Intro to the US Virgin Islands
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in USVI
Trunk Bay off the island off St. John, USVI

Long considered the playground of the tan, the fit and the wealthy, and host to too many toga parties and limbo contests, the U.S. Virgin Islands are saying good bye to hedonism — and they’re welcoming families.

It’s true that cruise ships still ply the astonishingly turquoise waters (too blue to be believed in some cases), and on certain afternoons disgorge their passengers to crowd jewelry stores and pack bars, but another kind of celebration is happening. The various tourism boards and island properties are emphasizing the culture and ecology of the islands, and some very creative family programs and deals.


My Favorite Things about the U.S. Virgin Islands

In particular, the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) seems to be taking the lead. Made up of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, the USVI (as opposed to the British Virgin Islands) are part of the Lesser Antilles, and are a scant 15-minute flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Let it be said right here and now that they’re beautiful, as you might imagine, and friendly, which is not always the case in the Caribbean.

Families are drawn to the islands in part because they’re American territories and are governed by U.S. laws. Your family won’t need a passport and these islands use U.S. currency, the postal system, have American-trained medical personnel and there’s no sales tax. Visitors to any of the USVI can bring home up to $1,600 worth of duty-free items, double that of other Caribbean destinations. In fact, American Airlines, one of many to impose an extra baggage handling fee for carry-ons, is waiving the fee if your carry-on is a big hefty bag from Duty Free. However, the locals do drive on the left hand side.

Of the three islands, St. John is the smallest at 19 square-miles, and St. Croix the largest, 84 square-miles. St. Thomas is 32 square-miles and is the busiest island probably because that’s where the island group’s capital, Charlotte Amalie, is located.

My favorite place on St. Thomas: Though there is no shortage of places to eat on the islands, Lillian’s Caribbean Grill on busy St. Thomas was one of my favorites. Ms. Lillian is the spirited owner and chief chef whose Old World manners and gentle ways are matched by her wisdom and her outstanding food. Try the Barbecue Chicken and Ribs combo with cole slaw or the Kallaloo (my favorite) an Okra stew with lots of flavor. Ms. Lillian’s is right opposite Emancipation Park.

On to St. John: As the boat pulls into Cruz Bay, you’ll feel the seaside resembles a movie set of a Caribbean island with many-hued, open-air, nearly ramshackle huts huddled beneath palm trees. Too early for a tequila or rum (though the USVI makes great rum, Cruzan), walk the few feet to Hercules’ Pate Palace, a lean-to it is, but with the island’s best pate. Pate in this case is a fish, chicken or beef turnover. Buy a Johnny Cake to go with it (a corn meal-based biscuit) and you’ve gone native.

Get Out on the Water: There are many charter trips available to take visitors to the British Virgin Islands or snorkeling complete with lunch and drinks. You can negotiate your own terms and it’s well worth a day at sea. Try Cruz Bay Watersports.


USVI Trip Planning Resources

The best flights to the USVI have been traditionally on American Airlines from most major cities to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Then the flight from San Juan to St. Thomas and vice versa is 15 minutes. In welcome news for beach-loving families who prefer to vacation within the US, several direct flights are servicing the US Virgin Islands from cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Miami, Newark-New York and Philadelphia.

As security regulations change constantly, be sure to check with your airlines before departure for required documents.

To improve transportation, several Caribbean-based air and ferry companies run daily service by plane, seaplane and boat between St. Croix, St. Thomas and even Puerto Rico.

The Virgin Islands Fast Ferry has a daily St. Thomas-St. Croix 75-minute jaunt aboard the 600-passenger Salacia hydrofoil. St. John is just 20 minutes away by ferry. Competition comes from Caribbean Maritime Excursions on the Christiansted (St. Croix) to Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas) ferry route.

For more information on the islands and to decide which one should be your destination, read a Primer to the USVI..

The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism (800/372-8784) also has a knowledgeable staff who are eager to help.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

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