Welcome to the U.S. Virgin Islands
Feet in the sand, rum drink in hand, Calypso drifting from nearby beach bars, the sun dipping into a crystal blue sea. Is this place for real? The U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory since it was bought from the Danish in 1917, is one of the country’s most seductive outposts. It’s about 135 square miles of Carribean heaven composed of three major islands - St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix - and many surrounding minor islands, all reachable by ferry, private boat, or plane in less than an hour. It’s a place where everyone has a favorite beach, a favorite fish shack, a favorite bar to dance to Reggaeton. It’s a “crossroads culture,” where the annual Carnival crowns Kings and Queens and the food of Africa mingles with American ingredients and Danish colonial influences to create a cuisine of pates (pronounced Pah Tays), fried plantains, callaloo, ackee and saltfish. If you can tear yourself away from the water—a challenge, since it’s warm and clear and populated by turtles, dolphins and multi-colored corals—you’ll find lush hillsides, tropically-hued homes, and low-key roadside “shacks” serving delicious, unpretentious local cooking. To give you an insider’s look at the territory, we asked the locals what to do when you come to visit. Here are a few local favorites:
Deep Fried Love
If you’re lucky enough to not only find Miss Rosa's Booth, but to find it open—which is sometimes for just an hour or two in the afternoons (or “whenever Rosa feels like it”)—this is St. Croix’s go-to spot for pates. The crisp pockets of fried dough stuffed with well-seasoned beef, onion and pepper-laced saltfish, or tender conch are a Crucian delicacy. Run, don’t walk.
No Man’s Land
Could this be one of the most beautiful, most pristine beaches on an island of beautiful, pristine beaches? Possibly. It’s certainly the most exclusive. This two-mile stretch of white sand, a National Wildlife Refuge, is closed (and closely patrolled by park rangers) from April to August. During the rest of the year, Sandy Point is open to visitors. But only on weekends. Unless, of course, you’re a leatherback—the critically endangered, and enormous, species of sea turtle that nests here. For a beach that’s more accessible (to humans) year-round, Crucian will point you to Rainbow Beach, a local favorite for beach lounging or any seabound activity you can imagine.
Comfort Food Fit for a King
If it’s hard to imagine an open-air chicken shack so good that it draws dignitaries, you’ve never experienced St. Croix’s beloved rotisserie, La Reine Chicken Shack. Here, row after row of glistening birds spin on long, rotating skewers over flaming, smoking coals. On a weekend, find the place packed with locals playing dominoes, listening to live music, and eating from lunch plates piled with heaping portions of Crucian comfort food. The shack has a full menu—and a full-bar—but the must-have order is a half-chicken, which comes with a side of Johnny cakes and seasoned rice and red beans and costs less than $10 on weekdays.
“Tis ah Bayside Ting”
Panchi’s is so far off the beaten path, you’d think it was a closely guarded secret. But among Crucians, this one-man front yard food stand is famous. To get there, head to Gallows Bay Historical Village (that’s “Bayside” to locals) and look for the house across the street from the dock. But don’t bother to show up before midnight. Panchi buys the fresh catch from the last boats to come in each afternoon and makes a slow-cooked conch soup that gets Crucians out of bed at 2am. Yes, it is that good. While there, don’t forget to grab a cup of minimally-processed, lightly spiced cocoa tea. “It’s wonderful and you can’t get it anywhere else.”
History On a Whim
To understand the Virgin Islands, Crucians will send you to the Estate Whim Plantation House Museum, where you’ll find centuries of local history, antiquities, old photos, and art from the many nationalities who have called St. Croix home. Live bands playing ancient African songs and bush tea is served. Take a tour of the old sugar mill, which fed the island’s need for sugar to make its favorite, and most important, product: rum.
Saint Thomas and Saint John
You’ve heard of food trucks. How about a food boat? In a St. Thomas twist on the mobile food vending concept, this 37-foot, aluminum-hulled sailboat serves New York-style pizza with quirky, only-in-the-USVI toppings from its anchorage in Christmas Bay. A mom and pop operation (in this case, an MIT grad and a professional yacht chef), PiZZA Pi is a floating pizzeria that serves passing boats and makes deliveries by dinghy. Try the Rasta Mon (red curry coconut sauce, flaked coconut, snap peas, red bell peppers, and fresh mango) with added lobster and wash it down with an ice cream rum float.
For the ultimate beach bar crawl, take a ferry from St. Thomas to Cruz Bay in St. John, where the beach is lined with waterfront bars and restaurants serving seafood and rum drinks with a side of live Calypso. From here, you can catch one of the dollar taxis—the local transport of choice are a pickup truck with the back cut off and seats added—to go anywhere on the island. Or, you can throw on your island best (or at least a shirt and shoes) and head for this atmospheric "Pacific Rim and tropical cuisines” restaurant Rhumb Lines that locals say is one of the best on St. John. Pass through a nondescript minimart and find yourself in a lush open-air dining area planted with palms and draped in lights. Pull up a stool at the bar, beneath a bamboo roof, and order a specialty drink like a Spiced Caribbean Old Fashioned, a St. John innovation on the classic cocktail, with Spiced Chai Rum, muddled orange, cherry, and St. John Brewers Ginger Beer. And don’t forget the seafood!
Take Your Best Shot
For Instagram-perfect shots of your stay in the USVI, locals recommend Trunk Bay—named for the Leatherback turtles, which St. Johnians call “trunks.” From an overlook above the bay, you can snap “best beach photo of your life”: white sand framed by emerald forest and striking rock formations. Then, head to the water with your snorkel and underwater camera in hand snapshots of bright tropical fish and vibrant corals. Part of the Virgin Islands National Park, Trunk Bay has a 225-yard-long Underwater Trail that’s perfect for kids and snorkeling newbies. And if you’re looking for a majestic option in St. Thomas, head to the beach at Magen’s Bay Park - “everyone’s favorite because it’s more than a mile long.” Here you’ll find a stretch of white sand in a gorgeous cove and a campground, an arboretum, an epic coconut grove, a mangrove forest… you may never want to leave! Grab a coconut drink, a lounge chair or paddle board, and get to know the meaning of “island time.”