Soft Adventure Travel in the U.S. Virgin Islands
By Lee Foster
Huge staghorn coral spread its antler-like arms below me. Swaying soft fan coral undulated with each wave pulsation. Blue tang, angelfish, sergeant majors and other tropical species with the most lavish colors swam freely. A large sea turtle meandered through the coral maze. An inquisitive eel popped out to watch my passage. A ghostly ray swept along on a sand avenue between the coral heads.
With a snorkel and fins I was drifting about in meditative bliss, delighted that this reef, Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was so fecund and so protected.
My snorkel drift was part of an effort to evaluate how good the four U.S. Virgin Islands–St. Thomas, Water Island, St. John, and St. Croix–would be for a tropical Caribbean soft-adventure trip.
Besides snorkeling healthy reefs, I wanted to hike pristine trails, swim world-class beaches, bike intriguing terrain, and kayak inviting shoreline.
After each day’s adventure, I sought comfortable lodging and fine dining.
I was apprehensive at the start. My only previous trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands had been aboard a cruise ship stop in St. Thomas. My main memory was of urban bustle rather than outdoor beauty, though I had been teased by a few hours on the adjacent island of St. John, which showed more promise.
However, after a week’s immersion in the outdoors here, I knew I had discovered a natural playground in these three islands that I could confidently recommend.
Moreover, to my surprise, I concluded that the island totally new to me, St. Croix, had the most potential for adventure travel and would be my favorite island for a repeat visit. St. John ran a close second. Even relatively populated St. Thomas displayed a couple of interesting adventure flourishes.
The Virgin Islands, located roughly in the middle of the Caribbean, happen to be U.S. possessions. The U.S. bought them from the Danes in 1917 for $25 million, fearful that Germany would purchase them and establish a western-hemisphere naval base. The locals are U.S. citizens, although they can’t vote. The islands are a U.S. tropical paradise, except when hurricanes hit (Hugo in 1989, Marilyn 1995, Georges 1998, Lenny 1999, Earl 2010).
Here are my best discoveries:
St. Croix: Snorkeling Buck Island Reef National Monument
For a Caribbean coral reef as close to optimum health as exists today, Buck Island off St. Croix is a terrific choice. I boarded a concessionaire’s day excursion boat in the main St. Croix city, Christiansted, for the five-mile ride out to the island. There I snorkeled along a self-guided nature trail, marked with underwater signs, set up by our National Park Service. (I would later snorkel a similar self-guide trail at Trunk Bay on St. John.) The reef at Buck Island was as good as it gets. Later, when I toured by taxi around the perimeter of St. Croix, which is the largest of the three islands, I saw miles of similarly primordial reef.
St. Croix: Hiking from Point Udall to Isaac Bay
Next I longed for a few miles of hiking where no human habitation was apparent. I wanted to gaze at an undisturbed shoreline, with vistas of beaches and surf. I hoped to see hillsides of wild vegetation. For this hike I was fortunate enough to engage the services of a local guide and naturalist. The area he selected for the hike was Point Udall at the eastern tip of St. Croix, walking down from the ridge to Isaac Bay. He knew how to identify the endangered lignum vitae trees and recalled how the local people used legume shrubs in a dozen ways. He identified places on the beach where the three endangered turtles of the region–the leatherback, hawksbill, and green turtles–come ashore on moonlit nights to lay their eggs and perhaps stave off extinction. When I paused to rest during the hike, he kept me from curling up inadvertently under a poisonous manchineel tree. The hike meant so much more because of this lucid interpretation of nature. A guided hike with a naturalist is highly satisfying and easy for any visitor to organize on St. Croix.
St. John: Circumnavigating the Island on a Snorkel Trip
Then I ventured to the island of St. John, the smallest of the three islands. St. John is adjacent to St. Thomas, only a short ferry ride away. St. John is also the greenest of the islands and is often called the Emerald Isle, as is Ireland and a few other similarly lush islands around the world.
St. John is unusual because about 2/3rds of its 19 square miles is a National Park, deeded to the citizenry by Laurence Rockefeller in 1956. Moreover, another 5,650 acres of reef around the island are part of the National Park, providing a level of protection similar to that of Buck Island.
To see St. John in a special way I decided to board the excursion boat Sadie Sea. The plan was to boat for the day all the way around the island, with the captain giving a running commentary on the flora, fauna, and geology. I savored views of the glorious beaches and the steep hills of the island from an on-the-water perspective. Before boarding the boat at Cruz Bay, I stopped at the Park Service information center and picked up a detailed map of the island, so I could follow our progress.
Of the three snorkel stops we made, the most fascinating was at a mangrove forest at Hurricane Hole on Coral Bay. Mangrove trees are salt tolerant and spread their roots along the shoreline, providing a protective habitat that becomes a nursery for many species of fish and shellfish. I saw inch-long baby barracuda already showing territorial ferocity, keeping their siblings a few inches away. Young snapper fish hid in the tangle of mangrove roots, safe from predators. Myriads of small mussels clung to the roots.
St. Croix-St. John: The Great Beaches
West Beach on Buck Island off St. Croix had already stunned me with its white-sugar sands and expansiveness. But Trunk Bay Beach on St. John proved to be the loveliest beach I saw. (Hawksnest Bay Beach, near Trunk Bay, was a close runnerup.) I arrived at Trunk Bay Beach about 9 a.m. to find it nearly deserted. After ambling up and down the beach, I snorkeled the underwater trail that the Park Service has laid out on the coral reef. By 11 a.m. the beach began to fill up with cruise ship patrons from St. Thomas, who find Trunk Bay an appealing day trip. Trunk Bay may rank as the most visited idyllic beach on the planet.
Near St. Thomas: Biking Water Island
Water Island, the smallest and least familiar Virgin Island, near St. Thomas, was the setting for an engaging bicycle trip. The organizer was a company called Water Island Adventures. I took a ferry from St. Thomas to Water Island and then boarded their bicycle van for a ride to the summit of the island, where the 360-degree view was outstanding. Because of its strategic position, Water Island was heavily fortified during World War II. Its interior is a maze of tunnels and bunkers, which are used today as a retreat during hurricanes. We rode our bikes through the tunnels and then snaked our way around the hillsides and down to picturesque Honeymoon Beach. Water Island has almost no traffic on its many small roads and trails, offering a special mountain-bike experience. I was happy to have a quality bike, support vehicle, and the local guides, who were a font of lore about the haunting, fortified immediate past of the island as well as the longer sugar-cane and slave culture under the Danes that characterizes all of these Virgin Islands.
St. Thomas: Kayaking Magens Bay
Kayaking was another mode of adventure I wanted to experience while here. This is sunny, warm-water kayaking, so expect to find open kayaks rather than the enclosed variety used in cold-water venues like my native California.
As the kayak trip provider, I chose an outfitter on St. Thomas called Virgin Island Ecotours. They took me on a trip out to Magens Bay, another lovely beach and bay region. Aided by insight from their naturalist, I enjoyed a paddle up the bay, with stops at a beach and a snorkel stop at a small reef for intensive looks at the natural environment, such as fire coral, the coral that inflicts a painful reminder if touched. The wind picked up for the return paddle, allowing for some refreshing upper-body exertion. After my fascinating snorkel trip among the mangroves at St. John, I wished I had time also for their St. Thomas mangrove kayak trip. I also had seen plenty of kayaking options on St. Croix.
U.S. Virgin Islands Travel Details
For lodging, I chose dependable full-service resorts on each of the three larger islands. The Divi Carina Bay Resort on St. Croix put me at the remote east end of the island, close to the Point Udall hike. The Westin St. John offered an on-the-beach location with pool and all amenities. The Marriott Frenchman’s Reef on St. Thomas occupied a strategic position in the harbor, allowing for a view of the city and the cruise ships coming and going. As I rode around the islands (I suggest taxis or tour operators for all transportation unless you are a good left-side driver), I also became aware of many small B&Bs.
There are only 5,600 hotel rooms on the three larger Virgin Islands, which is less than the largest single hotel in Las Vegas, by comparison. This is part of the problem involved in getting to the Virgin Islands. Airline flights are relatively few and expensive because there aren’t that many potential customers. So, once you’re here, there are few competing tourists, and the adventure travel experience, especially on St. Croix, is of high quality. St. Thomas, during the day, can be crowded with cruise ship passengers. Typically, the ships come in at dawn and leave in the early evening.
When dining, the specialties of the area are reef fish, such as snapper, and the open ocean species, mainly tuna and mahi mahi. Spiny lobster is a delicacy widely available. Tropical fruit, especially mango and papaya, should be indulged in freely. Local Cruzan rum is the drink of choice, mainly in pina coladas and daiquiris. In St. Thomas the dining is most sophisticated, especially at Craig and Sally’s and at Tavern on the Waterfront, where the Austrian proprietor even poured for me his home-made after-dinner liqueur. On St. John the open deck at Ellingtons was charming on a star-filled night. St. Croix also provided some pleasant culinary memories, especially lobster at Duggan’s Reef and snapper at The Galleon,.
Logistics in the Virgin Islands requires some knowledge of the geography. Flights to the U.S. Virgins via American, Virgin Atlantic, and other providers originate usually in Miami, New York, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The flights land at St. Thomas or St. Croix. St. John is adjacent to St. Thomas, so get over there by a ferry. St. Croix is 35 miles from St. Thomas/John, so local Otter seaplanes are the air taxis. Since logistics are somewhat complicated, advance planning is required.
The two bits of advice I’d like to share after my trip are: be sure to engage a competent local provider for adventure outings and watch out for the sun. Local providers are essential for safety, equipment, transportation, and for knowledge of natural history and human culture in these special islands. In other travel regions, I would be more of a do-it-myselfer, but here I benefited from guides. With respect to the sun, at the risk of looking like an alien in this sun-worshipping culture, I covered my body with clothing during my entire visit and used 50-power sunblock on my face. I saw sorry travelers who didn’t heed the sun. A couple of intense hours in this hot topical sunlight can blister skin and ruin a vacation. It can happen, trust me.
The salvation of the natural environment in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean depends on the enlightened self-interest of these island peoples. Only the adventure-travel eco-tourist coming in with dollars to enjoy the resource will persuade islanders not to damage the reefs further. Coral reefs are in an overall state of decline throughout the Caribbean, with some notable exceptions, such as Bonaire.
Adventure travelers to the Virgin Islands benefit from a certain comfort level, due to the political reality that you are in U.S. territory. This means more than just that the language is English and the currency is the U.S. dollar. It means that sanitation levels are high, so you aren’t likely to get sick. Safety is relatively good, compared to some other Caribbean islands I could mention. Adventure tour operators are required legally to have more safeguards and insurance in place, and are generally more competent because of the legal risk if there are lapses.
I look forward to returning at some point for further eco-adventures in the U.S. Virgin Islands. As mentioned, my favorite return island would be St. Croix, partly because a day snorkeling over an unspoiled coral reef is as close to earthly paradise as I’ve seen. St. Croix also has the most intriguing Danish sugar mill heritage of the three larger islands and has set up a Heritage Trail drive around the island, passing the ghost ruins of earlier sugar mills. In the main city, Christiansted, a traveler sees lovely Danish colonial architecture and a fort. The downtown core area is administered by the National Park Service as an elaborate historic site. I’d also like to return to St. John to hike the 22 self-guided nature trails in its subtropical forests.
Virgin Islands Soft Adventure: If You Go
The overall information source for the Virgin Islands is Virgin Islands Division of Tourism, www.usvi.net.