In the Eastern Caribbean, you will find the U.S. Virgin Islands. The USVI’s consist of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. I found a decent airfare and booked a late-summer trip to St. Thomas. Very excited to explore the Caribbean, an area that I had never been. In addition, I was curious to see how the islands were doing after two hurricanes (Irma & Maria) came through in 2017. So, after my visit, I put together this St. Thomas Travel Guide to help you get the most out of your stay.
If you are not arriving via a cruise ship and are staying for several days, you will want to rent a car. This will make it much easier for you to get around and plan your time. Be prepared to drive on the left. The cars are not pretty. They look like something out of a Mad Max movie or a demolition derby, but that’s okay. All of the vehicles on the island look this way. Just get one that runs, has AC, and has good brakes. Getting around St Thomas is fairly straightforward.
***You can tour the whole island as I did with just a 2WD; you don’t need a 4WD on St. Thomas***
Avoid renting or riding bikes and scooters due to the hilly and mountainous terrain. I would personally not recommend them for the roads’ condition and no dedicated lanes for them to ride in.
There are taxis and a St Thomas safari bus as popular options, but you will not find the likes of an Uber. Taxis charge one way, per person, not per ride, so that could add up rather quickly as a couple or family. The safari buses are pretty much pickup trucks with benches installed in the back. Short distances cost $1, and longer rides are $2. Many locals utilize these to make a general route along the island, but they don’t go everywhere. See below for a safari bus St Thomas route map. Plan accordingly. You will have more freedom and independence with a car rental.
You can find more information about public transportation and safari bus St Thomas in this Trip Advisor post.
Here is a map showing the St. Thomas Safari Bus Route
***If arriving by plane, look for the Cruzan free rum samples before baggage claim***
Where To Stay
You will find many options for accommodations on St. Thomas. There are vacation homes, apartment rentals, hotels, villas, Airbnb’s, and even a not so highly rated hostel. Booking.com should turn up just about everything.
Sapphire Beach on the east side is a popular option for condos where you can self-cater, have restaurants and beaches all within the community. You can find many of these listed on VRBO and mentioned in different forums. Most of these range from $100 per night on up. These would be perfect for a family or couples retreat.
Not many hotels were opened and operational after the hurricanes. There were some up and running when I was there. Many are still rebuilding but still have facilities available for guests. You would have to do some research and decide if this is a good fit for you.
Airbnb is a good choice for those on a budget, traveling solo, or those who want to get insight and perspective from a local point of view. For example, I stayed in a castle up on a mountain with gorgeous ocean views on the west side for just over $60 a night.
What To See And Do
I stayed for six days and had plenty of options to occupy my time. Hmm, St. Thomas is an island in the Caribbean, so what will you have? That’s right; a ton of water activities are going to top the list. You can snorkel, scuba dive, lounge on a chair, a beach, or near a pool. You could opt to go fishing, kayaking, island hopping, or for a relaxing sail. Maybe you want to hang out at a cool beach bar or shop tax-free; all of these are possible and waiting for you.
There are promenades, passages, mini-malls, and streets with duty-free shopping that I saw in the capital Charlotte Amalie. In addition, one will find many restaurants, bars, and side streets to wander about and fill your day. I did a self-guided walking tour for several hours to familiarize myself with the town. This is a great way to get your bearings and to see some of the main sights. The link I provided is helpful to make a plan, but it is not updated. When I wrote this, some places were still closed because of the hurricanes, Frederick Church, Hotel 1829, and Blackbeard’s Castle. I met many friendly people that I sat down and spoke with along the way.
***Parking can be hard to find in town, but there is plenty at the Ft. Christian lot, and it costs $5.***
***Don’t miss the Synagogue; it’s unique with sand on the floor and has one of the numbered Westminster scrolls on display.***
Coki Beach and Magens Bay should be on your list of things to do. The waters are striking in color, and the soft sand will help you to relax. You can rent a chair, umbrella, water gear, or bring your own. At Magens, you have to pay to enter $5 and park $2, but it is worth it. There are facilities to change and shower, along with food and drink options. I found both to be the most beautiful spots during my visit. In addition, there are some other still popular places such as Secret Harbor, Lindquist, Lindbergh, Brewers, and Water Island that can give you a wonderful day.
***If possible, check the cruise schedule and go when there are fewer people around***
Touristy Views with drinks
Take a gondola to the top of Paradise Point (on cruise ship days only) and enjoy a spectacular view of the bay, which can be enhanced with one of their signature drinks, the Bushwhacker.
Mountain Top is a large duty-free store in the middle of the island, also home to the “World Famous Banana Daiquiri.” In addition, there is an observation deck with tremendous views of the islands around and of Magens Bay.
Nearby you will also find a small area for Drakes Seat. Ample parking on the side of the road and lovely views out towards the sea. Sir Francis Drake is supposed to have looked for enemy ships from this panoramic vantage. If you cross the road (there is a crosswalk), you will find his seat/bench and a small plaque.
Visit another island
From Red Hook on the east end of St. Thomas, you will find ferry’s that can take you on new adventures. You can take a 15 or so minute ride over to St John. The passenger ferry costs $16.30 roundtrip and leaves about once an hour. You can take a taxi, taxi tour, or find a rental to explore the gorgeous beaches or hang out in Cruz Bay. Usually, you could find other routes to some of the other British Virgin Islands, but they haven’t been running since the hurricanes. You will have to settle for a charter or a water taxi if those are on your agenda.
Make Sure You Protect Yourself with Travel Insurance
While the Virgin Islands are very safe, I love the peace of mind travel insurance gives me in case of emergencies, accidents, illnesses, theft, trip cancellation, or disruption. For a few dollars a day and with coverage for many types of adventure activities, I’m all in.
Eat Like A Local
One of my favorite ways to learn about a place is through its food. I wasted little time finding out what to eat in the Virgin Islands. I honestly did like everything that I tried. Food is on the expensive side if you are eating out every meal. Stock up on some supplies to self-cater at grocery stores if you are able. Here are the local foods that I enjoyed in St. Thomas and thought you should also try.
Pate (Patties, Patty)
Jackie’s food truck
One of the cheaper local food options that you will find on the island is called pate. It is similar to an empanada or meat pie with different fillings. On the airport road, you will see a white food truck next to Lindbergh beach; this is Jackie’s. She is known for having some of the best pates on the island. Jackie has been here for over 30 years serving up delicious food. She is super friendly and genuinely happy, so do strike up a conversation with her if able.
Don’t miss this food truck; do yourself a favor and pull over whether you are coming or going from the airport. The pates I had from Jackie’s food truck were my favorites; the dough and how they were cooked stood out. Miss Jackie typically has six different pate varieties, which don’t last too long (I’m looking at you saltfish). I had the conch, chicken, and beef pates from her truck. She also has soups, which are local favorites, as I learned from talking to the customers. Try and get there before noon to make sure they haven’t run out of anything. Bring cash for payment.
At Brewer’s beach, you will find two more food trucks selling various items. The first one you come upon looks in need of some TLC, and I passed it by. The second food truck had a seating area, tarps, and many locals hanging out. Eat where the locals are is always a good philosophy. I enjoyed two pates from here in the afternoon, one chicken and one saltfish.
The other well-known location for pate is Janet’s. Her store is in town to the left of the Greenhouse restaurant. I have heard many raves about her pates, and they sell out quickly. So get there early. I had a crab pate from here late one afternoon. Unfortunately, it was pretty much all that they had left. This was my least favorite pate, but I would certainly go back again based upon what others have told me about it, and it would be earlier in the day.
Having lived in India, I was familiar with roti being a flatbread, also called chapati, often served with meals. What you will find in St. Thomas is a better evolution of traditional roti. Pretty much, this version traces its origin to Trinidad. What you will get is like a stew or curry wrapped in roti, so essentially a burrito to this Southern Californian now Floridian resident—a very delicious one at that.
I asked people I met when walking around where I should get one, and they all told me to go to Ideal Restaurant. I had a boneless chicken roti with medium spice, and it was terrific. Inside with the chicken was a potato and chickpea curry. I made a big mess and couldn’t care less. I attempted to eat it like a burrito for a bit, and then it broke open, so I laid it on my paper plate and attacked it with the provided plastic knife and fork. This spot has been around for 23 years and is worth visiting to sample true Trinidadian-style roti.
In town, I made my way to Gladys’ Cafe to explore some local flavors. You could order queen triggerfish called “ole wife,” oxtails, curries, sandwiches, and entrees. I was pretty full from my roti earlier and opted to try a cup of kalaloo/calaloo soup. I loved the flavors and seasoning of this kalaloo. Gladys’ also makes and sells different hot sauces. I was able to sample each of them on separate spoonfuls.
***Try the ginger beer***
Lionfish are an invasive species. Many are hunted and fished for around reefs for this reason. Thankfully they are pretty tasty and can make a great meal. The Rum Shandy ***Permanently Closed*** in Frenchtown had a daily special to get two lionfish tacos for $10. They were fried and served with spicy housemade aioli, cabbage, and pico.
Many places offer lobster on the menu. However, I found them to be rather pricey. The Greenhouse has a “lobster mania” night twice a week, and you could partake starting at $19.99. Choose between 6-12 oz lobsters at different prices. I had a 9 oz lobster for $29. My plate came with two sides and free Johnnycakes.
***combine with the Two for One happy hour special 4:30-7:00 to save***
Meal with my host
One night I was lucky enough to have my Airbnb host cook for me. This was special and not expected. He used to run or cook in a restaurant, so he knows his way in the kitchen. I had an enormous plate with a whole perfectly cooked fish, curried coconut vegetables, and rice with beans—what a feast!
Braised or stewed oxtails can be an excellent meal. My host had recommended this place for me to try some more local food. So, driving along the island’s east side, I found my way to De’ Coal Pot. Situated in a small plaza, you’ll find this unassuming restaurant.
***18% gratuity added to the check automatically***
If you have that feeling for a hamburger or some great and not expensive bar food (Korean wings) that also has happy hour specials, then Tap & Still is where you want to go. I saw three locations (two on St. Thomas, one on St. John) and visited one (Redhook). If I had more time, I indeed would have returned. This is also a great spot to watch a game or hang out after getting off the ferry or boat.
And Like A Roti, That’s A Wrap
After reading many articles, watching videos, etc., I decided to write this handy St. Thomas Travel Guide for you because of outdated information. Places may have closed, so do your research. Unfortunately, this is still true and applies today to our times with Coronavirus. For example, some of the top restaurants listed on Yelp and Trip Advisor hadn’t reopened or were destroyed when I visited. Also, most of these were written pre-hurricane (Irma & Maria). So make sure reviews, ideas, and suggestions are up to date. You can tell by the date of the latest reviews.
St. Thomas is a grand island with many opportunities for a lovely vacation. I would return and check it out once fully recovered. I was glad to contribute to the economy and rebuilding process during my stay. As always, don’t forget to talk to the locals, eat with the locals, laugh and share stories, or gather sage advice. It will significantly benefit your stay. Travel safe, travel smart, travel responsibly!
Have you ever been to St. Thomas or the U.S. Virgin Islands?
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Tours, Activities, and Things to Do
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