Virgin Islands Travel Tips
The blog posts thusfar on my recent trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands have been more about the snorkel-centric beaches like Cinnamon Bay, Waterlemon Cay, and a few additional hot spots around the island. With that covered, I thought I'd put together a comprehensive post about all the other fun stuff I learned during my time there. Here are a few of my personal favorite highlights as well as some Virgin Islands travel tips that should help you get a glimpse of what to expect when you plan your vacation there!
Unless you like to live dangerously, planning to walk extensively through the streets of St. Thomas or St. John is a big mistake. The roads are narrow and the thick vegetation grows right to the asphalt, limiting drivers’ already narrow visibility. You can walk through main town areas like Cruz Bay on St. John or Red Hook on St. Thomas, but if you think you’ll be able to take a leisurely walk from town to the beach, think again. Grab a taxi instead.
If you’re planning on traveling from St. Thomas to St. John often, you’ll quickly become acquainted with the ferry. This ocean shuttle leaves about every hour on the hour (depending on the day of the week) and takes about 15 minutes on the water. You’ll buy a round trip ticket that consists of two separate stubs, one of which you’ll have to keep in a safe place so you can get back the other way without having to buy a replacement. The ferries usually start running at 6:30 in the morning and stop around 11 PM, so make sure you plan according so you’re not stuck on an island overnight without accommodations. If you’re heading from Red Hook on St. Thomas to Cruz Bay on St. John, grab one of the free maps in the lobby. It’ll make finding your way around the tiny island a lot easier, particularly if you’re driving yourself around via Jeep.
The Virgin Islands aren’t a particularly buggy place despite the humidity that seems to breed insects the size of Buicks here in the States. There were a couple times I remember seeing mosquitoes but nothing that got in my face or bothered me. At some point on this trip, however, I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I noticed being a little itchy on the way to the airport to leave VI and by the time I was on the plane, I must’ve looked like an addict in detox by the amount of scratching I was doing. My back. My legs. My arms. Walking proved to be obnoxious because the leg of my jeans would irritate a sedentary bite. With that in mind, make sure you pack the bug spray and apply it along with sun screen so you have a much more pleasant flight home.
The Virgin Islands are postcard-worthy gorgeous all year long, hitting a moderately rainy season during our fall months (September, October, November). The weather is perpetually a summer-like 80 degrees, peaking at about 90 in the summer. The humidity is noticeable but pleasant. We dealt with a bit of rain during our visit as you’re likely to any time you're somewhere tropical. The rain is warm and storms come and go quickly so a passing burst isn’t likely to ruin your plans for the day. If you get a significant downpour, duck into your car or a curbside restaurant for some cover and it’ll be gone before you know it.
If you're planning to snorkel, the rain really isn't a problem unless it's coming down so hard that it affects visibility. I snorkeled at several locations with clouds overhead and I didn't feel like it affected my visibility in the water at all.
Traveling around the Virgin Islands via taxi is an easy and reliable way to get around the island. If you’re at a busy location like the ferry hub or airport on St. Thomas, these 12 passenger vans are ubiquitous. There’s often a coordinator at these kinds of places who will ask you where you're going and will direct you to a van that is headed in that direction. The taxi will likely be taking a few other couples the same way and will drop passengers off along the way. Despite the stops, the taxis are very quick and you don't ever feel inconvenienced by them.
A note on taxi etiquette in the Virgin Islands: wait for your driver to open and close your door. There were several times when we arrived at our desired location and would open our own door to jump out, much to our driver’s chagrin. For safety reasons (I’m assuming), just wait and your door will be opened for you. Also, when you’re entering the taxi, they want the woman entering first. Since I was traveling with my boss and not my significant other, this was a rule we had trouble remembering. We were scolded on more than one occasion.
You can also take an open air taxi which are popular for vacationers going around town. These are a little less fun during inclement weather but are a good way to observe the beautiful islands as you go from location to location.
If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of time on St. John, renting a Jeep is a good idea---these all-terrain vehicles are typically your only options. There are plenty of places near Cruz Bay where you can get one, but you usually have to book it in advance and there's often a two day rental minimum.
Once you get your Jeep, don’t forget that they drive on the opposite side of the road there, even though the steering wheel is on the US standard side. It can seem against all instincts to drive on the left and when there isn’t traffic around you and there’s a chance you might forget (like we did, on more than one occasion at the end of a particularly long day). Just expect to be honked at a few times. Consider it a firm, yet friendly reminder.
A few notes on keeping your Jeep clean when you’re visiting beaches: consider having a few extra dry towels to leave on the seat. If you’re getting in and out of the water like I was, you’re likely to be more than a little damp and the rental places are strict on wanting the seats dry upon the vehicle’s return. The same goes for sand. Do what you can to rinse your feet off after leaving the beach (some of the more popular beaches have showers or foot sprays). You don’t want to have to pay an extra cleaning fee upon your return. The rental company will expect you to return your Jeep with at least a half tank of gas so make sure you ask where the nearest petrol station is so you can fill up and return your car before the 6:00 deadline.
You’re likely to encounter a little bit of wildlife if you’re driving around the islands, particularly the more rural portions of St. John. You’ll need to be careful when driving around corners because you never know when you’re going to come upon a local herd of donkeys or goats, which were brought over and domesticated when Christopher Columbus settled the West Indies. They’re mostly wild now and will often crowd the roads and will pass on their own time.
Keep an eye out for wild deer on the island as well as mongoose and iguana that run rampant on St. John.
Favorite place to snorkel:
Trunk Bay. We were there early, beating out the typical overcrowding, and the beach and water were clear and warm. It was close to Cruz Bay and there was so much neat marine life to observe off the shore and around the underwater snorkeling trail. I know a lot of seasoned island-goers suggest skipping Trunk Bay because of the popularity but I can't say I found a spot I liked better. To be fair, there’s not a bad beach on the island of St. John. Hawksnest Bay was probably my second favorite.
Favorite place to eat:
The best place I ate on St. John was the famous Miss Lucy’s. In my experience, the further the restaurants are away from Cruz Bay, the better. Ms. Lucy’s has a very quirky island feel, the staff is courteous, and they even have a few cats that walk around the grounds (which the crazy cat lady in me just loves). Above all, the food is really, really delicious and fresh. I had a creamy conch chowder to start and the fried grouper with veggies for my main course. I even shared some of my fish with the orange tabby under my feet. The view ain't bad, either.
On St. Thomas, Buddha Sushi just outside of Red Hook was excellent. Ask the servers what fish they have in that’s fresh and order accordingly. My favorite was the “Cricket.” I’m hungry just thinking about it.
Honorable mention—Pesce’s in Red Hook, St. Thomas.
One of the significant highlights of my trip was chatting with a local who worked for the Jeep rental company. While we were chit-chatting over paperwork, he found out we were from Utah, made a comment about the Jazz, and the rest was history. We talked for a solid 15 minutes about basketball and I immediately felt bonded to this man I'd just met. It was one of those moments that makes the world feel smaller--even though we live worlds away, we had this connection. It was very indicative of the friendliness of the people of the Virgin Islands and put me right at ease on the trip.
I hope these Virgin Islands travel tips will help you when you plan your next trip to St. Thomas or St. John. It's a wonderful place full of wonderful people and I hope to return to visit those white sand beaches again soon!