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Frommer's EasyGuide to the Virgin Islands

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Quick to read, light to carry with expert advice in all price ranges, Frommer's EasyGuide to St.Thomas, St.Croix and St. John 2014 is the complete up-to-date reference for travelers who want to maximize their stay in the smartest, most efficient way. With Frommer's trademark candid and accessible expertise, this invaluable guide offers reviews in a wide array of choices available including lodging, sightseeing, shopping, dining and entertainment. It includes insider tips based on time constraints and interests, complete with practical advice and suggested itineraries. With user-friendly features it offers tips on excellent values, special moments,honeymoons or traveling with kids and overrated experiences and includes the best seafood, people-watching and the best places to connect with nature, snorkeling and diving.

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1 The Best of the Virgin Islands

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THE BEST OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS

Mountainous and luminously green, the Virgin Islands number about 100, some governed by the United States and others by Great Britain. The larger islands appear as mossy green hills rising dramatically out of turquoise seas; others are little more than rocky outcroppings rimmed by whispery white-sand beaches waiting for Robinson Crusoe to call. The former haunt of derring-do sea captains and pirate marauders, today many of the Virgin Islands are invaded by thousands of visitors, arriving by plane and cruise ship, suntan lotion in hand.

The region’s major islands include the three United States territories: Bustling St. Thomas attracts the most visitors, many of them disembarking from some of the biggest cruise ships in the business; the “plantation island,” St. Croix is the Virgins’ largest island and some say its cultural heart; and the lush beauty known as St. John, at 9 miles long and 5 miles wide, is the smallest of the three. No matter where you’re traveling from, St. Thomas is for many people the gateway to the Virgins. With the busiest cruise-ship harbor in the Caribbean, St. Thomas bustles with duty-free shopping and global dining. St. Croix is more laid-back than St. Thomas, with well-preserved colonial towns and verdant countryside dotted with plantation ruins. Little St. John is positively sleepy, two-thirds of its acreage taken up by one of America’s most beautiful national parks.

 

2 Suggested Itineraries

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SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

Sprinkled scattershot between the Caribbean and Atlantic oceans, the Virgin Islands mark the easternmost point of the Lesser Antilles. They’re part of a necklace of islands that stretches southeast from Cuba and curls back west again at Trinidad and Tobago. Despite being the progeny of two different nations, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands have a brotherly closeness—not only are the islands a breezy ferry ride or plane hop away from one another, but you’re almost always eyeballing another Virgin no matter where you are. From Jost Van Dyke you can watch the glittering lights of cars weave along the coastal road of St. Thomas; from Tortola’s West End the broad-shouldered hills of St. John are a comforting constant. The two island chains share the same sparkling waterways, the same vibrant marine playgrounds, the same balmy tradewinds. The history of both the U.S. and British Virgins is inextricably linked with sugarcane and the slave trade—centuries-old plantation ruins throughout the islands tell part of the tale. You’ll find the same classic island dishes on restaurant menus and hear the same lilting rhythms in ramshackle beach bars.

 

3 The Virgin Islands in Context

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THE VIRGIN ISLANDS IN CONTEXT

Golden beaches shaded by palm trees and crystalline waters teeming with rainbow-hued marine life are undoubtedly the main attractions in both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Most visitors will likely spend their days hanging out on the beach, playing in the blue seas, browsing boutiques, and savoring fresh-caught fish. But beneath the Carnival costumes and tourism baubles lies a fascinating history and rich culture. Like so many other islands in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands were inextricably intertwined with the colonial ambitions of Western Europe and the slave trade in North America. This chapter offers a peek at the cultural and historical influences coursing just beneath the surface of any modern-day escape to the Virgin Islands. It also includes tips about the best times to visit and the myriad activities and tours available to you.

THE ISLANDS IN BRIEF

The islands described in detail below are the main inhabited islands and the most frequently visited in both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Use the information to help guide you to your own idea of paradise.

 

4 St. Thomas

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ST. THOMAS

The cosmopolitan hub of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is known for its brassy commercial hustle. But with sparkling turquoise seas and peaceful mountain aeries, it’s easy to leave the hubbub far behind. Yes, the 32-square-mile island is home to the busiest cruise-ship harbor in the West Indies, and its historic capital, Charlotte Amalie, is the beating commercial heart of the region. But just minutes from the action are serene beaches and pampering retreats. More than any other Virgin Island, St. Thomas has something for everyone: Join the market throngs by day and swing to reggae rhythms at night—or simply forget your cares on a sun-kissed, palm-fringed beach.

Essentials

Getting There

By Plane

If you’re flying to St. Thomas, you will land at the Cyril E. King Airport ( 340/774-5100; http://saint-thomas-airport.com; airport code STT), 3 miles (about a 15-min. drive) to the west of the central business district in Charlotte Amalie on Route 30. From here, you can easily grab a taxi to your hotel or villa. Chances are you will be staying east of Charlotte Amalie, so keep in mind that getting through town often involves long delays and traffic jams during rush hours.

 

5 St. Croix

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St. Croix

If St. Thomas is the seasoned older sibling and St. John the dewy beauty, St. Croix is the region’s cultural heart. It’s an old soul with a lilting bohemian spirit. It also has a population so diverse and multicultural it’s been called a “cultural callaloo.”

At 84 square miles, St. Croix is certainly the largest U.S. Virgin Island, but it has a small-town feel. That may be because the “plantation island” is a place of bucolic delights, with acres of rural farmland and roads draped in a canopy of mahogany trees. The island’s agricultural heritage is undergoing a renaissance: Organic farms in the northwest highlands are flourishing, and a celebrated Agricultural Fair draws thousands of visitors annually. Tied in with this trend is the island’s growing reputation as a health-and-wellness destination: St. Croix has more vegan cafes, juice bars, and organic farms than all the other Virgins combined.

But perhaps more than anything, St. Croix is a living museum of the region’s tangled past. Much of the architecture from the 18th-century Danish occupancy remains enshrined in picturesque Christiansted, on the island’s west end. The colorful Victorian buildings facing the scenic waterfront of the island’s second-largest town, Frederiksted, have been revitalized—a fetching welcome mat for the cruise-ship crowds that arrive weekly at the Frederiksted dock.

 

6 St. John

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St. John

It may be the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but St. John is a natural wonder of luminous crescent bays and perfumed forest groves. It’s got miles of pristine parkland, fresh-scented hiking trails, and mossy peaks with panoramic views. It’s got probably the best beaches per capita of any Virgin Island. It’s got a sleepy, secluded feel—if you can’t chill out here, well, then better get thee to an apothecary. In fact, St. John is where St. Thomas locals come to “plug out. They don’t call it “Love City” for nothing.

St. John is no mere pretty face, however. It has in the ruins of 18th-century sugar plantations a landscape dotted with its own trail of tears. It’s got churches: 18 at last count.

St. John has no airport and no cruise-ship pier. Nonetheless, it is a favorite day-trip destination from nearby islands and a popular ferry excursion for cruise-ship passengers from St. Thomas. But the day-tripper and cruise-ship crowds that stream over in the morning are generally gone before nightfall.

 

7 The British Virgin Islands

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THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

With its turquoise bays and hidden coves, once havens for pirates, the British Virgin Islands are among the world’s loveliest cruising areas. The islands attract sailors and yachties aplenty, but the secluded white-sand beaches and laidback geniality make this an escapist’s paradise.

The British Virgin Islands embrace 60-odd islands, some no more than spits of rock jutting out of the sea. Only four islands are of any significant size: Virgin Gorda, Tortola, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke. The smaller islands and cays have colorful names, such as Fallen Jerusalem. Norman Island is said to have been the prototype for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island.” On Deadman’s Bay, Blackbeard reputedly marooned 15 pirates and a bottle of rum.

These craggy and remote volcanic islands are just 15 minutes by air or 45 minutes by ferry from St. Thomas. Even though they are part of the same archipelago, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands have their differences. Where St. Thomas can sometimes seem like Hustle City, deep into mega-resort tourism, it’s still a bit sleepy over in the B.V.I. Here the pace is much slower and development is less frenetic. Even the capital, Tortola, seems to exist in a bit of a time capsule.

 

8 Planning Your Trip to the Virgin Islands

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PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO THE VIRGIN ISLANDS

A little preparation is essential before you start your journey to the Virgin Islands, especially if you plan on making island-hopping a big part of your itinerary. This chapter tackles the how-tos of a trip to the Virgin Islands, including everything from finding the best airfare to deciding when to go to choosing the best tour or excursion. For on-the-ground resources, head straight to “Fast Facts,” beginning on p. 201.

GETTING THERE

For American citizens, visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands is relatively easy and hassle-free: Because it’s part of the U.S. territory, you won’t even need a passport to enter the country on arrival. American citizens do need a passport to enter the British Virgin Islands, however. For complete information on passports and visas, go to “Fast Facts,” later in this chapter.

By Plane

A number of major airlines have regularly scheduled nonstop air service from cities all over North America into St. Thomas—the major international gateway to the Virgins. But most flights include stopovers in Miami or San Juan. Currently, there are no direct flights from North America or Europe to any of the British Virgin Islands. Anyone planning to visit the B.V.I. will likely have to fly into St. Thomas, San Juan (Puerto Rico), or Miami and make a connection by ferry or air in lieu of a direct flight (there are also connections through St. Kitts and Antigua). Those traveling from overseas will also most likely make a connection in St. Thomas, St. Croix, or San Juan after first connecting in the mainland U.S.

 

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