St. Croix: Buck Island National Monument
Just two hours from Miami, the US Virgin Islands offer a Caribbean experience that's still part of the US. Three distinct islands-- sleepy St. Croix, bustling St. Thomas, and eco-treat St. John-- serve up white-sand beaches, super snorkeling, a major National Park, colonial towns and forts, duty-free shops, and more.
St. Croix was a happening spot in the 80's until Hurricane Hugo brought disaster. Today, visitors find a much slower pace here than on St. Thomas.
1) Snorkel at Buck Island National Monument
Buck Island -- one of only three Underwater National Monuments in the US--is a terrific place to snorkel or scuba in the USVI. Swimming behind a giant sea turtle is sure to thrill kids and grown-ups too.
The snorkeling area is rocky with no beach, but if you take a day-trip with Big Beard Adventure Tours, you can play Robinson Crusoe during a stop at lovely Turtle Beach (above) and get a snorkeling lesson there if needed.
Then it's onward to the underwater trail where you'll see huge elkhorn coral, grottoes, and thousands of fish.
(Please check company websites for updates about tours and prices.)
St. Croix: Night Kayaking
The sun's going down, and your kayaks await... Soon, Caribbean Adventure Tours will take you to Salt River National Park, and in a big bay in the moonlight, you'll see the site of Columbus' first landing in the New World. (He thought it was Asia, and hostilities followed immediately-- but that's history.)
A "moonlight tour" in a kayak in warm tropical waters is a memorable experience. The same company also offers many daytime tours as well. Visitors can also rent kayaks and explore on your own.
(Please check all company websites for updates about tours and prices.)
St. Croix: Explore Christians
The USVI also offer historic towns. Stroll the streets of centuries ago, when Christiansted -- now a National Historic Site-- was the capital of the Danish West Indies. (Yes, Danish.)
Christiansted's old section extends over many blocks. Most impressive are the beautifully resorted ochre buildings at the water's edge.
Kids will want to explore the old Fort Christiansvaern first. Nearby are the Scale House (with old scales) and Customs House; read posted tourist info for history about this port that once traded in sugar and, so tragically, human lives.
St. Thomas: Sea Trekking
Down, down to the briny deep-- and you don't even get your hair wet: not when you're sea-trekking at Coral World.
First explore the other exhibit areas at this marine park, such as the shark and stingray pools. Then head to the domed observatory that sits in the sea. There, you'll don an astronaut-type helmet, step down a ladder, and follow an undersea trail, breathing easily in your helmet. Kids as young as eight can try.
Tip: right next to Coral World is popular Coki Beach. Schedule some time in your day to enjoy the beach and do some snorkeling.
Top Things to Do in the USVI: St. Thomas - Charlotte Amalie
Sure, you came to the USVI for sun'n'sea: but as a bonus, don't miss the colonial towns.
Charlotte Amalie ("Amal-yuh") was once a dominant trading center in the West Indies. Its fine examples of European-style buildings are now filled with duty-free shops that sell perfumes and other extremely boring items, from your kids' point of view.
Oh well, just promise them a treat at Hard Rock Cafe, and enjoy some walking in Charlotte Amalie. Pick up a free tourist brochure and look for a walking tour.
St. Thomas: Fort Christian
Overlooking Charlotte Amalie is a Fort named for a Danish King: Fort Christian was built in 1672 to protect the town against pirates and European rivals.
Kids will enjoy climbing around the Fort, a National Landmark. The Fort is also a great spot to learn some Caribbean history: it's home to the VirginIslands Museum, and in its old rooms and cells are displays on the islands' natives, the slave trade and slave revolts, and more.
Admission fee is modest. (Actually, it was by donation when your Guide visited).
St. John - Virgin Islands National Park
"Mom, what's that giant lump stuck on that tree trunk?" Top marks to any parent or kid who guesses "termite nest," during a hike in Virgin Islands National Park.
It's an amazing fact that most of the island of St. John --two-thirds, or three-quarters, depending on your source-- is a National Park. This happy situation is thanks to Laurance Rockefeller, who bought up most of the land in the fifties and then donated it; he also established a small, luxury-camping site at Caneel Bay. (The Caneel Bay Resort is considerably more upscale today.)
One of the great things about National Parks is their (free or minimal-cost) ranger programs that combine fun and education. Head to the Park's Visitors Center in Cruz Bay and check out hikes with Park Rangers, and other park activities such as nature and history talks and snorkel trips. The Park includes marine areas. (see the National Park Virgin Islands website.)
St. John: Trunk Bay
One of the most-photographed beaches on St. John is Trunk Bay, part of the National Park, and a perfect example of the USVI's white sand and azure seas.
You'll need to pay admission to snorkel at Trunk Bay but the cost is modest, especially if you buy a family pass.
Then put on the flippers and head for the snorkel trail, where underwater signs tell about the fish and coral. Kids as young as six can snorkel, and rental gear is available.
St. John: Boat Trip with Snorkeling
A fine outing on St. John is a boat trip to one or more choice snorkeling spots.
Climb aboard the Sadie Sea for a tour with multiple snorkel stops. As a bonus, your guide may spin some great island tales.
Though the snorkeling may not match Buck Island, you'll see lovely coral and fish and the variety of visiting multiple snorkeling spots is fun as is the boat trip itself: a lovely way to enjoy the sun, sea, and seabirds.
Get Out and About
Often, visitors to the Caribbean stay within the boundaries of their resorts. In the USVI, it's easy to get around, explore, and soak up some local ambiance.
On St. John, for example, you can rent a jeep for reasonable dollars, and the traffic's light. (St. Thomas is busier-- with left-hand drive!) Meanwhile, rates for colorful open-air "safari" taxis are controlled. Either way, you can sample activities, beaches, local restaurants-- such as this one on St. Croix with catty bar-tender.