Finding My Inner Moana in St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands)
This past week my friend Marissa and I spent four wonderful days soaking up the sun of the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you haven’t yet had a chance to go there, I would highly recommend it! White sand beaches, crazy driving, amazing views, and some of the friendliest people I swear I’ve ever met.
Here are some of our highlights from St. Thomas and neighboring St. John, as well as some helpful hints:
Our Itinerary at a Glance
- Arrived around 4:00pm
- Picked up the car and drove to our hotel
- Dinner at Island Time Pub in Red Hook
- 7:00 am: Running in the nearby national park
- 10:00 am: Magens Bay beach
- 1:00 pm: Coki Beach
- 4:00 pm: Sapphire Beach
- Dinner at Sunset Grille in Secret Harbour
- 9:00 am: Car ferry to St. John
- 10:00 am: Trunk Bay beach
- 1:00 pm: Maho Bay beach
- 2:00 pm: Stopped by Cinnamon Bay beach on our way back to Cruz Bay. Did some brief shopping at Mongoose Junction
- 3:00 pm: Car ferry back to Red Hook
- 4:00 pm: Snorkeling on Sapphire Beach
- Dinner at Fresh Bistro in Yacht Haven
- 6:30 am: Watched the sun rise over St. John
- 7:00 am: Running in the nearby national park
- 9:00 am: Checked out and headed to Charlotte Amalie
- 10:00 am: Shopping and wandering in Charlotte Amalie
- 12:00 pm: Lunch at Gladys’s Café
- 1:00 pm: Headed to the airport
St. Thomas in More Detail
We spent most of our trip just beach hopping, an easy task on two small islands, especially if you have a car.
Our first day we hung out on three different beaches – Magens Bay, Coki Beach, and Sapphire Beach.
A helpful hint for the busy beaches – we noticed that the cruise ship tourists started appearing around noon, so if you want to see the big beaches without fighting for space, get there before noon and then head to the quieter beaches for the second half of the day.
Magens Bay is located on the north side of the island. It was one of the largest beaches we went to, and a popular one for cruise ship tourists. It was voted one of the most beautiful beaches by Conde Nast and National Geographic. They have all the amenities, so you can rent beach chairs, snorkeling gear, kayaks, SUPs, lockers ($5 per locker), and so forth. They also have a grill with food (which charges about $10-$15 per item), and a small beach shop selling standard souvenirs as well as a variety of beach gear. Unlike some of the other beaches, Magens Bay does have a fee to get in. There is a $2 fee for a car, and then a $5 fee for each adult who enters. There isn’t a ton of snorkeling, but the bay is beautiful, nestled in between two large hills with plenty of shoreline and Caribbean water to swim around in.
Coki Beach is another highly popular beach on St. Thomas. It’s a smaller beach than Magens Bay, and it has no entry fee to get in, so it tends to get crowded pretty quickly. Coki Beach is right next to the Coral World Ocean Park, so it’s an easy place to spend the day. Coki Beach has many of the same amenities as Magens Bay (food, gear rentals, lockers, etc.), but this beach is much better for snorkeling or shore diving.
Sapphire Beach might be my favorite beach on St. Thomas. With excellent views of St. John, it has great snorkeling and plenty of beach space. There are amenities on the beach (food, restrooms, etc.), and plenty of parking. Note – taxis are no longer allowed to drive down into the resort, so if you take a taxi you’ll have to walk from the road. When we went snorkeling, we saw a couple of small rays scuttling through the kelp beds, fairly close to shore. This beach is also less crowded than Coki Beach or Magens Bay, so it’s great if you want all the glory without the guts.
Also recommended was Secret Harbour, which we saw when we went to dinner. Smaller, and not a ton of snorkeling, but much quieter than some of the other beaches, and still great if you’re looking for beach and swimming time.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Sapphire Beach Resort in Sapphire Beach. The rooms were adequate, but they come with a kitchenette (oven, stove top, fridge, sink, dishes), so it’s easy to make your own meals, and every room faces the water front.
Sapphire Beach is located on the East End of the island, close to Red Hook. Although Red Hook is cited as one of the restaurant hubs of the island, it’s not a town like Charlotte Amalie. It’s literally just a short stretch of road that has restaurants on both sides. However, Sapphire Beach was one of our favorite beaches (reinforced by the approving “Oh don’t you just love Sapphire Beach?” when we told locals where we were staying), and it has A-MAZING views of St. John and a few other islands nearby.
The staff at Sapphire Beach was also really helpful and welcoming. The resort has a bunch of snorkeling gear that guests can use free for the duration of their stay, so we didn’t have to spend any money renting fins or gear at any of the other beaches.
Besides the resort, a few friends went to St. Thomas a couple of weeks before us and stayed in an Airbnb near Bolongo Bay. They really enjoyed it, so that’s always another option.
For shoppers, Charlotte Amalie is a fun place to spend some time. On cruise days, the souvenir shops have their doors flung wide open in anticipation of the crowds. Every other store is a diamond or jewelry store, offering free champagne and trinkets just for walking in (and deep discounts if you buy). If you want a quieter shopping experience, go when the cruise ships aren't there, on the weekends. You're also probably more likely to get better discounts on those days too. And everything in St. Thomas is duty-free.
Located in Red Hook, Island Time Pub is exactly what you expect. Kitchy license plates and light strands cover this restaurant-on-a-deck. We ordered pizza and a Caesar salad. Though nothing new, they tasted great. It won’t be your finest dining experience, but after a hard day of sun and swimming, it might just hit the spot.
The beach grilles
Most of the major beaches have grilles of some sort – burgers, chicken tenders, nachos, drinks, etc. The food is passable, but you’ll spend about $10 an item. You can take picnic stuff with you, but sometimes convenience is worth the premium, especially since groceries on an island are generally not cheap.
This is an excellent spot for dinner, particularly if you can time it to catch the sunset.
Located on Secret Harbour in the East End, this little spot is famous for its ahi nachos, a mountain of wonton chips, wasabi cream, seaweed, and fresh ahi tuna. But be prepared – a half order can feed an entire table. The rest of the food is good too (I had fish tacos, my friend had a burger with fries), but the nachos are what make this little spot famous.
By far my favorite meal of the trip, Fresh Bistro is located in Yacht Haven, near the Havensight port. I found it off this website, a list of 10 excellent restaurants to try in St. Thomas, and we were not disappointed. Small, charming, and right on the harbor overlooking some of the most expensive private yachts I’ve ever seen (including a $300 million yacht), this little restaurant is a perfect place to wind down and enjoy the town.
Everything we ordered was excellent. We started by splitting the grilled corn on the cob, a delightful mix of butter, lime juice, parmesan cheese, and cilantro. The guacamole looked amazing, but we thought a $17 bowl might be a little much for two of us. For mains, I ordered the Trinidad Pulled Pork tacos (you must order these!!) and my friend ordered the Grilled Honey Lime Chicken sandwich, which was also delicious. For dessert, we split the Deconstructed Key Lime Pie (so worth it!). And I even splurged and got a virgin mojito. If you have the time, this little spot will be a foodie highlight.
If you’re looking for more traditional Virgin Island flair, Gladys’s Café hits the spot. Located right in the heart of Charlotte Amalie, Gladys’s Café is located down a tiny alleyway, signaled only by a small sign out on the main street. It’s small but full of charm.
The traditional fare we ordered included kalaloo soup and chicken roti. Definitely worth a stop, but beware that on cruise ship days this place will likely be packed to the hilt. Weekends are probably best if you’re not traveling there by cruise.
Ice Cream shops
There are plenty of ice cream places afoot, so stop whenever you see one. I am a coconut fanatic, so I ordered that flavor every time. One particularly fun place to stop is Udder Delight, not far from Magens Bay. They have a variety of shakes, most of which are adult shakes, but they can easily leave out the coffee or rum.
Unless you plan on staying in one place, a car is the way to get around. We rented from Budget, which wasn’t the cheapest, but their counter is right on the airport grounds, rather than a shuttle away, and the convenience was worth it. Plus, pro tip – if you get to the airport later in the day, the chances of getting a free upgrade go up because the stock of cheap cars are already gone. No guarantee, just a better chance. This happened to us, and we ended up with an awesome 4-door Jeep for the week.
Driving on St. Thomas is a little tricky. Since it was once a British colony, they drive on the left side of the road, but they use American cars to do it. The roads are also narrow and steep, with not much room for switchbacks on a small, hilly island. Locals will tailgate you no matter what, so take your time. Better slow than driving into oncoming traffic.
Everyone must spend a day on St. John. As a U.S. National Park, it’s remote, pristine, and breathtakingly gorgeous
There are a couple of ways to get to St. John from St. Thomas. From Red Hook, you can take either the passenger ferry or the car ferry to Cruz Bay.
If you take the passenger ferry, it’s $14 per person (as of 2017) round trip. Once you get to St. John, there are a constant stream of taxi trucks to take you to the major beaches. The taxis (we heard) run about $7 each time, so this can get pricy if you’re going to multiple beaches.
The car ferry costs $50 roundtrip for the car plus everyone who can fit in it. Depending on how many are in your group, this may be the more economical option. If you do take the car ferry, get to Red Hook early. A lot of trucks and other tourists will also be waiting, and since the ferry only leaves every hour (or so), it’s good to get there early. We arrived around 8:00 am for the 9:00 am ferry and were glad we did. If you drive, there is parking at each of the beaches, but availability is subject to how early you get there and how many people arrive. We had no problem, but it was a cloudy day and we were there early. If you do drive, stop at all of the scenic view turnouts and take photos. The vistas are incredible.
Trunk Bay is one of the main tourist beaches, but we loved it. If you go before the cruise ship tourists roll in, it isn’t that crowded. They have a nice little reef which is great for snorkeling, but note that the lifeguards will yell at you if they think you’re standing on the reef. The sand is amazing and the view perfectly wonderful. Trunk Bay has lockers, showers, and food, so this is a good place to base if you need amenities.
Maho Bay is more remote in terms of amenities (only one small bathroom on the beach, no food or lockers), but as a sea turtle nesting beach, it’s a great place for watching marine life. Parking here will be more limited, but if you want to get away from tourists and still have incredible beaches and views, make some time for Maho Bay.
We only stopped briefly at Cinnamon Bay, just to see what it looked like. Cinnamon Bay also has a campground, so the facilities at Cinnamon Bay are the nicest of the beaches we saw. They have a full restaurant and a beach shop, in addition to the largest parking lot of the beaches we saw. Across the street lies the ruins of an old sugar cane factory, with a short walk you can take around them.
There are several other hikes and portions of the islands we would have loved to explore if we’d had more time. You could spend all day just driving around the island and be perfectly content. It’s that beautiful.
Cruz Bay Town
On our way back to the ferry we stopped briefly in Cruz Bay, particularly in Mongoose Junction. It’s your typical shopping center, but it’s cute and if you’re looking for souvenirs, this is a good place to stop.
So in case you're still wondering, St. Thomas is well worth the trip. Comment below and let me know if these tips helped you create your own memorable experience!