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.
With its dizzying mountain topography and scalloped coastline of shimmering blue coves and powdery beaches, the B.V.I. remains a pristine retreat for yachties and visitors who want to a true escape from the scrum of modern civilization. With steady tradewinds and scores of protected deep-water harbors, the B.V.I. offer some of the best sailing grounds in the Caribbean. Many boaters base themselves on Tortola, the largest island in the B.V.I. and its capital—it’s a relaxed spot with something for everyone. Beautiful and sparsely populated Virgin Gorda is the place to go for luxury stays in secluded resorts. Dotted about the main islands are private island retreats and uninhabited islands perfect for castaway day-tripping.
For beach lovers, the Virgin Islands contain some of the most celebrated white-sand beaches in the West Indies, including Magens Bay on St. Thomas, Trunk Bay on St. John, and Cane Garden Bay on Tortola. Swimming and snorkeling await you at every cove—and in the vibrant coral reef ringing Buck Island, St. Croix has America’s only underwater national monument. Throughout the island archipelago are also miles of idyllic hiking trails, tracing the sinous curves of these scenic volcanic wonders.