The islands previewed below are chock-full of quality shopping, hotels, restaurants, attractions, and nightlife, and are the most frequently visited in the V.I. A few words about islands that aren't mentioned below: For those who want to avoid the masses, the British Virgin Islands have a number of escapist-friendly islands such as Peter Island, Mosquito Island, and Guana Island. These are virtually private hideaways, often with expensive resorts (which are the main reason for going there in the first place). Two remote British Virgin Islands with more democratically priced hotels are Anegada and Jost Van Dyke. Even if you're staying at a resort on Virgin Gorda or Tortola, you might want to join a boat excursion to visit some of the lesser-known islands as part of a sightseeing excursion (with time devoted to R & R on a nearly deserted beach, of course).
The most developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas resembles a small city at times. There are peaceful retreats here, but you must seek them out. The harbor at Charlotte Amalie, the capital, is one of the largest cruise-ship magnets in the Caribbean. Many locals try to avoid Charlotte Amalie when the greatest concentration of vessels is in port (usually Dec-Apr). Charlotte Amalie offers the widest selection of duty-free shopping in the Caribbean. However, you must browse carefully through the labyrinth of bazaars to find the real bargains.
St. Thomas, like most of the Virgin Islands, gives you plenty of opportunity to get outside and get active, although many visitors come here simply to sit, sun, and maybe go for a swim. Magens Bay Beach, with its tranquil surf and sugar-white sand, is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but it is likely to be packed, especially on heavy cruise-ship days. More-secluded beaches include Secret Harbour and Sapphire Beach in East End.
St. Thomas has only one golf course, Mahogany Run, but it's a real gem. The three trickiest holes (13, 14, and 15) are known throughout the golfing world as the "Devil's Triangle."
Yachts and boats anchor at Ramada Yacht Haven Marina in Charlotte Amalie and at Red Hook Marina on the island's somewhat isolated eastern tip, though the serious yachting crowd gathers at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Sportsfishers angle from the American Yacht Harbor at Red Hook. The island also attracts snorkelers and scuba divers -- there are many outfitters offering equipment, excursions, and instruction. Kayaking and parasailing also draw beach bums away from the water's edge.
St. Thomas has the most eclectic and sophisticated restaurant scene in the Virgin Islands. Emphasis is on French and Continental fare, but the wide selection of restaurants also includes options from Mexican, West Indian, and Italian to Asian and American. St. Thomas pays more for its imported (usually European) chefs and secures the freshest of ingredients from mainland or Puerto Rican markets.
There's also a wide variety of accommodations on St. Thomas, from the small, historic Hotel 1829 in Charlotte Amalie, to more modern beachfront complexes in the East End, including the manicured Elysian Beach Resort. Apartment and villa rentals abound, and you can also find a handful of old-fashioned B&B-style guesthouses.
Our favorite of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John has only two deluxe hotels, but you'll find several charming inns and plenty of campgrounds. The island's primary attraction is the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, which covers more than half the island. Guided walks and safari bus tours are available to help you navigate the park, which is full of pristine beaches, secret coves, flowering trees, and ghostly remains of sugar-cane plantations. An extensive network of trails invites hiking. A third of the park is underwater. Trunk Bay, which also boasts the island's finest beach, has an amazing underwater snorkeling trail. As you can imagine, scuba diving is another major attraction on St. John.
St. John has a handful of posh restaurants, as well as a number of colorful, West Indian eateries. Many residents and long-term visitors like to bring ingredients over on the ferry from St. Thomas, where prices are lower and the selection is broader. Nightlife isn't a major attraction here; it usually consists of sipping rum drinks in a bar in Cruz Bay, and maybe listening to a local calypso band. After spending a day outdoors, most visitors on St. John are happy to turn in early.
This island is the second-most-visited destination in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Like St. Thomas, St. Croix is highly developed. Cruise-ship passengers continue to flood Frederiksted and the capital, Christiansted, looking for duty-free goods and a handful of white sand to take home in a plastic bag. St. Croix is also the only island that has a casino. Although parts of the island resemble American suburbia, some of St. Croix's true West Indian-style buildings have been preserved, along with many of its rich cultural traditions.
One of the best reasons to take a trip to St. Croix, even if only for a day, is to visit Buck Island National Park, just 1 1/2 miles off St. Croix's northeast coast. The park's offshore reef attracts snorkelers and divers from around the world. Signs posted along the ocean floor guide you through a forest of staghorn coral swarming with flamboyant fish.
St. Croix is the premier golfing destination in the Virgin Islands, mainly because it boasts Carambola, the archipelago's most challenging 18-hole course. St. Croix is also a tennis mecca of sorts: The Buccaneer Hotel has some of the best courts in the Virgin Islands and hosts several annual tournaments. Other sports for active vacationers include horseback riding, parasailing, sportsfishing, and water-skiing.
The restaurants on St. Croix are generally not as good as those on St. Thomas, although they claim to be. You will find plenty of small, local eateries serving up dishes and snacks ranging from West Indian curries to French croissants. Life after dark is mostly confined to a handful of bars in Christiansted.
As for accommodations, St. Croix has only a few real luxury hotels, but there are a lot of small, attractive inns. And, as on St. Thomas, it's easy to find villas and condos for rent at reasonable weekly rates.
Tortola is the hub of the British Virgin Islands, but not always the best place for visitors, especially if you're planning to spend more than a couple of days here; we think Virgin Gorda has better hotels and restaurants. Road Town, the capital, with its minor shopping, routine restaurants, and uninspired architecture, requires a couple of hours at the most. Once you leave Road Town, however, you'll find Tortola more alluring. The island's best and most unspoiled beaches, including Smuggler's Cove (with its collection of snorkeling reefs), lie at the island's western tip. Tortola's premier beach is Cane Garden Bay, a 2.4km (1 1/2-mile) stretch of white sand. Because of the gentle surf, it's one of the safest places for families with small children. For hikers on Tortola, exploring Sage Mountain National Park, where trails lead to a 543m (1,781-ft.) peak that offers panoramic views, is a definite highlight. The park is rich in flora and fauna, from mamey trees to mountain doves.
Although many visitors to the Caribbean look forward to fishing, hiking, horseback riding, snorkeling, and surfing, what makes Tortola exceptional is boating. It is the boating center of the British Virgin Islands, which are among the most cherished sailing territories on the planet. The island offers some 100 charter yachts and 300 bareboats, and its marina and shore facilities are the most up-to-date and extensive in the Caribbean Basin.
The crystal-clear waters compensate for the island's lackluster bars and restaurants. You can count on simple and straightforward food here; we suggest any locally caught fish grilled with perhaps a little lime butter.
Our favorite British Virgin Island is Virgin Gorda, the third-largest member of the archipelago, with a permanent population of about 1,400 lucky souls. Many visitors come over just for a day to check out the Baths, an astounding collection of gigantic rocks, boulders, and tide pools on the southern tip. Crafted by volcanic pressures millions of years ago, the boulders have eroded into shapes reminiscent of a Henry Moore sculpture. With more than 20 uncrowded beaches, the best known of which are Spring Beach and Trunk Beach, Virgin Gorda is a sun worshiper's dream come true.
Unlike Tortola, Virgin Gorda has some of the finest hotels in the Virgin Islands, including Little Dix Bay and Biras Creek. One caveat: You must be willing to pay a high price for the privilege of staying at one of these regal resorts. There are also more reasonably priced places to stay, such as Virgin Gorda Village. Outside the upscale hotels, restaurants tend to be simple places serving local West Indian cuisine. No one takes nightlife too seriously on Virgin Gorda, so there isn't very much of it.