Last Updated: 8/17/23 | August 17th, 2023
Two of the most-visited destinations in the Caribbean, the US and British Virgin Islands were what I expected them to be: white sand beaches, excellent diving and snorkeling, turquoise crystal-clear water, scenic hiking, lots of boating opportunities, and heavily poured rum drinks.
I spent a month traveling the islands by boat. From festivals to diving to strenuous hiking trails to hidden tide pools, each of the islands in the area has plenty to offer to keep you busy if a full day at the beach isn’t your thing. There is a fascinating number of things to do on the islands — life here is not all hammocks and piña coladas.
Here’s my list of favorite things to see and do on the islands:
1. Take a trip to Buck Island
The only marine national park in the United States, Buck Island is a half-day trip from St. Croix (though full-day trips that come with food and booze are also available). While the marine park and coral are slightly dead after years of overfishing and coral bleaching, there’s a fabulous beach on the island that couldn’t be more quintessentially Caribbean: empty, wide, and ringed with palm trees. The half-day trip is the greatest value and one of the best things to do on St. Croix.
Recommended Buck Island tour companies:
- Big Beard’s Adventure Tours ($85 for half day/$120 for full day)
- Caribbean Sea Adventures ($85 for half day)
2. Relax in Jack Bay and Isaac Bay
Located on the easternmost point of the United States, these bays are two empty beaches on St. Croix. Difficult to access, after a steep hike down a very overgrown trail, you’ll come upon Isaac Bay (also home to nesting turtles), where you’ll be able to enjoy a thin slice of white sand, blue water, and snorkeling right from the shore. Jack Bay is connected by a poorly signed trail at the end of Isaac’s. The beaches aren’t maintained, but, while not the prettiest, they are one of the few spots on the island you can have to yourself. Bring your own water and food as there are no facilities in either bay.
3. Chill out at Cane Bay
This is my favorite bay on St. Croix, featuring a beautiful beach, a delicious restaurant (Eat @ Cane Bay), and snorkeling within swimming distance of the shore. Though the beach isn’t very wide and it’s located right near a road, the chilled-out atmosphere of the area, good snorkeling (there’s a steep dropoff out from shore, creating a lot of fish-viewing opportunities), and few crowds make it a place worth spending the day (and early evening when the restaurant has happy hour). Cane Bay is located on the northside of St. Croix.
4. Explore Jost Van Dyke
The party island of the British Virgin Islands, Jost sees a lot of day trippers from St. John and yachties coming into the harbor and making a beeline for the Soggy Dollar Bar to drink Painkillers (rum, pineapple and orange juice, and fresh nutmeg), the bar’s famous drink and one that everyone on the Virgin Islands drinks (the best one I had was at Rudy’s on Jost; Soggy Dollar is overrated).
White Bay is where all the action is, but I loved it early in the morning or late at night when all the day trippers were gone and the extensive white sand beach was deserted.
5. Explore The Baths
At first, I couldn’t figure out why everyone loves this spot on Virgin Gorda. The beach was tiny, the water rough, and the crowds plentiful. Then I followed the sign to the caves, and it became clear why this is the most-visited spot in the Virgin Islands. After crawling through a tiny opening, you are surrounded by gigantic granite boulders nestled on each other with streams of water flowing all around them. It’s beautiful. There are nooks and crannies to explore everywhere.
After wading through water and climbing over rocks, you find yourself in tide pools that collect between the boulders on your way to Dead Man’s Beach. It costs $3 USD to enter.
6. Enjoy paradise on Anegada
Looking to get away from the crowds? Anegada in the BVIs is a coral atoll with a few hundred people living on it. Few ferries go to the island (only three per week), and most people who get up here tend to come via their own boats. This keeps the crowds down. You can go hours without seeing anyone on the beaches.
The island is ringed by a reef, making it perfect for snorkeling right from the shore (you can see a lot of rays here too!). It’s famous for its lobster, and each restaurant has its own signature dish (Neptune’s Treasure and Potters by the Sea were my favorites). If you come in November, be sure to catch the lobster festival that occurs the last weekend of the month. It’s lobster heaven.
7. Enjoy the food and music of Redhook
This port town on St. Thomas has some of the better restaurants and bars on the island. It gets its name from all the red tiled roofs in the area. You’ll find lively music, a delicious beer and burger bar called Tap and Still, and energetic clubs. Spend some time walking the waterfront to take it all in. It’s not a big place, but there’s a lot going on.
If you’re on the island and looking to have a night out, this is the place to be. You can also get ferry service to/from Cruz Bay on St. John and to/from the British Virgin Islands.
8. Party on St. John
Want fun? $1 happy hour specials? Amazing drinks? St. John is for you. With only 2,000 people living on the island (it’s the smallest of the three main US Virgin Islands), it has a small-town feel, but it heaves with tourists who want to escape the stuffy and expensive prices of St. Thomas. Christopher Colombus actually passed here in 1493 but decided not to stop. Europeans settled the island in the 17th century, and over the centuries it evolved into the tourist hub that it is today.
Since the main town of Cruz Bay is so small, bar hopping is really easy, and most bars feature live bands.
9. Visit Cinnamon Bay
This bay on St. John is home to the only campground on the USVIs. It’s a wide bay that stays pretty empty and calm, making it one of my favorite beaches on the island. It’s the kind of tropical beauty you’d expect to find in the Caribbean. Definitely visit here. I’d recommend spending a night here if you can so you can get the beach to yourself when the day trippers leave.
It’s part of the Virgin Islands National Park, and there’s a campground and small resort here (no backcountry camping is allowed). If you want to stretch your legs, head out on the Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail or the Cinnamon Bay Trail. Keep your eyes peeled for ruins; some old Dutch buildings can be found here (including an old sugar mill).
10. Hike the Reef Bay Trail
Cutting through St. John, this trail begins in the center of the island and takes you through the forest featuring old sugar plantations, stone ruins, ancient petroglyphs (from the Taino people, an indigenous group that lived here for centuries), and a deserted sugar factory by the water. It’s beautiful, easy, and the beach at the end is a perfect place for a dip (you’re going to work up a sweat!). Combine it with Cinnamon Trail that begins at Cinnamon Bay on the top of the island, and you can cut across the entire width of the island in about four hours.
11. Get away from the crowd at Brewer’s Bay
Located near the airport on St. Thomas, this beach is near the USVI university and a locals-only beach — for the sole reason tourists just don’t seem to ever make it here. It’s quiet, with white sand and scenic palm trees. You’ll see local families BBQing, people exercising their dogs, and planes coming to and going from the airport. It gets a bit busier on the weekends but still doesn’t see the kind of crowds that other beaches do.
12. Wander the empty Salt Island
This tiny, deserted, out-of-the-way island is filled with once-important salt ponds. The harvesting of salt was an annual tradition, going back to Queen Victoria. The residents of the island would gather the harvest and then send one pound to the Queen in tribute (and they still do; a family owns the island and pays for it with salt each year). These days, only a handful of people live here (there haven’t been more than a few people living here since the 1980s).
There’s snorkeling around the island if you bring your own gear, and you can take a dinghy to visit the deserted town near the salt pools. You’ll need to get here with your own boat; there are no ferries.
13. Dive/snorkel the RMS Rhone
Considered one of the most impressive dive and snorkel sites in the world, the RMS Rhone was a mail ship that crashed in the nearby reef. The ship was 310 feet long (94 meters) and sunk in a hurricane in 1867 (just two years after it launched), killing over 120 people as it went down. Today, it’s its own artificial reef, home to thousands of different fish and coral. It’s a must for every diver. Most dive trips leave from Tortola. You’ll be able to enter the wreck too.
14. Drink at Willy T’s
Located off Norman Island, this old boat turned floating bar is where everyone goes wild in the British Virgin Islands. I’ve seen old ladies doing body shots here, while young guys chug beer and jump off the boat naked. It’s always a wild day on Willy T’s. But if the water is calm on weekends, the place gets very busy as locals take boats over for some Sunday Funday. There is no ferry service to this party barge. You’ll either need your own boat or pay to go with the Dolphin Water Taxi.
15. Hob nob on Necker Island
Famously home to Sir Richard Branson, you can stay on this island for a cool $50,000 a night. Don’t have that much money? No problem. You can take a day trip with Gumption on the Sea It Clear Glass Bottom Boat Tour. Tours leave from several locations on the northern Virgin Gorda (including Gun Creek, Bitter End Yacht Club, Leverick Bay, Fat Virgin, and Saba Rock) and feature fish spotting and a walk around the island. Branson has been known to say hello.
16. Sail around the islands!
It may be expensive, but you can’t visit these islands and not sail around them. It would be a sin. Whether for one day or multiple days, be sure to jet around the islands. It’s the only way to see the more remote islands that ferries don’t visit, get away from the crowds, and discover your own hidden snorkeling spots. Here’s how you can sail around the islands on the cheap (or for free)!
When I visited the islands, I imagined myself wasting away the days on beaches and reading and writing at night. It turned out there was simply too much to do on this area to “waste a day.” No matter what island you end up on, there will be dozens of options to choose from. This list of amazing things to do in the Virgin Islands can help guide you, but don’t think for a second that these islands are boring. Even non–beach bums will fill their days.
Book Your Trip to the Virgin Islands: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on the Virgin Islands?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on the British Virgin Islands for even more planning tips!