopover in JFK during the arctic cold front at the end of Jan 2019, followed by a four hour wait for my friend’s delayed flight) I wanted to spend at least a week on the islands to justify the travel time, however, you can definitely make the trip shorter if you live closer. Without a car I would suggest staying less time because it’s harder to get around to do things. Equally, if you quickly get bored of beaches and snorkelling and want a greater variety of things to do, you don’t need to spend longer than 5 or so days.
What beaches to go to on the USVI
You can’t really go wrong with any beach on these islands as they deliver the white sand and turquoise water ideal that everyone hopes for in “paradise”. I’ll continue to sing the praises of St John as it was so clearly my favourite. Quite simply St John is a smaller island, harder to get to and less populated (the cruise ships don’t directly dock there), meaning the beaches are emptier without being totally deserted. This is the same with the snorkel spots – in St John you find a few fellow friendly snorkelers rather than the larger groups on St Thomas. Magens Bay in St Thomas is famously known as one of the world’s best beaches, but precisely because of that it’s packed and was my least favourite beach. On St Thomas my favourites were Coki Point, a small beach where all the rastas hang out, and Lindquist Beach where you got the secluded feel of St Johns as it’s a large beautiful beach without too many people. Also check out the Mermaid’s chair – you have to hike down but you literally find yourself at the end of the island with the opportunity to clamber amongst some awesome rocks. We did this when it was pouring down with rain but it sure made the hike back cooler. On St John my favourite was Trunk Bay due to the beautiful setting. You’ll have to pay parking and entry to the beaches on St Thomas beaches whereas on St John you don’t have to, another perk in case I hadn’t banged on enough about St John!
The vibe of the USVI
The USVI definitely has that relaxed and chilled island vibe. At times I still felt I was in the mainland States rather than the Caribbean due to all the tourist influence (particularly on the restaurants) but the pace was definitely different. The island paradise feel definitely makes it a couples destination but it’s suitable for family and friends too. Just don’t go there expecting to be bouncing off the walls all day, you go there to chill. Think American hospitality and service coupled with the relaxed laid-back vibe you would expect of an island paradise with turquoise waters, plus sea turtles.
What to eat at the USVI
Unfortunately I didn’t try any local food on the island but I got a recommendation for Gwen’s Place on St John that I will pass on to you to try! There is all sorts of food on the island but I’ll give you my top recommendations for each island I visited. In St John it has to be The Longboard which had absolutely bomb poke bowls, so good that we went back twice. Definitely try their Frozen Painkillers which in my opinion are made by the grated nutmeg on top of them. I had a couple of days with an upset stomach (not because of any food, I think it was just my natural reaction to the different bacterias in the water) but once I got my appetite back in St Thomas I had a real craving for Mexican food and loved the nachos and quesadilla we had in Bonita’s Cantina, particularly as Mexican food in the UK is notoriously rubbish, I’m glad we found it. Another favourite we repeated in St Thomas was Barefoot Buddha which aside from having great coffee had a sweet potato spinach and goats cheese wrap which was the stuff of dreams.
Transport in the USVI and getting there
The cheapest option is to fly into St Thomas and then get ferries to the other two islands. I paid £700 for my return ticket from LHR which I was pretty happy with considering the distance.
Once on the islands there are plenty of taxis, most of them being safari taxis. The local buses aren’t exactly timely or reliable so it’s best to travel by taxi or rent a car. Unfortunately for us, we were slight disasters, didn’t plan our trip, and there were no rental cars available when we arrived to St Thomas, so we made a reservation to pick one up on the Monday, the day we got back from St John. We tried to rent a car in St John but all the companies only rented cars (I should say Wranglers because that is literally all there was on the island) to people older than 25, criteria we unfortunately didn’t meet. Luckily for us our Airbnb host provided us the number of Nellie, a local lady who is St John’s “uber”, i.e. if you call her she’ll pick you up. This was super useful as we sometimes irresponsibly went far away from town and stayed after dark, past when any taxis were returning to town from the beach, and we wouldn’t have had a way to get home without hitchhiking if we didn’t have her number. People are super nice on the island so someone will pick you up if you are really stranded. This happened to us the day we left, the one time Nellie hadn’t been available and a kind local took us to the port after he took pity on us hiking down with our backpacks. Prices vary but our standard fare was $10-15 for two people, with our most expensive fare having been the taxi from St Thomas airport to the ferry station to get over to St John which was around $30 for two of us. In St Thomas we had a car after a long wait at the rental office (they’re not the most organised bunch) and it was worth it to have the freedom to do what we wanted when we wanted. The island isn’t pedestrian friendly if you really want to see it all (something I had to get used to as a Londoner) and although the car rental was relatively expensive and we had to pay for parking at beaches, it isn’t something we regretted, I just wish we’d had a car on St John.
Where to stay in the USVI
Accommodation at hotels can be expensive on the islands, particularly on smaller ones like St John. I’m not a fan of hotels as I find them impersonal so I always opt for Airbnbs anyway and was pleased to find there were some reasonably priced places on both islands. Thank God for that because I can’t afford a £2k a night hotel room which seemed to be the alternative.
Make the trip moments
- Seeing the turquoise water beaches for the first time
- Walking back to town in St John in the dark, with my speaker blaring my anthem at the time, Nice for What – Drake
- Our first dinner at The Longboard
- The outdoor shower at our St John Airbnb – super peaceful
- Getting absolutely drenched at the Mermaid’s Chair
- Snorkelling at Watermelon Cay – such diversity and no-one around!
- Seeing my first sea turtle whilst snorkelling in St John and having it come up to take a breath next to me
- Norma, a lady we met on our last day who couldn’t walk well. We spoke with her for a while during which I offered to help her get into the water, an offer she refused. Norma tried to go in herself but started to retreat when she felt unsteady. Everyone on the beach went running to help her get in and we got her a noodle so she could hold her balance in the water. I loved seeing how caring the people on the beach were, and that day Norma was my hero for pure determination and stubbornness, YAS Norma