There's no rule that says you have to confine yourself to a beach chair within arm's length of the bar while visiting the Virgin Islands (though there's no rule against it, either). You will have endless opportunities to sit by the surf sipping rum drinks, but remember that these islands offer more than just a coastline. Coral reefs and stunning beaches provide breathtaking backdrops for a variety of watersports, from snorkeling to sea kayaking and sailing, and there's also plenty of golf, tennis, hiking, and even horseback riding. This section presents an overview of the outdoor activities on the Virgin Islands.
It is possible to rent bikes on some of the islands, and bike riding can be a wonderful way to explore the islands. Water Island Adventures (tel. 340/775-5770; www.waterislandadventures.com) offers guided bike tours on Water Island, off of St. Thomas. Tours depart from St. Thomas, where you'll take a ferry to Water Island -- from there the biking tour begins. On St. Croix, contact Freedom City Cycles (tel. 340/227-2433; www.freedomcitycycles.com), which, in addition to offering bike rentals, can arrange guided bike tours of the island. A 2- to 3-hour mountain biking tour begins at sea level and climbs through the rain forest on both paved and unpaved roads, costing $50 per person.
The best campsites in the Virgin Islands are on St. John, at Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay (the Cinnamon Bay campground is considered one of the finest campgrounds in the Caribbean). Both facilities are open year-round and are so popular that reservations need to be made far in advance during the winter months. In the British Virgin Islands, the best campsite is Tortola's Brewers Bay Campground, which rents tents and basic equipment and is open year-round.
In the past 25 years or so, more than 20 sportsfishing world records have been set in the Virgin Islands, mostly for the mega blue marlin. Other abundant fish in these waters are bonito, tuna, wahoo, sailfish, and skipjack. Sport-fishing charters, led by experienced local captains, abound in the islands; both half-day and full-day trips are available. But you needn't go out to sea to fish. On St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, the U.S. government publishes lists of legal shoreline fishing spots (contact local tourist offices for more information). Closer inshore, you'll find kingfish, mackerel, bonefish, tarpon, amberjack, grouper, and snapper.
On St. Thomas, many people line-fish from the rocky shore along Mandahl Beach, which is also a popular spot for family picnics. The shore here is not the best place for swimming, because the seafloor drops off dramatically and the surf tends to be rough. On St. John, the waters in Virgin Islands National Park are open to fishermen with hand-held rods. No fishing license is required for shoreline fishing, and government pamphlets available at tourist offices list some 100 good spots. Call tel. 340/774-8784 for more information.
The golfing hub of the Virgin Islands is the challenging Carambola Golf & Country Club (tel. 340/778-5638; www.golfcarambola.com) in St. Croix. Also on St. Croix is the excellent course at the Buccaneer (tel. 340/712-2100), just outside Christiansted. The highlight on St. Thomas is the Mahogany Run (tel. 800/253-7103 or 340/777-6006; www.mahoganyrungolf.com). There aren't any courses on St. John or the British Virgin Islands.
The best islands for hiking are Tortola and St. John. In Tortola, the best hiking is through Sage Mountain National Park, spread across 37 hectares (91 acres) of luxuriant flora and fauna. On St. John, the most intriguing hike is the Annaberg Historic Trail, which takes you by former plantation sites. Most of St. John is itself a National Park, so there are dozens of opportunities for hiking. St. Croix also has good hiking in its "Rain Forest" area. Buck Island, off the coast of St. Croix, is beloved by snorkelers and scuba divers but also fascinating to hike. You can easily explore the island in a day, as it is only half a mile wide and a mile long. While hiking in the Virgin Islands, you'll encounter many birds and flowers -- but no poisonous snakes. Be sure to look for the trumpet-shaped Ginger Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands' official flower.
To reach some of the most remote but scenic places on St. Croix, take a hiking trip with Ay Ay Eco Tours & Hikes (tel. 340/772-4079), which offers a variety of hiking trips ranging from 3 hour-tours to half-day tours. Tours vary based on the hikers' ability and stamina. A half-day tour, lasting about 4 to 5 hours, may take hikers to explore northeast St. Croix, with its forest glades, secluded coastline, and panoramic vistas; this tour costs $80 per person.
Equestrians should head for St. Croix. Paul and Jill's Equestrian Stables (tel. 340/772-2880; www.paulandjills.com), at Sprat Hall Plantation, are the best stables not only in the Virgin Islands but also in all the Caribbean. The outfit is known for the quality of both its horses and its riding trails. Neophytes and experts are welcome.
Sailing & Yachting
The Virgin Islands are a sailor's paradise, offering crystal-clear turquoise waters, secluded coves and inlets, and protected harbors for anchoring.
Most visitors, however, are content with day sails, which are easy to organize, especially at the harbors in St. Thomas, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda. Regardless of where you decide to cruise, you really shouldn't leave the islands without spending at least 1 day on the water, even if you have to load up on Dramamine or snap on your acupressure wristbands before you go.
The most popular cruising area around the Virgin Islands is the deep and incredibly scenic Sir Francis Drake Channel, which runs from St. John to Virgin Gorda's North Sound. The channel is surrounded by mountainous islands, and boasts crisp breezes year-round. In heavy weather, the network of tiny islands shelters yachties from the brute force of the open sea. The waters surrounding St. Croix to the south are also appealing, especially near Buck Island.
Outside the channel, the Virgin Islands archipelago contains reefy areas that separate many of the islands from their neighbors. To navigate these areas, you need to use a depth chart (available from charter companies or any marine supply outlet) and have some local knowledge. Tip: Locals and temporarily shore-bound sailors willingly offer free advice, often enough to last a couple of drinks, at almost any dockside watering hole.
For more than a quarter of a century, The Yachtsman's Guide to the Virgin Islands has been the classic cruising guide to this area (it's updated periodically). The detailed, 240-page text is supplemented by 22 sketch charts, more than 100 photographs and illustrations, and numerous landfall sketches showing harbors, channels, landmarks, and such. Subjects covered include piloting, anchoring, communication, weather, fishing, and more. The guide also covers the eastern end of Puerto Rico, Vieques, and Culebra. Copies are available at major marine outlets, bookstores, and direct from Yachtman's Guide (tel. 877/923-9653; www.yachtsmansguide.com).
Except for Anegada, which is a low-lying atoll of coral limestone and sandstone, all the Virgin Islands are high and easily spotted. The water here is very clear. The shortest distance between St. Thomas and St. Croix is 35 nautical miles; from St. John to St. Croix, 35 nautical miles; from St. Thomas to St. John, 2 nautical miles; from Tortola to St. Thomas, 10 nautical miles; from Virgin Gorda to Anegada, 13 nautical miles; and from St. John to Anegada, 30 nautical miles. Virgin Gorda to St. Croix is about the longest run, at 45 nautical miles. (Specific distances between the islands can be misleading, though, because often you may need to take roundabout routes from one point to another.)
If you don't know how to sail but would like to learn, contact one of the sailing schools on St. Croix. Jones Maritime Sailing School, 1215 King Cross St., Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S.V.I. 00820 (tel. 340/773-4709; www.jonesmaritime.com), has three 24-foot day-sailors and charges $295 per person for a 2-day course, held on Saturdays and Sundays.
Womanship, 137 Conduit St., Annapolis, MD 21401 (tel. 800/342-9295 in the U.S.; www.womanship.com), offers a sailing program for women of all ages and levels of nautical expertise in the British Virgin Islands. Groups consist of a maximum of six students with two female instructors. Participants sleep aboard the boat, meals included. Courses normally last a week. The cost is $2,065 to $2,795 from January to May and $1,995 to $2,695 from October to December.
The British Virgin Islands are also the headquarters of the Offshore Sailing School, Prospect Reef Resort, Road Town (tel. 284/494-5119). This school offers sailing instruction year-round. For information before you go, write or call Offshore Sailing School, 16731 McGregor Blvd., Ft. Myers, FL 33908 (tel. 888/454-7015 or 239/454-1700; www.offshore-sailing.com).
Chartering Your Own Boat -- There may be no better way to experience the Virgin Islands than on the deck of your own yacht. Impossible? Not really. No one said you had to own the yacht.
Experienced sailors and navigators with a sea-wise crew might want to rent a bareboat charter -- a fully equipped boat with no captain or crew. You'll have to prove that you can handle the boat before you're allowed to set sail; even then, you may want to take along an experienced local sailor who's familiar with the sometimes tricky waters. If you're not an expert sailor but you still yearn to hit the high seas, consider a fully crewed charter, with a crew that includes a captain and cook. The cost of a crewed boat is obviously more than that of a bareboat, and varies according to crew size and experience.
Four to six people (and sometimes more) charter yachts measuring from 50 to 100 feet. Most are rented on a weekly basis and come with a fully stocked kitchen (or a barbecue) and bar, fishing gear, and watersports equipment. More and more bareboaters are saving money on charters by buying their own provisions, rather than relying on the charter company.
The best outfitter in the Virgin Islands is the Moorings, P.O. Box 139, Wickham's Cay, Road Town, Tortola, B.V.I. (tel. 888/952-8420; www.moorings.com), which offers both bareboat and fully crewed charters equipped with a barbecue, snorkeling gear, a dinghy, and linens. The company even supplies windsurfing equipment for free with crewed boats (and for an extra cost with bareboats). The experienced staff of mechanics, electricians, riggers, and cleaners is extremely helpful, especially if you're going out on your own. They'll give you a thorough briefing about Virgin Islands waters and anchorages. Seven-night, six-person combined hotel-and-crewed-yacht packages run $1,750 to $3,500 per person.
Arawak Expeditions, Cruz Bay, St. John (tel. 800/238-8687 or 340/693-8312 in the U.S.; www.arawakexp.com), is the only outfitter in the Virgin Islands offering multiple-day sea-kayaking/island-camping excursions, although numerous outfitters and hotels throughout the chain provide kayaks for day trips. The vessels with Arawak Expeditions are in two-person fiberglass kayaks, complete with foot-controlled rudders. The outfit provides all the kayaking gear, healthy meals, camping equipment, and experienced guides. The cost of a full-day trip is $110, half-day, $65; you can also book longer expeditions, such as a 5-day excursion costing $1,195 per person or a 7-day trip going for $2,495 per person.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
On St. Croix, the best site for both is Buck Island, easily accessible by day sails from the harbor in Christiansted. St. Croix is also known for its dramatic "drop-offs," including the famous Puerto Rico Trench.
On St. Thomas, all major hotels rent fins and masks for snorkelers, and most day-sail charters have equipment on board. Many outfitters, like the St. Thomas Diving Club (tel. 340/776-2381; www.stthomasdivingclub.com), also feature scuba programs.
As for the British Virgin Islands, the best snorkeling is around the Baths, Virgin Gorda's major attraction. Anegada Reef, which lies off Anegada Island, has been a "burial ground" for ships for centuries; an estimated 300 wrecks, including many pirate ships, have perished here. The wreckage of the HMS Rhone, near the westerly tip of Salt Island, is the most celebrated dive spot in the B.V.I. This ship went under in 1867 in one of the most disastrous hurricanes ever to hit the Virgin Islands.
Diving cruises are packaged by Oceanic Society Expeditions, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA 94123 (tel. 800/326-7491 or 415/441-1106 in San Francisco; www.oceanicsociety.org), which also offers whale-watching and some research-oriented trips. Caradonna Dive Adventures (tel. 800/330-6611; www.caradonna.com) offers all sorts of diving packages.
Tennis is becoming a major sport in the Virgin Islands. Most courts are all-weather or Laykold. Because of intense midday heat, many courts are lit for night games. Pro shops, complete with teaching pros, are available at the major tennis resorts, especially on St. Croix and St. Thomas.
St. Thomas has six public (and free) tennis courts that operate on a first-come, first-served basis. If the courts at the major hotels aren't booked by resident guests, you can usually play there for a minimal fee as long as you call a day in advance. Both Bolongo Bay and Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort have four courts.
The best tennis facilities in the Virgin Islands are on St. Croix at the Buccaneer, which has eight meticulously maintained courts and a state-of-the-art pro shop. The island also has seven public courts, but they're rather rough around the edges.
On Tortola, there are six courts at Prospect Reef; they're often open to nonguests for a fee. If you're a serious tennis buff and are planning to stay on Virgin Gorda, consider Little Dix Bay, which has seven beautiful courts reserved for guests only.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.